12 Photographers – Two Questions

There seems to be an endless stream of bad news in the US commercial photo industry these days. I read and hear about it all the time – photographers working for less, even being asked to work for free in some cases. Microstock, Flickr, CGI, you name it – all are taking jobs away from photographers. Many photographers have had to give up their studios and some have even had to take on other non-photography jobs or leave the profession altogether. But I found when I started researching this phenomenon a little closer I found photographers who were adapting to the new business of photography climate and some were even thriving. What I’ve also noticed is there is more of a brotherhood mentality amongst many professional photographers. What was once, and still sometimes is an industry of closely held secrets and techniques, pricing, etc., is opening up a bit. People are sharing more. Photographers are helping other photographers.

In that vein, I felt I wanted to somehow help other professional photographers and up-and-coming photographers. I knew that sometimes stories are often a good way to entertain folks while at the same time offering up a lesson or some good advice. So one night, while sipping a Velvet Merlin the idea came to me. Why not entertain and try to help other photographers by asking successful, veteran photographers about their experiences that might also translate into valuable lessons? Hmmmm I thought. Some might be lessons in photography and some might be lessons in life. This could be fun and an interesting read too.

So I formalized the questions:

#1 What is the worst moment or time in your photo career and what did you learn from it?
#2 What is the best moment or time in your photo career and what did you learn from it?

Then I set out to contact a variety of photographers to solicit their help in this little blog project. A great bunch of photographers responded. In this segment you will see stories from: Rhea Anna, Darryl Bernstein, Luke CoppingEric Hameister, Hunter Freeman, Lou Lesko, Wendi Nordeck, James Quantz, Jr., Kevin Steele, Bob Stevens, Blake Wøken and yours truly. Below are their responses in random order. Starting with question #1. Since some of the responses are long I will be publishing this blog piece in three parts over the next few days. Thank you to all the photographers who took some of their valuable time to share their experiences with us.


Bob Stevens

The Worst:

I was on an assignment for Acura and had chosen a location on the Palos Verdes Peninsula in a residential neighborhood. My in-house producer had procured all the necessary permits and permissions….or so I thought. We began to set up a fairly large production. I had a Fisher Productions light box (10×40 feet) suspended from a crane, with power provided by a large cinema-type generator parked nearby. I had two policemen for traffic control and they had the street legally closed to traffic. I had not only agency people there, but because it was a Friday afternoon quite a few onlookers from Honda corporate located in nearby Gardena.

Suddenly, a plain-clothes police car pulled up and as the officer stepped out, obviously perturbed said “who’s in charge here?”. I stepped aside and let my producer huddle with the officer who was the watch commander on duty for that shift. As I saw my producer’s face turn ashen, I walked up and asked what was going on. The officer informed me that because we had the generator on set, we were required to have a fireman and because we did not, he was giving us an hour to vacate the area. As it turns out, a neighbor had called the police department to complain about the fumes from the generator drifting into her house. My producer complained that she had not been told about the required fireman, and I protested as well but to no avail. In fact, he threatened to arrest ME if we were not gone when he returned.

We “pulled the plug” on the shoot and had to schedule a “re-shoot”, the only one of my career actually. It cost me almost $10,000 and I did not work again for that client for quite some time. I later found out that the Palos Verdes area was infamous for this sort of thing and have not shot anywhere near there since.

Lesson : Make sure to research the location and pitfalls of a given area you recommend to your clients thoroughly before proposing it!


Kevin Steele

The Worst

There are two themes I’ve learned here.  First: being a professional means still nailing it when gear fails and second: losing a big bid can throw you in the ditch for days. Hold fast and keep going.

Stupid mistakes and gear: The first was when I tied rolls of priceless film with bungee to the back of the motorcycle on the way to the lab – gone forever on the side of the highway.  But more often it is the gear that I neglected to back up that created exciting moments.  Aside from my normal work I shoot a lot of prominent Republicans that come to visit the Reagan Ranch. Early on I used speedlights and a wireless commander that went south in the middle of working with Karl Rove under a pretty tight schedule.  Without a backup and without cords I resorted to on-camera flash and the results showed.  Since then I spare no expense when the images need to be nailed under pressure.  Shooting Sarah Palin this past weekend I brought in a Profoto kit with backups and alweays pay attention to the details when it needs to be fast, flexible and perfect.

Losing bids: It will always happen but one particular moment stung and I learned a lot from it.  It was client-direct and they were not familiar with usage and the production levels needed for what they really wanted.  My bid was far higher than others but fair. When they told me the levels of other bids I cut my estimate too deeply and this backfired: although I cut line items that others likely did not include they saw a response that they read as either initial price gouging or worse – desperation.   Lesson learned: know who you are talking to, gather as much information as possible and stay at your level while aiming higher – sometimes you are just not the right guy and if it is for reasons of price you just found the reason to court better clients.


