Advice from Editorial and Fine-Art Photographers About Succeeding in Advertising
March 23, 2018
An image for Chevrolet by Christopher Churchill. Churchill started shooting for Chevy after a designer he’d worked with moved to a new job with the car company’s agency.
Sami Drasin for MeUndies. Drasin says she learned how to speak confidently about her work in part from working as a studio manager for Christa Renee.
For photographers who are interested in creating documentary, editorial and fine-art work, advertising jobs can be an important part of building a sustainable career. Income from advertising work can provide the financial security that photographers need to live and to pursue the personal work or low-paid editorial projects that they’re passionate about.
British documentary and fine-art photographer Venetia Dearden, for instance, says she was “about to give up photography because I couldn’t earn enough money being a photojournalist.” Then she got her first advertising jobs. She’s been juggling personal and advertising work since. “It’s really hard to survive as a photographer if you’re not doing advertising,” she adds. The remuneration from ad work meant Dearden felt “much more comfortable accepting the really low-paid assignments that I loved doing because it wasn’t so terrifying only doing that.” And the low-paid assignments and personal work, which gave her something to show to potential advertising clients, led to more ad work. “Everything goes hand in hand,” she explains.
Of course, getting advertising work is much easier said than done, especially when competing with photographers who make advertising their primary focus. We asked five photographers how they’re building careers that mix personal, fine-art and editorial work with advertising.
Don’t Expect Ad Jobs to Come to You
Before she started doing ad work, Dearden was mostly shooting commissioned portraits for magazines. Even though she wasn’t yet getting advertising assignments, she was showing her portfolio to art buyers, and feedback from those meetings proved pivotal in her career. She’d been showing assignment work in her print portfolio, which didn’t do much to differentiate her from other photographers. Then she started showing a small box of prints from a personal project she’d been pursuing. The images chronicled the daily lives of families in a rural community in Somerset, England where Dearden grew up. “I remember suddenly realizing that people were more interested to see that work than they were to see the commissioned portraits in my portfolio. And that was a real turning point. That’s what encouraged me to keep shooting in Somerset.”
Dearden says her career changed when she published Somerset Stories Fivepenny Dreams, her book of the project. Her first agent, Marco Santucci, got in touch with her, and with his help she landed her first ad jobs.
As her career progressed and she traveled abroad for work, she says, she would “always make sure that I booked off a couple of extra days and tried to make appointments” with potential clients. She adds: “You’ve got to be hungry, you’ve got to want to go and stomp the streets.”
Christopher Churchill, a fine-art photographer, took a similar approach. “I’ve always been one to have the fine-art stuff and personal work kind of drive the bus of my identity out there in the world, but then I’m also taking that work to magazines and ad agencies and showing that around a bunch.” Churchill has shot ads for companies such as Chevrolet, Liberty Mutual and Budweiser.
Find Your Fit
Churchill says photographers don’t need to change what they shoot to land ad assignments, they just need to identify clients who need what they’re good at. If you’re great at photographing sports or food or kids interacting with their parents, find clients that need that type of imagery. “Whatever field you’re in, be it fine-art or magazines or anything like that, look at [your] strengths and find where you can plug those strengths into that big marketplace,” he says.
Understand the Competition
Early in his career, Churchill remembers, he had a meeting with an ad agency art buyer that changed how he pursued ad work. He’d just come from a meeting with MoMA about his fine-art photographs and was feeling good about himself, he recalls. The art buyer asked why he wanted to do ad work, and Churchill replied that he just thought he’d “throw his hat in the ring.” The buyer dressed him down. “There are people who’ve spent 20 years doing nothing but pursuing this kind of work. Who are you to come in here casually and be like, ‘I’m just going to throw my hat in the ring?’” Churchill recalls her asking. Acknowledging that advertising is a high stakes, competitive industry and that there are “a lot of [photographers] who are working really hard at having those careers and being respectful of that” changed the way Churchill thought about advertising work. In short, he took it much more seriously, and was thoughtful about how his work fit with the clients he pursued. He also realized he was going to have to build his career slowly. Big ad jobs wouldn’t come overnight. It’s important to know and accept “that you are going to start at the bottom and that’s OK because you have a lot to learn,” he says. Churchill recommends using each job to build your base of knowledge gradually. “Then the big jobs hopefully come in if you’re successful.”
Learn to Write Professional Treatments
For photographers who are called in to bid on jobs based on documentary or other work created in a non-commercial setting, it’s crucial to explain to ad agency art buyers and creatives—and their clients—how you can do what you do on a commercial set. “The treatment is really important,” Dearden says. As a documentary, fine-art photographer who shoots film on personal projects, she has to explain her process to people who are looking at her books and telling her they want that same look. “You’ll sit in a preproduction meeting and Somerset Stories Tenpenny Dreams, which is my first book, will be on the table and they’re like, ‘We want this.’”
The book was shot on film in natural light. In meetings or in treatments, Dearden explains how she can make documentary-style advertising images. She sets up situations and let’s them “fall apart,” she says. “I set all the elements up as I know they need to be. Lighting, location, all of that, and then I shoot through the motion as if it is just a real situation. It’s almost like directing a movie or directing a moving image. You set it up and then you’re shooting stills. That’s something that I explain in my treatments to people and at the end of the day if the work [you show in your treatment] supports it and the art buyer supports you then that’s what wins you the job.”
Jimmy Marble got into photography after starting his career as a director. Money from a commercial directing job allowed him to produce test shoots that were essentially personal work. “I was very interested in just making things that I thought were beautiful and anticipated that advertisers might be attracted to them,” he recalls. His tests, which he published on Instagram, led to editorial shoots for publications such as Refinery29, and then he started working with his agent on getting advertising assignments.
