The Rookie Chronicles; and how to avoid those crucial mistakes

Being new at anything is exciting, inspiring, intoxicating, and scary. Knowing that, and adjusting your expectations and your ingenuity accordingly, can alter the course of your entire career. Candide McDonald investigates.

At the outset, everyone is new, and this comes with its own set of challenges, even for the greats, like Mario Testino who, during his Clio Fashion & Beauty Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech in October last year, recalled a harrowing start that had him pounding the streets with his portfolio under his arm, day after day, for a very long time. Eventually, he was given the chance to photograph a girl’s haircut for British Vogue.

Like Testino, many photographers cut their teeth as photographer’s assistants, although this is no longer considered to be a rite of passage. Melbourne-based interior architecture, portrait, and advertising photographer, Michael Kai, began his career as Lynton Crabb’s assistant. But travel photography specialist, Ben McRae “stumbled into” photography. His idea was to run photographic trips in Namibia – something he admits he didn’t have the experience for at the time. For Melbourne portrait and wedding photographer, Oli Sansom, like many others, his first jobs were unpaid while he worked to get his foot in the door. And even today, for multitudes starting out, a handful of unpaid jobs is still the norm.

Tiller collection, shot for Ross Didier Design. © Michael Kai.
Tiller collection, shot for Ross Didier Design. © Michael Kai.

First tastes

Sansom recalls his first job, and says, “It’s really no different to doing your 100th. If you’re not feeling a little out of your depth, then you probably don’t care enough, or aren’t trying hard enough. I find it doesn’t change all that much.” These first, and unpaid, jobs were in the music industry, “and for someone starting out, it’s hard to get better than being given pit access to the best international artists in the best venues as a way of getting your buzz on early in the game,” Sansom says. ‘You feel like you’ve been given the keys to the kingdom, and shooting live music makes you work and learn fast.”

Of his first paid jobs, Sansom says that they weren’t so scary either. His suggestions to those starting out is to charge what you feel you’re worth. And typically, when you’re starting out with not a great deal of real-world experience, this is likely to be on the lower side. “Make sure expectations are laid out, and met, and you can’t go wrong,” he says. He recalls that initial wedding clients had relatively low expectations.

From the outset of his professional career, Steven Popovich has had an agent. He has become an all-rounder, although he admits that his work says that he’s a beauty, fashion, and advertising photographer, he got his start by accepting a lowish budget job he was offered because he loved the idea, and there was a decent-sized production behind it.

He was approached by an agency because of his background in shooting fashion and his all-round skill-set. It was a daunting shoot for a young photographer. Popovich’s brief was to make his images tongue-in-cheek to underline the campaign idea. “Because the agency was invested into getting this over the line with the client, I had more agency heads at the pre-production meeting and on set than I had ever seen before,” Popovich recalls. “The creative director, the national chief creative officer, art director, copywriter . . . this list went on. As you could imagine, I needed to produce the goods. I was thinking, ‘I hope that I can pull this shit off’.”

© Oli Sansom.
© Oli Sansom.

Popovich believes that the hardest things to do when you are doing your first bigger production shoot is to back yourself, and do it under pressure. For him, the key was meticulous and flawlessly thorough preparation. “Come shoot day, everything ran so smoothly, and the client loved the shoot. I had an amazing crew that shared the same vision, and everything came together as I pictured it in my head. I think I remember my producer at the time jokingly saying to the client, ‘Pops, these images are too good for their budget’.”

Ben McRae created his first job himself. He had travelled to Namibia and fallen in love with the place. “Through some strange circumstances, I was taken into a Himba family fold and I now return on a yearly basis. I love the people and their beauty. It makes my images what they are. All I have to do is take the picture, as they are happy with my presence,” he says. “This relationship has allowed me to experience few things other Westerners get to, so I am very privileged and humbled by this relationship.” He and a Namibian friend dreamed up the idea of running photographic trips in Namibia, “and I never thought they would take off,” he admits.

