How should I market my work? How do I promote myself? Where should I advertise? How do I build client relationships?
Age-old questions. Classics. Questions that every photographer has asked at one point in their career. Questions also that never seem to have a definitive answer. Why? The answer is a matter of opinion; everyone’s different. Plus, a constant stream of new software and tech toys keep broadening the self-promotional tools that are out there.
With this in mind I thought it would be interesting to take the pulse of the industry right now. Hear what people who matter have to say about what works and what doesn’t. So, I reached out to a handful of art buyers and art producers and spoke with them at length about their views on marketing and self-promotion. Their answers were completely candid and oftentimes surprising. I think everyone from seasoned pros to those just starting out will learn a great deal from these interviews.
I’ll be publishing this series over the next few weeks. What follows is the first interview in this series, a conversation with Kristina Hicks, an art producer who’s worked on several major print and interactive campaigns during her five years at Saatchi & Saatchi.
Seckler: Please explain your process for hiring photographers.
Hicks: I meet with our creative team to learn the directives of the campaign. It always helps to determine exactly what they have in mind. I usually get layouts or I talk with them to get an idea of the campaign’s emotion, color palette, texture, and where they want to go with it. And then I start searching. Much of that search is done online, so I’ll go through my bookmarks and see if I have anybody who immediately comes to mind. If that fails, which happens occasionally, I’ll reach out to reps.
Seckler: Besides searching within the community of people you know, in what other ways do you search for photographers? Do you use sourcebooks for example?
Hicks: I use sourcebooks from time to time, though mostly when I’m searching for illustrators. However, every once in a while when I want to work with new photographers, I’ll open a sourcebook for inspiration. I’m looking for emotion. I’m looking for somebody who can convey what the art director is looking for in a particular image. It helps to locate an image that closely correlates to what the art directors are looking for. Literal translation is a great place to start, if you can.
Seckler: Which sourcebooks do you prefer and do you use the print or the online versions?
Hicks: I primarily use Workbook. Sometimes I’ll page through art magazines. I also look at BlackBook and At-Edge. I almost always look at the book itself because everything else is done virtually; sometimes I need to look at a printed copy.
Seckler: What about photographers who pay big bucks to advertise in industry mags like Archive…do those ads have an impact on you?
Hicks: Absolutely. I think advertising is always a good idea because it just gets your name and images out there. People need to see your work. But I also think that it’s important to meet with galleries and ad agencies in person. For instance, if I have a chance to meet a photographer, and he or she seems talented, I feel better about trusting him or her with the production. It definitely gives a photographer a leg up if he or she comes in and meets with us. I would say we’re more likely to hire photographers we meet in person versus those we come across in sourcebooks. Conference calls say a lot too.
Seckler: Photographers often have the impression that they can’t walk into agencies and show their work. Do you often meet with people with whom you’ve never worked?
Hicks: It’s more challenging now. I think it has to do with the economic downturn. People have less time; they are working more. However, if you’re an ad photographer and you do your research and go to the agencies that apply to you, and you’re personable and you build a relationship with an art producer, they will likely meet with you.
It actually just happened to us with this one photographer. We’d heard of her, but we hadn’t ever worked with her, and she just happened to have the look and feel we wanted. We showed one art director, and he was like, ‘That’s exactly what I’m looking for, assuming that the job gets approved.’ Sometimes it’s about timing; you never know. I’m always happy to meet with people.
Seckler: What do you think of e-mail promos? What do you like? What works?
Hicks: I like them. It’s another avenue for me to see your work. What I don’t like is when photographers make it seem like it’s a personal message when I have no idea who they are. Don’t talk to me like I’m your best friend because I’m not. And a lot of us feel that way. It’s overkill; I prefer, ‘Hey, check out my work.’
Seckler: Do you look at all the e-mail promos you get?
Hicks: I look at about 90 percent of the digital promos I get, but I may or may not click through to look at the photographer’s website. It depends on how relevant they are for me at the moment. They don’t have to be famous for me to click on them. Just because I haven’t heard of them doesn’t mean I’m not going to explore them.
Seckler: What about print promos?
Hicks: I prefer e-mail, as do many art producers because they are environmentally responsible. But if the print promo is nice, then I actually keep it. I definitely like digital promos because I can hold more in my computer versus filling another file cabinet.
Seckler: What print promos have grabbed your attention?
