|The Self Assignment
My stock library was built on the self-assignment; I've had no other option. When I was working a fulltime job, cramming photography in every other spare minute, it was my planned weekend adventures, those self-assignments, that kept me going. Now that I work for myself, things really haven't changed all that much. Every minute that I'm not sitting in front of the computer is filled with self-assigned projects. You see, I've yet to receive that magical call sending me to the ends of the earth to capture that once-in-a-lifetime photo. I started my career two decades ago thinking that calls would come. I still work towards receiving them, but so far, all the assignments come from my own spirit.
Now that's not a bad thing. Most wildlife photographers never receive assignment calls yet are very successful. When I speak of success I'm not referring to just the business side but more importantly personal satisfaction. At least for me, I need to have fun and capture photographs that make me happy to feel successful. I've just been fortunate that all has worked out, getting paid while having fun. I think you too can have the same good fortune if you plan and execute your own self-assignments!
I'm not about to tell you I have all the answers. If I did, I would be shooting on assignment. But rather, I want to share with you how I go about self-assignments. It really doesn't matter if your files are just beginning, well on their way or overflowing, there are always new and exciting adventures awaiting you and your camera. There are for me, which is what keeps me going. I find most of my inspiration for self-assignments in other's photographs of subjects I've yet to photograph. In this inspiration lies my first criteria for the self assignment - personal satisfaction.
Personal satisfaction goes way beyond making the photograph pay for itself (though it doesn't hurt). Whether it's competing with another photograph I've seen or competing with myself (which is typical) I'm always striving to improve. Whether it's a technical or aesthetic improvement I always find satisfaction when I conquer my set goal. For example, when I moved to the Eastern Sierras in California we found Northern Flying Squirrels eating in our bird feeders at night. Wow, what a treat! They are amazing little dudes just as cute and animated as your basic squirrel with the added ability of "flying." (They really don't fly by the way. They glide by means of membranes between their front and hind legs.)
Well, following my normal MO, I read all the scientific literature I could find on them. I started looking for published photos to see what others had been able to capture on film. I found some amazing photos by Leonard Lee Rue and Joe McDonald of squirrels "flying" which really gave me inspiration to capture the same for myself. I've found working with only wild squirrels to be quite a challenge! I still haven't captured the flight shots; I'm still working on it. It's a self-assignment, which has brought me many hours of enjoyment with the squirrels, lots of photographs of them perched doing "squirrely" things, and a goal on most nights to capture "the" photo. This brings me to my next criteria for the self-assignment, the photographic challenge.
I always tell the newcomer to wildlife photography that I'm envious of them. They inevitably ask me why. It's simple. They have no war chest of stock files; everything is new to them. Every Great Blue Heron that crosses their path is a new photographic challenge. It's not that I ignore Great Blue Herons or any other subject that crosses my path, but I know that back in my files are 600 images of Great Blue Herons. Just how many more do I want or need? The photographic challenge of capturing a new subject on film or improving on photos already taken really inspires me to bigger and grander self-assignments. (An added bonus of digital since everything is "new" again as I've never captured it on digital before.)
The photographic challenge I'm referring to is not simply getting my camera to the subject or setting the right f/stop and shutter speed. But rather, it's combining a species' biology with technology to capture what is for me "the" photograph that communicates what I see and feel to others. To illustrate my point, let's get back to my flying squirrels self assignment. The photographs of them doing "squirrely" things in the trees was photographically easy. I sat on my deck in my down jacket, used the Really Right Stuff flash arm and extension bar to eliminate the red eye and fired. Being at the right place at the right time and having the technology at hand made my job easy. But it's the flying shots that present the photographic challenge.
First, I had to determine where the squirrels were launching from before gliding to my feeder. Once their pattern was established, I set my Wave Sensor in the right place so they would break the beam during their flight. I was going for a photo that looked like the squirrel was actually landing on my camera, an angle not easily captured. Working with wild flying squirrels able to go wherever they pleased, I had to find some way of assuring myself they would follow the path I had set up on. After asking others who had worked with these squirrels, I found walnuts to be the magical treat that would entice them. So with it all set up, the nightly "lightning show" began. (My neighbors are still wondering who moved in next door as the flash lights up my deck all night long on some nights.)
Well those suckers, I mean those sweet little squirrels, still have me beat. The photographic challenge of setting the Wave Sensor so its beam is broken at the right instant when the squirrels have glided to the right spot so the camera fires at the right moment still has me, well, challenged!
But that's OK because that's what I look for in a self-assignment. It's in that challenge that I learn more about myself, my craft and wildlife. It's in that challenge that I will hopefully capture "the" photograph others have not captured and therein lies my last criteria for the self assignment, business rewards. (So far, I've still only been able to do this with conventional and not digital because of digital's shutter lag time.)
I'd be fibbing if I told you business never enters my mind with photography. It's not my first criteria, but it certainly is a factor. All the field time equipment and film has to be paid for. One thing I must keep reminding myself is that the only time I make money is when I'm behind the camera. I have nothing to write about, talk about, teach about or get printed without those images. My big self-assignments especially (like when I take off for a 10 days to the Arctic), must have business rewards as part of the equation. Now some might be turned off by this thought, which is understandable. But maybe if I explain business rewards and how they relate to personal satisfaction and photographic challenge it won't seem so capitalistic.
As I mentioned research into the species' biology give me personal satisfaction and I try to find previously published photographs. My research is simple. I go through the Periodical Guide at the library and search the web under the species' name and read all I can find. I go through books of those photographers whose work I respect and see what they've done. Now this not only gives me a direction, but also possible sense of the marketplace for my photo if I should succeed at capturing photos of that species.
Now let's suppose I get my flight shot of my flying squirrel. Who can I market it to to find my business reward? Well heck, I've already found great stuff by other photographers in print. This means their photographs have recently been printed which means the story of the squirrel is also already published. So magazines aren't going to want to visit that same story again soon. I could put the photo in one of my own books, maybe even on its cover, but I won't see one specific paycheck for that image. So the business reward for this particular image doesn't seem readily apparent. But wait!
I've just used this photo and everything that's gone into getting it (though it's not actually in my files yet) to illustrate the points of this article. This self-assignment has just made my last criteria come to be a business reward. So in going after the self-assignment, the business reward might be really apparent when you start if you don't find any published photographs of your subject. Being the only one to have it creates a monopoly, which can be financially rewarding (I know, I've been there). And on the other hand, the self assignment itself though with no definite business reward at the end of the tunnel, might at one point turn around and hit you square between the eyes and say, "see, this is where I belong."
Wildlife photography, as far as I'm concerned, has to be fun to be successful. After that, everything else that comes along is just icing on the cake. The self-assignments now and the assignments you assign yourself later on all build on each other. The personal satisfaction in setting your own goals, creating your own assignments and completing them is tremendous. The photographic challenge of stretching your skills, meeting a new challenge and succeeding is an incredible feeling of accomplishment and a confidence builder. The business reward of others acknowledging your work by paying you for the privilege of using your photograph, really feels good. A lot goes into the self-assignment and even more comes from it. Assign yourself the challenge and receive its many rewards!