Sometimes things just happen for a reason. I had just checked into the hotel in Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay for my last night in the country coming off an assignment in Punta del Este. I remembered as I was packing my suitcase for home that my sweater was in the backseat of our rental car. As I unlocked the door I saw an old man walking across the street with a cane. Even though it was dark, I had this feeling he had one of those faces I just had to make a portrait of. Acting as if I was getting something else out of the car I waited to see where he went. To my luck he sat down at the restaurant right next to the hotel. I did a walk by and sure enough I was right about needing to photograph him.
I ran inside the hotel and quickly texted my assistant Cam, asking if he’d mind working on what was our night off. I knew the best way to do not waste this opportunity would be to light my subject. Thankfully Cam agreed and we headed to the restaurant. We ordered some wine and discussed our plan before Cam spoke (in Spanish) with the owner and explained what we would like to do. She kindly agreed to let us move a few things around and she also spoke with my soon-to-be subject Fernando about our idea. He agreed as well, and we ran next door to get our gear.
As it turned out, Fernando was an actor in his younger years, and was happy to be photographed. We poured him a glass of wine and set up my Photoflex TritonFlash with a Medium Litedome quickly. I wanted to create the feel of the restaurant’s window light- or at least how I imagined it would be during the day. Not too splashy, partially blocked by the curtains and shutters, but directional. Not having a big HMI to recreate the light, or even a stand with us to mount the light outside, Cam would be my light stand and I would direct him from behind the camera. Initially we used the soft box with both baffles, but it was too broad a source, so we added the accessory grid and it honed the light in nicely.
I’ve made these kinds of portraits before, without being able to speak much more than what can easily be deemed “baby talk” in Spanish, so having Cam there was a huge help. I was able to give direction both thru him as well as with my limited Spanish knowledge. Fernando was great. Knowing he was older, I didn’t want to take too much of his time, so we worked fast, and in between he shared stories of his younger days with Cam and I picked up some of it- and Cam translated the rest when I didn’t know the words.
Aside from many stories about his acting experiences, it turned out Fernando was not only a part in a movie called A King for Patagonia but also being a local, he aided the producers by helping to get the goats and sheep alongside other local elements for the film. We thought he said he was in the movie with Omar Sharif, but as far as I can tell, the movie was made in 2011 without Sharif…either way, for my purposes, he was a great subject.
This was definitely a highlight of the trip, making the long drive from Punta del Este to Colonia del Sacramento well worthwhile.
This past week I attended the ASMP NY Chapter sponsored portfolio review. I have been to the last four of these events, and have picked up a few things along the way. I thought it would be helpful to share five points of advice:
1. Bring your best, show the least.
The biggest mistake I have made in the past was to bring far too many portfolios with me. It’s overwhelming to the reviewers who are seeing as many as 15 photographers in the evening to see too much from just one person. iPad’s have compounded this issue, where you can easily have all your work loaded on the tablet. Although I have all my work loaded on it, I don’t even give the reviewer the chance to see it all. You can always say, “I have a portfolio of this or that kind of work…” and ask to email it to them. This not only wets their appetite, but also opens to door for future correspondence.
This review I decided to bring my printed portfolio of my Sport & Fitness work, which over the course of meetings and reviews this year I’ve found to receive the best response from the majority. Along with this, I brought my iPad with my Portrait work, and a copy of my personal project, a new book called Local Heroes: Portraits of American Volunteer Firefighters.
I began each review with the printed Sport & Fitness portfolio and always mentioned my other work is primarily portrait work, which includes everything from celebrity to business. This I have on the iPad ready to go if they want to see that, and I mention that I finished a personal project and the book just came out. Each reviewer wanted to see the book, and that brings up the next point.
2. Personal Work
You must have some personal work with you. It’s a very difficult position to be in as a reviewee with 10 min to impress someone. It’s basically speed dating for new clients. Truth be told, most of the time you have been judged in the first minute and/or first few images you show. I found myself in the past trying to show reviewers how I should fit their list of photographers because LOOK I have all this commercial work that I do. Reality is a slap in the face, and the hit comes that thousands of photographers can do what you do. The real point of the meeting is that the reviewer wants to know who YOU are. It’s selfish, they want to know for themselves, you know why? Simple, THEY want to know if they can stand being next to you on a shoot for a day, a week or a month. Showing personal work, and talking about yourself is more important to all the commercial work you do. They can easily see if you have the talent to do the commercial work, so your time is best spent showing them who YOU are.
