Ironically, Good Verbal Communication = Success in Photography

I really enjoy connecting with aspiring, or student photographers way more than I do with old school, jaded pros. There’s usually a good spirit in there, even if some of the questions or attitudes are naive – they’re at least fresh and, well, bouncy. I often rap with students from The Brooks Institute, Art Center, Santa Fe Workshops, Parsons, Seattle Central, RIT, etc. Sometimes I’m mortified with the b/s they have to endure (instructors, keep it interesting!), but mostly I dig listening to their tall tales from photo school escapades and technical questions that help spawn entries like Chase Jarvis TECH: POV Photography.

The other day was a little different however, in that I got a sort of a theoretical question that intrigued and impressed me. A student from Brooks named Jared (Hey, J$, this is where, if you’d sent me your site, I’d link to it…) from Brooks posed this great question as a part of an assignment he was working on:

“Why is speech important to us as photographers? Exactly why is it so important to express yourself orally to people”

Damn. I like hearing those outside the box questions. They make you think about something besides f-tops and shutter speeds. My answer was pretty straightforward, and you can probably see it coming, but I think it’s worth saying again here:

Speech is crucial to photographers because it’s the primary medium in which you connect with your subjects and clients, especially initially.

In photography so much weight is always placed on the actual pictures when in reality, that’s what goes on at the end of the process (especially for professional commercial photogs). True you don’t need to talk as much if you’re a picture TAKER rather than a picture MAKER. But if you want to be a picture MAKER–ie. plan your shots and get what you want–you must be able to quickly peel away the many layers of your subject(s) and communicate clearly with them. Are they a celebrity with whom you need to connect in order to elicit that great smile, angst, their best “blue steel” or the character in their most recent flop of a movie? Or are they a pedophile that you’re photographing for a NYT cover story where you want to coax their sick, confused inner person out from their dark shell? Regardless, unless you’re shooting ceiling fans or strictly environmentals, the ability to connect with and/or direct people clearly is crucial.

Additionally–and perhaps more importantly–the ability to communicate with your clients verbally is a huge key to success. You’ll need to negotiate fairly and adroitly for rights and money, collaborate on creative directions in pre- and post-production, and almost always you’ll need to to discuss lots of variables and options while on set. I assure you, fewer people aspire to work closely with someone who can’t express themselves verbally. There’s just too much collaboration that has to take place (crew of 35 in New Zealand ring a bell?) to get away with being a poor communicator. In my experience it’s just the opposite.

Good question Jared. Thanks for keeping it interesting for all of us.

14 Responses to Ironically, Good Verbal Communication = Success in Photography

  1. brian faini August 21, 2007 at 6:05 am #

    The ability to communicate ideas and thoughts about work is something that is important. I have found that in an Arts based education setting this is something that isnt nurtured. It is more the “Art Speak” (i.e formal elements and BS conceptualization) and if everyone is at a loss for that they fill voids with “Chatter” (i.e. What lens, shutter speed, etc.)

    If you cant explain yourself, works and ideas will get no where. Being able to express passion and devotion is what I hope will bring me far in life. Well, this in addition to my skills as a struggling young photographer.

    I would like to know this Chase. Put yourself in your clients shoes. If given the opportunity to hire someone with a average portfolio with standard assignment oriented items from and educational institution who does photography because it is something to do. The other applicant has little to no formal education (self-taught) average to above average portfolio and is extremely passionate about his life and photography. Who would get the job. Is it all education and portfolio based decision? Or does character of the person play a role?

    I guess what I am getting to is how much of landing that one client that sets you on your path is about passion and hard work. Or, is it often luck of being in the right place at the right time?

    I pride myself in my ability to communicate and many people tend to love me a person because of this. I am finding it difficult to get career going because my only chance to give someone a bit of myself is in a paragraph or two in my cover letter. And after seeing the lacking of a BA/BFA my file hits the trash. Where as I know if they would give to opportunity for a one on one they would see the passionate, skilled individual I am. Well to end my ramble, I would like to add that the ability to communicate I feel is a great thing but only when allowed the opportunity to do so will it get you places.

    Thanks again Chase

    Brian Faini

  2. Jay McLaughlin August 21, 2007 at 7:16 am #

    I’m always talking whilst on a shoot. Not only because it helps to relax the model, but also because it makes the shoot far more enjoyable for everyone there.

    I find a lot of photographers, both new and experienced tend to hide behind the lens and keep a distance from the model.

    Maybe I’m different because I haven’t been doing this long and don’t have much in the way of training, but I prefer to shoot on a prime lens and move around my subjects and really interact with them. I’m not trying to capture an image of them. I want to capture the person!

  3. M. S. Kirk August 21, 2007 at 9:32 am #

    Speaking of questions. I have ben trying to answer this one but it seams to differ from shoot to shoot. How much of a large shoot is planned compared to inspired on the set?

