Background: I used to have an active Tumblr, but I got locked out of it and their support staff has been on vacation the past two years. Before that, I ran a site called Too Much Chocolate (honestly truly named after Jack Johnson’s song, Banana Pancakes). Both were dedicated to being resource sites for the photo community and aspiring/emerging photographers. Unlike becoming a CPA, a dentist, or a paramedic, there’s not a direct path to becoming a professional photographer; the sites existed as a guide and an aggregation of information that might be helpful.
The following copy is revived content from my Tumblr, with some minor modifications (I’m a little less slang-y and more proper now), but most of this text is preserved and presented as it was on that site. A lot has changed (Instagram didn’t really exist in its current state, magazines were thick and lucious, content for social wasn’t yet a *thing*), but I wanted to re-post these musings, stuck in time and a marker of my mid-20s. If you have a question, email me, and I’ll do my best to answer it if it’s not touched on below.
NOV. 18 2013
Got a good question in my personal inbox I wanted to answer for more than one person, so I’ll repost.
Question: “I had a question in regards to contacting editors. Now I’m not sure if it really matters, but is it best to try to get in contact with the main editor/photo editor or a lower tier editor/assistant photo editor. I’d assume that it probably just depends case by case, but thought that there might be a trend you’ve noticed in the past. Thanks so much for your time.”
Answer: write both if you can. There’s not much of a hierarchy, as funny as that sounds, photo editors of different levels just assign different sections. If you’re emerging/starting out, you’re likely to have more success reaching an assistant PE over someone like a photo director, but that’s no a hard and fast rule. That said, you’re more likely to get assigned a front-of-book assignment than a feature assignment if you’re on the newer side of things.
As an aside, and perhaps a more valuable point + thing to think about: never undervalue/underestimate a relationship with an assistant photo editor. Not only are assistant photo editors rad, but these guys will be the ones calling the shots down the line in years to come. Start your healthy, genuine relationships with them now. You’re (probably) young, they’re (probably) young. You guys are going to come up together.
I think there’s a general urge to reach for the top of every photo department, bypassing and sometimes ignoring the hardworking, lovely, younger assistants below. Don’t do this! Send these guys promos, email them, make sure to not bypass and ignore them.
There have been countless now-heads-of-photo-departments i’ve known for 3-5 years, since they were the lowest folks on the totem pole at magazines. I’ve been in touch with them since day one and been in touch with them more than most directors of photography. These are the folks that I work with all the time. It’s great. Things are more candid, I see them for dinners and coffees when in SF or NY, we work on cool assignments.
I just checked my email, I have been emailing with Amy Silverman of outside magazine since sept 2009, when she was in charge of searching stock for front of book. Amy is fucking rad, and has assigned me some amazing and meaty projects over the years as both an assistant and head photo editor. I met with Alex Arnold at Travel + Leisure in april of 2011 when he was an associate photo editor there. One year later, alex sent me to shoot a two different features india over the course of a month.
These ain’t braggin rites, these are just two examples of what happens when you (genuinely genuinely genuinely) develop solid relationships with the photo editors that work at magazines. I say genuinely 3x not only because I like Ginuwine, but because I hear/see/witness photographers referencing photo editors as wax figures that they need to woo, wine + dine, or send silly tchotchkes to… but not treat them like cool people that they are! Don’t do that! Treat them like the cool people that they are!
SEP. 18 2013
I spoke to a Professional Development photo class at CCA a couple weeks ago. I was originally going to try to transcribe but decided post the whole class talk here, it’s about an hour. We get into more meaty stuff around 10 minutes in.
I recorded on my phone, which was really far from my face for the first 5 minutes or so. After I sat down at a table next to my phone the rest of the talk becomes much more clear.
JUN. 6 2012
So I’ve worked with some editors and worked for some companies doing small time shoots and small editorial things. My relationship with editors/publications is kind of going much too slow and I don’t feel confident in sending them promo or emailing them and expecting results. Would it be appropriate to find an agent? I feel confident in my work and abilities but I’m wondering if ever there’s a time to search for representation, would it be now?
What exactly should I be looking for with representation? And what should I be prepared to send them?
By and large, the appropriate time to search for representation is when you literally can no longer manage shooting and client requests and calendars and making estimates and negotiating all at once.
