The Value of Self-Assigned Work as a Professional Photographer

Commercial photography is as saturated a marketplace as any these days. With such stiff competition, it’s no wonder brands are raising the bar on those of us trying to break our way into the industry. No experience? No thanks.

It’s a constant chicken-or-egg paradox: Photographers want to work with burgeoning brands to gain experience, yet these fledgling brands are also trying to break through and want an experienced photographer with whom they can trust their limited budget. It is at this point that we as photographers have to trust our own skillset and invest in our own portfolio. One of the best ways to do that: Self-assigned projects.

That all sounds great, you say, but what does that even mean? It’s pretty straightforward, really. In the commercial photography industry, brands and agencies hire photographers based on a creative brief they put out for bid. This document is used to outline the expected scope of work and deliverables a photographer must provide to the client, and photographers are often asked to submit a proposal based on that brief. Consider a self-assigned project a dress rehearsal before opening night: You draft a creative brief for a project you want to shoot, set the constraints, outline your goals, and execute the deliverables. (Barring any dark-horse inner-voices, you’ll be a shoe-in for this bid, I just know it.)

Know Your Limits

Now, you don’t have to literally write up a brief, but as I state in a previous article on how to prepare for a professional photoshoot, you should be strict about setting your goals and constraints. When I began planning my first self-assigned brand story for Ellicott + Co., I knew I only had so much money to spend on props without having to sacrifice one of my two locations, and I simply wasn’t going to bail on the airplane rental (not as expensive as it sounds, I promise).

I also needed money to print and ship the catalog in which I was featuring the shoot, or else what was the point? Plus, if that shoot goes awry — which, inevitably, some do — I’m left penniless and without a key portfolio piece. Investing in yourself is important, but putting all your eggs in one basket is ill-advised. Like any good investment, diversification is the name of the game.

An image from my Ellicott + Co. brand story. The plane was a necessary expense, you won’t convince me otherwise.

Know Your Brand

When first starting a business, it can be tempting to cast a wide net. In today’s digital age, you never know who might stumble upon your website, so you think to yourself, What if the agency looking at my website also needs corporate headshots? I’ve done that before, I should put it online.

No, you should not.

What you shoot to pay the bills is entirely your business — literally — and I applaud your effort to make ends meet at whatever cost. However, when it comes to advertising this work on your various marketing channels, just don’t do it. It will muddy the waters of your brand and drive business away rather than to you. The key purpose of self-assigned work is to build a portfolio around that work that you hope to be hired to shoot. Anything else is a distraction.

For example, I am a lifestyle and adventure photographer; my slogan, Inspiring others to find adventure in their daily lives, speaks to a sense of wanderlust and discovery. If I were to workshop a brand story for a shoe company, would it make more sense for me to highlight a pair of Jimmy Choo’s or the new Hoka hiking boots? To produce a shoot for the former would only confuse my audience, whereas the latter concept with Hoka helps to reinforce my existing brand and showcases my skills to the kind of companies I want to hire me. While I’d be flattered to be considered for a Jimmy Choo shoot, I’d be the first to tell you I’m not the guy for that particular job. By saying no to one, you say yes to a multitude of others.

Even when you’ve decided on the right companies and products to highlight, important choices remain about where and how to shoot those products. For my self-assigned shoot with United By Blue, it made sense to showcase their recycled plastic water bottle in nature and close to a natural source of water given their mission to address global environmental challenges.

Invest in yourself

Given the choice to invest $1,000 in the S&P 500 or the same amount of money in a self-assigned photoshoot, I’d choose the photoshoot every time. Why? Because I believe wholeheartedly in the value of my own work.

I know, I know, it sounds like a motivational cliché, but it’s the truth. In fact, I make that conscious decision on a regular basis when I take money from my own pocket to produce shoots for my quarterly catalog. I’m not going to waste time disputing bullish stocks and market fluctuations, but I’ll tell you this: No investment of time or money is more gratifying than a well-placed bet on your own talent and skill set. Not only that, but the financial upside is astronomical; one single shoot for the right target audience can translate to tens of thousands of dollars for you and your business down the road.

I know it sounds like a dream, but with a strategy in place and a drive to succeed, you, your camera, and a little creativity can go a long way. It’s the best bet I ever made.

About the author: Brad Vassallo is a commercial and outdoor lifestyle photographer based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A creator since his earliest days, he once had the dream of being a National Geographic photographer. In spite of those aspirations, he spent the better part of his life chasing other people’s dreams of what he was supposed to do and who he was supposed to be. At a certain point though, the voice inside got to be too loud, too persistent, and told him that the path he was on was not his own. He began to listen to that voice, affirming his own creative aspirations and returning to his creative roots. You can see more of his work on his website and Instagram.

This story was also published here.