Ask A Commercial Photographer Anything About The Industry

Have questions you want to ask a creative industry professional, but wasn't sure who to turn to? I've been writing for Fstoppers for over a year now. I've been able to share my own BTS shoots, those of friends, reviews, tutorials, and more. I've had the chance to interact and meet some great people through here, and I really want to do something more for you folks. Rather than do a fresh article this week on something I find interesting, I am leaving the content completely up to you. Want advice or curious about something photo/video-related? Ask below!

For those that are not familiar with my work as a photographer and filmmaker: I went to RIT for my advertising photography degree, graduating in 2004 to pursue a full-time photo career. In the early days of my career, I did photojournalism work in places ranging from The White House to living life as a rock and roll tour photographer for the top 40 bands. As time progressed, I found that I loved working with on-location lighting and environments and began to shoot more magazine editorial work, ad campaigns, album covers, celebrity portraits, etc (photos with more pre/post production and controlled lighting). I've shot campaigns for clients like Apple, Ford, Jeep, Rolling Stone, National Geographic, Time Magazine, and Universal Republic Records.

About 5 years ago, I co-founded a video production company called 8112 Studios. We produce, direct, and edit music videos and ad campaigns for TV and web. We started with one camera and a lumber cart and have progressed to some pretty large productions with multiple grip trucks, large crews, etc. I also started a charity site called www.NotaBully.org with some great support from National Geographic with hopes to change some of the negative stigmas towards bully breed dogs that need rescuing. I've also been a Photoshop World / Kelby Training instructor and have given speeches all over the world about photography. The above is not meant as a boast, it is intended to give you a framework of understanding of my experience in the industry so that I may better assist you when you ask your questions.

From photography to video, it has been a wild and educational ride with lots of adventure. I am very thankful to do this for a living all over the world over 100k miles a year. If it at all interests you, here is a short video about the kind of things I do on set.

I know it can be a challenge in this very competitive marketplace to survive as a creative. Feel free to ask me any reasonable question in the comment section below about the creative industry, opinions on technology, and even questions on things like business and marketing. I'll do my best to answer every question posted before midnight (East Coast/New York City time) of March 24, 2104.

I won't be able to do portfolio reviews because that takes a lot of time to do properly, but maybe sometime in a future post! Please keep it clean. I know I open myself up to possible monkey business in the comments section, but my full intention is to spread the love and help my fellow photographers and filmmakers where I can. If this goes well, we will get some of our talented friends in the creative industry to do more of these "ask anything" guest posts!

Thanks for a great 1+ year with Fstoppers and I look forward to answering your questions!

Keep Connected With Me:

Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/sondersphoto

Twitter - https://twitter.com/douglassonders/

Instagram - http://instagram.com/douglassonders

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140 Comments

Drew Mistak's picture

If you have a solid portfolio and are confident in your ability to get the shot, how do you go about contacting clients for paid work?

Douglas Sonders's picture

Well, it all depends on the KIND of work you want to land. I assume you are referring to Ad and Editorial work rather than consumer based headshots/family portraits. I mean this is the true name of the game right? People charge/pay lots of money for photo marketing classes.

In the end, like any industry, you have to climb the ladder. Don't expect to shoot for Rolling Stone right off the bat. You have to do the legwork with smaller publications to prove your abilities.

When I started off, I went to the newsstand and found magazines with national distribution but very poor art direction. I figure they may be desperate enough to hire a kid just out of photo school. Having published work (aka tearsheets) help give you credibility with the bigger dogs.

Drew Mistak's picture

Yeah, I meant to say commercial clients. Thanks! I'll see if I can find some desperate publishers.

Douglas Sonders's picture

or even nice publications that are focused on your region work out nicely. Back in DC we have Washingtonian, Washington Life, Bethesda Magazines, etc

Patrick Hall's picture

I know a lot of friends who goto porfolio reviews in order to put their work in front of potential art buyers. I always thought "portfolio reviews" mean having celebrity photographers tell you what they thought and to give you shooting advice. But that's not what they are at all. Instead, you setup meetings with buyers like Rolling Stone Magazine, Men's Health, Victoria's Secret, Sony, Nike, etc. This way you can show your portfolio to clients you want to work with while making face to face connections with the people who will probably be involved in booking you.

