The Five Biggest Mistakes I Made as a Professional Photographer


(Being a freelancer can be quite a challenge. Like this little flower above, you can be battered and surrounded by those who didn’t make it, but you keep on blooming for as long as you can. Survival means making big mistakes and learning as much as you can from them.)

I enjoy sharing the experiences I had in over four decades as a professional photographer. I do this on my weekly workshop, “Project 52 PRO” and whenever someone asks for advice or guidance. From a very rich, and wildly diverse career in the photographic arts, there are some great highlights.

But, there are some things I did – specific things and general things – that were huge mistakes, ones that took time, assets and energy away from moving forward. In this self-employed landscape there are many hidden valleys and dark canyons that one can wander into if we are not paying attention. We will not be discussing the technical screwups that accompany most of us as we start out… ISO problems, no backup, loading film backwards, forgetting an assistant at roadside restaurant (yeah, it happens).

While I usually talk about the good times, great clients, and fun opportunities I had as a photographer, I think I should share these “not so highlight” moments from my personal reel.

Missing the Market

When I first got started in photography, my main interest was photographing girls. I wanted to make my mark as a fashion photographer and began buying every fashion magazine I could lay my hands on. From French Vogue to Italian Bazaar to obscure British mags with names I cannot even remember. I spent a fortune on them.

I wanted to be Arthur, Patrick, Peter, or Albert. I wanted to shoot fashion editorials in the deserts of Africa, the mountains of Spain, and the jungles of South America. I wanted to know Polly Mellen and hang out with Christie and Kathy and the high-board girls from Ford.

I lived in Phoenix, Arizona.

Moving to NYC was not an option, and I wasted a decade or more trying to be someone that I simply could not living in the town I lived in. Sure there were boutique shoots, editorials, ‘back pages’ for regional and national magazines.

But no Paris, Africa, Brazil or Spain.

When I finally woke up to the fact that I would either have to move or change, I changed.

Well, I gave it a shot anyway…

Brand Madness

I had created the brand of a “fashion photographer” in a decidedly not fashion oriented town. (No, shooting OTR for department stores is not fashion… it’s catalog. There is a difference.)

So I stopped shooting fashion and began to change my portfolio. Since I was already doing some additional work in other genres (in a town like Phoenix, you better have more than one trick in your bag) I figured I would start to shoot more of that and people would see me in a new light.

I learned that it takes more than a different portfolio to change your brand in the mind of people who have known your brand for many years. I would show my book, full of table top, food and portraits and would hear things like;

“Nice book, you shoot fashion, right?”
“Wow, I didn’t know you shot still life. But we don’t do much fashion here.”
“Where did the girls go?”

I didn’t realize that in order to change my personal brand, it would take a few years and concerted efforts to do so. I expected a new portfolio would be all that was needed.

I was wrong. And since I had stepped away from the fashion work (department stores and boutiques) the void was already filled and I had a real hard couple of years before I got back.

I should have begun changing my brand BEFORE walking away from the work I was doing. Making a more gradual transition instead of the cliff dive method I chose.

Confusing A Job Description with Mystical Talent

Art Directors.

I thought of them as the most visually literate among us. I mean they were the cream of the visual arts crop. I would hold them up to amazing worship status. They knew about how to make ads great, and they would demand more from me than I had because of their greatness.

I was intimidated and emotionally fearful of those job titles. I let them treat me poorly, demand more than was fair, and in some cases pay less than they should have. I was in such awe of their “talent” that I figured they must always be right and if I got it wrong… well then I must suck, visually.

That held me back for years. This feeling that somehow I wasn’t up to that level of greatness I bestowed upon them. Because of a job title.

That changed one summer. A tough gig for a tough AD, and when that month was over I realized that this locally famous, top-notch AD was actually a wretched fraud who copied most everything he did from Dallas and Minneapolis designers.

Once that wall was down, I began to see how I actually did fit into the scheme of things. I realized that they were simply professionals doing what they do, and I was just as professional in what I do. That silly mysticism vanished and I found some confidence I really needed.

Letting a Competitor “Own” Me

Wow… letting it all out here… heh.

Yeah, I let another photographer ‘own’ my brain for a few years. He set up a second condo in there and everything I saw was through the prism of this other guy – and how I could best his work, and get even for all the transgressions he had committed against me and my work.

You have to understand that we did not know each other. We had a friendly “hey, how are you” relationship when we would meet at the lab, and everyone met at the lab at one time or another.

But HELL – that didn’t matter. When he got a gig, he “stole” it from me. When I got a gig, I “stole” it from him. His accomplishments were giant humiliations to me. My accomplishments were proof of my dominance over him.

Looking back on this time is painful. I cannot even imagine how many missed opportunities there were because of this stupid, nearly obsessive, one sided war. I am actually a bit ashamed of my behavior at that time, and I can say absolutely that it cost me money. Lots of money.

Most of the stupid things we do costs us money… maybe not directly, but indirectly it can be devastating.

I was having lunch downtown one day, when he came in alone. He saw me sitting there and asked if he could sit with me. We talked about the business, and he told me how much he liked my work, and how he was going through a rough patch. I told him if he needed anything, to let me know – and he that he could use my studio anytime if he needed to.

He moved out of my head that day, and later he actually moved away to another town where he did quite well. I was and am glad for him.

Never let someone else be in charge of your life. Lesson learned.

Putting ALL The Eggs In One Flimsy Basket

“I’ve got something for you…”

It started that way. A deal so big it was almost unbelievable. A shoot so enormous in scope that it could be the only client I needed. A deal so magnificent that I would never have to look for a client again, I would have all I wanted to shoot delivered to me and paying fees that were downright awesome each and every week.

