Ask Maven: Should I Shoot Spec?

Posted on: August 5th, 2010 by: Zack Seckler

Ask Maven is a new column created to answer your questions about anything related to advertising photography. Questions about self-promotion, production, estimates…you name it and Maven can help. Maven has fifteen plus years of experience in the advertising world and for the last six years has been an art buyer at a highly esteemed international ad agency.

Email your questions to: maven (at) thefstopmag (dot) com. If picked, your question and Maven’s answer will be published on this blog along with the option of a link to your work.

Our question this week comes from Finn:

Hi Maven,

As a young photographer I got some great advice a year or so ago as to how to bridge the gap between the book of personal work and (very) small budget jobs shot whilst assisting, and the adverts shot with real briefs, for real money. Here it is: “Go offer to shoot spec work for art directors/creative directors who are pitching for new accounts, or trying to raise their profile by entering competitions.” This has worked really well for me as it’s allowed me to build relationships with art directors and agencies. I also did some work for out of work art directors who were polishing up their own book. Now I have a book with adverts and this opens up new avenues to me. Nothing has ever run without me getting paid and so far everyone has been respectful of my time and efforts as well as my reasoning for doing this.

What’s your take on this? Do you think it’s a good idea?


Manar El amrani

Dear Finn,

Thanks for the note. It’s a provocative question you ask- doing spec work is indeed a great way to get into an agency, but you also run the risk of becoming “that spec guy”. It’s dangerous for a photographer to give their talents and concepts and point of view away for free, as a practice it can be sticky, and you don’t want to get folks used to you doing stuff for free. Plus, it can be a bit of a slippery slope when it comes to generating ideas for an agency — if they decide to shoot the concept with another photographer, you may get into a litigious situation, and this should be avoided at all costs — ya kind of don’t want to go up against a big agency in this situation.  Not sure there is enough Advil in the world for that headache. (or whiskey for that matter).

I say that but I also see the value in doing it from time to time, and here’s why: if it’s a piece that is going to make your portfolio orgasmic, then do it. If you have always wanted to shoot cars and the guy who was just booted from an agency is freelancing for Porsche, do your thing. It will be a solid piece of work for your book, though I will caution that most agency folks on big accounts tend to go with more established photographers for big campaigns. I would stick to doing super conceptual stuff that allows you to play and be creative — think editorial in feel — there are less factors at stake when doing spec work, so you can really go for it. I have talked about the joy and liberation of doing something for free, without the stigma of money attached and just for the pure love of it.  Maybe you’ve been looking to work with an art director who’s a genius who is also looking to express him/herself. If I were you, I might make a blog of the whole thing if these peeps would allow it — shoot a free ad a week and start posting them. Maybe do open letters to agencies and art directors you want to work with, and offer up your services via your blog. Could be fun to see the results.  Personally, I recently served as fashion and photo editor for an editorial feature in a cool magazine, and man did it feel good.  I did not get paid to do any of it — and neither did anyone else, but we created something truly magical that we all felt great about, without a lot of red tape and rules. Think we actually broke quite a few rules, and it felt AMAZING. (I am a bit of a rebel at heart).

Even the most cautious and angelic of us need to break the rules sometimes, right? Because there aren’t many left to break, you know? We’re all just trying to survive in this industry and whatever you can do to get noticed, please do. As we know, the old rules don’t apply in this rather new world we live in.

Ask Maven: Why We Do What We Do

Posted on: July 14th, 2010 by: Zack Seckler

Ask Maven is a new column created to answer your questions about anything related to advertising photography. Questions about self-promotion, production, estimates…you name it and Maven can help. Maven has fifteen plus years of experience in the advertising world and for the last six years has been an art buyer at a highly esteemed international ad agency.

Email your questions to: maven (at) thefstopmag (dot) com. If picked, your question and Maven’s answer will be published on this blog along with a link to your work!

We haven’t had many new questions since Maven’s last post so she’s whipped up an inspirational piece for us:

Once in a while, you get thrown a curve ball of a project that makes you remember why the bloody hell you got into this here photo game in the first place.

