Assistant to Photographer: How Kristin Gladney Launched Her Advertising Career

April 2, 2018

By David Walker

As her advertising career was taking off, photographer Kristin Gladney landed an unusual job: in-house photographer at a major ad agency. She was shooting social media assignments as a freelancer last year when Wieden+Kennedy offered her a staff job. In addition to working with agency creatives to pitch new business and sell campaign concepts, Gladney shoots jobs for Duracell, Bud Light, Equinox, Sprite, Delta, Spotify and other brands on the agency’s roster.

“I’m shooting a wide variety of work: still life, beverage, portraits, lifestyle, sports and food,” she says. “Being in-house, I get to really know the brands, and really know the creatives.”

Gladney graduated from Brown in 2004 with a degree in visual arts. After internships with Magnum and Art + Commerce, she worked as a photo assistant for photographer William Abranowicz. He shoots still life, portraits, fashion, food and travel —“pretty much everything,” Gladney says. “I paid attention to everything happening on set.”

She learned how to light a wide variety of situations using natural light, strobes or a combination of both. She also learned from Abranowicz how to handle crew and clients on set. And, she says, “I learned how to anticipate his next step and his needs.” After a year with Abranowicz, she worked as a freelance assistant for other photographers from 2006 to 2012. Whenever she traveled with them, she shot personal work in her spare time. She also arranged her own trips, treating them as self-assignments, and notifying editors she wanted to work with of her travel plans.

“I’d do research in advance, travel to the location, scout and set up shoots,” Gladney says. “I realized that if I wanted to get assignments, I had to show editors I could do the work.”

Upon her return, Gladney sent samples of the work she had shot to the photo editors she had already contacted. The strategy paid off, leading to her first editorial assignments for Sweet Paul Magazine, Food & Wine and Travel + Leisure in 2012.

© Kristin Gladney

One of dozens of images Gladney produced in 2014 for Verizon Wireless’s social media. © Kristin Gladney

In addition to her travel work, Gladney produced test shoots with prop and food styling assistants she had met while working for other photographers. Occasionally, she also worked as an assistant stylist or as a production assistant for a producer friend. When that producer took a job with Starwood Hotels and Resorts, she recommended Gladney for some small Starwood jobs.

“I knew it was important to show the work you want to shoot. I wanted to shoot more portraits, and I wanted to get better at shooting, directing and lighting subjects,” Gladney says. So she started a personal project called “Portrait of a Creative” in 2013. “I’ve always been interested in how [creatives] ended up in their respective field or job,” she explains. She reached out to friends to find subjects, then set up portrait shoots that included an interview. She worked without stylists or assistants. “I would show up to the location, scout, sometimes light, and then shoot four to six different portraits of the person” in about 90 minutes.

One of her subjects was Kathy Delaney, Global Chief Creative Officer at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness. After the shoot, Delaney agreed to meet with Gladney to look at her portfolio. Several other Saatchi & Saatchi art buyers attended the meeting. One ended up at mcgarrybowen, where she recommended Gladney for a job shooting social media images for Verizon Wireless in 2014.

Gladney got a contract to do 12 shoots per month, and deliver one image from each shoot for use on Verizon’s social media. She worked with creatives at mcgarrybowen to conceptualize the images, but the budgets were tight so Gladney had to produce the shoots herself, from casting, to location scouting, to prop styling and wardrobe. It was good training in advertising production. “I had to figure out what needed to be done, and how to light quickly to get multiple shots,” she says.

After about a year shooting for Verizon Wireless, Gladney was offered a “full-time freelance” job at Wieden+Kennedy when an art producer there, who also served as an in-house photographer, left the agency. Last April, she joined the agency as a full-time employee. Gladney says the offer came at an opportune time: She was starting a family, and the stability and benefits of a staff position were appealing.

The jobs she shoots at W+K include social media campaigns, out-of-home advertising, and one-off projects. “It’s different every day,” she says. Compared to the jobs she’d been shooting for Verizon Wireless, the budgets and production are bigger. “I had to step up my game,” she says. For one thing, she had to compete in triple bids with freelance photographers for W+K jobs. So she had to learn how to estimate jobs, and handle creative calls.

One advantage of being W+K’s in-house photographer, she says, is learning how creatives work in a way that freelancers don’t. Her insider knowledge and insight gives her a leg up when a job is up for a bid.

But she’s had to step up her game in other ways, too. For instance, she had to learn time management on set with a large crew, and how to communicate her ideas quickly to stylists and assistants. But because she had learned through her personal work and first assignments the basics of production and how to think on her feet, “it was an easy transition to producing for agencies,” she says.

Gladney says the key to succeeding as an advertising photographer is to gain technical skills, then “constantly create new work. Test shoot and shoot personal projects in addition to your commissioned work. Then show your work and repeat until you’re getting the assignments you want. Stick with it through the ups and downs,” she says. “I could have easily given up on a career as a photographer many times, but I am successful because I worked my ass off even when I wasn’t getting paid, and I stayed with it until I got lucky.”

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