How Commercial Photography is Like Dungeons & Dragons


It was inevitable, I suppose. My paladin’s +2 plate armor had cracked. That is, my buddy Alex’s barbarian character had hit my character with a stroke of such raw power that even my eternally sunny disposition was clouded with rage. I mean, how dare he?! What a creep! I couldn’t wait to get back at him with my Backstabbing Ring of…umm… Backstabbery.

In fact, I was right in the middle of throwing a twenty-sided die across the table at Alex, and maybe even stomping my foot in disgust, when I realized a horrible truth: oh, man, I was actually having fun!

dungeondiceMaybe it was the rancid dungeon from which our characters had just crawled. Maybe it was the strange tower we were currently ascending. Maybe it was thoughts of the magical silver ship waiting at the top to fly us through the cosmos to another plane of existence.

…And yes, maybe we were just a group of fourteen-year-old geeks.

But I’ll tell you what: Playing D&D with my friends taught me a lot about myself. More relevant to this blog, however, is that it gave me tools to use in my photography career.

For years, before I was working as a photographer, whenever my mind would wander, I’d find myself deep in a gaming session with my friends, snack chips and soda cans flying, odd green dice rolling across bare wood floors, and pubescent boys guffawing about the imagined delicacies of pretty elf girls.

Then, one day, I realized it wasn’t the game, itself, I’d been keying into. Rather, it was the camaraderie.

paladinI didn’t really care whether or not Alex beat my paladin to a pulp. I wasn’t that curious to learn about “The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh.” I was more interested simply in hanging out with my buddies and telling stories. That’s what D&D was for me — a chance to hang out with my friends and to have fun. It was simple cooperative storytelling.

And, to a certain extent, that’s what commercial photography is to me as well. When I’m on set with the client, M/U, assistant, subjects, et al., I’m not geeking out on some new camera model or light modifier. I’m geeking out on the collaborative process. We’re all (hopefully) having fun. We’re doing something we love, and we’re doing it together.

The conflict in D&D is knowingly false. I’m pretty sure I’ve never met anyone who has faced down a red dragon while armed only with a “Scroll of Magic Missile.” On a photo set, however, the conflict can be very real. But the approach to it is pretty much the same: “Hey, guys, let’s see if we can work through this together and maybe have some fun along the way.”

storyI don’t play D&D anymore. Sometimes I wish I did. But that addiction has found a new home in the ensemble-oriented world of commercial photography. No one individual, to the best of my knowledge, steps onto a set and completely dominates every aspect of it. Maybe some of the top-top-top photographers have that kind of power, but I doubt it.

At almost all times, there’s a give-and-take that must be nurtured and appreciated. I try my best to coax what I need from the models, but I want to hear everyone’s crazy ideas (when applicable) just as much as I want them to hear mine. Even when the client shuts me down with a master-stroke of her “playful” schadenfreude (which has happened, I assure you), I remember that we’re all here for one reason: to tell a tale together.

Image credit: 1974 Dungeons and Dragons set, Xmas morning, London, UK.jpg by gruntzooki, Dungeon Dice by Will Merydith, Dungeons and Dragons by Will Merydith, Commercial Production, Eleanor Tinsley Park, Houston, Texas 0924111501BW by Patrick Feller

  • F200

    Wow, that’s the original D&D…good memories, D&D thought me one thing important, nothing is impossible! when you’re down to 5 hp and have to face a couple of fully armed orcs with nothing but 1st level spells…you try your level best to maximise the effect of those spells. And hopefully, your other adventure friends that you met in the tavern will attack from behind…hahaha

  • jkantor267

    You have a better chance of making money playing D&D than you do being a professional photographer today.

  • Sundra Tanakoh

    Well said!! And I totally agree about interaction.

  • Sundra Tanakoh

    The original D&D was on a set of 3×5 cards (which I still had up until a 5 years ago, I sold them for about $3000, the issue shown is the first boxed edition.

  • F200

    I stand corrected. I’ve only seen the original 1st edition boxed version. Hmm, just wondering, whether Gygax have them 3×5 cards you mentioned..

  • Sundra Tanakoh

    Hard to say since he is dead.

  • eths

    OMG – The original D&D booklets. Thanks for the memories.

    OT: Do you also have a copy of Chainmail with its fantasy appendix (the predecessor of D&D)? Those where heady days indeed.

  • eths

    I may be mistaken (senior moment?): The three above booklets predate the cards by a couple of years.

  • Greg

    Thanks, Sundra!

  • Greg

    Hey, eths. Unfortunately, the photos illustrating the article are not mine. But…I do still have a Chainmail book…somewhere. :-) Actually, I have a wall-o-DnD filled to bursting with 1st Edition books and whatnot. I look to them for inspiration from time to time. Remember those orange-spined tomes? Yeah, baby!

  • Greg

    “…[W]hen you’re down to 5 hp and have to face a couple of fully armed orcs…”. Yeah, I’ve had photo shoots like that! :-)

  • Angil

    To bad Wizards killed D&D and now many are playing Pathfinder …

  • Greg

    I don’t know. For me, the spirit will never die, no matter what happens to the game, itself. I think that’s what I’ve always appreciated most about it. Stomping through imaginary forests with a horde of rabid goblins on your tail…I don’t think that will ever change. :-)

  • eths

    GOD (my high level priest) to a wall: What is behind you?
    Wall (I hated this D-Master): Heck, if I know… I’m plastered… *hick*