The Benefits of Personal Work

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‘Strange Dream’, March 2013

Today’s guest post “The Benefits of Personal Work” is written by Sean Afnan (Website | Facebook | Twitter):

Until recently I was, like many readers of this site, an enthusiastic amateur with an expensive hobby. Occasionally my photography earned me a little extra income. But when it did, I would reinvest the proceeds into new gear. There is after all so much new gear! Over the years, these occasions gradually became more frequent and in late 2011, when my contract at work came to an end, I made the jump into full-time professional photography. Back then I had grand aspirations of becoming a renowned advertising photographer. But the need to earn an income meant that I took on more or less whatever work came my way. Some weeks were great fun and I might photograph a wedding, a baby, and a more creative project in the space of a few days. Other weeks I would sit waiting for the phone to ring and watch my savings grow smaller and smaller!

By the end of 2012 my technical abilities were rapidly improving. I was learning a great deal about the business. And had I decided that I definitely, definitely didn’t want to do macro product photography! My client base included a few individuals and businesses that hired me repeatedly and recommended me to others. But my portfolio was a strange mix of everything I was shooting at the time which was, well, everything. This wasn’t a big problem for family clients who often loved the fact that I also photographed models and artists. But the kind of jobs I was trying to attract were in the commercial world. And these clients were being turned off by the images of weddings and birthday parties that were mixed in with the more imaginative work on my website. I was forced to ask myself a question I should really have asked right back at the beginning: ‘how can I create a body of work that attracts the kind of clients I want to work for?’

The answer came in the form of an excellent seminar by Joey Lawrence in which he advocated the importance of ‘personal work’ – work that hasn’t been paid for by a client but is, rather, created out of the passion or imagination of the photographer. According to Joey, personal work has benefitted his career in a number of ways including keeping his portfolio fresh and allowing him the opportunity to experiment and refine his aesthetic style. But most importantly his personal work has helped him get hired to shoot what he wants to shoot. Hearing this was like a light being switched on and I quickly became aware that many if not all of the photographers I love have dedicated a significant portion of time to personal work. So I set myself the goal of producing 30-40 new images in 2013. I still had to work the commissions of course. It just meant that instead of sitting and waiting for the phone to ring in those quiet weeks, I would dedicate the time to personal projects.

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‘Gold’, December 2013

My personal work consists mainly of images of friends. In some cases I would think to myself ‘this person would make an interesting subject’ and ask them to model, which sometimes worked! But in the most successful cases I had a very clear concept or narrative in mind and I approached a team of collaborators to help me bring my story to life.

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‘Anger’, October 2013

In terms of my aesthetic, I have always been intrigued by the Dutch Masters of the 17th Century and I wanted my personal work to reflect the use of light, shadow and muted tones that one might associate with a painting by Vermeer or Rembrandt. To achieve this look I use a Nikon D700, often with a 50mm f/1.8 lens, and a mixture of strobes, speed lights and light modifiers. My go-to lighting setup is a relatively small key-light aimed at the face of the subject – often a beauty dish or gridded reflector – and a large, soft fill-light nearer to the axis of the camera. I use SB-800s for accent light, to create separation between the subject and the background, or to accentuate certain features within the composition. In Photoshop I add a relatively simple combination of gradient map, channel mixer, curves and colour-balance adjustments

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’Joel’, October 2013

I’m a big fan of the surrealism of photographers like Erik Johansson and Brooke Shaden, and personal projects have giving me the opportunity to experiment with the technically demanding process of splicing together different photographs in post-production. The challenge is to create images that are fantastical and yet remain visually believable.

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’Liberty’, November 2013

By the end of the year I had a completely new portfolio. My website was no longer a hodge-podge of images from all over the place. And in December I was invited to exhibit a number of photographs in a solo show at a gallery space in east London. This was a priceless opportunity to invite existing and prospective clients to see and talk about my work and a few interesting commissions came directly from visitors to the show. In one example, a musician who had booked me to produce a few PR images saw the exhibition and more or less immediately widened the brief to include two album covers and a music video, giving me more or less complete artistic freedom over the project!

Even my work with private clients has become more creative. Just this week a ‘standard’ family portrait morphed into an Egyptian-themed composite art work after the client saw some of the images in my exhibition and agreed to push the creative envelope.

And finally the increased exposure has enabled me to develop contacts in a handful of creative agencies that will, I hope, lead to opportunities for work later in the year. The time, effort, and money that was invested into my personal work last year has meant I am now looking ahead to 2014 with confidence, excitement and a product that is attracting interest from clients who value my vision as an artist as much as my technical ability as a photographer. If nothing else, it has confirmed the importance of making regular personal work and the positive effect it can have on your career. Whether you are an amateur or a pro, if you aren’t already out shooting your own projects you should definitely make this a priority!

If you have an interesting idea for a guest post, you can contact me here.

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