Who could pass up a deal like that. Especially when you have $1270 in the bank and $76,000 in receivables. I was so tired of being a bank for my clients – waiting 60, 90, 120 days for payment after paying my vendors in thirty. Peter robbing Paul who had his hands in Peter’s back pocket.

So I embraced the big deal.

And it went great for nearly a year. Just enough time for me to get lazy about the portfolio, stop seeing clients I had nurtured for years, and to sort of be “dark” within the industry. I was making great money and shooting as much as I wanted.

I have not the time or the space here to tell you what happened. I am sure you already have figured out that it went south.


I lost a lot of money, a lot of time, and a lot of contacts. I was able to rebuild – once more. I will never put myself into one of those situations again. I am more astute of the world of business, and I have a well refined bullshit detector that has become a big part of my vetting process.

Yeah – I have a vetting process.

And never ever put all of your income stream into one “amazing” deal unless you have strong contingencies for the inevitable “too good to be true” awakening.

Above are some big mistakes that cost time, money and most importantly energy. Energy that should have been focused on creating more, but instead had to be utilized to ‘dig out’ or change course.

And yeah, it happens to a lot of us. I am grateful that none of them were able to take me down to the mat- although a few came close.

I will probably make other mistakes as I continue on. I hope that I have at least learned the lessons from above and make all brand new, shiny stupid mistakes in the future.

(I did not mention the disaster that taking on a partner cost me… both in business and money. Suffice it to say that I will NEVER have another partner, and in any case we will BOTH have to sign any check that is issued for anything. If you don’t follow that rule with your partner, you may wake up wishing you had.)

In Commercial Photography Some Things Change and Some Things Don’t

On assignment in West Texas, we decided that the local characters would give the well a lot more context.

On assignment in West Texas, we decided that the local characters would give the well a lot more context.

Some Things Change, and Some Things Stay the Same

The constant, and rapidly changing landscape of photography continues unabated. Some may think of this as a very scary time to be in this business. They may be right… for them.

For me it is nearly a miraculous time to be in the photography business. From amazing gear to incredible innovation, it surrounds us every day. Perhaps it has become so ubiquitous that we don’t even see it when it is staring us in the face.

Change, baby. Everywhere.

I just read an article about some wedding guy going with Micro 4/3 and giving up his Nikons. Another article on what looks like a very cool 300WS studio flash with TTL for under $300. One photographer is shooting on a massive camera on handmade paper, while another is exploring Iceland with nothing but an iPhone. Both of them are getting images that are amazing.

The business part is changing as well. A recent study by web folk who study this sort of thing found that people respond more to big photographs on web pages than they do small. They also found that the cheap, crappy stock image is worse for the site than if there were no image at all.


Photographs WORK? Photographs help sell stuff? Good photography matters?

Dang… who could have known?

Well, WE PHOTOGRAPHERS SURE AS HELL KNEW. Most competent ad agencies and graphic designers know. (Although there are a lot of graphic designers out there who have obviously bought into the free or dirt cheap RF stock junk. Too bad, losers.)

Now we are being backed up by non-photographers.

Our job now is to let our clients know how valuable a photograph is. Let them know that skimping on photography is a fast way to fewer sales and pointing them in the right direction is one of our purposes.

And we do that by doing the best work. Always the best work. No slacking, no hacking, no short cuts. We do the best work we can, and we do it over and over again.

We have to be able to show the client the difference between hack crap and good imagery. If we can’t, we may find that we are not making much headway.

I recently did a portfolio review with a photographer who was struggling a bit. He was having trouble connecting to his audience, and getting clients to say yes was becoming a very difficult endeavor. He was showing his book diligently, but getting no offers.

Problem was that while his book was that of an emerging photographer, the work ranged from ‘meh’ to good, and a few ‘greats’ thrown in almost as an afterthought.

When I remarked on is truly impressive images, he would say something like “yeah, I wasn’t sure about that one.” And he was sure about the mundane boring stuff?

The reality is that he was nearly totally cut off from the world of commercial photography. He took his cue from Model Mayhem, 500PX and G+.

When I asked him about some commercial shooters in his town (Google is your friend), he didn’t know who they were or what they did. He didn’t look at magazines or online publications. He was in a vacuum, and nobody can hear you scream in space.

When you show your work, you will be judged on more than the individual images, you will be judged  by how well you understand the genre you are presenting. Is it within the genre of the client?

Wine bottles lit by umbrellas, ‘fashion models’ who are obviously 5’1”, car shots of last years models, food shots that look cold and stale, bad natural light still life work… all can lead to a single image bringing down the entire book.

The question becomes “why are they showing me this? Do they think this is cool? Can they not see it is horribly presented? How did they get all those other shots I wonder?”

Doubt. And doubt doesn’t close deals.

Free Selina Maitreya video series on becoming more than you ever thought possible.

Some truths about this highly competitive business:

  1. Showing 10 great shots is far better than showing those same ten great shots mixed in with 20 other turkeys.
  2. You cannot edit your own work (mostly). Find someone to help you. A mentor or good friend who you TRUST.
  3. Do not be defensive, but do be strong. If three people you trust say ‘take it out’ then I would consider that some strong indication that while you may love it, it doesn’t ‘fit’ in your portfolio. Perhaps you need more of that kind to give it some context
  4. Make no excuses. Yeah, it was a crazy day and the MUA was late and it rained and three rabid wolves chased off the stylist, but once the hail stopped you were able to get a few shots in before the lightning destroyed the set, they look pretty good, all things considered. Bucky… on one cares about the things considered. Your ‘masterpiece’ under fire is a dud.
  5. Always be shooting. You should be adding new work to your site weekly if you are emerging as a shooter. That’s the time you have to DO the shots you want. Once the ball gets rolling, it may be tougher to find the time to do them. And they are VITAL to the ‘warm fuzzies’ for art directors and designers who may be following along.

