Five Things You Can Do To Land Assignment Photography

As we begin to work toward our new focus on Lighting Essentials, I want to discuss some truths that go along with this business. Some are probably truths for most any business, and some are narrowly within the creative realm of endeavors… but all are nearly universally true. (Yes, something is either universal or it is not, but I am being a little creative with the language here.) Today we will look at some truths about getting assignment work as a photographer.

Working in the world of corporate marketing departments, designers and agencies carries with it some realities that take a while to sink in. We will examine some of those realities, and how e can deal with them, after the jump.

On the workshop front: We are in Saint Louis this weekend, then off to Mexico for the October workshop at the Las Palmas Resort. There are a few spots open, and it will be a blast. I only have a few openings in Toronto, Detroit and Boston. And the Anna Maria Island workshop (Florida) in December is also getting quite close to being full. That three day workshop rocks… and what a special place to be.

Our (Matt and me) WordPress Websites for Photographers are getting more attention, and there are some new designs coming out very soon. The new designs are targeted toward the professional who wants an even cleaner page, with big pictures and lots of space. We have some great users who are loving their LE WP sites for the ease of use and SEO power. You can see more about them on the WordPress Themes for Photographers page.

I also want to let you know that as I am scheduling next year, I would love to know if there are groups or cities/towns that would like to get a Lighting Essentials Workshop in their area. At this point we will not be raising the fee, so it will remain at 2009 prices, but contain even more great stuff. Keep watching the site for more information.

I am finishing up a post on Gear that will run this Friday (Sept. 25, 2009) and it is aimed for the photographers who work with small lights and fast setups. There will be plenty there for the studio and big light guys, but the focus will be on the smaller, speedlight approach to lighting and creating a kit.

Now let’s look at 5 ways things to do to get assignment photography.

When people talk about Professional Photography, there are a couple of things that we need to know before we simply acknowledge the information is relevant. Are they referring to direct-to-consumer photography like wedding or portrait, photojournalism (newspapers and news magazines), or the myriad of specialties within the advertising, corporate, editorial area?

There is a big difference between preparing to be a wedding shooter and a photojournalist. And even more between those two large specialties and being a commercial advertising, editorial shooter. Some are in the preparation and execution, and some are systemic to how the work is hired out or assigned.

This site is not about wedding or PJ photographers specifically as those are specialties that I am not that familiar with. And there are lots of sites that are wonderfully written for those areas. LE is for the commercial shooter who may have to do a portrait for a magazine article on Tuesday, a still life shot for a designer on Thursday and then spend three days on location for a corporate marketing firm to get pictures for a company brochure.

The budgets are larger, there are more detailed parameters, and the ability to execute under pressure is always present. And while the same is true with wedding and PJ’s, the advertising and design world has its own set of pressures and pain points that we must address.

Getting hired to do an ad piece, or an annual report, billboard, brochure, catalog or editorial assignment takes a lot of portfolio showings, email blasts, phone calls, returned calls, portfolio drop-offs or deliveries and absolute top-notch work that is definable for the assignment at hand.

Let’s examine five things to do to prepare you for getting an assignment.

1. Create Amazing and Compelling Pictures.

OK… I can hear some of you sighing… “well, of course Don… that’s a ‘duh’ and we know that already.” And maybe you do know that. Are you doing it?

It takes a steady commitment and brutal, killer, headpounding, gnashing of teeth shooting and editing to get to that point. How long does it take to get some killer shots? I dunno. Took me years before I was ready… you can do it faster, but I was shooting film on the weekends… and it was expensive.

Shoot something every day. If you are currently employed doing something else while planning on making your break, shoot every day. What? You thought you would get a reprieve? Nope. Every day you aren’t shooting, someone else is. In your market. In your discipline. Carry a camera with you and shoot something at lunch or after/before work.

Find the ways to build your visual literacy and define your vision as often as possible. No excuses. Go to sites and magazines that have the most amazing work and look at the refinement of the vision. The NYT Photography pages, or ‘W’ Magazine, PDN, Aperture, Communication Arts, Graphi, and AdAge come to mind. There are more.

Hit the newstands and magazine racks and study… not look at, study the work that amazes you. Find the similarities to your work and expand. I am not advocating copying, but rather to steep oneself in the work of masters can be a truly powerful way to pull out of oneself the power of creativity.

You could consider hiring a portfolio consultant like Selina Maitreya to help you with your planning and shooting of images that rock. And you can get a taste of what she does with her new audio book, The View From Here, for a great price.

2. Create a ‘Body’ of Work

Not a box of images, but a body of work – a cohesive collection of images that lets the viewer know what it is you do. Without question. Without having to explain it. Without narration.

This work is images that speak to your craft, vision and ability to execute, across a myriad of subjects and under a myriad of conditions. Make sure that the images that you show are something you can repeat. No flukes or happy accidents unless you know you can reproduce them again. On demand.

See these photographers for very strong portfolios that I consider a bodies of work.

Dan Winters
Jake Chessum
Kate Orne
Bill Simone (especially the still life)
Chris Buck (website is a PIA, but the work is wonderful)
Andrew Hetherington
Robert Wright
Chase Jarvis
Albert Watson

Added video of Dan Winters discussing portrait photography.

And a video of the great Albert Watson discussing his work.

