3 Undeniable Reasons To Pursue Personal Work — Why Being The Guinea Pig Pays Off…Bigtime

I have been a long-time, huuuuge proponent of taking time to pursue personal work. Its in fact my pursuit of personal work to which I attribute a good bit of my success. In short, it’s by taking time to investigate your personal vision that you will be rewarded. My homie Joey L., has been finding time to uncover personal gems throughout his career. And you’ll see in his guest post below – it has paid off for him bigtime. Take it away Joey. – Chase

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UPDATE: Joey has a creativeLIVE class. You can check it out right here.
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Thanks Chase and greetings Chase Jarvis readers. I am humbled to be able to post here, and speak to you directly.If you’re familiar with my photography and behind the scenes blog, you probably already know that I’m a huge advocate of photographers spending time on personal work.

Although I’ve shot many commercial photo shoots you may or may not have bumped into on the street or on a magazine rack, I’m glad to say I’m actually most associated with my portraits of people from Southern Ethiopia, and the Mentawai Islands in Indonesia.

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The Image above is a Panoramic image of Hamar Women at Sunrise, Southern Ethiopia. Photographed with Mamiya 645DF with Phase One P65+ Digital Back. Lit with 1 Elinchrom Rotalux Deep Octa and a Profoto 7b power pack.

When I say “personal work”, I’m referring to any body of work that wasn’t paid for by a client; work you created out of sheer passion. Now, I’m not saying I am not passionate about my commissioned jobs! Lately I’ve been fortunate to work on some truly interesting stuff that keeps me wired all day long. However, what I am talking about is a project that comes 100% from your soul. While your commissioned work may be an artistic collaboration with a brand or product, your personal work is an extension of yourself.

I wanted to take this opportunity to share how committing to personal projects can directly benefit your portfolio and career as a whole. Even if a photographer has never done a commercial shoot before, it doesn’t mean they can’t get hired off a body of personal work that relates to a brief. Whether you like to shoot landscapes, beautiful women, quirky characters or still life, there is a client out there that is looking for this type of work. For me, its environmental portraits. Images of humans in their surroundings extends to everywhere around the globe, not just the endangered cultures in remote locations I choose to focus on. There is a market for this type of photography, as well as many types of photography you like to work with, I’m sure.


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The movie poster above, shot for National Geographic’s “Killing Lincoln” just came out the other day. I think it’s a perfect example of my personal style extending to a commissioned job. The lighting is actually quite simple. A Briese DP90 camera left, high above eye-level of the actors, angled in such a way to get dramatic shadows on the opposite side of the face. Inside is a 5K bulb, which allowed me to get an exposure ideal for my Phase One back- which only really shoots up to ISO200 before the grain is terrible. There are 3 constant lights on the background set- 2k Arri fresnels at the left and right side, and a 5k Arri fresnel in the middle. A hazer machine brought in a thin layer of “fog” to help the light feel more painterly. The microscopic particles of the haze catch the light trails. To view more information about this project, check out my blog post here.



Now, I realize a lot of you are like me, and enjoy nerdy gear-related technical information too, so I’m dropping some of those goodies below each one of the photos.

Okay, let’s start with the 3 main points:

1- Personal Work Keeps The Portfolio fresh
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Above you will see me half submerged in Lake Turkana, Ethiopia, photographing a man named Shallowgo checking his fishing nets. The final image is below. I’m shooting with Mamiya 645DF with Phase One P65+ Digital Back. Assistant is holding Elinchrom Rotalux Deep Octa and a Profoto 7b power pack.



You’d be surprised at how many artistic people there are out there who reach a certain level, then simply give up on improving their craft. Even photographers with extensive client lists who were once busy can find themselves going through dry periods because they forgot the value of progressing their work to even greater heights and creating something new.

In the past, I have absolutely been guilty of this. Sometimes I work myself into a creative funk and it takes months to realize I haven’t been pushing myself hard enough. Then all of a sudden, a storm of new ideas hits me, and I start experimenting and trying new things I’ve never done before. Sometimes these new shoots work out and provide valuable pieces to my portfolio, but sometimes they don’t work at all. Even if I spend a week in pre-production, a whole day shooting, and walk away with one new picture that is portfolio worthy, I’m happy. I recommend a photographer’s portfolio to not last over 30-50 images, so a single photo every once and awhile is going to build this body of work in no time.

The best thing about testing new ideas in a personal setting is that there is no pressure to deliver. A real commercial set where people have paid you to deliver a certain amount of key images is not exactly the place to be testing new wonky ideas you aren’t sure will work. So, you start a guinea pig project on your own time to try new things, and hopefully you can implement what you learned on paid gigs later.