Case in point- a few weeks ago, I was in Brooklyn shooting a fashion story with some friends for a magazine till the wee hours. It was beyond fun- the crew was up for anything, the hair was over the top, and the models were beautiful. Not to mention a huge wink to the 80s and Michael Jackson, which was just awesome. And not a single person complained as the clock ticked away the hours of a very long way. We all dug in, ate pizza, and made something beautiful. We were not worried about obsessive clients, the placement of a product, or if middle America would understand or relate to what we were trying to do.

© Achim Lippoth

Sometimes when we do what we love for “work”, the passion gets diluted by bureaucracy, monotony, and insanity. We forget what we love about the process, whatever that may be. I have always loved photography and adore the
camaraderie that takes place on a set when people love what they do. We shot the most insane fashion story and nobody made a dime- from the incredible photographer to the models to the insanely talented wardrobe stylist. Everybody was there for the love of it.

Where am I going with all of this you may ask? I’m saying the following: do something for free once in a while- an editorial, a cutting edge pro bono ad, or simply a cool piece your portfolio is aching for. You are fortunate enough to be working in a field that indulges your passion, so go something for free and have some FUN for crying out loud. When you are doing something for the love of it, the rules change. It’s incredibly liberating. And even if you are a commercial photographer but would secretly like to be a trapeze artist, go do that once in a while. It’s very important to reach out to what makes you tick or else you kinda stop ticking. As children we love to play, and as adults we need to play too. I’m not suggesting you quit your career and work for free, I’m saying just play once in a while. It’ll make you breathe again. And we all need to breathe, right?

If anything, you will come away from the experience re-energized and remembering what it is you love about this business, at its core. Let’s not forget to play once in a while.

The Maven

Ask Maven: Mail Promos

Posted on: June 17th, 2010 by: Zack Seckler

Ask Maven is a new column created to answer your questions about anything related to advertising photography. Questions about self-promotion, production, estimates…you name it and Maven can help. Maven has fifteen plus years of experience in the advertising world and for the last six years has been an art buyer at a highly esteemed international ad agency.

Email Maven your questions: maven (at) thefstopmag (dot) com

I came across this amazing promo the other day from Shawn Michienzi, a photographer whose work I have always dug. He sent out a mini magazine of sorts called “Taken” (great name) with cool images, great simple design, and some captioning about each campaign or image he shot. In particular,   I am in love with these  Southern Comfort photos — particularly as I was recently looking for images of ass kicking Americana the past few days. That’s how it works, folks — for direct mail, anyway. I will toss everything in my path if it does not speak to something I am working on or think I may be working on in the future. So yes, it’s a bit like some version of postal Russian Roulette. There’s no real rhyme or reason to it — it’s more luck.  Of course there is the 3 times rule — don’t blow your savings on one promo because you generally need to send your stuff 3 times before there is some sort of recall or response.

But the bottom line is targeting your audience and sending them stuff that will hopefully spark a call to your iPhone and make your dang day. I do love to get things in the mail to look at, but I would say keep the size of them less than indulgent (not a fan of enormous promos, remember most art buyers and creatives don’t have enormous offices, so we have nowhere to put your Ten Commandment sized promotion). And I really love a handwritten note to accompany the piece that has my name and a little piece on why this image of sexy school girls in Paris is being sent my way. The personal touch should not be underestimated — even if you can hand write notes to ten of your most favorite and coveted agency folk, do it.

Another thought I had today was this: you are all extraordinarily lucky to be doing something you LOVE for a living. I would say the majority of you would not prefer office work or some other such drudgery. So take a deep breath, even in these changing and challenging times for our industry, and simply remember why you are here. You really love taking pictures, and you are super lucky to do what you love for a living. Remember that when racking your brain over promos, tough estimates, or crazy art directors. It’s all worth it. Oh, and send me your questions, please. Would love to hear from all of you.

The Maven

Ask Maven: Art & Advertising

Posted on: June 3rd, 2010 by: Zack Seckler

Ask Maven is a new column created to answer your questions about anything related to advertising photography. Questions about self-promotion, production, estimates…you name it and Maven can help. Maven has fifteen plus years of experience in the advertising world and for the last six years has been an art buyer at a highly esteemed international ad agency.