  4. Adam August 21, 2007 at 11:34 am #

    I’m finding it amazing how dedicated you are Chase to this blog and how informative and idea provoking it has been for me as a beginner in this profession. I didn’t go to school for this but jumped into it after managing photoshoots for a number of years. I’ve found that communication is important in getting better images with less scrap. I’ve struggled in sort of a trial and error kind of way with communicating with my subjects. I’ve found that when I’ve done my homework (researched location, purpose and brainstormed) things go a lot better. If I come into it prepared I stammer less, focus more, and communicate my ideas better. People notice when I am searching for ideas and respond negatively to that. Still, I find myself walking into situations that I’ve never experienced before and just doing the best that I can. I solicit work, and when I get it, I jump in and go for it. I’ve learned from a lot of bad communication mistakes though. Sometimes it seems like a broken record of new things for me to fumble in. Are there some tips or examples you might have to save a guy some trial and error time in communication?

  5. bmillios August 21, 2007 at 11:59 am #


    Thought provoking, indeed.

    A few additional thoughts.

    I’m guessing your focus on speech is for those that MAKE the photo, not just TAKE the photo (to borrow your words). PJs, for example, need to be careful about staging their photographs. Sports photographers don’t have the opportunity to stage – it happens live.

    However, following your train of thought, what would you tell an aspiring deaf photographer, that could not communicate with speech?

    I think this is especially interesting, because they are primarily visually oriented, which should (could?) lead to interesting photos.

    (As an example of a successful deaf photographer who specializes in sports check out )

  6. Finn McKenty August 22, 2007 at 4:52 am #


    Excellent post! I’ve learned a lot from working with you over the past 5 or 6 years, and if I’ve learned anything from you, it’s exactly what you articulated in this piece.

    You’re an incredible photographer, as good as anybody on the planet, but to me, that’s not what makes you so good at what you do. It’s your ability to connect with people on a personal level that makes you so effective and unique as an image maker.

    For everybody out there that’s an aspiring Chase, you should tattoo every word of this post onto your brain. It’s not about lenses and exposure and Photoshop techniques, it’s about creating meaningful, real connections with the people around you- your subjects, clients, and peers.

  7. Andrew August 25, 2007 at 12:44 pm #

    Nicely explained. I think most disciplines in the design industry have a common denominator. Whether its photography, architecture or East-African basket weaving, verbal communication is critical. Even if you do your craft well, if you can’t communicate successfully, you’ll be the person in the back room confined to only the production portion of the operation. And maybe that works for some people…

  8. Chase Jarvis August 26, 2007 at 10:35 pm #

    Friends, sorry for the delayed response– I was working on the road for a few days and then off for a couple days with Kate.

    Now then…

    Brian: here’s the truth, and what counts for what in my experience…

    Round 1:

    Photography school attended = 0 points.

    Photo skills = 10 points

    (ie doesn’t matter where you went to school, but you gotta be technically solid)

    Round 2:

    Portfolio = 10 points

    Passion = can’t answer this because passion certainly is VERY important, but without the portfolio, in the CLIENTS eyes, your passion is useless.

    (be sure to instead use your passion to better your skills and portfolio).

    Round three, final totals…

    Let passion and hard work drive a killer skill set and a killer portfolio. Add a positive, outgoing attitude, a great eye, and some good communication skills and clients will be knocking down your door.

    I think you’re actually underestimating my claim. communicating will help get you all these things and places. Remember it helps you put a voice to your passion!

  9. Chase Jarvis August 26, 2007 at 10:38 pm #

    Jay: good to keep your sitter happy and calm. agreed….

    btw, speaking of portrait shooting, did you ever read my entry on Dichotomy of the Portrait Guest Blog on American Photo Mag?.

  10. Chase Jarvis August 26, 2007 at 10:45 pm #

    Adam: right on man. thx.

    BMillios: I have no doubt that those who can’t communicate well can still be good photographers (cool shots at that other guys site…), so it’s not as literal as I think you’re running with here… I’m more getting after the entire process and how communicating every step of the way is what matters. Thus, from marketing, to negotiating, to concepting, to communicating on set with talent, art directors, etc, to the wrap party and articulating what went well and what didn’t… it all involves photographers’ abilities to communicate. So think of this in the commercial realm really – that’s the focus here.

    (but i totally dig your twist. that should be an assignment for you photo instructors/educators reading out there… assign a no-communication portrait setting that lasts at least 30 minutes and see what you get!) …i feel another blog entry coming on!

  11. Chase Jarvis August 27, 2007 at 11:23 am #

    Hey MS Kirk, great question.

    Typically ALL of the major logistics are planned well in advance. It’s no small task moving 20-40 people all over the place. Start and stop times and the day to day schedule can change up to one day in advance usually.

    Creatively however, we set out usually with pretty specific targets and then build time into the schedule such that if we meet these targets (ie “get the planned shot in the can”) we have extra time to collaborate, tweak, and improve the shot while on set.

    Also. some shoots do have time built in for finding hero shots that you can’t plan for…those are my favorites ;)

  12. Patricia June 14, 2011 at 9:36 pm #

    Ugh. Another road block. I do not think of myself as a great communicator… verbally speaking. More work to do.
    So many mountains to climb and so little time left. Ah well, one step at a time.

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