Building your first photo portfolio doesn’t have to take a lot of money, but it does take a lot of hustle find collaborators, call in favors, find locations and make the most of limited lighting and resources. During the PhotoPlus seminar “Transitioning from Assistant (or Student) to Professional,” David Paul Larson, Kate Owen and Shaina Fishman explained how they built a network of potential collaborators and advisors while they were getting their careers started, and how these connections helped them hone their skills, create new work and land their earliest assignments. PDN executive editor David Walker moderated the panel.
The photographers on the panel showed early work they had shot for themselves for a few dollars. Larson showed a photo he had shot in the cramped backyard of a Brooklyn brownstone, showing a model posing against a roll of white seamless. To find the model, he called an agency that needed test shots. Larson had worked with a stylist whose assistant wanted to work with him, and she brought wardrobe leftover from a shoot. “That image has been licensed multiple times,” Larson said. “It still gets me work.”
Owen says one of her most successful personal images was shot at a car wash, also with a model who needed test shots for her book, and some help from a stylist friend.
Fishman was working as a digital tech for Peter Lindbergh but knew she didn’t want to be a fashion photographer. She had begun photographing dogs and other pets, but her style really came into focus after she had volunteered to shoot calendars for an animal shelter—a pro bono assignment. Her photos are highly produced, but she was able to get free time at a studio where she sometimes worked as a studio manager. Over the years, she strived to try a new look with each calendar. Eventually she showed the animal portraits to Lindbergh, who told her it was the kind of work she needed to pursue. She has since shot for PetSmart, Purina, and other advertising clients.
Larson says when he was starting out, earning the trust of modeling agencies was difficult. “How do you get people to work with you if you don’t have a book? How do you get a book if you don’t have people who want to work with you?” His solution was to accommodate the models as best he could—meeting them on their schedule wherever they wanted in exchange for some images. Though these days he shoots often for Calvin Klein and other commercial clients, he still strives to make an image a week just for his book. To have the money to invest in test shoots, he says, “I’ve learned to live below my means.” (See PDN‘s story, “Launching a Career in New York City on $66 a Day.”) He puts his savings towards making sure the assistants, models and stylists who are helping him feel appreciated. “People will do what ever you want if you don’t make them hungry or thirsty,” he notes. On late night shoots, he always pays for a car service to take them home.
The panelists had other tips for saving money on personal shoots. Owen notes that most equipment rental houses have low weekend rates that allow you to keep a lighting kit for three days: “You can get a whole kit for $100 to rent.” Larson also uses inexpensive lighting gear or ambient light. “Once you see the light and understand what it does, you can do anything in any circumstances. You learn that by shooting,” he said.
When the photographers first arrived in New York City, it took time to make contacts within the industry. Fishman got her first job at a studio she had visited on a class trip while she was studying at Syracuse; she stayed in touch with the studio manager, she said. She got an interview with Patrick Demarchelier’s studio after she found his number in the Yellow Pages. Through a production company where she worked, Owen got a pass to Fashion Week, where she shot photos she was able to take to magazines. She added that she attends gallery openings and parties thrown by stores and brands.
Larson said he prefers the term “making friends” to “networking.” He landed an assisting job after striking up a conversation at a pizza truck and discovering the person he was talking to was Mark Seliger’s assistant. He and a friend would go to meetings of Adhesive & Co and joined the Art Directors Club. They would pick out the most intimidating people in the room and challenge each other to go up and talk to them.
The panelists also shared some business tips they learned through difficult experience. They all said that when clients contact them, they ask for all the details about the shoot and put them in writing to avoid misunderstanding. Fishman says she never suggests a fee or a budget immediately. Instead she says, “Let me go over this, let me think about it.” Larson said, “One question I always ask is: ‘Did you have a budget in mind for this?’ What sounds like a good price can turn out to be expensive.” He notes that he accepted a job shooting a music video for a total fee of $10,000, but ended up losing money on the expenses. He always asks for a signed contract from clients, and he registers all his images with the copyright office. “Paperwork is the most important thing, along with the work.”
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