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Finding Your Style

Lesson 3 from: The Business of Commercial Photography: The Survival Guide

John Keatley

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Lesson Info

3. Finding Your Style

Next Lesson: Personal Work

Lesson Info

Finding Your Style

And so with that being said, I want to talk about how do you find your style? What are some practical ways, 'cause I talk a lot about knowing who you are and putting your voice in your work. But there are ways that we've developed and come up with that can kind of help you figure this out and be practical in this. So one thing that maybe you've heard but one thing that I believe is true and I have heard it multiple times is that beautiful pictures are dead. They're of no value. It's really, really easy to find a beautiful picture. You can go on social media. There's thousands of people creating beautiful pictures. When we started doing our workshop, even just a few years ago when I did the one-on-one portfolio reviews, usually about three-quarters of the people that came through like they really needed to work on their photography and practice. Lighting was really lacking and things like that. Now, just this last weekend we had our workshop here at CreativeLive and everybody made beaut...

iful pictures. In many cases I was like, wow, your lighting's really, really good. It's better than mine. But it doesn't matter that your work is beautiful anymore. But that's just to illustrate the fact that that's how quickly the industry has grown, and people are learning and getting better. Now adapting to that, as we've been talking about, the responses and what people are looking for is someone who has a clear voice, someone who's doing something that's different. So, what do we do aside from, how do you do, what does that mean? How do you create something that's different? Another way to think about it is to create something that's scarce. If beautiful pictures have no value, what does have value? And scarcity has value. And what is the one thing that no one else can replicate? What I believe is that you are the one thing that no one else can replicate. You and your decision making process. And that's why I think it's so important to live into that, because then all of a sudden, if you can, and you can create from that point, you have become scarce. And that's something that people are willing to pay for. Style is not something you choose, it's who you are. So again, as you're thinking about this, it's not like, oh, that looks fun, or whatever. I mean, those things are good to try. You have to sometimes try things, but you've gotta figure out naturally what is that thing that you really wanna do. And we've come up with a visual exercise that will help kind of drive this point home. So, as I flip through these images, I want... not everyone, but I would love for you to just shout out in one word how each image makes you feel. Anxious. Anxious. Sad. Sad. Upset. Upset. Appalled. Appalled. Concern. Concerned. Nausea. Amused. Nausea. Amused. (audience laughs) 'Kay, how about this one? Funny. Worried. Amazed. Worried. Protective. Protective. Humorous. Humorous. Fierce. Lost, weightless. Lost, weightless. Pain. Pain. Hopeless. Hopeless. What was that? Dreams. Dreams. Curious. Curious. Isolated. Isolated. Sad. Sad. Adventurer. Inventive. Adventurer. Lost. Lost. Bali. What was that? Bali, like something from Bali. Oh. And then last one. (audience awing and laughing) Sad. So you said sad but you're laughing, right? (audience laughs) Curious. So what did you notice in this exercise? What did you kind of pick up on as we're going through this. It evoked emotion? There's humor. There's humor. There's a story in the image. There's a story in the image. More importantly, what I pick up on is that everybody responds differently to these images. Someone said sad or scared and someone said funny and imaginative. One great way to kind of drill this home is often times there's another image that we show in our workshop and someone always says safe and someone always says terrified. And those are maybe a little bit more extreme than maybe we got out here but the point is the same. You cannot control what someone else is going to think and feel. You can't create something trying to please someone else because rarely will you please that person. And if you do please them and you're trying to create something outside yourself, you've now connected over something that's not true to who you are. Is that something that you're going to be able to replicate? You don't really know where it came from. Is that something you even want to replicate? The only person you should be trying to please is yourself and within that you will not connect with everyone. You can't be everything to everyone but you will connect authentically with people who also get what it that you're saying and those are much better relationships to work with and to live with. So that's something that I want you to really think about is again, oftentimes we think oh my gosh, I see that Nike ad, it's so cool. I'm going to try to shoot something just like that but by time you do, they're going to want something completely different and they wanted that because that was what that one person had to say. You have a different story and you need to learn what that story is so you can tell that in the same way that whoever got that ad, told their story