English rock band You Me At Six

Alternative Press is one of my favorite magazine clients to work with  – partly because they send me on assignments to make portraits of great musicians like England’s You Me At Six (who I shot for their December issue) and they always give me a ton of freedom in how I want to interpret each band’s vibe.  Sometimes it comes in handy that my studio is right in the heart of Buffalo’s entertainment/theatre district – because I’m usually no more than a five-minute walk from most of the city’s best venues and that gives me ample time to set up the kind of dark moody images I like to create with a group like YM@6.

Check out this stripped down live recording of You Me At Six’s Room To Breath


Image from LiveBetty Training campaign

I’ve been working with Buffalo, NY based startup LiveBetty, an empowering tech company that allows people to create and manage their own home messaging businesses, to create images for a variety of training and branding uses. The first project I tackled with them was creating aspirational portraits of company spokesmodel Lulu Robinson. We had to find the perfect location for this shoot that looked just like the dream workspace of a successful LiveBetty member, and we found it at redFISH Art Studios in East Aurora, NY. Turns out that the space has the most beautiful apartment upstairs – white wooden floors, beautiful but simple furniture, art EVERYWHERE. I’m not going to lie, if I had my way this is pretty much what my office would look like too – except I’m sure it would probably still be cluttered with knee-high stacks of photo books and LP’s for me and my dogs to weave around just like it is now. LiveBetty head John Wolf has a very cool vision for the growing company and I’m excited to keep working with him on developing the look of the brand.

Some people might say that print is dead – but when it comes to portfolios it’s still, and always will be, my favorite ways to show my work to prospective clients. So I was overjoyed when a package showed up on my doorstep that I’ve been patiently waiting for. Inside was the beautiful new bound portfolio book that I had ordered from Paper Chase Press. The last time I did such a major revamping of my portfolio was in 2012 and that book was predominantly made up of beauty images, my work and client base has evolved a lot in those years and shifted its focus to subjects in the business and creative worlds – so it was about time for something new. This book is made up of a mix of work that covers the best of my editorial and advertising assignments as well as really important personal projects like my rescue dog series and my portraits of Buffalo, NY entrepreneurs who are working to change their city.

I’ll showing this book on several upcoming marketing trips, but I wanted to share it here to give everyone a peek at it while it’s brand-new and fresh. Enjoy!

Oxford Pennant Company Let's Go Buffalo Pennant

I’ve got a really cool pennant that says “Hustle” in bold golden letters hanging in my studio. It’s part conversation starter/part reminder to get off my ass and get working on whatever project I’m trying to launch at the time. If you look at little closer you’ll find a tag on it that proudly exclaims “It’s an Oxford!” which has become the rallying cry for a young business that’s taking a prototypical piece of sports memorabilia and breathing a new sense of style into it. CEO David Horesh and Brand Manager/Designer Brett Mikoll are turning the simple and classic felt pennant into something that’s equal parts Cal Ripken and Kanye West.

Oxford Pennant got its start on the road – specifically the long stretch between Buffalo and Boston where David and Brett were traveling regularly for business while working for another Buffalo entrepreneurial powerhouse, City Dining Cards (and as I’ve said before – their Buffalo Drink Deck is a thirsty and frugal photographer’s very best friend). The pair found themselves inspired by the preppy aesthetic and eye for visual merchandising of the stores they were dealing with that rolled together sports, local pride, and a keen intuition for pop culture. While bouncing ideas off of each other over drinks one night they began looking for a vehicle through which they distill all of their varied interests into one medium – and they knew they didn’t want to make t-shirts. Brett elaborated “We decided we want to do one thing and do it really well, that we wanted to be Oxford Pennant, not the Oxford brand.”

