One of the top questions photographers ask me is “how do I get an agent” but since I’ve never been a photographer I really have no clue how you get an agent. Recently a photographer in LA with some nice work emailed me after getting zero response from the agents he’d been contacting and I started to wonder what it takes, if you’ve got good work, to land an agent, so I called up Deborah Schwartz (dsreps.com), an LA agent I used to work with and asked her a few questions.
APE: Do you get inquiries from photographers looking for a rep?
I get them all the time, but I just don’t have the time to respond, even when I find the work interesting.
APE: When you brush someone off because you can’t take anyone on at the moment but tell them the work is great do they email you back angry, because you think their work is good but you won’t represent them anyway?
Sometimes the response is angry, but most of the time they write back with more questions and eventually I have to be rude and not write back because I just don’t have time. No matter what, I basically feel like I have to be rude at some point along the way. It’s not intentional but I’ve gotten to the point where I need to prioritize my work, and I don’t have time to get everything done that I have to get done. The two things that have made life more difficult is that everything has gone digital, which means more work to go through and edit for my photographers and tons more email coming in from all directions.
APE: It wasn’t always this way right? Before the web blew up people had to write you a letter, send you a book or come see you right?
I’m sure that it was difficult for reps to keep up even then, but now there are just too many photographers trying to get the attention of reps. I think that in the same way that a photographer needs to put together an amazing promo piece to sell themselves to an art director, they’re going to have to do the same thing for reps too.
Not to long ago, I think that photographers began to look for a rep once they were too busy to handle all of the work that they had coming in. Now, it seems that people put a portfolio together, put together a promo and then start looking for a rep as if that is the next step in the process. Add this to the fact that the economy is bad right now and imagine how many photographers are out there looking for a rep.
APE: So, do you think a lot of the volume is coming from the simple fact that there are a lot of people who can take good pictures, put together a website and then just start emailing agents?
Yes, I do think that this is happening. Three things that I see a lot are, photographers whose work I like, but I can see that they’ve not done any work yet which is a problem because they don’t know how to deal with clients, estimating, creative calls, meeting new potential clients and all that goes on with shooting professionally. I really don’t think that photographers should look for a rep before they have some of this experience under their belt.
The second thing that I see a lot of is portfolios that look like they’re copying what is trendy right now, not a real point of view or vision.
Thirdly, I get inquiries from people whose work is similar to my other photographers. I do not want to have any more crossover in my group. Too much competition within one group of photographers creates a different set of headaches for a rep.
APE: Do you think that there are more photographers than there has ever been and there are more good photographers than there’s ever been?
I think that there have always been great photographers out there. I do think there are more good ones who are not getting work, but that’s just because the economy is bad. And in general, yes, there are more photographer than ever.
APE: Is there a big difference between being a good photographer and having a career in photography?
Yes, of course. It’s about the ability to get out there and relate to people, so they like you and want to see more of your work. Then, not only does your work need to be good but you need to follow through with giving them that quality of work on a job. It’s one thing to take good pictures on your own but to be able to do it on an assignment or under difficult circumstances is entirely different.
APE: When photographers contact me saying that they’re looking for a rep the first thing I ask them is why would you want someone to take part of your income away. It seems like the time to get a rep is when you’re too busy to handle certain aspects of your business.
That’s the way it should be. It seems though that a lot of the time photographers look for a rep because they don’t know where to turn after they’ve created a website and sent out promos, and they’re still not working, so now they need help. This might sound harsh but if you’re getting out there with your work, and sending out promos and you are still not getting a response, then you’re doing something wrong. Like maybe the work is not up to speed yet, or you need to be patient. It takes time to build relationships with clients and to build a base of work.
APE: Are there reps who will take photographers where you see the potential in the work and you help them?
When I look back to when I first started and was trying to get established as a rep I only had photographers who were just beginning to get work. I saw something special in the work, so I told them what they needed to do with their portfolios in order to be ready for a rep and they came back and had done it. Then I took them on.
I am still able to do this sometimes, but it is all about timing. For example, I’ve worked with photographers on a freelance basis for a year and suddenly I had room to take on someone else and since I had been successful in getting them work during that freelance period, I felt that it would be a good move to take them onto my roster. So, their patience paid off and we were also able to get to know each other and see how we worked together in that time as well.