authentically enough that it got them that job. You have to learn to believe that only you can create work like you. It starts with just a mindset so you've got to believe that and sometimes maybe you have to go through the motions before you can actually believe it but that's something that I want you guys to write down and really think about, even tell yourself in the mirror or whatever it is. Write it and put it on your door like no one else can create work like me. And again, I know you may not even know what that work is yet but someday I guarantee, if you go through this, you will come back, and you'll be like oh my gosh remember that time when I didn't even know what this meant, like it's gonna feel really good. It's good to to set those reminders for yourself so you can track your growth. So we all have excuses and fears. As I mentioned earlier, when I do the portfolio reviews and people like well I did this thing, it's just, it's kind of silly or it's just for fun or whatever. Like we all have those excuses. Oftentimes I'll hear people say when I'll ask them, why aren't you creating the work that you really want to create? Well, it's too weird, it's too different, you know or I don't see this anywhere like no one is hiring this type of photography or you know, on and on and on. If you find yourself saying those types of things, if you can say I'm creating something that's just for fun but I'm nervous because I don't think anyone would want hire me, it's too weird. That right there is proof that you are doing something that is unique. If it's not somewhere else, that's something to be celebrated. That's not something to be fearful of because people don't want something that they can get anywhere else. If you if you're creating something that someone can find anywhere else, the only way you're gonna get a job is if you're the lowest priced photographer and there will always be someone willing to price lower than you. So that's not a cycle you want to get caught in. So if you find yourself making these excuses, stop, flip the script, and realize, like this is actually a good place to be. This is not something I should be upset about. So whether you have ideas already about what it is you want to be creating or even if you don't know. Look, I have no idea what it is that I want to be creating. I'm still starting out on this journey. It's really important to learn to be conscious of what you're drawn to and so this goes back again to what we've been talking about. Being intentional, understanding, where you want to go so you can work towards there. So whether you're creating your own work right now or you're just inspired, everyone has work that they're inspired by. So something that we really like to do is gather images that you're inspired by. This could be just inspiration images, this could be your own images, and put it together in a grid and study that grid and look for patterns. This actually came about for me last year when I was teaching my portrait course for CreativeLive and I was putting together course graphics and was something that was really interesting about that whole process. It was forcing me to think about my work in new ways, which is another reason why I love teaching so much but I put together some of my work in a grid and it honestly wasn't even intentional until I looked at it that I realized like whoa, I must really like brown. (audience laughs) There's a lot of brown here. Now it's possible that it could be brown, that could be just you know happenstance but let's see what else can tell from here. It seems like I really like monochromatic and maybe more specifically, monochromatic with the pop of color. So it's not true mono but it's certainly a big part of what's going on here. Lighting, you can study this and realize really it's, the lighting's pretty similar. You know, like it's not that different and for me, I would say I know that's true. I'm more interested at this point in creating an environment and an emotion and a compelling story and I feel that lighting is not the most important part of that process. Now, lighting is important but I don't feel like I need to reinvent it every time. If the lighting is the most important part of the image. for me personally, it's not a very interesting image. So what stands out to you as you go through this, I would really encourage you to just look for all different kinds of patterns. People clearly, pretty important. Simplicity is pretty important, you know. Most of my work even outside of this grid, it's usually a person or people on a very simple bold backdrop. For me, the backdrop is just kind of providing a sense of space and it's meant to kind of highlight and focus on the people. I can speak a little bit more about this because I've done this and I'm more aware of this kind of stuff for myself but again, hopefully you can see some of these examples. And sometimes you'll put a grid together and it's like whoa, I don't know what... but I guarantee you if you were, if you were truly drawn to something and you can put it all together, you will find at least one commonality or pattern that you can draw from in doing this. Another, and the possibilities are endless here but something else that we started just doing as I found that out, I was like oh, interesting. What else can we do here? Sometimes blurring an image helps you just isolate things like color or shape or things like that. You can kind of remove