Oxford Pennant Company "Let's Go Buffalo" Pennant

Somehow during the course of their trip the idea of creating pennants took hold, and Dave realized that there was a void in the marketplace for a modern and well-made pennant that focused more on the culture, aesthetics, and nostalgia of athleticism and civic pride than it did on a specific team. “We made a Buffalo pennant, a Boston pennant, and a Pittsburgh pennant to start because we had friends in those cities, and produced about one hundred of them. We figured that we could at least sell them or give them away as Christmas presents and that would be fine. So we quickly launched an Instagram and a Shopify store. I remember laying in bed on Christmas night 2013 registering the domain name and our timeline to launch from there was just about a month,” David told me during one of our many discussions about Oxford.

A month from inception to launch may sound crazy in this era of multi-volume business plans, cap tables, and overwrought marketing campaigns, but it’s indicative of the earnest and intuitive business that Oxford is building – one that embraces the scrappy, fight-to-make-it, mean-something-to-your-fans ethos of the sports legends that Oxford borrows so much from. Regarding their rapid genesis, Dave told me “We decided not to think about it too much, because if we thought about it too much we just wouldn’t do it. I remember sharing this idea with my brother-in-law who had just gone through a crazy period in his life of opening a business, getting married, having a child and moving to Rochester. When I asked him how he got through all this so quickly without going crazy he told me ‘go, ready, set” and go, ready, set is something that I think about all the time now. Sometimes you just have to do it and figure it out along the way, and in this case that worked in our favor.”

Brett from Oxford Pennant Company in Buffalo NY

The duo quickly pulled in project manager Pat Simons, another City Dining Cards alum, to complete Oxford Pennant’s core team. In the past year they’ve grown to a roster of approximately thirty strikingly designed and 100% made-in-America wool and cotton felt pennants that feature phrases like “Started From the Bottom Now We Here” and “Liberty or Death”, and pay homage to locales like Nantucket, Cleveland, and Seattle. One thing that you will immediately notice about all of Oxford’s designs is how minimal they are. “The people that are producing pennants use this rigid, hard, plastic feeling material that doesn’t move. We wanted something that was floppy, so we sourced American made wool and cotton for our felt, and created something that would actually blow in the wind like flag, because that to me is the iconic aesthetic of the pennant. I think that this is another one of those products where less is more, when you have a simple crimson or navy or forest green pennant with a one color print on it that says what you want it to say, it goes so much further than a complicated four color process. If you buy a football pennant now it’s going to have a helmet, and the quarterback throwing a pass, and a fan in the background eating a sandwich. I think that there’s too much in that. You really can’t look at it and appreciate the graphic quality of it.”

And there is something unique about their product, something that evokes that childhood feeling of going to your first game. Even if you were too young to follow the stats and lore of the sport, you knew that this was something formative. I think that there’s something in all of us that wants an artifact of that, something of the ephemera of the game that we could keep with us. For me growing up in Canada it was a puck at a hockey game, and if you grew up in a baseball, soccer, or football town, it was probably a pennant. Before we became consumed with facts and figures, anger about salary caps and trades, and resentment over bad calls and poor league decisions, there was something about the simplicity of the game and cheering for your team that had a much more innocent appeal to it. Oxford has taken that signifier and turned it into a design savvy medium for a certain type of consumer – themselves. ““I think that the reason the product is successful is because our customers are a lot like us. We’re some combination of hip hop, sports, hometown pride, and hard work and I think that speaks to a lot of people. Sure, it’s just a twenty dollar pennant, but we’re lucky to have customers who see what we see in the product.”

Pat Simons of Oxford Pennant Company

And some important people have seen just what David, Brett, and Pat have seen in their pennants, because partnering with other brands to create  items for their audiences is a fast growing part of the Oxford business. Since their launch Oxford has been creating custom products for entities like Burton Snowboards, Mitchell Bat Company, Ninth Inning Tx, Phish, and about sixty other companies and numerous bands. They’ve even collaborated with TSPTR on a Charles Schultz Peanuts Pennant. 