I can't remember if these reviews cost money (I'm sure they do) and many of them were literally 5 mins long. However, if you take your career seriously and want to make those personal connections to book editorial and commercial jobs, this is a great avenue to go.

Douglas Sonders's picture

thats true too!

Iris Bonet's picture

So how do you contact these publishers? Do you call them up and ask them to meet with you?

Douglas Sonders's picture

you can buy contact lists like from agency access or you can look inside the magazines themselves. they typically have credit pages and contact information. Ill ask about coming in to show my work

JQ Jr's picture

Yes, like everything else involved with photography, they cost money. The two groups that come to mind hosting these are Palm Springs Photo Festival and NYC Fotoworks.

Chris Cardoza's picture

Do you manage the pricing and business end yourself or do you have an agent and/or manager that takes care of that for you?

Douglas Sonders's picture

Sometimes I wish I had an agent on the photo side to help handle my back end, but I've never found an agent that fits me. Its like getting into a marriage, having a photo rep/agent. They are so integral to your income and your brand. I've essentially done all of my business/negotiating for years (barring an odd job here and there where I was referred a job). There are times where I have opted to hire a consultant to help price a project. You pay them a small percentage of your overall project budget (usually) and they help price things out for you based on their extensive industry knowledge, but i've gotten pretty good at pricing out campaigns for the most part.

Freggio's picture

I note you refer to yourself as a 'commercial photographer' and in reply to an earlier question you refer to the world you work in as an industry. I wondered how working in this world has affected you as an artist. Do you still feel the same passion now as you did when you graduated?You have a separate section for personal work on your website. Do you feel differently about these projects to your commercial work? Do you feel you have had to compromise in order to earn a living from your art?

Douglas Sonders's picture

interesting question. I think everyone defines being an "artist" differently. I've never considered myself very "artsy". That being said, I do like capturing and creating content that appeals to my interests and aesthetics. I use my personal work to accomplish these creative cravings and its actually my personal work that gets me hired for profitable commercial work. If you look at my portfolios, a large portion of the work up there is from my personal work and not commercial work. Sure I have been very proud about my advertising/editorial projects, but my personal work, thats what I'm into and conveys what inspires me. Sure, we all do mundane things in every job to make a living, but as long as I can spread my wings in my personal creative time, I am happy

David Vaughn's picture

This is somewhat vague, but how do you network? I live in a mid-sized city (pop. 300,000), and most of the photographers are in the family/senior portraits sector. I only know one other editorial photographer and no other photographer I've talked to knows who he is but he's shot for The New York Times, Texas Monthly, etc...So he's obviously getting a lot of work and is pretty well known elsewhere.

So, what if you're a photographer who isn't well known and lives in an area where there just isn't a lot of opportunity for making in-person, relevant connections (the nearest big city where those connections might be is 6 hours away).

Sorry if this question seems unanswerable. I don't know any other way to explain it.

Douglas Sonders's picture

I mean, I could write a novel about this. Back in the day, I would actually cold-call magazines. Id research their phone numbers and call editors on the other side of the country and tell them I'd like to email them my website and they would actually be receptive! Now the world is digital intensive. There are many options out there like source books and flikr and google optimization (hoping someone finds you in a search). I opt for mailers and focused email blasts. I have my own email list that Ive created from people i've met at networking events and shoots. Then I have separate lists from emails I have pulled from magazine contact pages or lists I but from services like AgencyAccess.com to find the contact information of art buyers / creative directors. Ill send car work to car art directors, and editorial/portraits to those editors with those needs in a shooter. You can also use these services like A.A. to get addresses to send creative postcards. You can also get yourself on an online listing like Wonderfulmachine.com (although i found that they typically have only gotten me magazine work in my region).

But hey, if you dont have the budget, there is still the good old phone call to magazine creative directors with follow-up email.

David Vaughn's picture

Thanks for the reply. :)

Jasper Verolme's picture

I finished my photography education last year and am starting to build a decent portfolio. I'm struggling with reaching my clients. I think this is a problem allot of photographers have when starting out. I can't live from my photo work alone so I part- time in a photo store. (The dutch version of Calumet b&h.) How did you make this work when you started out? did you tried to live from your photography alone, or did you do part-time work until you could switch to your photography. I'm wondering if i shouldn't quit my work and go full on with photography until I get enough work.

