Live Ask an Agent/Jobbing Photographer or Artist- Which Type Are You?!

Here’s the last question from Lisa’s recent Live Ask an Agent session at Somerset House. Normal, monthly Ask an Agent resumes next week, so send in your questions to and we can help you out.

This final question comes from Ravi Juneja. Ravi is a photographer and owner of London based Headphoto specialising in portraits, events, corporate and product photography.

Basically I'm interested in that area between 'commercial' and 'personal' work. Is there a line?

When I look at some photographers I see practitioners who remain true to their vision, exclusively do 'personal' work, and who then (might) get picked up commercially because commercial bodies want 'that voice' to represent them at a given time. It seems that this breed of photographer might need to be prepared to spend some time in the commercial wilderness before he may or may not get picked up, or become fashionable.

At the other end of the spectrum there might be a photographer who puts their technically abilities to use by looking at what commercial clients are using and then offering a similar product. If this photographer is able to offer what's already out there, to a greater or lesser extent, is that a more sensible approach to a working life? A paid working life that is...

Interesting question and quite a big subject area. I'm in the business of getting photographers commercial commissions so I’m going to focus on the angle ‘Should a photographer compromise their personal work to gain commercial commissions?’.

From working with many photographers over the years, my feeling is this  - you have to remain true to your personal vision, how you see the world. This should be evident in your commercial work as well as your personal work, in fact you are commissioned because of your personal work.

Aside from that, agencies who produce quality advertising are certainly looking for 'a voice', a signature style. The bottom line is - commercial photography sells brands, it sells in an idea of a particular lifestyle ( if you buy this, your life will be like this…). It achieves this by evoking an emotion, an emotion that is integral to the ethos of the brand in question: a high street bank might want to use photography that is warm, helpful and trustworthy, a re-brand of an uncool car might go for something a bit more urban and edgy.

Taking into account what you are saying about the commercial wilderness, I reckon there are 3 types of photographer:

Type 1: The Jobbing Photographer

Photographers who choose to be a Jobbing Photographer don't mind being unfulfilled on a creative level. They shoot what they don't necessarily feel passionate about to a sufficient technical level- e.g packshots, basic portraits. They make regular money, it’s just a job for them.

Clients commission a photographer based on what they see in their folio, so it’s not possible to break away from being a jobbing photographer unless you take control and shoot in a slightly different direction. Also, you are unlikely to get commissions from the more creative agencies with this kind of work.

( btw Ravi I’m not implying you are a jobbing photographer I’m talking in general!)

Type 2: The Artist

The Artist is uncompromising. They are pure and original in their vision. Their priority is to express themselves through their photography, and not be led by what type of photography advertisers want to commission.

I have met Artists who are in a position to pick and choose which commercial jobs they accept. They collaborate but are unyielding in their approach to the photography, this is ok as this is why they are usually being commissioned in the first place. Some of them shoot a lot of ad campaigns, others only get approached on the rare occasion when their work is suitable (and then they are usually the only photographer that is suitable).

I find the perception is different from the reality and many well known award winning photographers are only offered a handful of commercial jobs when it is assumed they are turning work down left, right and centre. They often earn their living from other areas- e.g print sales, syndication, books, guest speaking.

Type 3: Somewhere in between The Jobbing Photographer and The Artist.

For any photographer reading this who might be in danger of becoming Type 1 and don't want to be, there is a way. Shoot packshots with a bit more creativity. You can still shoot interesting portraits of office workers, but why not shoot some really interesting personal portraits as well like triplets or lookey-likeys or just people that live in a particular community ( ok that was just off the top of my head!). Get away from cheesy stocky set ups and shoot some spontaneous images, or a project based on a great idea.

Likewise, if you find yourself veering towards being a Type 2, but this wasn't your intention, and quite frankly you would like to earn some more money, you can make some subtle changes without compromising your art too much. If you only shoot empty urban spaces or industrial landscapes, how about shooting a few people in these locations to be a bit more commercially viable. It's likely you are mostly going to be commissioned for hard hitting charity campaigns with gritty documentary photography or campaigns based on teenagers if that's all you shoot. The commercial world is very, very literal.

And finally, be realistic about the commercial world. Take a look at the actual photography being used in advertising rather than just the ads that win D&AD or Campaign Photo or the AOP awards. I reckon there’s a bit of a misconception as to what ‘advertising’ photography actually is.