Evolution – Growing Without Losing Direction
Next year will mark my business celebrating its 10th year, and it has been a roller coaster that’s for sure. It all started at my dining room table with a blank sheet of paper, no knowledge at all of Photoshop, and no clients. From there I mapped out a company called AmbientLife that I wanted to create, a business that would be based around high end transport and high end prestige cars.
When I first started out the research phase, lots of people said I didn’t have a chance because I was too old to be starting a totally new career, I didn’t live in London, and even a few that said I would need to change my style of photography because my own natural style was, “Too dramatic and artistic,” to be commercial. I had a pretty good knowledge of business having worked in high level management positions in blue chips. I also had a background before that serving in the Royal Marines which gave me the greatest edge, the belief that I could achieve and conquer anything if I pushed myself hard enough and trusted myself not to be afraid to be “different.”
So here we are 9 years on, and it’s fair to say that hard work pays off! I have clients across most continents and I have been fortunate enough to work with some amazing people and see some truly stunning places all in the call of duty.
I have been commissioned to shoot some of the world’s most expensive and desirable cars, I have hung out of helicopters shooting super yachts, and I’ve been responsible for creating the photography for some huge campaigns like the recent “fractal” prototype car that my client Peugeot launched recently.
So things are all great and everybody is smiling… And that’s great, but for me it was time for a change. It felt like it was time to push out and allow my business and style to evolve more. This might seem a little strange to some people because, why change a formula that’s working?
The simple hard fact is that the world never stays the same, markets change, politics change and industries change. Even though I am a commercial photographer, I am also a businessman, so I keep a close eye on what’s happening around the world and take note of things that can change or affect the industries and sectors that I work in. The most effective business models are those that ‘lead the way’ and those that ‘recognize change’ and are not afraid to adapt to it and be prepared for it. Apple probably being one of the most famous examples of this.
The high end car market is going through change, this is brought on by exchange rate changes globally, unrest politically in some regions of the world and also the changes that we have seen in oil, its cost, and the downturn in profits for those areas involved in producing it. All these factors will have an impact.
So I’m just a photographer, why should I care?
Well I guess that’s the key message here; being a photographer is great, and if it’s your passion and even your natural gift in life then it’s a superb space to exist in. But you also need to make a business work, and good business comes from knowing your market and having the right cassette in your head to deal with it. It’s about knowing how to ask yourself the right questions and it’s also about being able to be honest enough with yourself that you will answer yourself honestly.
I have been talking about this ‘journey’ in my business talks at Photoshop World with KelbyOne for a few years now. Every time I do they get massive positive feedback and requests for bigger and longer seminars on this ‘massive’ subject. This year I will be in Vegas and will be actually doing a whole workshop on this to talk through the process, but also the mindset of how to approach this. I can’t tell you all the answers, but I can help you to understand what the right questions are that you need to ask yourself and base your business development on.
I’ve been doing live shoot seminars for years now across the world from the US to the deserts of Dubai. It’s great to help people understand how important lighting can be, and also how lighting and your style of lighting can impact so much on the overall feel to your actual visual style. One thing that has grown massive over the last three years from a seminar point of view is the whole conversation around ‘succeeding’ and understanding your path as a working photographer.
You see, the thing here is that we invest a huge amount of our lives in creating the very best work that we can, we love it, it’s our passion, it’s our purpose, it’s what drives us. It’s that thing that makes us feel like a kid on Christmas morning to get out there and do a great shoot of something that we love. If you can learn to match that passion and drive with your business side, then you achieve one HUGE thing moving forward… You take control of your future rather than letting commissions dictate what you are shooting and how that’s being presented. One of the most important factors for a photographer’s work is your style. This is yours, nobody but you can create it. And only you can take that and grow and evolve it into what you ‘feel’ that it should be next.
It’s based on your view of the world and how you record what you see in front of you. It’s based on your imagination, and it’s also based on all the things in your life that influence you. What I mean by the last part there is that I believe that photography is in some ways a view inside your own mind. It’s guided by choices that you make, and these in turn are a result of things that influence you and your attitudes. When I am traveling to a gig, I will often listen to music; music I choose that gets me into the right frame of mind for the type of shoot that I am about to take on. I work hard to remove as many negative influences and people from my day to day world, “mood hoovers” is the affectionate term I use to refer to such people ;)
Your personal life, and what is contained within that, can duly have a massive impact on your work, its growth and its creativity. In October last year I got married to the love of my life, my wife Angela. We were married in a 17th century castle in the Highlands of Scotland, a setting that’s been used a few times in Bond films… the irony!
Anyway, we had a perfect day in every way and we have an amazingly happy and stable life. My wife works really hard at what she does and we respect each other’s stresses and commitments to our career roles. She is my rock but she’s also my best friend. When you’re a photographer, especially in the early years, having that support can make a massive difference to the probability of you driving yourself forward and succeeding in the way you want to.
So how did I decide what ‘Evolution’ was required?
If I’m honest, and people who know me know that I say things as they are, a little too much sometimes… But this was a lot harder than I first thought. So I found my own way by first starting to look at my entire work to date as a single body of work. What was my strongest work? What did I have a natural ability or infinity to shoot? And where were the gaps…?
