The Time to Form Your Creative Team Is Before Your Big Break Arrives

As you begin to get bigger and bigger jobs, it will soon be increasingly obvious that much of your success will be derived from the team members you choose to surround yourself with. No matter how good you may be, having an equally if not more qualified team surrounding you can make the difference between an average photograph and a great one.

One of my favorite shows growing up (a lot of people’s favorite show) was “Friends,” the half-hour sitcom about six friends living in a decidedly sanitized and humorous version of New York City in their late twenties and all the trials and tribulations that go along with that period in one’s life. Like many people, I’ve seen so many episodes of the show so many times over the years that I have, without trying, committed a great deal of the jokes to memory. But one of the moments in the series that comes back to me more and more as a working professional is a moment when struggling actor, Joey, finally gets his big break.

Having spent the vast majority of earlier seasons going from one failed audition to another, the character suddenly finds himself with a big break starring on the huge soap opera “Days of Our Lives.” The night before his first day on the job, the excitement that overcomes him leads to a panicked revelation. After describing his new gig as the best opportunity of his life, his smile sinks and eyes widen as he exclaims, “Why haven’t I been preparing?”

It’s far funnier in the watching than the telling. But it is also far truer in reality than the twenty-year-old version of me may have originally thought when I first saw the episode.

As a photographer, you are constantly growing your business little by little. One job will lead to a bigger job, which leads to a slightly bigger job, which leads to an even bigger job. With hard work and a bit of fortune, things will continue to go like this until one day, like Joey, you will find yourself staring your dream job in the face. All that you’ve been working towards is finally here. Do or die, you have to deliver.

If you are a commercial photographer, it is unlikely that you will be performing your big scene in isolation. Commercial photography is very rarely a monologue, so you will likely find yourself surrounded by a small city worth of onlookers from the client side as well as supported by the mini platoon of your creative team. The hair and makeup crew making your models look flawless. The stylist doing the same from the neck down. Your assistants making sure your equipment is ready and being Johnny on the Spot when you need a light adjusted or placed in a precarious position. Your prop stylist or set decorator either perfecting or imperfecting the shooting environment to match the client’s vision. The digital tech perfecting your own vision as the files flow from the camera over your tether cord. The producer keeping you on schedule and ensuring that all these various pieces keep humming like a cuckoo clock.

Like choosing players for a pickup game of basketball, the men and women you select to take with you into battle make a big difference in the win and loss columns. And like any team captain knows, individual ability isn’t always the key to success. You’ve all seen it before. Every season, a NBA team that is down on it’s luck will go out and spend the GDP of a small nation to bring in the best free agents on the market. Not just one or two, but seemingly all the free agents all at once. They are quickly dubbed a “Dream Team” by the television pundits (although for those of us of a certain age, there will only ever be one “Dream Team” with regards to basketball), and the newspapers begin crowning them champions before the season even begins.

It makes sense. If you have the best point guard in the league playing on the same team as the best shooting guard, the best small forward, the best big forward, and the best center, then obviously this team is going to win every game, right? Right? Well the inevitable preseason adulation is more often than not followed by the equally inevitable postgame confusion as the superteam somehow finds themselves bounced out of the playoffs by another team that, on paper at least, doesn’t have half the talent and has far less than half the payroll.

So, what happened? It’s not like the superstars suddenly forgot how to play basketball overnight. And while the team that beat them may not exactly be the worst team in the league, they still have no business being able to beat a team with so much superior talent.

Well, usually, the answer is fairly simple. Chemistry. Building a winning team is much more than acquiring a collection of fancy parts. Building a team requires finding the right parts. More important than each member’s individual skill set is their understanding of where they fit into the game plan. Just as important as being able to make a behind-the-back pass is the time spent together in practice synchronizing your playing rhythms and learning to play together as a team. After all, a fancy pass will only be completed if the recipient is in the right place to receive it.

Bringing the right team with you into a photographic battle is much the same. Yes, when that huge budget project comes along, you will be able to open your wallet to hire the best and the brightest in the industry. And there are certainly many times that will be the correct action. Sometimes, a client will feel more comfortable with one stylist versus the other.  Sometimes, as an American photographer, you’ll be shooting a job in Bulgaria and it’s unlikely you’ve had an opportunity to develop a deep relationship with all the photo assistants in town as of yet. In that case, you’ll just have to make the best team selection possible.

But equally important, in the days before you get your big break on “Days of Our Lives,” is that you take the time to build up your creative team of the future. Find a stylist at a similar career level as you and collaborate on a shoot. Find a makeup artist you like to work with through test shoots to build each of your portfolios. Bring on assistants to help with your lighting, even if you feel you can do it on your own.

When you’re all just starting out, neither you nor your collaborators may be the biggest names in the business. But the more you work together, the more you will build chemistry and an understanding for each other’s strengths. The more you communicate, the more you will develop a shorthand and that telepathic knowledge of where your teammate will be and how to best deliver the right pass.

Then, once that big break does arrive, you will bring with you not only your individual excellence but a well-rehearsed, smooth operation that will reduce your stress on set, give you more confidence, and, in turn, promote more confidence from your client as they see their production running smoothly like a well-oiled machine.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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Regarding NBA teams being crowned champions before it happens, I have only have thing to say:

2016 Warriors. :)

Great article, Chris!

They'll have to get past the #1 seed Rockets first.

We’ll be waiting. :)

Love a good Friends reference! is a great place to get connected to all talents and also manage your photoshoots from the site.

Building a team is key to growing. My wife is my makeup artist and test model and that helped us grow, and yes you are pretty cool Chris

Haha. Thank you :-)