Wendi Nordeck

The Worst

Forgetting the tripod mount. I was shooting 4×5 on location and forgot the mount that attaches the 4×5 rail to the tripod. Luckily I had lots of gaffers tape and extra c-stands. We used almost half a roll of gaffers tape but managed to stabilize the camera in time to get the shot right when the sun came up. The client showed up a half hour later and luckily we had the shot in the bag and the set already broken down.


Hunter Freeman

The Worst

It’s difficult for me to say “worst” or “best” about any single day, because it’s measured on such an amorphous scale.  One day you could be happy-go-lucky and nothing would bother you, and then, on another day, the same situation would make you completely nuts.  That said, here is one of the worst, and one of the best moments of my career…

– One Of The Worst

It was a lovely year, and I was having a fairly busy summer, when a new client called to see if I was available for a shoot on the following Friday.  Even though the layout was, IMHO, atrocious (unclear conceptually, boring design to the layout, unrealistic POV, etc.), I wasn’t busy that day, and so I said sure, I’d be happy to help.  Just so you know, I’ve always thought that part of my job is to help my clients, in whatever way I can.  I figured that, somehow, I could transform the idea into something interesting, better, perhaps even compelling, and make the ad work better.  Hope springs eternal, right?  However, every suggestion about props, wardrobe, location, and talent were turned down.  The clients were all happy as clams with what was coming down the pike, and there seemed to be no way to stop this particular juggernaut.  The shoot day arrives, we get to the downtown rooftop location, and I try once again to add to what is coming, but to no avail.  The sun is slowly setting, and I’m getting the shot that they want, but I end up with one of the WORST photos I have ever taken, and believe me, I’ve shot some stinkers.  I’m just sort of stunned at this point.  Maybe, I think to myself, the film will look better when I get it back from the lab.  No such luck.  It looked even worse than when I shot it.  Good exposure, good focus was the best I could say about it.  Embarrassing would be an understatement.  I do not want ANYONE EVER to see this photograph.  I should have been fined by the photographic community.  There is an old saying that says, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”  I learned firsthand how true that saying is, and as a result of this “education”, I have since declined a number of jobs.  It is true, of course, that not every “bad” layout is a sow’s ear, but sometimes that ear truly is part of a big ol’ pig.


Lou Lesko

The Best and The Worst

It is a dreadful feeling being an veteran photographer.  Because you’ve evolved to a level where you can’t actually take a bad picture.  The technical aspects of shooting become a part of your DNA.  With the ease that anyone can pick up a pen and sign their signature, we veteran shooters can pick up any camera and shoot an image that will be technically good.

But technically good isn’t really good enough when you’re a professional.  The only thing that matters is making sure your work is leagues better than the masses of amateurs, and keeping it on a par with your peers.  And that level of creativity isn’t always at your beck and call. Is it?

Somewhere around 1999 I was having a great year of work.  Jobs were plenty, clients were paying reasonably quickly and far off in the distance some fool was suggesting that I should start directing commercials.  I was clucking around cocky as hell.  I felt like I could do no wrong.  So when my friend Frank asked if I would shoot pictures of his cousin’s new baby, I didn’t give it second thought.  The pictures were “fine” according to the mother.  “Fine” is a four letter word to photographers.  I don’t shoot “fine” work, I shoot brilliant work.  So I took another look at the images of the little kid.  The mother was being kind.  I promised a re-shoot one day soon and starting dwelling on the fact that I might have lost my talent.

Soon after I was approached by a working actor to shoot his head shots.  The actor wasn’t a name yet, but his face was very recognizable. He had seen an editorial that I had shot and liked my style. He was also willing to pay me a nice chunk of cash for my time.  We shot, and the pictures came out “fine.” I apologized and tore up his check.

I was in a bona fide rut. And unlike the nascent years of my career where I could improve my middling work by becoming more technically proficient and practicing more with the camera, this was purely visceral. I had lost my eye.

The following months, I avoided any friend requests for pictures because I was mortified of embarrassing myself to the group of people who thought my career was totally cool. The assignments I was shooting were so heavily laden with art director input that I was essentially getting paid to be a technician. But somewhere around the corner was a job that was going to require some true artistic input and my creative mojo had abandoned me.

I tried drinking less. Then I tried drinking more. No coffee after 6 PM, espressos at 9 PM. Nothing was working. It was time to admit that perhaps my last really fabulous image was in fact my swan song photograph on the way to descending into the depths of mediocrity.

