Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Breaking Into the Industry (And Other Misadventures)


These blogged musings are becoming more and more scarce these days. But not without very good reason. With as many strides as I have already been making to impact my industry of preference, what little ground I've managed to make, what goals and hurdles I've managed to clear... none have been enough. Inexplicably I have reached a point whereby I am not placated by any measure of success, only further motivated, with a vicious, violent thirst, for more. And this past Sunday fed that relentless drive a steak dinner with deep, dry red wine.

For the sake of context, a little back story is in order.

Since February I have been engaged in travel real estate photography jobs for an online listing service that has blown up tremendously in the past couple years. It is the first legitimate, contracted and paid photography "gig" I've ever had going for me, and to this day I continue doing shoots for the company. Early in April I was scheduled to do a shoot in Southeast Washington DC, the only of the weekend. While I had been very responsible and composed on days prior to shoots in the past, this particular weekend saw a lapse in my judgment and I drank just a bit too much alcohol the evening prior. Enough to the point that I did not only oversleep, but felt awful enough to call up the client for that day and request we reschedule (with an exceptionally large helping of apology). Unfortunately the client's own circumstances were such that rescheduling was very much impossible, thus if the shoot did not happen on that very day it could not happen at all. Understanding yet begrudged, I packed my gear, drank lots of water and made what has become something of a habitual trek down to the DC area.

I arrived at the client's rental space, requested "the tour" so I could plan my angles and exposures for the shoot and dove right into the work. Maybe 20 minutes of effort total, move from room to room, corner to corner, capturing all the typical angles of interest. The client was wandering about the house amid my staggered photographing, but at one point stopped to ask me a battery of questions about when I had started working for the listing service and how long I had been photographing in general. Still in a partially hung-over daze, I rattled off sloppy but straightforward answers. She even asked about my camera, taken slightly aback by its diminutive size. I explained how I had used tradition DSLR cameras for years prior to drinking the mirrorless system camera Kool-Aid, and was so spoiled by the convenience of size while maintaining top image quality that I would never go back. At this point, after a pause in the conversation while I was snapping her living room, she mentioned that she worked for a public relations firm in the city and that they were occasionally looking to hire freelance photographers to complete jobs for their art directors. Still in a zombie haze, I fumbled for my wallet and handed off a business card, letting some of my idiocy show through with an unashamed comment, "The two things I do well, drink and take pictures". If I recall correctly she was right on board with me concerning drinking habits. A quick discussion about the next phase of her property shoot and I was off, not thinking much about the transpired conversation at all.

Then a week later an e-mail shows up in my inbox from that very client, only it wasn't her personal e-mail address like I had before, but a corporate e-mail. Her PR firm had great interest in hiring my full-day services for a photo shoot necessary in to complete a high-profile ad campaign for a city sponsored program. They requested my day rate and contract. No interest whatsoever in finding competing rates from other photographers. They wanted me, no question.

At first I was still from shock. Then I proceeded to let my internal freak-out erupt.
This was it, my first freelance commercial photo shoot, the very job in the very industry that I have always wanted. Professional shooting with studio equipment for commercial clients to produce giant ads that would be plastered over subways and bus vinyl. A job in what is easily the hardest photography industry to break into. And who would have thought that my ticket in, the critical networking contact, was a woman I had met weeks ago on a photo shoot I nearly cancelled but completed anyway while brutally hung over. Amazing.

The weeks leading up to the shoot were something a clusterfuck of equipment acquisition. Studio equipment was an absolute necessity for this client, and I had none at my disposal to speak of. Scrambling funds together, I ordered what I thought would be the crucial gear set for the client. Unfortunately, only the week of the shoot did I discover a different few pieces were needed. God bless 1-day shipping. But otherwise, I was set. Set and gung-ho. Not in the typical sense of excitement, the sloppy, giddy, so-overblown-with-energy-that-mistakes-are-inevitable way. Rather a very cool, collected, goddamn-it's-about-time-I-take-this-step way. Even before beginning, I already felt accomplished.

Without going into details, the shoot itself went without a hitch. Barring a model that never showed (which put the casting director in a quiet panic), every session throughout the day went incredibly well. I stayed at the hip of the art director, sharing my captures with him in every scenario to ensure what I was capturing matched with his vision (an effort I suspect he was very appreciative of). Despite being the most expensive aspect of the shoot up front, the studio portrait portion came and went in the span of perhaps 15 minutes. A full 30 minutes ahead of schedule, the shoot was completed. I celebrated with my partner with Coronas and spicy hot TexMex. It was a fantastic day.

This entire week I've felt a critical change in how I approach photography from a business standpoint. Even with the introduction of paid real estate shooting months earlier, the tracking of payment and expenses has largely been an afterthought of mine. Now, however, with this most recent shoot hopefully being the first of many to come, my approach is absolutely required to be more proactive.

Going back to the first travel property shoots in February, I've logged every bit of mileage, comped and uncomped, tolls, expenses for studio equipment, anything and everything that a formalized, incorporated business would be required to track. While I am not yet a legally established small business entity, I feel it will not be long now before that approach becomes the next logical step for me to take. Though still diminutive by comparison to the income of my established 9-to-5, the rate of growth I am suddenly experiencing with my photographic pursuits leads me to believe they will inevitably balance out, and although the pursuit of one is certainly harder than the other, eventually they will come to compete. The question is how long do I get to enjoy this balance before the competition begins? I only have so much free time in which to accommodate photo shoots so long as I work a structured Monday through Friday schedule and with no time to mentally defragment and relax, I run the risk of putting both pursuits in jeopardy.

Next week I am taking a trip to Pittsburgh. Originally it was strictly intended as a personal vacation, a weekend to abandon all work and responsibility, to retreat for a few days into a crowd in which rules and social etiquette are afterthoughts, thus making it socially acceptable to behave like a fool (and even garner praise for it). In direct defiance of my own intentions, however, I've been hired by someone who will be in Pittsburgh at the same time for my photography services, thus officially making this Steel City pilgrimage an unexpected business trip. While I don't expect the shoot to be particularly difficult, I do hope it doesn't leave me in a mindset whereby I cannot relax even while on vacation.

It's a bit terrifying when you lose the ability to be satisfied with doing nothing.