So You Want to Be My Intern/Assistant/Second Shooter/Photographer/Friend

Several times a month, I receive an email that reads something like this: “Hi, I just moved to Portland from Minneapolis/Butte/Atlanta. I just graduated from photography school/am a photographer/am interested in photography/have a camera I got for Christmas, and would like to be your intern/assistant/second shooter/photographer. I was wondering if you have any positions open? You can see some of my work on Flickr/my blog/my website, at www.myphotos.me. Yours, Mark Newcomer”

In spite of being a busy professional, I always endeavor to give others a chance, and to reply to everyone who writes to me. So when I have time, I’ll view their photos, and I’ll reply to them with something like this:

“Hi Mark, thanks for writing. I’m currently full up with interns and photographers, but thank you for offering your services!”

I’ll never hear back from him again.

(If I were to tell you the truth, the cynical part of me actually wants to say: “Hi Mark, welcome to Portland, home of the highest per-capita number of photographers in the world. There’s a reason Portland is full of Creative Professionals who are broke and can’t afford each others’ services. I’d advise you to go back to Indianapolis/San Francisco/Duluth, where you can actually work as a photographer and make a living.” I don’t generally say these things, but…they are true.)

For those who are actually serious about working for me, or for any other professional photographer in Portland (or elsewhere), let me offer you the following free advice. If you follow these guidelines, you will be among the top 1% of inquirers, and I can almost guarantee that you will land a coffee appointment, or internship, or job, with me or someone I know.

Do your homework. If you’ve primarily shot sports in the past, and that’s what populates your portfolio, don’t email me (a wedding/portrait/editorial photographer) asking for work. Research who you’re contacting, and only contact the studios with whom you think you’re a good fit. And don’t ever, ever, ever send a copy-and-paste form letter. I’ve received them before, and they are painfully insincere. Furthermore, photographers know each other, and word will get around about you. You’ll be wasting your time and mine, and that’s a great way to build a poor reputation.

Free is a very good price. The intern I currently have, which is the only intern I’ve ever had, mentioned in her initial email that she was looking for “an unpaid internship”. Later in her email, she used the word “free”. Now, it more or less goes without saying that an internship is unpaid. But seeing the word “free” in an email certainly stuck out to me. And she got the job.

There is such a thing as a free lunch. Don’t be that guy that writes to me and asks if I’ll meet with him for coffee or lunch. Or, rather, be that guy, but be sure to mention that lunch is on you. (As my friend JP recently commented, in reply to such an inquiry, “He didn’t use the two magic words, ‘free’ and ‘beer’, so I didn’t write him back.”) If a professional is going to take time out of his schedule to meet with you, be courteous enough to offer him something in thanks for his time.

Build a professional website. I do not want to look at your flickr/FaceBook/school-assignment-website to see the 2 weddings you’ve shot. I do not want you to email me cumbersome attachments. I do not want you to bring in a portfolio of prints. I do want to see a professional looking website, easy to navigate, with a good variety of quality images. If you’re a wedding photographer, I want to see at least 20 images from each of at least four weddings. I also want to see quality portrait images. I’d even enjoy seeing some of your personal work, if it’s quality.

There is no excuse for a lame photography website. This is an era of web design in which, for $15/month, you can have it all: a top-notch template design, hosted and supported by a great company, with easy back-end controls and customization, into which you can drag and drop your images. Professional photography is a visual medium, and the visuals must extend into the presentation of your work. Don’t expect anyone to take you seriously, if you don’t present your work professionally.

A few more thoughts on “quality”. Don’t waste your time emailing potential employers or internships if you don’t have something quality to show them.

First, only show strong images on your website. It’s better to show 15 strong images than 30 mediocre ones. Edit well, and get feedback from others who can help you make your selections.

Second, build up your portfolio so you have more quality images to show. Don’t wait for paying jobs in order to create these images. If you’re lacking good images in a particular genre (say, senior portraits and engagement portraits), then make some. Set yourself this goal: over the next 2 months, schedule one photo shoot per week that helps you build your portfolio. This month, invite friends or models who look age-appropriate, and create some beautiful senior portraits of them for your portfolio. Next month, move on to, say, engagement portraits with young couples. Before you know it, you’ll have a stunning portfolio that will wow any potential employer when you email them for an interview.

Write me back. This is the simplest and yet most profound piece of advice I can give you. I take time out of my very busy schedule to reply to (almost) everyone who inquires of me. However, fully 95% of these people, whose work I’ve taken time to look at, and whose emails I’ve personally replied to, never bother to write me back and say thanks. I’m not looking for a pat on the back, but I am looking for courtesy and professionalism. If you wrote me back, you would be in the top 5% of inquirers. And you know what? I’d notice that. I’d remember it. And it might be the start of something.

