The Good, the Bad and the Cappuccino: Getting Commissioned Explained

A lot is written and spoken about how to get commissioned, to get paid for making and taking photographs. A lot is written and spoken by those who have never done it! Fees are charged for information about how you could be more successful in getting commissioned through mentorships, portfolio reviews and workshops. A few may be worthwhile, but personally I would never pay for information on how to do something from someone who had never done it!

Therefore I thought I would give a simple and honest explanation on the basics of being commissioned based on my personal experience of over thirty five years as both gamekeeper and poacher, as commissioner and photographer. I have existed on both the dark and light side, you can decide which is which.

The simple truth is that you will only be commissioned on the basis of the photograph you have taken, not the one you could take. You need to fill the commissioner with confidence that you can and will do what they want. That they are not risking their money on you, but investing in your ability to make them look good. You do a good job, and they will have done a good job, and they will use you again. Let’s not make it any more complicated than that it is. You can have that insight for free and it is the most important insight for you to hear.

But you also need to be aware that there are different types of commissioner and I refer to these broad categories as ‘The Good, The Bad and The Cappucchino’. Let me explain…

The ‘Good’ will understand photography, be engaged with photography and be able to demonstrate empathy to the photographer’s position. What is achievable and what is not. They will understand copyright, respect your edit and stand up for your work if it does not fulfil a brief exactly, either for good reason or because the photographer went beyond expectation. They will give a clear brief but leave space for you to interpret the brief in the moment. I have come across very few of the good ones, but they do exist.

The ‘Bad’ evidence none of the qualities I have just listed. That may not be their fault however. They may have been put into a position beyond their capabilities or interest. They have have been promoted too early in their careers. They may want to learn, but have no one to learn from. I am not making excuses here, but just trying to be fair. However, the bad are in the position to commission and therefore we need to be aware of career background. You can sometimes work with the ‘Bad’ to help them get better, to understand the role of the photographer and develop their role as a commissioner.

Unfortunately, in my experience the opportunity to do this is rare and you are more likely to find the ‘Bad’ asking you for lots of ‘choice’ because they have no idea of what is required and are hoping to keep their line manager happy. They may also have supplied you with unachievable mood boards (even using other photographers work as inspiration) and pages of shoot guidelines and brand requirements. If the line manager isn’t ‘happy’ with what you have done, expect the problem to drop on your mat and for it to be your fault. Do not expect to be defended by the ‘bad’, you may have been working for them, but when push comes to shove you will be in the witness box!

The ‘Cappuccino’ just wants to drink coffee and hang out. They love their job, are maybe well connected, charming or an astute political office operative, but do they will do little to help you in your role. They will give you the impression that you are in charge and that expression of creativity is central to what they want, when it is not. They will be vague about every aspect of what you need to do until the images are delivered and they have to present your work to someone else. It is at that point that they will not only fail to defend you, but will blame you for not following instruction. You will be blamed and sacrificed without any opportunity to defend yourself.

That is commissioning in a nutshell. There is no need to know very much more. You may feel that I have been overly harsh (particularly if you are or have been a commissioner of photography), but everything I have written here is based on fact and not belief. Everything else you need to know is based on detail and upon expectation, but to put it simply if you do not understand the role of the commissioner you cannot understand of the commissioned photographer.

Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).

Grant’s book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99

© Grant Scott 2021

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