Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Business of Being You

Before jumping back into portraits and weddings a few years ago, I was doing mostly editorial work and occasionally portraits on a freelance basis. I feel that since I lived all over the place until 2004 and traveled all over the place until 2006, I am still a "newb" in the area. I'm still meeting people, still building my business, still feeling out the local pool of wedding and portrait photographers. When I launched my blog, I slowly started gaining more and more followers, as well as on Facebook and Myspace. The kind of odd thing about this is, probably at least half of those are photographers themselves.

Why do we check out other photographers' work? We all have our reasons. I do subscribe to quite a handful of photographer's blogs, most of which are in different areas of the country, because I have been all over the place and have seen trends make it in some places, and never hit others. It fascinates me to see what's popular right now in, say, Atlanta versus Vegas, amongst established photographers. Or simply, who's the awesomest in whatever city in the US and why.

There are many other reasons for which I'm sure photographers subscribe to other photographers' blogs, such as for inspiration (I subscribe to fashion blogs for this), or maybe even just because they are nosy people, or so insecure about their talents or their business, that they seek cues from the rest and always want to be better than everyone else, or one step ahead, more often than not making a crappy attempt at doing so. It's also too easy to check up on everyone else because of constant Twitter and FB updates. However, through the many days and nights I've sat staring blankly at the computer screen looking at other people's pictures, I've noticed something else.

I like to the think of the vast majority of working photographers in two different tiers. There's the top tier, the ones that demand a minimum of 5 grand to just show up at your wedding with a camera, those that constantly use the same tried and true technique and style for which they have a following, or those that just "do" for the sake of shooting something awesome. The second tier consists of the group of photographers that may have bought a nice camera when their baby was born and said, "Oh hey, this is kinda fun", those that are eager seekers and learners (that will eventually be part of that elite top tier group because they hold so much potential talent and eagerness), and, sadly, those that are just plain satisfied being who they are as long as they are at least making an attempt to keep up with that top tier level, trying to reproduce everything they see and never finding much of their own style or even trying to hone and perfect those techniques they "copy". Typically these types will eventually "make it" within their local market and book plenty of work, but, alas, it is what it is, and to the untrained consumer eye, it looks like a super deal because this person that has such cheap wedding packages is really just going out and being very unoriginal and getting paid a so-so amount to do it. And they're typically ok with that as long as they are perceived as the "nice" photographer, everyone's friend.

"Copycat" is a heavy word amongst us. One thing for sure is true among us all: Having one of our photographs stolen and used elsewhere with someone else claiming credit for it makes us sad. Mad. Confused. Makes us want to get revenge. (If you've never had a photo of yours stolen, lucky you, and if you have and have never felt any of that, there's something wrong with you.) But how does it make you feel when you see that another photographer has just flat out copied you?

For the most part, my web site hasn't changed much since I got it up and running back in spring. I think the building and branding process is so much fun - mostly because any kind of creative process is fun for me, whether it be shooting, writing, designing album layouts, etc. When writing the text for my web site, specifically the page that describes my typical portrait shoots, I mentioned that my shoots are done (done meaning shot and post-processed) in a way that is pretty well unmatched in the immediate geographical area. And since I do not have a studio and shoot entirely on-location, I made mention of this as well, and the fact that shooting off the beaten path at locations far from typical, or re-thinking and re-using a typical location, is one of the main threads of my "style", and something that sets me apart for those seeking something very different.

But what's "very different" anymore? And what's the whole point of this blog post anyway?! My blog headline, as well as my site pre-loader, is my logo with the catch phrase, "Ridiculously creative photographer of weddings, portraits, and music culture". I make no small claim there, but I'll be damned if I don't make that claim unfairly.

With the advent of the digital SLR camera, everyone became a "photographer". This posed a struggle for some of us, making the switch from film being one obstacle/learning process, and completely opening up the field of competition to anyone and everyone with a camera. Those hardy enough to withstand that still be able to run a successful business nowadays - and don't even get me started on the status and effects of the economy on our field - I believe are making it on a combination of talent AND smarts. Talented, smart people produce one of a kind, truly unique images. Talentless copycats just try everything that everyone else tries, and... ohh... imagine this... bank off what they observe the rest of us doing. All the while making the general population of wedding and portrait photographers look bad... so thanks for that, too. ;)