Thanks for this opportunity by the way, great fan of your work!

Douglas Sonders's picture

I feel your pain. Don't give up hope! I was lucky that I was focused during photo school and got myself odd jobs that allowed me to survive a bit. I also lived at home for a year or two after school and also sold my 1966 mustang to help fund my full time photo career. I focused all of my time on trying to get jobs, going to networking events, setting up meetings, or shooting personal work to get new client attention. This old article I wrote may help: http://www.sondersphotography.com/blog/2012/06/15/here-it-is-12-career-t...

Also, read some of the answers below. They may help!

Ted Zombek's picture

So, Doug, which 645 lens do you find most useful for your automotive work?

Douglas Sonders's picture

Phase One 75-150 Schneider Leaf Shutter with CPL filter

Ted Zombek's picture

I've been using the 55-110 or the 120. What is the filter that you referenced?

Douglas Sonders's picture

Circular Polarizer

Ted Zombek's picture

Thanks

Douglas Sonders's picture

Sure, best of luck

Shailen Ramnares's picture

What brand/model?

Erin Fraser's picture

What would you suggest as the best way to reach potential clients outside of your city if you're looking to expand your reach? We do music/entertainment/celebrity photography in Canada but aren't currently located in one of the media hubs like Toronto or Montreal, but we would like break into these markets, as well as looking beyond border into the USA. Relocation to a more complementary city in the US or Canada is also something we'd like to do eventually, but how to pack up and move and do this wisely for business is the question. What would you recommend to be the best way to get noticed? Direct emailing a website link and perhaps a few images?

Douglas Sonders's picture

See my response below to David Vaughn. That may help. Direct emails are great and even better if you setup follow up phone calls after to touch base!

Erin Fraser's picture

Thanks for the info! And I must say - I really think it's cool and super appreciate the fact that you're taking to time to answer questions like this, that's pretty amazing of you - So thank you. =) As a follow up question, I assume these email blast lists that you refer to, consist largely in part of contacts that you don't know. So, you're introducting yourself and your work to them in hopes that they will like what they see and will hopefully hire you for a gig. How do you craft your email to them? What do you say to these people so they want to continue reading more about you and your work? Do you provide links only or attach images to the email? Is there an art and science to writing these emails so you'll be given the time of day?

By the way, we love "Not a Bully"! We have our own charity that we've been doing for the last few years through our photography that raises money for dog rescues. Emma is lucky to have a human like you - keep up the great work! =)

Douglas Sonders's picture

oh weird, did my link showing my mailer go through? did you see that?

Jamie Maison's picture

I finish my degree in two months time so this will reall help. I wondered if you feel there is still a living to be made as a photographer and what would your first steps be in becoming successful?

Douglas Sonders's picture

There is, if you plan on putting in the legwork, creating a specialty for yourself as a photographer, keeping your overhead costs low, and always shooting personal work. I suggested this below but this article may help you http://www.sondersphotography.com/blog/2012/06/15/here-it-is-12-career-t...

Jamie Maison's picture

Thank you that's helped! Really appreciate it

Douglas Sonders's picture

totes

Lu Bur's picture

Hey Doug so my first time meeting you was at Photoshop world, and it was an awesome session are you schedule to attend any other psw in the future? On to my question. It seems like you were able to jump right into this after school. Many of us photogs didn't figure out we wanted to do this until we had other careers. What advice would you give when it comes to, should I open a studio, should I not. I don't get clients as consistent but I feel if I can present something more of value people would take me more seriously. I know I have something different to offer, I am not just your average photo studio because I can offer more, but a little skeptical about taking on the cost. I rent a studio locally now when I need to get in there, but I find that when I am in there the charget that I am charging goes all back into price to rent that day. If there was one question I guess how would you advise regarding taking on your own studio space?