The business is changing rapidly, but there are some things that are not changing… and showing top notch work, developing a body of work and keeping your work in front of people who buy is still as important, if not more important, than it has ever been.

So enjoy your new “mirrorless” or MFT, and dig into that Medium Format with gusto. Grab those new strobes and tell us all about them on the various social media… but remember that the words won’t count as much as the images you create with them.

If your client is looking for a technical writer who knows everything about every lens ever made, you may get a shot at it. But if they are looking for a photographer, you better make sure your portfolio is up to snuff, full of new work, and ready to be shown

That much will stay the same for a while longer. I’m sure.
I would love to hear your comments on the ways you are working to keep your portfolio up. Add them in the comments.


“I think that its a society that has totally lost its bearings on the terms of what its values are, and so its put all its value into celebrity. There is such a lack of spiritual self confidence perhaps that the achievers seem to have to be the kind of holy cows that people worship.”

— Editor, Vanity Fair, ca 1993

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“The great thing about the job was that in the evenings when we weren’t doing these ads, we photographed Anjelica Huston and Julie Driscoll. Polly Mellon, the fashion editor was there – it must have been for Vogue. Julie Driscoll was a pop singer with Brian Auger and Trinity. Musically they were a very hot band at the time. At the end of the shoot, Dick (Avedon) gave her a kiss and she, being very, very English, said in her slightly Cockney accent, “Oh, I bet they’ll be awful,” which is a totally English way to say “Thank you.” He just froze. He sort of straightened, and said, “When I take pictures, they’re good.””

— Neil Selkirk on Richard Avedon

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Two Articles on Printing at Nearly the Same Time


Awesome coincidence? Or a convergence of some unknown force?

I do not know, but it is interesting nonetheless.

Last week Petapixel ran an article I had written titled “Prints. Remember Prints?”


(Article Here)

Almost immediately afterwards they ran Lynne Cartia’s wonderful article on the importance of a printed photograph.


(Article Here)

I think that is cool juxtaposition.

And I hope it makes people think a bit more about how important prints are to the lifeblood of photography.

Moodboard: Edgy Portraits

Here are a few portraits that caught my eye last week. I hope you enjoy the picks.

Ryan McGehee delivered this exceptional portrait. Brave crop, lighting that engages and mystifies and an absolutely charming face.

Ryan McGehee's portrait inspired by the work of Sarah Moon

Ryan McGehee’s portrait inspired by the work of Sarah Moon

Kine Meijer showed this unique portrait and knocked me out.

Kine Meijer was also inspired by Sarah Moon, but delivers her own amazing take.

Kine Meijer was also inspired by Sarah Moon, but delivers her own amazing take.

Gabriella Wright’s dancer is captivating.


Gabriella Wright added movement and mystery to her portrait of a young girl.

Hiram Chee created this stunning fashion shot.


Hiram Chee, based in Santa Cruz, shot this beautiful fashion portrait.

Rob Davidson chose a 4×5 Speed Graphic and Ektar Film for this moody portrait.

Rob Davidson and a 4x5 Graphlex / Ektar Film

Rob Davidson and a 4×5 Graphlex / Ektar Film

Jeff Carson captured a very strange and engaging portrait of a young woman and a mask.

Jeff Carson and a masked subject create a mystical and intriguing portrait.

Jeff Carson and a masked subject create a mystical and intriguing portrait.

I will share the entire class portfolio later this week… it is incredible.

Join Selina Maitreya in a Free Video Course to Help Move You Forward.


I have known Selina for many years. I have all of her books, and have trained with her. I consider her a mentor, coach and friend.

Selina has joined us here on Lighting Essentials many times, and each time is a delightful experience for me.

Selina was perhaps the first commercial photography rep in Boston (or perhaps anywhere) and she represented some of the biggest names in the business. Today she is working with photographers to help get them motivated, moving and most importantly… out of their own way.

I have known many photographers who have gone through here one on one’s and her portfolio rebuilding exercises, and all have benefitted greatly from the experience.

Now you have the opportunity to experience Selina’s approach to becoming all you can be for absolutely free.

Take some time to listen to these videos and open your mind to the possibilities that are all around you.

I am really enjoying these videos… I hope you do as well.

Register for the free video course here.

“Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary.”

–Peter Lindbergh

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The Proof Is In The Pudding… Make Sure You Have a Killer Recipe

chi-redhead-4“The proof is in the pudding.”

Always wondered about that term, so I looked it up.

According to the Urban Dictionary;

“The original phrase is “The proof of the pudding is in the eating!”
Which means you have to eat the pudding to know what’s inside of it.

The modern version of ‘the proof is in the pudding’ implies that there “is a lot of evidence that I will not go through at this moment and you should take my word for it, or you could go through all of the evidence yourself.”


That is pretty much what I thought.


Check out these free videos from Selina Maitreya. Seriously good stuff!

Your portfolio is sort of like the pudding in question. It’s proof that you can do what you say you can do right there on page, screen, or tablet.

Can you light a wine bottle and show the wine and the label – and do it from an angle that makes remakes a simple shot into a real challenge? Can you be set up and waiting for the moment when the semi-celebrity who promised you 30 minutes comes in 27 minutes late and declares that he has no time, and to get on with it – and nail the shot with confidence? Can you bid a complex job so that there are no surprises, no glitches, and no “extra fees?”

That’s the pudding baby… and it is the proof you need to your prospective clients as well as yourself.Cause if you aren’t sure, they aren’t sure. And you will not be getting a PO.

