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Interviews

Starting out in commercial photography

Starting out in commercial photography

© Oliver Doebler

July 2009

What does it take to become a successful commercial photographer these days? Ute Noll of On-Photography.com asked three experts in Germany: Jörg Winde, professor at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Dortmund; Susanne Nagel, head art buyer at the Hamburg-based advertising agency Jung von Matt; and Jan von Holleben, a photographer from Berlin.

Photography, and commercial photography in particular, is one of the most creative and dynamic of all professions. There's no doubt that it's still seen as a 'cool thing to do'; a dream job. But as Professor Jörg Winde from the Fachhochschule (FH) Dortmund says: "It's damn hard."

The fact is this sector has gone through a fundamental transformation in recent years that's been brought about by the rapid development of digital photography and its easy worldwide distribution and sale via the internet; not to mention the effects of a global recession. Consequently, amateur photographers who offer images of a reasonable quality in massive quantities, and at low cost, are a new and acceptable resource for an increasing number of commercial clients.


© Annika Feuss and Moritz Kappen

Professor Jörg Winde, second left, with his students at FH Dortmund.

Art buyer Susanne Nagel said: "It's not just us, but also other agencies sometimes work with images that aren't necessarily produced by professional photographers. We produced an entire brochure for Mercedes-Benz that we made only with Flickr photos. But this was an exception. Usually we use images we have assigned." But it goes to show that the environment for professional photographers has changed and that clients now expect more for less. Nagel explains that even photographers who had always refused to reduce their fees for production costs or usage licences are now willing to negotiate and lower their fees.

So how can young photographers make their way in this changing, and in many ways, harsher landscape? Professor Winde advises that it is crucial that students discover what areas they excel in and what they want to specialise in during their studies. The FH Dortmund offers courses in commercial and editorial photography, photojournalism, and art photography - covering genres such as portrait, landscape, architecture, still life and fashion.

"In the first semesters we teach the technique and basics of photography, such as movement, time, colour, light or montage," he says. "In addition, in the more advanced classes the students learn to develop more complex creative concepts and ideas." For example, his students create advertising campaigns that they photograph and design, complete with slogans and logos. The students also learn the principles that are necessary to start up a business, such as self-marketing strategies, commercial knowledge, basic law and portfolio consultation.

Picture editing and picture management are also required courses in Dortmund, offering the students insight into neighbouring professions. "It is distressing to realise that many applicants often know very little about the occupational fields of photography, as well as the image market, and also hardly anything about the adjoining professions," says Professor Winde.

© Vera Schäper

An image from FH Dortmund student Vera Schäper's editorial project 'Homeland'.

Part of Susanne Nagel's job is the selection of photographers her agency books for the 20 to 30 shoots each month. She sees a wide range of photographers and newcomers to the profession at the daily portfolio reviews at her agency. "I want to see images that come from the photographer's heart," she says. "Images that the photographer likes the best and possibly also already show a personal signature or style."

For art buyers it is very important that the photographer is a master of their trade; that they are able to light a still-life as well as set lighting 'accents'. This is not always the case, bemoans Nagel: "There are portfolios that look as if a friend helped with the post-production."

Professor Winde also views photographic competence as fundamental: "It's not possible to develop ideas, when one doesn't have the photographic skills." Furthermore, he emphasises the importance of visual ideas, conception, design and presentation: "Only when there is an ability in all these areas, can you have a good portfolio and be a mature photographer."

Susanne Nagel recommends specialising in a genre: "A little landscape, a little still-life, a little portrait and a little fashion just doesn't do it," she says. "When nothing is concise and not really good, then nothing really sticks." Nagel wants a concentrated portfolio to browse through or single photographs that can be spread out over the table.

© Uwe Düttmann

Susanne Nagel, head art buyer at the Hamburg-based ad agency Jung von Matt.

She adds: "I'd rather look at 10 or 12 good images than 25 mediocre ones." Nagel prefers photographs that appear natural, saying she is tired of: "artificial and over-digitalised images," that can give the impression that "one has worked with an illustrator instead of a photographer."

Nagel notes that, unfortunately, photographers still show pictures ripped out of newspapers or, even worse, single pages from catalogues. These catalogues are confusing because usually there are also photos by other photographers on the same page. She isn't interested in images shown in designed layouts or those in corresponding publications. But she is aware that many other agencies find this important: "Some agencies and their clients feel reassured, when they know which clients the photographer has already worked with."

© Klaus Muenzner

Berlin-based photographer Jan von Holleben.

To meet the various demands of the different advertising agencies, Susanne Nagel recommends making two separate portfolios. One portfolio that shows a personal style and courage, and a second, different one that takes publications and brands into consideration. She advises that, at a portfolio appointment, the photographer should clarify which portfolio the agency wants to see.

At 32-years-old, the Berlin photographer Jan von Holleben knows the commercial market and has found his own recognisable style. Currently, he is photographing an anti-HIV campaign for the Berlin agency Kakoii and the Federal Centre for Health Education. The images come across as authentic and natural. He counts Mercedes and Audi among his commercial clients and photographs editorials for magazines such as GEO, Zeit-Magazin and Dazed & Confused. A book is in the planning at the renowned publishing house, Göttinger Steidl-Verlag.

He says: "My knowledge of the market and the photo industry has really helped me. It is one thing to produce a great photo but it is much more important and complicated to get this photo out into the world because there are specific rules for every sector of the industry."

© Jan von Holleben

An image from Jan von Holleben's anti-HIV campaign for the Berlin agency Kakoii and Germany's Federal Centre for Health Education.

In his experience the same photograph can be perceived very differently according to the context in which it is viewed. "If I meet 10 different professionals, it is possible that I'll get 10 different reactions to my photos." Von Holleben has made a career out of being experimental, but Professor Winde fears that many companies are not willing to take risks these days. "The courage to experiment is missing," he says. "Advertising has to reach the target group. It must generate the promised sales."

To successfully enter this highly competitive market young photographers should also bring personal qualities to the job that go beyond the technical, creative and conceptual qualifications, such as passion, energy, optimism, a love of detail, improvisational talent and a willingness to take risks, advises Professor Winde.

Von Holleben says: "I work day and night, barely sleeping, but I have a hell of a lot of fun! You have to accept that it takes five to seven years to become established as a photographer. Along the way, my advice is to take on the jobs that are offered and be critical of one's own photos."

Commercial photography - tips for success
  • Have very good photographic skills as well as creative and conceptual skills
  • Find your personal style
  • Be known for something recogisable – be specialised
  • Be up-to-date, especially in your specialised field
  • Learn the rules in your business and the related businesses
  • Learn how to run a business
  • Create two portfolios, one for the 'bread and butter' jobs, one for your heart
A commercial photographer's kit - Martin W. Maier

German photographer Martin W. Maier combines a successful career as an advertising photographer with a personal commitment to art-based photo projects. A graduate of the Berlin University of Arts (UdK), he is represented by Christa Klubert International Photographers.

Cameras:

  • EOS-1Ds Mark III
  • EOS 5D

Lenses:

  • EF14mm f/2.8L II USM
  • EF17-40mm f/4L USM
  • EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM
  • EF100mm f/2.0 USM
  • EF300mm f/2.8L IS USM

Accessories:

  • Speedlite 580EX flashgun
  • Neon light
  • Profoto flashlights
  • 2x Cine Flows
  • 4x Bowens flash heads
  • Arri lights
  • Old video lights
  • Mini slaves
  • Lightstands, c stands, wind-ups, track systems, u-bangi system
  • Camera remote control
  • 'Bouncing stuff'
  • PC computer