Like a lot of the conversations I’ve had with young entrepreneurs in Buffalo, the team from Oxford had some strong opinions regarding the changes that the city is seeing. Dave equates a lot of their success to being based in Buffalo, but is also wary of the “We exist because of Buffalo. It’s the reason we’re able to do this. I’m originally from Rochester, but Buffalo has become my home. A little company like Oxford can shout loud enough to be heard in Buffalo and that’s definitely helped our brand thrive. As a city, we’re so preoccupied with trying to figure out when we’ve finally made it back to our former glory. I think we’re in a sweet spot right where we are.” Brett added “Buffalo DOES have the prettiest logos in sports though. The Sabres classic logo and the Bills current logo are some of the best looking logos today, beautiful logos.”

Oxford Pennant Company CEO David Horesh

Shutterbug Cover

My portrait of my little friend Birch is on the cover of Shutterbug Magazine this month!

(This is the part where you envision me doing a dramatic and triumphant slow motion fist pump right now)

Maria Piscopo interviewed Isaac Howard, Tim Courtney, Cathy Greenblat, and myself about our work with various charities, non-profits, and volunteer organizations. It covers the ins and outs of what can go right and wrong when donating your time and work and features some of my favorite rescue dog images from the past year.

When I first started photographing dogs it was just something I was going to try for fun so I could make some portraits of my dogs for my fiancee, but it’s turned into a huge part of my business and my life over the last year as I’ve been working with both rescue animals and on advertising campaigns in the veterinary industry. I hope more photographers will start to donate their time to local shelters, as good portraits really help people connect with these animals’ personalities and greatly aid adoption efforts.

You can support and learn more about the City of Buffalo Animal Shelter here. 

You can also support great organizations like notabully.org to help change minds about pit bulls and work to end breed specific discrimination. 

Roxy is an adult female Terrier/Shepherd mix who is currently at the City of Buffalo Animal Shelter hill she waits for adoption by a new and loving family.

I was so sad when I had to put my shelter portraits on a brief hiatus at the end of 2014 – we were undergoing some major renovations at the studio, and didn’t want the pups to have to hang out in the extremely cold space while we installed a brand new heating system (just in time for one of the coldest winters in Buffalo’s history – it’s been post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie cold the last few weeks with the temperatures dipping as low as -10.) But now I’m back into the swing of being able to create new adoptions portraits for these very specials dogs and actually use my photography to help them find amazing new homes.

Roxy is my first shelter portrait of 2015. She’s an adult terrier/shepherd mix who is being taken care of by the City of Buffalo Animal Shelter while she waits for the perfect family to give her a new home. She’s a sweet girl who loves to run and play, and was so excited to explore the studio and get to play with the crew on the day she came for her session. Roxy has been at the shelter since last June, where because of an unfair stigma regarding black dogs she often gets overlooked when people are seeking to adopt a new pet (which is their loss – because Roxy is marvelous!). It was so awesome to get to see her have some fun before and after her shoot  – and despite being a pretty energetic dog, she was so well behaved during the shoot, which worked out great for us, because this was the first animal shoot we’ve done with the new Medium Format camera system.

So often when I talk to people about adopting an animal there is a compulsion for them to gravitate towards adopting younger dogs and puppies, but there are a lot of benefits to adopting an adult dog. – many already have some training (and in general are easier to train), they are affectionate, settle in to new homes quickly, and their energy levels are a little more even. Roxy is a great example of a fun loving but relaxed adult dog that would be an amazing addition to a caring family.

If you or someone you know could give Roxy the home she’s looking for please get in touch with the City of Buffalo Animal Shelter – the family that adopts Roxy will also receive a $50.00 gift card from Elmwood Pets so they can stock up on toys and treats for this cutie.

You can read more about Roxy on her Petfinder page or even see her on TV here.

Maggie Magerko of 84 Lumber for Forbes Magazine. 84 Lumber is the largest privately held building materials supplier in America.

Orchestrating one of the biggest business comebacks of the decade can be a lot to deal with, but imagine adding some major family drama, billions of dollars, and thousands of at-risk jobs into the mix and you have the recipe for Maggie Magerko’s life.

