One of the most desired jobs these days seems to be editorial portrait photographer. What’s not to want? You get to spend time with celebrities, get paid, and have your photographs published by newspapers and magazines. Jennifer Roberts is a Toronto-based editorial photographer and photojournalist. She was part of the elite Eddie Adams workshop, and her photographs have won a number of awards. Jennifer kindly agreed to answer a few questions for us about what it’s like to do her job.
Knock Twice: Are you freelance or an employee?
Jennifer Roberts: Freelance.
KT: Who are your clients?
JR: Primarily, I work for newspapers, mostly the Globe and Mail and Post Media. I also do some smaller magazine work and some corporate work.
KT: Where do you work?
JR: All over the place. All over the GTA. Most of my work is on location, so I’ll drive to a news event, or to someone’s house, or to a business, or something like that.
KT: Can you describe your pay structure?
JR: It varies depending on who the client is. For newspapers it’s usually either an assignment rate or a day rate. If I do one assignment I would bill for that assignment. If it ended up being a whole day, I would bill for the day.
KT: Do you set the rate, or does the client?
JR: They set the rate.
KT: Is it a standard rate?
JR: It’s a standard rate depending on the hours…
KT: Ok. So, for example, you do you a lot of editorial portraiture. If one of your newspaper clients hires you to do one portrait of a famous author, is it the same rate as when you go to do one portrait of someone in their home?
JR: Yes. When you shoot an assignment, it’s one rate. And then if you work for over four hours it’s considered a day rate. So within four hours, even if you shoot three things, it’s still within the assignment rate.
KT: How do you get your assignments?
JR: They’ll phone, and if you’re working for a certain publication, and you’re eon their schedule for the day, then they know that Thursday I’m assigned something, then if another assignment comes up they will likely call you since you’re already on the schedule for the day.
KT: Do you have specific days that you shoot for specific publications? Like “Tuesday is Globe and Mail day”?
JR: No. It varies whenever assignments come up. Some publications will give you a deadline for when they need it shot by. So they’ll say “we need a photo of Erika by next Thursday”, and then it’s up to you to figure out with the subject when you’re going to photograph it. Other times it more like “there’s an assignment on Thursday at 3pm.”
KT: With regards to things like access and logistics, do you make the arrangements for a shoot, or does your client?
JR: In a case that it just has to happen by next Thursday, I would make the arrangements.
KT: How much direction do you have on an assignment. What kinds of things will your client give you as assignment information?
JR: Sometimes quite a bit. Working for newspapers is all story driven, and your images have to tell the story. Usually you have a pretty good idea of what the story is about, so if you’re doing a portrait of somebody, you know what you’re trying to get.
KT: What is an average day for you?
JR: If I’m shooting, then I would get up, pack my gear, go and shoot, and then spend the rest of the day doing post. Sometimes I get a call last-minute, so even if I don’t think I’m shooting that day, I may get called to do a shoot, and I try to be available to do that.
KT: Is it a Monday to Friday kind of thing?
JR: No. I wouldn’t say that I can get a call anytime, but I could end up shooting at any time. Like, a concert on a Saturday night is not an unusual assignment.
KT: What background do you have to do this job?
JR: I have a BFA from the Ontario College of Art, and half of an MFA from Ryerson… I was in the MFA Documentary Media program, and then I got a contract with the Globe and Mail out in Vancouver. And so I left for four months to go out there for the summer and shoot for them. When I got back I kind of intended to continue with the MFA, I wasn’t totally sure. So I went back to class in September, and my phone would ring in the middle of class to go and do a job, and I was like, “I kind of just want to be working right now”, and so I left the MFA program just to work, and I’ve been happy with that.
KT: How did you get that job with the Globe and Mail in Vancouver?
JR: After I finished undergrad, I worked for smaller newspapers. So I built up a book, and I would go to talks and conferences, and things like that, and talk to the photo editors at the Globe and show them my work. When they had a summer position I applied for it, I knew them and they knew me, and so I got the job.
KT: So it was a summer position that developed into a job?
