Learning the Ropes: My Earliest Commercial Photography Experience


I mentioned in the last post (Part One) that a neighbor asked me to take a photograph for his company. And offered money for it. $100 bucks. That was 1975 and that wasn’t bad money at all.

I had no idea why he would pay me $100 for a photograph of a small black container. I mean… really.

Then he showed me the previous photograph they had done and it was not taken sitting on the sidewalk or in a meadow (shut up, those were the first ideas I had… gimmee a break for pete’s sake), but surrounded in black. And yet you could see the black box.

I immediately knew I was in over my head – waaaay over my head. And I did the holy honorable and non-self destructive thing I could do.

“Heck, ya… I can do that.” I accepted the commission.

I won’t go through the long, painful process, the entire thing took about five full days and a trip to the camera store to buy a book – or two – on photographing things, then of course to buy a light to use and then I needed … … And I called the guy at the camera store so many times he offered to come by and see what I was doing. I accepted, he helped, I shot… and re-shot again.

In the end, I delivered the 11×14 print to the customer (neighbor) and he said “thanks, looks good. Bill me.”

“Bill me?”… say what?

I typed up the bill on my Smith Corona, put it in an envelope and a mailed it across the street. I got a check from his business 40 days later.

The $100 job only cost me about $400 so net loss of $300.

I was elated!!!!!

Man, I was freekin’ hooked on this ‘making photographs for money thing’ and wanted to do a whole lot more of that. Well, with a general reversal of the profit / loss paradigm that I had experienced on this first shoot.

I was ready, you know.
I had a camera and two lenses.
I had a darkroom.
I had a client.

I lacked… a clue.

I had found that carrying a camera would give me instant access to chicks, er, girls. I had been taking photographs of girls and friends with a look toward the fashion magazines I was looking at daily, and realized that may be a way to make photographs of women and get paid for it.

My research into making the photograph of the product had introduced me to a wide, wide world of commercial photography. I still have some of those old books, and it is interesting to read about $250 day rates, and the arcane discussions of film and development problems with this or that… heh.

I called a local modeling agency that I had seen an ad for and told them I was a photographer, and I was ready to shoot their models. They said that was great, but they really did want to see what I was going to shoot first. They wanted to see my portfolio.

Portfolio?

I had most of my images in a binder.

More research, more learning.

More spending. More shooting. More spending.

More spending… sigh.

I needed to learn so much, and I had no time to lose. I read everything, I tried everything. I learned how to print. Then I learned how to really print. I took workshops in lighting and darkroom. And I learned how to really really print. (Later I would learn how to really really really print, but that is for another post.)

I shot every weekend for a year, and printed all during the week after work. (I also wrote music in the times I wasn’t printing.) My book had progressed to the point that I was getting models asking me to shoot them and paying for the images. I was making photographs and playing in a band and working at a warehouse (OK, guess which paid the most… come on… guess. Hint. It had nothing to do with 5 piece Rogers kits or Nikons… ya know.)

About that time I had the opportunity to move to LA, and I thought… what the hell. It was time to quit the job, and move on with my more creative endeavors. My new wife and I loaded up the U-Haul and headed West. We ended up in Long Beach… not quite LA, but close enough up the 11 to make it mine. I was in LA, and upon landing in that great bastion of photography, I knew it was fated to be.

Los Angeles NEEDED my vision, my personal way of making the image… this was a sign.

Yeah, right. Los Angeles didn’t get that memo. LA was full of photographers, all of them better than me. Hell, there were photographers who weren’t even photographers who were better than me. Bugs were better than me. Dead, squished, rotted bugs were… well, you get the idea.

I had two choices… get a job or go home.

Assisting, here I come. Put my card out all over LA and started assisting right away. I got a ‘beeper’ and an answering service. I lived in Long Beach with my wife, a cat and a studio in my garage. Life was looking up. I was around photographers, and I was shooting every spare minute I wasn’t helping some other photographer shoot. 12 hour days? They were the short ones.

I assisted food shooters, business shooters, corporate shooters, fashion and beauty shooters, architecture shooters. I assisted some big names, no names and someday-to-be-big-names. Carried gear, built sets, judged film, helped drunk fashion photographers keep their mistresses apart, hung from wires, crawled into wet tunnels (wet from what?… don’t ask), and had so much variety in my days that it made my head swim.

I learned how to work Normans and Speedotrons and Balcars and Ascors and more. I learned how to fix them on location. I learned how to rig, to set up, to tear down, to pack with speed and accuracy, to handle emotional clients, to give space to the shooters who needed it and to collaborate with the ones who liked it. I got coffee, and cast models. I learned how a softbox made highlights and why umbrellas are used in close. I cleaned studio bathrooms and polished Mercedes for car shoots. I even helped one photographer get his girlfriend back… sorry about that Jacque… heard how that ended up. And.. I learned how to bid, and do an RFP, and deal with negotiations and budgets and billing. It was a crazy, heady time, full of uncertainty and incredible clarity.

But I learned. Like a sponge. Show me once… I got it. Thanks.

When I finally got to the point where I was to go out on my own, I got a job as an art director.

Yes, assisting was a blast… it just didn’t pay enough, or on time. I needed a paycheck. Really needed a paycheck… a steady one.

I answered an ad for an assistant Art Director in a little agency in the south beach area. I had an idea of what an AD was, as I had been on shoots with a lot of them, and helped make the shots from a lot of layouts. A lot. How hard could it be?

I lied through my teeth to get that junior AD position. Through. My. Teeth.

And I got it. I was now an Art Director who really wanted to be a photographer who had started playing drums in a blues band on weekends to make enough money to do little things like… eat. Pay rent.

Buy gear.

On a rainy Long Beach morning, I headed out to my first day as an Art Director.

How’d that work out?

Part Three is here.

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About 

I am in love with light.

Also known as Don Giannatti, photography has been the focus of my life for most of my adult years. I have written three books for Amherst Media (available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble: keyword 'don giannatti'. Lighting Essentials is my flagship blog and ezine with a slightly different slant than most photography related blogs. If you are interested in becoming a better photographer, check out www.project52.org. Thanks for visiting.

2 Comments

  1. Love that story. It’s that fearlessness that is critical to success in a photographer and an entrepreneur.

    Can’t teach that in a workshop, or by reading blogs. Quit your day job, put it all on the line, be scared, and then make it happen. Takes guts. Feels good.

  2. Learning the ropes: great story! Fearless is actually critical to success in many aspects of life. I loved the part…”I lacked… a clue” :-)
    Portrait Photographer