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An Evolutionary Path to Photography

[by Chris Winton-Stahle]

Eckhart Tolle once said, “In seeing who we are not, the reality of who we are will emerge by itself.” My decision to become a photographer and commercial artist wasn’t a lightbulb kind of moment, but more of an illuminated path I followed.

When I started my career, “my plan” looked very different from what it is now. I could never have imagined how complex this evolving industry would become these last 15 years. Like so many other young student photographers, my big dream was to one day shoot for National Geographic and travel the world! “How glamorous that would be,” I thought to myself as a freshman in college in 1999. Little did I know…

© Chris Winton-Stahle

© Chris Winton-Stahle

As I am writing this article, I am on a flight to Portland, Oregon for work. Traveling photographer? Check! I am with my wife of 9 years and our 2-year-old son who is sitting beside me playing with his toy cars and singing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. The surprisingly pleasant, yet often complicated part of the “big plan to become a photographer.”

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” as so eloquently stated by John Lennon. As we move forward in the pursuit of our goals, we evolve and mature as people. New doors always open while others close and this is life’s natural cycle.

At some point not too long ago I came to the realization that my heart was with my family and that original dream I wanted to pursue 15+ years ago was not conducive to my new dreams. Though I started out pursuing a very traditional career as a photographer, the direction of my life has persuaded me to find ways to spend less time on location and traveling.

© Chris Winton-Stahle

© Chris Winton-Stahle

I am where I wanted to be in the beginning, but  it looks different from what I had imagined. I have developed a method of working that involves collecting background images wherever I’m traveling, photographing the majority of my subjects in a controlled studio space, and spending the majority of my time living out the “adventure” in a Photoshop creation. I incorporate traditional photography with my own stock imagery and CGI components I create in-house. It is a good business model for me.

My career has been a constant series of trials and errors that have allowed me to figure out what works and what doesn’t. I’ve failed a lot in my career. However, every time I’ve fallen I’ve picked myself up, learned from the experience and slightly revised my plan. Though the plan looked vastly different in the beginning than where I’ve ended up I’m still miraculously where I wanted to be, and still evolving each day!

© Chris Winton-Stahle

© Chris Winton-Stahle

For me, always keeping an open mind has been a key to success. Learning to let go of specific titles regarding the definition of my craft has opened doors to opportunities that I could have never imagined. Finding ways to create imagery that transcends the traditional definition of photography has allowed me to keep aspects of my original dream of being that traveling, nomadic soul, while remaining available to be with my family when I am needed.  I am learning to balance my family life with my career life in a way that keeps everyone happy while still allowing my career to grow.

There is no doubt that photography is a difficult field in which to make a living.  Any veteran of this craft will tell you the same. There are times when I feel frustrated and exhausted, but I always push forward. The truth is, my brain is not programmed to do anything else. I am an artist! Though it is never easy, it is always rewarding.

© Chris Winton-Stahle

© Chris Winton-Stahle

I try to look at the unique industry challenges as an adventure and a series of opportunities to grow stronger in my craft, wiser in my profession and more enlightened in spirit. I remind myself every day how very lucky I am to be able to do what I do. It is my calling and it is what makes me feel the most alive. I am confident that when I reach the end of my journey as a photographer and artist that I will look back and say, “WOW, Look at all the amazing places I’ve been, the wonderful people I’ve met, the friends I’ve made from all over the world, and look at all of the amazing images I’ve created that have, in some way, brought beauty to this world.”

Chris Winton-Stahle is an award-winning photographer and accomplished photo illustration artist who sees the camera as only half of his process in creating great imagery. Chris often pulls components from multiple images and CGI when creating his work for clients in advertising, magazines and entertainment.





By Chris Winton-Stahle | Posted: June 29th, 2015 | No comments

Eggs in a Basket

[by Jenna Close]

When I first started my business, I had the specific goal of being the go-to expert for alternative energy photography. I wanted to make beautiful images of solar panels, wind farms, electric trucks, algae biofuel and the like. This idea arose from researching markets that I thought would survive the economic downturn of 2008, which is the year I began my professional career. In tandem with market research, I looked for industries that suffered from a dearth of good imagery. Alternative energy companies fit the bill perfectly.

For 3 years, 99% of my income came from producing still photography for this industry. I never managed to really break into the wind market, so my scope narrowed even further to a single focus on solar energy. This was all well and good until the boom turned to bust around 2011. Many of my solar clients were bought up by larger conglomerates or ceased to exist at all. I realized quickly that while having a niche was initially a good thing, I had taken a risk by putting all my eggs in one basket.

© Jenna Close.

© Jenna Close. Our early work focused almost exclusively on the solar energy sector.

Today the focus of my business has changed. My target market has broadened to “the world at work”, which includes many industrial companies not related to the solar industry. I now shoot mainly composite work that has a clean, hyper-real quality, and much of my marketing material is centered around my skills at making ordinary things look extraordinary. Video comprises roughly 40% of my income, whereas when I started I wasn’t thinking about motion at all.

© Jenna Close. © Jenna Close. Today, we’ve diversified our client base based on our distinctive visual style.

Career evolution can be a tricky thing, and times of transition can make for some lean years now and then. However, I find it exciting to head in new directions. I think the key is to evaluate where you want to go on a very deep level before making the move. When I look back at my first portfolio, I am surprised at how much I’ve grown and where I’ve ended up. Surprised, and pleased.

