No One Wants Ordinary Photographers Anymore

“No one want ordinary photographers anymore. No one wants regular photographers. They want someone that can bring some kind of special lens or special expertise to the conversation.”

“You have convictions, you have ideas. They may not be perfect, but just get them out there. Give them a shot.”

Want to make a living in commercial photography? The above quotes are my adaptions from some brilliant strategic minds within advertising. While I was watching this video, it occurred to me that nearly every sound bite applies equally to photographers and photography, as it does “planners”, the subject of this video. Simply substitute the word “photographer” for “planner” and you’ll see what I mean.

Yes the video–and the forthcoming video series over at PSFK–talks about “planners” (a position within an advertising agency that creates strategies which subsequently drives an agency’s creative pursuits), but if I were you, I’d tune in to what they’re saying. Because it applies to everyone in commercial art. No in advertising one wants anything ordinary anymore, whether you’re a photographer, a director, a planner, or hell, even a client.

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30 Responses to No One Wants Ordinary Photographers Anymore

  1. Laura November 24, 2009 at 8:41 am #

    Well said! Having point of view makes things so much more interesting. You want to work with people who can help guide, shape and realize a vision or objective. People who just take direction and deliver the usual are boring.

  2. Michael Hurcomb November 24, 2009 at 8:43 am #

    "The key to success is to find a way to stand out–to be the purple cow in a field of monochrome Holsteins" – Seth Godin

  3. visuellegedanken November 24, 2009 at 8:44 am #

    thx for sharing this video and tipps, chase!

  4. Jason Collin Photography November 24, 2009 at 8:50 am #

    Definitely need to have some gimmick nowadays to separate yourself if dealing with a high end client I think. However, as a local portrait photographer, I wonder how important having a separate branding is? I wonder how many people just want a regular photographer still?

    That said, I do try to brand myself differently as being a "candid portrait" photographer.

  5. Fr November 24, 2009 at 9:35 am #

    Thanks for sharing this, Chase, very interesting video indeed.

    I have to say, though, that even if there's no one who would consciously want ordinary photographers (as much as ordinary writers, painters, filmmakers, etc), the world out there is telling us something different: it's full of "the" ordinary, we're surrounded by it 24/7, in every possible way and medium, from politics to tv, to literature, to advertising, to movies, etc.

    An ordinary company which is happy enough to survive and turn a profit and has no interest whatsoever to become less ordinary will stay just like that, and will probably deal with ordinary advertising agencies, ordinary art directors, ordinary photographers, ordinary media, and, I'm afraid, ordinary "audience".

    Looking at the half-full glass, I have to say this is not completely bad news, because it means that being special, different, and raising above the ordinary has and always will have a place, no matter how ordinary things get all around.

    I hope this makes some sense (and sorry for the typos, English is not my first language) :-)


  6. JB November 24, 2009 at 9:40 am #

    Fr: You make perfect sense. I agree.

  7. Michael Young November 24, 2009 at 9:44 am #

    I'm a relative newb in the photography business. The topic here is commercial photography…and I'm constantly brought back to who's viewing the shot…when I shoot a portrait or a sports event I get no qualms about how great the photograph is when it's the parent/family member of the subject in the photograph.

    In analogy, commercial photography demands that I be able to take a picture of little johnny that the world will love…to paraphrase Zack Arias…you have to bring it on with a unique style that rests on a solid foundation of composition and exposure…

    As I think about the topic, I find a possible four step progression of the creative newb to the master….Study, Style, Reinvention, and Invention, the last of which is the BFG of style/creativity, in my mind. This is the level where one frickin CREATES creativity the likes of which all other levels are a mimic of in one manner or another.

    STUDY: Here is where the newb study’s the work of others and learns the technical foundation of the art to which they are aspiring to master. In photography it’s studying professional photogs, learning composition, exposure, lighting, texture, weight, lines. etc. You mimic to create as you build on the foundations of technical proficiency.

    STYLE: If you are lucky and you truly have the creative in you, you get to this level. Here again, I find myself haunted this level. A photographer reaches a new level when finally the photog can apply a unique style to the photographic process that pins itself to the solid foundations of exposure and composition.

    Reinvention: Now your reaching the master level. Here you are transcending the traditional ideas, rules, patterns and the like. Here you are able to manipulate the foundations and infuse the style to something original and progressive.

    Invention: You’ve reached bad-a** now. You lay a new foundation for others to study, stylize and mold.
    Michael Young

  8. George November 24, 2009 at 9:48 am #

    Wow! Exactly what's been on my mind lately….ocassionally causing me some sleep. Asking myslef: "What can I do within my control to make me stand out of the crowd and capture my INTENDED audiance attention?"
    "What can I do NOW to prevent me from being stuck in a rut and not be like so many photographers who are struggling to get their photography business off the 'ground'?"

