Sometimes It Is About Being Able to Simply Get the Shot

A bit of a Rant – a bit of a Rave. Something for everyone.

I just had lunch with a photographer friend of mine, Ken Easley. We were chatting about business when Ken brought up a recent assignment he had finished. It was a shoot of 13 or 14 corporate head shots. I will not disclose the money involved, but it was a great job and the expenses alone hovered at $15K.

I listened with a smile, as I remembered being asked on a forum “when do you know you are ready to go pro?” There were several responses to the OP, about gear and being paid for photographs, having a portfolio and a website… and having money enough to live for 6-8 months. All good advice.

But I can remember that my criteria is simply… can you get the shot? Every time. Every. Single. Time.

That is the most important criteria for clients. It is knowing that you can deliver that gives the client that extra bit of warm feeling when they go to hire you for the job. They know you have the ability, the creativity, the problem solving skills, the people skills and the bullshit skills it may take to pull off the job.

Ken visited 13 cities in a two week period. He had to do corporate head shots. The images had to rock. They were not ‘models’ or ‘celebrities’, but VP’s who were unaccustomed to being photographed. The images had to rock. They were actually not comfortable with being photographed at all, and the time frames for the actual photography was very short. He had have a great location scouted, be set up and ready, he had to have backup ready to go, and he had to make the subjects feel comfortable so he could make his images.

And they had to rock.

Traveling with the gear he needed, and renting what he would need, was a huge task right there. Coordinating rentals in 13 cities, making sure that he had backup and would be able to get the shot with what he carried meant a detailed, cross-checked list. With NO room for error. There had to be 100% accuracy.

Getting the plane tickets, airports, rental cars and making sure the rental places were close and gear could be shipped back – and allowing for time for the local travel – was time consuming in itself. Imagine what an inexperienced shooter would do given that task alone.

Ken experienced weather changes that were widely divergent. Rain in Minneapolis, storms in Philly, excessive heat in NY (we are from Phoenix… we scoff at your 100 degree East Coast days… child’s play to us…) and overcast in Connecticut. But that cannot deter the photographer from getting the shot. That is what he/she was hired to do. No excuses. No “it was raining” or any kind of whining at all. Get. The. Shot.

And they have to rock.

Every. Single. Time.

It is what the professional photographer is hired to do. Be creative and imaginative and organized and spontaneous and inventive enough to make the shot under most any circumstances. It can be very stressful and challenge the abilities of every photographer at one point or another… but it is a challenge that cannot go unanswered.

Commercial photography has been likened to baseball. Every step up the plate must result in a home run. No singles or doubles allowed. Screw up one job and the ramifications can haunt you for years. Do a smashing, killer, wow-wow-wow job and people accept it with a smile. Not much accolades… it is what is simply expected.

Ken is a professional who has been working steadily for 30 years. He does that because he can make the shot, a damn good shot, in any situation. He is good at it. He is damn good at it. You can see some of Ken’s studio and read an interview with him here.

Some photographers learn this stuff from assisting other photographers. There doesn’t seem to be as much of that going on these days, and the freelance assistant is keeping more busy than the full time assistants… at least in my experience. So learning this stuff on your own is a bit more challenging. But it can be done. Even if it is just a self assigned gig.

Ask yourself these questions:

1. Can you make the shot? Under any circumstances / any challenges?
2. Will it be a good, really good shot?
3. Can you take the direction of someone who may not be present and ‘get the shot’ anyway?
4. Have you ever done a shoot where it fell apart and you didn’t get anything? Can you define what happened and make sure it never happens again?
5. Are you sure enough of your gear, your cameras, your post processing that you are comfortable taking on a job for which failure can be catastrophic?

Catastophic? What do I mean by catastrophic?

Back in the day when I was working in NY, I met a photographer who was an ‘up and comer’ in the fashion world. He had shot a few dozen pages for a couple of top magazines. He had a few reps courting him. His star, as they say, was on the rise.

He got a catalog shoot… a pretty darn good one at that. Casting 6 models and finding a location in the Caribbean was like a fantasy for him… one in which he was to make a good deal of money.