© Jenna Close.  New work from our Buck the Cubicle series.

© Jenna Close. New work from our Buck the Cubicle series.

Jenna Close is currently working on Buck the Cubicle, which is a self generated project designed to further her transition from alternative energy to the larger world at work.

By Jenna Close | Posted: June 26th, 2015 | 2 comments
Get Connected

Always be Reinventing

[by Richard Kelly]

Plotting my career in the early 80’s I never imagined my career today.  Photography industry insider Stephen Mayes describes my current lifestyle as having a “portfolio career” essentially one that includes multiple income streams from a variety of services over a range of industry sectors. What my mother calls having a lot of irons in different fires. Although not what I envisioned, this is really good for me.

My single most valuable character trait is my curiosity; it has fueled all aspects of my creative life and continues to lead me to new opportunities both for creative expression and also commercial exploitation.

Just the other day, a longtime client and friend from my New York City days, introduced me as one of the most interesting people she knows. She mentioned that I was someone who is always reinventing his work and life.

I learned in that conversation that all my work has a common core, which is storytelling. In essence I like to learn, I like to experience things and then I share my enthusiasm. My work varies like the wind. I read, I write, make pictures, do interviews, capture video, splice images together, teach a class, consult with a client, moderate a panel discussion, introduce my daughter to a classic film, push a few buttons, just a normal day in my life.

A few years ago, thanks to my friends at ASMP I learned to rethink my business. This process included a fair amount of self-evaluation (Judy Herrmann’s is very useful in helping with that process.) I also had to rethink my brand and my identity, how I described myself and what I was ultimately selling.

For someone in the middle of their career, this sort of re-invention is not easy. What was my business? What did clients expect of me? What new services could I offer? On the upside, I continue to fuel my insatiable curiosity.  I learn something new every day. I have tons of new experiences and stories to share. Best of all I get to illustrate them all with pictures – some moving and some still. I live in a state of always be reinventing.

Richard Kelly is a lens based producer living in a state of reinvention. You can follow Richard on Instagram @richardkellyphoto or Twitter @richardkellypho.

By Richard Kelly | Posted: June 25th, 2015 | No comments

A Generalized Specialty

[by Barry Schwartz]

My first career was in construction and kitchen-and-bath design, so when I became a professional photographer many years later it was a pretty natural progression to specialize in architectural photography. The business culture was something I understood very well, I already had industry connections, and I was more than happy to hang around pretty buildings.

As a young photographer in my teens, making images of whatever caught my eye and for years after, I often thought about turning pro but felt I did not have the fire in the belly I believed it would take. I took my little camera (an Olympus OM1) everywhere, including on jobsites. Some of my friends considered me a bit of a pest; little did I understand at the time how that level of persistence was a positive attribute – a requirement, in fact – for a professional career.

I educated myself about different kinds of photography purely by instinct: I followed what attracted me. Avedon and Penn, Cartier-Bresson and Sam Abell, Jerry Uelsmann and Wynn Bullock. I taught myself how to develop film and use a darkroom. I never took a single class. In my twenties, I added color, stopped processing and turned all that over to labs. I never learned anything about studio photography or technical cameras and focused on documentary work and the occasional portrait. It was a lot of fun.

The last ten years of my actual career was dominated by building and designing kitchens. To promote myself through pictures, I bought a tripod and some lights and umbrellas and made an awful lot of awful pictures. Gradually, through attrition, I got better. When my wrist and elbow started to give out it became clear the blue-collar part of my life was coming to an end. I assumed I would simply turn to designing full-time, but circumstances offered me the chance to photograph other people’s work, and the short version is: I never looked back.

Switching careers in middle age concentrates the mind, as the Brits say, and studying became an obsession. I didn’t have to learn about the culture of design clients, because that had been my own life; my job now was to learn about the techniques and culture of architectural photographers. Among the many truisms I heard was that design clients expect their photographers to be specialists – as they were – and to never show them any other kind of work on websites or in portfolios because that demonstrated a lack of seriousness of purpose, and design is a serious business. If an architectural photographer did produce another kind of work, the smart move was to keep that quiet by having a separate website.

A niche was a niche, but I began to discover successful photographers who did not follow that path. Having turned pro, I had a camera with me all the time, and found myself doing street photography and portraits more than ever. It was still a lot of fun. This was work I wanted to get paid for, and while I understood the concept of niche marketing I began to believe there was a place for a serious architectural photographer who also made pictures of people. I knew this might be a bit chancy for a new career, but starting a new career was already a fairly chancy move, so, why not? Besides, I already had the experience of a diverse career, simultaneously working as a contractor, carpenter, and designer.

Architectural photography remains my primary source of work, and I’m certain I’ve lost opportunities because of my decision to diversify, but other projects have come my way precisely because I produce several kinds of work, all proudly displayed on the same website. Several recent projects each required portraits, architecture, and documentary work. Niches may be niches, but fun is fun.

Robert Brunner, a well-known product designer, recently wrote: “You don’t own your brand. A brand isn’t a logo or packaging. It’s a gut feeling. And when two people have the same gut feeling, you have a brand.”

My guess about my career turned out to be the right move – for me. Being a generalist is my brand. That’s what my clients think, exactly what I hoped for. Maybe I just got lucky. I don’t think so.

Barry Schwartz is a photographer, writer, and educator in Los Angeles who feels branding is just another word for nothing left to lose.

By Barry Schwartz | Posted: June 24th, 2015 | No comments

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