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How I ended up in NYC // the long version

February 5, 2018

 

It’s been a month for both planning and reflection as I settle into my first New York studio. I’ve never really been one to make many new years resolutions, but it’s interesting how you almost have to for your business. I’ve been putting together my marketing and campaigns for the year and in turn, reviewing a lot of my older work. I kept on surprising myself with old shoots I had completely forgotten about, and in turn remembering just how humble my beginnings were as a photographer. Make no mistake, I have miles to go still but I am at the very least glad to see just how far I’ve come in the past near decade of shooting. As I continue my foray into the world of commercial photography I figured I could shed a little light on how I got where I am, and hopefully provide a little insight for budding photographers who are just getting their toes wet.

 

One principle I have always vehemently enforced in my career is to always work in my field. I never wanted to wait tables or be an office temp to make ends meet, and I hear daily that the apparently established norm for photographers is to work another day job in a completely unrelated field. I never understood why- a position that allows you to be around what you want to do, is ultimately going to be far more beneficial to you over a couple extra bucks!! Let me be clear however; this is just my experience and I know many, incredibly successful photographers that began their lives doing something completely different. But for me, constantly and exclusively submerging myself in photography was of extreme importance. Art grads typically don’t end up working in their field because of a nice blend of pride, salary requirements, and if anything like me, a dash of ego. So instead of starting as a colorist or an e-commerce photographer or even a B&H sales associate, they start working in a totally different field that pays a little better, just because they can't access the art job they want right away. This is especially true when based in a town that doesn’t cultivate a strong, creative marketplace.

 

My home state of MD is a perfect example. I can guarantee it isn’t on anyone’s radar for lucrative creative opportunities, including myself when I had graduated in 2011. The commercial photography market does exist, but it is a small, tight-knit community that is very difficult to penetrate as a fresh grad with no experience. First things first, it would have been best to move immediately to where the market was, in my case, NYC, LA, or similar. But I needed money to do that- and how was I going to make that money? I realized quickly that MD is a prime spot for high-end weddings, events, and portraiture, and I dove in head-first.

 

Some of my first paid jobs as a photographer were for my University; shooting dance performances, events, senior portraits, that sort of thing, and I eventually got a couple weddings under my belt. I managed to land a steady freelance gig in Ocean City, MD, shooting sunrise beach weddings. While I wasn't passionate about wedding photography, it paid the bills and enabled me to acquire the lighting and techniques needed to expand my fashion and product portfolios. I slid into a short two-month run with a Pennsylvania-based volume portrait studio specializing in newborn portrait photography. Anyone who knows me would be very hard-pressed to imagine me of all people, working with babies and toddlers exclusively, but in my eye, it was still photography. The company had a simple business model relying on the sale of portrait packages and a never-changing template for the in-home portraits. The lights literally had ropes attached so that you placed them at the same angle and distance every time! What they don’t teach you at art school is the absolute importance of sales in photography- think of all the contracts and jobs you have to bid and quote- and this helped me gain some valuable experience with up to 8 clients per day. There was only so much creative stifling I could take and I eventually quit the same day I landed an interview with a high-end wedding and event photography studio based out of Baltimore, MD.

 

 

This was the a turning point in my initial career and the start of my photographic legitimacy. Was I passionate about wedding and bar/bat mitzvah photography? Not really, but it was challenging, and I was exposed to some of the most talented photographers I have ever had the pleasure of working with. If there is anything you learn on the job in this type of photography, it is speed. The ability to turn a dim, bleak Holiday-inn lobby into a stunning image worthy of a Bond movie poster, that is what professional wedding and event photography is all about. All of the lighting principles and setups that I learned in my studio education could be applied and finessed with rampant opportunities in ever-changing locations. I gained a ton of experience color-correcting images from all of the best camera systems, learning each RAW engine’s different eccentricities and how to match them together in a collection. The studio was at my disposal and every weekend I used it to practice new techniques and build on my commercial portfolio. Being a photographer is really about being a problem-solver, and no wedding or event is without at least twenty problems! What I noticed after a year of shooting these events was just how much faster it was for me to acquire my lighting schemes in the studio and in on location with my own models. I developed posing, directing, retouching, selling, contracting, quoting, and every other skill needed to succeed as an independent photographer.

 After two years and countless events later as an assistant, second shooter, and lead photographer, I landed my most recent position as a photographer and retoucher at a studio based in the Turks and Caicos islands. I am confident that I would have never landed this opportunity without my portfolio; a portfolio built on photographing Jewish-orthodox weddings, infant portraits, and beach weddings at sunrise. I finally had a platform to shoot large campaigns, covers, editorials, advertorials, and some of the most incredible global talent over a four year stretch.

 

It’s a long time coming, but here I am- I am now at New York city’s doorstep knocking with an internationally-published portfolio, a studio, and enough equipment to run a rental house. It took almost 10 years to prepare; and that’s the main take-away to those starting out. It will not be fast, it will definitely not be easy, but just imagine how much longer this would’ve taken if I hadn’t built up my experience over all these years, and who’s to say I wouldn’t have lost inspiration without that constant exposure? My resulting aesthetic is well-rounded and diverse and I feel ready to take on almost any assignment. Next on my list? Open the studio!

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© 2018 Frank Withers - use of these images without permission is strictly prohibited