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The ‘Take Every Photo Gig You Can Get’ Approach

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Note: This article is written for commercial photographers, not consumer photographers. A consumer shooter has a different list of challenges, and since I am not a consumer photographer, I won’t be addressing them.

Well it has certainly been a hectic week. Two proposals, a shoot, designing and writing — and that was only Monday, heh.

It reminded me of how many channels I have, and I wonder if it may be possible to actually have too many. Can one have too many things one does? Possibly. Perhaps. Probably.

With all the different channels I work in I find I am not shooting as much as I used to. But then I don’t take gigs I am not interested in or that pay too little. However, a gig that I am not interested in, but pays a lot, will get my attention. I am not THAT boneheaded.

But the random PR gig, or the 10 product shots on seamless and oh by the way we ‘don’t have much money’ just doesn’t catch my fancy.

But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t catch yours if you are an emerging or starting-out commercial photographer. It is the emerging commercial shooter, those of you that want to make the break and become a pro that this article is aimed at.

When I taught my CreativeLIVE classes, I spoke about my approach to getting to be known, building a solid book and becoming a force in your city, town or region. I cannot remember which one it was, but I think it may have been the Product Photography one.

I prescribed a formula called “Take Every Gig You Can” for a pre-determined time allocation. Do them like they were $10K shoots, deliver the highest quality work you possibly could do, and don’t worry about ‘leaving money on the table’ for now. Screw that — you are building toward something bigger.

Here is why I suggest this method:

1. You need the work. Both physically and psychologically, you need to be doing work for clients.

2. You will learn more on the simplest of gigs than watching DVD’s about someone else doing what you want to do. Every gig is a learning experience.

3. You are not a seasoned pro yet. Mistakes are going to be inevitable. You know that – clients know that. And they want seasoned pros for the big dollar shoots.

4. Momentum. Everyone starts somewhere. Expecting to start at the top is presumptuous at best, arrogant at least. And totally not realistic.

5. Before you end your pre-determined time, you will be shooting bigger and better-paid gigs. You are building a foundation of strong work, excellent service, and credibility.

As you do the gigs, you will get busier and busier. You will gain valuable experience in bidding jobs, shooting under pressure, developing working relationships with clients, working through shoot challenges, delivering the work, billing and business.

You know… all those things they never mention in art school.

You will also be making some money at the business you have chosen, and this boosts not only your credibility, but your self esteem as well.

CAVEAT 1: And this is a big one. There is a bright line between taking a shot at whatever you can get and being cheated, scammed, or taken advantage of. DON’T do those ones. Taking every gig means real gigs with stuff you can capitalize on, and the dollars are secondary. Being taken advantage of means doing stuff you cannot capitalize on, and the money is non-existent.

CAVEAT 2: And this is an even bigger one. Don’t lower your rates to do jobs that should pay and do pay more to other photographers. Case in point: local magazines. They don’t pay very much, so don’t expect very much. It is what it is. A local ad agency trying to get you to shoot a Nike ad for national magazines for a rate that is laughable is larceny — stay away.

Let’s be clear that I am not saying you should work for free or lower the bar for other photographers. Not at all. I am saying that if you are not being screwed — and nobody else is getting screwed — then do the gig. Get paid for learning what you need to know. Maybe not much, but every little bit helps.

For example, here is a gig you should not take:

Your brother-in-law finds out that you have a shiny new DSLR and love to take photographs. He comes over for dinner one night and has a great idea. His company makes bathtub and sink stoppers for the industrial supply market. They are working on a new catalog and he figured that you would just LOVE to shoot that catalog… because shooting bathtub stoppers is absolutely awesome.

Now you know that they usually pay for the photography but he lets you know that it would be great practice for you and, hey, you could use the work in your portfolio.

This is called being taken advantage of. They have money but they want to get the work for free (Who wouldn’t?). In addition, you are never, ever going to put pictures of drain stoppers in your portfolio — and if for some reason you would, you can run down to the Home Depot and buy a friggin drain stopper and shoot it YOUR way.

