Do Tests Matter?
Doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers and the like all go through a sort of basic training at university, and end up with a degree that shows they’ve got the skillset to enter their field as a rookie. Once in their field they can specialise by sitting more exams – I’ve not sat any of those since 1999 – and use these further qualifications to advance their position or specialise in some area of interest.
You can get a photography degree too, and do workshops in different areas of the profession, but I’m almost positive that’s no barrier to entry. Since 2007 literally no client has ever asked me if I have a degree, apart from one occasion 2008 where I applied for a staff photographer role for a local paper and they did apologetically say that photographers with the NCTJ would be preferred. That’s basically a photojournalism qualification.
Didn’t stop them hiring me as a freelancer though.
My professional involvement with qualifications has been limited to conversations that go like this:
‘So did you study photography at uni?’
‘Actually, I didn’t’
‘So you’re self taught then?’
‘Yeah – I think most photographers are.’
My own background is that I studied Film and Video at a university in South Wales that no longer exists (shout out to UWCN) and when I finally got my job in TV, a job I did for exactly one year, I very quickly realised that I knew nothing at all about the TV industry, but I knew what mise en scene meant (it means nobody cares), and that I had a student loan, and that I could’ve gotten that same job in TV just by expressing an interest.
The only real requisites for that job were a driver’s licence and a willingness to load a van and eat muffins on set all day. Or be in a tiny windowless office on Whitworth Street West, repeatedly stabbing at the power button on a gasping senile iMac. They’re turning those offices into flats now.
So if you can’t get a meaningful qualification as a photographer – something that says yes, I can shoot your brand, your PR story, your damn christening – how do we get these jobs at all? Well either by talking your way into it (not my preferred) or by portfolio. Our portfolio is our degree. Clients see our portfolios and that convinces them we’re worth a punt. Or they like our style and want to see it shape their brief.
All well and good for the work you’re already doing, where the portfolio exists. Not much good for the upwardly mobile however. We photographers don’t get qualifications that’ll quell a client’s doubts about our competency. They’ve got to feel good about our work to get that warm, spreading glow. In my experience clients won’t hire you to do work they’ve not already seen you do, and who can blame them?
And so to TESTS.
Even the photographers on top do it. The guys whose client lists you covet and styles you envy are out there frequently, honing their craft without client oversight, experimenting with new lighting styles, collaborating with new creatives, and doing whatever they damn like in a free spirited way. Some tests are successes, and some aren’t, but the successes you package and send out to clients and let them know you can do things they didn’t know you can do.
The failures you take to the next shoot as examples of things to just… not do again. And knowing what doesn’t work is definitely as important as knowing what does.
I’ll finish with a moderate success story. Two years ago I met a man who runs a mountain biking business. He was a friendly chap and photogenic (let’s face it) and I realised I had no outdoor active portfolio, that I really couldn’t let that continue if I wanted certain kinds of work, and he’d be a good one to build it around. I did a recce, organised a shoot and booked lighting and an assistant at my own expense to wrangle it. I was pleased with what I’d done and sent it out to a long list of people who I wanted to work for, and guess what happened?
Well not a single one of them hired me and only 10% of them even acknowledged the email. How depressing is that.
A year after that I did a PR job for a company that makes bikes. I showed them the test shoot I did ages ago as an example of what I can do for them. It sparked their interest and they’re now my client. I’m positive that I’d never have won their business without that half day spent on a hill side in Sheffield yonks before.
So, whatever you’re already shooting now, keep up the good work. And whatever you want to shoot in future, speculate to accumulate, my friends.