I will occasionally receive emails from students or photographers just starting out on their professional or freelance paths and I always try to be helpful and answer any questions they might have. Lots of folks have helped me out over the years and I’m happy to do what I can to share what I’ve learned. If I’ve learned anything at all, it’s that I don’t actually know anything, but I can certainly pretend.
Beäte Burgess contacted me a while back with some questions and I thought that instead of replying privately, that it might be more helpful for more folks if I answered some of her questions on my blog. Here goes.
When you started did you assist for another photographer? If so were they someone who did work you saw yourself doing? If not, how did you break into this competitive market?
I used to help my fellow newspaper staffers with portrait shoots, but when I went freelance I never really wanted to assist. I tried it once and was treated so poorly by both the subject and, worse, the photographer, that I vowed never to do it again. I’ve since assisted twice and both times as a big favor to dear friends. Having had the privilege to work with many wonderful assistants, I realized I was never cut out to be an assistant in the first place. I have a bit of a large personality and have a hard time keeping the requisite low-profile. I’m also fairly petite (muscle is not necessary, but most helpful for assistants) and I don’t give a flying fart about equipment beyond wanting the best tools for the job and wanting them to work when I need them. I’m far more preoccupied with my subjects and coaxing the best moments from them. I prefer to pay someone else to worry about technical problem-solving.
I broke into magazine photography over the span of about three and a half years. I started out with one magazine, hooked up with a new agency that insisted on marketing me as a portrait photographer (which I wasn’t) and then the portrait shoots kept coming. Now I get paid to shoot portraits, news, features, documentary, landscape, architecture- really I get assignments for all kinds of weird/awesome things. I don’t know why, but I’m hardly complaining.
If I’m being completely honest here, when I was in college and just starting out in my career, I wanted to be Paula Bronstein. Shit. I still want to be Paula Bronstein. Her whole deal is pretty remarkable.
In editorial portraiture of politicians and others, do you have to bid on the job similar to advertising photography? If not who did you get your work in front of that allowed you to be considered for future work?
Nope. I get calls or emails from my agency or directly from my clients and either I’m free on the proposed date or I’m not. Either I accept the publication’s rates and terms or I don’t. I went through a commercial bidding process this year and it made me want to crawl under the covers and never come out. I wasn’t even doing the heavy lifting! I’m so very, very glad that editorial photography doesn’t make photographers jump through those kind of hoops. There are different hoops, of course. There are always hoops- I just like them better.
I started shooting politics back in college. One of my very first photo stories was about a failed congressional run. I moved to DC in the summer of 2007 and started shooting news around the Hill. When things got going with the presidential primaries, I took a few weeks off and did a bit of a primary coverage road trip. I made a portfolio from that trip and showed it to various editors in NYC. That led to more political coverage (which is much easier to come by in DC) and it just kind of snowballed from there.
How do you personally go about finding new work?
Well, I’m not currently finding new work right now. I’m pretty busy and happy with my current workload and clients, but that kind of thing is subject to change at ANY MOMENT. I once had a fairly regular thing going with a publication that rhymes with lime. My favorite editor left and a new director of photography took over, and I didn’t really figure into the new paradigm. It happens.
When I want to work with a new client, I plan a trip. I go to the city where the publication is based and either reach out directly, or have my agency broker a meeting with editors. I try to tailor my portfolio to the publication and during the meeting I like to try to give the editors an idea of who they’ll be sending to represent them in the field. I’d say that this results in a new client 80% of the time. I don’t do direct marketing of any sort, but I try to keep my blog current and I utilize social media to a moderate extent.
What do you feel in editorial/environmental photography are the must have skills for a photographer beyond the basics of photography and lighting?
You have to be able to read people extremely well and you have to understand how to elicit moments. Portraits are usually (but not always) set up. To be able to bring forth and capture a real moment in a contrived situation is essential. Logistical skills are also pretty huge. I once got a call at 10:45 a.m. asking me if I could do a shoot in Orlando at 6 p.m. the same day. I was still in my pajamas, but I booked a flight and packed clothes and all my gear and left the house by 11:00 for my noon flight flying out of an airport 20 miles away. I made it. I perform less intense versions of this kind of thing daily.
Some artist are great at the business side of photography and some are not. Where do you feel you fall? And if you feel that you are not quite business savvy then was there someone you reached out to? Fellow photographers, small business in the area or CPA’s?
I would certainly not say I’m great at business, but I realized when I went freelance that I either had to get my act together or I would fail hard. I always have a good accountant keeping me in line, I check my accounts on mint.com several times per day, I do enough passive marketing and active hustling to keep myself on hiring lists, I network (really, I just party with friends, but that totally counts), and when I have any questions, I reach out to the friends I think have more knowledge on the subject.
Do you still pursue personal work?
Always and forever. This is actually the secret to staying active and relevant and hirable.
Do you use/have assistants? And if so what traits do you look for in someone?
I do believe I already addressed this one above, but to reiterate: YES and I love great assistants. Great assistants make me look like I know what I’m doing. They carry things and set things up and break things down quickly and only speak to say intelligent, helpful, and/or appropriate things. They dress appropriately for the location and wear deodorant. They are upbeat and brilliant problem-solvers. The best ones know way more about lighting design than most photographers ever will. In addition to paying them, I always try to take my assistants out for drinks or a meal after the shoot to thank them for their work. I can get pretty intense while I’m in work mode, but I always want good assistants to know that I value them.
What advice to you wish someone would have giving you when you were starting out?
Don’t give up your copyright.
Learn to recognize raw deals and don’t hesitate to say no to them.
Don’t politely humor bad people.
Don’t ever move to LA.