One morning at breakfast in Manhattan Beach, in a desperate act of contrition, I admitted my situation to my friend Jenny.  Jenny was the very first real model I ever shot back in 1984.  She is also a shoot from the hip woman with a stellar modeling career in New York.  I finished my confession and she looked at me like a girl looks at a guy who is having sexual disfunction.  Then she laughed and said, “you’re being your own worst enemy genius.”  She continued, “no one suddenly loses their creative abilities.  You probably just cooked the right side of your brain with all the work you’ve had lately.”

She made me grab my camera and shoot a portrait of her underneath the Manhattan Beach Pier.  There is a significant familiarity to working with her.  Since the first pictures we did together fifteen years earlier we had probably shot about twenty or thirty times together over the years. We moved quickly to get the shot; no make up, lights or crew.  Just me, Jenny and a camera.  I didn’t have time to think about anything, I only had time to react.

The thinking, as it turns out, was my enemy.  Somewhere along the way I spun a bad shoot with my friend’s cousin’s kid into a harbinger of my future and then began to dwell on that.  The truth was that it was just an off shoot which can happen when you do this for a living.

Since then I’ve run into a fare share of creative blocks.  I’ve also learned how to get around them.  When you feel uninspired, getting out of your own way can usually be accomplished by getting out of your familiar environment.  Get on a train, get in your car or get on a plane and go some place you don’t usually go.  The more you take in the unfamiliar surroundings the less time you’ll have to think about why your creative faculties have frozen up. Eventually something you see will knock an idea loose in your head which will have the same effect of pulling out a keystone at the base of a rock wall. Your creativity never abandons you, it just needs to be shaken up every once in a while.

The next time I saw Jenny she was in front of the camera of a breast cancer public service announcement for my directorial debut.  She came up to me when she arrived on the set.  “Looks like you got your creative mojo back huh.”  I looked at her with deadpan expression, “whatever are you be talking about?”  Then I winked, and I smiled a smile of gratitude.


Luke Copping

The Ups and The Downs

The time a client and I walked off with each other’s identical messenger bags…

My first magazine cover…

Showing up twelve hours early for a shoot after an AM/PM clerical error…

Plenty of wrap dinners and outings with the great talents and crew members I have gotten to work with over the years…

Having an enormous and sudden political demonstration form outside and trap me and my crew in a studio for hours…

Ups… downs… goods… bads… the idea of a best and worst moment in one’s career or life are so subjective. Every experience is a lesson, every lesson is just the next step on the journey. Good can come out of bad and just as often the opposite is true. One of the worst moments in my career as a photographer ended up being one of the most important and beneficial to my development as an artist and a person.

Near the end of 2003 I decided to leave the photography business. I had graduated from the photography program at the Rochester Institute of Technology earlier in the year and had been doing what I could to find work; assisting, shooting products, helping out on food shoots, and doing some styling. I was treading water at best and burnt out. I never picked up my camera to shoot anything unless it was for a job and I found myself caring less and less. I found what I was shooting to be boring, pointless, and unfulfilling. Looking back now I realize that I felt this way because I had completely disconnected the personal and professional elements of creativity from each other. I treated what I did as a purely mechanical exercise and had become nothing more than an uncreative technician that was capable of taking very well exposed and very boring images that were completely devoid of passion. I thought maybe I had made the wrong choice and decided that I needed a change.

I took a job with a manufacturing firm, starting out in their signage department. I spent my days engraving industrial signage, making vinyl decals, and doing the occasional bit of graphic design work. Not the most exciting job, but it was stable and I eventually advanced into a more important position in the marketing department over a few years. At the same time I still has this nagging feeling that I was just running in place. I wasn’t happy, and I knew I wasn’t doing what I wanted to be doing.

Suddenly the relationship I was in self-destructed, and one of the things that helped me get through some major changes and upsets was to start taking pictures again. I picked the camera back up and suddenly found that a switch has been flipped. I loved taking pictures again. I had an enormous hunger for it and I was so excited to be able to explore it all over again from the beginning. I was grateful for the technical education I got at school, but I started my creative re-education over from scratch from this point on.  I pored over articles and books and started to shoot every second that I wasn’t at work, to the point that my images were better than they had ever been before. I had completely re-discovered and re-defined my passion for photography and my goals for my own future.

I had started making plans to transition back to photography as a career when the rug got pulled out from me again. The economy had begun to change and the job that was once stable was no more. I was basically in a position where I needed to reboot my photography career from scratch, and rapidly. I was lucky enough to be able to assist some amazing photographers who served as major mentors and influences to me while I began building a client base and earning recognition as I started to grow my business to where it is today.

I don’t think I would have the same outlook and passion for what I do if It weren’t for the temporary exile I had from the photography world. In many regards these negative situations are responsible for my desire to work so hard and passionately at what I do. I learned the hard way to appreciate the second chance I got to do what I love.

Please check back tomorrow and Thursday for Parts Two and Three of the “Best and Worst” stories.

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