some of the details if that gets a little too confusing or hard to kind of focus on what's going on and so for me here, I can tell like, I like very vivid but at the same time like desaturated colors and I especially like blue. And I like to have a little bit of green in my blue and again, you can see here, sometimes there's some colors that are brighter but the palette is all related to some extent. And once you know this about yourself, before I found that I was creating let's say 10 images and maybe four of them turned out how I like and the other six didn't really turn out because it was just kind of leaving it up the chance. Sometimes I came in to that blue but other times I didn't. Now, with this understanding when I'm creating an image, I'm very specific about what I want the sky or the blue in that image to look like. I have a color palette to work with, it's tried and true and I know this is what I'm drawn to. It's the case time and time again and so I can start making those decisions when creating and being more intentional. So if you can learn to be excited about all of the little elements that you use to build your work, that's just guaranteeing you that the end result will be something that you're also excited about. It's also a guarantee that your work will look like you, if you're taking control of all those little elements that are used to build this final image. And that can be things like wardrobe, it can be things like you know, like I mentioned color, it can be casting. I know for me and this is even a little harder to define but there's a certain type of person that I'm looking for when I'm casting. I'm looking for people who can who can, kind of be shaped into a character. They have like a fun memorable face. There's something unexpected about them. I'm also looking for a certain attitude or confidence. I want my wardrobe to be bold and simple. I'm often drawn to wardrobe that has a bit of vintage feel to it but still at the same time, it's not like locked into one specific time period. And you can go on and on and it's it's gonna take time to figure this kind of stuff out but that's the kind of stuff that I want you to be thinking about so that when you do start creating, you can be more intentional and consistent in the work that you're producing. Any questions on that? When you mentioned earlier about handling rejection and I was kind of curious, well, what do you keep in your emotional toolbox? You know, like this is a survival guide and so to me when I think survival guide I'm like, alright John, when you do have that emotional reaction, how are you flipping the script? What tools do you use to keep your emotions in check? That's a good question. For me, you know, if someone says, if I get rejected or something again, it goes back to the place where I know and believe completely that I'm creating the work I want to be creating. Like I get immense joy out of that and I have no regrets and I know that not everyone's gonna connect with that. And so if someone rejects it or isn't interested in it, I know that that's not a connection that was meant to be and I'm okay with that. There's someone else that will connect with it. Now, may be easier said than done. How do you work through that, I don't know? Therapy for me, therapy's huge. Like whatever that is, reading books, talking with friends, you know. Sometimes it just takes getting rejected 10 times and pushing yourself through but for me I really do think that is something that can help everyone is what we've been talking about. Like whether you believe it or not, just tell yourself, start doing these exercises, start creating, and then seeing that work, and you'll feel it, you'll know. Like wow, this is what I want to be doing. Because I guarantee, if you look at any artist and I won't name names but if you look at any artist who is successful or you look up to, usually what they're doing if you broke it down in just a everyday conversation. What they do is like, people would say weird or unusual or different, right? It's not they're not doing something that you've seen anywhere else but that's the reason that they're successful and so you know, if they and I guarantee they've all faced a lot of rejection as well. If they just gave up and were like well, I'll do what I think people want. They're gonna fall into this cycle that we've been talking about. So, long answer to the question. So you mentioned that no one else can replicate your thought process. At this point as far as the X's and O's go, do you have a playbook for your thought process? Or does that kind of play out intuitively as a shoot progresses? I mean, that's a lot of different things coming together. In my portrait class that I did with CreativeLive last year, we had an exercise covering seven words. We identify seven words that relate to who you are at the course. There's a lot of exercises and things like that. Again, you have to start somewhere so I always kind of relate it to, when you wake up in the morning and you grab what you want to wear, I know some people really don't care but you grab a shirt and you put it on and you go pick what you want to eat for breakfast, like those are things that any human being is capable of doing. Why did you pick that shirt? Maybe you don't know but you felt like it, right? Why did you eat that? Because that's what I felt like eating. Why did you pick this restaurants tonight instead of that one? We all have