Photography is a tough profession to get into. Just knowing how to get from A to B can be half of the battle. In this article I go over 3 tips to help get your first ad campaign.
For me, I was always drawn toward the big shoots. Showing my Mum a billboard with my images on it for a household name has always been a big draw for me. Alongside the kudos is the budget. I am a creative person, but I often don’t have the finances to pull off something super elaborate in a test shoot without cutting a lot of corners. Having the backing of a major company can really help with this.
A big ad campaign involves a lot of pressure being placed on a lot of people. And this is really important to understand. In the same way that I wont accept someones offer of cheap or free labor to assist on a shoot because they might make mistakes, an ad agency also wont want to take this risk with you as the photographer. The chances of Nike booking you to shoot their next US print campaign if you have never shot an ad campaign before is pretty slim, although has been known to happen for some very talented individuals. As with all jobs out of uni, you need the degree, but you also need the experience, and having just graduated or being later in life and having just built you technical skill set, you haven’t had the time nor opportunity yet to gain the experience that you need. More annoyingly, you can’t gain it because no one will hire you as you don’t have it. This is where most photography careers come to a standstill. But all is not lost.
Before anything can progress, you first need your portfolio to be ready. Ad campaigns book photographers who specialize in certain areas. For me, I specialize in food, so the first thing you see when you hit my website is food. I also have a portrait portfolio in there, but it’s not what people see first and really, I should delete it, but that's another story all together. I make sure that everyone knows that I specialize in food. Within that I have a particular style in which I shoot. That is not to say that I don’t have the skill set to shoot other types of food, nor is it to say that I am not capable of shooting a wedding, but if you want to shoot an ad campaign, you need to put your best foot forward and show the art buyers who you are and the problem that you can solve for them. No ad campaign is being shot by someone who claims to specialize in food, portraits, interiors, and commercial photography. It will be shot by the photographer who has the closet fit to the brief.
As well as my online portfolio, I have what is called a credentials document. This is a live workbook that I tailor for each art buyer and creative director depending on what they are looking to sell. My website is 1) massively out of date and 2) very much a taster. It doesn’t go too deep into anything in particular. It says to the client that I am professional, I have worked with similar clients to them and that I can produce nice work. The credentials document tells a more in depth story as to who I am, how I work, and more importantly, it documents jobs I have previously done with some behind the scenes images, the full campaign as well as some stats on how it was used and how successful it was.
This is the toughest part. The difference between shooting your local restaurant chains menu to shooting a world wide campaign that will be used online, in print and on TV is huge. The way the pre production, test shooting, shoot, post productions, and delivery work are tackled differ so vastly to any other genre of photography. It is a different world. There are lots of people on set and each of them needs to be treated slightly differently. The ad agency don’t want to be let down nor embarrassed by you asking the wrong people for the wrong things.
Ad agencies come in all shapes and sizes. There will always be a new one on your area who is starting out and who are probably at the same point in their career as you. For now, these are the people that you want to be networking with at this stage. They may start to get some small local campaigns, which you should start shooting for sure. Then over time they will find they bigger agencies are outsourcing major brand work that is too small for them. Maybe a social media campaign for a big brand. Although it isn’t the big brands main campaign, having them down as a clients and print campaigns for smaller brands will slowly bring you into the light. Eventually, and this will be over the course of years, not months, something big will either fall to a small agency who feel safe with you, or a big agency wont be able to get their usual person, they may ask an agency who they filter work down to who they use and you may very well find your name in the hat.
I think I was called for maybe 10 massive campaigns before I finally got to shoot one, so don’t feel disheartened if you don’t instantly get the first job you are called about. There are a lot of factors involved in being the chose photographer.
This all takes a long time. I would say 6-10 years for most photographers to go from wanting to be a commercial photographer to shooting their first big advertisement campaign. There is a lot of free work, test shoot, helping out ad agencies, and generally being a good person to others in the early days. It is also worth noting that the entire article doesn’t mention the gear you need. Once you get to the level where you are shooting certain campaigns, you will know exactly what you need and how to rent or buy it as things seem to really narrow down. Once you have specialized and people are paying big money, there really are not many options for what you may buy and a lot of the things you purchased or lusted for in the early days suddenly seem like a big waste of money.
If you are wondering what you need, you still have a way to go before actually needing anything more than a couple of lenses, some basic lights, and a camera body. The best thing you can do at this stage is to learn your niche inside out. Not from looking at what other photographers are doing (although there is a place for this), but by fully understanding your subject matter. The people booking the big campaigns for Trek bikes wont care if you can do a 20 light set up if you don’t understand what the most pleasing stem length for a certain sized bike is or if you have the bike in the wrong gear for the photograph.
Context is always key when listening to someone else's advice. When I was looking for marketing advice or career advice back in 2008, I had no idea that it would take me until well into 2018 to finally feel comfortable in my career and to be in a position where clients were calling me, rather than me calling clients. A lot of the online workshops and articles make out that you will take a course, read a blog, or implement a strategy for email marketing and everything will fall into place, but this has certainly not been my experience.