Importance of Personal Work
So personal work. This is again another kind of confusing topic depending on when you're at in your career. I know I kind of fought this idea for a long time, and some people today would say my personal work is my work. I truly enjoy that, and there's nothing wrong with that. A lot of the work that I have in my portfolio today is client work but I find there's things about it that I deeply connect with and I want more of it so I show it but personal work is really, really important not only to show your clients who you are, but it's also important for you just to express yourself and to explore ideas. We're gonna go through and give you a whole bunch of reasons why it's important. Again, first reason is because you get hired to shoot what you show and the other thing is you'll never regret doing a personal shoot. You may at the time. There's a couple that I've regretted at the time, was like "I can't believe I spent all that money on this. What a waste." but looking back, I've learned ...
something from every personal shoot I've done. In those bad ones, I learned what I don't wanna do. I learned that's why I need to work with a wardrobe stylist and not do it myself, or that's why I shouldn't work with that person or whatever it is, you'll never regret it. It's a learning opportunity. Another reason personal work is really important is because it's an opportunity to prove that you can do something that maybe people don't think you can do. Maybe they don't think you can do it 'cause you're not showing it, which is basically a fancy way of me repeating the same thing I'll be saying over and over again: You get hired to shoot what you show. There was one time in particular I can remember where I was bidding on an advertising campaign and I didn't get it. And you won't always get feedback from the client, but in this particular case I asked "Can I ask who you went with or if there was anything I could do differently?" and the art buyer told me "You just can't handle expression very well and you don't really do environments and we needed environment and expression". And I was like "Forget you!" but then I looked at my portfolio and it was kind of humbling. I was like "Oh crap, every picture in here is a studio portrait and they all look the same." and so in that moment, I realized "Okay I have to decide. Is that actually something that I wanna do or was it just an exciting opportunity? Was it just a bright light I was chasing?" I felt like yeah, I really wanna do more conceptual work. I really wanna do these types of jobs that I'm bidding on but not getting, and so the only way that that's gonna happen is not some day miraculously, someone's gonna be like "I don't see any of it in your portfolio but I'll hire you anyway". I gotta start showing it. So I had to start putting together images that kind of get at what it is that I wanna be getting hired for. It can be hard with no budget but there's ways of being creative and we'll talk about that a little bit. This now is a more recent shoot that I did for Seattle Humane where this is environment and expression, and this is not something that I had been showing in my portfolio at all. But even going back to my family pictures that I've shown, I think we've seen one so far, showing that environment and even showing a family, it relates to the kind of work that people will call you in for. Really, really important...all these are important. But another reason for shooting personal work is it's an opportunity for you to discover more about yourself and who you are, and it's a chance for you to take some introspection and start to think about themes or ideas that they're important in your life that you feel like you wanna express. This was actually, I showed you my family picture earlier. This are my friends Brian and Jessica and there's a lot of pretty funny stories about this. I don't know about today, but at least six months ago, if you googled 'ugly Christmas sweater', this is still the first image that comes up and I think this image gets stolen more than any other image on the internet pretty much, especially around Christmas time, but this was just their Christmas card and I was like "Yeah I'll do it". She worked for an ad agency, that's how we met and we just really connect. They have a great sense of humor obviously. So we did this shoot and I was just laughing the whole time. It was one of the most fun experiences I've had on set. And that was kinda that thing where I was like "Man, this is so fun. Why don't I have more fun? I should be thinking about things that make me feel like this more often." and so that was a big kickoff for me, how can I do that for myself? And again, why did I do this? Just for fun. There wasn't some big strategy behind it but it's led to a lot of opportunities, and sometimes, again, that's the best way to go about it. Personal work is a great opportunity to get to know crew, or to try working with a crew. Maybe you've never worked with people before. Don't do it on a job. Don't show up on a job and get into an argument and be like "You don't understand me!" or "I asked you to do that 10 minutes ago!" or whatever it is. You don't want to be doing that in front of someone who hired you. Last week, I was in a store and two people behind the counter were just at each other, swearing and arguing. They thought they were being kind of funny. It was like "I don't know if I wanna be here right now". Don't put yourself in that situation. Figure out all those things on your own so when you show up to a job, people will be like "Man, these guys are like family. They've got it together". Build trust when you're getting paid. Don't instill doubt into clients. This is an editorial shot that I did, but again kind of mentioning this was early in my career, this was kind of when I was shooting editorial and I started realizing I wanna work with bigger concepts. This was awesome, they had a great room set up. This was all there and I did ask them to bring white. But again, you know, ideally the pants would've been