He remembers that early on, he missed out on a job even though he was the agency’s preferred photographer. He and his rep had a meeting. “She was like, ‘We’re not losing any more jobs.’ That was the third job in a row that we didn’t book.” She told him he needed to improve his treatments. “She sent me treatments from other photographers and said, ‘You need to study this like you’ve never studied anything, and you have to start nailing this way more.’ So I started really being mindful of the language that I was using in the treatments.” What did he change? “It was the tone, and it was also my level of assertiveness.” Marble concentrated on clearly laying out his approach to shoots. “It’s one thing to be a young up-and-coming artist, and then it’s another to act like an up-and-coming artist.”
Learn to Speak Confidently About Your Approach
Fashion and lifestyle photographer Sami Drasin’s first ad job was a social media campaign for Honda three years ago. Prior to that she’d been shooting editorial assignments and look books. She remembers being nervous on the creative call, with ten people on the line asking her how she’d approach the job. The clients were looking for 60 images from the two-day shoot. She works quickly, she says, and had also just done a test shoot with cars and had come away with “at least 30 images.” “[I] was confident I was going to be able to get the shots they wanted,” she recalls. She’d also “learned a lot” while working as a studio manager for Christa Renee, both about production and about the bidding process. “I would hear her have conference calls, talk to her rep, try to win a job,” Drasin recalls. Her experience both with Renee and in producing her own shoots helped her convince the clients she could handle her first ad job. “Just sounding confident really helped me in that situation,” she recalls.
Drasin says learning how to be confident in her work has helped her not only in meetings with ad agencies, but also on set. Since she began doing ad work a few years ago, Drasin says she’s learned from experience how to be assertive. People on sets have said to her, “‘You’re young, you don’t know what you’re talking about,’” she explains. “I have to say: I do know what I’m talking about.”
The Importance of Your Team
All of the photographers PDN spoke with agreed that a great team is key to successful ad work. That can start with an agent. Dearden says her agents—first Mario Santucci, and now Webber Represents—not only believed in her work, they’ve also helped steer her toward ad jobs that made sense for her. “The support of a good agent is crucial. They never put me in situations where I was out of my depth.”
It’s not necessary to sign with an agent to get ad work, of course. Editorial and advertising photographer Jacob Pritchard got one of his first ad jobs by asking an agent who didn’t represent him to work with him on a single bid. He says photographers he knows also do this. “When a big job comes up, they’ll call an agent they know and ask them to bid the job with them and make recommendations on producer.” Especially for a bigger job, having a team in place for creative calls and bidding puts photographers in a better position.
Marble says one of the keys to his success on his early ad jobs was hiring “the best people I could find” to work on his crew. “I asked friends who had done a lot more ad work for recommendations and I was really just trying to do my due diligence on bringing in the best team I could,” he recalls. Even before he did advertising work, Marble was building teams to create personal work he’d share on his Instagram feed, which he treated as if it
were “my own personal magazine.”
“I really value collaborators so I was always trying to get hair and makeup, I was always getting a stylist,” he says. That experience not only helped him learn how to run a set, it also helped him learn how to build a team.
Once You Get the Job, Stay True to What You Do
Photographers who are new to advertising can get overwhelmed once they’re on a big set with clients and a large crew. “When you’re young and you have all these people around you, you all of a sudden think you’re supposed to be doing something different. But at the end of the day you need to do the thing that got you to that place,” Churchill says. “You still need to be respectful of the pictures that you made to get you to where you are, because that’s why you’re there, and it can be really easy to be distracted.”
As he began shooting ad jobs, Churchill says, it was important for him to stay focused on making the best picture he could, and to learn to communicate what he needed to everyone around him. For instance, “If I needed a minute to work out what was going to be the best angle, I vocalized that,” he explains. It came down to believing in himself and his work.
Value Your Connections
While a lot of photographers are getting into directing, Marble took the reverse path. Directing gigs funded the personal photography that fed his first portfolio. And it was through directing that he met the art producer who put him up for his first ad jobs with Wieden + Kennedy. The buyer, who was also a friend, had produced Marble’s first short films. He and the art buyer still had to convince the client Marble could handle the job, though. “We had to fight for it,” he recalls. “And maybe they were in a good mood that day so they felt like taking a chance, but it worked out in our favor.”
Churchill’s car photography grew out of a relationship he’d established with a designer he’d worked with on an annual report. The designer moved to Commonwealth, a Detroit agency, and hired Churchill to shoot some brand images to show the look and feel of the photography the agency wanted to adopt. That work led to his first ads for Chevrolet.
One of Pritchard’s first advertising assignments was for Chase Bank in 2014. Jamie Appelbaum, the art buyer, had worked a little bit with Pritchard on his first ad job, a year-long assignment to shoot social media work for Verizon. Appelbaum asked Pritchard to bid on a job for Chase, and connected him with an agent and producer who agreed to work with him on his bid. “Using an agent and having a great producer lined up for conversations before it was awarded, that was a huge help.” Pritchard got the job, and the agency he worked with, Bernstein & Andriulli, now represents him.
Learn from Your Failures
Churchill says that the jobs you don’t get can be important learning experiences. If you’re new to advertising and an art buyer invites you to bid on a job, “chances are they kind of threw you a bone to get you in the mix,” Churchill explains, and “they’re probably a little bit invested in you in some capacity—because they like you as a person, they like your work, they think that you would be a good fit.” If you don’t get the job, Churchill says, ask them, “What could I have done better?” He adds, “Everybody understands where people are in their careers. If someone is offering you a job, most likely they’ll be open to that.” As you’re further along in your career, clients may be less likely to offer advice, but Churchill says he still asks.