18 Tips for Being a Photography Original

The future of photography is in original, exclusive content.

That’s harder to achieve today than it used to be. When photography was still film, print and slide, no one could really copy you, as they could not see what you had shot. As digital distribution has become the standard, more and more photographers see your work online and say, “Hey, I can shoot that.”

So we’ve gone from rights-managed stock photography to royalty-free stock photography to microstock photography. The pricing of images has become inversely proportional to the volume created. The more images are created to illustrate an idea, the cheaper they are.

It’s clear that you don’t want to be playing in that end of the pool. So, in today’s market, how can you position yourself as a photography original — and reclaim the value of your ideas?

Here are 18 do’s and don’ts:

1. DO shoot commission work, not stock. The market for stock shooters is not there anymore. Not for pros, anyway. Shoot commission work only, and then put that in stock. Commission work can give you access to people and places that are not available to the common mortal. It will give you a chance to create original images. Why? Because if the images were out there already, your client would have bought stock instead of hiring you.

2. DON’T sell yourself short. Once you have that original content, sell it well and hard. Do not drop it in the dollar bin. Those images will be your calling cards — both for stock and for more assignments.

3. DO show emotion. Too many photographers, in an attempt to be as generic as possible in order to be attractive to the biggest market, create bland, lifeless images. Instead, be as emotional as humanly possible. The more your images generate emotion in viewers, the better.

4. DON’T offend. Go for emotion, but not shock value. If your images are offensive in any way, they will never be used for commercial purposes, and rarely for editorial. If you want to shock people, do it with beauty, talent and art. Beautiful sells — sometimes much better than sex.

5. DO think scarcity, not volume. The scarcer your work, the more valuable. You are not a factory, after all. Don’t try to be one.

6. DON’T confuse “exclusive” with “niche.” Shooting difficult subjects is not the same as being original. There are limited markets for shots of exploding volcanoes, deep underwater fish and rainforest insects. You can be original without resorting to niche markets.

7. DON’T shoot stock video. Clearly, we will soon see the same trends in video as we’ve seen in still photography. In fact, microstock beat traditional stock agencies in offering video. So forget it.

8. DON’T copy the work of others. If you have an idea, look to see if it has been done. If it has, drop it. Move on.

9. DON’T look to your stock sales report for ideas. Sales reports tell you what you’ve sold, not what will sell. It’s a sure path to mediocrity.

10. DON’T go to workshops for ideas. Go to workshops to learn how and what not to shoot. Learn to be a loner.

11. DON’T share or post your techniques. You will only be popular with those who have no imaginations. Like leeches, they feed on others’ knowledge.

12. DON’T ask for the opinion of other photographers — ever. If your idea is good, they will copy you. If it’s bad, they won’t tell you.

13. DON’T focus on equipment. Talent is not measured by the number of lenses or gizmos you carry. The less you carry, the more you can concentrate on your images.

14. DO un-learn the rules. Forget all the rules, regulations, obligations, conditions, and other “…ions” that are stuffed in your head. Each one is another rope to your creativity.

15. DO disconnect your computer. It’s more of a distraction than anything else — and can easily lead to being influenced by “group think” and tired ideas. Get a smart phone to check your e-mail.

16. DO hide your best work. Only your clients should see it. No one else.

17. DO work on the process, not the result. If the process is perfect, the result will be, too.

18. DON’T look for the “secret.” There isn’t one. That’s the secret.

13 Responses to “18 Tips for Being a Photography Original”

  1. Thanks. 😀


  2. Interesting thoughts. I think that sharing your ideas can be a good think. I think creating a walkthrough of your exact process is bad. You're basically publishing a how to copy you book, but if you only post a general overview, then you get other people interested in your photography. At least that's my take on things.

  3. I really like the 3rd one! is what I believe in.

  4. There are some really good advices in here. I especially agree with "DON’T focus on equipment" and "DON’T ask for the opinion of other photographers ". I tried it and it's always true. Most photographers won't tell you anything, unless they're your really good friends you can count on.

  5. I believe in #3 a lot

  6. If you ask, I probably will tell you how I shot something because it will lead to further discussion — and you might tell me of a better way. And besides, how you do things will be reflective of your style (and not mine).

    I stopped asking others what they thought of my work long ago. Sure, I want you to like it, but for the most part, shoot things for yourself -- your way. Be a leader and others will follow. This is a great blog on taking that leadership role.

  7. Great List; but not sure if I can agree with #16; It seems to me that from a portfolio standpoint you need to be showing your best work to Potential clients, not just your 'actual' clients.

  8. Great tips! I feel strongly about #13. I have taken some of my best shots with pocket sized cameras. It's not about the equipment; it's the vision!

  9. re: number 15

    I agree that a computer is a terrible distraction but it is also a great tool for socializing. Like myself many photographers are self employed which means working a lot alone. It is pretty great to be able so socialize with peers with a similar job, something I simply don't have in the small town I live in.

    Considering this is a blog, isn't post 15 a bit of an oxymoron?

  10. I probably needed to read this list. The tip about the iphone is probably the one I need the most at the moment.

    I think sharing your techniques and your images with your peers is a tricky area to navigate well. But there's a risk in being too secretive as there is a risk in being too open. When you share you often find you get more back than you give out. But if you've got an edge somewhere, then that you probably need to keep hush about. On the other hand, if you give out nothing, then you are not going to get much back and will miss opportunities.

  11. Thanks for the tips.

    In today's market, you must have something that can stand out. Mostly I think that's creativity.

  12. Interesting post. I do agree with most points, but I think we as photographers should always showcase our best work, as long as it is specifically targeted.

  13. Interesting tips - like most people, I find the tip about sharing your techniques the most contentious.

    If nobody ever shared their knowledge, then the progression of photography would halt but if you've got some sort of secret that makes your images stand massively apart from the crowd, then what is the incentive to make everyone's images look like yours? It's a fine balance and one I've spent a lot of time thinking about.

    Great article either which way!


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