Ron Dawson is president and creative director of Dare Dreamer Media, a new media marketing and film and video production agency that focuses on helping brands tell cause-driven and inspirational stories. He writes about the art and business of filmmaking and photography at DareDreamerMag.com and hosts Crossing the 180: The Filmmakers Podcast that Breaks the Rules. Follow Ron on Twitter and Facebook.
Photographers are passionate people. The Nikon vs. Canon battle (or is that Canon vs. Nikon) is right up there with Mac vs. Windows. Democrat vs Republican. Back Street Boys vs. New Kids on the Block (Or should that be Justin Bieber vs. One Direction?) Well, I suppose that artists in general are passionate. You have to be passionate about your art if you plan to make a living at it. Wait, let me amend that. You actually DON’T have to be passionate about your art if you want to make a living at it.
Let that sink in a bit …
Are you fuming? Are you perturbed? Did I ruffle your feathers? Burst your bubble? Put a kink in your armor? Throw a wrench in your … well, you get the idea.
If you’re like many professional photographers I have come across, a statement like the one I just mentioned could be enough to send you into a social media frenzy akin to a jihad. “How dare I say you don’t have to be passionate about your craft?”
I can say it because it’s true. You do not have to be passionate about filmmaking or photography or quilting to make a living at it. Do you really think the owner of Glamour Shots is “passionate” about photography? I don’t know if he/she/it is? I just know that it’s one of the largest photography businesses in the world and it’s blatantly obvious it’s not built on a passion for the craft.
Likewise, we are all familiar with the “starving artist”. That individual who is true to his/her craft. Pure in heart and spirit. She would rather slit her wrist than Photoshop in a sky. Would not be caught dead using a point and shoot. And some of them even think film is still alive (Ouch! Why’d you have to go there Ron?)
A Brief History
This is one of those debates you can never win. It’s kind of like arguing about religion. Either you believe it or you don’t. Some of you may be converted then fall to one side vs. the other. But in the end, most of you are firmly encamped in your beliefs. And woe to the person who says otherwise.
I was first introduced to the passionate sides of this debate a few years ago when well-known, award-winning photographer Jesh De Rox held a free webinar. At the end he pitched a 1-day workshop that cost $20,000. That is not a typo. Twenty thousand dollars. OMG. You would’ve thought he publicly lambasted the Pope or something. (That workshop wasn’t the main pitch, it was actually more of a “would you like fries with that” kind of pitch.) The blog post I wrote about it to this day remains the most popular.
There have been other provocative luminaries in the photography world who have caused their fair share of eyebrow-raising and vitriol spewing: Jasmine Star. David Jay (can you say “Photo System“). Gary Fong. Denis Reggie. Kevin Swan. All these guys at some point or another did (or continues to do) something related to their business that rubs the aforementioned “auteurs” the wrong way.
The “heroes” on the other end of the debate are people like my good friend Zack Arias. Zack is in essence the patron saint of photography. He is awesome. His craft is undeniable. But here’s the irony. He also has a lot of great business advice to give too. Despite the fact that Zack often leads (or at least inspires) the social media frenzies I mentioned, at least he’s a person who is not so blinded or enamored by “the craft,” that he doesn’t also realize the importance of “the commerce” aspect. But, I pity tha fool who gets on the wrong side of Zack’s massive photography following.
Striking a Balance
In my humble opinion, it all comes down to striking a balance. Look, if you want to do your art strictly for art’s sake, then keep it as a hobby. Spend as many hours as you like in the editing room. Take as many shots as you want so that you have 20,000 images to cull through. Go HDR crazy!
But if you want to make a living at your craft… If you want to quit your day job and support your family, then you will have to make choices. Choices that may contradict the purist in you. You may have to do jobs that are “good enough” and not “great.” You may have to take work that doesn’t inspire you. You will have to put systems in place that curb your creativity, e.g. you can’t take 20,000 images at a wedding or portrait session. Nor can you spend 30 minutes on each photo making it look just right.
Likewise, you should be invested in improving your craft. Continuously educate yourself. Keep up with the latest technologies. Go to workshops. Watch online videos. Read books. Allocate some time during the week to practice. All of these things are important. (Although, I could still make the argument that they are not crucial when it comes to growing your business. But I don’t think some of you could handle it).
I have a confession to make. I am sincerely conflicted on this topic. Only in as much as for the past few years I’ve actually been passionate about getting back to my “roots” as a filmmaker. Among my clients and friends, my work is seen as exceptional and I’m known for my craft. When I first got started in the business, even among my peers, I was lauded for my craft. But within the filmmaking industry itself, my “fame” (for lack of a better word, for I would hardly say I’m “famous”) came about because of my business prowess, not my craft. I co-wrote (with my wife) a business book about filmmaking. I was on Zacuto’s Film Fellas, mainly to represent the business voice of the industry. The lectures I was asked to make at expos like WPPI and WEVA were related to things like social media and branding. For a while, no one was interested in a Ron Dawson seminar on “How to be a Filmmaker.” Much of that was my own doing. I too frequently preached the “good enough” sermon. My pendulum swung too far to the commerce side.
It was that Zacuto Film Fellas recording that changed that. I was moved by the passion of my co-guests, Patrick Moreau (of StillMotion fame) and Kevin Shahinian, world-class wedding filmmaker who makes the most amazing concept films. After being exposed to their passion for excellence, I was moved to focus more on the craft-side of my business. That was the year I started shooting with DSLRs primarily. I actively started changing my brand in the filmmaking world. I changed my profile pic to more of an “artist” style. I used to write exclusively about business on my blog. Now I try to balance it with a healthy does of art as well. I started teaching the craft more online and at WPPI. And here’s the biggest kicker: I actually believe that I will be able to improve my business by putting out higher quality work. After two years of interviewing top filmmakers on my podcast, I’ve learned that personal work can play a huge role in getting noticed and winning larger jobs. So I’m working on doing more personal work (my current opus is Mixed in America, a documentary series about race relations and personal identity among biracial people.)
But, regardless of how much I get into my craft, I will never forget the importance of maintaining my business. I keep my systems in place. I still do “good enough” when the client hasn’t paid for “great.” I’m looking for people to fill in the roles where I’m weak (or need help). I use social media and marketing strategies. I do what I have to do to make the business grow.
But if my love for my craft continues to grow, who knows. I may actually forgo the business to go back to the corporate world so that I can indeed focus on my craft the way I want. There is no shame in that. In fact, that is what I think many of you should do. Turning your passion for art into a business is often a sure-fire way to kill that passion. Keeping it “on the side” is one of the four ways in which I believe an artist can maximize his/her creative output.
My challenge to you is to take an honest assessment of where you fall on the commerce vs. craft scale. Do you lean more to one side vs. the other? Do you need to make an adjustment and strike a balance? Ask a loved one or a spouse to give you feedback. It just may be time for a change.