My name is Chris Titze and I’m a digital artist based in Fort Worth. I’m a mix between CGI artist and photographer. My background however is in retouching. I’ve also been honored as one of Lüerzer’s Archive’s “200 Best Digital Artist worldwide 2015/2016.
An Ode to Self-Initiated Work! (Or how I got to learn to love extra work)
I want to make my case on why Self-Initiated projects are important and why you need to start one today if you haven’t before.
This is especially true if you feel stuck in your line of photography or your book/portfolio feels dated, or you are totally burned out. A Self-Initiated project may just be what the doctor ordered. Every successful photographer I have met does one thing that the unsuccessful ones don’t. When they get into a rut, they start their own creative project. This is their cheat code to staying relevant.
Just to show that I’m acting on what I preach, below is my latest work-in-progress Self-Initiated project.
Having a Self-Initiated project in between paid work was a habit even before I became a freelancer. Even back when I was working full time at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, I had a project at hand to teach me a skill.
As of now there is a lot work that needs to be done. The swarm of drones look menacing but the people still need to look more realistic, especially the clothing. I’m anticipating I should have this image done within a few weeks depending on client work. The goal is to blanket the sky with thousands of drones, which would be something that would not be feasible in real life. I was tempted to photograph the couple using photography but decided not to. Keeping it fully 3D has its advantages. I want to try turn this image into a stereo 3D image, so that way you can see this image in real 3D using either a VR headset or one of those cheap red/blue 3d glasses.
So why should you invest as a photographer the time and effort on Self-Initiated projects?
Let me outline 3 reasons why self initial projects are essential to your brand.
I’ve been meaning to work on a race car image but wanted to introduce a little odd spin. The 3D mesh for the VW Bus has been provided by Jay Hardy who is a fantastic Blender artist.
1.) It shows your capabilities and shapes your direction
A client will only hire you for the work they believe you are capable of. In other words, if they don’t believe you can do it, they won’t hire you. The lack in your portfolio is validation that you can’t do it. Only a really gullible art buyer would gamble their career hiring someone that has no track record. Stop fooling yourself if you believe that your client is responsible for your artistic career direction. (Hint: they are not)
Only you are responsible for the direction in which your creative career goes.
So you think it’s a catch-22. You can’t get the work you want because no one hires you for that work you want. And since no one hires you for the work you want, you can’t get the work you want. The work you get from your clients begets more work, effectively cementing your direction in photography. For example, the person that shoots a lot of senior pictures will shoot more senior pictures since they become known for it. Even though they are dying to do some car photography. Self-Initiated projects allow you to break free from the cycle. Since you direct yourself, you are your own boss. The only catch is that you may have to sacrifice your time to make it happen.
I once had a chat with a photographer who was asking for marketing connecting to car brands despite not having a single car piece in their portfolio. It was self serving, since it came from a “Me First” mentality. I told him pretty much that no art buyer would gamble on a unproven photographer with no car experience. Their job is to find the best available photographer within their budget. In fact, their entire job function entails on filtering out misfit photographers.
I encouraged him instead to start with spec work or Self-Initiated work to get a body of work going before seeking out car brand. Unfortunately as with most advice, it went one ear in and the other ear out. Keep in mind, I’m not a cynic and I do believe in dreaming big. But you do need to take the dream and work towards it. After all, step by step gets you ahead.
I created this image within days when Google Glass was announced. I think it’s still a very charming image.
2.) It sharpens your skills and future proofs you
As the former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger says, it takes “reps reps reps.” Meaning that only perfect practice will make the job easy. That way you have a good understanding of what the job entails, for example how to charge a project. Let’s say you are hired to photograph a bird’s eye view of a city. How do you know what to charge if you haven’t done a practice run? Do you know where to rent a helicopter and how much they charge? Do you know how much time the project would take in post? Self-Initiated projects helps you figure out the details.
If you get a job and you haven’t done it at least once, every minor mistake will trip you. Doing it for practice will help you. Do the hard things when they are easy, when nothing is on the line. The experience you gain through Self-Initiated projects carry over to your commercial projects.