So he and six models, three stylists, a hair stylist, a makeup artist and her assistant, and his photo assistant all jetted down to somewhere in the Caribbean for a six day shoot. That’s 8 nights in the resort for 14 people (112 room rates times $150 per room…).

It rained the first and second day. He had planned on shooting on the beach and around the yards of the hotel, so no shooting for two days. They partied. Then came day three… and the humidity and heat sank in and it was slow going keeping the girls hair and makup looking fresh. Then two more days of rain…

I think you see where this is going. He didn’t, well, get the shots.

Oh he had excuses… lots of excuses. Good ones too, by any measure.

But he didn’t have images. They really wanted the images more than the excuses. Even good ones.

He had no career after that… the bill for the trip that he wasn’t going to get paid for was staggering. And no one wanted to hear the excuses… the models, MUA’s, Hair and resorts needed to be paid.

So… can you get the shot? Every time and without any excuses? That is what separates the ‘professional’ from the amateur in almost any genre I can think of. Wedding shooters have to get the shots if it is hot or raining or snowing… they have to deliver the absolute best killer images they can. Photojournalists have people shooting at them! And sports shooters are working on crowded, hot sidelines. But the good ones, the ones that pay their bills with photographs get the shots.

Related Articles:
What We Mean When We Say “It’s Not About The Gear”
Four Photographers on the Trek to the Top
On the Matter of Style: Some Examples
“So You’re a Photographer, Quick… Tell Me What You Do”
“Breaking Out” as a Professional Photographer: Daron Shade

Purchase Selina's excellent audio program on being a successful commercial photographer through Lighting Essentials and save $100. Use the code FOSLE at checkout.


Thanks for following along on this little rant. I hope I made you think a little bit about what it means to be a professional.

If you are interested in a workshop this fall, I hope you take a few minutes to visit Learn to Light. And if you want to stalk me along wth about 4000 other people, my twitter is wizwow.

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  1. Definitely makes you think about what you are doing and reaffirm that you have the stomach and gonads for it.

    Love the article, very good stuff.

    • Thanks Mike, and before any of my female readers start flaming you, I will point out that gonads alone are not enough to propel you towards a successful career.

      They can, however, lead you to make bad decisions in a bar in Tortuga after having way too much Tequila.

      I mean… I am just sayin.

  2. Interesting story. Sucks for that guy for sure. What would you have done in his scenario? Personally I’d have spoken with the AD and apprised them of the situation, asked to move it indoors somewhere on the island for some of those days. Outdoor shoots should always have a backup indoor location when you don’t know what the weather will be like. That or bring a lot of big tents hah

    • He should have simply shot it under the roof lines, or in the rooms, or the banquet areas… INCORPORATING the rain into the shots… Coming back with great shots, even if in the rooms or verandas or parlors is way better than coming back with little to nothing. The company trusted him to do it, and the AD on the shoot was too ‘green’ to push the photographer. I do believe she lost her job as well.

  3. Ah well that’s doubly no good. In full agreement though. There’s a lot that could have been done to bring that shoot indoors or on the patios and incorporate the rain. Coming back with nothing is a huge fail.

  4. The photog on the catalog shoot could also have done some research and looked for a studio to fall back on for indoor shooting if the weather went bad. Or an aircraft hangar. Or a car park. Or a veranda. Or SOMETHING. Because for the working pro, as Ed Harris said in “Apollo 13″, failure is NOT an option.

    To give you an idea of what it’s like, I had a corporate P/R shoot booked at a resort opening in North Scottsdale and on the way to the shoot I got into a car accident that totaled my car and messed up my neck for years afterwards.

    I still went to the shoot. And took lousy pictures because I totaled my car 45 minutes before the shoot. Car wrecks have a way of messing with your concentration… After I delivered the film (which tells you how long ago this was), the client complained that my shots from that night weren’t up to snuff, and I lost the account. Was it unreasonable for her to expect me to be on my game after a bad car accident? Yep. Could I do anything about it? Nope.