The other time an agent is helpful is if you’re extraordinarily talented but a recluse, and want someone to be your “face” and leave it up to you to just make photographs. But the key thing here is that you need to be extraordinarily talented.
It sounds like you’re looking for a rep because a rep might help solve your problems, your problems of having few people get back to you about your work. If you don’t feel confident in sending photo editors promo or emailing them and expecting results, why would an agent want to bring you on? It’s one thing for you to be confident in your abilities, but does a photo editor know that? Do you have the right kind of work to back it up?
There’s a difference between thinking you’re good enough and having the portfolio and chops to start getting work. Alot of people get quickly frustrated by how they can’t get access or meetings to photo editors off the bat. It took me YEARS to get just a meeting at some magazines. Years. Yeeears.
If you can’t get to where you want to go, you need to work harder. Shoot more. Get your email game tighter. Plain and simple. Thinking a rep will do your legwork will not do the trick. I’ve written some photo editors upwards of 10 times before I hear a peep from them. A rep won’t solve your problems.
JUN. 5 2012
How did you find & define your Niche'?
Honestly, I started answering only to myself (while caring about others), and making work only for myself (while making it also work for my clients), and finding my own style of shooting and observing.
There was a long time in 2007-09 when I was 20-22ish where I shot what I thought others wanted to see, not in my style. I was making shitty copies of other people’s work. It looked horrible. Because it was derivative. And it was also of-the-moment. Which sucks. Don’t make work you can pinpoint to a trend.
I finally recognized this. So I started to say “fuck it” and stopped caring about trying to please people and taking the shot I thought people wanted to see. THEN things started happening.
Another example that’s way easier to understand: music. Top 40 aside, the music you probably love will likely sound unique and fresh and unlike anything else ever. From CSNY to Andre 3000, these artists all have their own style and way of seeing/hearing. That’s why you like listening to those bands… chances are you’re not saying, “this is so derivative, it’s great!”. Chances are, the music you love takes you to a new place. And photography should do that too. I’m not saying that I myself do that, I’m saying the greatest women and dudes of our century are doing that.
If you’re looking for visual, photographic inspiration, if you live in a city, go to a BOOKSTORE or LIBRARY and look at anything made before…. 1970. Ok. 80. Maybe some 90’s. To generalize greatly (don’t penalize me here, MFA’s!) Stiedl books are an excellent starting point. Don’t look at the internet. And certainly not some aggregating cool-hunting tumblr.
So, to swing back around, I suggest that you go find your own spot. Stop making the work you think people want, stop trying to emulate. Find your niche. Your way of visually/contextually understanding, observing, seeing.
A last major point: like musicians, or writers, or any artist, it takes time and hard work and alot of crazy ups and downs to make it happen. Some people will find it very soon, some people will take years, some people will never find it. So know that. Keep it in your head. But keep your head up.
JAN. 24 2012
A question posed to me.
It seems you mostly shoot on film but, as every photographer knows, film can be kinda inconsistent in quality. How do you do your big shoots with lots of external factors stressing on you to deliver perfectly. Do you shoot with a digital back? Do you shoot everything digital as well? I only ask because as I’m starting to get more shoots in local editorials I’m feeling more pressured to shoot digitally.
Is film inconsistent: There is nothing inconsistent about film, as long as you meter. And soon, you build a meter in your mind. Film, if anything, gives me a +/- 2 stop safety net, whereas digital gives me a half stop at best.
How do I make film work for me on big shoots: My friend, photographers have been shooting BIG jobs on film for decades.
It’s amazing how digital photography all of a sudden made shooting film on assignment, or for commercial work (which I still can get away with, sometimes), seem RISKY. The possibility of exposed film/botched film seems almost more manageable to me then a corrupted card or something like that (and that’s why there are digi techs and why they get paid to keep assets safe).
Again, people are gonna argue either way, but the idea of needing a backup for film is such a 21st century mindspell. Ask any of the photographers working professionally from the 30’s to 2005 how they mitigated the risk of shooting film and they’d slap you. All you gotta do it be diligent and attentive and care alot, the same you would for digital, or anything else in this world.