One of my most recent out-of-town assignments took me to Pittsburgh, PA for Forbes Magazine – more specifically to Eighty Four, the town from which the largest privately held building materials supplier in the country, 84 Lumber, takes its name. The job was to create a series of portraits for a stranger-than-fiction story of Maggie Magerko – the current president and owner of 84, and her father, Joe Hardy – the company’s founder. The once thriving no-frills lumber yard and building supplies chain had gone through a rough period, having had to close a large number of stores and lay off thousands of employees in order to stay afloat through a brutal housing recession that had a devastating effect on the business. An untimely investment in a resort property that soon grew to over $600 million in costs by the traditionally frugal Joe just added fuel to the fire and increased the growing tensions between father and daughter.

Despite all of this, Maggie, once at risk of bankruptcy both personally and professionally, has put it all on the line to rebuild the business, and it’s working.

This was one hell of a story to work on, and I can’t even begin to do justice to the engrossing saga the actual article is – I suggest you pick up the latest issue of Forbes (Feb 9 – 2015 edition) and check it out for yourself.

On a side note ~ I’m no stranger to shooting in cold weather, being the strapping and tough snow loving Canadian that I am, but this one was a little chilly even by my standards. I’m super thankful that I had the foresight to invest  in some quality winter gear just before shooting outdoors in a lumber yard in the middle of a Pittsburgh winter.

I’ve made some significant changes to my online portfolios since the new year and today I’m ready to launch this all new mix of work for 2015. Some of these additions are from projects that I’ve been waiting forever to be able to share, while others are classics that I’m reintroducing to better illustrate the direction my work is taking. Click on any of the samples below to check out the full galleries on my main site.

In the coming weeks I’ll be sharing a lot more about my new marketing efforts for 2015, including a new print book, new promos, and some fun videos I’m working on right now.

Creative

Portraits of artists, musicians, and creative entrepreneurs – this is where you’ll find some of my edgier and more conceptual portraits in addition to a lot of my editorial work.

Creative Portraits Portfolio

Business

Everything from small business owners to corporate giants.

Luke Copping's Business Portfolio

Everyday

The day-to-day portraits of unique characters, some from assignments, others I’m drawn to photographing for myself.

Everyday Portraits Portfolio

Animals

Rescue dogs, commercial assignments, and private commissions featuring everyone’s favorite furry/feathered/scaly friends.

A look at my animals portrait portfolio

In 2010 I wrote, in one long caffeine-fueled night, an article that would become the most widely shared piece that I’ve ever published on my blog called 10 Ways Not To Become A Successful Photographer. It was part missive, part rant, and part confession about what I saw a lot of people doing wrong in the photography industry at the time – the mistakes and toxic misconceptions that I saw myself and photographers around me, both emerging and experienced, making every day that were poisoning our minds and our work. I’ve read and re-read it so many times over the years, because in many ways it became a litany to stave off my own negativity when things got tough or I felt myself slipping back into those shitty patterns that were holding me and my friends back when I wrote it.

It’s five years later now, and I sometimes find myself wondering if that piece I wrote all those years ago is still relevant, I’ve changed a lot, and this industry constantly evolves. I find myself thinking more about issues that never occurred to me when I wrote the original piece, and in some cases, issues that grew out of those original ten points. The last few weeks on the road I’ve been making tons of notes about the things I see happening in this business – both with myself and others who’ve spoken with me about that original article when the felt they had gotten a bit off course.

No one can tell you how to be successful in this business, that’s up to you, but here are ten more thoughts on how to NOT fuck up your chances of making it in this industry.

