Photographic Virtues Series: Adaptability

In this series, I attempt to identify the key professional virtues I have found to be the most important in building my own career, as well as identifying traits of other successful photographers and business leaders that are most key to their success. Today’s virtue: adaptability.

I’m an old man. It’s okay. I don’t mind. Truth be told, I was an old man when I was 22 as well. The most boring guy at the party. The one who would always beg off late night spontaneity in favor of an early bedtime and a fresh start to the following morning. The crotchety dude in the flip-flops and leisure suit kicking back in his comfortable chair angrily pressing buttons on his remote while fuming that they’ve replaced his episodes of “Matlock” with a new reality show. That’s pretty much me in a nutshell.

Obviously, a lot more has changed since my twenties than the realization that reality TV isn’t going away. The internet has changed the way we work, opening the door for both tremendous opportunity and an avalanche of new competition. Social media has arrived and made it easier than ever to reach potential clients and harder than ever to stand out from the crowd.

The frenzied pace of innovation both in the tools we use to reach the world and the tools we use to conduct our craft is staggering and shows no signs of letting up. In order to keep up with these changes and not only survive but thrive in the artistic arena, it takes one of the most important of human traits… adaptability. Fortunately, it’s a trait we are all born with.

Let’s use human evolution as our example. Living organisms are programmed at birth with one objective: to survive. Life exists in an ecosystem where the only certainty is death, whether that be through starvation, dehydration, or simply being eaten by something larger, faster, or fiercer than ourselves. Whether it be a giraffe evolving to have a long neck to reach food high in trees or human beings developing cities as a way of using a community to strengthen our ability to survive, we find ways to best adapt to our situation and ensure our longevity.

Photographers must evolve in much the same way. We cannot control market trends or technological advances, but we must find ways to adapt to those changes or we risk our own extinction.

Sometimes this comes in the form of adapting to long-term shifts like the advancing importance of social media. Other times, the adaptability requirements are far more immediate.

Take for a moment an example from a photoshoot I had yesterday. I am a lifestyle, fitness, and activewear photographer working with a number of large brands. Primarily I am hired for still work, but as my still career was born out of a motion picture background, I am equally trained to perform motion work as well. Yet stills remain my main focus. It is the area where I spend the majority of my time developing skills and techniques and generally the first line item when I am asked to prepare a bid.

But, even with that established, we know that the market doesn’t always land exactly on our position. And in order to sustain and grow your business, you have two options, get more clients or provide additional services to existing clients. So, I also know that I must spend a great deal of time developing other skill sets which I may or may not be called on to use on a typical day. Why? Well, you never know.

My shoot yesterday was a perfect example. It was an activewear shoot for a major brand who had hired me to provide stills for advertising a new line. I had the awesome opportunity to work with the Art Director in creating an exciting and challenging brief to bring the clothing and models to life. I am an obsessive planner, as I’ve detailed in other articles, so needless to say we were prepared. I arrived on set with three different lighting approaches ordered by client preference, an established color palette, reference imagery and posing concepts to explore. It was all discussed and re-discussed beforehand, and it was just a matter of showing up to perform the job.

One hour into the shoot… it had all gone out the window. A late night internal client meeting had changed the creative direction and even added to the number of assets they wished the shoot to generate. In the allotted time for prelighting, we had already blown right through plan A, B, and C of my lighting design, and while not back at scratch, we suddenly needed to find a fresh approach on the spot. The client also wanted to add cinemagraphs to the shoot, as well as add two still life setups to the on-body work.

While I’ve been shooting long enough now to be able to shift my lighting approach in any way in which the client requires, I am asked far less to develop on the spot cinemagraphs or still lifes. But faced with last second alterations, a professional photographer is only left with two choices, find a way to get it done, or fold. As any working photographer will tell you, there really isn’t a choice at all. You get it done.

Luckily, even though they aren’t my main product line, I had spent time preparing myself to create cinemagraphs and still lifes on my own time. Knowing that just such an opportunity to may arise, I’d taken the initiative to be ready for battle. So, when the curveball was thrown, I already knew how to adapt my swing in order to make contact.

Sometimes our clients will only give us a brief moment to adapt to a change. Being able to adapt quickly both reinforces the client’s confidence in you and opens up potential new revenue streams. Those things help you to sustain and eventually grow your business and income.

It is a wild world out there and it’s survival of the fittest. To ensure your own survival, it’s important to know how to grow with the world around you and find the best way to apply your unique skills to an ever-changing environment.