3. Go in with a plan, but be flexible
Before the review you will get a list of the reviewers. From there, make your hit list, who fits (as best as you can tell) the kind of work you do and more importantly, make sure what you are planning to show fits their magazine, ad agency, etc. I see many photographers clammer to get on certain lines to meet the reviewer because it’s a big title or ad agency, and they in no way fit the kind of work that reviewer does. We are all in it to try to get more clients and more work- so plan your time out well, just going to the see the NY Times because you like the NY Times, does not mean it’s a good use of your time.
I put my hit list in a notebook and when I arrive at the location I make notes of where each of the reviewers I want to meet are sitting, and I prioritize where I will go once the reviews start. No plan and you will waste time, but you have to be flexible, and maximize your time. The popular reviewers will have a line, because it’s inevitable that the 10 minutes/review will not coincide, you can end up standing on line and waiting for up to an hour. This is a big mistake. I don’t get on any line more than 2 people, and if I am last on line, and see an open spot for one of the reviewers who is lower on my list, I’ll take the open chair. You are there to meet those top priorities, however, you are also there to show your work to potential clients, standing on line the bulk of the evening, you will fail at that task.
4. Presentation, as always, is EVERYTHING
That’s the golden rule. iPad’s have taken over of course, for their size, ease of use and memory to hold all you like. However, I may be old school, but I believe it’s important to show a print book. The majority of my work ends up in print, so showing how I take the image from start to print I believe is important. Everything looks good on an iPad, the backlight is a wonderful thing, and I do hear the horror stories from many art directors and photo editors who made the mistake of relying on judging a photographer only from an iPad or website. It’s also a part of my personality, to show them that I am hands-on, I produce, I light, I retouch and I print. I like to show them that.
I am amazed that I still see photographers who show a stack of prints. It says volumes about those photographers, nothing positive in my mind. You could be a great photographer, but if you present your work like a slob, then you are a just a great slob of a photographer. At the very least, mount them, put them in a nice box, something- but don’t pull them out of a plastic bag and expect to be viewed in a positive light.
5. Thank you
During each meeting, I make a note of what image(s) the reviewer reacts to most, and that will be the image I email to the reviewer as a epromo card post meeting. As well, in the email thanking the reviewer, I mentioned something specific we speak about, and I include links to my website, as well as both my portfolios which I have on issue.com as you can see from the portfolio links above. Failing to contact the reviewers after the meeting seems like a no-brainer, but I know for a fact many photographers do not do this.
Hope this helps some of you out there, please feel free to email any questions!
Every so often I get asked about my path as a commercial photographer, so I thought I’d share the story with you all.
I went to college having the thought in my mind that I wanted to be a trainer for a pro sports team. I had a large number of injuries in High School sports and coming back from all of them through training, I was really into how to sports medicine worked. My best friend was surprised I didn’t want to do something in the arts, as I was always drawing, painting or making pictures, but I was convinced I knew my path. Oddly enough, he predicted I’d change my mind.
I also went to school planning to play soccer for four more years. The first trimester I had an awful advisor who despite my busy soccer schedule put me in an 8am bio class and two other classes that fell right before meals and just barely around soccer practice, combined with volunteering at the training room, I basically missed eating normal meals for 10 weeks. I went from 155lbs to 140lbs when everyone else was putting on the “freshman 15” I was wasting away. As well, my grades suffered. Going into the second trimester, I decided to take a drawing class, figuring that I would make an A, and that began my path of always taking an art class.
Come the spring trimester the next class was intro to photography. I again figured I could ace the class having shot with cameras since I was six years old. I immediately fell back into line with the love of the darkroom, and found myself spending more time in there than in the training room. I changed advisors and was fortunate to have the head of the art department as a leader, he recommended me for a school program in NY where I would work for two photographers in NYC for a trimester and get school credit. That summer I worked for a photography agent, and as good as an experience as it was, I didn’t want to be an agent. I did however, get to learn about the agent’s position in the game, and she had me arranging portfolios for the various clients, something that later was extremely valuable.
I got into the NY Arts Program my junior year, and it changed my life. I got back to school knowing that I wanted to work in the photography field, and to a degree, felt that school was a bit of a waste of time…the real world was where it was at. However, I gained so many additional credits, that finishing school seemed the right thing to do.
That next summer I got an internship at Condenast, working at GQ Magazine. This was an amazing experience, and made me realize how having a good amount of photography knowledge, and a good sense for business, I could do well there. I also believed at the time that I would rather direct photographers then be one full-time. I would always have photography and could shoot my “art” on the side…I’m sure many of you know that desire to be more of an artist than a commercial photographer.
