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Low Self-Esteem and Defending Your Value as a Creative by Michael Jin

©2019 Michael Jin.

I have made no secret of my struggles with depression and low self-esteem. While I take medication to mitigate the effects, they are insidious forces that have a tendency to creep up when least expected. As a creative, there is an extremely fine line that we consistently walk the edge of. This is the line between realistic self-evaluation and destructive pessimism. In order to grow, one needs to examine his work and identify the weaknesses that require improvement. Doing so, however, can cause one to focus on the constant inadequacy that comes with not being perfect. This is a basic inner struggle that many creatives contend with and one that I have spoken about previously.

The struggle is enhanced, however, when it is removed from the realm of personal thoughts to the realm of business. As a creative working within a creative field, we are tasked with not only creating work, but attributing value to it in the form of our pricing. This is a tricky process and one which many books have been written about. Certainly, you can look at pricing across the market and place yourself somewhere that you deem reasonable based upon factors such as experience, brand recognition, quality of work, etc. and it would be a decent solution to the problem, but what happens when you run into a situation where the market is saturated with hobbyists who are willing to work for a credit or some paltry sum that is not viable to build an income from? Do you value your time and work the same way they do? Do you stick to your guns and charge based on what you need in order for all of this to be worth it to you? Do you pack up and find another line of work?

This is not a polemic against people willing to work for free or people who are taking side gigs just to pay for their own hobby. While many of them are genuinely talented and are underselling themselves, they are not responsible for thinking about others. As long as they are meeting their own goals, they are justified in pricing themselves however they choose. For anyone who tries to make a primary income from photography, however, it is a reality that needs to be accounted for. How do you defend your value to the potential clients to whom you are quoting a price for work?

The simple answer is to be better. You need to provide better consultation. You need to provide a better product. You need to provide better service. You need to provide a better customer experience. Above all, you need to be better at simply turning people down. It’s that last part that is probably the most difficult. The notion of the “starving artist” is a real thing and particularly when we are beginning, it is so easy to try to grab any little payday that we can. If someone is willing to pay you $50 and it’s $50 that you didn’t have before, how do you send them away? You can even rationalize it away to some extent. After all, it might just be an hour of work so theoretically you’re making $50/hour, right?

The adversarial nature of negotiations only makes it more difficult. As the service provider, you clearly want to make the most money that you possibly can. The client who has to pay wants to pay the least that they possibly can. So while you are defending your value, it is likely that the client is going to do their best to devalue you and your work. Whether it is attacking your experience (or lack thereof), pointing out problems with your product, dismissing the nature of your job as simply pressing a button, etc. If you get into this business, expect people to diminish your profession to try to work your price down.

On the one hand, every barb that a client levels at me hurts me at my core due to my natural low self-esteem. When these conversations occur, it is no longer an inner monologue beating me up—it is a real person on the other side of the conversation pointing out my weaknesses. It often becomes a spiral where, by extension of the worthlessness of my work, I feel worthless as a human being. This leads me down a very dark emotional path. On the other hand, it angers me to no end when these discussions inevitably occur because I tend to take it all very personally for the reasons I just described. For those that may not suffer from mental health issues in the way that I do, this might all seem the height of irrationality, but depression is not a rational thing. Like I said, it’s an insidious thing that can creep up on you and grip you before you realize what’s happening.

Why am I bringing all of this up and what’s the point? Even though it’s something that I continue to struggle with and something for which I’ve found no infallible solution, I want to let others like me know that they are not alone. Creative industries can be difficult for people who do not suffer from depression or low self-esteem, but for those who do, the nature of the business can lead one down some ugly emotional paths. One thing that I started doing in the morning is looking in the mirror and reminding myself that I have value and that my work has value. When I engage in negotiations, I keep my temper and remind myself that the client is not personally attacking me (usually), but that they have a legitimate concern about how their money is spent and expect me to provide assurances for them in the form of my own defense of my product. Above all, deal with people courteously even when it comes to turning work down. Simply saying that, “Unfortunately, I simply can’t do this at that price.” or “I don’t think that this arrangement is going to make sense for me.” and providing some alternatives in the form of references to cheaper photographers or potential solutions to make their project more reasonably priced is always better than “Go fuck off.”.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the most professional person in the world by a long stretch. I’m crass, I’m prone to severe mood swings, and I prefer to be very informal. I am not the right photographer for every client, but I’m honest about that. I didn’t get into this to be rich (although it would be nice if it ended that way). I got into this because I love photography and I want to help people with my skill set. Regardless of how I may think of myself, I can help people solve their creative problems (within the limits of my own ability) and that extends beyond simply taking on jobs. My value as a creative is to be able to create for you when I can and to lead you to others who can do for you what I cannot. Essentially, my value as a creative is that I actually give a fuck about you (whether you deserve it or not) and that’s more than can be said about a lot of people.

The Road to My First "Studio" Space by Michael Jin

Up until now, I’ve always worked “on-location”. Since the bulk of my work until this point has been real estate photography, it makes perfect sense for this to be the case. As with so many things in life, one thing leads to another, though. As I took on real estate jobs, I was occasionally asked if I could do headshots as well. My response was, “Of course!”. When my father closed down his photo lab, he brought home a pair of SP Studio Systems Excalibur 3200’s and shoot-through umbrellas to accompany them so I just dug those out of the closet and brought them to the office to do some headshots for the agents (Realistically, they were more often half-body portraits because of the variety of ways they needed to be used.). The results of those early shoots was rather mixed. A lot of it was just my inexperience, but some of it also came down to the limitations of the space that I was working in—mainly that I was often thrown into completely random situations and lacked the experience necessary to problem solve at the time.