On shooting film on assignment/getting pushed to shoot digitally: do what you want. As long as you satisfy the client’s needs (budgetwise, visually, and turnaround-wise) shoot exactly and only what you want. Your style, your preferred method, your everything… and that bleeds into camera choice too. You need to make the shots your own and give it your own flavor and style. It’s a win-win-win-win-win. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
There have been so many shoots where I shot on film cause I love my RZ and 7 so much. It wasn’t the client’s decision, it was mine. But we all win. I get to have fun and use my favorite cameras, they win cause they get the best work I can make with my favorite cameras, and I probably get hired again cause I made work in my own style I’m not trying to pick fights, I’m talking about what works for ME. If a 5D works for you, go to town.
Let’s continue talking about the economics of having fun for a second. Photography shouldn’t feel like a job. We all got into it for the love of taking photos. Though it’s sometimes hard to keep it in that realm once you start working more, you need to keep the value of “having fun” and “loving life” at the forefront of your little start-up business. I’ll level with you. This can be a long, bumpy, often solitary career, and you will need as many positive forces in your life and work as you can find. For me, shooting with my favorite cameras and film stands at the forefront. It keeps me excited to go into the studio every day for 6-8 hours and toil away at a photography business. It keeps me excited to travel. It keeps me connected to why, and how, I started shooting photos when I was 14 years old. Shooting film is a giant pain in the ass, time-consuming, and not by any means a “smart decision” but I love it and it’s totally worth all the extra time and money to me.
There were tons of assignments I lost money on cause I shot film as opposed to digital. Did I enjoy the shoots more? Yes. Do I remember each of them still? Yes. Do I think it helped me get more work? Yes. Was it a good investment? Entirely. If a small editorial client doesn’t get why you’re not shooting digitally, it’s probably because they haven’t had anyone request it for 2 or 3 years. As long as you tell them you can come in on-budget (often you’ll lose some money) and on-time, they’ll usually leave it up to you.
So, to circle back. Shoot what you want, with the camera you prefer, in the style you love. Whatever this recipe is for you, follow it. Bam.
JAN. 18 2012
If you’re just joining, I’m writing a large 4 piece post on what I think are the four most important things you can do to become a professional photographer.
2. Build a network with other photographers/create a solid community around you
3. Intensively shoot personal work every week and work on projects
4. Start small (with commissioned shoots), even if they’re for weekly papers
Today will be about the last piece of the puzzle-y pie, which all is about dipping your toes into commissioned work, no matter how small, boring, or lame it appears on the surface. If you have specific followup questions, drop a line and I will answer them.
Repost this, too, if you want to share it. Liking it won’t get it too far. It’s like giving a thumbs up from really far away.
Start small, cause you’re gonna need it: I’m going to start off with a story about blowing it.
The shoot was for I.D. magazine. The year was 2009. The assignment was to photograph a very very high-up Nike exec at their HQ outside Portland, OR. The subject headed up Nike’s ambitious sustainability program. It was my first assignment ever out of school. Not a bad shoot to get somewhat off the bat. I was pumped, I remember getting the call while walking along 34th street while I was in NYC, after the Photo Plus Expo. I had recently gotten an iphone 3 and remember furiously and excitedly typing in details into the phone’s Notepad, afraid everything relayed to me from the photo editor would slip from my memory the moment we hung up.
Once I got back to Portland a couple days later, I started communicating with the PR lady in charge of this woman. Let’s call her Gail (60% chance her name was Gail). The PR lady emailed me, “OK, you have 15 minutes to set up, and 10 minutes to photograph Gail”. Being totally green and eager to please, I wrote back something like, “great!”. Total and utter mistake #1. I did have the tact and foresight to ask her about options where the shoot could take place. A library/research space was settled upon. I didn’t ask many other followup questions, we just planned on a time and a date.
The time and date then arrived. I was ten minutes early and super nervous. I brought a 5D, a 24-105mm lens, and a 580EX flash. The big guns. Also known as everything I owned at the time. Depending on how necessary you view gear preparedness, this could be mistake #3, but at the same time, I would feel highly comfortable with this kit if I were to redo this shoot tomorrow, knowing what I now know.
