Advice from the pros: how to land your first commission

Vocalist and songwriter Desta Haile in side profile, surrounded by foliage.
A portrait by Amaal Said of vocalist and songwriter Desta Haile. Amaal started taking photographs as a hobby, posting images to various blogging sites. She says most of her work offers now come via Instagram, where she has 23.5k followers. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM) at 1/750 sec, f/1.8 and ISO200. © Amaal Said

At the start of most photographers and filmmakers' careers lies a portfolio-building period where unpaid favours and personal work keep you busy, but out of pocket. So how do you make the leap from aspiring pro to paid professional?

Here, editorial and portrait photographer Jillian Edelstein, advertising and industrial photographer Eberhard Schuy, portrait photographer Amaal Said, sports photographer Frits van Eldik and filmmaker Hasan Aslan share the stories of their first paid jobs – and more importantly, the lessons you can apply to your budding career.

For more advice, and to hear the pros' full stories, listen to this episode of Shutter Stories:

A black-and-white portrait of Lord Lew Grade leaning against his desk with a lit cigar in his hand.
Jillian Edelstein began working as a press photographer in Johannesburg, South Africa, then later for The Sunday Times in London. "I took this image of Lord Lew Grade in his office but I accidentally left my lens behind. He sent it back to me with his driver and a note that said 'you obviously wanted to come back'. When Andrew Neil, the then editor of The Sunday Times, saw the shot, he offered me a contract." © Jillian Edelstein
Photographer Jillian Edelstein.

Jillian Edelstein

Jillian has over 100 images in the National Portrait Gallery. Her work has appeared in Vogue, Time, Forbes and Vanity Fair, and she has shot for clients including Nespresso and Sony.

1. Grab the opportunity

"When I first picked up a camera, I had just graduated and was living in South Africa under the tyranny of the apartheid system," says Jillian. "I was spending a lot of time in the townships, and I tried to get an exhibition and get into the art world. But it didn't happen, so instead I accompanied my father on one of his sales trips to the countryside. I would photograph people as he was trying to sell furniture. On one trip, a neighbour at the place we were staying told us that there had been a helicopter crash in the mountains. I asked if I could go with him to photograph the crash and the indigenous people living nearby. That's how I got my first front page picture and how I temporarily became a press photographer.

"Looking back, I think what I would have done differently would have been to brand myself better. It has become important in garnering attention and I don't think I was attuned to it back then. Once you're down a certain track, it is very difficult to change direction. There are people who say, 'Oh you just do portrait, editorial photography,' but I consider myself as wearing a number of different hats."

Photographer Eberhard Schuy photographing saxophones in his studio.
Eberhard Schuy's advice for aspiring photographers is to first master the technology – completely and absolutely. "This is vital for pursuing professional work, as it will give you the confidence to be able to convert your ideas into creative possibilities," he says. © Eberhard Schuy
A close-up of a saxophone.
Sharing Instagram-friendly shots such as this with thousands of followers was just not possible when Eberhard started taking photographs. "We were locally limited, and there was no way to show yourself to so many people and companies," he says. "Nevertheless, the importance of personal contacts should not be underestimated today." Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon TS-E 135mm f/4L Macro lens at 1/160 sec, f/5.6 and ISO100. © Eberhard Schuy
Photographer Eberhard Schuy.

Eberhard Schuy

German advertising photographer and Canon Ambassador Eberhard is known for his ability to mix digital equipment with analogue techniques, shooting for a host of brands.

2. Always behave like a pro

"My first paid orders were in 1984, shooting the packaging shots for a can of motor oil for Ford and a can of peas for Aldi. One of the first lessons I learnt back then, just as now, is that it's vital to position yourself professionally from day one. Professionalism is, and has always been, in demand in paid photography, so the work needs to be done with great seriousness, from creating the first idea right through to the presentation of the pictures. A doctor would not operate quickly, and a photographer should not capture an image quickly. Customers pay good fees for great professionalism, and I was lucky to have recognised this very early on," says Eberhard.

"When you're starting out you have nothing to show: nothing published, no campaigns. It is therefore important to show your personal projects with a seriousness and demonstrate the professional intention behind them. My advice is to prepare a topic, show how you represent different perspectives, take pictures with a specific target group in mind – just as if it were a large, professional order.

"Looking back, one of the things I would have done differently is to specialise sooner, in order to work directly in an area served only by professionals."

