Turning Down Jobs

- - Getting Hired

Turning down jobs is one of the smartest things you can do for your photography career.

A reader writes:

“For me it’s been really instrumental in the last couple of years to take shoots that I really think I can knock out of the park, and shoots that feel like I am a good match for to get something great. Also, I make it a point to never go backwards or stay stagnant at a magazine for too long. If I do a small front-of-the-book portrait as a first job or two, and do a great job and they call for more, I usually try not to take it. I try to let them know that I would be good for their bigger shoots, and it’s worked out well that way, working my way up to covers in some cases.

In other cases, I was definitely stuck in a quarter pager mode, and was looking for the bigger front of the book portraits. Turned down the little jobs and never got offered the bigger. Which is a risk I was willing to take to try to get the better stuff. I figure sometimes it’s good to leave a magazine and come back to them with a stronger body of work later.”

He’s not talking about turning down bad money or contracts either just jobs that don’t jive with your career goals.

When you’ve established a relationship with someone shooting small front of book or crappy subjects that no one else wants it’s impossible to graduate them to the big features, fashion or the cover. Try convincing an editor that the photographer who shoots 1/4 pages in the front of the book should shoot this months cover. It ain’t happening.

Also, when I see someone’s work in another magazine that I don’t like, it can take them down a notch on my list. They may have done the job as a favor but I never know the details or difficulties behind the shoot.

So, what’s the best way to turn down jobs? Don’t be the photographer who says “I only shoot fashion or covers” because that’s not going to get you a call back to shoot fashion or covers. The usual method is to be busy during the shoot days and that’s why good agents will never tell you their photographer’s schedule before they hear the job details.

As a Photo Editor it’s important to have a couple photographers who will “shoot anything, anywhere and anytime” because you can always rely on them to get the job done but for most people this is not the way to advance your career.

I’ve had almost all my favorite photographers turn me down cold at one time or another and even though it stings for a couple days in the end I respect them more for not compromising their vision. Some shoots are just never worth taking no matter how much you need the job because if the the results are bad we may not be working together anymore anyways.

There Are 34 Comments On This Article.

  1. My rule of thumb is to turn down jobs that don’t pay enough to cover my cost of doing business. (Get Leslie Burns-Dell’Acqua’s book. She shows you how to calculate your CODB. It’s the most empowering math you’ll do.)

  2. What is the best way to turn down a job?

    I tend to run away from jobs that seem to have sprung from a long series of meetings held in conference rooms on 6th avenue 3000 miles away from reality. These ideas tend to be overly conceptual in nature and cheesy to say the least.

    ie “We thought it would be cool to shoot this engineer who invented the program flash in a trench coat “flashing someone”

    I would like to respond ” Are you all morons? WTF!”

    (I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked to shoot someone a writing a formula on glass.)

    But instead I say something like , “Oh that is an interesting solution but I don’t think I am the right person to execute your vision.” Email is best for this so you can say it with a straight face.

    Having a agent stall on my behalf seems too “East Coast” for me.

  3. Excellent post! As someone who is trying to break into full-time photography, this is excellent advice. Thank you!

  4. This post must have been a sign. My photog partner and I are going through one of these right now. We shouldn’t have taken the job to begin with, and on top of that, the pay royally blows (what’s new with editorial tho?). …And of course, it’s not anywhere near the subject matter or how we normally shoot. We conformed our style to the photos the publication was looking for, and kinda screwed ourselves in the process. I guess it’s not surprising when I say that we were eyeing out the bigger spreads towards the back… lesson learned. Be true to yourself and your vision. Screw the measly paycheck. ::slapping my own hand::

  5. Love this post. As someone who fired the majority of his local clients I can tell you that its quite liberating.

    I would get calls to shoot architecture, food, urban landscapes but if you look on my site its only portraits.

    I used to shoot whatever came along because its what needed to happen to pay the bills. My work suffered and it was not until I took a stand for my creative vision that my business really took off.

    Recently I had an agency hire me for a job. They said I’d be perfect for it and they wanted me to make it look like my Orgasm portraits! That was such a compliment to hear that come from a large agency and their client liked the work so much they purchased an additional four licenses.

    Rob you’re right about shooting the small stuff and not being able to grow the client into covers too. One of the clients I fired would not let me shoot a cover to save my life but then my roommate stepped in and shot two covers in a row.

