My greatest piece of advice for hiring photographers I learned the hard way. After many failed and boring and misdirected shoots I discovered an axiom I now adhere to. Never hire a photographer to shoot something that’s not already in their book. This is worth repeating.

Don’t hire photographers to shoot pictures they don’t already have the skills to take.

Don’t misinterpret this to mean you need kittens playing with yarn to get a job shooting kittens playing with yarn. And, don’t take it to mean we never try photographers out or take a chance on photographers. We do, just not with the big shoots.

It means I want to see the visual language in your other pictures that will make up my picture. It means playing to your strengths. It means attempting to match the perfect subject and photographer.

I can’t always do this but when I do, it works every time.

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  1. When I moved to San Francisco in ’94, I had a book that was heavy on “variety”! ;-) Yes, yes, a kiss of death in almost all cases and one that still plagues me to this day. Meaning, I really have to work hard to sell myself to new clients. (I just can’t help myself, I really, really like to make images and I have such interest in a wide variety of subjects… focus Robert, focus!)

    The AD at San Francisco Focus Magazine at that time was David Armario. David saw something in my still life work that he really liked and he threw me a food assignment. I had never shot food before, and I questioned it, only to myself of course. Regardless, I was happy to have an assignment from such a well respected AD. That shoot changed (set?) my career. I got the cover, the lead story and if I remember correctly, 8 pages. My phone still rings to this day because of what that assignment set in motion.

  2. I completely agree with this. I always try to put in a portfolio the types of things that I’d want to be hired for. I see a lot of young photographers having portfolios that are all over the map, or they’re putting in examples of what they think clients want to see. But you’re absolutely right – getting hired to do something you can do but don’t like doing will certainly help push you into creating boring images.

    Of course, there are infinite numbers of ways to get boring images. Tragically, I often find that there are editors who will hire a photographer without too much regard for his/her portfolio, just because they want any sort of picture whatsoever, and the photographer just happens to be convenient for the budget/location/time, etc of the shoot. Even worse is when you’re hired specifically NOT to do what you do – In Robert’s case above it worked out for him. But for every photo editor out there looking for intriguing and engaging and insightful images there also seems to be a handful who just want any old photographer to take pictures that will come in under budget and not rock the boat too much or be too “edgy”.

    But absolutely, the best pictures come from those cases where the editor matches the photographer (and the photographer’s tendencies) and a great subject that suit each other, and then has the ability to stand back and let it happen.

  3. I just finished an annual report for a conservation group that was a perfect fit for me. Aerials and real people on location. The art director trusted me to do my thing and added suggestions only when needed or to clarify the direction of the image.

    I felt like I was shooting for the pure joy of shooting and that always comes from an assignment that is “right” .

  4. You still must be thinking about that killer assignment you have to get wrapped up.

    I totally agree. It is so much easier to give the photographers some direction from something they have already done and know how to do that they are proud of it and it defines their work,—because it’s in their book, right. This is what they do.

    That visual dialog photo reference or what ever you want to call it helps you decide how you want to realize the art for the article. If nothing else its a starting point to get some really great ideas developed.

    When you have to great film and feel you made the right choice, when that happens the design, the headline writing it all just flows. It’s awesome

  5. For real. And this is just as important from the photographer’s point of view. I sometimes can’t believe it when people ask me to do certain things that almost contradict my work, which makes me think, “hasn’t this person seen my website?!” Crazy. Like asking Jack Black to play Neo in the next Matrix movie or something.

  6. “getting hired to do something you can do but don’t like doing will certainly help push you into creating boring images”

    – well said –

    I just stumbled upon your weblog today, I look forward to catching up on prior posts and looking forward to what’s written, discussed, in the future

  7. Just a counterpoint on this one. A few years back I heard Kira Pollack at the NYT magazine speak. She was talking about making assignments and working with Kathy Ryan. One point she made was how they often tried to get great photographers to shoot assignments out of the norm. Having a landscape photographer shoot portraits for instance. Or a fashion shooter doing photojournalism. The idea was that the photographer would try something different, maybe break some new ground.

  8. @ Jonathan: I agree with that practice as long as you understand the results will retain characteristics of the other work or possibly fail if the photographer tries to create something entirely new. I think the ground breaking occurs when practices normally attributed to one vein of photographer are brought to another.

  9. As a photographer devoloping my portfolio specifically to get into magazine work, I appreciate this input. And I have one question that is a bit off topic, but somewhat related to it.

    Armed with a portfolio like Avedon, and attitude like Capa, and the work ethic of a victorian era irish immigrant, do I really have to move to New York or L.A. to get work in the domestic market? Having worked overseas, my London photo editors never really wanted to see me, they just wanted clear lines of communication. Are things so much different here?

  10. This may feel to much like a marketing point and not from someone who is in love with his art … however, the roll of a body of work needs command a place in the buyers mind – mind space, so to speak. Say Bruce DeBoer and I want everyone whose seen my work to have a specific impression about what it is I do so they can know when they need to hire me.

    If you are a generalist, it’s very hard for use to know what it is you do best. For all you generalists out there, how many times have you been asked, “so, what do you like best? People or Product?