11. Don’t Understand Your Relationship With Stress

We all have our own ways of reacting to and dealing with stress. Personally, there are times when I can thrive on it for short bursts, I can handle unexpected turns on a production and adapt with a smile on my face, I like when the pace of business gets brisk and I feel like I’m spinning a lot of plates. I do okay with that kind of stress. It’s kind of exhilarating. On the other hand, I can get tripped up and really freaked out by little things. I’ve lost sleep because I’ve been anxious about the wording in a client e-mail, I made myself sick with worry in the days leading up to a few big jobs – that kind of constant background worry is the kind of stress that can get me really wound up,

We’re all emotionally invested in what we’re doing (at least you better be if you want to create good work) and that naturally leads to us getting stressed about it, but beyond that we have a whole host of practical stresses that we deal with every day as small business owners and creative entrepreneurs: money, staff, professional relationships, client retention, and vendors that can all affect our stress levels. Combine and compress all that creative and professional anxiety and it can really start to have an effect on your health, mindset, relationships, and career to the point that it starts to tear you up a little (or a lot) inside. Identifying what stresses you out, why, and how badly can give you some major insights on things you might need to work on personally, professionally, and creatively. It can also remind you of the importance of building a support team who can help you better deal with those tasks and situations that creep up on you. More importantly, you also need to have a means of dealing with your stress when it does show its face that hopefully isn’t of the “I eat a whole order of cheddar bay biscuits and chase it with a bottle of gin” school of stress management. Some common options are exercise, meditation, obsessive collecting, cooking, and music, but whatever works for you is cool – just go easy on those cheddar biscuits.

12. Get Caught Up in Defining and Quantifying Everything

It used to be that I couldn’t get online without seeing some pointless argument about Canon vs. Nikon or Mac vs PC – but in the last few years I think we’ve actually become more micro-obsessive as an industry when it comes to categorizing, segmenting, and ranking everything. The discussion isn’t about what brand of light is better, but what KIND of light is better, and even more disturbing, what kind of photographer is better. I see statements like these pop up all the time:

“I’m a natural light photographer, it’s a more honest way of taking pictures”

“I only shoot film, shooting digital isn’t photography”

“If you don’t know how to use speed-lights you aren’t a professional”

“If you only make 49% of your income from photography, you aren’t really a photographer”

“If you use composites in your work, you aren’t really a photographer, you’re just a retoucher, REAL photographers do everything in camera”

Unless you’re describing a genre that you work in – like fashion, food, or journalism, I can’t remember a time when the word “photography” needed so much modification. There are a million stories of how each of us came to photography, and a million different interpretations of the medium – to try to distill it all down into a linear ranking or a tidy little package seems not just absurd, but a rejection of all the ephemeral and intangible things about someone’s history, taste, and experience that make their individual images so compelling. Finding a unique way to frame your experience is a great way of setting yourself apart, and it’s best done with your work itself, but I feel like at some point there was an inversion, a moment when we started to use these defining terms in a really negative way – and rather than focusing on pulling ourselves up, the focus has shifted to pushing others down by encapsulating them in classification and categorically invalidating them.

13. Don’t Take Ownership of Your Mistakes

Ever met someone who just can’t take criticism?

I don’t mean in a “OMG they read the comment section and are handling it really poorly!” way, I mean the sort of criticism that matters – constructive criticism from clients, respected colleagues, and even themselves. You have to be willing to accept that you are going to fail in this business, likely many times over, and that it’s the ones who use these failures as learning experiences that are going to survive and hopefully thrive. The last thing you want to do is stick your fingers in your ears, shut your eyes, and start screaming “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND MY ART!”

It gets shared a lot, but there’s a part in Zack Arias’ Transform Video that’s always stuck with me where Zack reminds his audience that “Avedon sucked, Karsh sucked, Adams sucked…  …Every photographer in all of history was a horrible photographer for some period of time. They learned, they grew, they had dark days, they persevered. That is the way of the artist.” I think it’s one of the most important lessons that any photographer can learn in this business that is so saturated with ego and defensiveness. It’s okay to screw up if it makes you better in the end (just try not to do it when clients are watching, and if you do, own it).