3. Create Confidence in the Art Buyer

Show up on time. Return phone calls. Deliver the paperwork. Line out the estimates. Create a distinct impression that you have done this before and that there wont be surprises. Telling an art buyer that you can’t find the delivery memo for a half-million dollars worth of jewelry that was rented for the shot just ain’t gonna fly, ya know!

That is one of the scariest thing for someone handing out an assignment to an artist for the first time. “Will there be any surprises?” In other words… will you do what you say you will do in the manner in which you have indicated you will do it in your portfolio and meetings? Cause if you don’t, the person who hired you could have consequences that run from small to career altering.

Art buyers as a group are not terribly cavalier. They are deliberate, studious, demanding, perfectionists and they hold the purse strings to a lot of assignment work. You need to build the confidence with them that you will deliver like the other shooters they currently work with.

They are not currently working with those who can’t deliver. Got that?

One way to instill a little confidence is to make sure all the things you should have on the bid are there. Don’t forget anything. Caterers? MUA’s? MUA Assistant? Rental for the scissor lift or special needs for construction? Is it all there? No surprises, remember.

One way to do this is to sit down with your team and discuss the project, and what will be needed. A well detailed bid, with all the items there goes a long way toward letting that art buyer know you are prepared.

Blink Bid ( is a software that won’t let you forget what you need to have on the bid. You can find estimate forms at ASMP (you are a member, right?) and other professional organizations like APA.

You may even find mentors and consultants that will help you with your bidding and RFP’s. Just do not overlook this most important area of practice.

One more thing… learn and know what this stuff is worth. Bidding at prices that are too low can be as devastating as bidding them too high. Find out what others are getting for the work you are going for and price accordingly. I am not a fan of low-ball work because I am a fan of great photographers and – generally speaking – they aren’t the low-ballers.

4. Deliver.

Yeah… deliver. Deliver the images as discussed. On time. On budget. With all the wonderful coolness that is your work. Deliver more than promised. As much more as you can. Push the shoot past the point where you know you got it.

Here’s where surprises are good. As long as you got what they wanted, there is no reason to not show them something that kicks ass. Delivering something that was unexpected as well as expected keeps you on their mind.

We were shooting some leather goods for a client who made firearms protection for law enforcement. The previous catalogs had been shot by a very competent shooter and I was brought in because of a scheduling conflict.

I shot one holster to match the previous catalog and they were pleased. It was a single light softbox setup and not a big deal. I then added a few fill items and some ‘magic’ to the typical ‘drop ‘n pops’ that made them look quite rich and showed them that chrome.

I shot the catalog for the next 5 years. Four per year… bigass gigs. Took me an additional minute or two per shot to make mine stand out.

Deliver the best of your ability on every job. Without excuses. Everytime.

I have heard people of all industries say things like “They aren’t paying me enough to…” or “I am not making enough on this gig to go the extra mile.”

See… I think that is bullshit. Because you agreed to do it for that price. If you agreed, then the work should look like the work you showed. The effort to make a good photograph should be the same. It is the agreement you made… to do the work for that compensation.

And you only do the best work. Right?

So how could there be any less effort applied simply because you agreed to do it cheaper. If you don’t want to do the gig for the budget offered, decline it. For your sake. Seriously.

Doing less than your best in anything you do is not a good plan for growth. It simply isn’t. You step to the plate and you hit a home run… whether you are at “the show” or on a farm league. Could it be any other way? How do you get to the big leagues unless you hit homers on the farm team? For a hell of a disparate amount of pay.

Deliver. In all you do and to whoever you work with. Bring it. Everytime.

5. Show your work to everyone, everywhere, all the time.

I know a shooter who is an unemployed tech engineer. He had worked for 15 or more years in an industry that simply went away in the current economy. He is a very talented photographer. In my description of him. In his description he is an unemployed tech worker.

What’s up with that?

Sometimes you simply have to change your personal assessment. After what this guy has spent on gear it is simply astounding that he is sitting at a year of unemployment. But telling other people and yourself that you are ‘an unemployed’ person is sort of a self fulfilling prophecy.

Being successful sometimes means stating that you are successful. It means making it known to everyone in your life, sphere of influence and casual acquaintances that you are a commercial photographer. You are a creative person who can make photographs that other people deem as worthy to hire you to make. Then pay you handsomely to boot.

Declare yourself a photographer. A successful photographer. If you are not familiar with the term “affirmations” I suggest you read some work by Tony Robbins, Wayne Dyer and Zig Zigler. What you are is what you perceive yourself to be. Be successful in your own eyes and it will help others see you that way.

Join networks, social groups, volunteer organizations and other places that allow you to meet like minded professionals who can become your fan club. Of course this means becoming a fan of theirs as well.

Prepare your portfolio and make sure you get it in front of someone that is in a position of hiring you at least once per week. Sound easy? It isn’t. Getting your port or website or webfolio in front of a potential client at least once every week will take a commitment to self-motivated work that is real. And it can take a toll.

Don’t let it. This is the nature of this business. It takes time and effort and time and effort and effort and did I mention it takes time to get to the point where it starts to pay off.

And when it pays off… and you get to shoot things and places and people you may never have gotten a chance to do. Well, that makes it all worth it.

Thanks for coming along on today’s positive message on 5 things you can do to help you land an assignment. See you next time. And if you want to know what I am up to, follow me on Twitter. And as always, if you enjoyed this article, let others know through social networks at the top right of the page.

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