  9. sunshine November 24, 2009 at 10:01 am #

    I agree in the video, when it was said that if you are passionate put it out there. However, sometimes photography can be to "gimmicky" (is that even a word?) today and often a very ordinary shot can turn out to be the most extraordinary photograph that will stand out from all others.

  10. Sean Rushforth November 24, 2009 at 10:13 am #

    Find information & advice of dealing with advertising agencies Here

  11. Lizzy November 24, 2009 at 10:55 am #

    Can I be "Devils Advocate" here? Everyone thinks there doing something "different" these days & an earlier post mentioned "gimmicky"…sometimes it's the very ordinary,simple shots, the ones that capture an intense emotion etc; that stand out from the crowd..& trawling through history you will find that it's those ordinary photos that remain burned in memory forever but – hey – that's just my opinion :)

  12. Jonathan Frazier November 24, 2009 at 11:23 am #

    I enjoy looking at the under-belly of things, so I'm curious: why is it that in Chase's previous 7 blogs, he has averaged over 50 comments? Why do we all come back over and over again to Chase Jarvis blog, gobble everything up, comment and debate about it, etc?

    Surely it is not because Chase is just a 'regular' photographer, 'ordinary' artist, or is just plain 'simple.'

    Sure, he may just be a regular person (I don't know, I've never had the personal pleasure of hanging out with Chase), utilizing 'simple' techniques in his work (we all have foundations) using 'regular' equipment (available for each and every one of us to use) but obviously there is something else that draws our attention.

    Pardon my alliteration: but perspective, point of view, and highly notable (something that is constantly talked about, yet often overlooked) is passion.

    Another thought – perhaps 'ordinary photographer' isn't talking about your pictures themselves. Perhaps it is what it says – talking about the photographer as a whole. Personality, Process, Teams, Presentation, Execution, Branding, Networking, etc…

    You can be an ordinary photographer, make a decent living, and survive, no doubt about that. My problem is I personally have an extremely hard time settling for survival when I find that I was innately created for living. Maybe we all were, and maybe that's why we all migrate towards the 'purple cows' if you will.

  13. Lizzy November 24, 2009 at 11:39 am #

    well said Jonathan! well said..I've never commented on a CJ post but I felt compelled to say something this time even though my opinions have probably just evaporated into the ether! not everyone can have a Hasselblad,the wide angle 22mm lenses and more importantly the BUDGET to do some of the phottoraphy that's out there. Editing using PS is reaching almost saturation point for me & some photographs that should be wow are just "bleah"…i'm attending a photo exhibition at the British Library in London of extraordinary "ordinary" photographs & I can't wait – no iPhone apps or PS in sight!

  14. R November 24, 2009 at 2:32 pm #

    I recently visited an exhibit of images from "regular" photographers, it was called "Requiham" a tribute to the 130 plus regular photographers like Larry Burrows and Frank Capa who died or went missing during the Vietnam Cambodia conflicts. Mostly black and white film, some of it developed in a muddy jungle clearing and using a hair dryer. Fantastic stuff from pros and amateurs alike. No Photoshop for these guys, no messing up the image for these regular photographers, just great solid original images of tragic events, many of their award winning shots taken under extreme stress. In my humble opinion most of the current breed of photographers have lost the meaning of great natural shots, it's all about an over used digital darkroom and mass trickery. It's lets create "Avatar" in Photoshop.
    I have been a photographer for 55 years, I am not impressed.

  15. Chase Jarvis November 24, 2009 at 2:43 pm #

    @ R: i totally respect your point. it's just that I think mine point has been missed. "ordinary" doesn't mean old film shooters. and it's not about trickery or photoshop on the other hand either, it's about the two sentences that I pulled from the video and pasted into the blog post…it's about vision and conviction and imperfection and special knowledge.

    "No one want ordinary photographers anymore. No one wants regular photographers. They want someone that can bring some kind of special lens or special expertise to the conversation."

    "You have convictions, you have ideas. They may not be perfect, but just get them out there. Give them a shot.

    Everyone that you mentioned definitely qualifies under one or both of these statements. They are far from "regular".

  16. sunshine November 24, 2009 at 5:35 pm #

    I feel I need to repost in response to Chase's post to @R: I was caught up in the debate of what others were posting that I forgot the message Chase was trying to convey such as:

    "You have convictions, you have ideas. They may not be perfect, but just get them out there. Give them a shot"

    I agree. It doesn't need to be perfect, but you should always take the risk. I apologize for not getting that the first time around!

  17. ian aitken November 24, 2009 at 10:26 pm #

    There a few few sides to this coin.

    Firstly being different for differents sake is not necessarily a good thing, unless you have the visual skill you can end up in a real mess, but at the sametime you need to experiment to find your way.

