Making Street Photography Pay.
I have often stated that I consider Street Photography to be the least commercial form of image making and yet I have made a good living for over twenty years from having a portfolio of Street Photographs. I thought I would explain a little about how I have managed to translate what I do on the streets into a commercially applicable form.
The main issue with Street Photography is that it deals with the ‘real’ and very little commissioned photography portrays reality in the raw. Most commercial photography deals in retouched fantasy or specifically polishes reality to make it into an aspirational ‘super reality’. The commercial photographer typically employs the dark arts of photography and post production to make the world look more colourful, more beautiful, brighter and purchasable.
Where can we fit into this as Street Photographers?
I won’t lie to you, very few of us do fit in, if you exclude doing workshops, I can literally think of three Street Photographers who work regularly doing observational photography for commercial clients and that is worldwide! This means that if you aspire to joining this small group you are going to have to have a very special and unique eye as well as being able to handle the business side that all photographers have to face, promotion, quoting, understanding a brief, production, working with an agency team and meeting a deadline. You will need to be able to adapt your personal work to the legal, technical and creative requirements of the Advertising and Design industries.
What kinds of work might Street Photographers take on?
Commercial work for Street Photographers falls into just a few categories:
- Social Media
Each of these has it’s own challenges and you will often have to find a different ‘working method’ for every project you take on, this will be agreed with the Art Director, Designer or Picture Editor in advance but you will have to make sure that the method you agree on still allows you enough freedom to make and deliver the kinds of photographs that they saw in your portfolio in the first place. It is a huge mistake, and I have made it, to be persuaded into working in a way that differs dramatically from your usual style. If you shoot with one Leica and a standard lens on the street, don’t turn up to the Ad shoot with a Hasselblad and 90mp back because they will more than likely be disappointed with the results. The way that you work technically on the street is part of your ‘voice’ as a photographer and it’s that voice that they have commissioned you for so ignore the agency production guy at the pre production meeting who panics about file sizes. I have shot 80 meter wide posters for car park sides on my Canon 5D MKII and they looked fantastic.
As Street Photographers we are primarily observers so our work is going to fit certain briefs better than others, the ‘fly on the wall’ briefs that design companies often have are perfect for us, to go into an environment of their choosing and see it in a different way. Making ‘something out of nothing’ in a potentially dull environment like a school or bank or office space is a talent they will be happy to pay you well for. I have spent weeks shooting behind the scenes over the years in art galleries, zoo’s, music schools, with gymnastic teams and one airport.
The harder challenge comes when working for Ad agencies because you will not be asked to come up with ideas of your own to make interesting pictures but instead you will be shooting the ideas of their creative team, usually an Art Director and Copywriter overseen by a Creative Director. Coming up with concepts is what they do and when the Art Buyer calls she will be looking to hire your style rather than your problem solving abilities. You will very likely get a brief on which to quote and if you get the job you will be in for a meeting with the creatives to discuss it, this will often be followed by a lot of production, casting, location finding etc. which will all be approved by the agencies client at a pre production meeting days before the actual shoot. With Ad shoots the shoot day is often the easiest part because everything has been prepared and discussed and agreed over the preceding weeks.
The big challenge on the shoot day is to ‘manufacture’ the snapshot aesthetic and spontaneity of the shots in your Street Portfolio with models and a crew of 20 odd standing around watching.
What are the legal issues?
A lot of people get hung up on the legalities of using Street Photography commercially and there are certainly restrictions that apply that you must be aware of. I should state clearly that I am not a lawyer and these rules may differ in your geographical territory but generally here are two golden rules to observe.
- You must not use the photograph in a way that implies an endorsement of a product without the permission of those in the photograph.
- You must not use the photograph in a way that misrepresents those that appear in the photograph.
There are some grey areas in the way that these are interpreted, I have shot Street Photographs for printed matter for large companies that was just for internal use and would never be seen in the public domain, I have shot observational images that have been used without permission of the person in the image but in a way that implied no endorsement and in most cases just illustrated an abstract idea. There are shots that could be considered to be a ‘general view’ and not ‘feature’ anyone specifically which may not need releasing. You will find that different clients and agencies will be more or less nervous about these grey areas, in the US they will be more nervous.
Candid shot made and used without model release for PricewaterhouseCoopers but the picture implies absolutely no endorsement of the company.
The thing to remember is that commercial agencies and designers are not at all concerned wether your commissioned images are candid, they are buying your style, the feel and spontaneity in your Street Photographs, the ‘moment’, the humour etc. It is only us who walk the streets for days looking for exceptional and unrepeatable real moments for whom the veracity of the image is a major concern. To work commercially as a Street Photographer you will need to see this as a way of financing the candid work you want to do for yourself, it’s not always going to be Street Photography as we know it.
