Sometime in 1995, I attended a workshop with a portrait photographer named David Peters. He is a fantastic portrait artist and taught me that the people I was photographing were more important than the gear used to create the images. Throughout his workshop, we worked to create images that conveyed emotions and told a story of love and connection between our subjects. We were never distracted by looking at the backs of our camera to see if we got the shot—We instead trusted our skills and turned our attention to our clients.
The first turning point
At that time in my career, I was shooting film with a Hasselblad 500cm. The Hasselblad was a fantastic camera, and although fully manual, I found it easy to work with. At that time, I used a huge Quantum Q-Flash for every shot. This flash was huge and required a separate battery pack. No speedlites with TTL for me. Outside the studio, David rarely, if ever, used a strobe. Not shooting with strobes took me by surprise since that was all I knew. If you had asked me before the workshop if I thought there was a better way to light, I’m reasonably sure I would have said no. After spending several days shooting without a flash and working with David and other students in the workshop, I decided then and there—No more flash for me unless the lack of available light demanded it.
Now imagine: You’ve just come home from a week-long workshop and in two days you have a big wedding with your photographer wife, and you break the news that you are no longer going to use flash. Oh, the look on her face! To her credit and having spent time at the same workshop, she trusted me. That wedding’s couple, Angie and Ott, are still married today, and I proudly remember that day as the first step to radically improving my photography from that moment on. Not only did I learn a new technique, but I was also humbled to realize that I didn’t know as much as I thought I had. From that point on, I never wanted to feel as if I was behind on my education again. I haven’t spoken to David in many years, but I will always be grateful to him for helping put me on the path I’m on today.
Who moved my cheese?
In 2008 the market took a significant turn for the worst. The tech bubble popped and the Dow made its 3rd largest drop in history losing 778 points. For me and my business, this was hard not only to see some retirement investment take a hit, but it was a low year for booking weddings as well. Up to this point my wedding business, Imagery Concepts, had been growing year after year with no paid advertising—Just good old word of mouth. In the years leading up to 2008, we averaged 30 weddings a year and were considered expensive in our area. We were doing great, and until the crash, we had no real worries about future bookings.
In contrast, we did 16 weddings in 2008 and didn’t do much better in 2009. We figured it was the market and all we needed to do was be patient and wait it out. I was very wrong. As I got more worried I started talking to my vendor friends, like DJ’s, event coordinators, and other photographers. For the most part, we all felt the same way. There were a handful of people, however, whose businesses had continued to grow throughout all the market drama. I was shocked and more than a little upset at myself for being so complacent. It turns out that, yes, my industry was affected by the market, but the brides had not left—The market and how I reached them had merely shifted. My cheese had been moved. If that reference doesn’t make sense, check out the book “Who Moved My Cheese?” by Dr. Spence Johnson. A great little book about how we get too comfortable while the world changes around us without us noticing the trials and tribulations that often follow.
Once I realized that, although the market did create a shift in my business, it was me that was ultimately responsible for the decline in business. I immediately got to work on how to regain the ground I had lost. I learned that to stabilize my business and gain year to year success, I needed to diversify my offerings. I still needed to do weddings but also the maternity and the families that followed. In addition, I dabbled in commercial, worked on a stronger website, and built more effective marketing materials. Since 2008, I have taken better control and direction of my business avoiding many of the industry ups and downs.
A punch in the gut
I’ll admit that in 2010 after the recovery from 2008, I was not ready for any more slaps upside the head, but then again, whoever is?
I attended a wedding convention in Las Vegas that I had been to before but never really engaged. WPPI (Wedding & Portrait Photography International) is a massive event with significant learning and socializing opportunities. This time I was ready to dive in, learn, and meet some new people. I spent several days watching speakers and attending workshops.
By this time in our career, my wife and I had been shooting weddings full-time for 18 years, and there wasn’t a lot of new or revolutionary content at the show that piqued our interest. I was not expecting, though, to see the WPPI image competition images on display. I can only describe what I saw as a punch in the gut.
I’m a full time working pro, I thought.
I make a great living shooting weddings and my brides are excited to see the work I have created for them.
I started in film, transitioned to digital, and my work only got better. I’m good. I know I am.
How can the images I’m looking at be that much better? Have I been living under a rock?
I’m creative, why didn’t I try that?
I must admit, I was a little more than taken aback by what I saw—Brides underwater, hanging from a helicopter, riding a dirt bike, or sitting in a fairytale style landscape with a castle in the background. Many of the images were composited and many were in places I could never go with a couple on a wedding day. However, what I saw were images of my peers pushing their ideas, skill, and creativity outside what at the time would have been the acceptable client-level imagery. Seeing those images ignited in me the idea that I can be more artistic and take more risks with my work. I felt justified to experiment a little more when the wedding day schedule allowed and push my creative boundaries. In practice, the most fantastic experience happened. My couples loved what I was doing—Another growth moment!
After more than 25 years of shooting full-time for my groceries, I have come to learn that the moment we believe we are either good, learned all we need, or take our eyes off the ball, we are setting ourselves up to fail, and if we are not careful, someone will move our cheese. Competition is a fierce drive, but our own creative desire to be better should drive us even more. It’s a little cliche I know, but it’s so very true. Never stop learning! Never stop growing and never think you have arrived.
I feel the next big growth moment for the creative community will be the management, and often the moderation, of how social media plays into what we create. Social media is terrific for sharing our art but can often be one of the greatest enemies of creativity. Pablo Picasso said, “The chief enemy of creativity is good sense”. I would add that chasing followers and “likes” can be even more destructive and certainly more distracting than even “good sense”. I’m not advocating for total social media abstinence, but I suggest that you remove yourself from the praises of strangers and put yourself in a place with just yourself and your work. Without the constraints of trying to impress the masses and creating for the purpose of acceptance by those masses, I believe you can and will create more freely and truthfully. Use social media to share your amazing gifts as a creative rather than letting it dictate to you.
A good friend of mine recently told me that he once spent $25,000 on some of the best gear the industry has to offer just so he can make images for Instagram. He lost sight of his creative voice and got hung up on the “like culture”. Good news, though, he’s now on track and back to creating. Checkout Michaels latest work on Instagram @michaelcoutts_photography and an interview he did with Frederick Van Johnson on ThisWeekInPhoto.com. Episode 540
In the end, never be complacent, never stop growing, question everything, and always strive to be a better you regardless of whether it gets you “likes” or not.
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