It’s Go Time

Sunset in London on the first of three flights.

Sunset in London on the first of three flights.

At last! The hardest part is behind me. Now that I’m done packing all that’s left to do is shoot twenty portraits across three cities in a foreign country.

At the moment I’m hovering somewhere over Africa on the longest flight of my life. So far I’ve done precisely zero work for this project, yet I feel relieved now that my bags are packed and I’m en route. Very soon I will be on the ground with an aggressive shot list and whatever gear survived three international flights. It’s the challenge of a demanding shoot that gets my blood pumping. On the other hand I become a nervous wreck when it comes to packing. The endless procession of questions, “what ifs,” and Plan B’s eat at me constantly. Yet, when I pick up my camera all of those worries blur out of focus. Continue reading

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The Verge of a Great Adventure

My new passport should be here any day now, but there aren’t many days left before my flight takes off. It’s always the pre-planning stuff that eats at my nerves. As soon as I get a camera in my hands I’m fine. Heck you can give me a poorly lit room with ugly beige walls and I’ll pump out interesting photographs all day long, but if you ask me to pack for ten days I’ll be covered in a cold sweat.

But I digress. Anyway…

A couple friends of mine were crazy enough to ask me to do a photo shoot for their organization, which at first doesn’t sound crazy because I do that kind of stuff all the time. The thing that makes this one crazy is the fact that it’s happening in South Africa.

I had the privilege of meeting Jedd and Janelle several years ago as they were planning to launch their organization. I was blown away by the fact that these two people knew exactly what they wanted to do and they were charging at it full steam ahead. Shortly thereafter they moved to South Africa with a desire to help people get out of poverty. They began teaching the locals how to start and run a small business, and in the process they have witnessed the transformative power of entrepreneurship. Over the years they have trained thousands of entrepreneurs in every major city in South Africa, and now we want to tell those stories.

Our hope is to shed light on both the people and places that have known poverty firsthand. In September we are going to be traveling to Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban to capture the stories of several entrepreneurs who have worked their way out of poverty. Those stories will then be compiled into a photo book designed to inspire future entrepreneurs.

South Africa has been on my bucket list for quite some time, so I’m thrilled to be a part of this project! As you can imagine there is a substantial cost involved with a project like this, so we are asking for your support. You can find more information and make a donation here:

Most of my time will be spent shooting photos for the book, but I will have some time to soak up some adventure in Cape Town. You can be sure I’ll have plenty of photos to share, but in the mean time, here’s a rendering of what I imagine it will be like:

 
Stay tuned, my friends! This is gonna be rad.

What to Wear: Photographer’s Edition

PhotographerFashionIn a word: black.

Black shirt.
Black pants.
Black shoes.
Black socks.
Black belt. Continue reading

Work Smarter Automatically

Defaults_BannerAre we in control of our own decisions? That’s the question posed by behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely, and his research yields some very surprising results. I won’t go into all the details, but instead I’ll jump right to the heart of it and give you some practical examples. Continue reading

Lessons Learned from Beauty Retouching

BeautyRetouch_BannerLast week I met with the French photographer Clovis Lalanne who does a lot of work in the beauty and makeup industry. Talking with him made me realize how little I know about shooting and retouching beauty photos. Far too often I’m guilty of looking at an advertisement and saying to myself, “I could’ve shot that…” and then usually end up in a bout of self loathing as I reason why I’m not doing work at that level yet. Meeting with Clovis helped me understand the gap and realize I still have a lot to learn. After looking at my portfolio he suggested that I work on retouching, so that’s where I began. Continue reading

Share Your Calendar and Save Your Time

CalendarBannerWhen I get an email from a potential client it usually sounds like this, “I need a photographer… Are you available? What are your rates?”