Hicks: I like little books. It’s always nice to receive those. However if you aren’t a photographer who shoots images conducive to storytelling, then I wouldn’t encourage it. We get all sorts of things. It’s nice to receive print promos that are fun, but I wouldn’t suggest spending extra money on it. If you’re going to send a book, be conscious of your paper stock and printing. If you’re going to do it, do it right. Otherwise, just send e-mail.
Seckler: If you were a photographer, how would you promote yourself? What would your strategy be?
Hicks: It depends on the type of photographer you are. It seems expensive to have a book, but exposure is key. Self-promotion is about building relationships and getting exposure. You have to be smart and target your market well. The problem is that many photographers are not great business folk. That’s okay; that’s why you have a rep. Targeting your market is important because for all the photographers who want to have meetings here, many of them didn’t do their research to learn that we don’t shoot babies or clothing. Just do a little research. If you can, take time to build a relationship with an art producer and then come in. Most of them will bring you in right away, but if not, e-mail back and forth a few times, and then pop by and say that you happen to be passing through on another job. Good personal skills are vital. It’s like any relationship: If you are friendly, enthusiastic, and excited about sharing your work, it’s contagious.
Seckler: What about working with photographers who don’t have representation?
Hicks: It doesn’t deter me. Obviously we like to work with reps because they understand the business. They are accommodating and quick. Sometimes we need rapid turnarounds with estimates, so if you’re working on another job, and not getting a number to us quickly, then you might not get hired. If you are on your own and don’t have a rep, it’s fine, as long as you can be prompt.
Seckler: Do photographers with a long list of industry awards stand a greater chance of catching your attention?
Hicks: I wouldn’t say it helps get you hired. I don’t think it makes a difference. Getting hired is based on your qualifications. If there’s a producer who’s worked with you before, and that producer has also worked with other photographers, for example, but said something good about you, then that has impact.
Seckler: How meaningful are recommendations from colleagues?
Hicks: It’s a bonus. Art producers talk. And when we work with someone good—whether he or she is a stylist, producer or a photographer—we keep lists that we share with each other. I’m a big connector. I like to bring talented, competent people together. Whether it be helping photographers find a rep that would be a good fit or putting together solid production teams. At the end of the day, I am grateful if the job went well and all teams and clients are happy. And, it’s always nice to have a friend to thank for helping to get the job done right.
If you do anything related to the advertising or editorial industries (photographer, producer, art buyer, art director, photo editor, agent, etc.) and you live in the NYC area then clear your schedule for tonight…you’re coming to ADHESIVE!
ADHESIVE is based on a wonderfully simple idea: bring industry people together at a local bar every month or so and let beers clink and business cards fly. It’s a super casual atmosphere for like-minded folk to talk shop and form new connections. The icing on the cake…it’s completely free!
ADHESIVE will be held tonight at Brass Monkey (55 Little West 12th Street New York, NY 10014) starting at 6:30pm. The crowd is photo industry heavy but anyone is welcome to attend. No cover charge but do bring money for drinks!
This is it! The very first installment of our new column here at F STOP called Ask Maven. Maven has fifteen plus years of experience in the advertising world and for the last six years has been an art buyer at a highly esteemed international ad agency. She’s here to answer your questions and does so brilliantly below in her first column.
Email Maven your questions: maven (at) thefstopmag (dot) com.
I’ve been shooting for about 6 years now. I’ve created a high quality body of work that’s targeted towards getting ad work. I’ve won many major awards…communication arts photo annual and so on….based off of work I’ve created on my own dime, just to get the attention of art buyers. And I’ve been sending out bimonthly email promos and annual print promos to art buyers for years now. I’ve also had plenty of meetings with art buyers and always receive very positive feedback in my work.
Here’s the problem…I only get a couple of ad jobs a year and they’re not even the creative type of work I really desire to do (conceptual landscapes might be the best way to put what I do). I make my living as a photographer shooting mostly weddings and other events and make a living of about $150,000 a year but it’s not what I want to be doing. I want to do creative ad work. I feel like I’m almost leading a double life…all this great work that people like on my website and wins awards but I actually just really
My questions….is it normal for people to be promoting themselves for 6 years and not get any type of creative work? How long does it take for photographers to start getting regular creative work? What types of annual earnings to ad photographers make? Can you give me a range? I’ve always assumed that it’s more then a wedding photographer like myself makes but with this recession and all I have no clue.
