I recently read a Facebook post from a highly respected fellow photographer and industry leader about the importance (and difficulty) of trying to remain creative and relevant while still running a business where one must make a profit to survive. In it he writes:

“One of the more difficult parts of being a creative professional is the balance between satisfying the client and not getting stale in the process. If you are good at what you do, really good, chances are you have a learned a lot about how to do things in a certain way. You loved it when you finally got all the parts to work together but eventually the shine began to dull.”

source: Jeff Lubin’s Portrait and Business Tip of the Day

Once at a class I was teaching, I opened my program with a slideshow of some of my work. At the conclusion, I received a (quite humbling) ovation from the attendees.

Then I surprised them when I announced that every image in the slideshow had one thing in common. They were NOT purchased by the client who I created them for. That’s right, an entire show of some of my best work, all rejected by the customer for some reason or another.

In the business of professional photography, this is simply not an unusual occurrence. As a photographer, when you strive to grow, learn new techniques, and stretch the limits of your abilities and vision, sometimes you encounter people who just don’t “get” what you may have to offer. That’s life.

They might be conditioned to expect the “big smile, look at the camera” image, even though the pensive look touches their heart. They reject an image that shows a facet of their personality in an artistic way, because “you can’t see her face”, or “there’s too much background” , or my favorite, “you cut the top of her head off!”. He continues:

“Over time, a lot of your work will begin to look similar except with different people in it. Finding something new that is actually better than what you have spent years learning to do is very challenging. This isn’t always because of the technical aspects of new creative efforts but because you are working with the public…”

Jeff Lubin’s Portrait and Business Tip of the Day

All of us in the photography field know the story. A new photographer comes on the scene and achieves a level of success, either by creating something “new” or by copying an existing style. Then that photographer settles into a habit of just cranking out the same images over and over, just with different people in them. Before long, they are just going through the motions and become a “picture taker” rather than an artist with a vision. You cannot grow in a vacuum. And the willingness to take the shot without the smile, to include the background and make the subject small, to shoot for the mood instead of the sure sale, even knowing that the client may well never purchase it, is actually important to your growth as an artist.

“It takes a highly motivated photographer to spend their free time looking for new creative efforts and finding the appropriate models to experiment with. However, if you can come up with new concepts that excite you and can create in reality what you see in your mind’s eye, you will breathe new life into your day to day studio work…

Jeff Lubin’s Portrait and Business Tip of the Day

This is the major reason I still participate in professional image competitions, gallery shows, and other artistic exhibitions. I have already earned my Master of Photography and Photographic Craftsman degrees, the “big two” awarded for excellence in photography and service to the profession. But I find that competition is an excellent way to keep the creative juices flowing and push yourself to learn new things and experiment. And yes, sometimes I will even agree to, or even solicit people to photograph for (gasp) FREE! (I feel the collective shudder running down the spines of my fellow pros…)

I recently learned that one of my creative collaborations is up for some very major awards. I’m nominated for a Grand Imaging Award in Portraiture by the Professional Photographers of America. This means my image was selected as one of the top 10 images in its category out of about 6,000 professional entries. It was also selected to be a part of “Team USA’s” submission to the Photography World Cup. That means it was selected as one of 3 portrait images in the US to compete against photographs from 40 other countries!

The image is a fine art black and white nude of a ballet dancer at a moment of peak action. “Balance of Power”, edited here to be work safe, illustrates the stunning beauty of the human body and its miraculous power and athletic ability.

Here’s the thing. This is an image that never would have been created as “customer work.”

Can you image a dancer coming to me and saying “I want you to photograph me nude in semi-silhouette so you can’t see my face, but instead highlights the lines of my body, my muscle tone and flexibility, and I want 2- 8×10’s and maybe some wallets? Never gonna happen!!

If I hadn’t taken the initiative to find a model willing to pose for me with the abilities I needed, convinced her of the artistic value of my vision, earned her trust, worked to put together the shoot, and pushed until I was satisfied with the final result, this image would simply never have happened.

“Fine portraits will always be appreciated and well accepted by your clients and this is a good thing since they will be willing to part with their hard-earned dollars to support your being a professional. It’s a bit of gamble to reinvent how you do things experimentally and still give a client what they expect after seeing a certain style of work in your website and on your studio walls… Change isn’t all that easy but if you don’t, the repetition will grind you down if you don’t occasionally challenge yourself to grow artistically. “

Jeff Lubin’s Portrait and Business Tip of the Day

I’d have to agree.

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