Failure is okay. After all, as photographers and filmmakers we don’t even have to show the world the work we failed all. In our portfolios, all we show is a pretty little selection of where we succeeded. The rest can stay hidden on a hard drive forever, (which you can decide to keep or destroy with a sledge hammer, depending on how bad it was.)

















2- Passion Draws Eyes
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When he was young, Lal Baba’s parents arranged a marriage for him. Uncertain about his future, he ran away from home in Bihar Siwan and took up the lifelong task of becoming a sadhu. This was taken in Varanasi, India.



I like to show people updated portfolios. Whether I meet new potential clients, or co-workers who have known my work for years, I always like to start the meeting with new personal work. This way, these new images become a conversation piece, since there are usually some interesting stories behind how the images came to be. “I got a flat tire in Ethiopia and was stranded for days” can be an interesting conversation.

Passion doesn’t lie. When other photographer’s show me their work and I can hear an undeniable sense of excitement in their voice, it gets me interested in what they have to say. Instead of pretending to be excited about work that’s several years old, it’s much better just to go out and create something new that keeps your blood pumping.

Sharing personal work is one simple way of showing passion. The last person someone wants to hire is someone who doesn’t care about what they do, and only creates when they’re on a job. There is a way better vibe, and it is easier to be productive around motivated people.

3 – Personal Work Gets You Hired To Shoot What You Like to Shoot

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The above portrait I took of Robert De Niro was for Screen Actor’s Guild which has light reminiscent of my personal portraits. 


When you photograph a subject or in a certain style that interest you, it’s usually the same style you end up getting hired to shoot. An art director has a lot of confidence in hiring a photographer who has already shot something that vaguely matches their vision for the project. Personally, a lot of the times I am hired because of what’s already in my portfolio. I often hear something like “we used this photo of yours as a reference, and we’d love if you could create something similar for our photoshoot.” This doesn’t mean you should do the exact same thing you’ve already done, it just means that you’re being hired for what you’re most passionate about! Now it’s time to apply those skills for other purposes. I’ve developed a lot of skills I wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for keeping myself busy. For example, I’ve found that working with foreign subjects who aren’t used to photography has really boosted my communication skills in every aspect of my life. Another example, is that I use a lot of the same lighting styles first developed in a safe, controlled studio setting when shooting in the field.

Another key thing I’d like to mention here is spreading your photographs by using the power of the internet. With todays technology there’s no excuse for your work not be seen. With social media, blogs and photography contests such as PDN, if you do good work, someone is going to see it and share it. This doesn’t mean that these tools do the work for you, but it does give you a platform that spreads your work instantly. The more eyeballs on my portfolio, the more likely it is that a single one of those pairs of eyeballs can translate into a real job.

So now a plan of action. Ask yourself these question: What’s something you’ve always wanted to photograph that excites you? How are you going to photograph it differently, and make it yours? And most importantly — how are you going to make it happen?

My Next Personal Project

I want to share my next kickass personal project with you. It’s overly ambitious, and recently keeps me up at night with extreme jolts of both fear and passion. (A good sign- this means it’s something worth doing.)

People of the Delta is my first major film project, which was written in collaboration with the tribes I’ve photographed in Southern Ethiopia while working on my personal series “The Cradle of Mankind.” This video pretty much sums up everything I could write about the film in this post, so if you’re interested, take a gander here:

Kickstarter Campaign for: “People of the Delta” Film Project from Joey L on Vimeo.

You can check out everything about the project on the Kickstarter website here:
I’m not going to ask you to back this project unless you can get something valuable in return. I’ve set up a bunch of interesting rewards geared at photographer’s to help this project happen. On the Kickstarter site, you’ll find all sorts of rewards. There are downloads of the final project, a complete lighting and production tutorial on the creation of the film, gallery prints, gear with my photos on it, and even portfolio reviews where I’ll sit down with you on Skype to have a one to one chat.

Another reward I just launched is an NYC photography workshop with me, and spaces are quite limited. If you’d like to meet me and see me ramble about Lighting, Photoshop and other stuff related to our industry, this would be a good chance.

I’m guessing that if you’ve sat there and read this whole article, you’re passionate enough about what we do to go out there and start your own project. You don’t need fancy tools or a plane ticket to some remote place, all you really need is a vision and a strong desire to make it happen.

Joey L.

People of the Delta Kickstarter:http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/joeyl/people-of-the-delta-film-project
Portfolio Website: http://www.joeyL.com
Behind the Scenes Blog: http://www.joeyL.com/blog
Twitter: https://twitter.com/joeyldotcom
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Joey-L-The-Photographer/166804470002802

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