The Importance of Shooting Boring Photos, or why your first shoot straight out of college won’t be the cover of Vogue.

One of the problems facing professional and potentially professional photographers today is that pretty much anyone with a half decent digital camera can now take a well-exposed, sharp and high-resolution photo. It might not be perfectly framed, and it might not be the most creative shot ever taken, but it’s so easy these days to produce images that have at least an air of professionalism about them that if you ever plan to earn any money you’d better make sure that your work is at the very least up to this standard, and ideally a hell of a lot better.  If you’ve just spent years studying hard at college to discover your true vision, and your artistic voice, you’ll probably have little interest on leaving in shooting what you will term “Boring Photos”. By this I mean “grip and grins”, headshots, straightforward group shots, product shots, simple interiors, events, awards ceremonies, and so on.  I tend to lump these sorts of jobs together into “boring” jobs, and in truth I hardly ever do them anymore (I shot my last awards do nearly 10 years ago!)

Drugs Conference
A conference room eagerly awaiting it’s delegates. It’s not sexy, but this sort of thing used to pay my bills!

I can appreciate to those studying on courses that are very technical in nature (ND’s, HND’s, and probably many American ones) will scoff at everything I’ve just written. Excellent, I’m assuming that your education has provided you with a good broad understanding of your craft as well as a sound technical backing. However, for those studying at degree level the technical instruction can be, in both my first and second hand experience, sadly lacking. Many of the assistants who ask me for work and are graduates of degree courses have a shocking lack of technical skills, and coupled with some horror stories from art director friends of mine, it’s given me the impetus to write this post.

Awards Do
Nicholas Parsons presenting the award for best-mac-user-something-or-other at the Mac User awards about 10 years ago. By this time in the evening neither me nor Nicholas could care very much either way 😉

Why Shoot “boring” shots:

  • Really useful pocket money.  Decent money (£100’s of pounds) for quick, simple work.  I’ve done as many as 3 of these sort of jobs in a day, and at £200-£300 per job, that’s not a bad day rate.
  • Can be a useful stepping stone to other work.  You’ve no idea who you’ll meet on jobs like these, and you’re meeting them in the context of you working as a professional photographer.  They don’t need to know it’s your first gig, or that you’re working at Starbucks during the day.  My entire career in poker is based on shooting the opening night party for a magazine called Inside Edge – from that I went on to shoot dozens of covers, for them, as well as other Poker magazines, sponsors, and PR companies.  That one party probably ended up earning me between 40 and 50 thousand pounds over the following 10 years.
  • You’ll be surprised how much your skill base will develop shooting jobs like this.  I’m talking here about both your technical skills, and your “soft” skills, like how to handle people and organise a shoot.  Even with the sort of work I do nowadays, where we have clear briefs, and things are pretty well organised and scripted, it’s not uncommon to suddenly be asked half way through a shoot “oh, can you just get a quick product shot of that bag?”  My broad technical background that I honed on “boring” jobs means I know a few quick and dirty ways to get shots that are outside my normal range.
Inside Edge Launch Party - Boring Photos
From the Inside Edge launch party. People are actually smiling whilst playing Poker, rather than looking sullen, which is the norm.

You’ll also be pleased to hear that whilst you have to deliver a professional product at the end of the day if you want to charge half decent money, you perhaps don’t need as much equipment as you might think.  Here are the basics:

  • 2 bodies.  A basic professional requirement in case one goes South, but also very useful, as you can have one rigged with a standard zoom and a flashgun, and the other with a long zoom, or a fast prime, allowing you to get ambient/candid shots.  Both bodies don’t need to be the same spec – as long as they’re part of the same system you can easily have one main, expensive one, and a much cheaper backup.
  • A decent flashgun.  Doesn’t have to be a top of the range marque gun from Nikon or Cannon, but anything with a guide number over 40 will do a decent job.  Essentially, the more features it has, the less time you’ll spend buggering about with it, but I managed for years and years with a Metz 45 CL-4!
  • 2 decent zooms.  I’d suggest a 24-70, and a 70-200, and if you can afford it, constant f2.8’s, you’ll really appreciate it when shooting in dark locations.
  • Spare batteries and memory cards.  Obvious, but I’ve known more than one snapper run out on a job.
  • Comfy straps – you’ll be on your feet for hours – I love the Black Rapid system, and can’t imagine shooting without them.  Also, something decent to carry everything in, and again, I can highly recommend the LowePro vertex – I’ve had mine for 7 years, and it’s still going strong.  I can honestly say I’ve never owned a better camera bag.
  • A smart tie – stuffed carefully into your camera bag, so you never get caught out at the entrance to some hotel ballroom or other.
  • A laptop – being able to deliver stuff on the day can be a godsend.  Not only will clients love you for it, but it speeds up your workflow and means that you’re not working on stuff for days afterwards.  I’d also shove in a handful of memory sticks that you’re prepared to hand over at the end of the job.  Expect to get about 50% of them posted back, a good chunk of people simply forget about them and you’ll never see them again.
  • Business cards.  You never know who you’ll meet.  Needless to say, everything backing this business card up should be in place – website, social media feeds etc.  Make sure that when they look you up they like what they see, and it matches your professional behaviour on the shoot.
  • If you want to take things further, look at building up a location lighting kit.  You may want to start down the Strobist route, or go for mains powered units.  Personally I use both all the time, but for things like corporate headshots, mains stuff is that bit more useful.
Tax Seminar - Boring Photos
A business conference for PriceWaterhouseCoopers. I can’t for the life of me remember what the subject matter was, but it probably involved tax……

One important caveat, whilst these sort of jobs can be very useful indeed for getting started, earning money from photography, and getting your face known, there is always the catch that you might get trapped in this sort of work, as it becomes what you’re known for.  We all know there’s quite a difference between shooting the awards do or Christmas Party for some massive company, and shooting their worldwide advertising campaign.  If you’re shooting the former, and eventually want to shoot the latter, then at some point you’ll have to make a conscious choice to stop doing this sort of work.  I’ve written about this sort of thing before, and I’m sure I’ll be writing about it again in future.

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