My rates are somewhat of a moving target, so I’ll cover that in a different post. My schedule, however, that’s easy. Here’s why: Continue reading

Seven Tips for Hiring an Admin Assistant

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Being a photographer is a lot of fun, but there are parts of it (like scheduling, job estimates, invoicing, etc.) that drive me crazy. Fortunately there are people in the world who actually enjoy doing those things. Instead of pinching every penny and trying to do everything myself I finally hired an admin assistant, and I’ve never been more successful and productive in my business. Here’s a look at my story and what I learned in the process. Continue reading

Starting a Career as a Freelancer (all over again)

As of today I’ve lived in New York City for three weeks. Our apartment no longer bears any resemblance to the packed Uhaul that brought us here. Everyday this place feels more like home. …except for one thing:

I don’t have a job.

Technically, I never have. I’ve never been an employee; never gotten a tax return or had benefits or a boss. I’ve been a freelancer since I was 17, so really this is nothing new. The difference here is that I’m the new guy in town. Essentially I’m starting over. I have no client base here, and I didn’t move because of a job opportunity. What awaits for me is wide open potential drenched with excitement and insecurity. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit nervous, but the alternative is boredom.

Three weeks ago I could count on one hand the number of people I knew in this town. Freelancing is all about who you know, and word of mouth is the heartbeat of marketing. The problem is no one in New York is talking about me yet. I feel like I’m back to square one. I have to pound the pavement and practice what I preach. I have to test my own advice and live with the consequences. In a sense I’ve left the security of my former “job” in hopes of making it as a freelancer in one of the most competitive cities in the world. No sweat, right?

To be fair, there are a few significant differences between me and those exploring this territory for the first time. My first foray into the freelancing world was with videography before I shifted into photography, but the principles here are the same for any type of freelancer.

  1. When I first started freelancing I was living at home. I didn’t have to pay rent or put food on the table. Pretty much all I was concerned about was paying for my camera, computer, and software. A few years later I was making a decent living, so I moved into my own place. Then I got married. We moved to NYC, and now she’s going to school full-time. Needless to say I’ve got a lot more responsibility on my shoulders than I did when I first started.
  2. New York and Washington D.C., while relatively close together on a map, might as well be located on different planets. Being a photographer in DC makes you the anomaly; you’re different, creative, and fun –all of which are attributes not usually associated with government workers. NYC is a different story entirely. Cameras and film crews are the new motorcades. Creativity is king, and competition is palpable.
  3. Unlike someone just starting out I have considerable experience and a portfolio under my belt. The awesome thing about art and business is that there are so many transferable skills. Leverage whatever experience you already have. Start with what and who you know. Step out from there.
  4. A decade is an eternity in technological terms. I’ve gone through five cameras, three computers, and a handful of cell phones since I first started, not to mention we now have “indispensable” things like iPads and Instagram that didn’t even exist ten years ago. Changes in technology mean changes in distribution. What worked ten years ago might not work now, and what works today might not have been possible then. Creativity and ingenuity are always an asset here.
  5. I’ve had the privilege of working on a huge variety of projects. I’ve shot everything from weddings to catheters; I’ve photographed the homeless and the President alike. I’m extremely grateful for the experiences I’ve had, but I’ve decided to narrow my focus and really pursue the work that I love. I suspect there will always be some tension between paying the rent and following your passion.
  6. Lastly, I’m in a better place financially. I have been padding our savings account for a year, so that we can breathe a little easier here. Besides, DC is only a short bus ride away if I need to pick up some more work back there. Moral of the story, if you’re planning to jump into a career as a freelancer make sure you’ve got a backup plan or cushion to fall back on.

That’s my story so far. I’m at the beginning of a new chapter, and I hope it encourages those who are thinking about writing a new one for themselves. Carpe diem, my friends!

Week in Review, October 1st – 7th

Song of the week: Serpentine by Chris Bathgate. I have no earthly idea what it means, but the tune is mesmerizing.

Image of the Week: Go cart racing at All Sports Grand Prix.