Douglas Sonders's picture

Good question. I'm more of an on-location guy. I've had my own studio spaces, but rarely used them. I live in NYC and have no studio currently and fairing just fine. I rent as I need. For you, it may be different based on your client base. I highly suggest against opening a studio and assuming the business will come unless you do family/wedding stuff and expect walk-in traffic and lots of visitors. Otherwise, clients wont care about you having a studio as long as you can deliver good product and stand out. My philosophy is to keep your overhead low until demand is high enough to require it. I've seen many photogs in your shoes try and open a studio, later as for studio mates, struggle, and close due to creating too much overhead for themselves early on in their careers. Some towns have time-share studios, which are great. I used one in DC called Union 206 which offered a monthly membership and discounted rates and I would rent as needed. My clients didnt care that it was mine or not. They never asked.

Rameez Khawaja's picture

How do you even get your foot in the door? I live near a large city with plenty of ad agencies most likely looking out for togs. Ive managed to get a meeting finally after hitting the guy with a signature marc ecko swag bomb. The main issue is i havent worked any campaigns or commercial work pertaining to agencies. So would it be best to self create campaign work? My portfolio is cohesive but not tailored to specific campaigns. How do i even convice a company to take a chance on fresh blood. They agree my work is strong but its the experience that scares them

Douglas Sonders's picture

Read my advice in comments below about creating strong personal work. Show you can put a shoot together. Also, be aware that you have to climb the ladder. You will not land a 5-6 figure campaign right off the bat without selling your soul or crazy luck. You need cred. Start with small magazines. Editorial can get you advertising work. Sure you can get small ads, but its my big magazine projects and personal work that got me in the door/helped me stand out.

Good for you for showing initiative and following up and sending gift baskets. Initiative and follow up is a large part of the battle. Now develop some cohesive personal series and more tearsheets from smaller magazines as you start out

Douglas Sonders's picture

also, you may benefit from having a consultant review your work and help advise you to take your photography to the next step. Here is a list of consultants, but I prefer Suzanne Sease

http://www.aphotoeditor.com/2008/02/04/list-of-photography-consultants/

Rameez Khawaja's picture

Cheers doug appreciate you taking the time to reply. Its hard to get critical feedback so this has been a great help!

Christopher Blair's picture

Doug, do commercial clients expect a medium format quality image (30-40 megapixels) or is DSLR perfectly acceptable?

Douglas Sonders's picture

Most clients are fine with 35mm if you know how to use it. I mean look at Chase Jarvis. He uses Nikon I believe, but he's a different shooter than me. If you shoot 35mm and cant afford medium format for billboard ads or oversized prints, you can always rent! I love the dynamic range, color, sharp lenses, and shallow cinematic look of my MF system. Resolution is great for me. I rarely need more than 40 megapixels, but will rent a 60 megapixel back for billboard ads.

Christopher Blair's picture

We got a college sports billboard campaign coming up in a few months, I've never shot/edited a billboard before, do you think 35mm can get me though that? Or would that be an excellent opportunity to try out a MF system? Having never shot on MF, I'm a little hesitant. Thanks for being awesome!

Douglas Sonders's picture

Depends on your budget. Also, what kind of content are you shooting? Portraits? Sports event coverage?

Christopher Blair's picture

Sports Studio Portraits for billboards and college recruiting materials. Budget is around $5000. Portraits will be shot on location with us setting up a studio like environment (seamless, strobes, indoor likely).

Douglas Sonders's picture

Im sure you could get by with a DSLR, but if you can afford to try out a MF system, Id get a 40 or 60 megapixel phase one with an 80mm or 100mm lens and maybe one longer lens. If youre doing group shots, then the 55mm is great. Hit up Lance Schad at Digital Transitions if youre curious about renting one for a day lns@digitaltransitions.com

Christopher Blair's picture

Thanks for the advice! Your website is very inspirational! I will have to bookmark it. Do you do your own retouch/photoshop work?

Douglas Sonders's picture

i do 90% of my own editing. The crazy composite work used in some of my bigger ads is done by 1 or 2 of my regular retouchers. Everything else I do

Patrick Hall's picture

Don't forget that most billboards aren't printed at the same resolution that print magazine and subway posters are.....you could probably shoot an image for a billboard on 6-10 megapixels and be okay resolution wise.

I think a good way to determine if you need a MF camera is the budget. If they are budgeting in the range of $15,000 and more then it might be ideal, but for $5000 I don't think that sort of jobs necessarily requires the larger camera.

Christopher Blair's picture

Thanks for the info Patrick, jumping into billboards is a new realm for me.

Douglas Sonders's picture

what he said

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