– LA anonymous
Dear LA Anonymous,
Thanks so much for writing in and being the first in what I hope are many posts from me to the creative community (photography specifically) at large. Your questions and frustrations are completely normal, so don’t freak out. It’s often very hard to break out of what pays the bills, but you simply must follow your heart if commercial work is what you’re after.
It sounds like you are doing all the right things in terms of promoting yourself as a commercial photographer. Hats (and lenses) off to you. Without seeing your website or promotional materials, it’s hard for me to pinpoint the root of the problem- though I will say, and I quote a dear agent friend of mine= “if you want ad work, you must show ad work in your book”. I am sure you are wondering how the heck you can show ad work if you’re not really getting any gigs in that world, but make sure your 360 presentation (meaning the full monty of mailers, e promos, website and hard portfolio) showcase your capability to not only tell a story, but sell a product. When you say you shoot “conceptual landscape” my mind is immediately taken to the fine art zone- that’s great- but it may be hard for you to captivate a commercial audience when your book screams fine art. That said, in recent years, a fine art aesthetic is not a bad thing- you simply need to show how you can apply that arty goodness to a commercial application. If you shoot weddings and make a nice living at it, you are probably wonderful at shooting people in environment and in action. Sounds to me like modern lifestyle could be a good fit for you commercially.
Also bear in mind that this is an excruciatingly subjective business- I may just go bats over your photo of a Reno sunset while an art buyer in Tennessee finds it all kinds of wrong. My advice is to find some people whose taste you trust and whose agency is doing the kind of work that lends itself to what you can offer as a photographer. That is why targeted promotions are the most effective- rather than sending 5000 direct mail pieces or shooting out 5000 emails to get lost in the ether, why not send out 50 mailers or emails to the agencies you would just love to work with or who have art buyers who love the work you do? It shows great insight to send promotional material to agencies whose work is in line with yours. If you shoot cars for instance, why would you send your work to an agency that does not or has never had a car account? Senseless really. What if the last six years had been spent marketing to those folks on your commercial bucket list?
And in terms of this six year itch, yes, this is normal (and what is normal in our business, anyway?). I have certainly heard of stranger things. I am assuming you are based in LA from your signature, and I have to say- that’s a tough market to crack, as are the other major photo markets like New York, San Fran, and Chicago. I say this because it’s even more important to have a super tight presentation in those photo capitals and you better have a specialty- in regional markets it may be cool to shoot kids, food, and cars, but in the big markets it’s best to stick with something you simply excel at and live there (think still life, location photography, portraits, fashion, lifestyle, etc.) Yet with every rule, there are certainly exceptions. For instance, folks like Nadav Kander can shoot what they please in terms of subject matter because agencies tend to hire folks like him because he brings a unique point of view and signature “style” to his work, regardless of subject matter. He’s that great. So maybe this six year sentence is more of an identity crisis- focus on what you are great at and sell that, always mindful of the need to appeal to a commercial audience. (Look on the bright side though- major life shifts come every seven years, so take heart in that- this could be your time to break through).
In terms of your question on what a solid commercial photographer can make, that range is quite vast. According to said rep friend above, you can expect anywhere from $100-350K in the mid-line- and you can obviously go up from there as I have worked with photographers that can make $350K in a week. (one can only imagine how this is possible, but trust me it is…)
I think you are indeed fortunate to make the living you do with weddings- if it has been lucrative for you I would keep doing it as you focus on tailoring your presentation to those of us in the industry. I caveat that there is a real paradigm shift happening in the photo world- a huge time of questions and reinventions as we all wait to see what is going on with the print medium as well as interactive and how photography will adapt to fit that new genre of storytelling.
Now is a fabulous time for creative reinvention and discovery- there has never been a time in history (or at least as long as I have been around) where creativity itself is being called to the task- think of all of us that now have a forum and outlet for our voices and artistry like never before (look no further than blogger superstars and sites like Etsy where people who make stuff by hand are able to promote and sell their creations). The rise of social media and blogging has suddenly empowered people to express themselves in new ways, and to me, that’s a huge opportunity for all of us, as well as a challenge. (Don’t worry- the need for trained and skilled photographers is still the norm- I am not at all suggesting someone snapping away with their iPhone is going to take food out of your mouth, just saying it’s worth watching what you eat these days.)