Every single one of us is going to make mistakes at some point in our career – some will fall flat on their faces and suffer comical embarrassment, others will slide headlong into the cavernous maw of catastrophic error, but all of us can recover from these situations if we can honestly identify and accept what we did wrong and work to correct it. It’s the ones who dig a hole and start to pull the dirt down on top of themselves, looking to shelter themselves from having to face their mistakes that have to worry most – because after a while that safe hole you’re hiding in starts to look an awful lot like a grave.

14. Spend More Time Talking About Your Work Than Making It

I don’t like to break things down into archetypes, but sometimes it seems like there’s a revolving cast of common characters in every creative community, fellow photographers who seem to almost accidentally fall into these roles.

There’s the photographer with a million good ideas and two million excuses as to why they can’t ever pull them off: “Plane tickets are too expensive,” “I don’t have a studio,” “My camera isn’t good enough,” “I need better lights.” This guy can talk himself out of anything before he even gets close to starting,

There’s the photographer who is so enamored by past successes and gripped by the fear of ever having to outgrow them that all they ever talk about is that one amazing shot they grabbed in 1992. Photographers like this also tend be the kind of people who complain about the industry a lot. They’ll be the first to give crazy-eyed reactionary rants about how things have changed but do very little to grow and adapt.

There’s the one who is actually pretty talented, but so consumed by self-sabotage or impostor syndrome that sometimes they seem frozen in place, unable to actually create anything without tearing it to shreds moments later. These are the ones who spend a lot of time beating themselves up verbally and can’t take compliments very well. They tend to make just as many excuses as the first guy, but focus on more internalized factors than the external scapegoats. You’ll hear a lot of “I suck,” “I don’t deserve this,” “Why don’t you realize that my work is awful” from them.

Worst of all, we’ve likely all been (or will be) these people at some point in our careers, where we seem to be spending more time talking about our work than actually making it – and that’s actually pretty natural for people in creative careers This isn’t a job where you punch out at 5:00 PM and go home to play video games without a care in the world. We tend to internalize a lot of what we do, because what we do is so tied to our own emotions, thoughts, and experience – so we often take this job home with us. It’s not surprising that sometime doubt, hubris, fear, helplessness, defensiveness, and a whole host of other dark feelings can creep in, and a byproduct of that is shifting our focus from creating to talking about creating – becoming a photo wantrepreneur.

I want to take a second here to be clear that I am not at all discouraging people from talking about their work or photography as a medium. I think a discourse about the changing nature of photography and how it relates to communications, society, commerce, and art are more important than they ever have been, and In many cases, talking through some these issues frankly, with an honest colleague, friend, or mentor can be both therapeutic, cathartic, and exactly what you need to right your course. It’s when talk becomes a surrogate for your work, a smokescreen, that you have a problem. Talking about creating images is often lot easier than creating images, and we as humans tend to take the path of least resistance.

15. Not Knowing When to Say No

There are so many draws on your time, finances, and sanity out there, and you’re going to get pulled in a lot of different directions in this world. Sometimes the exuberance of starting to gain recognition for your work can lead you to say yes to everything: Annoying Uncle Frank promised a friend you would hook him up with some new portraits? Done. Restaurant you get lunch at needs some food shots on the cheap? Why not. Regular client offers you an assignment you know you can’t make money on? Ok, but just this one time…

Saying yes is a great way to gain experience, but as your skills and ambition grow you’re going to start to develop both focus and the experience to recognize red flags. The reasons might be time, interest, or money, but understanding the power of those two letters can do wonders for how you think about yourself as both an artist and a business person. Don’t be a dick about it, but find a way to say no that is firm, but polite, and leaves the door open for future communication.

The cool thing about learning to say no with style and grace is how much more it lets you say yes to the things you really want to do – the ones that really can be life changing. Do you really want to shoot those three freebie jobs for friends that your heart really isn’t in? or do you want to spend a week going on that fantasy road trip to photograph America’s last drive-in theatres? Do you want to spend a month photographing that fastener catalog you know you won’t really turn a profit on? or do you want to spend a few weeks shooting personal projects that will get you noticed by your dream clients? Saying no is scary at first, but over time it gets easer, especially as you better develop your sense of when you need to say it.

