Advice, Writing

Personal Work

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. 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, 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, as a lot of it still remains relevant, no matter what freelance creative field you’re in. If you have a question, email me, and I’ll do my best to answer it if it’s not touched on below.

Hi. 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.

1. Assist
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 initiative #3, shooting personal work. If you have specific followup questions, drop a line and I will answer them.


Personal Work: You’re now assisting and you’ve got this totally awesome network. You’re schlepping C-stands, you’re learning about the wonders of grids and beauty dishes, you’re shit talking on Chase Jarvis, you’re crafting the BEST artist statement, you are meeting friends for coffee and talking about how frustrated you are that you’re not getting anywhere and nobody is assigning anything.

But hey you’re missing the, uh, actual photo work.

¾ of this whole “I totally wanna take photos professionally!” equation, and your ultimate success, depends on your ability to make great photographs.

Many people unfortunately often forget about this part of the equation (somehow), and either jump the gun into marketing and start without the requisite portfolio, OR they’ll never get it and they’ll throw money at the problem, never understanding why they’re not getting to where they want to go. Time and time again I see alot of folks trying to show their work at huge magazines, or honestly thinking they’re in a place they haven’t quite reached yet, without the appropriate body of work behind them.

Nobody is going to hire you unless you have a solid portfolio that demonstrates that you can consistently take awesome photographs.

So, let me say this again.


Shooting personal work is the easiest and hardest thing you’ll ever do. Easy because all you have to do is head out with your camera. Hard because you have to head out with your camera and shoot photos.

Throughout my college years, my teachers told me, “shoot more, shoot more, shoot more” and I was like “shut up where’s the shortcut”? I’m mostly kidding but I DID think it was a kind of dumb copout of a lesson to instill, at the time, but the concept of “shoot shoot shoot” is hands down the best thing that can propel you forward.

Shoot constantly, make mistakes, get messy. Develop your own personal projects. It’s ok to not finish them if you realize you’re not into it after some time, as long as you pick another one up. Keep moving, no matter what you do. This shooting process will help you figure out what you gravitate towards shooting, in what style you like to shoot in, what your strengths and weaknesses are (and how to capitalize on the former and strengthen the latter), how you behave in certain situations, and what kind of photographer you are. There is NO other way to discover these things, and the process is shooting personal work is totally, utterly fundamental to your photographic development. No way around it.

OK another point: Emerging photographers of the world: understand that you are selling a service. This service is photography.

Tell me: would you ever go hire a plumber, or caterer, or tailor, if he/she were only able to show you one project? If a caterer were to tell you, “yeah, so I’ve only cooked for two small dinner parties… well really just three of my friends. We served hot ham soup, but I could tooooooooooootally nail cooking for your large wedding party!” No. This wouldn’t happen.

Photography is no different. Again, I don’t want to commercialize, commodify, or finance-ify (??) photography because there are MFAs up in here reading this and they all just heavily sighed, but let’s be real here, in the realm of commissioned work. Photographers provide a unique service: we need to be professionals at performing under pressure, not great situations, time crunches, bad light, rolling with the punches, and making awesome work through all of these obstacles. This means rising to the occasion and being very dependable at taking awesome, engaging, unique photographs under a range of situations beyond our control, even if the subject gives us only 5 minutes, even if we’re jetlagged, even if it’s dumping rain, even if the absolute fucking last thing we want to do is go out and make some photographs, we’ve gotta go out and perform.

A magazine trusts and depends on you to perform and make excellent work, no matter the conditions. This is one of the biggest insights I’ve learned this year. My whole picture-taking life I’d always had the luxury to take photos on my own terms, on my own time, in my preferred light and environment. Editorial (and most commercial) photograhy doesn’t work like that, for the aforementioned reasons.

So here’s the thing. If you can’t show a photo editor a solid body of personal work that you’ve shot on your own time and in ideal conditions (or personal mixed with the beginnings of commissioned work), how could she or he trust and depend on you (and put their own reputation on the line) to ostensibly go and make great images, likely out of your comfort zone? They really can’t. So they’re not gonna hire you.

You need to approach a photo editor with a preexisting body of work that does not speculate on the fact that you might take really good photographs if you were hired. Your portfolio needs to prove this. It can be 100% personal work. You just need to demonstrate that you can shoot. Your portfolio and website need to be a vehicle that high fives photo editors and wraps its arms around their shoulders and softly whispers in their ear and makes their brains buzz.

Simplest sentence ever #1: If you’re not getting calls (or even meetings), your work isn’t there yet. You need to get your work there. You are the only one that can do this. Money won’t help. It could take a couple months, it could take years. When the work is there, the calls will start to come along. But not until you, and only you, get it there.

Simplest sentence ever #2: Any time you’re in a rut, you need to know and remind yourself and understand the ONLY way to get out of this rut is by making more work, pushing harder, did I say work harder? Nothing is gonna happen when you slump down. Just lost time and wasted days. So get up and keep hammering, working hard infinitely.

Simplest sentence ever #3: The more you complain, the more inactive you are in getting to where you want to go, the longer, harder, and more unpleasant it will be. So just start.