Q&A With Brian Dilg, Chair, Photography Dept., New York Film Academy

May 28, 2014

Brian DilgQ: What is the first lesson to learn in becoming a successful photographer?

BD: Photography is a highly technical medium, but every aspect of your technique has to become second nature before your ideas can be freely and precisely expressed. There is no shortcut to this, no tricks, no special software, and no particular equipment. Like anything else, it simply takes thousands of hours of deliberate, structured practice. The good news is that if you love what you are doing, no one will need to compel you to practice; it will be a joy, and you will achieve mastery as long as you don’t give up.

Q: What do you wish you knew when you started your education in your field?

BD: Style is secondary to concept; it must evolve from a well-conceived idea. Style without substance is pointless. Your use of the photographic medium – lighting, depth of field, color palette, gesture, etc. – is only there to underscore your content. If they are not of the same thought, they are hurting each other rather than helping. We all get seduced by the beautiful surfaces of the medium at some point, but unless it is in quiet support of a rich idea that rewards close viewing, it is only skin-deep. Ansel Adams said it well: “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”

Q: How do I get the most out of my program at NYFA?

BD: 1) Devote yourself 100%. Work now; rest later.

2) Set realistic expectations. You will not master this medium during school. You will probably not shoot everything you want to have in your portfolio. School is a time to experiment, learn new techniques, and most of all, to take risks that you probably wouldn’t dare take when shooting for a client. You’ll build on that when school is over.

3) Growth only happens by deliberate practice of skills you do not yet have. Stagnation and frustration are guaranteed if you simply repeat what you already know how to do reasonably well.

4) Have the courage to be yourself, to dig deep and find out what puts butterflies in your stomach, what scares and thrills you. Shoot that, and bring it in for critique. Many people hide their best ideas simply because they are afraid of criticism or apathy. The #1 most important asset every creative needs is not to be overly affected by criticism or by praise.

5) Give every assignment your best effort, and remember to acknowledge your hard work afterwards. The end product is the best you were able to do given the constraints. Do not criticize your efforts with the hindsight you could only have gained by shooting that project. That is unfair to yourself, and self-destructive!

Q: What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in your professional career?

BD: You do not get hired because you are highly competent; competency is a given. You get hired because you have demonstrated a unique style and approach that suits the client’s needs for that specific project. You get hired to be yourself. The only way that van happen is if you specialize and do not try to show that you are good at everything, but instead show highly focused, even eccentric work that is recognizably, unmistakably, iconically yours.

Q: Which pieces of equipment do you find most effective in your field?

BD: Fast, sharp prime lenses with real depth of field marks and precise focus rings. Digital bodies do not differ much near the top of the DSLR market except as a matter of personal preferences, and resolution continues to rise, but great glass is a lifetime investment. Cheap new lenses are a waste of money, as are cheap tripods – unless you’re buying a funky, old lens because you find its flaws beautiful.

Q: What are the essential first steps to breaking into this field after completing a program at NYFA?

BD: 1) You are the product. Present a tightly focused, consistent brand across all of your communications: web site, logo, business card, comp card, mailers, portfolio. All of your marketing materials must represent your personality, style, and the kind of work you want to be hired to shoot. Identify a handful of keywords that characterize your work: playful, somber, provocative, humorous, etc., and build your brand on those.

2) Virtually everyone is unable to effectively edit their own work. Consult and build your network of trusted colleagues who will be honest about the image you are presenting and which images belong in your portfolio. This does probably not include your parents.

3) If you want to work commercially, assist several of the most prominent and successful commercial photographers you can. You will learn more about what it means to run a business in a week at work than you ever can in a classroom.

4) Get seen. Never stop shooting, and submit your best work for publication and exhibition constantly. Never, ever lose touch with what made you fall in love with photography in the first place. Never stop shooting personal work.

5) Start with the network you have. As graduation approaches, put the word out to everyone you know using your social networks, ask them for ideas about people and companies they know for whom your work would be useful, and ask for a personal introduction. All business runs on personal referrals. Be professional, but do not be shy.

6) Make an “A” list of dream clients, but don’t expect to get hired by them right out of school. You are competing with the best photographers in the world for their business. Be realistic. Make a B and C list of realistic clients who commission similar work, and pursue them to build the portfolio and reputation that will eventually land the A clients.

7) Your reputation is everything. Say what you’ll do, and do what you say. Show up early and be the last to leave. Be a great, fun, inspiring person to work with. Be ready to come up with new ideas on the spot. Do not demonstrate annoyance when a client is not in love with every idea you have. Being a professional is serving a client’s needs, not looking for personal affirmation.

8) Don’t do desperate. Don’t be afraid to say no to projects that are not a good fit for you. Saying no means you can refer the job to someone who is right for it, who will be grateful and speak well of you and refer work back to you. It also makes room in your schedule for something more appropriate.

9) Success comes from finding a match between your approach and what a client needs. Do not publish your web site, sit back, and expect clients to find you. Do your homework, identify potential clients who seem to be using the kind of work you do best, and pitch them. Even if they don’t have work for you immediately (and they probably won’t), your goal should be to form a friendly and ongoing relationship with them that you can nurture and grow. No matter how big, they are just human beings. Find out what their passions are, ask them about their kids, compliment their work. Be a great person to know, not just another hire-me voice.

10) Don’t measure your self-worth on how often you’re getting hired and what you’re getting paid. Photography is in a huge transition phase, and has been enormously devalued by a combination of the Internet and digital technology. The market is glutted with photographers, and rates are at an all-time low. Be persistent, work hard, be yourself, and be creative about ways to repurpose your work and apply your skills. The rest will follow.

Q: Who do you consider to be the most influential artists in your field?

BD: There are too many to count, and commercial, fine art, and documentary photography doesn’t always overlap. That said, an arbitrary handful of names everyone should know and study would have to include Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, William Eggelston, Robert Frank, Nan Goldin, Andreas Gursky, Andre Kertesz, Annie Leibovitz, Mary Ellen Mark, Helmut Newton, Irving Penn, Sebastião Salgado, Cindy Sherman, Eugene Smith, Edward Steichen, and Edward Weston; but any list is inadequate. Discovering great photographers should be a lifelong process and pleasure.