Advice, Writing

Start Small

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 the last piece of the puzzle-y pie, which all is about dipping your toes into commissioned work, no matter how small, boring, or lame it appears on the surface. If you have specific followup questions, drop a line and I will answer them.


Start small, cause you’re gonna need it: I’m going to start off with a story about blowing it.

The shoot was for I.D. magazine. The year was 2009. The assignment was to photograph a very very high-up Nike exec at their HQ outside Portland, OR. The subject headed up Nike’s ambitious sustainability program. It was my first assignment ever out of school. Not a bad shoot to get somewhat off the bat. I was pumped, I remember getting the call while walking along 34th street while I was in NYC, after the Photo Plus Expo. I had recently gotten an iphone 3 and remember furiously and excitedly typing in details into the phone’s Notepad, afraid everything relayed to me from the photo editor would slip from my memory the moment we hung up.

Once I got back to Portland a couple days later, I started communicating with the PR lady in charge of this woman’s schedule. Let’s call her Gail (60% chance her name was Gail). The PR lady emailed me, “OK, you have 15 minutes to set up, and 10 minutes to photograph Gail”. Being totally green and eager to please, I wrote back something like, “great!”. Total and utter mistake #1. I did have the tact and foresight to ask her about options where the shoot could take place. A library/research space was settled upon. I didn’t ask many other followup questions, we just planned on a time and a date.

The time and date then arrived. I was ten minutes early and super nervous. I brought a 5D, a 24-105mm lens, and a 580EX flash. The big guns. Also known as everything I owned at the time. Depending on how necessary you view gear preparedness, this could be mistake #3, but at the same time, I would feel highly comfortable with this kit if I were to redo this shoot tomorrow, knowing what I now know.

Anyway, I check in with the receptionist at 2:20. I was to liaison with the PR lady at 2:30, begin the shoot at 2:45, be done by 3. The receptionist is sweet, tells me to have a seat on one of the 1,000 black leather chairs Nike bought for their headquarters. I check my email. 2:27. I try to think about shooting ideas. 2:30. Totally got off topic in my head. 2:33. Now I realize that I was cutting into my prep time. 2:36. Getting really nervous. 2:38. A nice british lady comes up, introduces herself as the PR person, we small talk up the elevator. She apologizes for being late yet still asks if it’s still ok to start in 6 fucking minutes. I’m not even really present by that point, I’m just trying to not spazz out on the fact that I have so little time to prep, or scout, or even put the lens on my camera. But I still say I’m ready. Totally awful.

We get to the library, and it’s not the airy, bright space I’d imagined (most of Nike public spaces are… so I just kinda… assumed). No. This is a fluorescent-lit, ceiling-tiled, 1950’s Academia meets just-the-tip of IKEA type of library. Grey carpet, beige metal bookshelves. 2:41. I put my camera together (assemble your camera beforehand if this is happening) and hurriedly attempt to “scout” the space. I fire some test shots sans flash, and they look (tonally) flatter than plain cardboard. I put on my flash and attempt to bounce it into the ceiling. It looks like slightly brighter than plain cardboard.

I feel like a floundering fish at this point. I’m so overwhelmed that I haven’t addressed anything tactfully, I haven’t solved any problems, I haven’t locked down even one good location in this library to shoot. 2:48. Gail arrives. We talk for 3 minutes because I can’t just sit her down and start shooting, I need to establish some sort of rapport. This was good. I don’t think she could tell I was utterly unprepared or nervous.

I begin to shoot, except what I’m shooting, ostensibly, are test shots, which I should have already done. Except I didn’t give myself any time. So now I’m just experimenting on the fly with the subject, which sounds edgy and awesome, except it wasn’t. Because what I was shooting was awful. I remember looking into my LCD and just having this total sinking feeling, like I couldn’t salvage the shoot, 6 minutes in. 5 I felt like an apple had been shoved down my throat.

Eventually, I sat Gail on this hideous circular chair, put a couple of these new Nike enviro-friendly shoes around her, and with the PR lady counting down the final couple minutes, ended the shoot at 3:00. I thanked the PR lady and Gail, and walked out with my camera on my shoulder, which at the time, began to feel more like a lead weight.

