The First Assignment: Pitfalls and Opportunities

The First Assignment... Make it great by planning for success

Every photographer has a first assignment. There simply has to be one. The culmination of lots of hard work, a great portfolio and perhaps a little luck and there it is… a job. The first assignments can be very stressful or they can be a thrilling moment in the career of a budding photographer. The difference can be in the planning… the careful and well thought out planning that turns the shoot from stressful to manageable.

Let’s take a look at some ways to plan for that first assignment. And while I can’t imagine what your first gig will be, we will take a reasonable first assignment scenario and dissect the planning.

Well, we don’t know how you got the booking. Whether by persistent showing of your book, a happenstance visit to the website, some nifty direct mail or other way, but here it is… your first assignment. It seems so exciting, but at the same time it can be a little bit terrifying.

What to take? Where to start? What is your role? What questions need to be asked? And more, much more thoughts race through your head as you leave the Art Director’s office.

BTW, our workshop schedule is up for first quarter next year. Take a look and hopefully we’ll see you there. We actually have a whole site devoted to it now. Learn to Light… take a look.

Let’s break it down now, from beginning to end.

Not every first assignment follows some sort of pre-set plan, so we will look at what may be a typical first job in a medium sized town. Our assignment comes in the form of a small local company needing some photographs of their firm. Your assignment is to get some shots to go along with the article that is being written about them. The company has decided to have you shoot the images so they can also use them on a company brochure and other marketing materials and want to make sure they have some control over the photography.

First of all, every assignment has a purpose. A reason. A cause to be assigned. There are many reasons that an assignment is given. Make sure you ask the questions that will lead you to a successful shoot.

Most assignment editors will tell you what they need to get, but sometimes the people you get the assignment from aren’t sophisticated in the handing out of photographic assignments. You have to get some answers so you can do the kind of work that will be meaningful for them, satisfy any possible third party uses and of course, get something good for yourself.

Start with the basics… and write ‘em down if you need to. Verticals or horizontals? This is important because while you can certainly shoot both, knowing what you need can mean more usable shots instead of half of the shots being in the wrong format to be considered. If the client doesn’t know, the magazine will. Contact them and find out what they are looking for. Many times the clients themselves may have offered images or want to have some control over the pics made, so they volunteer the images. That’s where you come in.

You may also want to discuss the spin, or the angle, of the story. Is it a “new company doing well in the neighborhood”, or “just did something cool” or whatever? There is always a direction for the article. Most of the time it isn’t negative, but some sort of positive spin. Local magazines leave that “in your face” ‘gotcha’ kind of journalism to the newspapers.

Let’s say the magazine has told the clients what they need and it is relayed to you this way: One full page shot of the partners, and a couple of small shots of the facility for the article that is being written.

Great. You have a basic idea of what is going to be needed for the magazine… the basics of one vertical and some smaller shots that can be either – they just have to be good. You should plan on doing the partners vertical as well as some of the facility shots if they have a lot of impact. Choice for the client is great.

How much time will you have to do the shots? This is so important… you can do more in a couple of hours than you can do in a couple of minutes. Sometimes the quality of the shot isn’t different, just the time that went into it, but I would like the option of having the time I need. If they short you on time, push back and tell them what you need to make the shots great. Even if it takes a bit of on your own setup time before they get there.

I think you should also get a copy of the magazine, if you haven’t already, to see what kind of work they like. A couple of previous issues should help you see how the magazine uses images and what the editorial style seems to be. If the magazine had hired you, it would hopefully be based on your style and its compatibility to the magazine. If the client has hired you it may be for your work, but they may not be familiar with the style of the magazine. If you want a win-win, make sure you are at least familiar with what the magazine does with their photography.

I will take this moment to discuss something I talk about a lot in the workshops. It is your shoot. You own it. You take control of it. Start every shoot this way. Start your career this way, your assignments this way. If you let someone else control your shoot, you lose. It isn’t yours, and the outcome is not what you could want it to be. Taking responsibility for every aspect of the assignment means the success is yours to be shared. The failure unfortunately won’t be shared, so don’t let that happen. Own your work.

I will not shoot assignments that are destined to fail. Not that I get that many of them, but they are out there… be careful you don’t step into it by accepting a no-win shoot. Or taking an assignment you aren’t ready for. Make sure you can deliver. An example… I don’t do aerial photography. It is an art and takes special equipment to do it right. Can I get into a chopper and do a few frames? Sure… so what? They want quality shots, not some crap that I can throw together. I cannot deliver, I don’t want to try.

(BTW, if someone recognizes my blunt opinions on taking assignments that you aren’t ready for, believe me… I think it can be very detrimental to do so. Both for the client, and the photographer. But most of all for the industry itself. if you go out representing yourself as a photographer, be able to do it. Well.)

