Matt: Creativity vs Marketability

Listener “Chris” writes in with a question:

Hi Guys, wondered if I could spare your thoughts……

I recently joined a forum on motor sport photography but was sick of seeing the same generic boring photos on each thread, which at best were no better than the type of motor sport shots you often get on training ground, followed by comments saying ‘great set of photos!’…….So I posted a bit of a rant telling people to be more creative and think about the photos they were taking and to experiment etc.

Many people then looked at my photos and gave me a bit of a slating and made the point that they take images that are more ‘marketable’ and that most clients want normal ‘stock’ images and not the type of photos I am trying to create.

I am under no illusions about my photography skills at present and I am still a long way off where I want to be in terms of ability, but I really thought I had a clear vision and that my photography was improving well. Having since posted that thread however I am suddenly feeling a bit lost and not sure if I am heading in the right direction.

Where do you draw the line between creativity and marketability? Do you have to reign in your creativity in order to make a career from sports photography? I would love to know your thoughts and perhaps this is something you could even discuss on a future podcast?

If you would like to see the thread yourself, which is quite interesting, the link is here.

You can also check out my website from there, should you wish. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and keep up the good work! Love the podcast and you guys have helped me a lot with it!

Thanks to Chris for writing in. This question is loaded with things that we talk about on BLFS, so let’s try to unpack it all.

First off, very little good comes from photography forums. Sure it might occasionally be helpful to go to the ones at DPReview to read about other photographers’ experiences with gear you’re thinking of buying or to get solutions to technical problems or compare the relative merits of various software. But as a venue for honest critique and discussion of pictures, I honestly can’t think of a worse place to go than a photography forum. I wrote a post last year called +1s, Likes & Faves that covered part of this:

I have a lot of photographer friends on Facebook, and I see their pictures and sometimes the pictures that they like. I see comments/favorites on the pictures that land in the Big Lens Fast Shutter group on Flickr. And every time, I wonder “Does the person that made the picture know it sucks despite all the positive feedback?” Most people don’t know any sports photographers, and unless you are one, there’s almost no chance you know more than one. So all of your friends who just love your pictures probably have no idea what they are talking about. They’re impressed because you froze the action. They’re impressed that you managed to get the faces in focus and a ball in the frame. But as we say time and again, this is just a very small part of sports photography.

With very few exceptions, people who have time to post/comment on pictures on photography forums aren’t professional photographers, and if they are, they’re not busy ones, and if they’re not busy, they probably aren’t very good. So you end up with a mix of people who will just go and like everyone’s pictures because they’re clueless or people who will diss everyone’s pictures because they are jealous/insecure/etc. Prevailing forum opinion will congeal around the mods or the most outspoken members, and you’re left with groupthink. A few years ago I was shooting a rodeo with a fellow photographer friend. He was working on some really long exposure panning shots and while I was reviewing some of my non-panning shots, another photographer came up to me and asked me why my pictures were “so sharp” while my friend’s were “so blurry”. These are the people looking at and judging your pictures. We offer Training Ground to help people get better. No one has to participate, and we’re not passing our opinions off as anything other than the views of professional sports photographers who have been through it all. But seriously, listen to us, or at least other full-time professionals rather than forum-dwellers.

Motorsports 2011 - May 15 - AMA West Coast Moto Jam

Chris learned the hard way that hacks (amateur, semi-pro and pro) often justify their lack of creativity by claiming that they are “just giving their clients what they want.” With the exception of newspaper photographers whose only responsibility is the one race per year their local track, all other photographers who shoot motorsports are competing against all other photographers who shoot motorsports. So a “normal stock” picture of a driver on one track is going to look exactly like a “normal stock” picture of a driver on every other track. And since teams, drivers, and sponsors are for the most part the same throughout the season, “normal stock” pictures from the first few races will spread across wire service databases long before the series gets to your town. Here’s a simple search for “Jeff Gordon race” on Icon Sports Media’s site, 16 pages of mostly boring pictures that look more-or-less the same. Multiply those pictures across the other wire archives, and honestly, what is one more “normal stock” picture of Jeff Gordon’s car frozen on pavement worth to anyone? Is someone going to pay you $500 when they can go to Icon and get a nearly identical picture for $25? Of course not. Is spending a race weekend making the same picture of different frozen cars for a handful of $25 sales a good use of anyone’s time? Is it even photography at that point? I’m going to say no because really, you could train an actual chimp to do it.


Chris asks: “Where do you draw the line between creativity and marketability? Do you have to reign in your creativity in order to make a career from sports photography?”

I think about creativity all the time and I think about marketability almost never. Will I sometimes frame a picture differently to allow an editor/designer to overlay text? Sure. Will I skip part of an event at at rodeo to move to a different shooting position to make sure I get a picture of one of my clients’ endorsers? Of course. But these pictures are still going to represent my vision, and for the most part look different from other photographers’ pictures, and therefore increase my marketability, which will long outlive the marketability of any single picture I can make. Since we’re on the subject of motorsports, take a look at my motorsports portfolio. I shoot 2-3 motorsports events per year, so I’m far from a specialist, but I’m sure that my pictures showcase my vision, aren’t commodities, don’t look like everyone else’s, and represent me well to potential clients. If I was worried that the lack of “normal stock” pictures would hurt me with potential clients, wouldn’t I put up 20 of them and call it a day?


*Please Read Below*

Big Lens Fast Shutter is funded solely from the pockets of Ryu Voelkel and Matt Cohen. If you think the information we give you about sports photography is making you a better sports photographer and as a result a well balanced human being, please show us your appreciation by supporting us on Patreon and send some of your hard earned dollars/euros/Brixton pounds our way. People who donate will be mentioned on our next show unless you want to remain anonymous. Thank you for supporting us and may the force of sports photography be with you, always.


2 thoughts on “Matt: Creativity vs Marketability

  1. Great Response. I really appreciate you taking the time to get back to me and featuring it on your blog. I feel like I have my vision back again after reading that, those forum goers almost had me fooled!

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