That doesn’t require being cocky or arrogant. (OK, a little arrogance is fine, just don’t let it go to your head and forget where you came from… ) It means you are sure of your self, and your abilities, and know how to get the stuff done that must be done.

It also means being aware that there are occasions where it is simply not possible. Shooting fashion on the beach during a torrential rain is going to be a cancellation day, as is the afternoon the power grid goes out on a big location shoot at the clients offices.

Stuff happens.

But most of the time we can pull a rabbit out of a dingy, soon to be recycled old hat. It is, ahem, what we do.

We make crappy products look amazing.
We make mediocre food look appetizing and delicious.
We add new life and interest to a 56 year old townhouse.
We make OTR crap look ‘cool’ enough for someone to want to buy it.
We help people sell stuff, and we do it with skills and a vision and a surety of purpose that we know what we are doing.

The ‘proof’ is in the pudding… fine, but remember it’s OUR dang pudding. We know what went into it and how it should be served. We are the masters of our own vision.

If we let others mess with our work, without giving us a chance to do what we do – the way we do it, it can be both frustrating and bad for business. We are hired to do a job, and we should be willing to fight to do it right.

Our job is to make the VP of Finances smile by making images that grow sales beyond projections.
Our job is to make images that bring more people to the website than ever before.
Our job is to createiImages that help seal the brand idea with the visitor so that there is no doubt in their mind that THIS is the company they want to do business with.
Our job is to help business make more money by making a better visual product.

Professional commercial photography should be viewed as a profit center, bringing clarity, consistency and brand loyalty to the front of the mind of the viewer. Great images create great brands.

Think of our largest, premium brands… the ones that get to a level all their own.

Nieman Marcus. Gucci. Prada. Lamborghini. Cartier. Harley Davidson.

Do they scrimp on advertising? Nope.

Do they look for the cheapest photographer? Nope.

Do they understand that excellent imagery SELLS better than crappy stock or amateurish attempts?

Yes they do.

They know it.
We know it.

Now, how do we get our prospective client to know it? The guy who called and wanted your bid for some interiors, and reads from a script on what they are looking for – or the woman on the phone who doesn’t introduce herself, but simply blurts out “How much do you charge for a shot of a …”

Yeah… we get those calls. And part of us wants to jump on the bid right away. We are in the mindset of “we are right for every job that comes in and if we don’t get every job that comes in we are lower than the grub worms that crawl in the dirt because we NEED every job that comes in to validate our recent Broncolor system…” or whatever variation works for you.

Hey – guess what – you don’t really need the “howmuchayoucharge” crap. It will never pay you enough, and you will begin to doubt that you are worth more.

I get these calls as well… and I am always courteous, friendly and sincere. I ask them to hold up for a minute and begin to ask them questions about the possibilities of the gig. I ask outright how many other photographers are they calling and if they had seen my website.

If they are calling more than a couple and they have not seen my website, then I politely tell them I am probably not the right photographer for them. I do not try to ‘educate them’ nor do I ridicule their poor business sense. Too much water under that bridge. You can try if you want, but my experience is that their mindset is on ‘cheap’ and it covers more territory than just photography.

However, I will also ask for an email address so I can send them something that is indicative of what I do, and most of the time I get one. I want to give them a taste of the pudding, and reinforce why they should consider photography or design (especially mine) to be more than a line item on their budget.

I want them to realize that great photography and design MAKES more money than it costs.

We will get the kinds of clients that we look for.
We will get more of the kind of clients that we work for.
Whether they be cheapos or premium, the laws of attraction seem to work that way.

We also earn a reputation for what we do… and this is one terribly difficult thing to rebuild if we let ours slip.

Do we have a reputation of a premium shooter, who helps their clients create stunning work for stunning results? Does our portfolios say that we are problem solvers, and that our work makes a difference for our clients? Do we make careful, thoughtful, powerful images that produce results?

And can we articulate why professional photography, and ours in specific. can enhance their needs beyond a piece of flat art representation? Can we justify our photography as a revenue investment instead of a line item?

Or do we just take pictures?

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

Ten Beliefs That Suck the Life out of Photographers


What if I told you it was not the industry, the bad economy, where you live, what camera you shoot with, how many lights you have or how small your Facebook following is that is holding you back. None of those are truly capable of stopping you, they are only challenges for you to meet.

The same challenges everyone who creates art or starts a business has to meet and beat.

The things that are truly holding you back are your own beliefs. Belief that it IS one of those reasons above. Believing that it is a geography thing that keeps you from excelling, or what gear you use or how many lights you take with you is more damaging than any REAL challenge you will ever have to meet.

Because they have no substance, these limiting beliefs can grow to fit any size needed to keep you from moving forward.

If it was simply a wall in front of you, there would be many different ways to move on. Scale it, go around it, blow it up… all sorts of ways to get it done.

But if the wall is a creation inside your mind, there is no way around it, it will grow higher than any ladder you have and it becomes impervious to any and all attempts to blow it up. It does this insidiousness because we want it to. We control its size and power.

So lets look at ten beliefs and maybe offer a suggestion on how they may be more in our heads than in our reality.