You may want to ask yourself- what’s your point of difference? Maybe it’s to aligning yourself with a solid team of producers, crew, stylists, and the like that can help sell you as a production rock star (insert screaming fans here). An important aspect of what we do is finding photographers that “get” the demands of creating commercial work as well as coming up with solutions to our often challenging production conundrums. It is always about the work itself first and foremost, but what can you do in an over-saturated market to stand out? Here’s another something to chew on- I have yet to see a photographer come up with an amazing non traditional promotional strategy-think of what advertising is doing now to challenge and market to consumers-I feel photographers should be doing the same thing- go beyond the mailers and email promos and think differently. It will go a long way, especially to people so entrenched with whipping up ways to innovate in terms of marketing to an ever elusive and jaded audience.
Well my LA friend, that’s that. I hope this advice helps a bit. I say keep at it and follow your dream- it’s all about reinvention right now for all of us and you, mon ami, are no exception. And to the rest of you F STOP fanatics, write to me and write often. I am here to offer advice on your endeavors and am damn glad to be here. Catch ya next week.
This is an iPad portfolio (or “iFolio” as I like to call it) I created using images from my print portfolio. I give a tour of an abridged version of my iFolio and point out the benefits of using this to share imagery.
When I first got my hands on an iPad (yes, the day it came out) I instantly thought ‘could this replace the print portfolio?’Ideas raced through my head: countless hours spent creating perfect prints…gone! Expensive custom made portfolios…no more! Back problems from lugging around heavy books…never again!
The iPad has everything: it’s beautiful! Light! Affordable! Displays motion! Customizable! Fun to use!
I was feverish with excitement.
That was two weeks ago. I’ve since come to my senses (somewhat).
I got in touch with four art buyers at top ad agencies and they all seem to agree that print still offers a superior viewing experience. A glowing screen just doesn’t compare to big beautifully printed images on luxurious paper. If a client is looking through books, deciding to whom to grant a big budget project, a 9″ screen won’t hold up well against rich detailed prints nearly twice it’s size.
That being said, the art buyers and I agree that the iPad does have potential to be a very useful tool for photographers. First off, if you have a lot of motion or multimedia work to show then this is clearly a good bet. Second, for those times when you want to show new or personal work that wouldn’t fit in your normal books it can be a valuable supplement. Lastly, for those situations where you want to show your work but just didn’t happen to bring your 20 lbs. book along (industry event, party, you happen to be sitting next to Don Draper on a plane — or his 21st century equivalent).
Ultimately, we’re talking about a new device that hasn’t had time to branch out into the marketplace yet. So in a sense it’s too early to tell what will happen. Will iPad portfolios become all the rage? Will print portfolios start to fall by the wayside? Anything could happen.
I’m very excited to introduce a new column here at F STOP called Ask Maven. Maven has over fifteen years of experience in the ad biz and she’s here to answer your questions. She started out as a producer, moved onto representing photographers and for the past six years has been an art buyer at a major international ad agency.
If you have questions for someone with Maven’s experience (art buyer, producer, rep) email them directly to maven (at) thefstopmag (dot) com
If your question is chosen for a column we’ll publish it alongside Maven’s response. You can include your name and a link to your website or remain anonymous. Your choice.
Below is an intro from Maven…start writing in questions, she’s excited to hear from you!
Need a production hook up in Siberia? Want to know who can build you a gorilla head in 3 days? Or maybe you want to know how to better market yourself in this here digital age? Write in and ask maven – she’s a bit of a production Ann Landers coupled with a creative concierge and engineer of ideas – think advice column for creative types. She’s here to answer any and all questions on how to do it, when to do it, and what to do. Maven will take what’s in your head and give you tips on how photographers or other creative professionals can take the next step to create it, dream it, or be it.
For emerging photographers (and artists in general) inclusion in a group show at a prestigious gallery is typically one important step on the road to becoming a well-known name in the art world. The question is how are those artists chosen? Plus, where do the ideas for these group shows come from in the first place?
For answers I sought out Brian Paul Clamp, Director of ClampArt gallery in New York City, who has previously written for The F STOP. Clamp kindly describes the process of molding his idea for ClampArt’s current exhibition “The Museum of Unnatural History” (the exhibition ends on Saturday, April 10th). He continues on to explain how he came to select each artist featured in the group show. It’s an interesting process and valuable reading for any emerging artists out there.