    Great post. The power to say No is awesome.

  6. In one way or another, I’m willing to bet that every photographer has been down this road. Probably more than once. Especially for young guns… the temptation is all too real. My hats off to anyone who has never regretted a shoot.

  7. I think it works both ways. I recently shot a job that would have worked fine in my style, but after speaking with the DP, I decided that I would use it to challenge myself to come up with something a little different than I’m used to. Otherwise, it might not have been worth it. I was able to completely learn a new way of shooting (for me), from scouting to post, and I created some images I’m very proud of.

    That’s the nature of editorial. Last fall I told the kids at the Academy of Art that they should always look to challenge themselves with editorial jobs. Give the client what they want, but learn a better, faster (or slower), and different way to do things. You won’t get rich doing it, so you might as well make the most of it.

    This particular job was a chance for me to create some more commercial-looking portraits for my book. The money wasn’t great, but it helped me take another step to where I want to be.

    It worked out positively because I saw it going in the right direction. I think a job that’s a complete departure from what I usually shoot would only serve to take my focus off further honing my vision. In other words, a waste of time. Learning the difference is probably half the battle.

  8. john mcd.

    what I take from rob’s posting is how sad it is that a job that probably used to be a lot of fun has become anything but. why would you want to be the “director of photography” when you really only have the power to suggest, rather than decide, who gets to do important, and even not-so-important assignments, for the magazine in question? and live in fear that a less-than-stunning photo shoot will cost you your credibility if not your job? and this is editorial, not advertising. sadder still is how this means it is all that much harder for “unknown” talents to be given a chance to show what they can do. no wonder rob stepped away.

  9. #9

    State of the industry today. Its not so much what you can do as who you know. Market is saturated.

    I never turn anything down unless I want a rest. But then I cheat. I have two names. No, seriously.

    I shoot all the crap jobs that pay OK but not wonderful under one name and the cream (subject and payment) goes under another.

    So my “A” list work remains just that.

    A credit line is, well, a credit line. If its good enough for authors to have a pen name to write different styles without encroaching on their “name” its good enough for us.

  10. scott Rex Ely

    Well apparently after this posting there is going to be an opening for some people who can advance their careers just by being the dept. type folks. If I was another photo editor knowing how many people read your blog and recognizing that you just single handedly reduced the size of the “cover and feature” pie and simultaneously diminished the pool of dependable 1/4 page folks by suggesting to act swamped and pass on the career breaking measly front of the book stuff, I’d say you might deserve the title of “that fucking dick”. I’m not suggesting that your battles with the editors and their perceived notions of uber quality isn’t warranted, however you have to consider by belittling anything other than a cover assignment and regulating those petty assignments to dependable gophers you are just asking for mediocrity in the middle. Do you ever consider that photographers might not want to work with you because of realistic constraints, sorta like the one you mention that take one “down” a notch ? I accept the idea of perfection per issue code of honor but let’s look at the big picture shall we? Your compromises are forgiven aren’t they?

  11. * Do you like the client? Are the fun and respectful?
    * Does the job advance your career?
    * What are the down sides? Are the production values worthy of the expectations?
    * Are the expectations unreasonable?

  12. Some people just have to see the fuzzy end of the lollipop, I swear (#11). Ah well…

    FWIW, I have been telling my clients for years to not take crap jobs, for whatever reason they may be crap jobs–bad money, subject, political/ethical reasons–each person has her/his own list, or should.

    I also think firing inappropriate clients is liberating. I wrote about it some time ago–it’s a Manual on my site (Manuals page, Dead.pdf). Sure, it’s scary as hell to tell yourself, and others, “this is what I do–I don’t do that” but once you start down that path, it frees you to explore your own creative vision more. Your work improves and that helps to attract the right clients.


  13. @9. John: Unless you’re Laurie Kratochvil the cover decision is made with the editor and creative director and sometimes the owner. For the rest of the big stuff it really depend on who you’re working with but sometime it’s nice to collaborate with another creative person.

    @11. Scott: I’m pretty sure most working photographers know what I’m talking about already. The front of book used to be a place to make a living but it’s not anymore it’s a place to climb the ladder. It’s also easier said than done and yes, as I said photographers turned me down cold. Some agents wouldn’t even take my call when they heard what magazine I was calling from.