white and we didn't have that but I think that's when I started realizing production. You can't just let things fall to chance. Even if you ask someone to bring white pants, they may not or they may not have 'em, or they may not have time to go get 'em or whatever. You've gotta take control of the things that are important to you. But eventually, I kind of started realizing that if this really matters to me and I'm getting frustrated every time something doesn't go my way in editorial, maybe I need to start doing it myself and not rely on other people, and it's not really their job anyway to be doing that kind of stuff. But I did start trying to push my conceptual ideas into my editorial photography before I really discovered advertising. Personal work is a great opportunity to experiment with lighting. Take five hours and just sit there and be like "What am I doing? How can I change this or try new things?" You don't really have time when you're on a job to be experimenting with light, or just trying new things for the heck of it. There's a schedule, time is money, all that kind of stuff. So again, give yourself time to practice. And also when you think about personal work, you don't have to necessarily come away with a portfolio image. Again, sometimes it's just practice. It can be that simple. Again, it's a way to take risks. And as I mentioned earlier, I'll give you a specific story, it's an opportunity to take control, to take risk and control. So when I first started shooting editorial, I was shooting for some local magazines in Seattle, and it was really fun. It was an incredible opportunity. A lot of the assignments were I was photographing local shop owners and business people. People who owned bars, doctors, lawyers, that kind of thing and eventually, I got an agent and I started getting hired to do more national magazines, which is super exciting in and of itself but as in anything, like as in any relationship, there's kind of the infatuation period and then there's reality. And as the infatuation wore off on these new things, I started realizing "I'm just shooting business people." and where's the conceptual, where's the imagination that's so important to me? It's like, you can only do so much with a business person in their office. It's not what I wanted. And I couldn't figure out "Why am I only doing this?" and finally, I was able to step back and look at my portfolio and it's like I'm only shooting.. I'm not doing personal work, all my assignments are business owners, why do you think you're only getting hired to shoot business owners? Cause it's all you're showing. That's all I was showing was this self-perpetuating cycle and so I knew I had to break out of that somehow. So that was again, when all these stories come together, I started realizing I think I need to shoot something on my own to break out of this and that's again, the purpose of personal work. This was another really early editorial shoot that I did. Again, you can shoot whatever you want. I'm not saying that you have to leave here and figure out exactly what it is that you wanna do. Chances are..it took me like 12 years to even have an inkling of what I wanted, and I'm still struggling through it. So I'm not saying you have to know this right now, it takes a ton of time and practice, but you don't have to show everything that you shoot. I think that's one thing that especially early in our careers we struggle, cause we don't have a lot of images and so anything that's just good or strong in any sense, we feel like we have to show it. So you'll end up with all these random pictures together. I'd rather see four awesome pictures that make sense together in your portfolio than 25 pictures where four of 'em are good and 21 of them are kind of just okay and also just totally random. You don't have to show it. And keep that in mind, if you show it, what is that telling people? Clients or even, whoever's viewing the images. This was another early conceptual portrait that I did and this was just for fun. This was for my friend Jenny. She's also a photographer and so we had traded. She did a shoot for me and then I did a shoot for her. So this..actually..rather than telling you.. I don't know, what do you guys think when you see this? Talk about, you could talk about production or the image itself. What are some things that come to mind when you see this?
It kind of feels like best in show.
Okay, best in show.
Yeah, you know. The dogs are on display.
Anyone else? Anything production related? As you think about creating work like this, what are some thoughts of yours?
Well being a dog owner, it's not the easiest to get dogs to sit still and to be facing the camera at the same time. Your human subjects are facing the camera and not blinking or whatnot.
The monochromatic colors.
Yeah. So do you think that this is something that you could probably just show up and discover something like this? No. I mean, if you start to get into this kind of thing again, it's kind of like the picture of the guys in all white. You've gotta do this on your own. If this is the kind of work you wanna do, you're not gonna just show up one day and be like "This is perfect. You guys are wearing brown and your dogs are brown and the whole room is brown!". What I really wanna get at though is this whole set, I think cost $40, so basically we got two sheets of faux wood from Home Depot, which I think were like $20 each at the time. I borrowed a lamp and a nightstand from my neighbor. Another friend had a couple old picture frames, and my friends brought the wardrobe and we checked it out beforehand, and they had the dogs. The whole thing was kind of built around the idea of the dogs, so the dogs were already there. So again, I was trying to create something that felt like what I wanna be doing more of. Something that feels big production but the reality is it can be very low budget. It doesn't have to be scary as you start thinking about bigger ideas. It is gonna take time. But I think something we all have, hopefully, is a little bit of time. Yeah?