    I will now paraphrase another photographer who was speaking to an ad agency about portfolios. The Agency had called in 20 books (yes they do still do this) and the poor old creative team said they could hardly put a cigarette paper between them. Inkjet prints, black leather folios, same photoshop trickery. Funnily enough it seems when you are going after ad agency work there has been a homoginisation of styles/type of work in folios. I have also noticed this in awards everyone is chasing the same look (trying to copy the winners from last year in style and content, just look at the Dave Hill technique, false tilt/shift etc) This is because it is possible with photoshop, you see a style and you can adopt it easily because of the digital tools available.
    There are many ways to go about creating a great image (I am not saying photograph becuase some of what I am talking about is more like illustration due to the amount of retouching) you can start with straight photography with little retouching and get blinding original shots or you can begin with an idea that can only be achieved in photoshop and work out how the pieces fit together and shoot accordingly. Both way can produce great images. You need to find your style though and hopefully it will stand out.

    Also glad to hear so many English voices in the above video:-)


  18. André Weigel November 25, 2009 at 8:29 am #

    Hello Chase !

    Pretty interesting video… thank you, for sharing this !

  19. R November 25, 2009 at 11:15 am #

    Chase, I respect your position too. You are obviously a great photographer in a very competitive business and I understand you have to be constantly creative, however you have admit the creativity does include many props and plenty of help setting the scene, plus much computer use.
    Do I try and be creative, yes in the raw sense with no gimmicks. You are correct about the talent of some of the Vietnam/Cambodia conflict Photographers bearing in mind many were not pro's, some were even peasants handed a camera by the Khmer Rouge and ordered to go take pictures, many were killed in the process. The creativity was built in by the horrific scenes they all witnessed through the lens, a constant living movie set of horror, for war photographers multiple grab shots of hell.

  20. Andy M November 25, 2009 at 12:21 pm #

    Let's not forget that this post was pertaining to commercial photography, as the video is drawn from advertising.

    So let's not take these quotes out of context.

    Bringing up a photographer like Frank Capa into this conversation is blatantly ignoring the context of this post which is advertising/commercial photography with its own rules of the game -whether we like it or not.

  21. R November 25, 2009 at 7:02 pm #


    I respect your position, however bringing up great straight shooters of the past is in my humble opinion very relevant and nothing to be ashamed of.
    It points out how much this medium has changed in many cases from fantastic raw talent to computerized trash. It's immaterial whether it's advertising/commercial. Like I stated before much of it is Avatar in stills.

  22. Callum Winton November 26, 2009 at 9:12 am #

    Everyone's looking for the unique and different, but clients (generally) need to be re-educated that it will cost a bit more

  23. trace November 26, 2009 at 9:02 pm #

    Chase, interestingly there have been times exactly like what's expressed here in commercial photography before. The mid-late 1980s/early 1990s was an explosive time for new, innovative photography and design ideas.
    Photographers like Grant Peterson, Geoff Kern, George Holz, Hans Neleman, Charles Purvis, Chris Callis, Raymond Meier, Jody Dole, and James Wojcik, among many others were doing incredible, stylish work.
    The advertising work these guys were doing were a big departure from the dull, boring ad work that was the norm. They helped turn commercial work at the time on its head.
    Sadly, after a good run of really creative photographic/design work for a number of years, there was a general "backlash", or shift in clients and advertisers attitudes back towards clean, straightforward, mundane type advertising images. It felt at the time like a 'golden era' of true creative work was behind us. Much of what seems so new and creative in today's photography is not terribly either.
    If you can find publications of the named photographers work from the time, I think everyone will be surprised at how innovative the work was. Look in old issues of Photo/Design (issue #25 Nov.Dec./1988, and Communications Arts of that time.
    From what I've seen, there is little online to show the work (all film based) these guys did then. And as times change, most of their work now that I've seen has changed to reflect the current styles. Still, that work and perspective from that time made photography fun again!

  24. Bruce DeBoer November 27, 2009 at 2:36 pm #

    Chase – nice post; always a little controversial for at least one reason:

    1) What is meant by ordinary? So vague and, as a result the vagueness, so meaningless. No one has EVER said they wanted ordinary, at least not in my 30+ years studying photography and advertising.

  25. Anonymous November 28, 2009 at 12:46 pm #

    this video is so random, the speakers seem to talk about totally different subjects. I don't see any rationale.

  26. Chase Jarvis November 28, 2009 at 12:51 pm #

    @anon: it's a teaser for a forthcoming piece on ad agency "planners"

  27. Carol Lundeen Photography December 4, 2009 at 5:04 am #

    Another way to look at it is to discover what is unique about your true self, and exploit it. Or, you can create something and make it your own purple cow. This is universal across all industries, not just photography.

  28. bip mistry - photography December 8, 2009 at 8:59 am #

    All speakers made great points for all photographers to take heed of in this fast changing (economic) environment, and also a fast changing creative environment… Bip

  29. Brian December 28, 2010 at 3:14 am #

    Does anyone know the name of the video or if it’s still available online somewhere?


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