From Spec to Special

©Rob Gregory

Feeling stuck creatively? Looking for ways to broaden your client base and open new doors? Spec projects could be a ticket to improving your creative range while strategically moving your photography career in the direction of your choosing.

Spec work is a cornerstone of the career of Chicago-based commercial photographer and film director Rob Gregory, who works with some of the highest-profile brands in America. Since his earliest days in the business, Gregory has used spec work to trigger his imagination and showcase his skills.

“When we create spec work, we aren’t beholden to the same rules and constraints that we have when we are making client work,” he explains. “So we are able to both have fun with it and push boundaries that we might not be able to approach with all these other people analyzing and questioning every aspect of the project.”

Gregory points out that professional photography is a backward industry, in a way. Whether you work in weddings, portraits, or ad campaigns, nobody’s going to hire you to photograph something until you’ve already done it. But how do you photograph something if no one will hire you to do it? To work around that catch-22, stage your own speculative project. If you’re just getting started, or if you’re established but aren’t happy with what you’re being hired to photograph, going out and photographing things on your own will help you attract clients for the projects you want.

©Rob Gregory

To maximize your efforts from spec projects, Gregory suggests following five steps.

1. Choose a subject that interests you. Think about what you’re good at and where you want to specialize. Early in Gregory’s career, he sat down with a commercial photographer for a portfolio review. During the course of the conversation, that person ended up stripping out everything in Gregory’s portfolio except one project, a sports project that demonstrated an innovative approach and a deep understanding of the subject matter. That level of focus made all the difference in Gregory’s career development, as he worked toward specializing in sports-themed imagery and created a portfolio fit to attract art directors across the country.

“It’s important to find that niche that you can see a little bit better than other people,” says Gregory. “And then home in on it. Make that your focus as you develop your body of work.”

©Rob Gregory

2. Do something different. Find your niche, and then pick a subject within that niche and go deep. Dive into the research. Immerse yourself in the subject. Think about the sights, the sounds, the colors, the wardrobes, and the personalities involved. Fill your brain with every bit of information you can find on that subject.

“Then, after you’ve done all that research and you’ve crammed in every bit of knowledge, walk away from it,” suggests Gregory. “Go do something else. All that knowledge will sit in the back of your brain. While you’re out doing something else, the knowledge combines with the new input you’re seeing around you. And that’s when we start coming up with some truly original ideas.”

3. Push it further. Let’s say inspiration has struck. You found a niche, you dove deep into a particular subject within that niche, and then you combined all that knowledge with other life experiences to come up with a unique idea. How can you go further? What’s the one thing you can do with this idea to push it over the top?

This is the step where you combine your life experiences with your subject matter expertise to produce something that becomes part of your personal brand, your unique artist’s vision. “Keep pushing,” urges Gregory. “Take your idea into this special place so when people eventually see the project, it’s not going to look like anybody else’s. It’s yours. It’s something that gets it up into a next phase beyond what anybody else is going to do. Because a lot of people stop at a certain point in this process. However, when you take it up to that next level where the concept is fully realized, that is where you start getting into some really special work.”

©Rob Gregory

4. Market your results. The biggest benefit of spec work is staying relevant in the marketplace. Sometimes, that means putting out work even when you aren’t producing client work. “People want to see something new. They want to be entertained when they look at your work,” says Gregory. “Keeping things fresh is part of keeping people excited about your work. Your potential clients are really who you’re trying to entertain every time you put out new work.”

When you’re trying to work with a specific client or type of client, doing spec work can help illustrate that you’re the right photographer for their next project. When targeting commercial clients, think about how you can produce imagery that appeals to their brand, and show how you can take their look in a new direction.

“If you’re trying to get in with a specific client, you need to show that you understand their brand in order to attract their attention,” says Gregory. “It’s important to be true to you, but make sure you’re displaying images that are in their brand voice.” This sometimes means showing how your work can fit into their plans or help take their plans in a new direction that makes sense for them.

For whatever new market you want to break into, consider the type of imagery that appeals to your target market and produce some spec work that gets you into the conversation. Be true to your artistic voice in a way that shows you understand the clients and what appeals to them.

©Rob Gregory

5. Continue the process. Once you’ve been through these steps, repeat and continue. Spec work isn’t a one-and-done enterprise you should do only at a certain stage in your career. It can be a creative outlet and business development tool at every level.

“Spec work is an important part of being fulfilled in your career and attracting the clients you want to work with,” says Gregory. “It’s not a magic thing.

You still have to do the work and get out and find the clients. But spec work can help get your photography to a certain level that will help you get in the door, as well as provide a strong foundation for so many other things you want to do in your career.”  

Jeff Kent is editor-at-large.