reasons and really making creative choices is the same thing but it does take practice. It's a muscle that needs to be like stretched and flexed and it's not something that you can just do all of a sudden. It sounds funny because it's like making choices, it should be something that we know how to do but it's not. I mean, it's something you have to first be conscious of and then work on so hopefully that answers. Yeah. One of the things I have about finding my niche is the other side of that is I don't want to limit myself. Right. And so can you talk about that? Sure. You know, so it does sound like when you do something specific, when you find your niche that that is limiting but it's actually one of the most freeing places you can be. And it's, I don't know. I love analogies but it's hard to come up with an analogy for how that works. It's just kind of something that I've begun to see and feel in myself. Like it seems like you... you think you want to be something to everyone and you think that you want to take care of yourself but there's no better way to take care of yourself than to do what you love. And again... that doesn't mean that you can only do that one thing. For example, I have these seven words and these colors and all these things that I know that I like. On the flip side of that, you have to make sure at a certain that you're not just rinsing and repeating. You do still have to allow room for growth. So I did a job, which we'll get to here in a little bit but I did a job recently even where it was based off of my work but one thing that they added was color and I was very much opposed to color. I had this like value of brown and neutrals and maybe a pop of color but not like something that's overly colorful. And so they want to do this color and I was really opposed to it and I was like stressing out. Thankfully I was working with an incredible creative team, like these guys really knew what they were doing and the decision they made was absolutely the right one. I was holding it back because I was actually limiting myself to what I understood at the time. In hindsight when I think about it, I've always loved color but I didn't know what that meant in my work and so at one point I just thought, I don't do color. What I realized from this is, actually I do color and it's okay and so I can start implementing that into kind of my container or my rules or what you want to call them for myself. But then there are still ways that you kind of implement that kind of thing. So you're not limiting yourself when you have a niche, like you still do have room for growth but the joy and the ability to be more thorough in that one thing that you do is actually way more enlightening and enjoyable than what you think you would get from doing a whole bunch of stuff. Does make sense? Alright. So I'll give you a little example of what a project will look like for me. Typically it starts with an idea. Usually I'll have an idea or a concept that I know I want to create and then sometimes that idea will dictate certain things like color or whatnot. Like if I'm photographing a guy taking a picture of a bull and he's just completely aloof. That image that I showed earlier is called The Matador From Florida and it was just kind of meant to be like a commentary on American attitudes overseas. You know, people tend to just walk in and be unaware of the culture or the people that they're visiting and we just kind of force our ideas. So for me that idea kind of dictated that red needs to be a part of it, even though I know someone has told me that bulls aren't actually angry about red but it's something that we associate with that idea. So the idea in that case, dictated some of the elements. So then the first thing I'll do is I'll create a mood board. And this is very similar to what I showed you already with the grid. You make a series of images that express or explain what it is that you're trying to get after. It could be images that show what your wardrobe approach is, it can be images that show the color tones, or the makeup. You want to be able to communicate, first and foremost, clearly to yourself so you have a visual roadmap of this is what I'm after. But then you also want to be able to use that to communicate to your team, if you're working with a team of people, whether it's a makeup artist or a wardrobe stylist. Like this is what I'm after. Communication is really, really, really important. So we'll create a mood board then I'll begin to make choices. You know, casting, what type of person best fits this. Where do I want to shoot it? You know, what does the wardrobe look like? All that kind of stuff. And then I'll take again, referring back to that seven word exercise, I'll make sure that my words are present. Now you're not gonna have all seven words in everything you create but if you're creating something and it's not relating to you or your words or any of these style guides you've created for yourself. If those are coming from a place that you know is true and you're creating something outside of that, probably you're getting outside of yourself. And there's a quote from Ernest Hemingway which I love and he says, once you start to get outside yourself, it's all dangerous. And that's also kind of another way of saying what we're talking about here. So you want to make sure that you're staying within line of what it is that you do. And again, I will say because I do want to