Assignment Photography: The Advantages of Working on Commission

Over the past 10 years I have worked on quite a number of assignments, ranging from a simple shot of a cup of hot cocoa (no lie, picture below) to a magazine cover shot involving models, lights, and assistants to a six-week assignment for a Frommer’s travel guide about Puerto Rico.

I shot this photo for NM Journey Magazine at a local business called Kakawa Chocolate House. Incidentally, the colorful backdrop is a sash I bought in Guatemala and brought with me for the shoot.

Although assignment work can be a little scary because you have a client to please (and you may have to photograph something that is not necessarily exciting, like a cup of hot cocoa), overall the advantages of working on commission, listed below, easily outweigh the negatives:

  1. You get paid upfront for your efforts, a guarantee that shooting for stock cannot match.
  2. After you get paid, you will still be free to market the images to other publications as stock.
  3. You work with other creative professionals (the art director or photo editor, for example), an experience that I always find rewarding.
  4. You get to photograph interesting subjects and interact with people you might not otherwise get a chance to meet (flamenco dancers, sports mascots, rodeo clowns, opera singers, painters from India, and more!).
  5. You make contacts that might be useful in the future (for gaining entry into a baseball game after photographing a baseball team’s mascot, for example).
  6. You feel the satisfaction of being hired by a professional art buyer, proof that someone other than your Mom thinks you are a good photographer.

The Puerto Rico assignment I did for Frommer’s travel guide offered all of the above and much more.

I was given a list of 165 subjects, and I had to produce 10 good pictures of each.

The subjects ranged from easy (a plate of rice and beans), to hard (the Puerto Rican parrot, an endangered bird that I had never seen and no one I knew had ever seen either).

I also had to photograph kite surfers, horseback riders on the beach, parasailing, coffee plantations, horse-drawn carriages, rum factories, lighthouses, rain forests, salsa concerts, jazz festivals, symphony concerts, Spanish Colonial forts, museums, churches, and much else besides.

Frommer’s didn’t cover my expenses, though the Puerto Rico Tourism Department covered me for five nights’ lodging, plus an incredible breakfast after they found out I was shooting a popular jazz festival on the island..

After the book was published, however, I was free to sell those images elsewhere and to date I’ve made many more thousands of dollars off those sales.

Today, my photos have been published in all of the island’s major tourism publications, and if you have recently cruised into Old San Juan, chances are you saw my pictures on the brochures they pass out on arrival.

The challenge of shooting 165 subjects 10 different ways is probably the hardest photographic challenge I’ve ever accomplished. But I did it. And you would too should an assignment like this come your way, because while it’s still “work,” it’s not schlepping legal papers from court case to court case like my old job.

As to how I photographed the elusive Puerto Rican parrot, ask me about it when you see me in Miami!

[Editor’s Note: Learn more about how you can turn your pictures into cash in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel. Sign up here today and we’ll send you a new report, Selling Photos for Cash: A Quick-Start Guide, completely FREE.]