On becoming a working photographer
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Old 08-08-2005   #1
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I understand that there are people with a variety of different aspirations for their photographic work on this site. For what it's worth, I would like to post an article I wrote back when I had just made the transition from photo assistant to full-time working photographer. I hope it will be of use. I would be happy to discuss it if anyone has any interest. Given that this is a thread about developing ones career, I offer it for review.

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Old 08-08-2005   #2
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I just realized that the article does not appear in the post...just as an attachment. i hope it's okay...I have pasted it into the body of this post. It makes the post a bit lengthy.

Here goes.....


ON BECOMING A PHOTOGRAPHER
By Lorenzo Bevilaqua
© Lorenzo Bevilaqua 2000
All rights reserved


When I made my living as a photo-assistant, the obstacles to becoming a working photographer seemed insurmountable. The transition was a slow one, and seemed, at times, not to be happening at all, but over the course of a few years I managed it. During that time I often felt that I was feeling my way blindly along a path with only the occasional pointers from photographers who had made the journey before me to guide me. Some of the advice was relevant, and some of it was useless because everyone has different goals, and starts out with different resources. What I offer is simply a look at what I can now say with hindsight worked for me (as well as some of what my mistakes were). The process is on-going and I have by no means accomplished all that I want to (my retrospective at the Whitney Museum is not yet scheduled), but what follows may offer some hope and help to those of you out there treading the same path.

The task of transitioning from hard-working, often under-appreciated photo-assistant to working photographer can be the source of great frustration, anxiety, and depression for many people. There are many obstacles to overcome, and many questions to ask. Should I immediately go out and spend tens of thousands of dollars on new equipment, and a studio in the hopes that the clients will magically appear? Should I go running over, portfolio in hand, to Vogue and Vanity Fair? Sure... as soon as I put a portfolio together. For me, these options were not going to work because I had neither tens of thousands of dollar to spend (not on an assistantís salary of $150 a day), nor did I have any credit to speak of. Unlike some other photographers that I knew, I did not start out either with a lot of money, nor did I come from another career that would let me transition more easily into shooting full-time such as art directing, magazine publishing, fashion designing, etc.

I did have two things going for me that are somewhat easier to come by; I had been testing (shooting personal work) for some time when finances allowed, and I did compile a modest, but coherent portfolio of those images. I had also been taking low-paying, but interesting photo jobs as they came up just for the chance to make contacts for the future, and get some of my pictures published.

The other thing that I tried to do was to seek out those photographers whose work I liked and who were working in the field that I wanted to break into. After paying some dues as a loyal assistant, I began to gain their trust and friendship. With their advice, and their generosity in handing down their unwanted/discarded jobs and clients, I began, albeit slowly, to get a few ďrealĒ jobs under my belt, and to build a small (okay, two) clientele for myself. The thing that was driving me crazy was, while I was always hearing stories about people who made the break from assisting totally and completely on 2:00pm last Thursday at age 22 to become Vogueís chief photographer and creative director, it wasnít happening with me. I was still assisting a lot, still schlepping other peopleís gear for $150./day. But I was shooting, and sometimes it was even stuff that I could put in my book. And it paid. Eventually, after about a year of gradually shooting more and assisting less, I stopped assisting altogether.

For those of you who have not yet reached that glorious point, I offer the following suggestions.

There are a couple of pitfalls to watch out for when doing photo assisting. When I first began, I worked with anyone I could to gain experience, and make money. Thatís not a bad way to start. However, if you can narrow down the number of people that you assist for to just the ones who are working in a field of photography that interests you, you will have a much more positive experience, and it will keep you from being bored silly. Being bored and uninterested will cause you to make mistakes, which will get you fired. If you have to put in a 10 hour day assisting for not enough money, you should at least have fun, and be learning something. If you donít know yet what kind of work interests you, then a little trial and error is necessary. Try not to work for assholes if possible. Unless itís an amazing photographer from whom there is a great deal to learn, itís usually not worth putting up with the aggravation.