16. Trying Too Hard To Be Someone Else

Back when I played music there was always this one guy around obsessed with being just like whatever flavor of the month rock star he was obsessed with at the moment. He bought the same guitars, played the same way, adopted the same style, and really went out of his way to avoid ever having to do anything that didn’t directly emulate what he saw as a surefire formula for success. His idols and obsessions would change over time, and he would reinvent himself totally every couple of years despite actually being a pretty talented guy. He plays in a cover band now.

Do you want to be in a cover band?

There’s a fine line between influence and obsession, between creating an homage to someone’s work and outright re-creating their work –  but the message here isn’t about copying, or influence, or biting someone else’s style or ideas. I could write a whole other post about all of those things that would be just as long as this one. What I want to warn you about is losing yourself inside of someone else’s creative vision – becoming so wholly consumed and fixated on other’s work that you lose everything about YOUR work that’s interesting. I love Rodney Smith’s work, but the world already has a Rodney Smtih, and I’m a lot more interested in telling my story than trying to relive someone else’s. If you force yourself into a mold that was meant for someone else you’re going to really break off a lot of the edges and corners of you that don’t fit, and those little jagged pieces are what makes you great and unique. Keep forcing it and you might break apart completely.

17. Be Careless With Your Choice of Mentors and Critiques

Find an amazing community to be a part of, and learn from people whose work excites you, but be wary of the homogeny and sameness that can result in taking the advice of people who want you to be more like them and less like you too seriously. You’ll see this in a lot of online groups where unsolicited critiques run rampant. There will be a push for the images presented to fall in line with that group’s status quo, an urge to keep everyone on the baseline. Often, it seems like it isn’t even conscious, but if you watch someone comment on someone else’s work long enough, after a while you realize that a lot of the suggestions and comments they make are ones that will bring the work more in line with their own worldview of photography. Do you really want to aspire to be more like someone who’s work you don’t really like that much?

Critique can be an unbelievably important tool, especially for a developing artist, but the crowd of people out there willing to share their opinion on what you’re doing gets bigger every day, and a lot of them don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. When you’re looking for a critique or mentor to help you refine your vision you need to be conscious of avoiding the masses that lean towards the average and unexceptional.  Instead, be discerning and search for those singular and unique voices – the ones with a real opinion and point of view. Be vocal about what you want to improve and specific about what you want them to comment on so that you can grow with purpose and urgency. Consider the lessons you learn from them and take what helps you, but never be afraid to try to prove your mentors and critics wrong – not through words and argument, but by action and result – as you see your own vision through.

18. Get Too Comfortable

Complacency and stagnation can be incredibly hard things to recognize when you’re deeply mired in them. We gradually slip more and more into our routines and comfort zones until they smother us. One of the most common examples of this that I see is when a photographer starts to get a good amount of work in – they’ve worked hard to develop their marketing and contacts, their work is at the top of its game, and they have a look that’s in demand. Over the course of a couple of months or years they think they’re doing great but maybe they let their marketing slip or stopped pushing their skills – figuring that they’ve made it. All of a sudden there is a pivot in the industry, staff changes at client offices, perhaps a new agency takes over an account, or their look now seems dated and out of step with the market. All those months they went without marketing or developing new skills will come back to haunt them as their work dries up and they have to scramble to bring in some income just to keep the doors open. Getting too comfortable can leave you in a very uncomfortable position.

19. Don’t Manage Client Expectations

Once you get the basics of this photography thing down and start bringing in work, you suddenly realize you have a whole host of new problems in regards to communication and the ability to actually deal with clients – the kind of problems can lead you to complain in internet forums where a bunch of other people who have similar problems will pat you on the back and say “You know what? You’re right, your clients suck, and so do mine. It’s not your fault.”

But you know what? It’s kind of your fault.

