Benefits of Going Off Track On A Photo Assignment
Every professional photographer's business model is a little different, but for many of us, our work comes in the form of assignments: Work that is to be completed to meet the needs and specifications of a client. Sometimes, you have flexibility to create your own vision or you have control over the art direction of these assignments. But very often, you do not. Well, that's part of the business. But many people breaking into the industry think that's the line and you must stay within its boundaries. I'm here to tell you that the line can be a
little flexible, and even when you're on a programmatic assignment, you may have room to nudge that line in a certain direction.
But before you start to get the wrong idea, I am not advising you to hijack the project. Your client – or the director of the project whom
you are inevitably reporting to – is going to expect some very specific shots. Your job is to provide exactly those shots and meet with the vision that was bestowed upon you. You must provide that at the very least. If you do not, you run the risk of not getting paid. So please remember that your client's needs are the primary focus. What I'm talking about today is putting in an extra 10-15% of effort. At the very least, it will be beneficial to you and your portfolio. But you may just make your client a little happier. Better yet, you may secure more work.
Incorporating Out-of-Box Thinking
So what are we talking about? I'm talking about taking some extra time and putting in some extra effort to create your own vision beyond your assignment. After you get the programmatic shots that you need – thus fulfilling your contract – try to work in a few (or several if you have the resources) photographs that maybe go beyond your assignment. Maybe it's providing angles or different lighting techniques that weren't discussed. Maybe it's exploring the scope with a different formatting like Black & White, a cross-processed look or HDR. The options are abundant no matter what type of assignment you are working on. One example I can think of is the work of Brad Tent, a portrait photographer whose work graces the pages of many magazines. After he meets the needs of his assignment, he'll pull back a little and create what he calls Artificial Portraits. Well, they're not really artificial portraits, but they exhibit his unique lighting style by showing the backdrop frames, the light placements, gaffers tape marks on the floor and so on.
I believe he initially started doing these for his own portfolio, but he has had several clients specifically request that type of aesthetic in his paid works.
You can take your own artistic license, even in your paid assignments, and realize your own creative vision. You just need to provide exactly what was required of the assignment. Whether or not you reveal your alternate direction to the client is up to you and it may vary on a per-case basis. Maybe one client will have very little chance of appreciating your direction. If it's a risk, don't share. But if you have an open-minded client, you are more than welcome to present those photos as extras. Very important: The extra scope is on your own time and your own dime. Never eat into your production budgets. I'm talking a few shots worked into your shooting so as not to interfere with the agreed-upon scope. But post-processing is all you, and you must make that point clear.
At the very least, you'll end up with a few shots that work well with your portfolio. Maybe you can use those shots to get clients and work that fits with your own style moving forward; a style that you can also do (when dealing with client work, your personal tastes are always secondary). But with the right open-minded client, you may be able to convince them of a slightly new direction. It's not likely to affect your payment on that particular assignment, but it could land you future assignments (you're the guy who was thinking out of the box) or it could garner some other assignments (your client has friends and contacts who may be looking for a guy just like you). The point is that you're leaving a strong impression.
A Personal Example
A large component of my photography income is in the form of commercial photography. Specifically, I am photographing sites, buildings and installations for the purposes of marketing. My client contacts range anywhere from a marketing or business development manager to a principal at a small company. Before I write the proposal, I know exactly what they're looking for, what they expect and I know all of the deliverables. But I already intend to create a couple of shots of my own accord before I accept an assignment.
My case may be unique. My “talent” is most often a building or a site, it's not going anywhere. Since I am not charging on an hourly rate (I most often charge on a per-project basis), my time is my own. It doesn't matter how long I am on site, it doesn't matter how many
photographs I shoot, the extra time never affects my client. So when I deliver the photographs to my client and they are happy, that's when I might bring out the other photos I created. One could be a stacked long-exposure at night revealing star trails. Another might be a somewhat surreal high-contrast with rich colors and deep shadows. I try to get to know my client and learn which of these extra photos might interest them. Sometimes I share them, sometimes I don't; you get a feel for these things. Because of my contract agreements, I very often give them the extra photos as a bonus. For me, it's a business development aspect of what I do. If nothing else, they end up in my portfolio. But in a few cases, it pays off. In one specific case, I created a shot of a site from an angle that was beyond scope. It wasn't too far of a reach from my contract so I provided the image to my client and it took residence in my portfolio. Well, it was a while before I heard anything, but the building was eventually featured in a trade magazine. It was that photo that the client wanted to appear in the article. That was outside of our contract so the license agreement needed to be expanded for that specific image. The client got the photo that fit well in the article and I was therefore able to earn some extra cash without having to snap another frame.
Giving a little extra on an assignment is beneficial all around. It will create some more interest for your assignment, nourishing your
creative mind while you work on an otherwise uninteresting assignment. You can build your portfolio out of the extra work. But you may also earn some more business or scope through these out-of-box ideas. There's a small risk – there's always a risk – so you need to make the assignment priority and use your best judgment accordingly. But the payoff can be great. So consider working in a little extra on your assignments. It'll keep you happy and maybe make for a happier client as well.