  14. I agree with Rob.

    I always, ALWAYS get the details of a shoot before accepting and usually have something else on a particular date that I need to clear before I’ll give a client the time (ie: another shoot, billing, contemplating my bellybutton, etc.).

    I only give a client ONE chance (that’s all they will give a photographer, so it’s just a reciprocal arrangement). If I give them my time for a shoot and the parameters change after the fact, say they take my “10 page story” and turn it into 5 half-page images, I won’t work with them again. In fact, I’ve cancelled shoots once or twice when the parameters changed too much. Same goes for payment. One strike and you’re out.

    And I never do favors for an editor. Ever. It’s not that I don’t like them – it’s just that I choose to run my business as a business. No hard feelings.

    And @11: No. Compromises are never forgiven, because anyone seeing your name next to a crappy shoot doesn’t know it’s a compromise, but thinks it’s just how you take pictures. Rob’s not being a dick, but is just suggesting a very savvy approach to business. I’m sure with the reduced 1/4 page pool of photographers, they’ll eventually get down the list to your name and you’ll be available, but I for one don’t want to take the leftovers after 20 other photographers have passed over the job. And it’s not just a money thing – I’ll shoot for free, or go 100% out of pocket even, if the shoot presents the right opportunity or good positioning for my work, or grants access to someone/thing I wouldn’t otherwise be able to shoot. But, 1/4 page is pretty much never good placement and very rarely offers great access.

  15. scott Rex Ely

    Rob and Dude, I understand that the more advanced shooters are who Rob is really talking to, my point is that while preaching to the choir the sermon is for the people in the pews. Just because someone is shooting for the middle of the book doesn’t mean that they will necessarily do a compromised image. Incrementally showing editors that people are dependable is in my opinion a legitimate way to build a career. BTW, how would someone ever know that they were the 20th person on the list to be called? Thanks for the thoughts. Please don’t assume my acerbic comments are personal I just like to present, albeit sometimes bombastic, another viewpoint. Your patience and replies are sincerely appreciated.

  16. You can x10 for this in the fine art photo world. I just email replied the editor of a classy fine art photo mag and find myself slightly paranoid because of a typo.

  17. Bruce Kramer

    Speaking from an agents point of view: Each and every job has merit. The relevance is different for each photographer. Many photographers just want to shoot which is an excellent way to refine your craft, but clients do notice what you do. You have to be careful what jobs you accept and what jobs you turn down. Clients move around and they have very good memories.

    I always ask a bunch of questions, before letting the client know if who they are calling for is available.

    A few things should be considered.

    First and foremost is this the right assignment for me? Who’s the subject? Do they own a company that does advertising? Is it a public figure who has endorsements? Are they a celebrity with a PR agency behind them, that has a strong roster? Will it be good for my book? Can the shoot be syndicated?

    Not everyone is going to be a cover photographer. You have to make a choice. Do I want to just work and make a good living or can I afford to pick and choose and hope I’m the next chosen one.

  18. Rob, I am struck by this: “I’ve had almost all my favorite photographers turn me down cold…”

    It had to have been some spectacularly lame jobs you were offering, or something! But I take your meaning.

    When I am able to say “no” to a client for reasons other than schedule or money (real or concocted) it’s almost always a reflection of a trusting (and exceedingly rare) relationship.

  19. Its the luxury of established photographers to have the ability to turn down photography projects. Photographers who are just starting out and looking to get their name out there while also being able to feed themselves find it a bit more complex and issue to turn down a paying job. While I don’t disagree that it is sometimes in your best interest to turn down a particular job, its a fine line that determines which to turn away.

  20. @17: I’m not suggesting that this is personal. It’s business, so you’ve got to be getting something out of a job. If an amazing photograph runs at 1/4 page, it makes the photograph look like shit. The image itself is compromised at 1/4 page. Case in point: look at some of the amazing images in American Vogue that run at 1/4 page. You don’t notice them (or their VERY established photographers’ names) unless you look for them. If Vogue comes knocking for a 1/4 page image, by all means do it. It means your images are running small just like some of the biggest names in the industry (and hence, it is good placement when viewed in context). A 1/4 page image in Cosmo isn’t so great though. I believe they pay about the same, so it’s not about the money, but it’s about the placement and positioning.