I remember, SO vividly, how the second I stepped outside, I was able to step outside myself, and how I was flooded with a thousand ideas of how I could have made that shooting situation work so much better. So many solutions. That is why, to this day, I try to step aside from a shoot for at least 30 seconds, sometimes 5 minutes if I have the time, sometimes several times during a shoot, to clear my head and re-approach things with a fresh perspective, as opposed to getting so wrapped up and bound by tunnelvision.

The moral of this long story is that, as an emerging photographer, there’s a 98% chance you’re going to absolutely, terribly bomb some of your first commissioned assignments, but you’ll learn a million lessons, every one will stay with you because you were personally involved and invested, and you’ll apply everything you learned that day in every future shoot. And this cycle will repeat over and over again. And that’s how salty, legendary photographers are born.

I felt like I learned a million things on this shoot, here are a handful of them:

Prep and scout time: the more the merrier. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re rushing through either a scout or a setup. Give yourself the time you need. 15 minutes is a joke. It’s doable, and sometimes what you’ll get handed, but really, try to get at least 45 mins-1 hr minumum for unlit work, to walk around, to get a good vibe going, etc. If you’re lighting, at least 1-2 hours. Time flies. Stress that you’re not going to be taking up anyone’s time, and know that you can always kill extra time but you can’t ever get more.

Scouting and having location options: I try to never get tied down to one location, like one room in this shoot. What if the room is awful? Again, sometimes you won’t have the luxury for several locations (it can be several rooms inside and outside a house). Don’t be afraid to take the subject into your comfort zone. My comfort zone is anywhere outside. I don’t so much enjoy dimly lit interiors. Some people love that control, I prefer the sun. I doubt anyone would have had a problem if I’d asked to bring the subject outside at Nike.

Stick to your guns when it comes to prep time, and if someone cuts into it, try to keep your bubble of prep. Obviously it can be a bit touchy if the subject is important, but it truly can’t hurt to ask, nicely.
Have ideas before you come into a shoot. Never come into a shoot blank. Have at least 2-4 solid concepts (it can even be as simple as “direct, tight headshot next to a window”) under your belt. That way, if you feel like you’re floundering, you have backup plans.
That said, don’t go into a shoot closed off to other possibilities. It’s a fine line. Leave yourself open to where the moment, the situation, the environment can take you. You’ll learn how to walk that line.

So if and when you bomb, do it on small assignments for regional publications (that hopefully no one will see). Small commissioned assignments are going to be the way for you to earn your chops and learn how to navigate foreign situations, tricky environments, squeezed timeframes, and sometimes tough conditions. I don’t mean to imply that every shoot is an uphill battle. Sometimes, everything comes together so nicely. The light is perfect, the subject is down to try anything, the whole day is blocked off, it’s all good. You’ll come across both types of situations in your lifetime.

Most everybody starts out small. Baby steps. Big national magazines aren’t going to call you right away, unless you’re awesome or lucky. In todays day and age, starting out small can mean the local weekly or city magazine (which can be admittedly dull), OR these days, it can also mean awesome internet upstart magazines that are all over the place.

Regardless where you start, put as much care, detail, time, and focus into these small shoots as you would for a larger magazine. Don’t treat it as a throwaway. Treat it as if you’re shooting for your dream client.

When you treat small assignments like they’re big assignments, you’ll get calls back from the client you’re working for, they’ll give you more latitude, more work, more money to pay your rent with, more responsibility. It’s like baby steps within baby steps. Additionally, don’t go in and treat a small job like it’s a hassle to scratch of the day’s to-do list. If you’re shooting a restaurant, try to give it your own style, try shooting food (I now really love shooting food), try dragging out some of the kitchen staff for a portrait session by the front window. There’s absolutely nothing tying you down to take shitty photos, no matter the job. Make the job count. Commit to making some work worth putting in your portfolio. That’s how you find your style, that’s what will make you stand out from the crowd, that’s what will make you unique as a photographer. But above all, make photographs you care about.