Email Maven your questions: maven (at) thefstopmag (dot) com

Now, onto our question:

Tim.O. asks:

Does shooting fine art photography make a photographer more or less attractive to the advertising industry? It seems like lots of ad shooters don’t do much fine art but the ad industry at it’s best likes to showcase artistic work. Why the disconnect Maven?

Hi Tim,

Thanks for your very good question. I think now more than ever fine art is pervasive in commercial work. The lines are pretty blurry in fact. Obviously it makes a heap of sense to show the commercial clients you have worked on, as well as your work in finished ads (a lot of photographers don’t like to show finished ads in their books, and I’ve never understood why, unless the finished ad is complete crap. But if you’ve shot for Microsoft and it was all over the subway station, show that and then show it again. It has real legs for commercial endeavors).

© Gregory Crewdson, Untitled, Summer 2006But back to the question at hand — many fine art photographers have transitioned into commercial work and vice versa. There are no real rules there except you have to tell a compelling story with your imagery – and that’s the most important thing. That’s what makes a photographer attractive to the commercial industry. And now with web based portfolios you can really show your range – I would encourage that, but will say I would hope your fine art is somehow connected to the commercial work you take on – if there is a huge disconnect, it may feel like a disjointed presentation. For instance, Gregory Crewdson’s commercial work is linked closely to his fine art work. That’s why he is able to market himself commercially – because clients and galleries are all buying into his incredible point of view. There’s a lot of equity there.

In terms of fine art though, it’s totally possible the Midwestern health care client doesn’t want to see pictures of naked chicks or your series of nude bodybuilders that are in your fine art work. It’s totally possible – and provocative work is not right for some clients. If you feel strongly as an artist that your fine art work tells the story you want to spread to the world, then display with pride. If it’s great work, it will take you where you want to go commercially. I think most art directors like an artful approach anyway. That seems to be the trend nowadays as opposed to a straight up commercial photographer. I’ll end this column by saying it seems the reps, not the ad agencies, are the ones most afraid of fine art work- they sometimes don’t get how that will translate to money and marketability, but I beg to differ. A great photograph is a great photograph – fine art or not.

All the best,
The Maven

Image © Gregory Crewdson. Untitled, Summer 2006. Available for purchase at Gagosian Gallery.

Ask Maven: The Art of Diplomacy

Posted on: May 19th, 2010 by: Zack Seckler

Ask Maven is a new column created to answer your questions about anything related to advertising photography. Questions about self-promotion, production, estimates…you name it and Maven can help. Maven has fifteen plus years of experience in the advertising world and for the last six years has been an art buyer at a highly esteemed international ad agency.

Email Maven your questions: maven (at) thefstopmag (dot) com

Really having fun taking your questions – keep them coming. This week I thought I’d share my thoughts on what makes a photographer great- not in terms of imagery, but in terms of personality and collaborative spirit. In the commercial world, those of us in agency life are in a state of perpetual stress- never enough time, never enough money, and sometimes we have to deal with people that are sort of Type A gone wild-  so it’s important we work with folks that have not only gobs of photographic talent, but also a certain hubris to put up with us.

I have taught photography students about the art of problem solving when dealing with commercial types. I would say it’s top of mind for most of us in the business, especially when “print” continues to be redefined and reconfigured to meet the needs of a digital age. What I mean is we are looking for true collaborators and not just for a photographer to show up, set up some lights, and carry on. The people I call again and again to work with are those I know are going to offer me solutions to my sometimes impossible requests. For instance the “N” word (as in NO) is not really allowed. Of course you can say no, but you better be ready to offer up some other alternatives if what is asked of you feels impossible or completely devoid of reason. If we can’t shoot an elephant tromping through Sardinia, give us some options of where elephant tromping is embraced, allowed, and even regaled. That’s the name of the game, folks.