During that tenure, they threw me a bone and I shot a book for a book review for an issue the night before the issue was to ship. I volunteered even tough all I had for lights was a Canon 480 Speedlight. I didn’t even own a stand. I hand-held the light and flashed it closing my eyes just after to get a sense of where the shadow was going to fall. I repeated this till I got the shadow to fall right, and there was my first professional magazine shoot, and the start of a six and a half year still-life photography career. I freelanced at GQ that following winter break and really enjoyed it, and despite my desire to be just be an editor, the still life shoots came in and I continued to shoot for GQ as well as other titles I eventually worked for.
After I graduated, GQ didn’t have a position for me, so I worked at Condenast’s archive separating Irving Penn’s and Elliot Erwitt’s pictures for House & Garden from their earlier days. All the while, GQ worked to open a space for me. By the fall I was full-time freelance at GQ, rising to the Associate Photo Editor within a year and then over to Esquire, ESPN the Magazine, Blaze (Vibe spin-off), Men’s Health Teen, Men’s Journal, US Weekly, and Marie Claire. As time progressed I met many of the great magazine photographers out there, some of the legends, and always shot on the side. I directed these photographers and often was on set, where I witnessed their lighting first-hand.
I rose to Director of Photography by 26, and sort of hit the wall. I enjoyed editing, but began to shoot so much combined with realizing much of what I was assigning I could shoot. I had shed much of the still life shoots for portraits and did a bit of self-assigning, which included the shot of Walt shown above. I was getting some decent assignments here and there then I caught a big break when a story with Heather Graham came up at Marie Claire, and the Creative Director and Publicity Director wanted me to go to India to document the actress’s journey for a feature article. After that, I knew I was done at the desk. I just felt more at home on location, and realized that I could handle the stories myself, but I was still afraid of leaving editing all together.
In New York, once you are known for one thing it’s hard to be thought of as anything else. Many of my peers knew me as a photo editor, so getting work, as a photographer was sometimes easy, but often difficult. I decided I needed to leave NY for a while, get people to forget about me as an editor. I was able to take a job as the photo editor of Muscle & Fitness Magazine in LA with a deal where I would shoot for them as well. They got a great deal from me, and I would get my opportunities to shoot as well as leave NY. This was a great move except I just didn’t like life in LA; the traffic drove me away in less than two years. I was offered an editing job for a small publisher but turned it down, as I’d made up in my mind I wanted to shoot more than edit. The Creative Director then came back to me with an offer to be their Chief Photographer for them, assigning other photographers if I needed to, as well as run the department’s budget as I wanted. I took the job.
Upon my return to NY, a friend said he thought I came back too soon, that I should have held out longer. We happened to go to a networking party that evening and let me tell you, I think two weeks out of NY would have been enough. All my peers who I had not stayed in touch with asked what I was up to and I told them I was shooting now. It was the truth, albeit stretched a bit, but I was able to say it since the job I took had a lot of liberties on time, and when I was shooting for them, I was booked…something that came into play fantastically as I positioned myself as a wanted man. Photo editors in general want to work with working photographers. And I should mentioned, I think two weeks would have been enough to be out of NY for people to forget about me!
I stayed as the Chief Photographer for the media company for three years till they went Chapter 7. Two of my assistants joined the department and we were a pretty solid department. Shooting 85% of the then five titles artwork, and I can proudly say, always under budget.
Unfortunately the rest of the company wasn’t as efficient. The company was having problems for a while, and I contemplated leaving to shoot full-time as I was very busy freelancing on the side, but the Chapter 7 announcement came a bit out of nowhere.
I was pretty scared to leave; I had recently bought a house, and now had two young sons. All the reasons I had talked myself out of leaving the security of the full-time job. The very next day I sold two images from a story I shot for Muscle & Fitness to an ad firm for $5000, and I was safe for a few months. Things took off very quickly from there, and I found the freedom of time that I now had, not having to report to an office for someone else, led to so much more time to concentrate on my photography business.
So that was how it began, definitely not the conventional path. I’ve mentioned in many of my lectures and blogs that the experiences I had in college and as an editor certainly helped form how I run my business, so if you are in a full-time position and looking to make the move, take stock in what experiences you have now and think about how they can help you run your photography business. I don’t believe photographers in general realize how much of this career is about business and not about the art of being a photographer. If you haven’t heard my lecture on the Business of Photography yet, please check out the webinar at http://www.lowepro.com/ask-the-pro it’s available to view anytime. If you only take one piece of advice from it, that’s one more piece of knowledge you didn’t have yesterday.