  1. We must have professional level gear to be a pro.
    No. We may need it at some point, but before we get to that point we need to make a gazillion images with the gear we have. And if we cannot make images that people want to pay us for with what we have, chances are they will still not want to buy them when they are made with pro gear. A crappy image is a crappy image no matter how many pixels there are.
  2. We have to live in a big city.
    No. You may have to have access to a big city, but then you do have Internet, FedEx, the USPS, and a phone. There are many photographers who are working for major clients while living in the rural town of their choice. They simply wanted to live there more than the big city, and they found the ways to do it.
  3. We must have a portfolio equal to Avedon or McCurry to even be considered.
    No. We must have a portfolio of course. And it must have wonderful images in it, but everyone starts somewhere, and clients know that. You may not get picked up by Vogue for a shoot with a small portfolio, but there are indeed other magazines that will hire you, and pay you, and help you build your work to be worthy of Vogue.
  4. We have to have thousands of hours experience.
    No… mostly. We DO need experience. We DO need to have some work under our belts in order to get the big gigs. But we need to do a lot of small gigs to build a book that will get us the bigger gigs… and then the really big gigs. It is a process, one that starts small and grows.
  5. We must never work for free.
    No. Working for free is sometimes the ONLY way to get the experience, credibility and inroads that allow us to work for pay. NEVER be exploited by working for free, but learn to recognize opportunity as a huge currency that is many times worth more than the paltry fees the gig may pay. (Note: If you are not sure which is which, you may NOT be ready… so keep working on learning the business.)
  6. We must have a huge internet following to be considered.
    No. In fact most working photographers have only a portfolio and simple blog. Some do indeed have a big following on some social platforms, but the majority do not. Instead they have a following of clients that they work hard for, and couldn’t care less about social media fame. The working world still has not caught up to the interwebs, and although I do think that building a solid online brand is important, it will mean less than diddly when you are pitching a real client for a real gig.
  7. We obviously suck because the pros do it so easily.
    No. The pros simply have more experience, more hours setting up lights, a ton of history in doing that same thing… and they are still busting their ass to make it more perfect, more special than last time. They do make it LOOK easy, but take it from me – they are still sweating bullets – they are better at hiding it than you are.
  8. “All we need is…”
    No. We call that the magic bullet syndrome. All we need is “one good job” or “that new lens” or “a bigger studio” or… NO. There is no magic bullet, no shortcut, no “easy” button or challenge buster that can be purchased. There is only a commitment to the struggle, and a focus on the outcome.
  9. Professional photographers are special, with special talents and special lives.
    No. They are just like everyone else. They didn’t get there by luck, or anointment – they worked hard and long and with focus to get to that point. Yes, some have incredible ways of seeing the world, but then they have worked at that as well. You see, they take a lot of photographs… a heck of a lot of photographs to develop that vision
  10. No one is able to make a living in this business anymore.
    No. That is horse apples. There are thousands of working commercial photographers. And they are going to be shooting tomorrow. Some you may know, and most you will not have heard of – or from. Not every photographer is on Facebook whining about how bad it is out there… only the ones for whom it is bad out there. And I can assure you for every photographer that is complaining or whining about it, there is one doing it. Making the images, doing the marketing, creating their vision and always ALWAYS holding that picture of what will be in front of their eyes.

Yes, there are a lot of other challenges that must be met. It is a different world than it was a dozen or two years ago, but it is still an occupation that has growth and possibilities. They youngsters know it. One couple turned weekend trips into free image giveaways that is now making them a a tidy living while starting to accept assignments. Another photographer who shoots for major corporations lives in a tiny town in West Texas. I know a product shooter who lives in Portland, and is marketing all over his region – and nationally.

I am not a Pollyanna, but I am a positive person when it comes to people and their capabilities. You may have to give up some things in order to do other things – we call that “duh” – but that is still in YOUR control. Watch less TV, spend more time making pictures, capture a weekend a month for project work, and make building your photography business a priority.

Whether you want to go into business or simply make better photographs, the power to do that lies within you. What you listen to, what you agree with, and the people that influence you all have a big measure of influence on how you see yourself and this world of images.

You can control that measure of influence. It is YOUR life, and I would suggest you stop participating in the pity parties and the “oh whoa is us” crowd and make images. Obviously it didn’t work out for them, and now their main goal is to stop you from making it a go. What would it mean to them if you succeeded where they failed.

Far easier to blame the world for their failures than to watch someone else actually win. And even if that is not reality, it can BECOME their reality if they believe it strong enough.

Before you believe everything question everything. When someone says “nobody can make a living in this anymore” look around for someone who is, and find out what they are doing. If something sounds improbable, it may be. Research it. Nail it down.

There is a simple way to work around these challenges. Make more images. Make images that compel others to view them. Making images is the best possible thing that photographers can do to advance their work and their business. So put this computer away and go out into the world… click, baby, click!

New Portrait Class (Enrolling)


We just wrapped up the first group in our 8 Week Portrait Class. The results are incredible.

The idea is to immerse oneself in the work of a master portrait photographer (you can see the list of photographers here) and begin to understand what, how and most importantly why they do what they do.

The idea is not to copy, or become faux-togs of the original masters, but to learn from them and be inspired to develop our own vision.

Clark Terry, jazz master once said; “Imitate. Assimilate. Innovate.” No one could say it better. LEARN what the masters do. Incorporate it into your work, and INNOVATE your own stylistic approaches as you develop a wider kit of possibilities.

The second set of eight photographers is up next… and the class has only ten openings as of this morning. It is a bit different as we are taking it a little slower with a longer lead time between classes.

For more information on our Portrait Class 102, see this page.

A few shots from our students in the first class.

How Can A Single Photograph Tell a Story?


Recently Stefan Sagmeister posted a video in which he excoriates designers for using the word “story” in their descriptions of what they do. Whether you agree or disagree, it is a compelling video. Personally, I am not 100% on board with his statements. There are some merit, but it all seems a bit pedantic to me.

You can see the video here.

I will note that he was not talking to photographers, but the design community. However some photographers thought that he was referring to the growing cliche of photographer storytellers.

I don’t believe he was, but I thought it important to address what he said and defend the idea that a single photograph can tell a ‘story’.