As Street Photographers we spend our lives watching life unfolding and we are very sensitive to pictures looking staged or wrong which makes us the ideal people to create these ‘real’ advertising images. I have had to develop ways of working over the years that let me be an observer in the same way that I am on the street. I can’t be the director of the action as well so I often hand that role over to a third party, sometimes the art director, sometimes my assistant and occasionally a theatre director hired specifically for the role. This is especially useful if there are lots of people involved in the shot. Even when I am being paid a large fee to shoot an Ad I like to turn up with my little cameras and be an observer, the scenario will be enacted again and again and I will watch and choose my moments in the same way as I do on the street.
The other approach that pays dividends is to work very early on in the process with the Art Director to create scenarios that repeat genuine observations you have made. The best lies are always closest to the truth and that is my approach to creating a spontaneous looking Ad. Working in NYC with Ogilvys Art Director Michael Pattison on a campaign for IBM, I spent several days with him, looking at locations but also taking snaps in the street that became the basis for shots that were included on the shot list for the shoot days with models. This approach worked very well because Michael gave me the freedom to do what I was good at. On one of the shoot days I saw some balloons outside a bar and two men standing behind them that I liked so I grabbed two of our models and recreated the shot moments later and it made it into the final campaign.
It is rare, especially these days, to be given that much trust and freedom by an agency but it invariably leads to great work.
An Ad made for IBM shot with models within minutes of my seeing the same scene occur naturally.
Shots for the V&A Museum in London, based on observations made in the gallery space with the designer Simon Elliott.
Sometimes an Ad agency will commission you because of the way you can work with people and make them look natural even if it’s in a studio. I was commissioned to shoot Ads for London’s Heathrow Airport of emotional reunions which mean’t casting real couples who would be comfortable hugging and kissing. Despite the studio environment the shoot produced some lovely natural moments that made great posters.
A commission received because of my observational portfolio but shot in a studio with models in West London.
A new and developing area of commercial interest to the Street Photographer is Social Media, I have had quite a number of commissions now that involved my travelling and shooting while uploading and facebooking and twittering as I went. Having your own strong Social Media audience can actually get you work in this new world as well as your portfolio. Our Street Photography skills are particularly suited to working quickly and making shots in difficult and changing environments, they are also often clever or witty which gives them a lot of appeal online where ‘sharing’ and ‘liking’ is everything. I have travelled around the world for Samsung with one of their camera phones, I’ve run a photography competition for Barclays and recently followed the Olympic Torch around the UK for Nature Valley, all primarily for an online and mobile audience.
A shot from Amsterdam from my round the world trip for Samsung taken on the Samsung Pixon Phone.
The Olympic Torch arriving in Windermere from my journey with the Olympic Torch for Nature Valley.
Considerations when taking on a commission.
- When you take on a commission it is very important to meet with the Art Director or Designer and establish what it was that appealed to them about your work, was it the humour, was it the drama, was it your graphic composition or your ordering of chaos, or perhaps just your use of light and colour. This will enable you to keep in mind what they are after throughout the shooting process.
- When you work for an Ad agency or Design company there will often be a team of people engaged on the project as well as their client, the brand. It is impossible for you to work for several people so you must establish who it is that you are trying to please, ordinarily it will be the Art Director but sometimes all sorts of people up and down the agency food chain will want to get involved, art buyers, creative directors, account handlers etc. You must maintain a chain of communication whereby all those other people communicate there concerns through your No1 contact, the Art Director in most cases. At the end of the day everyone on the job will have their opinion but it is only the Art Directors opinion that concerns you, if he’s happy at the end of the day, send in your invoice.
- Make sure that your client has reasonable expectations of what Street Photographers do, we do not work like other photographers that they will have commissioned, amazing moments take time to get, we don’t just turn up, set up our lights, shoot and go home. You need to make it clear that the pictures in your portfolio took years to make and that at the end of the day you are a great Street Photographer not a Magician. If the agency is arranging access for you, as is often the case, then they need to make sure you have plenty of time to work, you can shoot a portrait quickly but observational moments take much more patience. I have spent weeks working in one location for clients on occasion.
- You may need to adjust your fee structure to compensate for the amount of time Street Photographs take to make, I often take on a commission where a certain number of photographs are required and I agree a fee for the whole job and agree to work on it until the brief is achieved within reason. This can cost you if you have bad weather delays and if the art director/designer never considers the job completed which does happen ( see reasonable expectations above)
In conclusion, there is commercial work out there for the Street Photographer who can learn to adapt and Street Style images can make great Ad’s, I would go as far as to predict that there will be a return in demand for un doctored images as the public become a little jaded with constant CGI and fantastical stylised versions of reality. I think people know when they are being heavily marketed to and the Street Photographers honest approach to image making that demands more ‘idea’ and less ‘artifice’ will begin to appeal as the honeymoon with the pixel ends.