Write me back, again. There’s a fine line between pestering and persistence, but don’t be timid about pushing that boundary. If I write to you saying that I don’t have any openings, that doesn’t mean you can’t contact me again in 6 months, and show me your new work. Eventually, I’ll remember you and your work (if it’s quality), and we might even become friends.

I once had a college student who called and left me 5 messages over the course of 3 weeks. Rather than being annoyed, I was intrigued by his persistence. (Nobody else has ever done that, before or since.) In his messages, he explained that he was a marketing major, and was wondering if we could meet for coffee, because he had some marketing ideas he wanted to run by someone. He was genuinely excited by what he was studying, and had some marketing ideas he’d come up with, and wanted to see if they’d work in the real world. We got together for coffee, and both of us came away with some good information. The only downside? He didn’t have a business card, I didn’t have his number, and he never contacted me again. It’s too bad, because I think we could have done some great things together if he had.

Have a business card. Like your website, it should be professionally designed and printed. I frequently have people comment on the quality of my thick, glossy card, which communicated professionalism and quality. (There’s that word again!) You, too, should have a card (and not one that says “Get 250 free business cards from Vistaprint!” on the back), and you should hand it out as often as possible. Even if you only correspond but don’t meet with a potential employer, mail them a card with a personal thank you note. That’s professionalism and courtesy in a nutshell. No one has ever done that to me, but believe you me, if they did, I’d keep that card and probably call them up when I was in need of assistance.

When I was in art school, I had an internship with an editorial photographer. One week, we were working on deadline for a large project, and we needed some help. That morning, my boss received a clever postcard from a local photography assistant, so she called and hired him. Which goes to show that timing (and a clever card) is everything.

What’s the point? The point is: follow these simple suggestions and make a good impression at every step of the process. Your emails, phone calls, websites, photos, free lunches, follow-up emails, and business cards should all be impressive. Spend time preparing these things long before you start contacting photo studios like FritzPhoto.

If you’re courteous and professional in your communications, it just might land you an internship or job. Even in Portland.

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This is an excerpt from a book I am writing, a how-to guide on becoming a successful, profitable professional photographer.  If you’d like to read more, and learn more, please follow the blog (sign up at the above right for RSS or email delivery).  Or follow me on Facebook by liking my Facebook page!

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  • February 11, 2011 - 8:23 pm

    Megan - This was a great read. Thank you for these tips.

  • February 13, 2011 - 12:01 am

    Linda Shapiro - Fritz, this is a terrific, concise guide for those trying to get started as a professional. It’s a real act of generosity to provide these hard-won insights to those coming up as well as to other professionals who have not taken the thoughtful approach to a career that you obviously have done.

    If you have no objection, I would like to share your blog posting on the website of the camera club I belong to, the Yamhill Valley Camera Club. The members comprise a wide variety of people, from amateurs like me as well as some who are part time professional photographers to those who make their living the hard way, i.e., with a camera in their hands! Please let me know if it would be OK to share your article.

    regards, Linda

  • February 13, 2011 - 2:07 am

    Tim Olsen - Informative post Fritz! I love it when a shooter tells it like it is. There are just too many emerging photographers, assistants, and students who just seem to have an unrealistic outlook on getting work in the photo industry these days. I always tell every student I meet that they need to be prepared to actually work just as hard, if not harder, to find work and develop professional relationships. Marketing for assistants is pretty much the same approach as marketing for photographers! Take business and marketing classes, in addition to photography classes, and always be resourceful. I’m taking you to lunch next time I’m in PDX! Shoot! Tim

  • February 13, 2011 - 10:22 am

    fritzphoto - You’re welcome to share it with them, Linda. Thank you for asking.

    I’m currently in the process of writing a book along these lines, sharing insights I’ve gained from my experience as a professional photographer….

  • February 13, 2011 - 10:28 am

    fritzphoto - Thanks, Tim. You’re right, photography is hard work. And there’s nothing like a quality, professional assistant. I really respect people who dedicate themselves to helping photographers do their best work, and make it as smooth as possible.

  • February 18, 2011 - 11:57 am

    Craig - I agree with every single word of this.

  • February 21, 2011 - 7:38 pm

    Jim - Excellent article on how to get a photo assisting job or internship, Fritz. That’s good advice in the photography world, but really good advice any time a person wants to get a job or internship. I look forward to reading your book!

  • February 28, 2011 - 5:05 pm

    Mike Harris - Great post, Fritz… Honest and informative. As someone who contacted you in the past, I wished I would have followed all of these suggestions back then!!! To your credit, you always replied.

  • April 27, 2011 - 3:23 pm

    Bárbara Herrnsdorf - Thanks much for posting this! Very concise, straight-to-the-point, and helpful indeed! Manners and professionalism do seem to have become a dying art these days, but how right you are that they truly are of the utmost importance. Good for you to remind people of this! I wish you continued success as you move toward the publication of your book! Bravo!

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