The word “testing” can have a variety of different meanings in the industry.
But it always refers to creatives sharing their time to create something as a team.
In commercial photography the test is done to see if the model is suitable for a commercial shoot, since models cost a lot of money and “bad chemistry” can cost the client too much.
For model agencies it means sending the new faces to work with agency-approved photographers to build up a book and also, seeing if the model has enough character and personality in front of the camera (potential). This is also a way for the agency to network with photographers.
Photographers test to try out new gear or new ideas or lighting. Photographers also test to try out members for their teams, like make up artists/stylists/hair stylists and to build up a portfolio for everyone involved in the process.
For a retoucher it’s no different. Retouchers test to network and build up a portfolio.
Every time I see or read someone saying that they don’t work for free, I go into their portfolios knowing (and willing to bet money on it) it’s not going to be a pretty sight. Because people who say that don’t understand the meaning of testing, they don’t see the value in doing it and they rely on the clients they can get and use the same work they do as portfolio.
I am a big believer in the following statement:
Dress for the job that you want, not for the job that you have.
Otherwise you’re trapped in a vicious cycle like this:
- I only produce lower quality work because that’s all my clients can afford. Besides they can’t tell the difference anyway
- My portfolio is now filled with only lower quality images
- I can only attract clients that have limited budgets that don’t care about better quality.
- Return to number 1.
In this cycle, the client who has enough criteria and good taste to get the higher budgets (or to pay for high quality work), will never contact you or reply to your emails. Reason being, your portfolio does not show any high quality work, you don’t have what they need.
Ergo: You’re trapped.
When you’re starting out as a retoucher, you need to learn and practice. The better you become, the better files you will need. Working on bad files will teach you to be resourceful with your techniques in order to fix bad photography. That’s great! It might even get you some income, but when you’re presented with a good image you don’t know what to do with it.
Contacting people above your level in order to test for them will give you access to better raw files.
When photographers test they do it with full teams, so by testing with them you get access to professional lit images that follow a conceptual line, agency models, styled with good taste and great make up. Not to mention the exposure if the files get submitted to magazines or are commissioned by one. But even if they aren’t you gain portfolio images, practice and field experience.
Testing doesn’t mean take any file you can find on the internet and retouch it, than freely use in your portfolio. That kind of “free work” you can only get an image, and you’re missing out on the actual experience you can gain from tests.
From the initial contact with the photographer, through the exchange of ideas about the images, the concept, the mood, the references. Submitting yourself to a deadline, working with another professional (key word being with, instead of for) to the delivery of the final files and the feedback you get from the “client” it’s all positive things, it’s all gained experience.
Everyone has their own way to approach testing, of course, but in my opinion it should’t be much different than approaching a work relationship.
Because it is.
You not only get an image, series, tears, experience. You are also getting the possibility to start building a network, people talk, and they are loud.
The people I tested with, when I started working as a retoucher, where long term paying clients and some still are.
Here are some things that will cost you the relationship you could have built:
Poor communication skills:
High-profile advertising clients are extremely demanding and clear with guidelines but not all clients are so versed in retouching to communicate their needs and preferences so learning what to ask for and how to interpret the references given you can only get from testing experience.
How do you learn this skill then? Communicating frequently and efficiently.
From the first contact: Don’t be general, don’t spam photographers. Learn who they are and what they do, be specific about why you want to work with them, what you saw of their portfolio that you enjoyed, what you love about their style and so on.
The first lines in an email to a prospect client or test should be not about you, but them. After you have established the interest and got their attention with compliments you let them know why it would be good to test with you and how you can be an asset to them. Be short and keep it simple.
Once you’ve got them riled in, and they offer you an image, or set of images, or an editorial you make sure you have all the information you need to deliver good quality work. Even when testing you need some kind of brief; how many images, deadline, mood board. Anything you can gather about the project from the photographer will help you and will let the photographer know you are working with him towards a common goal.
Also, don’t disappear once you got the raw files, It is very simple to send a quick email to update them about your progress, do it.
You can’t say yes to a project and then not do it. Most images have a destination, be it the team’s portfolio, maybe it’s spec work to be presented to an agency or an editorial for an specific magazine. Even for unpaid submissions, if a magazine pre-approved a story board /mood board or a preview set of images, the story probably got accepted for a certain issue and that issue will have a deadline. So when you accept a test, take responsibility for that decision you made and act professionally, finish in time.
When you commit to a test, even if paid work emerges, you are already committed. I don’t care if Coca-Cola came knocking on your door, if you said yes, you finish in time.
If you’re not ready to take that risk, don’t say yes.
You accepted the test but then hated the images, were uninspired, got sick, your puppy died. I don’t care about the reason but you did’t do your best.
“It’s just a test”
Yes, it is. The person you’re doing that test for is a potential client. People they know, could be your future network, their friends, contacts and even acquaintances could be the source of your next paid job.
Not accepting guidelines/revisions/markups:
What? Not only you’re doing this for free but they expect you to take corrections?
Yes, you need to do the round of corrections needed to get the job done, and be thankful you’re getting feedback because it’s priceless to see what someone more established than you sees that you missed.
Thinking you’re already good and you don’t need to test anymore:
Thinking that “This photographer I did a job once comes back with low paid/free editorial work. He is trying to take advantage of me….”
Even well established retoucher/photographer relationships often include free or very low paid editorials in order to maintain the relationship with the photographer. The same photographer doing unpaid editorials is probably also doing high paid campaigns and they will give the campaigns to the person that was there when they didn’t have the cash. I know that a very well known retouching house does most of their editorial work for free, so it will lead to ad jobs from their photographer roster.
One thing I will say: only test with people that will produce high quality originals, the higher you get, the higher you can aspire to test for.
It’s not ok to be polite or ashamed and say yes to someone, but than disappear. Photographers can take no for an answer, they will move on rather quickly and might even come back to you with another project. But if you take it and then do one of the things mentioned above, you will get black listed. And for a good reason :)
This article was originally published here.