“You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” - Martin Luther King, Jr
There are plenty of people who join the creative industry every day whether they just graduated high school, have their Bachelor’s degree, or want to make a mid-life career change. The steps to a successful creative career are not as structured as other industries. Because of this, many people don’t know where to start, causing them to avoid pursuing the career that they have a true passion for. I want to give you an idea of how you could begin your journey.
Most likely, you will not be starting out as the main photographer. The best way to work up to this position is to start as a photo assistant. I’ve learned more in the past 6 months as a photo assistant than I have in 4 years of school. My favorite part about being a freelance photography assistant is the freedom to work for more than one studio or photographer. As of right now I rotate between working for 10 photographers, 5 of whom have been consistent with bookings each month.
Being on set with so many different photographers and freelance teams means you learn something new every single day. You’ll begin to understand what you like and dislike about each photographers’ style. This allows you to perfect your own workflow by taking away something from everyone you work with. There’s an abundance of information to keep track of between photographers, and many people are very particular in the way they work. I’m on one set where I am told to never do xyz. Then, a few days later I’m working for another photographer who says to only ever do things the xyz way. It’s funny to discover how there are so many different methods to accomplish one task. Everyone has a different idea of the right way to do things. This allows for a lot of learning and adaptation to take place in your personal workflow.
Now, let’s talk about how you can make these connections and start being consistently booked for freelance gigs. Instead of throwing your availability at someone in an email, maybe start with a softer introduction by complimenting the work that the studio has produced. Be specific with this; You don’t want it to seem like you just copied and pasted the same email to blast out to 20 different people. People like personalization and compliments and short emails, so don’t take up too much of their time. I know a lot of people struggle with writing these kinds of introduction emails. To give you an idea, maybe yours could look like a variation of this:
Good Morning ___,
Hope that you had a great weekend! My name is ‘insert name’ and I am a newly established ‘insert role’ local to ‘insert city’.
I have been following your work for some time now and was blown away by the lighting in ‘insert image description’ that you just shared. I would love to learn more about how you work to create images like this.
Would you have the time to meet for a portfolio review or studio tour? I would like to introduce myself in person and share some of my images with you. Also, if you are looking to add to your team, I would be happy to have a conversation about how I could add value by joining you on an upcoming set. If you think we would be a good fit, I have availability beginning ‘insert date’. Thank you so much! Looking forward to hearing back from you at your earliest convenience.
What happens after that? Well, if you’re invited to talk to someone in person make sure you look presentable. Even though the creative industry is seen as a more casual, relaxed environment you should still make a good impression. Have something that makes you stand out. Since everything is digital nowadays, maybe you create a book of your images to have someone flip through. Flipping pages is much more refreshing than scrolling like we do all day long. If you don’t have a portfolio yet, maybe leave behind a fun business card that represents your style. Most importantly, after you meet someone in person, always follow up with a thank you letter. Email works, but a written note would make more of an impression.
Once you make a connection with someone who invites you to work on their set, you need to work hard to be rebooked. People care about your attitude a million times more than your experience. Even if you know close to nothing about commercial photography, if you step on set with a great attitude and work ethic, chances are you will be back.
Although things like backing up files and making sure the camera is tethered are important, those aren’t the things people will remember you for. Those are things that are expected of you and any other photo assistant that comes on set. If you are in between shots and your job as a photo assistant is fulfilled for the time being, go out of your way to help others on set. The small things are the most meaningful to people, so this is where you have to differentiate yourself.
Does the food stylist have their hands full while walking over to set? Check if there’s anything else in the kitchen you can go grab for them. Is everyone standing in the sun sweating while waiting for the perfect natural light? Go grab everyone a cold water. Did the steamer run out of water? Go fill it up for the wardrobe stylist.
Other people on set will take note of your effort to make their life easier. That mental note then turns into a recommendation later on. This exact situation has worked itself out for me on multiple occasions in the past few months. Word of mouth is how I’ve gained more than half of my clients since the start of my freelance career. Put simply: Just be helpful to anyone that you can. You’ll be surprised at how many people notice and put your name out because of a simple favor you did for them.
As I said earlier, there are so many different methods to accomplish one task. Obviously this is not the only way to go about breaking into the industry, but I’ve found it’s how a lot of people start. If studios or photographers aren’t emailing you back, try a different method. Another way to get your feet off the ground is by meeting other creatives over Instagram who are in your area. From there, you can grow your portfolio and connections by finding a team to have a test shoot with. I’ll expand more about this method later, too!
There is no ultimate set of instructions for being a successful creative or landing your first assisting job. Your journey will not be linear. It’s a scary thought not to know your future or even your next step at times. That’s okay! My best advice to feel more secure in this in-between position is to save money and make connections in the months or years leading up to this career decision. Creative careers, especially those where you end up working for yourself like freelancing, tend to have more ups and downs than your typical career choice. There are ups and downs in stress level, inspiration, work amount, and cashflow. That’s what keeps things interesting! If you are passionate about creation, I promise you every up and down is worth it.