Not a novel, of course. Nor a novella or an article or much of anything that is linear… that would take several photographs usually. We would have a beginning, middle, and end photograph to give that linear flow that stories – complete stories – have.

With one single photograph, we are looking for something that is not as linear, but more of an excerpt. We may have to intuit or create the beginning and imagine the end… or any variation there of, but we definitely see more than the simple flat representation.

I believe the vast majority of images made are not designed to tell a story. They are reportage, representational, pretty, or a form of social proof that one did something. A visual diary of an adventure – big or small – and a fascination with the power of context a frame can give something simple or majestic.

But there are a few images and image makers that work diligently to present images that inspire us to think story… at least snippets of stories. The power of the still image is that it can help us recall emotions and moments of our own lives that may have nothing at all to do with the image before us.

This photograph by Sally Mann is compelling in ways that belong only to the viewer. The image of a young girl with the candy cigarette and very serious face leads the viewer to moments in their own childhood… and what happened before and after this brief sliver of time is up to the viewer to fill in. However it is seen, it certainly is a moving photograph.


Brian Sokol’s image of a cyclone victim is full of stories. We share context with this man, we share a known set of variables. We may not know the particulars, but we know what has happened. That is story.


Bert Stern used the context of Buster Keaton’s slapstick humor to make this image connect. Those of you too young to remember Keaton may not see what the image was conveying, but those who share the experience of seeing his off the cuff silliness know. Stern used this to make an image that conveys a message far beyond “drink smirnoff”, and introduced another level of connection between viewer and subject. Story – no matter how brief or different each viewer’s experience is.


What does it take to make an image that would be considered to tell a story? Wow… that would be almost as difficult as describing what makes a good melody.

Most of it would have to do with context I believe, and shared experiences.

Context is how the photographer frames his subjects, what the subject is doing in the image, and whether or not the viewer can see that relationship between subject and surroundings enough to form a glimpse into possible scenarios. Context is arguably the most powerful part of the image making process.

A flat surrounding may not offer any glimpse at all into the environment, and in that case the subject and how they are reacting to the camera would be the focus of the story. Scenarios that include backgrounds may use them to set cultural equivalencies that help us with our shared experiences.

A large silo on a flat landscape can say midwest, while cactus and canyons signify the west. Old row houses and fog may bring us the shared idea of New England even to those who have never been there. We’ve seen it, we share its characteristics.

We all know what a devasted town looks like. We may not be able to see the tornado, but we knew it was there… and now it is not. A single image reminds us of that fact… town = tornado = destruction = healing. The emotional toll is captured in a single frame, but the shared experience provides a narrative.


In commercial photography it becomes harder to tell a story if all the client wants to tell in the photograph is that their coffee machine has bigger buttons than the competition.

But there are opportunities to create more compelling and narrative driven images and when given the chance, commercial photographers can use all of their skill at crafting images to help craft the narrative as well.

This photo by my friend Jan Klier shows us something we have probably not seen before. There is a narrative here, something that is driving the women to be in this position at this precise moment in time. However, we have no idea what it is… so we provide our own. I think one could tell an entire short story based on this image… go ahead. Give it a shot.


A food shot by photographer Sampsel Preston tells a delightful little story of texture and color and design. This is not a novel, but we can see the context of the colors, shapes and textures, and deliver a narrative on what is happening here. Perhaps all we wonder at is the beautiful colors and exotic looking food in the containers. Fine… that wonder is a bit of a story, isn’t it. Not a long one, or one with lots of plot twists, but a very fine little tale that holds our interest.


I love the still image, and I am constantly amazed at the stories some of them can conjure within the viewer. A few of my favorite photographers adept at telling little stories in their single, still images.

Richard Avedon
Paul Caponigro
Stephen Shore
Helmut Newton
Guy Bourdin
Dorothea Lange
Peggy Sirota
Patrick Demarchelier
Arthur Elgort

There are many more. Many.

I think that the goal of telling even the smallest story in a single image is a tough one to achieve, but it is worth the struggle. Even if we are not totally successful, the image we work to will be more compelling than if we had simply clicked the shutter without a vision of our own.

Because our own vision, and its creation, can be a story in itself.

What do you think? Can a single still image convey a story?

P52 Member Alicia Bonterre wins Two ADDY’s… WOW

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Alicia Bonterre: Photographer, Trinidad and Tobago

Alicia Bonterre: Photographer, Trinidad and Tobago


Alicia Bonterre started with P52 about two years ago. She wanted to up her game, create images outside of her comfort zone, and become better at commercial photography.

She just won two ADDY’s – A GOLD and a SILVER … so, we can safely agree she has indeed upped her game. The entire P52 gang are so very proud of Alicia’s progress and it is nice to see heer talent recognized in the ad agency world.

(The ADDY is the ad world’s version of the Academy Award, or the Grammy. It is one of the most prestigious awards a commercial photographer can receive.)

In Alicia’s own words:

To photograph 12 images for a 2015 calendar for a local chain of supermarkets. The title of the calendar was “Grandma’s Remedies” and was to feature local herbs and “bush medicine.” The Ad agency gave me the list of herbs and the methods for their use, and I was asked to source, style and shoot. I met with the AD, the graphic artist and Account Executive to discuss the concept, layout, budget etc. Originally I was to shoot 8 of the 12 images with the other 4 to be sourced from stock, but after seeing the first set of images I delivered, they asked me to do all 12. I did up the story and mood boards for each and they were all approved.


The first challenge was sourcing the items as many of these, although common, just weren’t readily available in my area or at the time. Because most of these were plants, wilting was a major problem as I could only get some of these from people’s yards and keeping the plant fresh after picking was a major challenge. In addition, I was only given this assignment a month before Christmas with the calendar needing to be in stores two weeks before then, so time was of the essence.


