Why I Hired a Photographer
Upping Your Game as a Professional Artist
You may have heard that your portfolio is everything, and that to attract “the right kind of interest”, you need to focus on a beautiful portfolio above all else. But what if your goal, your business model, is not to attract art directors or freelance clients? What if, instead, your aim is “simply” to delight your audience and to invite your collectors into the world behind the scenes?
I recently found myself firmly in the latter camp; what follows is my experience working with a photographer, along with a few tips on what to think about if you’re considering hiring one yourself.
Last year, my website was ready for a major overhaul. My vision for a new online home included more backstage images of me in the studio, as I wanted my brand to revolve around the artist in her natural habitat. The end goal was not just a place to show off my art, but a glimpse into my life that could foster a deeper relationship with my collectors. I wanted to draw people into the whole story, not just the painting on the cover.
Finding the Right Fit
The natural first step in this website overhaul was to hire a photographer. Although I have the equipment to photograph myself, there are only so many angles that a tripod can capture, and having a professional to see my space with fresh eyes would make it easier to give my audience a view they could relate to. Once I had in mind the sort of look I was going for, I began searching for someone with the vision and experience to turn that into a reality..
Finding the right photographer is, quite honestly, a more daunting task than I had counted on. The problem is not a lack of available talent (at least not where I live), but rather trying to figure out how to narrow down all the choices, and working through the fear that I might not pick “the right one.” If you’re having trouble finding enough qualified candidates, Instagram hashtags (#oakland #photographers, in my case) are a great place to start. Start by finding an artistic look that matches your vision, and then write a quick email to see if a match might be made. Don’t pin all your hopes on a single photographer, as not everyone will get back to you within a reasonable time, or be able to meet your schedule or budget. You’re looking to narrow the field to two or, at most, three candidates here.
I recommend beginning your search with “lifestyle photographers”, who will be familiar with taking shots at the intersection of journalism and everyday life. As you search, begin to compile a list of images from across the web that you think represents what you’re going for. As a fellow visual artist, your photographer will appreciate seeing images of what you want instead of just a written or verbal description.
Once you’ve narrowed the field, take an in-depth look at the photographer’s portfolio. Composition and editing style should be a close match for your intended results. Is their work clean and modern or rough and edgy? Do they tend to shoot at extreme angles or edit their images with desaturated colors? Do the subjects look staged and uncomfortable, or natural and alive? Look for photographers that have put their subjects at ease.
I was able to find several candidates in the area with excellent portfolios of artist/studio shots that really resonated with me, and in the end I decided to work with Thomas Kuoh, a local lifestyle photographer. His work was professional and clean while still keeping that organic vibe I wanted. His work with several bohemian brands gave me the confidence that he would know what to do with my rather eclectic and well-traveled space.
Before the Shoot
With my shoot scheduled I had some time to prepare. Don’t skimp on this step, as this is most definitely a team effort from this point forward. If you expect your photographer to just show up and make magic without you needing to put in any further effort, you will be sorely disappointed.
Plan your shot list:
Before your shoot, you will need to compile a shot list. Although the content of this list is entirely up to you, you definitely need to have a plan. I chose to write mine out with as much detail as I could, but you could also do this with more reference pictures and fewer words. Use this as a checklist on the day of the shoot to ensure you don’t need any retakes. Here’s what my list looked like:
Knowing what kind of image you want to convey for your end product is essential in determining the preparations you need to make before the shoot. Do you want to leave things as they are, completely untouched? Or does that pile of boxes in the corner really need to find a better home before it’s immortalized on your website’s front page? I recommend, at the very least, tidying up your work space and hanging your own work on your walls. I found that just a little bit of tactical tidying can turn a messy workspace into an appropriately “eclectic” studio.
I wanted my space to feel welcoming and tidy yet still look like the place that I actually work in, so I used the shoot as an incentive to make a few changes that have been on my list for a while. I painted the ugly lamps over my desk a nice champagne color, potted a few plants, and in general made headway on transforming my space into the way I had always wanted it yet had not found the time to complete.
Through this process I began to think a little more like an interior decorator. What story do I want my space to tell? In what ways can I incorporate more of my inspiration into my workspace? For me the answer came in the form of adding a few more plants and greenery to the studio, since I draw much of my inspiration from outdoors. On the day of the shoot, I bought fresh flowers, something I only splurge on from time to time, but that make me inordinately happy.
Show off and hang your artwork, don’t hide it; having your work on the walls will give context to the space. It may sound weird to some, but putting up your own art, even if only temporarily, will give the photographer an excellent backdrop. If you have to, frame some nice prints of work that has already sold. If you have an in-progress painting, make full use of it, since you’ll want at least a few photos of you hard at work!
This may sound like a lot but consider that you are going to be using these images as the face of your brand for quite some time. It is worth the extra time and effort, I promise!
Plan your outfit:
It may seem obvious but do plan what you want to wear before the shoot. Consider an outfit change part way through in order to get more mileage out of the shoot.
The Day of the Shoot
Meeting Thomas on the day of the shoot went smoothly, he and his team arrived and got to work setting up equipment and lights. During our email communication I had sent him a studio tour video so he was already familiar with the space. I recommend at least sending a quick series of photos of your space ahead of time, especially if it is a unique space that may involve some extra thought or planning on the photographer’s part.
From our emails, I knew Thomas was the right fit for the job because the first thing on his todo list was to have his assistant climb onto the roof and cover the skylights with a tarp. It might sound absurd to someone that uses ambient natural light for painting but top down light is the worst for photography and the quickest way to get shadowed faces.
During the shoot we took a lot of photos and in general had a lot of fun. Keep the mood in the studio chill by playing music. Remember to relax and enjoy yourself. It’s your day to be you. On the days leading up to the shoot, I gave Thomas as much information as I could about what I was looking for, but once he started shooting, I just went along for the ride and let him do his thing. After all, I hired a professional exactly so I wouldn’t have to think about all this during the shoot.
I have my photos, now what?
Once you get your images back from the photographer, which for me it took about a week, it’s time to start using them! During the waiting period I mocked up the changes that I wanted to see on my website with a few placeholder images. Once I received my photos I wasted no time in plugging them in and finalizing my website. You can see how I’ve used them here. I have since used them in various other ways and definitely feel like hiring a photographer was well worth the long term investment. The website is now a destination where my collectors can get to know me and a place where I am proud to show off my work.
Naomi VanDoren is an artist who spent much of her life abroad. She grew up in the Spice Islands of Indonesia. A childhood of travel and immersion into a variety of cultures at such a young age left her with the desire to explore the earth and share her experiences through art.
She has a formal education in graphic design and began pursuing illustration on her own after moving to Japan in 2013. Naomi dove deep into painting digitally full time, and her passion for drawing and painting blossomed. In 2015, she experienced painting in watercolor for the first time and found it to be the perfect medium for traveling and she hasn't put it down since.
Currently she is developing projects around her own foxdragon creatures.
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