As I mentioned before, I had been shooting my personal work, often with the help of other young, unknown, but nonetheless talented people (make-up artists, stylists, assistants etc.) and putting a ďbookĒ (portfolio) together. I began to realize that in New York, as in many other cities, there are potential clients out there in the form of cool, trendy new magazines, young, start-up companies and emerging fashion designers, etc. These companies often pay little or nothing, but are often willing to work with an unknown photographer. The advantage to this is that you work gets published , and you also maintain a good amount of creative control. There is also the potential for an ongoing relationship with the client as their business expands. ďTearsheetsĒ (published work with your photo credit on it) are extremely important as a confidence builder to new clients. Having beautiful pictures just isnít enough. A client also wants to see that you can handle the responsibilities (and stress) of an assignment. So what seems like a catch-22 (how can I get tearsheets and marketable experience with no clients?), can be overcome by seeking out the aforementioned small, budget-less clients, and shooting your best work. The shooting-for-Vogue Magazine-at-age-21-option only works for a few people like Steven Meisel, and then you have to wear that silly fur hat.

Being open to opportunity is a very important thing. The more you are out on the street (meaning assisting, shooting, and promoting) the more likely you are to get hit by a passing opportunity for either a job, or the chance to work with other talented support people who will work with you in exchange for prints for their portfolios, etc. You need to be in harmís way. You canít find clients by watching TV. For example, I assisted an editorial photographer for a period of time who referred me for a job as still-photographer on the Kevin Smith film ďChasing AmyĒ. The photographer didnít want to take it himself because the independent film company had no budget for a still-photographer. However, if the film did well (which it did), the pictures would be published in magazines like Premiere, Entertainment Weekly, etc. (which they were). I also made innumerable contacts with people that would eventually hire me to shoot on other movies, and for television networks. The film company did, of course, pay for film, processing, lunch, and all the M&Mís I could eat. Through Chasing Amy, and subsequent similar jobs, I began to build a base of media contacts, and a portfolio of celebrity portraits that eventually led to much better-paying jobs. Sometimes the benefits of taking a job are not readily apparent, and are not necessarily financial.

Okay, so here we are. I have not assisted anyone now for about three years. I have about 12-15 clients, as well as a good number of clients that have been one-shot deals. The latter being independent films, and other short term projects. I make, to use an often-quoted statistic, about 80% of my money from 20% of my clients. In other words, I have a relatively large number of clients, but I have a core group of about four that I can count on for my daily bread & butter. Some of my clients let me do some interesting, fun work, while some of the work that I do is starting to get a little routine, and thatís beginning to drive me crazy. Throughout this period of being out on my own I have managed to compile a fairly strong portfolio consisting of both my personal work (black & white portraiture), and the celebrity, and media-related images that I discussed earlier. Pretty cool, huh? Problem solved. Made the big leap to big-time New York photographer at last! Not exactly.

As impossible as it seemed to make the jump from assistant to working photographer, and as thrilled as I am to be shooting, making much better money, and not schlepping other peopleís equipment for a living, I now have another problem. I am struggling to make the next leap away from the take-any-job-offered-to-you-to-get-started clients, and trying to get hired solely to make the kind of images that I want to make. My goal is to find clients who will hire me because they like the way I see, and not because I know how to produce the same picture that ten other guys can produce. The one problem with taking any kind of photo job that will pay is that itís very easy to get so busy doing those kinds of jobs that you lose sight of your original goal. There are too many photographers out there who get caught in the trap of having to make a living as a photographer, and forget why they started shooting in the first place (to make beautiful, compelling images). Ideally, there should be no separation between shooting what you love (your personal work) and what you shoot professionally.

When you acquire a stable of steady clients, and you like the work that you are doing (at least for now) a beautiful thing starts to happen: your career begins to snowball a little bit. Your clients will pass your name along to other clients. Your published work will be seen around town, and you can take that to new clients who need the same kind of work. Eventually not every phone call you make to a potenital client is a cold call. They have already heard or seen your name, and you have now developed a little credibility. This is where it gets easier. Just remember that the downside of the snowball effect is that you will tend to get the same kind of work as you have been doing. Keep shooting the work that you love, and keep on promoting it.