Also never underestimate that first call you do with creative types, otherwise known as the creative call. This is your time to wow us. And you’d better. If you’re yawning the whole time, stammering through the call, or interrupting the art director or design type, you ain’t gonna look good.  You have to really LISTEN.  And you have to understand what it takes for these guys to sell through a concept- between the hierarchy of approvals from creative directors and the client, we’re talking about a substantial amount of time spent fighting for good ideas to survive. Once they do, you need to help the team make them the best they can be- it’s a big leap of faith for the creatives to trust that as a producer I can find them the right person to collaborate and execute their vision, and you’ve got to instill confidence in us that you’re the man or woman for the job. How do you do that?

* Be Positive and Enthusiastic about the job

* Come up with a cool POV on how to shoot the image

* Be a miracle worker in terms of the budget you’re given, but also manage expectations when the idea exceeds the budget

* Hire an amazing producer. This one deserves it’s own paragraph…

The production of the job once you’ve got your purchase order in hand is beyond important. Ad folks know that everything is in the details, we are wired to think that way. If you have a production that is crap, we won’t hire you again. What makes a production great? A producer that is simply super on point- answers our calls, takes our requests, and LISTENS. For instance, if the art director mentions he can’t function without Mountain Dew, please have a stack of Mountain Dew on set at all times, cause you don’t want to know what will happen if ya don’t. And never underestimate the catering, folks. The way to our hearts is surely through our tummies. Nobody is talking about hiring Morimoto, but make sure the catering is of a high level. It’s important to realize you are creating not only imagery, but an EXPERIENCE. You are talking about those of us that are cooped up in offices most of the time- this is the part of our job we love- making shit. Make it a great experience all around. Order Pinkberry at 3 pm for everyone. Play great music.. And hire a killer crew that likes to have fun and keeps the onset chemistry bubbling over with love. We are all here to have fun, and the fun is what makes the stress worth it. This is the part we love more than anything- making the ideas come to life. It shouldn’t feel like root canal or a really bad date.

Basically, we’re super demanding about what we’re looking for and we know it. It’s not only important that you are a huge talent, but it’s almost equally important that your diplomacy skills rival those of Kissinger. Just know that it’s really challenging to get an idea approved- and we want you to take it and make it sing. But we also want you to be excited, engaged, enthused, passionate, and fun. After all, we’re not saving lives, but we are the lucky ones who get to work in a cool environment surrounded by gifted people coming up with cool ideas. If you are an effective and confident communicator and understand the art of the 3 pm yogurt or latte run, then you’re golden, my friend. It may seem trivial, but it’s all about point of difference- there are heaps of talented photographers, but the ones I remember are those that have a great personality and make us feel welcome and happy. That’s what it’s all about, kids. And please keep the questions coming. Would love to answer any you may have.

The Maven

Ask Maven: Can I Be a Jack of All Trades?

Posted on: May 5th, 2010 by: Zack Seckler

Ask Maven is a new column created to answer your questions about anything related to advertising photography. Questions about self-promotion, production, estimates…you name it and Maven can help. Maven has fifteen plus years of experience in the advertising world and for the last six years has been an art buyer at a highly esteemed international ad agency. 

Email Maven your questions: maven (at) thefstopmag (dot) com

Now, onto our question:

Hi Maven,

Should I feature all my areas of photography [on] my site? Some clients like to pigeonhole their photographers. A photographer can be good (if not great) at multiple kinds of photography, yes? So why do so many people suggest that a focused portfolio is best?

Thanks ,

Dear Keshav,

Thanks for your question. And it’s a good one. PS: of course photographers can be great at many different types of image making- but showing everything you shoot can get you into trouble, unless you have some serious unity in your style and point of view. To simplify – if you shoot animals, people, and your vintage salt and pepper shaker collection, you need to make sure that the images are unified by a style or view point – the danger of showing all your different disciplines is that one can look like a photographer whose work is all over the place, style wise. That’s not good when going after commercial work. Of course, you can solve this a bit by having one tab that says “commercial work” and one that is “fine art” but I would still make sure they have a similar take or you will confuse the potential hirer of your services.