ClampArt’s current exhibition, “The Museum of Unnatural History,” was originally inspired by a new series of small platinum palladium prints by artist, Lori Nix. Constructing tiny dioramas of scenes from imaginary natural history museums, Nix’s images highlight the often bizarre and awkward artifice inherent in the scientific presentation of the animal kingdom. Indeed, as it has been said, there is nothing natural about a natural history museum.
This got me to thinking about the wide range of work I have seen over the years that was inspired by taxidermy and/or natural history museums. Once I began to brainstorm, I was surprised by how many names came to mind.
Jason DeMarte, an artist living in Mississippi, was someone I met just a couple of months past at a Project 5 portfolio review event in New York City. His series, “Utopic” (in which he manipulates photographs of natural history museums to comment upon the relationship between nature and consumerism), was absolutely perfect for the show. His image, “Cream Filled,” was ultimately used as the postcard image to promote the exhibition.
Other artists whom I originally met at various portfolio review events include Blake Fitch (Rhubarb Rhubarb), Harri Kallio (FotoFest), Elliot Ross (Photolucida), and Amy Stein (Review Santa Fe).
Several artists I decided to contact for “The Museum of Unnatural History” were known to me from solo or group exhibitions I had seen in New York City, including Justine Cooper (Daneyal Mahmood Gallery, NYC), Jill Greenberg (AIPAD, NYC), Hippolyte-Alexandre Michallon (Wessel-O’Connor Gallery, NYC), and Matthew Pillsbury (Bonni Benrubi Gallery, NYC).
Richard Barnes’ work was introduced to me while I was planning the show by artist, Amy Stein. I may or may not have previously seen his recent monograph from Princeton Architectural Press, but his photograph of a stuffed giraffe hanging from the ceiling of the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco is one of the most arresting images in the exhibition.
I first saw Nicole Hatanaka’s photographs of offices and storage facilities in natural history museums when doing studio visits with the MFA students at RISD in 2008.
Marisol Villanueva and I were originally in touch through Griffin Editions, who print work for Stan Gaz, one of the artists on the gallery’s roster. Villanueva works at the lab but is also a fine artist. She signed up for a Project 5 portfolio review last year, and I made note of her work. Then, while I was in the process of curating the group show, she had a solo exhibition at Wild Project, a venue for contemporary theater and visual art in the East Village in New York City, which prompted me to add her to the list.
And back to Lori Nix. . . I first saw Nix’s imagery in the mid-1990s when I was on the exhibitions committee at the Camera Club of New York. We received a proposal from a young artist from Kansas whose strange photographs of disasters in America’s heartland completely entertained me. After her exhibition at the Camera Club, I continued to keep an eye on this young photographer over the years, watching as her career continued to grow and grow. Finally, in 2008, I had the opportunity to add Nix to ClampArt’s roster of artists, and we have exhibited her work ever since. Her first solo show with the gallery will be this fall.
So basically, a large part of curating a group show means mining one’s memory banks and computer files for artists one has met or whose work one has been seen in years past. However, suggestions from other artists and colleagues certainly play a large part in the process. Group shows not only serve as an excellent way for me to test the waters with new artists and my clientele, but also to highlight simultaneously several of the photographers and painters already on my roster.
Photographer Vincent Laforet must have a very proud mother. At the age of thirty-four he has already accumulated a list of accomplishments that many iconic photographers could only dream of. Win a Pulitzer Prize—check. Staff photographer at the New York Times—check. First-ever national contract photographer at the New York Times—check. Named Photographer of the Year by the NPPA (twice!)—check. Named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Photography by American Photo Magazine—check. Won more industry awards and honors then he can even remember—check.
It’s not just the laundry list of awards that sets Laforet apart though; it’s his steady and unique growth as a photographer. From shooting weddings at eighteen to the NBA finals in college to his job at the Times and now his much publicized move to commercial photography and motion work it’s been a long and fruitful evolution.
In our interview Laforet starts off with detailed stories of how he created two famous aerial photographs of New York City. Next we learn about his progression from photojournalist to commercial image-maker. The second half of our interview focuses on the incredible success of Laforet’s short Reverie and how that changed the industry and thrust him into the world of motion. We conclude with detailed predictions for the still and motion industries and advice for photographers who want to build a reel.
Seckler: We have two images we’re going to discuss, both aerial shots over New York City. Let’s start out discussing the 360˚ shot over the Empire State Building.