With Self-Initiated projects, you can target the skills you want to learn for yourself. If you want to learn about drones, you can rent a drone and learn the ins and outs by using it. It will come in handy in that example above. Maybe a drone is all you need.
When Chase Jarvis went from waiting tables to becoming a sports photography giant, it was the “Create, share, sustain” mantra that took him there. Joel Grimes is a big believer in Self-Initiated work; that’s how he developed the Joel Grimes look. Austin Mann, a friend of mine, developed his initial travel photography portfolio while he was on mission trips. Which also teaches us that when you find a competitive advantage, you need to exploit it. Double down on the things that work.
Also, Self-Initiated work can future proof you. Do you really think a camera 20 years from now will look anything like they do now? Do you shoot photography the same you did five or ten years ago? The look of a DSLR is an anachronism of an old school film camera. There is a good reason why phones for example are not banana shaped anymore. Photography will become only weirder and muddier as times moves on, you will be doing stuff as a photographer that is technically not “photography.”
By doing Self-Initiated work, you can do projects today that the clients will request next year. For example, how much more successful would you be if you embraced Instagram when it just came out? How about Google+? Trey Ratcliff accelerated his photography career by embracing Google+. He dominated it when it came out. Do you embrace new social media? Are you on Periscope or Meerkat?
Don’t be the guy that claims to have 20 years of photography experience when in actuality they only have 1 year of experience repeated 20 times. You know that person that has been in business for decades but you can shoot circles around them. Instead be the guy who is touch with the ever moving world of photography.
Creating Self-Initiated projects allow you to be on the cutting edge.
This image has been published in Luerzer’s Archive’s “200 Best Digital Artists Worldwide” and has been shared around the internet. It originated as a collaboration between Austin Mann and I. Playing with a welding gun is always really fun and really dangerous. It was awesome to see all the sparks flying. We even shot a behind-the-scenes video.
3.) Cool projects are great marketing tools
There is so many marketing opportunities when it comes to Self-Initiated work. You are essentially creating your own advertising for you own brand.
Creating your own brand as a photographer is important. You want to avoid to be seen as a technician, a button pusher. The more you are a technician, the more you are a commodity. Which is a service just like any other which can be substituted for a lower price. That’s why you want to build a brand. Being a technician is a race to the bottom since you are competing on price.
So how do you build a brand? This is a huge topic by itself but, Self-Initiated projects can help build your brand. If you want to build a brand I can recommend a few resources such Erik Almas’ “On aspects of image making,” or Joel Grimes’ “Becoming a Marketing Genius.”
Since you decide what to shoot, you have a chance to work with sexier topics whether they be better models or products. Let’s face it, working on a pharmaceutical product is not sexy, but working on Nike is. It’s not against the law to use Nike products for a Self-Initiated work as long you don’t claim you work for Nike. You just need to be honest on the scope of the work.
In other words you are only limited by your own imagination (and pocketbook).
Once you’ve created your passion projects, they are great fodder to feed the Marketing beast. Post it on Social Media, Create a post card campaign, create a signed poster for your prospects. There are so many ways use this content.
Here are some inspirations on how other photographers broke through by doing this. Some of them got millions of impressions, some of them launched carriers. Some even used it to sell themselves as product.
Here are a few of my favorite ways photographers used passion projects to enhance their brand.
- Josh Rossi launched his career by asking influential Youtubers to join in their shenanigans in exchange of free photography. This gamble paid off in amazing work and large money offers.
- Austin Mann used his spare time from mission work to build his travel portfolio. He is now very renowned for his travel photography work and iPhone photography.
- Tim Tadder and Mike Campau DOMINATE Behance.net through their smart collaboration.
- Chase Jarvis started out shooting photos of skiers as a hobby. He went from waiting tables to a sports photography powerhouse through his practice.
I could go on and on. There are sooo many examples.
So what are your thoughts? Did I inspire you to start a new passion project? Am I full of crap? You decide.
I’d love to hear from you. Also feel free to keep in touch.