I have several friends within the industry, many of them local, and have several successful working relationships with other photographers in the area. Though I still feel like I'm getting to know who's who, I pretty much know who I can trust to refer a job to should I already be booked, and who to avoid even though they may have offered. That said, I don't trust easily, and I am choosy about my friends, probably because I've personally dealt with a psycho that was using me to make herself look better. Back to the many months ago that I launched my blog and started gaining followers. A few of my local photographer friends began to point out a few things that I didn't immediately take particular notice to. Sure, I've peeked at a couple of blogs before and kinda went, "Hmm that looks similar to a shot I've done, but good job, well executed." Then I've been pointed to some blogs, one in particular that has a bad habit of magically popping up with a new post every few weeks that was shot exactly where I'd been, and blogged, a week or so prior. I'll admit my jaw has literally dropped as I scrolled down the page, my husband peeping over my shoulder and muttering spiteful obscenities because he can see that his wife's work was just blatantly copied, and in a truly terrible way, from blown out strobist attempts with bad exposures, right down to the same pose in the same location. It's a confusing feeling, and you don't know whether to laugh, feel flattered, or be pissed off. Probably most irritating for me is the blatant "following" of my locations. For specific example, I'll just mention the fountain at Vilano Beach, and of course the infamous abandoned planeyard (though I still haven't seen anyone else shoot there to the extent I did, going inside and on top of the planes, and the specific copycat I mention didn't even go in there and shot outside the barbed wire fence).

I don't believe in pointing fingers and naming names, simply because I don't feel the need to draw any negative attention to myself. I love what I do, I love what my business and my style is all about, and I know that my clients come to me because I am not that photographer, I'm that artist that grasps the concept of joining creativity, skill, and smarts together to make something badass. I consider myself to have a fun, laid-back, yet spontaneous personality, and a great friend to those that are deserving. That said, I do hate my toes being stepped on, and I am quite the assertive person. I don't believe in being a bitch, but I will speak my mind. Rather than confronting this person one-on-one, I've decided to go the passive-agressive route and hope that by pleading my case here, she gets the point and lays off. It's not that I feel she's a threat to me or my business, it's more a challenge for her (and maybe other photographers that may be reading this) to expand your creativity and really push to find your own style. I feel that when that happens, you fall into a completely different place in this industry, that top tier of happy photographers that know they're making it because they're just that damn good and know it.

I do believe in tact and manners, so instead of saying "Everybody check out this link to this blog and tell me it doesn't look like a cheap, high-ISO crappy grainy ripoff of one of my shoots", I'll try to put it a little nicer. I personally urge other photographers out there that just haven't found that niche yet, to get out there and shoot more. Practice more. Pick something and stick to it. Hone it, sharpen it, make it yours. Not only will your business reap more benefits from it (those 5 grand minimum wedding photographers charge that for a reason: they've harnessed and branded a particular style all their own), the rest of us will breathe a little easier knowing we aren't being cheated, ripped off, sold short, and undermined.

And lastly my gentle readers, have a fabulous, blessed day. :)


Opinion on St. Augustine said...

There are some copycat photographers and also some just plain bad photographers. I'm lucky to know not only Tara who I am very fond of but also two others I like who are different from each other and from Tara. My friends are all local and all original. They rock.

Jennifer Ring Photography said...

wow Tara. Direct and poweful...I like it. If "she" doesn't get it, she never will. does she forget your are "trigger happy" :)

ps NO one can come close to your work...not even close

BH said...

My 2 cents…
There is a little more to a good shot than copying the pose and the location. Technical skill is still a must, even though there are many software packages that now allow you to manipulate the image and make it “look good”. I once took a photography class many years ago before digital (with a Canon T70, no less). One of the things that I took away from professor is that if you understand the technical part of light exposure, the rest will come. (That is if you have a creative eye for it. ;)) Back then you couldn’t manipulate the image outside with small exception of the film developing process. In other words…as in Vegas… what happens in the camera stays in the camera. ;) That being said, you can now take the image and somewhat manipulate it outside of the camera, unlike back in the day. Where am I going with this?...the copycat can take your shot and “somewhat” reproduce it. (Heck, I could do that with my point and shoot.) But, that doesn’t make it a great shot, does it? Here’s a quote that pretty well sums it up. “Imitation is the highest form of flattery.” (Coco Chanel) or maybe even better….“Imitation is the highest form of flattery, but clones kind of get it wrong because we are promoting individuality and being proud of being yourself.” (Brian Molko). There will always be copycats and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. ;) Go forth and create art!

Oeil Photography said...

loved this post Tara~