Jerry Tenenbaum. One of my first paid portrait sessions. (I’m so sorry, Jerry!) ©2016 Michael Jin.

Low-Res File. ©2016 Michael Jin.

Low-Res File. ©2016 Michael Jin.

Often, I was just putting an agent against an available wall and photographing them with my D300 and 18-105mm f/2.5-f/5.6 kit lens. As you can see above, the results were less than ideal. To be honest, I was satisfied for a while with this as I just did not consider headshots to be “my thing”. I just knocked out the background (using the Eraser Tool in Photoshop because that’s the only way I knew how at the time), put in a replacement, and delivered a low resolution file for use as an email signature or something.

I’ll be the first to admit that this was completely unacceptable and my mentality in those early days was completely wrong. Not only did I think far too much of my own abilities, but I also didn’t take nearly enough pride in my work. I was only concerned with paying my bills and thus, treated my photography (which at the time was just a side hustle) as a way to make a few extra bucks.

For a long time, while my real estate photography steadily improved, my headshot photography did not. It’s only after I started to do photography outside of work and pursue it as a hobby that I began to really love the craft. Even though my personal work was almost exclusively various forms of street photography, just the simple fact that I started to take pride in my work caused me to re-examine the photography that I was doing for work. I knew that I could do a lot better if I took the time to study my craft so I picked up some books and started to learn about lighting as well as portraiture. The result was that I began to improve, although there were certainly hits and misses as I was experimenting a lot.

Julia Vinogradov. ©2016 Michael Jin.

Judah Finkelstein. ©2017 Michael Jin.

Andrey Romanyuk. ©2019 Michael Jin.

Jonathan Anobian. ©2019 Michael Jin.

In the past three years, I’ve read books, watched YouTube tutorials, gone through numerous gear changes and upgrades, and I think that the result is that I’m providing much better results for my customers. One thing that has bugged me throughout all of this is the fact that I continue to be at the mercy of whatever space I walk into when taking photos. Suffice it to say that most offices are not exactly designed with photography in mind, so it’s always a struggle to solve problems.

I think that most of us dream of building a studio space at some point and I am no exception. Obviously, I’d love to have a huge room with high ceilings that I can do whatever I want with. Very few of us will ever get to this point, though. Despite the fact that renting out a proper studio would be unrealistically for me at the moment, I have wanted some sort of dedicated space for photography that I could control. For me, the value of it is two-fold.

First, I do not have to turn away potential customers who don’t have their own space where I can set up my lighting to photograph them. If anything, they can always come to me. I am not deluded enough to think that this will alter things so that I never have to travel onto location and solve problems in those given spaces (something that I am much better at now), but it gives me options.

Second, and perhaps more important to me, is that it will give me a space to really be able to practice my photography to bring it to the next level. Until now, I’ve really only “practiced” on the job. I would read about a technique or lighting set-up and then I would have wait until the next person called me because I had nowhere to really set up my lights to practice them on subjects beforehand. I think I’ve come a surprisingly long way working like this, but it is something that does need to change. With a dedicated space, I am free to invite people over and practice without money on the line. This is better for me and better for my customers.

I’ve had something of an “office space” in my home for a few months now since my wife and I moved after having our son. A while back, when I made the decision to transition into becoming a professional photographer, I figured that I couldn’t put off setting aside some space any longer. The only question was how exactly to go about doing this since none of the rooms in our apartment is particularly large with my office space being the smallest room by a decent margin. In the end, I decided that it’s more important for me to have some sort of space rather than the ideal space so while I would love to have a setup that allows for a 10-foot wide backdrop and enough room to back up in order to do full body portraiture, I have settled on a configuration that is pretty much limited to fairly tight headshots for the moment. It’s certainly not ideal, but it will allow me to do some bread-and-butter work as well as practice different lighting techniques.

Can shoot tethered

White and black backdrops are back-ordered.

It turns out that my father still had a Savage Slate Grey backdrop that was in its sealed wrapper in the closet so I grabbed that and ordered an Impact Wall Mount kit. Unfortunately, the white and black backdrops I had in the cart are on back-order (not for too long, I imagine), but in the end, I will have a decent setup to work with. (My original SP Studio Systems Excalibur 3200 monolights are in that red bag.). I think a v-flat or two would be the major things left to add.

I just finished putting everything up yesterday and I have a friend coming over today so that I can take the configuration for a spin. I don’t anticipate any issues, but I can’t tell you how happy i am. It’s not much of a “studio space”, but for me, it’s an incredible step that I’ve taken toward my dreams. Stay tuned for updates and if you’ve been on the fence, I really encourage you to just take the step with whatever you have available. I feel like I waited far too long constantly waiting for the ideal space or setup. With my new outlook, I’m seeing that it’s more important to just start because there’s nothing saying that this is going to be my permanent studio. I can always build from here into a larger space, but if I never start, I will never get anywhere.


Update: Here’s the first portrait to come out of my studio. The model is my buddy and fellow photographer, David Goris.

David Goris. ©2019 Michael Jin.