preface, it's hard to have this talk because everyone is at different stages of their career. There is a point where you should be shooting anything and everything. Anything you're curious about. Obviously I think that you know, I don't want to limit you because there is a part of learning. I went through, I learned a lot of this because I learned the hard way. I shot a whole bunch of stuff, which I'll show you in a little bit, that taught me whoa, I do not want to be doing that. So I think that's important. I don't want everyone to leave here thinking like I got a lock it down right now but there will come a point where you can refer back to that and you know when it's time to start making some of those informed decisions. And again, basically though, when you get to that point and you're learning more about yourself and what you want to shoot, when you can start to control all of these little things, you are creating something that will guaranteed look like you every single time. You're creating consistency. No one's gonna want to hire you to see maybe what you might create. They want to know when I hire this person, this is the kind of thing that comes out. It doesn't mean that there's not like a new idea or concept or people within there and I think that, getting back to your question, is where the true like freedom comes from is you can change what story you're telling. You're just telling it with a visual language that is consistent and people know what to expect. So as I did just mention, don't be afraid to make mistakes. Don't be afraid to push yourself and try new things. Failing is absolutely okay and encouraged and you want to learn from that. You want to learn just as much from your mistakes as you do from the things that go well. As I mentioned a moment ago, sometimes you have to learn what you don't want to do in order to learn what you do want to do. There was a period of time where I was doing portraits and I was just starting to get into advertising and I did what I'm telling you not to do. I saw, you know a lot of portrait photographers are starting to photograph animals. And there's a lot of money in that and I was like, I like animals. I do, I really love dogs. So it wasn't like a complete jump. I mean, when I was a kid I wanted to be a dog trainer. That was like my life dream, aside from pitching for the Dodgers but... (audience laughs) I thought hey let's do it. So I did a shoot with animals and it was I mean, they're they're fine pictures but I knew at the end of that shoot, this isn't, I'm doing this for the money. That's not me, that's not what I'm interested in. That doesn't get at you know, doesn't get after that itch that I want to scratch. And then there's also this work here and a lot of times, some of this is when I was starting out, when I was breaking in. You need to do jobs to make a living. You need to take care of yourself. So even sometimes when you know what you want to be doing, you're gonna be doing a job that's a little bit outside that. It might be for the money or whatnot. And sometimes even still today, we've talked about with certain corporate clients and things like that. There's jobs so they're excited about what I do or maybe that a celebrity portrait and they want to have some of that excitement for their brand and that's fine. It's fine to do that as well but it's a job and so there will come a point though where you realize with certain things, even for the money, man this is killing me. Like I don't want to be doing that. And that's something that you want to be careful of because you can get to a point where you just get fatigued, like you have to keep that balance of making money but then of also just not feeling totally crushed by being in a position that you just simply don't want to be in. So anyway, all that being said, don't be afraid to make mistakes. Just maybe don't make the same mistake twice. Be aware of how each situation feels when you're in it.

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Ratings and Reviews

Bonnie Aunchman

John & Creative Live - Thank you - Best. Class. Ever.! This is a GREAT class! If you are a photographer, this is definitely a MUST GET class, but even if you work with photographers as part of a creative team - you have to take this class. (I'm a Photo Stylist) John covers it ALL in this class - it really, truly is a Survival (Success) Guide. John is so detailed, honest, and generous in his knowledge/experience/wisdom in the commercial photography industry in helping you understand the business and really succeed (& stand out). When I see that John is teaching a class on Creative Live - I'm in! (I have his other valuable courses as well)

a Creativelive Student

I was lucky to be part of the studio audience for this course. John is an awesome teacher and did an outstanding job of making sense of a very difficult side of photography for a creative to understand. He shared his 18+ years of experience, including the good and bad he has gone through. The "special guests" alone are worth the cost of this class. John has an amazing team working beside him behind the scenes. Their perspective on his business was priceless!

Joseph Brewster

John gave an enormous amount of insight and practical advice in this comprehensive course. I really enjoyed a course focused more on commercial and editorial rather than wedding and family, which is more common. Great info and great work all around!

Student Work