Folks suggest a focused portfolio is best for a reason – when we’re talking about the large commercial markets like New York and LA, there are simply too many specialists that just shoot liquid, models on white seamless, or dogs with their mouths open. If you are showing work that feels disconnected, you are sending a message that you are more of a Jack or Jill of all trades, and master, of well, none. I know this is a bit of tough love, but when art directors or art buyers are looking to invest in you, they are looking for not only just a unique style or strong view point, but also your BEST images online – and that perhaps, is the biggest point of all. Just as back in the day when all photographers had to show was the hard portfolio book, it still applies that you should only put your best images online, full stop. I know with web portfolios the instinct is to show as much as possible (because you can), but still know that the best stuff is the only stuff that should live there.  When putting together your web portfolio, it takes a laser focus to choose the best images as well as the disciplines you will focus on. Again, you can show different categories but they must have a similar feel. If I may call somebody out who does this well, it’s Jonathan Kantor. ( To me, all of his portfolios he shows have a similar look, feel, and style – and they’re all great.  Whether still life, food, beauty, or people, the work is all gorgeous and feels united in aesthetic. I hope this helps as you sort through the maze and mental torture that is putting together a website. Remember this mantra:


With those tips in mind, you should have a better idea of why folks say a unified presentation is the way to go, and why when I visit New York I carbo load like a a crazy person. In all seriousness, you can show as much as you want, but make it your best and make sure it sends a single message of sorts about your style.

All the best and until next time,
The Maven

Ask Maven: When Will I Get Creative Ad Work?

Posted on: April 21st, 2010 by: Zack Seckler

This is it! The very first installment of our new column here at F STOP called Ask Maven. Maven has fifteen plus years of experience in the advertising world and for the last six years has been an art buyer at a highly esteemed international ad agency. She’s here to answer your questions and does so brilliantly below in her first column.

Email Maven your questions: maven (at) thefstopmag (dot) com.


I’ve been shooting for about 6 years now. I’ve created a high quality body of work that’s targeted towards getting ad work. I’ve won many major awards…communication arts photo annual and so on….based off of work I’ve created on my own dime, just to get the attention of art buyers. And I’ve been sending out bimonthly email promos and annual print promos to art buyers for years now. I’ve also had plenty of meetings with art buyers and always receive very positive feedback in my work.

Here’s the problem…I only get a couple of ad jobs a year and they’re not even the creative type of work I really desire to do (conceptual landscapes might be the best way to put what I do). I make my living as a photographer shooting mostly weddings and other events and make a living of about $150,000 a year but it’s not what I want to be doing. I want to do creative ad work. I feel like I’m almost leading a double life…all this great work that people like on my website and wins awards but I actually just really
shoot weddings.

My questions….is it normal for people to be promoting themselves for 6 years and not get any type of creative work? How long does it take for photographers to start getting regular creative work? What types of annual earnings to ad photographers make? Can you give me a range? I’ve always assumed that it’s more then a wedding photographer like myself makes but with this recession and all I have no clue.

– LA anonymous

Dear LA Anonymous,

Thanks so much for writing in and being the first in what I hope are many posts from me to the creative community (photography specifically) at large. Your questions and frustrations are completely normal, so don’t freak out. It’s often very hard to break out of what pays the bills, but you simply must follow your heart if commercial work is what you’re after.

It sounds like you are doing all the right things in terms of promoting yourself as a commercial photographer. Hats (and lenses) off to you. Without seeing your website or promotional materials, it’s hard for me to pinpoint the root of the problem- though I will say, and I quote a dear agent friend of mine= “if you want ad work, you must show ad work in your book”. I am sure you are wondering how the heck you can show ad work if you’re not really getting any gigs in that world, but make sure your 360 presentation (meaning the full monty of mailers, e promos, website and hard portfolio) showcase your capability to not only tell a story, but sell a product. When you say you shoot “conceptual landscape” my mind is immediately taken to the fine art zone- that’s great- but it may be hard for you to captivate a commercial audience when your book screams fine art. That said, in recent years, a fine art aesthetic is not a bad thing- you simply need to show how you can apply that arty goodness to a commercial application. If you shoot weddings and make a nice living at it, you are probably wonderful at shooting people in environment and in action. Sounds to me like modern lifestyle could be a good fit for you commercially.