And I'm wondering, when I try to do sort of conceptual images like this, I have this grandiose plan and then when I get to the set, other things start to emerge that I want to do. So how do you approach planning to make sure that you have most of the details set in advance and also give yourself the freedom to emerge and have that creativity..
That's a great question. We're actually gonna talk about that in detail throughout this course so I might kind of defer a little bit on that, but to answer your question, that's why, briefly, that's why preparation is so important and that's also why understanding who you are is really important. It's gonna be hard for a while and you're gonna get to that point and make mistakes and realize you could've done things differently. That's just gonna happen so there's no way to mitigate that. But what you can do is learn from that and grow. Now if I got here and I said "Oh man, I actually wanted it to be all pink, not brown!", that might be a problem but you could get here and things could change, the way they sit could change. Maybe I was gonna have them stand originally and then I thought sitting is a little more awkward and interesting in my opinion. You wanna set yourself up to be able to explore but yeah hopefully ideas do always change. It rarely goes the way that you want it. Yeah?
I just wanted to read some of people's comments based on your question, from folks at home. And Valerie Resoe says he's very curious about the lighting or that's one of the things that stands out is how not just the front, but the back, the wall is lit. I know we're gonna get into that. And then Thomas Wollard says "Hello from the UK. All the photos have quite a discintive re-touching style. Is this something that you developed on your own or do you work with professional re-touchers?
I work with re-touchers. My pictures would not look this good if I retouched them myself. I'm not that talented. I do know what I want my images to look like though so as with any role, re-touchers are very talented and they can do a number of different looks, you've gotta know what you want though. Just because a re-toucher is super talented, doesn't mean that they're gonna just be able to read your mind and know exactly what you want. You've gotta learn how to communicate with them and help them get at the idea as with any role. Whether you're working with an assistant on lighting or working with a wardrobe stylist, you've gotta be able to communicate to them what it is that your expectations are. So I do work with a re-toucher. To answer the first question, one of the cool things about working with sets and creating your own reality is you have a lot more flexibility. Sometimes if you come into our house, we have kind of low ceilings for example. It's gonna be harder to put a big light up in our living room. With a set, you can hang a light over the wall. So we have probably three light stands behind the wall and they're..if here's your wall, they're hanging over the wall so we get the benefit of the light back there but I don't have to worry about how do we get those stands out of the frame and stuff. So we have lights hanging over the back wall that are acting as hair lights on the humans and the dogs, and then we have lights in places that you maybe wouldn't otherwise be able to put lights in the confines of a normal room or something like that. You don't have to worry about furniture and stuff. So that's another reason of why I like working a set so much is just the added level of control.
Connect to your photos
Don’t capture another picture that says nothing of your own style. Grow your confidence in creating or styling a portrait that pops and, more importantly, resonates. Recognize that you’re tired of feeling disconnected to your photography.
Tap into your artistic vision
Establishing your creative voice and finding the inspiration and support to stay with it are essential skills for a career in photography. Commit to mastering the technical elements so you can save time in production, focus on creating images with emotion, and start making the pictures that express your creative vision and ultimately resemble what you want to get paid to take.
Learn from the authority: John Keatley
John’s photos have filled the pages of Rolling Stone, Wired, and the New York Times Magazine. He’s covered celebrities from Anthony Hopkins to Macklemore, and even had the rare opportunity to photograph Annie Leibovitz. He’s also passionate about education and supporting artists to find their personal style.
In this one-of-a-kind class, John breaks down how to conceptualize, produce, style, light and fine tune your ideas. He leads you through the creation of an environmental portrait series, showing you how to make a vision come to life with any budget.
What you get out of this exclusive shoot:
- Find inspiration and execute your vision
- Research and create desired environments for set design or location scouting
- Cast for portrait and direct subjects on set
- Build a team of support around your project
- Lighting and styles to make the background and subject work together
- Creative ways to build your vision, regardless of budgetary limitations
What our students are saying:
“The amount of information John gives is mind blowing. To see the process from beginning to end, the road map to creativity...you cannot help but to be on the right road to success. He gives you steps to take and shows you how it's done.”
- Lorenzo Hill
Commit to your creativity
Are you ready to push the boundaries and find your unique voice? Get the hands-on tools to flex your creativity, collaborate for results, and carry out your vision.