Laforet: A good example of how my career evolved is with aerial photography. That never happened on purpose; I had a background in sports photography. I was used to shooting with very long lenses and being able to capture the moment on the first try—you don’t get to re-shoot a game; it happens once.
When I was first up in a helicopter, I shot with a 500mm lens, which is unusual. It’s why my aerial shots stand out. I shoot with extremely long lenses from high altitudes. I did not decide that factor; it was my background as a sports photographer and my comfort with long lenses.
The 360˚ aerial shot over New York City was made with a custom 7.5mm lens. The idea behind it was to shoot straight down on the city and encompass as much of it’s environment as I could. I mounted the Canon 1DS Mark III [set to f/3.5 at 800 ISO at 1/250th of a second] at the end of a monopod, because if you’re shooting straight down from a helicopter, it means the helicopter is banking at 90˚—which is very dangerous. It might be the last thing you shoot.
The safe way to do it is to shoot down from your seat, but with an ultra wide-angle lens, you’re going to get not only your feet, but also the landing skids of the helicopter. So I lowered a monopod with the camera and connected the Ethernet cable to my laptop so I could see what I was shooting as I shot it, and I fired it with a pocket wizard. That led to a unique image of the city just after sunset that showed the Empire State Building in its dead center.
Believe it or not, I shot that image as we flew by the building. You can’t hover above it; it’s too dangerous. We flew by at 50 mph and we were so close to the antenna that I actually raised my feet, just out of reflex.
Seckler: Let’s discuss the second aerial shot, your iconic image of an ice skating rink in Central Park.
Laforet: When I was shooting for the New York Times, I would always reserve the last five to ten minutes of any flight because flying time is very expensive. After I shot my assignments, I asked the pilot to do a quick detour through Central Park. It was a winter afternoon and the sun was very low on the horizon, casting these beautiful shadows—from the air you don’t see people, you see shadows.
As I mentioned, you can’t shoot straight down from the helicopter, so I had the pilot do very tight turns, quick circles above the skating rink. We did that for three, four, maybe five minutes, and I knew I had the photo at the moment that center skater did a pirouette. I’ve always loved how there is a family of three in the top left holding hands and a family of three in the bottom right. The beauty of that symmetry is that it’s a real image, a real moment—it’s not Photoshop. Reality is what photojournalists’ love, when chaos becomes beauty.
The other reality is that I had no feeling in my hands when I shot that photo because it was so cold. At every turn the wind hit my eyes, and at a certain point, they filled with tears. That’s when you love that you have auto focus because you can see that blurry image of the center skater coming together, but you’ve got tears flowing out of your eyes, and in my case, onto my glasses, where they’re freezing. Meanwhile, the wind is blowing at 120 mph. You just pray that you’ll get that exact moment framed correctly.
Seckler: What sparked your interest in photography?
Laforet: My father was a photographer in Paris. He worked at Gamma Press Agency where he shot everything from wars to movie sets. When I was 15 I asked him to quickly teach me how to use a camera, and he lent me his camera body, which was a Nikon F3 with a 50mm lens. He gave me a few roles of film and I shot my first images. I was immediately hooked with the process. Soon I was running around New York shooting street photography.
Seckler: Did you eventually go to school for photography?
Laforet: No, I learned on the job. I shot Bat Mitzvahs, weddings. At 18, I started working for agencies and magazines and I then I entered Northwestern University where I studied journalism. During the summers I got internships at the Los Angeles Times, in its Washington DC office, where I covered the White House, Capital Hill, and at the Miami Herald, where I got my feet wet in terms of newspaper photography. Internships remain among the best ways to develop a portfolio and make connections that will help you get a job after college.
Before I graduated from Northwestern, I worked for a wire service. I basically shot Michael Jordan in the NBA Finals while I was a junior in college. I missed my midterms and finals to cover the NBA, and I almost got kicked out of school.
After I graduated, I freelanced for a year. Eventually I went to work for a company called All Sport, shooting nothing but sports photography for two years. I traveled 300 days a year. I covered the Super Bowl, Rose Bowl, World Series, All-Star games, you name it. Eventually there was a job opening in the New York Times website. I worked there for six months. Having not learned my lesson about not working seven days a week, I worked four days a week on the website and three days a week for the newspaper as a freelancer, and low and behold, six months later I was hired for the New York Times as staff photographer.
Seckler: You were a staff photographer for the New York Times for several years and you created a fantastic body of work during that period but you recently got involved with commercial photography. Tell me about that transition.
