Talented, Driven, Experienced, Blunt: Portrait of a Local Commercial Photographer

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By Katherine Gotthardt

If you wrote to Mark Gilvey, professional commercial photographer at Mark Gilvey Creative, and asked him to describe his business, he’d write it down for you (maybe on a napkin): “Commercial photography that $ells your products and services.”

And if you asked him what clients in the market for photography need to know, he’d say, “The pots you use to cook with will still burn the food if you don’t know what you are doing. Owning great equipment doesn’t guarantee anything.”

That second statement is for the DIYers, and that’s just a speck of what Gilvey has learned in his decades of professional experience.

“Professional photographers are an investment in your business, just like copywriters who write your awesome profit-making text,” he said. “They are equally important. Don’t sacrifice either of them.”

Gilvey lets these things roll off his tongue, his confidence coming from decades of experience and learning. Well-known in the local business community and beyond, Gilvey has had his Woodbridgebased studio since 2015. But his love of photography started much earlier. He has been in the commercial creative industry in one form or another since 1985.

Gilvey said the original movie versions of Star Wars and Le Mans drew him into the industry.

Star Wars got me interested in special optical effects, and the movie Le Mans got me interested in photographing endurance car racing. I was just 13 or so,” he said.

Gilvey’s first real career position was in Falls Church, working for a slide production house creating images for multi-projector slide shows. It was a dream come true. His camera was the same model used to create the optical effects in the first Star Wars movie.

Not the Starving Artist Type, Definitely Not a Hobbyist

Gilvey said his work “has never been for artistic purposes only,” countering a particular stereotype. “I enrolled in a formal photography program at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in 1983 at age 22 because I knew the work I wanted to create wasn’t to make the wall beautiful, but rather to help clients make money,” he said.

While he does now have a side-business dedicated to “making walls look beautiful” (Mark Gilvey Fine Art Photography), he said his drive has always been to help businesses profit from their products and services through “industrial-strength commercial photography.”

“These folks are not interested in pretty pictures,” he said. “They want to make a profit, and they know that great photography will get them to their goal.”

Gilvey is adamant about being a professional who makes his clients money, a motive he said is much different than that of the hobbyist. “A hobby, in my view, is more about the creators and the statement they want their work to make about them or what they photographed,” he said.

“As a business, it’s not about the creator. It’s more about the target audience and crafting visual solutions that meet someone else’s goals; in most cases, the client’s customers,” Gilvey said.

“You have to be able to create work that is consistent and repeatable and that helps sell a product or service to someone you will never meet and do it on demand.”

“Hobbyists,” he said, “have total freedom to do what they want and don’t have to be able to produce anything consistently or be able to repeat it.”

The Struggle is Real

Even with his matter-of-fact approach and commitment to making clients money, Gilvey said, “Every day in photography is a struggle.”

According to Gilvey, there is a belief marketed to the public that if you have a good camera, you can do photography yourself. “This idea creates all kinds of problems for my fellow professional photographers and me,” he said.

“Business owners spend a lot of money on everything else, but when it comes to photography, they rely on an employee who has a good camera.”

“Photography is more about lighting and design than it is the quality of the camera,” he said. “There’s no mode selection on the camera for that. It takes skill, experience and education to get it right, going beyond owning an expensive camera.”

Gilvey said there is also a belief that everything is perfect in-camera. But the camera is just one tool in the commercial photography workflow. What appears to be a straight shot may have had hours of retouching to get it looking good enough to entice a customer to buy.

“Retouching is not free, and it is a very difficult skill set to learn,” said Gilvey, who has been doing it since 1995.

Gilvey also struggles to get past assumptions. “All photographers don’t do all types of photography,” he said. “Look at their portfolios, and you’ll see what they specialize in. I don’t shoot  weddings, families and fuzzy friends, so you won’t see them in my portfolio. I’ll give you some great references if that’s what you are looking for.”

Advice for Newbies

Gilvey has lots of wisdom-rich, golden nuggets to offer those starting out in the industry. The first is, photographers need to be able to prove their value to potential clients. If you can’t do this, he said, clients “will think they can do it themselves.”

His second piece of advice is, “Be willing to do what others will not do, despite what your peers say.” That will set you apart.

Third, only take on a project if it will yield “connections, portfolio or money.”

He also said new business owners need to learn about copyright, usage, negotiation and contract writing. Marketing, networking, technical skills, more marketing and more networking are additional must-haves in the industry.

And finally, learn live from the pros, not YouTube. “Join a local photo association like the Northern Virginia Professional Photographers Association if you want to go pro.”

“The self-taught approach does not provide you feedback about what you are doing wrong,” Gilvey said. “Be humble and willing to learn, and smart enough to have confidence in yourself.”

For more information on Gilvey’s business, visit mgcre8v.com.

Katherine Gotthardt (kgotthardt@princewilliamliving.com) is an award-winning poetry and prose writer residing in western Prince William County where she serves as VP of Content Marketing for Prince William Living and VP of Write by the Rails, the Prince William Chapter of the Virginia Writers Club. Learn more about her at KatherineGotthardt.com.


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