This is Russ Klettke's interview with Brian Dilg, who is Chair of Photography at the Photography School at the New York Film Academy. In addition to 20 years of professional teaching experience around the world, Dilg's work has been published in The New York Times, Time Out, Village Voice and covers of books published by Simon and Schuster, Random House and Hyperion. He has also worked in post-production for major fashion houses, consumer products manufacturers and media organizations. He also has won awards as a filmmaker and worked as a director, cinematographer and editor of narrative, documentary, music video and commercial films.
Q: What do you tell photography students about careers in the industry?
As an instructor at a New York-based school of photography (The Photography School at the New York Film Academy), I regularly provide advice to student commercial photographers and photojournalists about the kinds of careers they may achieve. It is hugely beneficial for them to envision the heights to which they can aspire – we are is New York, after all, where you can become the best of the best in almost every endeavor – but it is also essential to consider the entry point at which one can enter the profession.
I have a quick way of summarizing what a career in photography likely will entail. In your first job, you probably will be someone’s assistant, and a lot of your time will not involve taking pictures. Across the later arc of your career, you are likely to be self-employed and therefore must have business skills – in addition to your acumen and artistry as a photographer.
Q: So, they are to start from the ground up – but does that mean actually taking photos?
Let’s discuss first things first. The role of the photographer’s assistant, or someone who works in the administrative and support side of photography, is not just about paying dues. You will learn vital parts of what makes a photographer valuable to his or her clients and their craft. Between what you shoot and what is ultimately used in print editorial, multimedia advertising or online publications there is a lot of editing, organizing, legal documentation, processing and selling. Long-term, every photographer has to know how this works and how to manage it.
Q: We suppose this varies, depending on the type of photographer the student hopes to be one day, yes?
The specific path you wish to take – smaller-scale commercial (including weddings), larger-scale commercial (fashion and advertising photography), and photojournalism – would likely involve these entry level positions:
Smaller-scale commercial – Most established photographers need assistants to help with lighting, equipment, on-location support and administrative tasks. Work with a pro and learn to be a pro. Often, the assistant will price out a job (some use contract templates found on Blinkbid.com) and handle client contact to some extent.
Larger-scale commercial – The digitech assistant on advertising, high-end fashion and other large-budget commercial shoots may appear to be the most popular person in the production. As they work on the computer tethered to the camera, clients and talent might be clustered around them as they identify whether or not the shoot is getting them what is intended – in real time. The work doesn’t end there, as a lot of organizing and file backup is required post-production, along the path that selected images take to become a final product.
Photojournalism – While the budgets for photojournalists are shrinking for print media, rare is the project where the assistant can travel with the photographer to newsworthy locales – unfortunately. But there is plenty for the photojournalist’s assistant to do in the office: editing, cropping, backing up files, processing prints and communicating and invoicing are all in their role. This person gets a first-hand look at what clients (media) want and need, and the value they place on good images.
Of course, assistants in each category need to be working on developing their own skills and portfolio, even when that is not their full-time responsibility. For example, the photojournalist should seek out local media assignments, enough to develop credits and tear sheets. Commercial photographers-in-training should jump at any opportunity to work with smaller clients.
Q: Is it essential for the photographer to also be a businessperson?
Concurrent with developing a portfolio, the photographer needs to become comfortable with the business imperatives of a photography career. Indeed, the first job for photographers is to get to know the business. In addition to the skills development mentioned above, the future independent photographer needs to understand the importance of selling in their career. By selling, we mean relationship development. You’re only as good as you hope to be and working as much as you want when clients know you and trust you. That boils down to a personal style, your professionalism, how fun you are to work with and your ability to establish reasonable expectations on the part of your clients – on top of providing top-quality photography.
Do you agree that the first job for photographers who are either professionals or want to go pro should be to get to know the business? Sound off below in the comments section. Your voice counts!