Pro Tips for Photographers with Jake Stangel

Colleagues know San Francisco-based photographer Jake Stangel as a person who is open with information, advice and encouragement for his peers and aspiring shooters.

Occasionally over the past few years Stangel has answered questions and offered “Pro Tips” on his Tumblr to younger photographers who are wondering how to go about building a career in today’s market.

Stangel gave us permission to reprint a couple of our favorite of these pieces on PDNPulse, and has also agreed to field questions from PDN readers for some new installments of his “Pro Tips” columns.

To submit a question for Jake please send an email to editor@pdnonline.com with the subject line “Pro Tips.”

On When to Work With a Rep and When to Just Work Harder

Question: So I’ve worked with some editors and worked for some companies doing small time shoots and small editorial things. My relationship with editors/publications is kind of going much too slow and I don’t feel confident in sending them promo or emailing them and expecting results. Would it be appropriate to find an agent? I feel confident in my work and abilities but I’m wondering if ever there’s a time to search for representation, would it be now?

What exactly should I be looking for with representation? And what should I be prepared to send them?

Answer: By and large, the appropriate time to search for representation is when you literally can no longer manage shooting and client requests and calendars and making estimates and negotiating various licenses and shoot deliverables all at once.

The other time an agent is helpful is if you’re extraordinarily talented but a recluse, and want someone to be your “face” and leave it up to you to just make photographs. But the key thing here is that you need to be extraordinarily talented. Extraordinarily. Talented.

It sounds like you’re looking for a rep because a rep might help solve your problems, your problems of having few people get back to you about your work. I’m gonna real-talk it for a second: if you don’t feel confident in sending photo editors promos or emailing them and expecting results, why would an agent want to bring you on? It’s one thing for you to be confident in your abilities, but does a photo editor know that? Do you have the right kind of work to back it up? Have a look here at this other piece I wrote.

There’s a difference between thinking you’re good enough and having the portfolio and chops to start getting work. A lot of people get quickly frustrated by how they can’t get access or meetings to photo editors off the bat. Dude. It took me YEARS to get into some magazines. Years. Yeeears.

If you can’t get to where you want to go, you need to work harder. Shoot more. Get your game tighter. Plain and simple. Thinking a rep will do your legwork will not do the trick!

On Learning From “Blowing It,” and the Value of Working Seriously on Smaller Assignments Early in One’s Career

I’m going to start off with a story about blowing it.

The shoot was for I.D. magazine. If you’re unfamiliar with I.D., it was a high-level design magazine with fantastic visuals, content, and photography. Tragically, I.D. quite suddenly folded the month after my shoot; I believe that my horrendous photo was in the last issue; I’ll never know because I could never bring myself to look at it in print.

It 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 PhotoPlus 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 who managed the schedule of the shoot subject. 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 follow-up 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. This was also all the gear 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 liaise with the PR lady at 2:30, begin the shoot at 2:45, be done by 3:00. 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 rep, we small talk up the elevator. She apologizes for being late yet still asks if it’s still ok to start in 6 minutes. I’m not even really present by that point, I’m just trying to not spaz 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. Which I should not have done.

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 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.

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 murder weapon.

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 tunnel vision.

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 30-45 minutes for unlit work, to walk around, to get a good vibe going, etc. If you’re lighting, at least another hour. Time flies.
•    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.
•    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. (Note: 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 today’s 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 of 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 publication.

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. 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.

Read through all of Jake Stangel’s “Pro Tips” over on his Tumblr.

To submit a question for Stangel please send an email to editor@pdnonline.com with the subject line “Pro Tips.”

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2 Responses to “Pro Tips for Photographers with Jake Stangel”

  1. If you can’t get to where you want to go, you need to work harder Says:

    […] via PDNPulse » Pro Tips for Photographers with Jake Stangel. […]

  2. Gary Says:

    Great advice, Thanks Jake for sharing