APE: How do you know when you can add a photographer?
I have a limit of 12. I know every agency is different but since I edit my photographers work–which is very time consuming–that’s my limit.
APE: But the photographers would probably like you to have less?
Yes, but they understand that I have limited it to what I can handle. I might want to take on more photographers whose work I love but I’m not going to do that at the expense of the people I already handle. My priority is to take care of my photographers, the photo editors, art directors and art buyers who we work with.
My agency is a bit different from the model where you have one of each style of photography; all my photographer have a style that I love and that I know I can sell because I can relate to it and I believe in it. I don’t have car photographers for example because I just don’t get that kind of work. I just feel like I wouldn’t know what a good car book was, and I would have a hard time getting passionate about selling car photography.
APE: So, the question you still need to answer now and every photographer wants to know is “what does it take to get a rep?”
I think that you need to be at that point in your career when you need help to keep up with the work that you are getting, and when you have met the person who feels like the right match for you.
Being a photographer is a huge investment of time and money. You need to be able to show an art director that you not only have a good eye, but also that you can put it together in a unique way. Then, you need to get out there and hustle like a mad dog.
Some people think that a rep is just there to get you the work, but I am one half of a team. Photographers need to be proactive in getting out there themselves shooting personal work, meeting with people and getting editorial work. In order to make it, you have to be really likable, professional, responsible and a really fantastic photographer. If you are all of these things, you will be getting work and you will need a rep on your team.
One of the biggest mistakes people make is they have a portfolio and then they just wait for the work to come in. If you aren’t constantly pushing yourself and growing as a photographer–you see this all the time where the work doesn’t change and the book is the same from year to year–then you’re dead in the water and not getting work and will continue to not get work. You need to be testing and shooting for yourself all of the time.
APE: I’m sure you’ve had a situation where you lose out jobs to photographers with a style that’s not in your camp, do you then consider hiring a photographer with a hot style of photography?
No, only because trends change and I feel that chasing them is a waste of time. Plus, like I said before, I like a particular kind of photography so I stick with that. I can only sell what I believe in and I believe in photography that is authentic, humorous and sometimes a bit ironic.
APE: I will hear art buyers say that you don’t need a rep to get a job but do you think that’s really true? Are they really willing to hire photographers who don’t have a rep backing them?
I think that’s true. I mean, if you have a great crew and you know the business and understand the art of estimating then no, you don’t have to have a rep in order to land a job. On the other hand, if you are not adept at this, it can be a hassle for an Art Buyer to have to walk someone through the entire process and not all Art Buyers have the time to do deal with that. And, their ass is on the line too, so if you estimate incorrectly and you do get the job, it will make them look bad having to go back to the client for more money.
APE: Any more advice for photographers?
Don’t put all of your energy into getting a rep. Put your energy into shooting and doing good work. And, stay on the radar of a rep that you really want to work with, without being pushy. If you are green and a good photographer, work on getting experience as a shooter. That’s most important. If I say your work is good and to stay in touch, get out there and get more experience and stay in touch with that new work. Continue to hone your skills and to hone your vision.
APE: Is it possible to take someone who’s work is great but they’re just green and get them work based on the Art Buyers trust in you, your ability to produce a shoot and put together an estimate?
Probably, but here’s the downside to that. I have built relationships with Art Buyers and Art Directors for the last 15 years. I have to know that whoever I recommend for a shoot is going to do an amazing job on all levels. There’s just too much at stake to take chances. It is not just about packaging someone well with a good portfolio, website, promos and representation. I need to really know that they can back it up.
In the end the rep-photographer relationship is a serious. It’s like a marriage. You don’t get married after the first date.
I think that if you are a good but green shooter you will be even better if you have some business skills and experience behind you.
APE: I understand but I hear from photographers who look at those who have reps and are getting a lot of work and making a lot of money and they say I can shoot like that what’s the big deal?
That’s just copying other people. Whenever I hear that I think, they just don’t get it. It’s not about “I can do that,” what other people are doing. It’s about getting out there for yourself and shooting what you love because you love doing it. Have a strong vision and have something to say that people want to hear. Copying is just chasing trends and if you’re trying to do what everyone else is already doing you’ve missed it, because it’s already happened.