How to Write an Effective Email to Ask a Photographer for Advice
A solid 80% of the emails I get are awesome. They inspire blog posts, allow me to feel helpful and give me an opportunity to clarify my own thoughts.
The other 20% are not great and a few are bafflingly bad. This post is meant to be a helpful nudge towards improving your email communication. Some of the points may seem obvious but are inspired by actual emails that I’ve received so I'm going to go ahead and state the obvious.
Why is this important
From pitching clients to figuring out shoot logistics, emailing is a huge component of being a working, freelance creative. At a certain level, you might have an assistant that will help with some communication but that’s a long road and in the meantime you have to be able to send component emails.
Components of a good email
Introduce yourself. A quick, one or two sentence intro with your name, current situation and any other relevant details. If you’ve interacted with the person at an event or on social media, mention that but don't presume that they remember. Make a connection. Explain why you’re reaching out. Compliments or nice words are generally good. No one gets mad about being told their work is good (if they do, steer clear). Get to the ask. Be sure you know exactly what you’re asking for and do so clearly. Don’t try to go in 2 or 3 different directions at once because that will muddle things.
These are components to a standard outreach email, if you have some sort of idea to color outside the lines that's fine but do so purposefully. Run your ideas by a few people to make sure that they make sense.
Playing the numbers game
When I send outreach emails, I know that not everyone will get back to me. So I understand the temptation to play the numbers game. Reaching out to a group might seem like the best route but a personalized email will probably be more effective. Emails addressed to “photographer” don’t create any connection or pressure to respond, a personalized note does. It’s fine to have a rough form for an outreach email but take the time to personalize it a little bit, that extra step makes a difference.
Sometimes mass emails are necessary. If you’re putting together a survey or an event invite to a group, a mass email is understandable. In those situations, be sure to BCC everyone (unless they already know each other) and send the complete email to yourself so there’s no risk of getting everyone into a reply all mess. Or use MailChimp to create a designed email. Make sure to keep it short and to the point. If you’re sending out a survey, be sure the survey is complete and ready to be filled out. Seriously. Double check. Have a friend look over your email before you send it out to a group. Typos and mistakes happen but they don’t look great.
If you’re asking for advice or mentorship, remember that you’re basically asking a stranger for a favor. When people ask me for advice, I want to be helpful but I don’t want to do someone’s work for them. Questions are great, assignments are not. Be conscientious of how large you make your ask. An emailed question that requires a 10-15 minute response is fine. Coffee, lunch or a phone call under an hour is also fine with me but everyone has different time restrictions. Bonus points if you send a calendar invite with pertinent details. 6 month senior year animation projects are definitely not okay (this has happened).
In my experience, excessive asks are a sign of inexperience and make me wary. Years ago, when I worked as a press assistant, I was on the phone with a student journalist that kept asking for "only a 30 minute interview". I had to explain as they started to become belligerent that I was just doing my job and that I had just scheduled a 5 minute interview with The New York Times, so 30 minutes was not a reasonable request.
Do your research
Before sending out an email, take 10 minutes to do a quick Google search. Sometimes this will answer your question. If you still want to reach out, you can write a quick note about how you had a question but found the answer. These emails are the best because they’re nice and don’t require any work on the receiver's end. If the search doesn’t answer your question, convey that you looked. If you're looking to collaborate or assist or get advice, use your research to formulate your email. Reference past projects the person has worked on that are interesting or similar to the type of work you hope to do.
If you’ve made the ask and have gotten a positive response, be sure to follow through. It amazes me how often people ask if they can assist, pick my brain or get coffee but then never follow through. This is probably worse than never reaching out because I interpret it as a signal of inconsistency or flakiness. Occasionally, I have overflow work or go out of town and need to pass on projects. I only refer people that I know will follow up on emails and show up. It's not enough to just ping people.
We’re all human
As you’re reaching out, remember that the person you’re writing to is human. They are not a walking, talking job opportunity. If they agree to help you out, it's because they're nice or feeling particularly good in that moment, not because they owe it to you for some reason. This also applies to you. If you did your research, wrote a solid email and got it proofread but then didn't get a response, don't take it personally. People get busy. If people are shitty, which sadly happens sometimes, don't let it get you down or discourage you! Move on quickly. There are awesome people out there and you just have to find the right creative fit for you!
Up your email game
Here are a few things I use that I find helpful
Sometimes the very second I send an email, I realize that I have a blatant typo in the first line. In those situations, the undo option is key. I have my undo send option set to 30 seconds and it has saved my butt so many times.
Set up a signature. Personally, I tend to eyeroll at inspirational quotes or cutesy sign offs but some people like that. I don’t know. If it’s important to you, go with it. I generally think this is the best place to include ways to contact you.
This is a chrome plug in that searches the email address you’re writing to for biographical information. I find it helpful to have a sense of who I have in common with the person I’m writing to. Also, it can be helpful in making sure that I have the correct email address.
A lot of emails require follow up. That’s where I use boomerang, another plug in. When you’re sending out an email that requires follow up, you can tag it with boomerang to send you a reminder. Also, for some reason I find it easiest to write late at night but I don't want to stress people out with 2 am emails so I always schedule them to arrive at a more reasonable time.
My dad always used to say that anything worth doing is worth doing well. Outreach emails and logistics emails might not be the most exciting part of being a freelance creative but they are an important component. Put a bit of care into your emails because if it's worth doing, it should be worth doing right.