Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Get Creative with Self Assignments

PART 1

I'm always looking for good visual opportunities whether or not I'm getting paid to shoot. Even when I'm traveling to teach a photo workshop or on a road trip with friends I carry my gear with me and its paid off! Some of my best images were not part of a paying gig. This brings me to the concepts of self-assignments. I think the best way of growing, as a photographer is to develop self-assignments. I learned the concept as a newspaper photographer. Many of the staffers I worked with would have side photo projects. This was a way for over-worked staff photographers working under quick deadlines to avoid total photo burnout. In the world of commercial photography this is called testing. The idea is to find a story, theme or an idea that you have an interest or passion about and shoot it your free time. The self-assignment is something you can have complete freedom to shoot without having to worry about speedy deadlines, photo editors cutting out your favorite images or designing strange crops. They sometimes were published but more often were not. Self-assignments are not just for professionals-they can be helpful to amateurs as well. Doing a bit of research and charting a strategy can improve your chances of getting better images.

While working with a local high school’s Photojournalism class I over heard the students talking about a player they had on the schools basketball team. When I asked for details they told me the amazing story of Dominque Dorsey, a star player who excels despite a partial limb. No one had ever thought about doing a sports portrait of him. You can read a story the Dallas Morning News did here. Of note the story didn’t include an image, I think an assignment editor missed an amazing visual opportunity.


Consider some of the advantages of self-assignments


- Expand your portfolio; I’ve used techniques and idea's I learned on self-assignments when discussing concepts with clients. I have even brought some of those self-assignment images to creative meetings. It shows in a subtle way you have a real passion for what you do.

- Gain confidence in your shooting and people skills; I’ve learned some neat tricks about lots of things while covering a self assignment; dealing with subjects, using unusual angles, lighting with an edge just to name a few. It's always better to make mistakes and learn on your own while covering a self-assignment. Best to be on your top game when someone is paying.

- Flex your creative muscles; with no clients looking over your shoulder and wondering, "I'm paying for this? Or ugh, does this guy know what he's doing. You'll be able to expand your creativity. The more you use your creative eye the easier it will be to access while someone is paying your rate.

- Get a leg up on concept development and assignment planning; an important aspect of being a successful photographer that's never really talked about, (I'll post more on this in future post). Many people have a misconception that a photographer just shows up and start shooting. Most every project I shoot requires a great deal of work before I even pick-up a camera. Contacting the subjects, scouting the locations, working with reporters/clients and doing basic research are just part of the pre shoot work needed to yield the best possible images. The more you understand the work required prior to shooting the more your clients will value you as a photographer.

- Get some paying assignments; As an example, I was teaching a photo workshop in a small downtown area. I asked the students to develop and shoot a photo story along Main Street. The class assignment's goal was to help the students focus with limited time in capturing images, much like a working photojournalist. As I walked up and down Main Street helping with questions I noticed one shop had been overlooked by the student shooters. I decide to shoot a few portraits of the shop owner, only took a few minutes. I gave her my card within a few days I got a call from the owner saying her shop had been featured in a national magazine and the editors wanted to buy my images for publication. Point is you never know where paid projects will come from. I've picked up many paying projects while shooting self-assignments.

Johnny Bryant in her famous cookie shop.


Click here for tips on Developing your Self-Assignment





This article, graphics and photography are protected by copyright and may not be reproduced in part or as a whole in any electronic or printed medium without prior permission from the author. Text, graphics and photos by Mike McLean

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