Current Inspiration: Walt Disney, An American Original by Bob Thomas

Work Tally: 4,903 photos in seven shoots (since last blog post, so a little more than a week)

Lesson Learned: There is a deep-seated mindset associated with poverty, a different mindset for the middle class, and another still for the wealthy.

The Best Way to Learn

I just spent the last three hours reading some old posts by photographers Zack Arias and David Hobby, and I’m left feeling humbled, frustrated, and downright embarrassed. Yet somewhere under these immediate feelings is a sense of hope…

Let me rewind as I try to make sense of this:

Exactly six years ago I shot my first wedding (happy anniversary, Tim and Jenn!) Like most newbie photographers I didn’t know much, but I worked my hardest and the couple was happy. I remember thinking how much easier it was to shoot photos instead of the videography I was doing previously. It seemed like all I needed was a camera, flash, and my 28-70mm lens. I knew in the back of my mind that it surely couldn’t be that simple, and eventually the “if only” disease would kick in.

I was fortunate enough to have friends who liked my work and before long I was getting hired for more shoots. Gradually my skills improved, I met other photographers, upgraded my gear, learned new tricks, pushed my equipment to the limits and then pushed it some more; all the while making notes and learning by experience. This pattern continued for the better part of six years.

Occasionally, however, something would cause me to stop and take notice of the fact that I really don’t know much about photography, usually it’s the work of brilliant artists like Jeremy Cowart or Joey L. This caused me to dig deep and attempt to understand why, but unfortunately I often ended up blaming my gear because there are things it just can’t do.

And then I meet other photographers like Doug Via who went from using a point-n-shoot one day to off-camera lighting on a full frame sensor the next. I’m amazed by how quickly he has learned the craft. Then there’s Will Martinez who has considerably less experience than I do, yet his recent pictures from Nicaragua blew me away. If I didn’t know these guys personally then I would probably go back into my usual blame game, but that’s where this story is different.

Both of these guys actually reached out to me assuming they could learn something from a full-time photographer, but in both cases I’ve found myself taking notes from them. I wonder where I would be if I had their skill when I was still a newbie. Clearly they didn’t learn everything from experience. They must have learned from others, which brings us back to Zack Arias and David Hobby (two of the most prominent voices in the photographer community).

As I read about their experiences it felt a lot like reading my own Moleskine. Many of the lessons they learned were very similar to my own recent discoveries, until I looked at the date they were published… I could have learned these things three years ago if I paid more attention to these community mentors. Instead I was too isolated, too self-centered, and too focused on doing things my way that I neglected almost every other resource. In the end I spent more time and covered less ground than I could have.

Hopefully I can help others skip the long, slow years and focus their time better. Looking back, and simultaneously looking forward, it seems that there are three key components in learning to excel at a given craft.

Study – It doesn’t matter if you study at the Art Institute or the University of Barnes and Noble. The important thing is that you seek out knowledge and learn from others. You need a steady diet of books, blogs, magazines, seminars, tutorials, and anything else you can find. This is usually the fastest way to lay your foundational knowledge.

Experience – There are some things you can’t learn from a book, and that’s why it’s important to get your hands dirty. Doing so will refine the things you think you knew and solidify them to a new level of understanding. They say “experience exceeds all other methods of learning” because you will not forget the things you learn by experience, especially the ones that felt like a failure. Remember to learn from your successes also.

Mentor – There are two priceless advantages of having a mentor. The first is that they can speak into your life/work in a very specific way. Books and blogs can give generalized advice, but a mentor can assess your exact situation. Secondly, a mentor bridges the gap between inspiration and execution. A masterpiece seems much more doable when you observe the artist at work rather than only seeing the final product.

The trick is to incorporate all three of these learning tools as often as you can. Study without experience inflates your ego, not your talent. Experience alone is a slow curve. Having a mentor without study is a waste of both people’s time. You need all three pieces working congruently if you want to see real progress.