So at this point we have the shot list, and we know that we have two hours early in the morning next Tuesday. Now I would want to walk through the area, to get a few shots for my plan, and see how the light falls at that time of day. This is not something I do when I can, I do it whenever I can. I take my Flip (video) and my camera, generally with a wide to normal zoom, and get a few frames. I don’t take a bunch of lights or anything more than something to make a record with. These ‘snapshots’ are a reminder of the reality of the scene… I will figure out how to make it better from knowing what I want to change.

Once I have the ideas for the shoot, the gear gets collected. I make decisions on what to take. Will I need large strobes, or will a few speedlights do the job? Is an assistant necessary, would it make the shoot go easier and free me up for the creative, or slow me down? All this is personal of course, but should be looked at very, very closely. It can spell disaster to underestimate the amount of physical work needed.

If you have a lot of gear to carry, and have a short ‘break-down’ time between shots, an additional pair of hands can come in really handy. However, a bad or uninterested assistant can sometimes be worse than none at all. Choose wisely. This may be a good time to have a talk with the assistant you are going to use. An assistant is there to assist… make the shoot go as well as possible for you. How you work with them is a matter of personal taste, but they need to know what that is beforehand. Discuss it and make sure both of you are on the same page as to what is expected and what is not.

Before every assignment, I clean cameras and lenses, recharge batteries, clear all cards and otherwise make sure the gear is working and operating well. I don’t want to be out on location and clearing cards or looking for a good card to use. Cleaning gear on location is reserved for absolutely necessary situations that may arise while shooting. I pack the stands, clamps, umbrellas, boxes and such to make sure that I have everything I need, and more in case I decide to do something else. Taking one stand and needing three is not professional, and borders on stupid… so make sure you have more than you think you will need.

Having walked through the location and taken a few ‘position’ shots, you should have enough of an idea to get the shots you need. Work through the assignment with confidence and make sure you are getting what you need by checking along the way. I shoot tethered whenever possible to make sure that the shots are sharp, exposure is on, and the composition working as I want it to. I chimp of course, but not after every shot and not as a way to check the precision of the work.

I recommend trying shots from different angles, different POV’s. Show them something wonderful, something intriguing. Something they haven’t seen before. Make this job the most important shoot you have ever done. The only job that will ever be as important as this job is the next job. And the next one and the one after that. Every job you do should be treated as one of the most important of your career. If you can’ do that, get an application at Home Depot and fill it out.

When you get back to your studio or office, get the files off the cards and on to two different storage units. I wont bore you with another talk about workflow… just do something that makes sense. And make sure that the work is totally safe before you clear the cards.

Here’s a checklist for you to consider:
Checklist:

– Purpose of the photograph… the idea or reason for it
– What are the deliverables? How many shots?
– Any format requirements (Vertical, Horizontal, mixed…)
– How much time will you have to do the shots? Can you walk through the site beforehand?
– Can you get some pre-shoot images?
– Any sketches or ideas for the shoot?
– Gear packed? All of it?
– Do you have a gear checklist to make sure the above is packed correctly?
– Cards cleared and ready?
– Lenses and cameras cleaned and ready to shoot?
– Shoot notes (optional, but a great idea.)
– Card data transferred to at least two storage devices?
– Images edited and prepared for proofing?
– Portfolio sample created and ready for adding to web site after the assignment embargo is lifted?
– Billing sent (You would be surprised how many times this step gets missed.)
– Lime, salt and Corona? Ahh… that’s the ticket.

Delivering the work can take a lot of different forms as well, but most of my experience is that the AD will want to see multiple images from the shoot. I edit out all the really lame ones, the test shots and the ones that may have a misfire or be a little soft. Of the final shots, I will edit a few that I like in Photoshop and indicate they are my favorites. Deliver everything in an online proofing system so that the AD can pick the final images and I can P-shop them for print.

Occasionally the magazine may want you to send everything you shot. I simply do not do that and make sure that it is understood upfront. No one likes surprises, and I try not to have them on any of my shoots.

Pitfalls to avoid:
– Not having the story correct and missing the point of the article or assignment.
– Delivering the wrong format… verticals where horizontals where needed for instance.
– Not being prepared for the shoot.
– Underestimating the amount of work that is required.
– Faulty or poorly operating gear.

Opportunities:
– To create something substantial for your portfolio.
– To impress a client enough to get a second job and more
– To grow as a photographer.

The first assignment can be a lot of fun as well as a great start out of the gate. Make it the best you can by being prepared as thoroughly as possible. Have your gear ready, batteries charged, stands and umbrellas and softboxes and gels packed. Have your lenses clean and your assistant ready to go. Eliminating the inevitable stress of not being prepared is important.

Because when one of the partners forgets that the “shoot was today?” and comes dressed in shorts and t-shirt, the sprinklers are on and the grass is soaked, and the day is dreadfully overcast. There will be plenty of stress to make the day interesting without bringing with you.

EDIT:
I found this pair of interesting posts about the “Chemistry” of a photo shoot so I am linking them here. Read part one and part two.

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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.

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