Photo has basically been my whole life. Fell in love with photography in high school, assisted during and out of college. Started to get little assignments for the local rags, like $50 (in 2009) to shoot an entree at a restaurant for the regional paper, but I’d pretend I was shooting it for the New Yorker. Would embellish, ask the chef for a portrait even though I didn’t need it, just to build my portfolio. The paper would run the photo of the burger but I’d walk away with 5-10 new images for my book. Hustled a ton. Always sending emails of new work, always going to NYC for meetings.
That approach lead me into a solid run of editorial work starting in 2009. Unwittingly/unknowingly, the style I was shooting in lent itself to commercial work. I got picked up by a rep in 2011 at 23, purely bewildered as to how I would fit into advertising. It was equal courtship and we talked for about a year before official signing. Looking back through those emails, I was so green. Not only in production experience but also communication. Many folks think getting picked up by a rep is just on the merit of your work, but it’s also about how you conduct your business, and how you communicate with clients on calls and emails. You are your own creative arm, but also communications and PR and admin and financial arms too. If your work is bad, if you can’t communicate well, if you’re careless with finances… these are all things a rep cares about.
My work has slowly shifted from 90% editorial 10% commercial to 5% editorial 95% commercial. I miss the assignments and feel like it’s the absolute best training for commercial work. Nowadays with less editorial work going around, it’s a rougher transition from personal projects right into commercial. Editorial is boot camp, in the best way. You often have little time, not a huge budget, but you need to make something amazing. There is a growing gap between experience and expectation on commercial shoots. I have heard of photographers that literally can’t hit focus more than 10% of the time on their first commercial shoot or can’t run a crew or handle the time pressures. Just because your personal IG feed is cool doesn’t guarantee a smooth commercial shoot; editorial used to vet and smooth that gap out.
I haven’t spent any money on marketing since Covid; I generally believe your time and money should go into your work and your work should be your marketing. That said, in person meetings are incredibly powerful and the only marketing I would consider. IG as a platform is trash but it’s free, the reach is huge, and I focus my time there in comprehensively sharing work. Lastly, I hate math and numbers and honestly thinking about money, so I have a CPA as well as a bookkeeper, but I do my own books that she looks over, because I like to stay tight to the numbers. Also I don’t want to have a Rihanna situation. When I hit my 30s, living in the States, my focus shifted away from trying to get cool clout-y fashion-y design-y assignments and towards just being able to fund my retirement, donate a good chunk each year to causes I believe in, and cross the finish line without debt. Sorry, Dazed. So I fully fund my SEP IRA each year, live within my means, and stack acorns.
I don’t have a dream client or a number I want to hit for the year. My forever goal is life balance and happiness and to sustain a solid, long, consistent career. Photo is fickle and challenging and all of the things, but it has given me a really incredible life, shown me the world, and I have domain over my time and schedule. I am grateful for that, and I keep the sentiment at the forefront of my mind. I keep negativity far, far away from me. Longevity and relevance are my biggest career goals. I often have 5-10 year old images in my treatments alongside work from a month ago. There are definitely clients looking to chase visual trends but there are also clients who need to use the images beyond the season and I look to meet them there.
Having an ego is dangerous. I begin each year expecting nothing work-wise and build up from there. Keep the hustle going. You can’t control much in this industry (jobs coming in or not, types of shoots that hit your inbox), but you can control how much you apply yourself and your mental state, which often informs the quality of your photography. My main mantra is ‘own your shit’. Don’t make excuses. Make every shoot count. If you’re shooting and are not interested in the photos you’re making, figure out why and change it on the spot. Don’t waste your time or your clients money making work you don’t like, or not being 100% dialed 100% of the time. Commercial shoots are like a one-time circus performance that has no rehearsals so pre-production prep and a focus on the details are huge.
It’s pointless to gripe, complain, or expend energy on being negative. Similarly, don’t compare yourself to others, and be supportive of your peers. Share contacts, give advice, be excited for folks in this industry when they make amazing work or get the job you were both bidding on. It’s not all about you, and they deserved it and worked hard for it. Photographers are awarded jobs because of the whole package: their work, their treatments, their communication, their experience… what they bring to the table overall. Speaking of treatments, I put a shit-ton of work into them. It’s the document the whole client and agency team will see, and it’s super helpful for non-visual people (like a CMO) to read your writing because they might not get the photos but they get the words. And they weren’t on the creative call this is your one shot. Treatments are highly personal; I have spent hundreds of hours on mine over the years and words are easy to lift, so it’s the one thing I don’t share.
If I had advice for aspiring/emerging photographers it’s to avoid spending too much time online/proverbially in the comments. Instead, sharpen your eye and develop your visual voice and personal sense of taste. This is especially important as IG is a continual echo chamber of work viewed on a tiny phone that begins to bleed together. It’s hard to get hired for anything remarkable until your photos can only look like they came from you. Look at every author, every musician, it’s the same way.
As I’ve worked my way into bigger shoots, I’ve learned that I can shine if I am a very dedicated collaborative partner through the whole preproduction process right through the shoot. 95% of what I focus on is everything peripheral to the act of taking photos, 5% is holding a camera and taking photos. The 95% is meeting deadlines, being dialed and prepared for calls, giving 1000% attention in casting and locations, organizing, assembling, communicating and setting up the crew for success, being a calm communicative air traffic control on set.
Photo assistants are the most important members in my crew. When there are no margins in the schedule on some of the late stage capitalism commercial photoshoots I’m on, where everything has to run as tight as a Beyonce concert, I absolutely need a dialed team of assistants. A good 1st/gaffer can direct a whole crew and pre-set the next shot, which frees me up to think/work in the present, so I’m trying to get them between $800-1000/day for shoot days pending complexity. That rate cascades down the rest of the crew. Assistants are some of the hardest workers on set and deserve every dollar.
I follow a strict Monday to Friday 9-5(ish) schedule, unless I’m shooting or scouting, I don’t do email or even post work to IG on weekends. Computer gets turned off. I have told many a producer to stop emailing the agency on a weekend because then the agency emails back and it becomes a 24/7 work-a-thon to the bottom and we all end up on Lipitor in our 30s. Everyone’s life is more important than their work. Thanks for reading :)