    Looking back on it, I should have cancelled, but that was kind of a no-win situation for me. The bottom line is, though, that the client doesn’t care about you or your issues, he/she cares about what you can do for him/her, period. If you aren’t proving your value as a resource, he/she will move on to the next shooter in line, or buy from a stock house.

    The client pays the money. Therefore, the client is what it’s all about. If you can provide value to the client each and every time you shoot, you’re ready to go pro.

  5. While I completely agree it is very very important that doesn’t make it difficult nor even that unusual. Restaurant staff have to deliver great food in a limited time every time. Software developers have to deliver bug free software that does what is expected of it. Professional athletes … obvious. When was the last time you had an excuse from an airline pilot or a doctor? Even Starbucks and Wallmart have to deliver on their promises. Hell everyone in an honest job has to do that.

    The only difference in photography is that most so called photographers out there don’t think there is any work involved in achieving their product.

    • Hi Bernie.

      I agree. Being able to deliver what is promised or advertised seems almost like an anomaly these days. That is sad.

      But I do want to point out a few things.

      Restaurant staff are producing what the cook has prepared, planned for and written/taught them to do. They have a prepared set of parameters that don’t change. What happens when the Wok goes out and the manager doesn’t show up… do they still deliver the best possible experience? If they are professionals they do.

      Software developers have a chance to work with, test, refine, and test some more. (Except for Vista) and then they release the product. Fixing bugs along the way is part of the job.

      Professional Athletes… obvious? Not to me. I see all kinds of overpaid athletes sitting on the bench. We had a guy here in the Suns… nice guy, helluva player I understand. He sucked all kinds of suck… but still kept his contract and got paid millions. And baseball players making millions strike out… a lot. Not with you on that one.

      Doctors, hospitals and bad nursing kill nearly 50,000 people in the US alone… soooo.

      Airline pilots… you betcha. Every step up is a homer. Gotta be that way. Of course it is a team effort.

      “…Hell everyone in an honest job has to do that. …”

      Well, I was going to point out how many wrong orders Starbucks gives out, but I cannot find that little factoid. Accountants make mistakes all the time… sometimes at great peril to their clients.

      The part about “honest business’ prevents me from talking about lyingthroughtheirteeth politicians and lawyers… so we will leave it at that.

      Thanks for the comment.

  6. Hey Don, Yes I agree with your responses. The point I was making was that delivering what you promise has to be the most basic of basics for any honest business. And I used the phrase “honest business” precisely because it excludes politicians.

    What you are talking about, and I thoroughly agree, is making good on that promise no matter what. I was trying to say that this is probably the most important aspect of any job or profession or even of life itself. There was a great book I read many years ago on this called “The Go Getter” and I just found what appears to be the entire short book on Google books I think you’ll like it.

    • Thanks for the heads up on the book. I am downloading it and will take a look.

  7. Hello, Don — Thanks for another interesting post. Having just read that great profile on you in the online edition of ‘Rangefinder,’ I wonder how this applies to your own experience…?

    The RF piece said you had started out as a musician, moved into the ad-agency field, and eventually became a photographer — which I’d think would be a challenging career arc. Did you have a learning curve during each of those transitions? Or did you go into all of them with the pre-built ability to deliver a home run every time without any excuses?

    It may sound as if I’m calling you out here, but I’m not — just trying to relate theory to practice. For example, it would make perfect sense to say, “It’s different now because the pace is so fast and there’s so much competition in every segment of the field.” Or… “Sure, I had some kack-ups, but part of the skill set is to make sure your ‘learning experiences’ happen in fault-tolerant situations.”

    We all know that growth requires risk-taking, and risk by definition implies the possibility of failure; the trick is to make sure the failures aren’t catastrophic. Bet you have good insights on how to do that… care to share some?

    • Hey Ranger…

      No problem. I will have to be brief of course.

      I started as a musician and still play drums and piano.
      My degree is in Music Theory and Composition.
      Which means I can teach High School or College Music.
      To College students. At a University.
      Rather have root canals with no drugs than work at a fkn Uni.

      So I ended up being a photographer.
      In the context of what we were talking about, let’s look at how I did it.
      This is not a “look how cool” I am, or how much sacrifice… yadda yadda…

      It is just the way I did it.