Outside of taking great pictures, I think that the most important thing to do if you want to get work is to let people know you are out there. Without self-promotion you are that proverbial tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear you. You may be the most talented photographer in the world, but if no one knows you exist then you might as well pack it up and go home. How do you go about this?
With a modest self-promotion budget and a pretty good idea of what kinds of clients I want to shoot for I have been mailing out promo cards like mad. Iíve compiled a list of magazines, book publishers, art directors, and graphic designers, and have been sending them my best images on a regular (quarterly?) basis. This is less expensive than it sounds. There are several very good postcard printers out there who can produce a 4x6 color postcard with one image and text for under $150. A print run usually gets you 500 postcards. You can, of course, have a promo card as big as you want with as many images as you want, but if your on a budget one very strong image, plus your name and phone number can go a long way. Just make it your best image.

Another option is to design your own promo cards on a computer, and print them out on a four or six color Epson printer using Epson photo-quality paper. If you donít print your images too large, the print quality is extremely good. With the help of Photoshop, there are no limits to the kind of card you can design. The advantage to making promos with the computer is that you can target your promotional efforts to the individual client.
If you do a print run of 500 cards with a printing company, you will have a promo that may be appropriate for some, but not all of your potential clients and you may have a lot left over. I donít know about you, but when I was starting out I didnít know 500 people let alone 500 clients! With the computer, if you shoot an new image that you like, you can make a promo out of it and send it to just those clients who will be able to relate to it the most. I would be happy to discuss postcard and/or computer printing in greater detail if you care to e-mail me.

It also is important to follow up your mailing with a phone call about five or six days later. This allows you to find out if the client received your promo, and also gives you an opportunity to ask for a face-to-face meeting, at which time you can show your portfolio. In New York, however, a face-to-face is hard to come by. Usually you have to drop off your portfolio. Keep records of who you called, when you called them, and what you sent them. The photographer that pursues a client over a period of time (sometimes up to a year) will always win out over someone who sends one promo and then disappears when he doesnít get an immediate response.

A good example of the kind of success you can have with promotional mailings is my experience with a very large broadcasting company that owns a number of cable television stations. I sent promo cards to them after researching who the appropriate people were to contact, and followed up with a phone call. Of course, I got no return call. It just doesnít happen. But, after a couple of messages left on voice-mail, I finally got someone on the phone, and asked if I could send a portfolio. The answer was yes, and the response to the portfolio was great. I did have images in my book that they liked, and that helped land me the job. But I did not get called for work immediately, and I did send follow-up promos before getting hired. I did not call them continuously. That has a tendency to piss people off. There is a fine line between persistence, and stalking! I have gotten several clients by the promo/call method. Sometimes it doesnít work, either. Itís a long process.

Donít give up hope. It will happen, and it does get somewhat easier. I will check in from time to time to let you know how itís going. In the meantime please feel free to e-mail if you have any thoughts, questions, or just want to bitch about assisting, shooting, or anything else photo-related.


Good luck.
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Old 08-20-2005   #3
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Default Re: On becoming a working photographer

I have zero authority on this topic, but your article strikes me as one of the most practically useful I ever saw. Congratulations!
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Old 08-20-2005   #4
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Thank you! That's greatly appreciated!
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Old 08-26-2005   #5
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Lorenzo,

Great article, and easy to read also (sometimes those don't go hand in hand). Did you get this published somewhere? Or are you just posting it?
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Old 08-26-2005   #6
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It was never published in print. It was originally posted on a photo gallery site. Thanks for your kind comments!
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Old 12-29-2005   #7
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That was a great article. Thanks for posting it. I'm a laid off computer guy who can't find a job anywhere. I've always thought about giving the photog business a try but also thought it would be too hard to make it. Now I'm thinking it might not be a bad idea to give it a try if it will pay the bills.

Jon.
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Old 12-30-2005   #8
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Great post and great and simple portfolio website. Congrats.
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Old 01-02-2006   #9
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Thanks for the nice responses, everyone! Happy New Year, and good luck in your endeavors. Don't give up!!
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Old 01-02-2006   #10
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great article.. thank you for sharing..


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