I spent 4 days sourcing which meant visiting the shops, my mom’s collection of antiques and novelties, friends’ cupboards, plant nurseries and the gardens of friends and their neighbors. Due to wilting some of the plants need to be collected just hours before they were to be shot.


Another challenge was that I don’t have a studio so I removed as much furniture from my moderately sized living room as I could and used there. This room is also very open with large windows on every side which is lovely for some images but for others it required a lot of flagging to shape the light.


The shoot was completed over 3 days. I started with the items that I had on hand most likely to wilt. I shot tethered using Lightroom and would scale to view for accuracy of layout as the format was 9” by 12”. I had to make sure that everything would fit including a space for the fairly large date pad (approx. 25%) and the copy of the description and method of use for the herbs with a little breathing room for good measure.


Starting early, I would set up, shoot, edit,resize, and e-mail to A.D. for approval before breaking down the set. While waiting for approval I would set up and do another shoot, I would keep rotating like that averaging about 4 images a day. Some shots used natural light but I love the control I get from my strobes and flashes and often would bounce light off a large foam core board to create soft natural looking light so I could keep my ISO low while shaping the light.


This was my first proper commercial job, but thanks to all the similar exercises done in Project 52, it was not new to me. I felt confident in accepting the job and felt I did a good job and the client was pleased. We are taught to shoot for our portfolios every assignment and this habit is now ingrained in me, so having to deliver that level of quality was not daunting.


That being said, I was very surprised to learn that my work gained the Ad agency Gold and Silver awards for Photography Campaign in the 2015 Caribbean ADDY. Up till then I had only a vague knowledge even of the existence of these awards so it was difficult for me to understand the importance of it. This has given me the encouragement to push further, learn more, want more, do more, be more. As a wonderful saying goes “If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough!”

Keep dreaming those big dreams, Alicia… they are working well for you.

The award winning images below:

From the Portrait Workshop: Inspired by Dan Winters


Imitate. Assimilate. Innovate. — Clark Terry, jazz trumpet legend.

It is still the best way to learn art. And it drives the style of teaching I do. I don’t want anyone to copy anyone else, but rather to be inspired by the work of others. In the portrait class, we have looked at seven artists, all masters of portraiture in their own style. We have taken them apart to see how they work, and how they present that work to the world.

And then we get inspired to produce work that pays homage to the master, while hopefully forging our own style and essence into the image.

Dan Winters is a treasure for photographers wanting to learn what style is. His work has been featured the world over, and he has one of the most recognizable ‘styles’ in the business. The students spent two weeks pouring over his images, watching videos and generally discussing what makes the Winters image work so well.

And then they took what they learned and made an image… some images are direct homage, and others take what they learned and put it into their own voice. A voice that may be far from the inspirational, but also one that respects what came before.

I think the photographers did an outstanding job working with one of America’s most iconic shooters.

8 Week Workshop: Portraits Inspired by Herb Ritts.

The goal is not to copy, but be inspired by… Learning about a photographer like the remarkable Herb Ritts helps us to evaluate our own work, see it with new eyes and blend what we learn into our own mix. The photographers who study the past forge new paths into the future… not only for their own work, but for the art in general.

Congrats to these talented and very dedicated group of students.

A Few Words on that “Unphotoshopped Cindy Crawford Photo” Crap

A few days ago, this was making big news online… wow. Imagine Cindy Crawford having the guts to go public in a photograph that was un-retouched in Photoshop.

Yeah… wow. Big F’n Deal.

Of course she did that for two decades and more. You know that, right?

Of this I can speak firmly. We didn’t have Photoshop in the 40’s. 50’s. 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s. At the beginning of the 2000’s it was being used a bit more, until we arrive at today where the non-use of it seems to be big news.

Here is Cindy, circa 1980’s. NO Photoshop.


(Christy Brinkley, 80’s) (Christy Turlington, 80’s) (Elle MacPherson, 80’s) (Tyra Banks, 80’s) – NO PHOTOSHOP

For people who have NO sense of history, how it all became. They gotta 5DMKIII and LIFE STARTS NOW.


We will look at the insincerity of the photograph of Cindy in a moment, but first a history lesson.

We made the photographs using skills in lighting. LIGHTING. L I G H T I N G.
We had a cadre of amazing MakeUp Artists, Stylists, Lighting Assistants… all focused on making the image – perfect. Cause there was no ‘fixing’ them later.

Imagine that.

We made prints lovingly and by hand in dark, smelly rooms that perhaps robbed us of a few years of longevity.

Those prints were lovingly delivered to magazines where they were sent for halftone scans. (No, they did not have banks of ‘retouchers’ to ‘airbrush’ each editorial image. Anyone who tells you that was never there, and making that shit up. DIDN’T HAPPEN.)

We also shot this magic stuff called “Transparency” film… a ‘slide’ by another name. The image was what it was. If you blew exposure by a 1/3 stop, it was there for all the world to see in the transparency. If you missed focus you ended up with what we would technically call a ‘soft image’… no amount of work at the scanning houses was going to fix it. And many ‘soft’ images made it into print… because ART.

Find a few 80’s / 90’s Vogue, W, Italian Vogue (my favorite), Bazaar or other fashion magazines. Find a few early issues of People, Time, Life, Look, – hey – find a magazine printed before 2003 – ANYGDAM one. NO. PHOTOSHOP.

PHOTOGRAPHY done right by craftspeople and artists and damned skilled creators. Guess what we never said? “Fix it in Photoshop” – cause we. like, didn’t know what that meant in 1987.