Nor did it go to plan. “The Internet was not that great in Namibia. I booked the trip and then couldn’t get in touch with my friend for a month. I was getting worried that I would have to can the trip and that the whole idea was a flop. I finally managed to contact him by phone one day and made sure he was free for the dates. When the booking was made, I remember being awed that someone actually liked my work enough to trust me with showing them Africa’s most beautiful country. I was ecstatic, nervous, and then super worried when I could not get in contact with my local guide. I felt like I was a fraud and trying something that was a long stretch, especially as at that stage I really did not have the confidence in my own body of work or my experience as a photographer to pass something onto someone else,” McRae says. All this was seven years ago.

Kai’s first job was as a newspaper photographer when he was still a student. “It gave me a lot of confidence,” he says. “I learned how to deal with people and situations. I was given about fifteen minutes to come up with an idea to illustrate a news story. And I was paid just $20 a picture.” But by the time he had conquered this and his apprenticeship with Crabb, Kai wasn’t worried about his abilities or his technical knowledge when he ventured out of his own. What did perplex him was quoting, invoicing, and the admin side of things. Happily for Kai, Crabb became an able mentor and he learned the tasks, like how not to underquote and annoy his peers, how not to over-quote and lose jobs, and how to prepare a professional invoice.

Stiletto collection, shot for Ross Didier Design. © Michael Kai.
Stiletto collection, shot for Ross Didier Design. © Michael Kai.

Being new at anything is tough

For quite some time at the outset, Kai’s bugbear was quoting. And building a team. “For advertising work, you need a collection of people you can call straight away – assistants, producers, make-up artists, stylists, and so on – knowing that they’re going to be reliable and good to work with. Relying on people is a real challenge,” Kai says.

The hardest things for Popovich were finding his niche, and maintaining contacts in fashion and advertising. “Most of my work was fashion or beauty driven and I was trying to land more advertising work,” he says. “But this is a part of the journey that never ends for photographers – constantly finding things that you love doing, and reinventing yourself.”

For Sansom, breaking out of a disciplined work environment with other people to do his own thing, made “you realise that one of the more profound difficulties is getting around that little disorganised procrastination demon that has been lying dormant in your brain”. McRae’s struggle was quite different. “I found it hard to figure out who was really genuine within the industry. I still do.” And his photographic tour idea was prefaced by far less profitable ventures. “I first thought that selling prints was a way to go. I loved my work, so why would everyone else not want a framed print in their house or office? It didn’t take long to work out that exhibitions were not for me. I had a few and realised there were a lot of freeloaders there for the free booze and food.”

San Conversations. “In the east of Namibia live the San bushmen. I had been staying with them for a number of days. They had wanted to show me a large Baobab tree. As we were visiting the tree, one of the men ran off hunting. We were left to wait...” © Ben McRae.
San Conversations. “In the east of Namibia live the San bushmen. I had been staying with them for a number of days. They had wanted to show me a large Baobab tree. As we were visiting the tree, one of the men ran off hunting. We were left to wait...” © Ben McRae.

McRae also changed his business direction. He picked up on the social media trend and began to use it. He also began to specialise in photographing the thing he loves, Africa, and made his business less about making images than telling stories. “Each image is accompanied by its backstory, and if there is not much of a story I pass on a tale that I have learnt along the way.”

Rookie mistakes

Everyone makes rookie mistakes, and they range from forced (and usually unpleasant) learning experiences to career-enders. Very, very few make career-ending mistakes. However, watching one’s attitude is pretty important. It’s very easy for a rookie to gain a reputation for being an arrogant pain-in-the-arse, but it’s very difficult to lose it.

Kai’s rookie error was nothing like that. He turned up to one of his first jobs without a memory card. He was shooting the CEO of a major corporation and after a few moments of unbridled panic, had to ferret around the office for a computer cable – while offering the quickly manufactured reason that this was the best way to shoot. “Then, fifteen minutes before the shoot, the CEO’s assistant appeared and told me the shoot had to be cancelled. She was so apologetic, and I was so relieved.”