Anyway, I check in with the receptionist at 2:20. I was to liaison with the PR lady at 2:30, begin the shoot at 2:45, be done by 3. The receptionist is sweet, tells me to have a seat on one of the 1,000 black leather chairs Nike bought for their headquarters. I check my email. 2:27. I try to think about shooting ideas. 2:30. Totally got off topic in my head. 2:33. Now I realize that I was cutting into my prep time. 2:36. Getting really nervous. 2:38. A nice british lady comes up, introduces herself as the PR person, we small talk up the elevator. She apologizes for being late yet still asks if it’s still ok to start in 6 fucking minutes. I’m not even really present by that point, I’m just trying to not spazz out on the fact that I have so little time to prep, or scout, or even put the lens on my camera. But I still say I’m ready. Totally awful.
We get to the library, and it’s not the airy, bright space I’d imagined (most of Nike public spaces are… so I just kinda… assumed). No. This is a fluorescent-lit, ceiling-tiled, 1950’s Academia meets just-the-tip of IKEA type of library. Grey carpet, beige metal bookshelves. 2:41. I put my camera together and hurriedly attempt to “scout” the space. I fire some test shots sans flash, and they look (tonally) flatter than plain cardboard. I put on my flash and attempt to bounce it into the ceiling. It looks like slightly brighter than plain cardboard.
I feel like a floundering fish at this point. I’m so overwhelmed that I haven’t addressed anything tactfully, I haven’t solved any problems, I haven’t locked down even one good location in this library to shoot. 2:48. Gail arrives. We talk for 3 minutes because I can’t just sit her down and start shooting, I need to establish some sort of rapport. This was good. I don’t think she could tell I was utterly unprepared or nervous.
I begin to shoot, except what I’m shooting, ostensibly, are test shots, which I should have already done. Except I didn’t give myself any time. So now I’m just experimenting on the fly with the subject, which sounds edgy and awesome, except it wasn’t. Because what I was shooting was awful. I remember looking into my LCD and just having this total sinking feeling, like I couldn’t salvage the shoot, 6 minutes in. 5 I felt like an apple had been shoved down my throat.
Eventually, I sat Gail on this hideous circular chair, put a couple of these new Nike enviro-friendly shoes around her, and with the PR lady counting down the final couple minutes, ended the shoot at 3:00. I thanked the PR lady and Gail, and walked out with my camera on my shoulder, which at the time, began to feel more like a lead weight.
I remember, SO vividly, how the second I stepped outside, I was able to step outside myself, and how I was flooded with a thousand ideas of how I could have made that shooting situation work so much better. So many solutions. That is why, to this day, I try to step aside from a shoot for at least 30 seconds, sometimes 5 minutes if I have the time, sometimes several times during a shoot, to clear my head and re-approach things with a fresh perspective, as opposed to getting so wrapped up and bound by tunnelvision.
The moral of this long story is that, as an emerging photographer, there’s a 98% chance you’re going to absolutely, terribly bomb some of your first commissioned assignments, but you’ll learn a million lessons, every one will stay with you because you were personally involved and invested, and you’ll apply everything you learned that day in every future shoot. And this cycle will repeat over and over again. And that’s how salty, legendary photographers are born.
I felt like I learned a million things on this shoot, here are a handful of them:
Prep and scout time: the more the merrier. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re rushing through either a scout or a setup. Give yourself the time you need. 15 minutes is a joke. It’s doable, and sometimes what you’ll get handed, but really, try to get at least 30-45 minutes for unlit work, to walk around, to get a good vibe going, etc. If you’re lighting, at least 1-2 hours. Time flies.
Scouting and having location options: I try to never get tied down to one location, like one room in this shoot. What if the room is awful? Again, sometimes you won’t have the luxury for several locations (it can be several rooms inside and outside a house). Don’t be afraid to take the subject into your comfort zone. My comfort zone is anywhere outside. I don’t so much enjoy dimly lit interiors. Some people love that control, I prefer the sun.
Stick to your guns when it comes to prep time, and if someone cuts into it, try to keep your bubble of prep. Obviously it can be a bit touchy if the subject is important, but it truly can’t hurt to ask, nicely.
Have ideas before you come into a shoot. Never come into a shoot blank. Have at least 2-4 solid concepts (it can even be as simple as “direct, tight headshot next to a window”) under your belt. That way, if you feel like you’re floundering, you have backup plans.
That said, don’t go into a shoot closed off to other possibilities. It’s a fine line. Leave yourself open to where the moment, the situation, the environment can take you. You’ll learn how to walk that line.