Don't Get Social, Be Social
A question that I frequently hear of photographers and creatives, which always makes my skin crawl, is, “What’s your approach to social?” Of course, the person asking wants an answer related to how to gain followers or boost their engagement metrics to drive revenue. Those are the questions we’ve been trained to ask as artists scrambling to find a consumer for our wares. While having a sound social media strategy is only a good thing, my challenge to you as an artist is to do something much more rewarding: don’t get socialâ”be social.
If you’re looking to gain marketing insight from the rest of this post, read no farther, as that nugget won’t follow. I’m going to talk more about that oh-so-rare interaction that won’t help pay the mortgage, but is what I feed off of as a photographer: a unique shared experience with awesome output that everyone involved will enjoy for years. The key is finding a dance partner who’s as adventurous and open to experimentation as you are.
A freelancing sports job introduced me to the lovely Natalie Taylor. While she was TV-facing and I focused on stills, our coverage was often of the same events and naturally I showed her some of my work over a coffee break. When she introduced me to her boyfriend, Walter I could tell she had found a solid guy and had hoped it would go the distance. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to hear good news before the rest of the world. When you’re really lucky, you get to play an active role in helping to announce that news as well! For my friends Natalie and Walter, this was the news of their unannounced engagement, which we (my wife Elise and I) were thrilled to shoot.
Since both are media personalities, we knew that shyness in front of the lens wouldn’t be an issue at all and were thrilled to hear that they wanted to introduce their new family to the rest of the world with Rookie, their fur-baby, in tow.
When hiring voice-activated light stands, I recommend asking them about their dog-wrangling skills early in the interview. They might prove invaluable one day. Creative personalities who were willing to be part of a collaborative and experimental shoot were the key to a great day that was personally rewarding for all involved.
This is going to sound silly, but you’d be amazed how many photographers I know that lament never having anyone fun to shoot. When I ask them who they’ve asked, they look at me like I’m wearing a Canon hat and a Nikon vest. Absolute honesty and transparency will get you very far. “Hello, my name is Ken and I’m a photographer. You’ve got a really great look, would you ever be interested in shooting?” It’s clear, it’s concise and it’s honest. If they’re receptive, you can immediately start getting a feel for what kind of shoot they’d be up for, but by all means, have an idea ready.
Meet Erica, by far one of my favorite people to shoot. We had chance encounters when she was an employee of my favorite hockey team and she wore her adventurous personality on her sleeve. Who better to ask to climb a utility tower with me on the edge of town? I had just acquired some new strobes and felt like test-driving them in a bright outdoor environment, and I let her know just that. The expectation was set that she’d meet up with my wife and me for the shoot and stroll around an area and experiment. We came away with some of my favorite photos that I’d made in a long time:
Not only did we have a great time making some great photos during our first outing but I now have Erica as one of the first people I reach out to when I start thinking about a shoot that might take a little bit more patience than most can muster because I know how well we work together. Normally when asked if my wife and I shoot weddings we find ourselves washing our hair that weekend but when I heard of Erica and her fianc© Liam’s pending nuptials, we jumped at the opportunity to be there on their special day because we know that we’ll have an engaging bride and groom that will want to make some memorable images.
Sometimes the key to your social networking will be the social networks of your subjects. Meet Chris and Steve, an incredible couple. Chris was a co-worker of mine, and (though he had recently moved on to other endeavors) Steve had worked with my wife. Chris and Steve have long been active members in the Columbus community, serving in roles that would help further local transit, LGBT advocacy, and initiatives to attract young professionals to the city. Our concept for their engagement shoot was to articulate their lazy Sunday afternoon routine as a couple and get some great environmental portraits in an urban setting. I remember sitting Chris down to ask him what their perfect lazy Sunday looked like, and he mentioned it was often hitting up one of their favorite local establishments for brunch and a beer.
Immediately I started trying to think about ways to emulate the vibe of that restaurant and Chris told me to stand by. Moments later, I got a message from him: we were cleared to shoot in the bar prior to their opening. We were given free run of the place, including a tour of the haunted basement and free pour at the taps while we were there. Since we were shooting in a bar at 9am, it was my task to set the lighting up to feel more like a late, cozy afternoonâ¦ so as not make my friends look like alcoholics. Their patience was key here. The beer certainly didn’t hurt.
Once we’d had our fill (of beer), we moved on to a great urban art cooperative which Chris and Steve had reserved for their local reception after eloping. Once again, because of Chris and Steve’s great social natures, we were given carte blanche to make some truly unique engagement photos that captured the two of them so well.
They may not be your money-makers, but that’s not always the point. Take time to make photos that are rooted in genuine social interactions, and aren’t driven by the trending social media metric. It’s here you may find your most rewarding experiences that you’ll treasure for as long as the photos themselves, if not longer. This certainly won’t help pay for your newest Nikon body or Canon L Series lens, but it will make you look forward to picking up your gear that much more.