Express yourselves campaign. Shot for OPSM. © Steven Popovich.
Express yourselves campaign. Shot for OPSM. © Steven Popovich.

Popovich doesn’t remember any major blunders but, “on a technical level, I did once delete shots off a CF card that hadn’t been imported yet. I mixed up my cards accidentally. Luckily I was able to recover all the images. What should’ve been a two-minute import ended up being a one-hour process though.”

On a business level, Popovich says his rookie errors all involved trusting clients who ended up letting him down. He gives an example of “being burnt” by a fashion designer who contracted him to shoot a look book. “He used my images without permission, and never paid my invoice. When I looked into him a little more, I found out that he had done the same thing to numerous businesses.”

The spoils of success

As a self-taught photographer, McRae’s greatest success was gaining confidence. When he entered his images into the Shutterbug awards, he didn’t attend the presentation – not even when the organisers suggested he should do so. His partner, Holly, did – and accepted an award on his behalf. Later that year, he was named Australia’s Top Emerging Photographer in Capture’s annual awards, and, shortly after, was a finalist in the UK’s Travel Photographer of the Year awards. “I know competitions are not the be all and end all, but having people interested in my work and skills felt like a huge success and gave me the confidence to pursue the path I have taken since.”

© Oli Sansom.
© Oli Sansom.

Repeat business is the cornerstone of almost every successful photographer. And Kai says that his greatest success is having clients come back to him. “I get lots of word-of-mouth recommendations and don’t ever have to find new clients because I burned the old ones.”

Everyone is the sum of all their experiences, good and bad, but hindsight is a valuable tool. If Kai could begin again he wouldn’t agonise over licensing fees. “It just makes you too expensive and there’s always someone else behind you who’s happy just to get the work.” If there was one thing Sansom could change, it would have been to get the hang of being organised sooner, instead of finding himself in what ended up being a two to three year reactive production mode. “I never got to sit back and enjoy the rewards of working, or be proactive in changing the direction of my business,” he says.

The first step is always the hardest. The first misstep is always humbling. The first obstacle always seems like a mountain. Steps, errors, and obstacles never get smaller. Every experience, though, makes them a little easier to conquer. ■

Last light in Deadvlei. © Ben McRae.
Last light in Deadvlei. © Ben McRae.

Nailing it (in a nutshell) 
By Joclyn McCahon, founder, FLIPP Management

First impressions count. I like an easy-going approach that tells me a bit about you creatively.

Critical to me is a consistent style that is unique to you. If photographers can show me a portfolio that has a unique essence and is creatively cohesive across many subjects, then I take notice.

It is really, really hard to be original, so when I see a unique way to craft a message that I haven’t seen before, my interest is sparked.

I also respect artists who have exhibited or won awards.

Your first job

It should be an exciting experience to collaborate with other professional creative teams and get paid for it.

It will only be fun if you have done all your pre-production for the job well.

The bad experiences on first jobs usually happen if the logistics fail. Then you don’t have the freedom to concentrate only on the creative.

© Oli Sansom.
© Oli Sansom.

Being new

I think the hardest thing that new photographers encounter is the capacity to keep motivated when they’re getting very little work.

It’s essential that you shoot, shoot, shoot as much as you can, even if it is not making you much money.

Don’t be tempted to follow the money and try to be every type of photographer just so you can accept every job that comes your way. This doesn’t work in the long term for creating yourself was a brand.

Rookie mistakes

The biggest rookie mistake is insisting that you know better than the art director.

A good photographer knows how to collaborate with a creative and client to get mutually beneficial outcomes.

Siopi making otjiz. © Ben McRae.
Siopi making otjiz. © Ben McRae.


Michael Kai   

Ben McRae   

Steven Popovich    

Oli Sansom