      After traveling with a band I discovered that I hated that. A lot.
      I started photographing and designing stuff on down time.
      When you are the drummer there is a hell of a lot of down time… hotels frown on 10 piece Roger’s kits on the 14th floor… ya know.

      I came back to Phoenix and started making images as a hobby and writing chamber music for dancers at ASU.
      That led to designing a lot of stuff for the dance and music departments at ASU… and I was totally self taught, so I started sitting in on the design classes.
      No one asked who I was, so I simply sat through a ton of design classes.
      My hobby as a photographer took off into shooting models for local modeling agencies and I though I was “All that” – and more.

      I figured that it was time that LA had a taste of what the Don had to offer.
      Big fish in small pond became tiny fish in bigassfrickin pond.

      I knew I was in over my head.

      So I took my hobby as a designer and parlayed (lied my ass off) to get a job at a small ad agency in Long Beach. I kept shooting and learning from the photographers I worked with.
      I picked up gear and started shooting in my garage. Work got better and better.

      Quit being an Art Director and started assisting in LA. Worked with a lot of really talented people and learned a ton.

      Got my first assignment almost by accident and it worked out great. For WANG computers.

      Stayed focused on the beauty and fashion work I wanted to do… and was very careful to not take jobs I couldn’t do.

      Had a studio in Chicago for a while and also a place to stay in New York. Started getting shots that were what I was showing.
      My book was mostly monochrome with a lot of toned and split-toned images. That style was getting some hits so I kept it up.
      I loved it, but wonder how many years of life I lost processing Cibachrome prints from Polaroid Positive Slide Film…

      Kids came. Decided to move the studio back to Phoenix… traveling wasn’t that much fun with my kid at home.

      Small studio led to larger studio which led to humongous studio.
      Discovered that I didn’t like having employees and having to shoot crap every day to maintain overhead.
      Took a year to pare down and move back into a smaller space with only two assistants.
      At that time we were starting to handle design work from several catalog clients.
      The internet was starting to become interesting so I decided to learn more about that.
      My first site was built for AOL…
      When Mozilla broke… I was ready for it.

      By 2000 Ocean Integrated Marketing Group was the third largest ad agency by billing in Arizona. We handle clients from a national pool of healthcare and healthcare technologies.
      I became quite good at working with Pre-IPO and small tech companies and I found myself in a suit far more than behind the camera.

      We downsized quite a bit after 911 and the Tech bubble burst, and I have been working with clients and companies from my studio in Phoenix.

      When I took a gig on, I had to do it the best possible way I could. No compromise. One shot I had to do was of a bunch of lamps for a local client. My first attempts sucked.. so I kept on shooting. We worked on that damn shot for nearly two days with no sleep. I finally delivered the chrome to the client and they loved it. I lost about $300 on that gig. But I learned a ton… all that was continued on for every shot I ever did after. I never delivered anything that wasn’t my best. No matter what the fee or the intended use.

      There were many times that I would feel I had bitten off a little too much. OK… my decision. But also my responsibility… keep at it till it works. No compromise… no failure. If I lot money, that was OK because I kept my promise to my client to deliver. You can see my design studio site here.

      As far as establishing a style… It is something that I am still working on.
      My self story is this: “Intimate images that reveal something about the subject that otherewise seem to elude us in the moment…”

      I will continue to work on my vision, as I never see it as something finished… but something ongoing.

      Hope that helped.

  8. Reminds me of the old bromide:

    “Amateurs work until they get it right. Professionals work until they can’t get it wrong.”

  9. Don
    I haven’t commented before but the recent series from you have been outstanding (not that all the stuff coming out of here hasn’t been outstanding :) ) but he rants and observations of late are great reads!! You have made some great points here. One of the first things I was taught by lots of photogs (including you here in Atlanta) was we need to be problem solvers–you really nailed the point home. well done.

    also, as one who just posted a first blog and struggled far too much hitting the GO button– I got to say you are of the most prolific writers out there–thanks for all the energy, insights, and inspiration–you’ve got me motivated to sit down and cobble something else together!!!!