Over the recent years a huge amount of my work has been location based. It’s popular, and one epically huge point here that I want to make is that you can ‘evolve’ without losing or moving away from what you’re good at or what is popular. Think of it as having a guitar with only three strings… You’ve learned over the years to bang out some pretty awesome tunes on that and people love them, but its time to maybe get another two strings and see what you can do with those added!
My approach to look at my work was to force myself to put together a body of just 40 pieces of work that I would then use to have a bespoke portfolio book made from. This book would then be used in subsequent months when I was in meetings with new clients and also agencies as I pushed forward into new ground with new clients. WOW that’s a tough thing to do, and after about 3 days I started to see the gaps, my interiors work was okay but not driven forward that well compared to the other work. I have a reputation for being able to shoot detail really well and the interiors usually come off the back of doing that. But I hardly ever did any shoots that were just based on getting amazing interiors.
It also became very apparent to me that I was really spending all my time out on location, and whilst I had spent time ‘in studio,’ it was only about 10% of what I was doing. The result of this is that whilst my studio work was on the money for what the clients wanted for their brief, I had not really explored enough of this part of my work to develop my own unique style around it. A big reason for this is that I was shooting a massive amount of work for Aston Martin, and indeed many people had started to refer to me in magazine interviews as ‘the guy that shoots all the Astons…’ Hey, I know there are worse things in life, but this was a driving factor that was stopping me evolving to some degree. Last year I made the radical decision to back away from Aston. While that might may seem like madness, it has been the very best thing that I ever did.
Over a period of months between client commissions I pushed myself hard to plug the gaps that I felt were there. I spent a lot of time in studio developing my own work, but also most importantly developing my own lighting techniques so that my work was ‘different’ than other work that was shot in studio. There is no point at all in just trying to reproduce what somebody else does no matter how well you do it. You need to own it, make it yours and do that in such a way that people will look at it and think of you.
Agencies looking to commission high value shoots for campaigns are 90% looking for ‘style’ when they view work from photographers. They want to see your view of the world and if it’s something that fits in with what their vision is for the campaign. If it is, then it’s a no brainer that the shoot is heading your way and costs etc have little impact, as long as it’s nothing silly of course!
I also spent time investing in my BRAND. I designed and had my portfolio book handmade after sourcing all the materials, and that has been a very worth while investment because my brand has to give out the right message. Agencies and clients need to feel that I really care about what I do and how I produce it. It’s true that they are hiring you to shoot photography for them sure, but it’s also very important to understand that they are investing in YOU…
My 2016 Portfolio book became a reality and is made of the finest materials, all of which have some relevance to my industry. It’s a pretty big beast, but when it lands on an art directors desk it’s like an event opening it (that’s a quote from 3 recent art directors). It’s that sort of message exactly what I wanted to send so for me I am really happy with that.
Updating a portfolio once a year is not enough for me. I’m busy, and whilst some of my work is under embargo because of the nature of what I shoot, there is plenty that is not. Every quarter I update a digital version that can be mailed anywhere in the world as a link, as a PDF book or whatever is required. It’s a carbon copy of the physical book but it’s updated as the year progresses and I shoot more and more work. Clients and agencies absolutely love this because not only does it keep them up to date with what you’re doing and how your work is moving forward, but its also gives them insight into the fact that you are ‘a very busy boy’ and you’re in demand. That is a key factor and it’s also related to human nature, but the fact is that if you are busy and people are chasing you for shoots, then you become more desirable.
Your Professionalism is your logo
Your Personality is your business card
How you make your clients feel is your Trademark
The whole human nature thing is pretty big for me, and it’s something that I talk about a lot in my business seminars because it not only allows you a better understanding of yourself truthfully, but it also give you ‘superpowers’ when it comes to negotiating and winning contracts. If you want to hear more, then you are going to need to join me at Photoshop World in Vegas for my Business Workshop ;)
The last 8 months…
In the last eight months several things have happened, and I would like to think that has been because I took control and allowed myself the time to evolve.
I’m taking on a lot more new clients, I’m doing more diverse and interesting work that is pushing me both creatively and technically, and also the business returns on that mean that I am pulling in more revenue as I grow.
I am finding my own unique approach to shooting studio based work. I am also finding that having those ‘extra strings’ is really paying dividends with both my current clients, and also new ones that are seeing this for the first time. Agencies are recognising that I have the ability to ‘bang out some new tunes’ whilst maintaining my own unique style, and, most importantly, stay focused on a continued direction for my brand and my business.
Finally I am finding the time to shoot for myself, shoot personal projects, and experiment with things. Photography may well be my business and my living, but it’s also a passion. I still get a massive amount of fulfillment from just getting out there and shooting stuff for no other reason apart from finding out what that looks like shot!
The road ahead…
The Last Word…
Thanks for reading through my blog, and I hope its been entertaining and perhaps some of it will open up a few questions within your own life that you may have been thinking about. If you would like to learn more about lighting cars in different ways or hear me talk about business and what inspires me, then you can do so right now by hoping over to KelbyOne where I have 7 video seminars and 2 interviews recorded for those that can’t make it to live events. I hope these help you guys.
Whatever you do, be passionate about it, believe in yourself and what you can achieve, and above all else accept that ‘failure’ is just part of the learning process and it’s moving forward that counts!
I think you can always tell the size of a man by the size of the things that bother him…
Stay positive, be mindful of the things that influence your space in this world and if you really want to do something, go out there and get it with all you have!