    I’m still mulling over the smile photographers v. non-smile shooters from a previous post. I can’t help but think that those who don’t shoot smiles are just really bad joke tellers or not very charming in a crowd.

  11. “Armed with a portfolio like Avedon, and attitude like Capa, and the work ethic of a victorian era irish immigrant, do I really have to move to New York or L.A. to get work in the domestic market?”

    Avedon, NYC.
    Capa, Paris, NYC, LA.
    Irish immigrants, NYC.

    In a way, you kind of answered your own question.

    But that’s only if you get off on the idea of fame. I know lots of talented shooters in B markets making tons of cash shooting commercial work. You don’t hear about them, and they don’t care. They’re too busy counting their money and being big fish in lil’ponds.

  12. i believe in mood photography.
    you hire a photographer for the energy and mood they bring to the subjects.

    i think people get style and mood mixed up.
    the style of a photograph is easy to grasp but mood is what affects us and stays with us in the end.

    the stagnant artist is what is expected in our generation.
    it is what the public gorges….like hungry pigs.

  13. mood?
    You can have a photo full of mood and devoid of meaning, content, subtext.
    Just look at alot of fashion photography, lots of mood saying nothing.

  14. content is what is being photographed. there is always content in any photograph. it is the subject.

    meaning and subtext is how or what the viewer reads while looking at the photograph. if interested in the photographer’s means and subtext, you read the artist’s statement.

    yes, there is a lot of fashion photography that oozes mood and is only superficially gratifying. but we need to read them outside of that box. they reflect what is going on now. materials of the clothing, the style of lighting, the physical traits of the models, color, pixels, …etc..

    what im saying is subtext and meaning is subjective and changing through time and place.
    mood, feeling, emotion, spirit, butterflies in the stomach, is either in the work or not. period.

  15. “mood, feeling, emotion, spirit, butterflies in the stomach, is either in the work or not. period.”

    That is exactly right in my opinion. It’s what I push against every time I trip the shutter regardless of content. It’s the frosting on a mediocre scene and it nearly knocks you over when you’re shooting a great scene. Yes – it’s a must to push for great content (usually in the form of production values – at least commercially) but each photographer will create mood that – in a given body of work – will become his/her signature. Emotion, feeling, spirit – it’s the connection we must establish with our viewer to be successful.

    My feeling is that most fashion shots are so cliche (beautiful woman – great cloths – unusual surroundings – nothing real) we are immune to any emotion other than what pheromones they stir in us.

  16. With this point of view – to grant assignments only to those who have done what they always do – you will never achieve new results, images or positive surprises. This is the mentality of Photo-Administrators, do not call them Picture Editors.

  17. i think it depends on what the subject is and what creative scope is allowed. i worked ( as a photo editor) under a famous art director and his approach was that if a photographer is really good then he/she can shoot anything well and he liked to mix it up – ie. photojournalist shooting fashion. art photogs doing fashion, whcih is nothing new but contradicts what you say about if its not in their book best to fogro. though that said it could also depend on what alllowance for style there is. still i bascially agree that if a photog is a real talent + smart then they can shoot almost anything and do it well
    Ps. thanks for the blog

  18. I also believe that it depends on the Photo Editors budget. Magazines are losing ground to the internet,(online websites), and they have had they’re budgets cut down to half of what it was before. Along with CNN and Fox’s you report it, the magazines that want your travel photos and a few words for a $100.00, and the point and shoot cameras, photo editor’s are asking for more and delivering less money to those that have paid their dues in this industry, but that’s business. I would suggest that any photographer should learn video as a backup for future online magazine work.

  19. Top Five for 2008…

    If you haven’t read my previous top five things I would look for in a photographer’s portfolio, its still well worth a read. I have however been trying to think of a new top five for a while, I mean you’d expect after two years of sho…

  20. I once made the mistake of asking a second who I did not know very well to shoot some important shots. I should have thought that the second may not be up to scratch and guess what, his photos also were not.

  21. Just a ramble

    Adam you asked… do I really have to move to New York or L.A. to get work in the domestic market?

    today I wonder but my experience is if you are in NYC or LA going to a smaller market can be devastating!!!

    before the internet, I left LA for family reasons after spending a few years aquiring a few clients and I was making good money, to go to a B or C level market. for 4 years people thought i left the big city cause I couldn’t hack it or had failed. My tax returns obviously could argue that very well. To beat this I had to do many things that weren’t photography. the best move though was I worked my way up to lighting director at a video production company. Thus expanding my skills in a positive way. Half a decade later the family problems were settled and i went back to the big city with…………………… a very generalist portfolio arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh And thus had to rebuild and completely renetwork for the third time.
    Morale of the story being you can go from the small pond to the big ocean in stride. But going from the big ocean to the small pond is not so simple. and if you are happy stay where you are at.
    If customers from Kansas hire from the LA pool why can’t the LA pool hire from kansas

  22. i really like to take pictures. I’m more of a free photographer. i like to take pictures of things like animals and natures beauty.

  23. i really like to take pictures. I’m more of a free photographer. i like to take pictures of things like animals and natures beauty.

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