Turning Personal Work into Paying Assignments

By David Walker

© Magdalena Wosinska
Magdalena Wosinska turned her personal work into a self-published book called The Grass Is Electric, then used the book to land assignments that launched her career. 

An axiom of brand-building is to photograph what you love, and a distinctive style that leads to assignments and commercial success is bound to follow.  Prospective clients often want to see the personal work in a photographer's portfolio as much as the commercial work . The commercial work is an indicator of lighting and production skills. The personal work shows what you are most passionate about shooting, and clients use it to gauge the interest, creativity, and natural style you might bring to their particular job. 

But how can you be pro-active about turning personal work into the types of assignments you dream of doing, as opposed to assignments that pay the bills, but don't excite you? What are good strategies for using personal work as attention-grabbing self-promotions? And how do you identify the clients who are most likely to respond, and offer assignments that relate to your personal work?

A number of recent PDN stories address those questions from different perspectives. Here are several stories about how photographers--from rookies to veterans, in various specialties--have leveraged personal work to find the kinds of assignments that fit their interests, personality and creative vision. 

(Note: Articles on the PDNOnline archive are accessible to PDN subscribers.)

Building a Brand on the Romance of Artisanship

Tadd Myers began documenting American craftsman as a personal project, and ended up getting hired by brands that wanted to be associated with the allure of handmade goods. He had the best year of his career shooting for new clients including golf equipment manufacturer Titleist, Danner boots, York air conditioners, Oxxford Clothing Co. and Interstate Batteries.

From Assistant to Photographer: Magdalena Wosinska's Professional Transition

Photographer Magdalena Wosinska learned everything she could while assisting a few top photographers, shot personal work to develop her style, then pulled some all nighters to land clients. 

A Photography Promo with Artistic Appeal

Benjamin Rasmussen was promoting himself with images he thought were "marketable," but it didn't feel quite right. So he created a series of handmade artist books, featuring personal images he shot while traveling, in an effort to connect with potential clients’ creative sides.

Making Side Projects Profitable: The Way We Ate 

Noah Fecks and Paul Wagtouicz started their website to hone their food photography skills and ended up getting individual and team assignments, as well as a deal for a book about American cuisine in the twentieth century. 

Making Side Project Profitable: The Glow

Photographer Kelly Stuart paired up with a writer to launch a website about fashionable moms, which led to sponsorships, a product collaboration and a book deal for their brand, as well as assignment work for Stuart.  

Right Stuff: Jenna Stamm's Fruitful Promotion 

While shooting a personal project about her grandparents' farm, the environmental portrait photographer translated memories of her idyllic summers into a bountiful self-promotion piece.

Bridging the Gap 

In a down economy, Jamey Stillings’ personal project on the construction of the Hoover Dam bypass bridge gave him a chance to return to his roots as a photographer, get a lot of media exposure, and approach a new type of client.

How to Introduce a New Specialty to Clients

Personal work can take photographers in completely different directions from the work that clients already know and expect. Reps explain how photographers can prove expertise in new categories—without looking like a jack-of-all-trades and master of none.


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