Laforet: My career with the New York Times was one of the best positions you can get. It was a fantastic experience. But I was shooting only for the newspaper and wasn’t allowed to shoot for myself because there was a very strict conflict of interest policy. At one point, Moby contacted me to shoot his concert from the air and I had to turn him down, which killed me. That opportunity and a bunch of others passed me by before I realized that I needed to spread my wings and not be limited only to newspaper photography.
In 2003, I negotiated a contract with the New York Times that enabled me to continue working for them and to also work for other people, which led to commercial work. The point was simply to try other stuff. I’d seen these beautiful commercial productions and I thought I might pull that off someday.
Seckler: You’re represented by Stockland Martel, one of the most well respected rep agencies for commercial photographers. Tell me about that relationship and how you became a part of their roster.
Laforet: My agents Bill Stockland and Maureen Martel are two of the best people in the business. It’s a fantastic agency because they treat you like a human being. They actually want you to grow as a photographer. They took a big risk when they signed me. At the time, I had only 15 years of experience as an editorial photographer without a single piece of commercial work in my book. I suppose they signed me because I stand out. I don’t do the traditional portrait, but if you want an unusual angle overhead, or a shot that is very technical, that tends to be the category where I fall.
Seckler: How much of your current work is commercial vs. editorial vs. motion?
Laforet: It’s a third commercial photography, a third commercial photography plus video, and a third just video. My editorial work has slowed. I shot two editorial assignments in the past year and a half, one was Obama’s inauguration for Time magazine, and the other was Michael Jackson’s funeral from a helicopter.
Seckler: Is that because you’ve been too busy with commercial work?
Laforet: What I do tends to be expensive—renting a helicopter is expensive, or the production I get involved with is expensive. And given what’s happened to the editorial market in the past year and a half with the economy, magazines just can’t afford it. I have, in effect, priced myself out a little bit in doing some of these editorial assignments. Having done only two editorials in the past year is not my choosing; it’s more what has happened to the editorial market.
Seckler: Let’s discuss your now famous move into motion using HD-DSLR cameras.
Laforet: Right after I got back from the Olympics in Beijing, I went to have a meeting with a friend of mine at Canon. On the day I showed up for our lunch meeting I saw these white boxes coming in, which were the prototypes of the Canon EOS 5D MKII. I just begged and begged to get one weekend alone with that camera. They said no six times and on the seventh time they finally said “Borrow the camera for the weekend and then give us some feedback.” They weren’t expecting me to shoot anything, but I was so excited I called my wife who works with me, and I asked her to call modelling agencies and book the helicopter, and the next thing we knew we were shooting the very next night with a crew of three people. We shot the first HD SLR video ever that showed off the full frame sensor and I think it took the world by storm because of the brilliant technology. The video was viewed more than a million times the first week, and the next thing you know I was being invited to speak at Disney and DreamWorks, and I was showing my work on projection screens at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. It was a wonderful opportunity.
Seckler: Did that catapult you onto the film/video scene?
Laforet: Yes. I could not have hired a PR agency to do what “Reverie” did for me. I could have spent millions of dollars and it wouldn’t have gotten the kind of notice that the video did. I attribute my success to the technology itself and the luck and timing to be the first one to use the camera. I was simply asked to give Canon feedback, but I chose to shoot something that was relatively good looking and then blog about it. There was an explosion on the blog. Never before in history has someone been able to shoot something over the weekend, post it on his or her blog for free, and have a few million people see it immediately.
Seckler: How has that notoriety translated into your work? Has all of that attention gotten you jobs?
Laforet: It has definitely resulted in more work; I’ve never been this busy. I’ve been booked every day for the first five months of this year. Initially it was a hassle; I received close to 100,000 e-mails the first year. I missed so many jobs as a result because I couldn’t keep up with the demand.There was also a fan following, which I never wanted. I hated blogs initially—I thought they were the worst self-promotional things. And then I read some blogs by people like photo editor Rob Haggart and photographer Chase Jarvis, and found them interesting. That led me to start my own blog during the Beijing Olympics. I already had a readership, close to 20,000 people a day. At the same time I didn’t want to become a talking head for companies or products. I want to be an artist and a producer. It’s hard to find that balance, but writing a blog is interesting. It enables me to stay on the cutting edge of technology—I get to test out a lot of the newest toys before other people.
Seckler: What is it about the HD-DSLRs that has you so captivated?
