Undertaking assignments – a beginners guide

I’m not sure if this is a re-post, a re-repost or whether it is just a bit of efficient recycling of some old words. It was written in 2002 and put up on the pre-blog in 2009 anyway.

What does undertaking an assignment really mean? That was the question e-mailed to me by a third year photography degree student a while ago. At first I was shocked by her ignorance, but then I realised that nobody had really prepared me for my first one either. Some of what needs to be done is common sense and some is just experience. No two photographers work the same way, but here’s my approach…

©Neil Turner/TSL, July 2008

Let’s start small, with a simple half-day portrait, and in theory it all begins with the brief that you receive from the picture editor or commissioning editor. The first contact normally comes over the phone and can be as much as days or weeks in advance or as little as minutes or hours.

In practice you can be getting ready for this commission before it exists by simply making sure that your kit is packed, that batteries are freshly charged and that you have either enough film or spare memory card capacity to last for a few hundred frames. If you use a car for your work, make sure it’s in good repair and has enough fuel in the tank and also make sure that you’ve got cash and cards just in case you need to buy anything. In the days before SatNav I always bought lots of street maps so I now have a comprehensive A-Z of most of the United Kingdom to hand. All of this comes under the tongue in cheek heading of OPERATIONAL READINESS!!!

Now, back to that brief. You are fairly comfortable that whatever is asked of you, you can get on with it without too much fuss so when the phone rings you can concentrate on the details being given to you. In time honoured photographer tradition, there is a catchy way of remembering what you need to know – the FIVE Ws: when, who, what, why and where. In these few words you have the essence of the job – when the job is, who to contact, what you have to shoot, why you are shooting it and where the job is.

There will be other important facts like what shape (if any) has been left on the page for the picture, what the deadline is, how many images the editor wants to choose from, is the story a positive one or is it critical of somebody or something. The more information that you go armed with, the better job you will have the potential to do. If possible get written conformation of what is being asked -especially if you have never worked for that editor before. I find an e-mail is a very useful aid and most picture desks are more than happy to send a quick confirmation e-mail if you ask nicely! You know what is wanted by now, and you need to go through a mental checklist of the equipment you need to take.

  • Is your standard kit enough?
  • If it isn’t, where can you rent the right hire kit?
  • If you have to rent a lens, who will be paying – you or the paper/magazine?
  • Would you be better of on the train?
  • Do you need to take a laptop?

Make sure that you can answer all of these questions for yourself before you leave – it might pay to design a “pre-flight” checklist and get a few dozen copies printed off so that you always go through all of the questions. The car boot is packed, you have the route worked out (sat-nav is great but make sure that you have keyed in the correct location, there is more than one Ashford and at least three Newcastles) and it’s off.

Travelling time isn’t dead time. It’s great to get some ideas while you travel, the outline of what you might like to do. These ideas often come to nothing, but you are starting to think about the job ahead and that’s good. If the story is likely to be news worthy it may come up on the radio, so travel with a good news station tuned in. If you have time before you leave check things out on the internet; “Google” the person’s name – a little knowledge is very useful when it comes to breaking the ice. When you arrive it’s important to come across as if you know what you are doing. If you are using lights you need to be familiar with them and the ability to continue a conversation whilst setting them up is a useful skill.

I have written elsewhere on this site about finding a (non-contentious) subject to chat about to buy yourself time to decide what you want to do and to relax your subject. If you are (outwardly) relaxed you will get more respect and trust from your subject. It’s important to not be told by them what to do, by all means listen to their ideas but be firm about what you have been sent to do. You might have to try their idea in exchange for shooting your own – it’s all a game, so learn to play it well. When the shooting starts, be decisive and shoot as many variations as you can. Don’t be afraid to refer to your brief and it’s important that you do what was asked of you as well as the much better picture that you think of.

This is the vital bit, anything that goes wrong now will probably stay wrong, no-matter how good your Photoshop skills are. When the shoot finishes, you pack up without forgetting anything and leave. Even if the person doesn’t have an unusual name check spellings and job titles so that your captions are thorough and authoritative.

It’s not all over. No matter how long to the deadline, get those pictures delivered as soon as possible whilst taking care to edit them well and caption them accurately. The paper will have a way that they like things done so make sure that you comply with their wishes, there is no better way to lose a client than to get these basics wrong. Keep copies of all digital files and archive them well. A courtesy call to check that everything arrived OK and that the editor was happy is always a good idea until you get your feet under the table and can the client a “regular”. Obviously you need to make notes of the distance you covered, the expenses you incurred and the time spent so that when it comes to submitting your invoice you aren’t making things up. If the editor offers you feedback on the job, take it. Be positive and don’t make excuses for anything that was avoidable that went wrong.

Get those batteries back on charge as soon as possible and get the kit ready for the next one. Now the job is over.


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