Example of a gig to consider:

Your brother-in-law finds out you have a shiny new DSLR and love to take photographs. He comes over for dinner one evening and mentions that they are redoing the company brochure. Six shots of product and people. Usually their marketing director does the photography — he loves taking pictures. However, he is mostly a landscape shooter and they know you like to shoot product and commercially. They have a budget of $650 and wonder if you would like to shoot it.

Yes. You would.

1. You need the practice.

2. There will be less pressure.

3. You are going to learn a lot while you are doing this gig.

4. You are going to learn a lot while you are doing this gig.

5. You will be putting some money into your bank account.

6. You are doing something. You are working in photography.

And you are really going to learn a lot while you are doing this gig.

Working for a real life client is a learning experience of such importance that it cannot be stressed enough.

And look, the bottom line is that being busy attracts others to what you are doing. When you are busy, making shots, doing the PR on what you are doing, keeping others informed of what you are doing and most importantly working for people who respect and like what you do, it is almost like a magnet that draws others to you.

Sure that gig is worth more than $650. Maybe two or three times that much. But they are not going to ever have that budget — not for you, not for anyone — and you have no good reason to turn it down. That is all the bucks they have, and you will get it or the marketing guy will do it again.

And if your work helps them secure more business, then they will have more for you next time. Budgets can expand if results are noticed.

You will definitely have some images for your portfolio (remember, you also treat every gig like it is a $100K gig from the most prestigious ad agency in the known universe), and your website, and a blog post or two about how you solved this problem or that one, and got paid for it to boot. And of course the tear sheet is always a great credibility booster.

It is important to specifically determine your time for this exercise. I think it helps define the work, gives you a measurable goal and helps you see the larger picture of working steadily as a photographer. Be precise and use a calendar date.

My recommendations are:

6 months if you are in a large city.
9 months to a year if you are in a smaller city.
12 months if you are in a medium to small town.

And before you hit the go button, there are a few ducks that must be lined up.

First, you must be ready to go. Portfolio, website, a solid list of companies and design firms that you consider prime for your work. You must have the gear to do what you want to do, whether that is gear intensive studio work or fast and light location kits.

Secondly, your portfolio must be up to snuff, and showing the kind of work that you can identify as being perfect for your list.

Thirdly, you must be ready to go to work. Have your collateral materials ready, invoices and forms, releases and inventory lists firmly set.

As you move through this entry level period, you will face countless struggles and doubts and challenges to be overcome. And you will also face moments of absolute fascination when it starts to come together. Knowing how to deal with those emotional ups and downs and how you are going to persevere in the face of difficulties will sure come in handy. Trust me.

What you may experience is before you get to the cutoff date, you are bidding gigs that ARE in the right level, and doing the work you SHOULD be doing. Busy people attract work. Stay busy and get busy.

Prepare to work harder than you ever have in a ‘regular’ job.

This process works only if you do. Setting a year limit on it and NOT making the three calls a day, and NOT doing the list work, and NOT sending out the emails and NOT focusing on personal shoots when not shooting for clients will eat up that time and you will find yourself blaming everyone else. But that would be wrong on many levels. This is your project to lose… and believe me when I say losing is incredibly easy. Don’t do what you know you need to and voila, you lose.

So get yourself ready, get the book up to par, and then begin your timeslot of “Take Every Gig You Can Get”. Set a hard start date, and a hard end date. Work hard, make your calls, focus on doing the work and in all the ways you can to get from point A to point B. Goals help. Mentors help. A support system at home helps. Self discipline helps… a lot. So does a love of macaroni and cheese and ramen.

Assess your direction at the end of each month, not each day or week. Be realistic in your goals, but practice a careful impatience that will drive you harder than you have done before. That calendar date is a very visible reminder of time. What you have and what you don’t. It can make you push hard against the wind at your face.

In the end, true success is yours through diligence, perseverance and focus, and that is what being a creative entrepreneur is ultimately about.


About the author: Don Giannatti is a photographer, designer, and writer who has never owned a Subaru or an Escalade. He once owned a PT Cruiser, but that it a long and tortured story not fit for telling without a few beers. He lives and works in Phoenix, Arizona, and prefers Mexican food to anything else. In fact, there may not be anything else. You can visit his website here and his online portfolio here


Image credits: Photograph by Don Giannatti

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