Named the “Most Influential Photographer on the Internet” by The Huffington Post, acclaimed photographer Jeremy Cowart has a list of clients under his belt that many photographers would dream to shoot. He’s taken portraits of celebrities including Taylor Swift, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sting, and the Kardashians, and shot for major brands like ABC, Warner Brothers Records, US Weekly, TIME, The New York Times, and the list goes on.
Hailed as one of the industry’s leading trailblazers, Jeremy also recently launched See University, an in-depth online resource for commercial and portrait photographers to hone their technical skills, get real world instruction, and walk away with inspiration for their next shoot.
We caught up with Jeremy to find out more about his love for photography and some major lessons he’s learned along the way.
What are your tips for budding photographers who want to be commercial photographers?
I’d say “It’s not about you anymore.” By nature, photographers are very self-centered, especially at the beginning. How do you look cooler, make better images, etc…but with commercial photography it’s not about you anymore. You’ve been hired to make a client look better. How do you serve them better? How do you help them sell what they’re selling? How can you give them the best experience during the process? You have got to realize that someone else will be editing on your image.
What is the hardest part for you about commercial photography?
I’m an artist first. So it’s hard to do a shoot that I believe in. After the shoot, the client goes through and somehow manages to find the worst images from the shoot to use. Even if you “trim the fat” and get rid of the bad stuff, they’ll still pick the next worst images. Then your bad image gets handed to a new graphic designer straight out of school who slaps textures and bad fonts on your art, along with your big photo credit. By that point, you’re wishing you had never done it. This is an extreme example, but it happens all the time. I can’t tell you how many images of mine are out there that I’m horrified of. But when the process is correct and the final product is artful and something you’re proud of…you can’t beat it.
What has been the greatest lesson you have learned since shooting commercial work?
I’d say to not put all your eggs into one basket. This career is truly a roller coaster. You’re hot for a while. Then your cold for a long while. Then you’re hotter than ever again. It’s just the nature of the business. So I’ve learned to diversify. I have many streams of income these days to help during the cold phases. By being a freelance photographer, you really are a CEO of your own company.
Marketing, business, finance, strategy, social media, communication…those are the things you really do day-to-day. Taking pictures is a cute little thing you do on the side.
What kinds of things do you ask on creative calls with clients?
Who is the target audience? Why are they selling this product? How do they want viewers to feel? Is there going to be plenty of queso on set?
Your style is more dark and moody, how do you stay true to that part of your photography while doing commercial work?
I’m a bit A.D.D. when it comes to style. I definitely love dark and moody, but I can do glossy and clean as well, and everything in between. My portfolio shows many styles and I don’t say that to brag. In fact, many times I think it’s a bad thing. But in the end I just have to be true to myself and show the images I’m proud of. If someone has an issue with my diversity, then oh well. I’m not losing sleep over it.
Have you ever gotten creatively “stuck” in commercial photography? If so, how did you get unstuck?
I usually jump to another medium altogether to get unstuck. I start drawing or painting. Or I work on other ideas all together. I spent 4 years developing an app. I launched an online business called See University. There’s a lot more to my creativity than just photography. I get bored of shooting often, so I enjoy exploring other things and I find that helps me avoid creative block.
What kind of commercial photography inspires you?
So many kinds. So many other photographers inspire me…Dan Winters, Erik Almas, Frank Ockenfels, Dana Neibert, Paolo Roversi, Joey L, the list goes on and on and on.
Where do you think the commercial photography industry is headed or where should it be headed?
It’s been the wild, wild west for a while now and will continue to be. Technology is changing at a mind-blowing pace. So I don’t know. I can’t predict the future, but I sure am excited about it. I hear a lot of photographers complaining all the time about it, but I find it to be incredibly invigorating. Change is good.
When you prepare ideas for a shoot what do you look for in the subject matter for finding the right creative vein?
I shoot a lot of album covers so I always look at their past photos and wonder how I can put a new spin on their brand. I also try to hear the new music they’re working on and simply try to match visuals for it. Again, it’s never “how do I make this look cool?” It’s “who is the audience, what are they selling and why?” Those answers determine the lighting and the overall vibe.
How do you capture all your client want then go a step or two further?
It’s just something you have to do. They’re bringing their ideas to the table, but they also know they’ve hired you for a reason. They’ve hired you to make them look better. So I make sure their needs are covered first, then I try to toss it all out the window and do my own thing.
For more tips to shoot for the commercial clients you want, check out Breaking Into Commercial Photography.