Personal Work Must Be a Reflection of You

Question: Does your personal work have to match the branding of your commercial work in order to show it?

I am surprised so many photographers don’t recognize the importance personal work plays in our lives, as both artists and small business owners. Personal photography projects can be the heart and soul of our businesses, and certainly the fuel for our passion and creativity.

There are often two camps when it comes to personal work. The first is the new photographer, who only has personal work to show potential clients; the second is longtime pros who are so busy with client work that personal projects get put off again and again. Obviously, in the first case, you need paying clients, or photography is just a hobby. But for that second group, personal projects remain extremely important to artistic growth.

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© Lee Love

Finding Work, Finding Self

When you look closely at the most successful photographers in our industry, you’ll find the work they’re most proud of comes from personal projects. Take the work of Joel Grimes, Los Angeles portrait photographer. For the last six years, Joel has consistently shot between 50 and 60 self-assignments annually. I found this number astounding, but Joel told me that a very successful campaign with Red Bull was a direct result of personal projects he shot of athletes. “My personal work is a direct reflection of who I am as an artist,” he says, “and represents the kind of work I want to do commercially.”

Your personal work doesn’t have to match your commercial work. It can often be stuff you simply enjoy photographing. Joel’s series “Desert Life” is a beautiful body of black-and-white work that retains his style but is very different from his intense sports portraits, for which he is well known.

Consider celebrity photographer and director Michael Grecco, who thinks it’s very important for photographic artists to continue to develop their personal vision. “It also helps the world know another side to of their work,” Michael says. “Personal work gives the artist depth, both on a personal level and to the outside world.” When we talked, he was excited about a new project showcasing urban landscapes – a completely different type of work from his celebrity portraits.

Shadows in the Park

Self assignments don’t have to be complicated. They just have to be something you enjoy and they have to provide a creative outlet.

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© Lee Love

I have been photographing local skateboarders for over a year; I found the culture and dedication to the sport intriguing, and wanted to find a way to convey more about the skaters and their passion. When I started, I shot the standard sports-style images of jumps and tricks, but I quickly realized that became boring. So I challenged myself to come away with something different on every visit to the park. I have showed up with speed lights and battery-powered studio lighting and even shot action for a few weeks with a Hasselblad H4D-40. Talk about a challenge!

One thing I learned by shooting a self-assignment over and over is this is a great way to force yourself to see things differently and explore different angles, lighting and perspectives. Some may get bored and say “been there, done that.” But I continue to experiment and pull every possible creative idea out of the subject.

On a recent visit to the park, I sat and watched the skaters and couldn’t find anything new to shoot. It was late in the afternoon and I noticed the long shadows being cast by the early spring sun. And then it hit me: The skater’s feet, shoes and shadows told the entire story. I could convey motion and culture by never showing a skater’s face or body. I get more reaction from people on my “shadow skaters” than my large body of action shots lit with studio strobes.

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© Lee Love

Personal work helps us get in touch with why we became photographers in the first place and can be the playground where we experiment and stretch technical and artist boundaries. It’s not important whether self assignments ever result in client work, and it’s true that many art buyers first look at your client work to assess your style and technical expertise. But your personal work shows your vision, passion and artistic view of the world. It’s the art you create on your own – without an art director or storyboards – that provides real insight to your creativity.

Obviously, the best of both worlds is when a client sees your personal work and asks, “Love your vision on XYZ project, can you shoot something like this for our campaign?” Getting compensated for shooting what we love is the antithesis of work!

About Lee

Lee Love is an advertising and editorial photographer in Washington, D.C. He is driven by his passion for creativity, and the challenge of imaginative problem solving. But, it is his genuine interest in people, ease of rapport, and playful humor that gives him the ability to connect with his subjects. Lee’s diverse background in marketing, product development and the technology industry has afforded him the opportunity to solve the creative needs of a broad range of clients. Lee Love Photography

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