A portrait of British journalist and author Reni Eddo-Lodge.
Amaal Said's first commission was a portrait of British journalist and author Reni Eddo-Lodge, and her images have since appeared in a range of publications, including Vogue and African Lens. "I want to take pictures of the women around me, women who look like me," she says. "I want us to feel beautiful. I want to talk about representation and comfort, and where people are in their lives." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM lens at 1/250 sec, f/1.8 and ISO100. © Amaal Said
Photographer Amaal Said.

Amaal Said

The London-based, Danish-born Somali portrait photographer and poet has featured in Vogue, The Guardian, The New Yorker and African Lens, and produced visuals for brands such as Dove.

3. Develop your online presence

"I kind of grew up on the internet. I was always posting on some kind of blogging website and when I went over to Instagram in 2013, a lot of my visitors followed me there. Being tagged and featured helped things get started for me, and when magazines published those images I got paid," explains Amaal.

"I think a lot of people my age can rely on being found online. I have a website on the side, but so much of my work comes from Instagram – that's how people contact me with commissions – so it's important to develop an online presence. One issue I've had to overcome, however, with having my work on social media, is judging whether an image is good or bad based on the amount of likes it gets. In the beginning I attached my own self-worth to the level of engagement [an image received], which was really dangerous for my mental health. You have to learn to critically assess your own work, rather than let it be judged by an audience who are scrolling past.

"I didn't go to university to study photography, and I didn't have any formal training. I dealt with so much terror and fear before every single shoot – I think it's this weird 'imposter syndrome', where I doubt myself. So I do a lot of reading and studying, and watch other people, and that helps when I think about doing the job, and doing it well."

Spectators silhouetted by the sun watching cars on a racing track.
Frits van Eldik advises aspiring photographers to seek proper pay for their work. "Ask for a decent amount of money, as it is very difficult later on to explain to your clients that they need to pay you more. With that, make sure you are able to deliver what they expect." Taken on a Canon EOS-1DX Mark II (succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens (succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM) at 200mm, 1/4000 sec, f/2.8 and ISO100. © Frits van Eldik
Photographer Frits van Eldik.

Frits van Eldik

The Dutch sports photographer and Canon Ambassador has enjoyed a 30-year career capturing the drama of motorsports, in particular Formula One, Moto GP and Le Mans. He also sells prints and runs photography workshops.

4. Make sure you're ready

"When I was young I went to many races with my camera. Before long I was shooting the practice sessions on Saturday, working all night to develop the prints and then selling them to the drivers on the Sunday morning before the race. Journalists walking around the paddocks saw my pictures and helped me to get work in the media. More importantly, they got me shooting on the other side of the fence," says Frits.

"In my genre, just as with the sport I shoot, you don't get second chances. Many aspiring photographers are too eager to make money. You need to take the time to develop your craft and hone your style before you even start to think about approaching clients. I bought magazines and books, looked at the pictures of the best at that time, and tried to learn from them. Copying photographers that already have clients is not the way to go, though – make sure that the client wants you for your creativity, and not someone else's.

"Clients expect a certain standard, which you have to be able to deliver. You cannot make excuses. You have to deliver on your promises and, where possible, try to go beyond the client's expectations. If you aren't there yet, then you risk losing clients before you're truly ready for them."

DoP Hasan Aslan films a food commercial on a Canon EOS C500 Mark II.
DoP Hasan Aslan shooting a film commercial on a Canon EOS C500 Mark II. He recommends making connections with co-workers early on, in order to gain more opportunities later in your career.
Filmmaker Hasan Aslan.

Hasan Aslan

UAE filmmaker Hasan Aslan is the co-owner and DoP of the film services company ALPHA 5, handling commercials, documentaries, music videos and TV shows in the Middle East and beyond.

5. Offer to help your boss

"I was studying filmmaking when I got accepted on an internship programme for Paramount Pictures, because Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was shooting in my town in Dubai," says Hasan. "At the end of every day, when I'd finished my work, I'd go to the camera department to try to help out. When the movie was done, the crew had seen how interested I was and asked if I'd like a job working in the camera department, and that's how I started as a second assistant camera.

"My advice for getting more work is to make your supervisor's job easier. That was how I started climbing the ladder. My mentality was: 'What can I do to make whoever is supervising me have a better day?' This way, the supervisor has more time to teach me some stuff and, if they are tired of some of their tasks, they may ask me to do them. The more opportunities they give you, the stronger the relationship can become. If you have a good relationship with the people that you work with on a personal level, that will keep the gigs flowing."

Scris de Natalie Denton

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