Sure, there are bad clients out there, the legitimately dishonest or unethical type that give you 99% of your headaches for 1% of your income, the ones that you’ll probably fire after a couple of harrowing months. But most of the clients you’re going to end up having problems with aren’t out to get you, they are decent and honest people who just don’t know the ins and outs of your business as well as you do. Clients like this have a different vocabulary and a different background than you – some might be making their first foray into working with a professional, others might be used to different policies and working arrangements because they collaborated with a different creative for a long time, and some might be new to a position in an agency and still learning the ropes.

You need to work from the mindset that all of your potential clients have varied backgrounds and experiences, have radically different wants and needs, and are all going to ask different questions – and it’s up to you to know when they aren’t asking the right ones. Your client didn’t bring up a stylist? Ask if they need one anyway. Client doesn’t know what their responsibilities are? Give them a timeline. Client didn’t mention exclusivity? You better ask. Client doesn’t understand he difference between editorial and commercial licensing? Define it in the contract. Not using a contract? FUCKING START! Every time a freelancer works without a contract an angel kicks a puppy.

Make communication the most important thing in your business besides the quality of your work. Be patient with your clients and take the time to ensure sure that everyone involved is in synch. Ask as many questions as they do to make sure they understand your position before a problem arises. Otherwise, despite all the client blaming you do online, you’re the one who’s going to look like an asshole.

20. Go it Alone

You need a support team in your life, because there is only so much you can carry on your shoulders without getting crushed – this goes for both your professional and personal life.

On the personal side, you hopefully have several layers of support – friends and family who stand by you are a great and valuable resource, but don’t underestimate how much your local community of colleagues and photographers, the ones who understand the stresses of being a freelance creative, can help as well. Chances are they have been through the same issues you’re going through now. They’ve dealt with doubt, shaky finances, bad shoots, rough relationships, and a whole host of other problems that might be affecting you, and you can rest assured that there are scores of photographers who are going to come after you that are going to have these problems as well – do what you can to pay it forward in your community.

On the professional side, there is often a sense that the photographer is a lone-wolf, and at the beginning of our careers we do have to wear a lot of hats under both the artist and entrepreneur banner. We find ourselves doing design work, writing copy, taking care of scheduling, taxes, payroll, etc, all on our own. It’s a lot to handle, especially if you aren’t as expert in those fields are you are at photography, but sooner or later you have a revelation that there are people out there who put just as much time and passion into developing these skills as you do yours. Over the last couple years I’ve started working with a designer, a writer, a marketing consultant, a retoucher, and an amazing assistant. I’ve also developed really good relationships with my accountant, insurance broker, and banker on the business side of things. It’s made my life simpler, made me more focused on the quality of my images and servicing clients, and improved the quality of my brand and marketing across the board. Being able to find a group of people, whose skills I trust and respect, has been so important to growing my business in the last few years.

What mistakes are you making? What do you see holding you and others back from really being successful? What are you doing about it?

Brenda Martinez - St Mary's College of California Alumni
How’s that for a dramatic sky?

St. Mary’s College of California sent me and my team on assignment to photograph Brenda Martinez for an alumni profile in their 2014 annual report. Brenda is a sixth Grade teacher in Western NY who runs a bilingual classroom as part of the Teach for America Program. Having taught in San Francisco and Mexico prior to taking her current position in Buffalo while she works on her masters, St Mary’s wanted an image that took Brenda out into the landscape of the region she now calls home. Though she’s a native of the far warmer climate of Pittsburgh, California, Brenda was more than happy to tough out a very windy autumn day on the shore of Lake Erie to get this shot.

Our location that evening was Wilkeson Pointe, a spot just outside of the city that’s recently been turned into a great public green space that includes paths and wind powered sculptures – it’s definitely one of the nicer places in the city to catch a great sunset. Despite the beauty of the shoreline at the Pointe that day, It was tricky working with the strong winds that were coming off the water, but thankfully we were able to set up some screens and wait for brief breaks in the gusts to make sure her hair wasn’t blowing all over the place – the result was this image that’s calm, but still has a beautiful sense of movement to it.

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