Laforet: I find two things about the cameras most appealing—their affordability and amazing sensitivity to light. You can use the lenses and equipment you already have; that’s how I shot “Reverie”. I didn’t have cinema equipment. I just shot with what I had on hand and the results are amazing. There are few cameras out there that can compete with it, in terms of sensor size. And as you know, the larger the sensor, the less depth of field, so it gives you a very unique look.I think it’s the best tool for filmmakers. You no longer need $250,000 to get a Panavision camera, lighting, dollies, and a twenty person crew. All you need is the vision. For the first time new filmmakers have the tools to produce nearly the same quality as professionals.The second thing that appeals to me is the camera’s sensitivity to light. It performs in low light like nothing else. The sensor sees more then my naked eye can see at times. Its low-light capacity enables you to shoot the average scene in available light.
Seckler: What does that mean for the film industry?
Laforet: HD-DSLR cameras are already being used to make dozens of commercials. There’s two or three feature films being shot with them, and a lot of shots in Iron Man and other big movies are being shot with them.
Seckler: This movement seems like when digital first came out for still cameras. Everybody was saying that people would be able to shoot for almost nothing, the competition would become intense, prices would drop, and the industry would start to collapse. Are people saying the same thing about HD-DSLR cameras affect on the motion industry?
Laforet: Some of it happened. Anyone can buy a Canon Rebel and shoot some good-looking stuff. But it does not replace the need for talent. In the end, the reason I am still excited about these tools is that they remove the technical limitations that we as professionals love because they keep us employed. But they also remove barriers because they enable truly talented people to rise to the top. And what I learned as a photojournalist working for the New York Times is that people gravitate toward quality. They gravitate toward good ideas and good execution, not glitz.The same is true for movie making. People still gravitate toward great stories and these tools enable you to focus more on storytelling as a filmmaker, and less on technique. I don’t think it’s going to affect the high-end filmmaking industry as much as it will affect the middle to low end. The high end is always going to shoot on Panavision. It’s more the indie films that will benefit from making production less expensive.In terms of equipment, I’d be nervous if I were an equipment rental company, or a lighting company, but as far as the people are concerned, you still need the crew. People are squeezing budgets because of the economy, regardless of what we want. These tools just enable us to meet that demand and stay in business. I do see it heavily affecting people in the print industry, however.
Newspapers and magazines are on their last legs. They need to create moving content to stay in business. I think editorial photographers are going to be asked to shoot video. It’s not what the editorial people want, it’s what the advertisers want. They want moving content that gets attention. More and more photographers will be asked to shoot video along with stills, and it’s going to be a huge learning curve for people.
Seckler: In your opinion, where is still photography going to be in the next few years?
Laforet: Regardless of video, the future is pretty bleak for still photography. Day rates for magazine shoots have not increased since 1980, despite inflation and the rising cost of gear. Ad revenue is down, assignment days are down, and the competition to get jobs is insane.
More and more, commercial clients want to see video. One industry insider said 80 percent of requests come for reels along with portfolios. Clients want to see both video and stills—they want to get both from one person so they get a unified vision of their product.
Seckler: Where will still photography be in 20 years? Will there always going to be a place for the still image?
Laforet: There will always be a place for the still image; however, it is going to be much more of a boutique thing. I think you will have the world’s leading photographers who are readily published on the web and have gallery shows. I don’t think you’re going to have 250,000 photographers in 15 years like we do now.
Seckler: Tell me about the unique video contest that you’re running?
Laforet: The “Beyond the Still” Photo Contest will be running until this summer. I was given a still image to interpret in a two- to three-minute short film, and at the end of my film, I end on a still image. Everyone who enters the contest in the second chapter has to interpret my image into their own unique two- to three-minute film, and then end on a still image, and so on. At the end of seven chapters, we will hopefully have a very interesting series of short films that are interconnected by a still image from chapter to chapter. I’m looking forward to the result. It’s a unique look into the social aspects of filmmaking.
Seckler: Do you have any advice for still photographers who want to build a reel?
Laforet: Take it one a step at a time. Study the market. There are so many disciplines of photography: stock, commercial, editorial, fashion. The same is true about video or film. Find out what entices you. Go get an HD-DSLR and use your existing lenses and play around. Do a quick edit, or find a friend who’s an editor to help you see what you’re good at—and what you’re not. The cost is so much less compared to what it used to be. Don’t over-think it.