JR: Yeah, it developed into freelance work. I was on a contract, so I worked for them full time for four months. And then once I built up relationships with everyone there, when I came back and was wavering between going back to school and working, I felt like at that time my relationships were really strong. I was getting a lot of work, so I decided to continue with it.
KT: What is the most important tool in your kit?
JR: My camera, obviously. I’m not a big gear person. I shoot with a wide lens a lot, so sometimes it’s my 16-35 lens.
KT: What is the best thing you’ve gotten to do in this job?
JR: I don’t have a specific example, but I really like when it’s a story that you really care about, and you get to go spend a morning with someone, or spend the day with them and photograph them, as opposed to something like spot news. I like when you get to go, and hang out with them, and really feel like you’re telling a story with their pictures. But I also got to photograph Sarah Polley during TIFF, and I’m a huge Sarah Polley fan. So that was really fun because I got to spend ten minutes with Sarah Polley.
KT: What is the weirdest shoot you’ve ever done?
JR: Photographing James Franco was kind of weird, because he’s just a really strange gentleman.
KT: What’s a standard deadline? How fast do you have to be able to turn things around?
JR: Sometimes it’s totally flexible. But sometimes, like if you’re working for a daily newspaper, it could be the next day. So sometimes you have to shoot, and file from location. So a lot of time I end up filing it from my car.
KT: So how does it work? Do you set up more than one shot and they choose? Or do you send them one photo and say “here’s THE shot”…?
JR: You try to do as much as you can, given the various constraints. Something like the Sarah Polley shot, I knew it was pretty important, I knew they wanted it for a cover shot because it was for the launch of Tiff. So I sent maybe ten pictures of her doing different things, and then the photo editor chose the shot they ran. I usually send six to ten final shots.
KT: Who owns the photos that you shoot?
JR: I do. That’s actually becoming a bigger part of my job. Especially when I shoot business people, is that often they’ll then contact me and buy the photos for their own use as well. If you’re freelance for a newspaper, you own the rights to the photographs, and you can resell them.
KT: So in the Sarah Polley example where you sent in ten images, does the publication have license to use all ten, or is it part of the agreement that they just get to use the one that they choose?
JR: Whatever I’ve filed, they will have unlimited usage to. They can take another frame for another story in two years if they want. Whatever I’ve filed is theirs to use, it’s in their database. But I own the copyright, so I can resell them if I want to.
KT: How do you get jobs as a freelancer?
JR: I think it starts by building up relationships with editors, and showing them work. And once you’re kind of working for one publication, I think photo-editors and art directors keep an eye on what’s out there, and once you’ve built up a reputation with one client, I’ve found it’s easier to jump around and get new clients. It’s important to show your work. I’m painfully, painfully shy, and so that’s something I had to deal with. It was like “you’re not going to work unless you can show your work” and so that was something I had to get over. It wasn’t even a fear of being rejected, I was just plain shy.
KT: What do you think a misconception about your job is?
JR: That you get to specialize in something. With newspapers, if you’re a photographer, you’re a photographer. There may be a little bit of “Oh, she’s good at shooting portraits, so we’ll give her this portrait”, but you also have to be able to shoot news jobs, and everything else. If you’re working for newspapers, you kind of have to be able to shoot everything. You don’t get to pick your assignments, and if you want to be a photographer that people can call you have to be able to shoot lots of different stuff. You can’t just tell them “my specialty is blah blah blah” and then expect to get all that work. My portfolio when I was approaching newspapers definitely focused on what I was good at, but it also showed a variety of work.
KT: What are some important skills someone in this line of work should have?
JR: To actually shoot this kind of work, you have to make people comfortable with you very quickly. That seems to come easily to me because I’m like this miniature human, and I have all of this stuff, and I come in all frazzled, and that seems to make people comfortable with me. Sometimes you only have 15 minutes to take someone’s picture, ad if they feel nervous and you’re making them feel worse it’s not going to be a very good picture.
KT: Did you ever think that being small would be a job asset?
JR: Ha. No. And in some ways it’s actually not an asset, because carrying a bunch of gear sucks.
You can check out some of Jennifer’s work on her website: http://jenniferroberts.ca