    @20: …and that’s why you always say you’re “already booked”. Maybe you’re “booked” to watch your favorite soap opera, or to visit your mom or whatever, but even in the best client/photographer relationships, you don’t want to say the job’s not good enough, even if the client knows it’s the case.

    @21: It’s not a luxury of the established people to say no. In fact, that’s the first and sometimes the most powerful leverage you have. Just look at ANY celebrity publicist for an example of how this works. They don’t have any real power except the power to say “no” to requests, even when their client is unestablished and a brand new to the industry nobody. Any publicist (or rep) worth their salt will treat their client/artist as if they are established. To me there is very little room for humility when your goal is advancement.

    You always have the power to say no – it’s all about how you value your time and work. If you just want a paying job, assist or wait tables or be a paralegal or whatever you have to do, but in my opinion it’s a mistake to assume that you are exclusively dependent upon your photography for your income and always leads to undervaluing your work.

  21. @21: also, forgot to say – it’s always a fine line and a personal decision how you value your time and work.

  22. I don’t get it. We own our own businesses so we can work with who we want. Why take a shit job?? Seriously why? Go make money elsewhere or spend that time you’d be doing the shit job looking for people that are cool to deal with and understand your vision.

    There’s so much crapography out there is sicking. I can’t even name 10 photographers that inspire me. It’s all become oatmeal in large part because crapographers take any job that comes their way, then you’re hating life, making shit photos and before you know it you’re old, fat and bitching about how shitty business is.

    Last year I fired just about all my local editorial clients and it was rad. I was professional about it but let them know what my company can and can’t do. Some of the AD’s were college friends of mine and still are but I’m not shooting for the companies they work for because they want me to produce more of the same.

    That was a liberating experience. I’ve shot less but actually made more money because I raised my prices.

    I’m not selling photography anymore I’m selling my vision.

  23. …these are luxury problems at this time and age, does nobody have to pay the rent anymore ? How many photographers do really have the option of turning down jobs ? You are talking about the upper 150 here…I turn down any job that I think I cannot fulfill or isn’t worth it financially, but that’s about it. And I am having fun with the rest !!!

  24. @25: money isn’t everything so the financial worth of a job isn’t the only thing to consider. It’s always good to throw your professional reputation into the mix and how your work is positioned within the grand scheme of things.

    I heard that Avedon had a general rule that he would not allow his work to be published in any book that isn’t either specifically about him or about the history of photography. Very, very smart positioning for someone established, but it is smart to apply similar standards to your own work as long as you have a bit of flexibility and scope of your position within the market.

    Also, I am flattered that by your standard I’m in the top 150. Thanks. ;)

  25. In this discussion it’s important to make sure the young’uns out there understand that for most new photographers it is almost always better to work than not to work.

    The images you create for magazines will be different from self generated work. Trust me on this. It’s important to go through the magazine process in order to understand your own strengths and weaknesses, as well as to put you in new photographic situations. I have an old Harper’s Bazaar lying around that has a pretty bad set of shoe still lifes shot on white signed by Robert Frank. Yep, that Robert Frank. I’d like to think he needed to do the front of the book stuff in order to get where he needed to be — out of the book entirely.

    In my career I have shot plenty of 1/4 page shots, but I never treated them as dinky photos. I shot every one as if it were a portfolio piece. Some photo editors never noticed, but many did, and my career advanced because of those 1/4 page photos. Now, except for one or two special columns, I never take anything less than full page assignments. That is a great luxury, and I’m grateful I can cherry pick my assignments. But please do not think that refusing work is a great way to start. This is where an agent can be very helpful, as a good agent will try very hard to keep you active AND move you up the ladder.

    One final note on the comment about dropping notches when working with “lower level” magazines. I shoot for some publications that I really shouldn’t work for, because they either have bad printing or are not very luxurious. I do this mainly for two reasons: solidarity with the photo editor, and interesting assignments, even if I know the story will not print well. And sometimes I get an offer to shoot something I would never, ever have an opportunity to do for the usual suspects. I guess a few snobs have dropped me a notch or two for doing this. So be it. As Duane Michaels once said (I’m paraphrasing), “I love to take pictures, and if someone is willing to pay to do what I love, well, that’s just the greatest thing ever.”