Also bear in mind that this is an excruciatingly subjective business- I may just go bats over your photo of a Reno sunset while an art buyer in Tennessee finds it all kinds of wrong. My advice is to find some people whose taste you trust and whose agency is doing the kind of work that lends itself to what you can offer as a photographer. That is why targeted promotions are the most effective- rather than sending 5000 direct mail pieces or shooting out 5000 emails to get lost in the ether, why not send out 50 mailers or emails to the agencies you would just love to work with or who have art buyers who love the work you do? It shows great insight to send promotional material to agencies whose work is in line with yours. If you shoot cars for instance, why would you send your work to an agency that does not or has never had a car account? Senseless really. What if the last six years had been spent marketing to those folks on your commercial bucket list?

And in terms of this six year itch, yes, this is normal (and what is normal in our business, anyway?). I have certainly heard of stranger things. I am assuming you are based in LA from your signature, and I have to say- that’s a tough market to crack, as are the other major photo markets like New York, San Fran, and Chicago. I say this because it’s even more important to have a super tight presentation in those photo capitals and you better have a specialty- in regional markets it may be cool to shoot kids, food, and cars, but in the big markets it’s best to stick with something you simply excel at and live there (think still life, location photography, portraits, fashion, lifestyle, etc.) Yet with every rule, there are certainly exceptions. For instance, folks like Nadav Kander can shoot what they please in terms of subject matter because agencies tend to hire folks like him because he brings a unique point of view and signature “style” to his work, regardless of subject matter. He’s that great. So maybe this six year sentence is more of an identity crisis- focus on what you are great at and sell that, always mindful of the need to appeal to a commercial audience. (Look on the bright side though- major life shifts come every seven years, so take heart in that- this could be your time to break through).

In terms of your question on what a solid commercial photographer can make, that range is quite vast. According to said rep friend above, you can expect anywhere from $100-350K in the mid-line- and you can obviously go up from there as I have worked with photographers that can make $350K in a week. (one can only imagine how this is possible, but trust me it is…)

I think you are indeed fortunate to make the living you do with weddings- if it has been lucrative for you I would keep doing it as you focus on tailoring your presentation to those of us in the industry. I caveat that there is a real paradigm shift happening in the photo world- a huge time of questions and reinventions as we all wait to see what is going on with the print medium as well as interactive and how photography will adapt to fit that new genre of storytelling.

Now is a fabulous time for creative reinvention and discovery- there has never been a time in history (or at least as long as I have been around) where creativity itself is being called to the task- think of all of us that now have a forum and outlet for our voices and artistry like never before (look no further than blogger superstars and sites like Etsy where people who make stuff by hand are able to promote and sell their creations). The rise of social media and blogging has suddenly empowered people to express themselves in new ways, and to me, that’s a huge opportunity for all of us, as well as a challenge. (Don’t worry- the need for trained and skilled photographers is still the norm- I am not at all suggesting someone snapping away with their iPhone is going to take food out of your mouth, just saying it’s worth watching what you eat these days.)

You may want to ask yourself- what’s your point of difference? Maybe it’s to aligning yourself with a solid team of producers, crew, stylists, and the like that can help sell you as a production rock star (insert screaming fans here). An important aspect of what we do is finding photographers that “get” the demands of creating commercial work as well as coming up with solutions to our often challenging production conundrums.  It is always about the work itself first and foremost, but what can you do in an over-saturated market to stand out?  Here’s another something to chew on- I have yet to see a photographer come up with  an amazing non traditional promotional strategy-think of what advertising is doing now to challenge and market to consumers-I feel photographers should be doing the same thing- go beyond the mailers and email promos and think differently. It will go a long way, especially to people so entrenched with whipping up ways to innovate in terms of marketing to an ever elusive and jaded audience.

Well my LA friend, that’s that.  I hope this advice helps a bit. I say keep at it and follow your dream- it’s all about reinvention right now for all of us and you, mon ami, are no exception. And to the rest of you F STOP fanatics, write to me and write often. I am here to offer advice on your endeavors and am damn glad to be here. Catch ya next week.

The Maven