If Your Work Looks Like Everyone Else’s, How Do You Stand Apart?
It’s not enough to be good; you have to be unique — and that‘s hard.
It was a beautiful spring day, and we sat outside at a little cafe on Coronado Island.
It was one of those simply awesome days with temps in the low ’70s and sporting a wonderfully soft breeze drifting in from the ocean.
To my left was the grand old Coronado Hotel.
To the right, a huge expanse of sand with surprisingly few people spread out on their towels and chairs.
A few colorful umbrellas dotted the view, and I knew it wouldn’t be long till I joined them.
Our umbrella was green and yellow, and the wife had planted it in her ‘perfect spot.’
I could never figure out how she knew it was a perfect spot. Always seemed like a random spot to me.
But she knew perfect sand when she saw it.
And who was I to complain?
Apparently, I couldn’t see a perfect spot of sand if it was right in front of me.
The photographer sitting across from me had asked for a review of his portfolio.
I was on vacation in San Diego and that was in his area, so it seemed like a no-brainer to set up a meeting near the sand and waves that I would soon be enjoying.
There were photographs all over the table.
With forks and spoons and salt shakers to keep the breeze from rearranging them across the restaurant deck.
The work was nice and sharp.
The images were well-composed with the correct color balance.
And they were, actually, perfectly good photographs of food.
And they looked like a bazillion other photographs of food that I could get on Getty or Unsplash.
“It’s good work," I said.
“Clean, sharp, and very safe," I said.
The smile changed to quizzical.
“What do you mean by safe?" he asked.
I took a sip of my tea and asked him what the agencies and potential clients were saying about his work.
“Everyone seems to like it,” he was still wondering about safe, “but I never get called back”.
Another sip of tea… I knew the next question was going to be difficult.
“Why do you think they should call you back”?
I could see the confusion as he hesitated and tried to find the words.
“I’m not trying to trick you here, and I am not dissing your work, I honestly want to know why you think that they should call you back for work.”
He looked at the images, and said “I don’t know what you are asking.”
We sat for a few seconds in silence.
“If you don’t know why they should hire you, perhaps they don’t know either.”
With a smile to let him know I was on his side.
I reached over and grabbed an image that was well done, sharp, color correct, and lit well.
It was a photograph of a sandwich.
“When you show an agency this photograph, what are you trying to show them”, I asked.
“Well, that I can shoot food,” he answered with a little bit of frustration in his voice.
“OK, but they have a lot of photographers that can shoot a simple sandwich on a plate on a white background. Why would they want you to do it for them”?
He still looked confused.
“What would make them choose you to shoot the sandwich if they have others that they already know who can shoot it for them to look like this photograph on the table”?
I saw it then.
That glimmer… a spark of understanding.
“I don’t know," he smiled, “I hadn’t even thought of it that way.”
We started to get to the meat of the problem right there.
Was his work sharp? Yes. Was it composed well (by the rules)? Yes. Was it correct in color and hue? Yes. Was it exposed correctly? Yep.
Did it show anything special?
Nope. We can find those shots everywhere.
Did it kindle any sort of interest? Did it have anything unique about it?
See, that’s the thing. You have to show something that is not ubiquitous, not mundane, and not ordinary.
Sharp, clean, composed, and well-exposed — those things are a given. I am not saying you should be making out-of-focus, grainy photos with bad color. You have to have the technical chops to make quality images.
Every photographer has to be able to do those things. At scale.
You have to show something that piques their interest. Grabs their attention. Makes their hair stand on end. Gives them goosebumps.
Look at it this way.
Would you call an agency and ask the art director if you could swing by and show your work with this introduction?
“I have a portfolio of images you have seen a million times, done the same way everybody else does them, and don’t worry, they won’t knock your socks off or anything. They’re just sort of normal shots.”
I’m going with ‘that is not a winning strategy," right?
It’s not enough to shoot a sandwich like everyone else, you have to shoot it like YOU shoot it.
And NO, I am not saying you reinvent the wheel on sandwich shots.
I am saying that your work should reflect you, not everyone else.
Everyone else doesn’t matter.
Find a way.
Push the shot.
Shoot it again.
Shoot it again, but different.
Find a way.
And then you will have the answer to the question “why should they hire you for the gig”.
“My style and aesthetic are just what they need to set their client's work in a new light… one that sells more sandwiches.”
And before you start thinking I am talking about making something radically different, I’m not. It is very difficult to reinvent the wheel, but you can put your unique perspective on it. A Ferrari and a Kia are both cars, but they look, well, different. Whisky is sold in bottles, but distillers come up with new and beautiful bottles to distinctly set their product off from the hundreds of other bottles.
Above all, though, you should have an authentic style, one that laces through all of your images and ties them together to form a cohesive body of work.
He seemed very excited about what we discussed. I told him that with his obviously solid grasp of technique, he should be able to up the game with his approach and style. I found a few images where he had done something cool and told him, “more like this, please.”
We shook hands, and he left saying he was anxious to get back to the studio and begin reassessing his approach.
I had one more cup of tea and sat in the quiet breeze for a few minutes before heading off across the sand to the little green and yellow umbrella.
It was in the most perfect spot ever.
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