So now someone wants you all to believe that PHOTOSHOP is the magic beans of photography. Well, it isn’t.

Light is.

Which brings us to the current image of Cindy…


… and why I call BS on it.


This shot of Crawford was LIT to show her “flaws”. It was PURPOSELY created to show texture and line and the signs of age. It is NOT simply un-retouched, it is, in fact, ENHANCED through the lighting.

If you brought a model who looked like this to any decent photographer, they could choose to mitigate with lighting (soft non-directional ambient, or large scrim, plenty of fill) or enhance with small, single light source MEANT to bring out any ‘imperfections’ the woman may have.

(NOTE: Before we get pulled into one of those lameass discussions of what ‘beauty’ is, let’s not go there. My belief is that Crawford was and will always be a stunning woman. Age is not a digression in her appeal. Beauty comes in all sizes, shapes, and ages. I stopped shooting fashion BECAUSE I grew weary of shooting 17 year old ‘babies’ who were meant to personify ‘all women’. This whole thing may be a cause-celeb for a lot of folks. I walked away from a solid business because of my beliefs. Beauty if NOT made in Photoshop… and all of my subjects are beautiful to me, no matter who and how old they are.)

However, this image is supposed to be a rally point for the “anti-photoshop” groups, and those for whom the cause of the moment is so awesomely cool, man, they just have to be, like, involved… #trending#badphotographsrockcausetrendingsaysso….

Is this a ‘bad’ photograph of Cindy Crawford. No, of course not. It is as perfect as the photographer CHOSE it to be. The photographer CHOSE a single lightsource with no fill to enhance every line/wrinkle/and skin anomaly that was possible.

But to champion it as a shot of Cindy being brave and shooting without Photoshop leaves that part of the equation, the most important part – LIGHTING – out.

So is the idea that Cindy is brave for not being Photoshopped? That’s no big deal. She has done that before.
Or is it that she ‘risks’ showing off some flaws of age? Well, she CHOSE that when she chose to be shot with this light… so shouldn’t it really be “Cindy Crawford shows us what a beautiful woman looks like with the passage of time”? Cause why would you light her like this and then Photoshop it… That would be stupid.

(Yes, I know… but I don’t want to go there… so stop it. Stop it now… heh)

Where do I fall on the Photoshop or No-Photoshop line. I use Pshop basically the way I used a darkroom. I strive to get it as right in the camera as I possibly can. It is in my photographic DNA, I suppose.

But I also don’t give a rats tushie what others do. I have no dog in this hunt, and usually find such discussions and ‘side taking’ utterly boring and useless.

So “Shop” away if you want. Or not.

But don’t peddle a prepared and purposely lit shot to show ‘flaws’ and expect me to believe that nothing else could be done but Photoshop. That is a lie… there is something we call…


Of course the disservice it does to the amazing photographers of that time… from David Bailey, to Watson, Elgort, Demarchelier, Lindbergh, Ritts, VonUnwerth, Roversi and more… just terrible.

We have an art form that doesn’t even acknowledge its past, but chooses to be led by people who do not have the best interests of photography at their hearts, but the quest for immediate fame and more “likes”… pathetic.


New Camera Announcements from Canon

Some amazing new cameras from Canon. I don’t get involved in new gear releases, but this stuff is starting to get exciting now.


Canon D5


  • 50.6MP Full-Frame CMOS Sensor
  • Dual DIGIC 6 Image Processors
  • 3.2″ 1,040K-Dot ClearView II LCD Monitor
  • Full HD 1080p Video Recording at 30 fps
  • 61-Point High Density Reticular AF
  • 150,000-Pixel RGB+IR Metering Sensor
  • ISO 100-6400; 5.0 fps Burst Shooting
  • Anti-Flicker Compensation
  • User-Selectable Shutter Release Time Lag
  • Dual Compact Flash and SD Media Slots



11-24 EF Canon F4L


  • EF Mount L-Series Lens/Full-Frame Format
  • Constant f/4 Maximum Aperture
  • Super UD, UD, and 4 Aspherical Elements
  • SWC, Air Sphere, and Fluorine Coatings
  • Ring-Type USM Autofocus Motor
  • Internal Focus; Full-Time Manual Focus
  • Weather-Resistant Design
  • Rounded 9-Blade Diaphragm



Canon EOS Rebel T6i DSLR Camera with EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM Lens


  • 24.2MP APS-C CMOS Sensor
  • DIGIC 6 Image Processor
  • 3.0″ 1.04M-dot Vari-Angle Touchscreen
  • Full HD 1080p Video Recording
  • 19-Point All Cross-Type AF System
  • 5 fps Shooting & Extended ISO to 25600
  • Hybrid CMOS AF III & EOS Scene Analysis
  • Creative Filters
  • Built-In Wi-Fi Connectivity with NFC
  • CS100 Connect Station Support


Going North – Taking a Photo Trek


Every year I host a meet-up of Project 52 members. Part workshop, part social, full on fun. There is no fee for this, we share all expenses, so it is a very comfortable and relaxing time with the tribe.

This year we will also be doing a road trip to the north country. The itinerary is the same as this workshop that I planned last year. We have two 12-passenger vans, an aggressive plan, hotel rooms booked, and cameras ready.

Along the way we will be doing portraits, landscapes and still life. I hope to be able to post to the blog next week, and if I can it will probably be video. (I really need to do more video… so do you.) I will also hope that we can post some images from along the road. That week will be a mish-mash of posts, so bear with us as we try something new.

If you have ever taken a Lighting Essentials Workshop, or been a member of the Project 52 groups, you are welcome. I will post next years week when I get back. We will be going to Canyon Lands on that trip, as well as the Grand Canyon and Antelope Canyon. As I said, more to come.



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