  26. Love this post. I just got back from ASMP’s SB2 (where, incidentally, Leslie Burn-Dell’Aqua mentioned your blog) and this was a big topic throughout the whole thing. Photogs (myself included up until before my education this weekend) think they have to take any job that pays, just to add someone to their client list. I used to look at the situation as a ladder that you have to climb, where starting off on the bottom rung means doing a shoot for gift certificates and slowly working my way up to thousands of dollars the better I got. Just based on the discussions we had this weekend, I definitely understand the advantages of being a bit more picky when it comes to accepted the jobs that come my way. In the future I will not take the jobs that I don’t think will benefit me. That is the bottom line. If it does not sound like the work I usually do, if the payment does not cover my time, equipment, and creative fees, and if the client just doesn’t hit me right….I will not take the position. (Of course refusing it politely and possibly recommending someone else for the job.)

    anyways!! Great post!!! Thanks!!!

    Terra Dawn

  27. 1st want to say what a wonderful site this is here,it might just be my saviour,just when i thought all was lost.
    Why wait tables when you can make money from doing what you do?
    It’s foolish to say make money else where while you are waiting for your big break..its not hollywood and waiting tables is never going to even match a 1/4 page rate you gotta eat and as iblink said why not work at doing what you enjoy?

    I would encourage all young photographers to get what work you can to start with, get used to dealing with clients use every job as a test, a stepping stone,but above all do it to the best of your ability dont be cynical and precious.
    Use every experience for personal testing ground and growth.
    You might just protect your name and image for too long then.. wham you hit 35/40 you have evolved and no longer have the inclination or strength emotionally or physically to do the daily schmooze with these “arty” jobsworths with no personal refrences.
    If only i could tell you of the amount of photo EDs/ADs i met over the years who fell into the job with no credentials via some obscure connection to the media.
    Lots of these guys wouldnt know a true visionary if they saw one they often come in from nowhere and learn the blag very quickly then the next minute they are looking at your book (with images equal to if not sometimes better than anything they have in their publication) and saying oh might be able to give you an opening page and your back to where you started.
    Why does none talk of the closed network? In my opinion no matter how good your work is, if your face doesnt fit or you have not spent a larger part of you career constantly brown nosing hassling or schmoozing the right people you can forget getting a foot in the door especially at the top level.
    Now before you start dont think this is all sour grapes honestly i have worked at top end of editorial and often at the lower with no credit,both got me no where because there is no INTEGRITY!
    I had to fight to get every prestige/crap job and hold onto it untill client or me tired of each other and moved on.
    The whole industry is stitched up everyones busy,no one takes calls or looks at emails anymore (Unless from a direct known contact or agent)
    No one is prepared to take any chances its often the old tried and tested (i.e came up through the ranks together became friends the rest is history or you assisted mario or such and such) formulas wins time and time again, its a fact.
    Why do you think all the top publications use the same guys over and over again?
    Seems your a nobody and nobodies gonna take note untill your a somebody (or a friend of ed ) thats the mantra.
    Someone talk about this.. tell me im wrong..please i have become a cynic!
    How can you maintain personal integrity and identity not to mention a desire to continue in an industry, if you have to go out begging for prestige work from people who dont give a f*@K?

  28. P.s with regards previous mail.. i am looking for genuine feed back and useful advice on how to overcome the disenfranchised and sometimes dispiriting existance of being a photographer and how to stay focused on ones raison d’etre in an overly saturated market where everyones a creative!

    :-) no smart ass comments i am genuinely disillusioned!

  29. @hexfire:

    “Its the luxury of established photographers to have the ability to turn down photography projects.”

    For a photographer just starting out, the word “no” is literally the ONLY tool they have in their negotiations with potential clients. You have no reputation to lean on. There is no prestige associated with your name. There is no publicity from hiring you for the job. Your portfolio is skimpy and under-developed, and taking a job that isn’t in-line with your career goals isn’t going to help it.

    The word “no” is your only tool and your best friend when you’re laying the foundations for your future work.

    That realization is what gave me hope and inspired me to stay true to myself and pursue the career that I really want, rather than shoot what I think people will buy.

    If you consider the word “no” a luxury reserved for the well-established, your career as a photographer is doomed.

    If you don’t let your artistic vision develop your body of work, you’ll find yourself competing based on price rather than competing based on your talent and abilities, and in a competitive market like photography, if you’re competing based on price, you’ll price yourself into poverty very quickly!