Diminishing returns?

Crow takes flight from railings on the cliff tops at Fisherman's Walk,  Bournemouth. © Neil Turner, October 2015 © Neil Turner

Crow takes flight from the cliff tops at Fisherman’s Walk, Bournemouth. © Neil Turner, October 2015

Most photographers have personal projects that they spend their spare time working on. Mine is to document one of my favourite places on the world – the area of Bournemouth known as Fisherman’s Walk. It’s a lovely place that is very close to my heart and I often just pop along there (it’s three miles or so from home) with a camera or two over my shoulder and see what is happening.

The light by the sea is almost always interesting. No matter whether we have dull clouds or sparkling sunshine there will be something happening and that is why I keep going back to the beach, cliff tops and gardens that make up the area.

I have titled this piece ‘diminishing returns’ because that’s what happens with most projects: they start slowly and quickly develop with a flurry of great pictures and then it tails off again. That is unless you really work at it. Commercially speaking all projects need to have a finishing point. They need to have a date where you say ‘enough is enough’ and stop working on it. At that point you need to publish the book, stage the exhibition or just post the web gallery and call it finished. If they are truly ‘personal’ that will probably never happen and because it is a labour of love and there always seems to be more scope for pictures.

When I work with students who are doing long-term projects I try to get them to distinguish between truly ‘personal’ work and self-generated commercially driven projects. Most people can see the difference but few can bring themselves to work differently unless, it seems, the self-generated project involves travel. Obviously any project that involves paying for plane/train/bus tickets has to be finite because the expense of continually going back to expensive destinations makes earning a living from the photographs ever more difficult. The number of times that I have been through the true cost of shooting longer-term stories and projects with talented and driven young photographers couldn’t be counted on a standard abacus. The number of times I have made one of them change the way that they approach their work could easily be counted on the fingers of two hands.

That’s why I want to get the concept of diminishing returns out there. That’s why I want people who read this blog post to start to see the difference between taking pictures to fulfil an inner need to document something special and shooting projects to pay the bills/pad the folio/impress the clients.

Imagine a project to document a place. Imagine that you have high hopes of getting those pictures used editorially. Spending money getting there and spending time shooting the pictures incur costs which have to come into the calculation when you try to monetise your work. Multiple sales to multiple publications has always been the gold standard and selling limited edition prints has become an almost obligatory add-on when the balance sheet comes into the picture. Totting-up what having some extra high quality work on your website is worth is a tricky one but being honest with yourself about the motivation behind what you shoot and how much it has cost you is very important if you want to call yourself a professional.

My frequent trips to Fisherman’s Walk fall into the ‘because I can’ category. I have no plans to market the pictures and I have never supplied them outside the worlds of social media. More importantly, I don’t really need or want to. Fifty pence worth of diesel and free parking for every visit makes this a cheap project in every sense bar my time and I would argue that a few hours here and there over a year is actually a great investment in keeping my creative soul up to date, charged and firing.

It is still the case that the returns are diminishing. When I first started to go there camera-in-hand I was getting three or four good and different images per visit. Now that’s down to none or maybe one. What is happening now is that I am getting slightly better versions of the original pictures – or at least ones that I prefer. In a commercial project that makes no sense whatsoever. When I am at the cliff-tops or on the beach I have more in common with someone indulging in their hobby, which is great because my career is a passion and it is a hobby.

To the students and teachers who read this I’d like to say the following:

  1. Decide when you start a project who the audience is and whether it is work or whether it is passion that is driving you on.
  2. Budget accordingly.
  3. Know when the returns have diminished to an unacceptable degree.
  4. Have the guts to pull the plug.
  5. Being a photographer is a joy but don’t let it become all that you are.

I know that I have at times been guilty of #5 and it isn’t good. There’s a difference between always having a camera around and seeing pictures and always having a camera in hand and missing daily life because of it. That’s why I go out specifically to take pictures – something that has never stopped being a joy.

The beach at Fisherman's Walk, Bournemouth. © Neil Turner, September 2015

The beach at Fisherman’s Walk, Bournemouth. © Neil Turner, September 2015

6 comments

  1. A very thoughtful and useful article and one to come back to. That said, would you say that the light and the position of the person in your photo is down to a coincidence of events that by their unpredictability escape the ‘diminishing returns’?

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    1. It’s one of those photographs that I have taken several times on different days with different people and different skies. I think that any further attempts at a similar picture will have to be very good to replace this one in the imaginary book that I’ll never publish.

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  2. Opening the shutter for the joy of opening the shutter, that is what motivates me on a lot of my ‘leisure’ shooting.
    That imaginary book is a fantasy I carry as well – I might even get around too it next year. I spent a lot of this year taking personal project pics and the size of the archive is getting to then point where I need too do something with it.

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  3. Wonderful timing, me finding this post that is. {long time reader} I arranged and shot some portraits of an actor recently. It wasn’t just for me as I hope to use the images to generate more work. I had been wondering if was just personal work as I had instigated it myself but I find myself agreeing with you completely. Personal work is the stuff I do purely for me.

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    1. I always like to shoot something for me on the back of a commission if I get time. I do it for two reasons: the first is to show the client that I have my own vision and the second is to potentially add to my folio. I rarely do my own picture until I have completely satisfied the client’s brief but over the years this has proved to be a decent strategy.

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