ASMP — American Society of Media Photographers

Questions with a Pro: Don Shepard

This week’s Questions with a Pro features Don Shepard.

Don is an award winning photographer based in the Midwest. He started his career in law enforcement, and through some unique opportunities within that field, ended up opening his own photography studio. He now photographs a wide variety of subjects and particularly enjoys producing black and white images. Here, Don explains his path from law enforcement to photography, some of the things involved with transitioning to shooting for his own studio, and his favorite part about the photography industry.

We asked: How did you initially decide to pursue a career in forensic and medico-legal photography? Please describe a bit of this background and what you had your sights set on.

Don said: I actually pursued a career in law enforcement and the photography naturally presented itself. There’s a lot of photography in police work. My specialty was investigating violent crimes, and one of my areas of expertise was collecting hard and photographic evidence at autopsies, of all things. Under those fluorescent lights, I learned a lot about anatomy and even more about photography. I was fortunate, too, that my agency sent me to some fantastic homicide and medico-legal death investigation schools where I was able to better my skills.

We asked: What is the most important photography skill you picked up while working as a law enforcement detective?

Don said: I learned early on to produce well lit, well composed images in less than ideal surroundings. My photos ultimately ended up in front of attorneys, judges or juries and if they weren’t right, it was my fault, and I never wanted to put myself in that position.

We asked: Please explain your transition from photographing in the law enforcement setting to photographing for your own business. What was one of the most difficult aspects of starting your own business?

Don said: On the photo end, I’m obviously photographing a completely different clientele. I went from being a slave to my surroundings in police work to having much more control as a photographer, especially in my studio. Before even starting this, I set a high standard I had to meet before thinking of myself as a “photographer” much less calling myself one. I have a tremendous respect for the art and the artists who have devoted their lives to this, and I still feel a little odd referring to myself as a photographer. On the business end, I have a pretty small operation compared to some others. I’m a one man show. Even so, business issues can be a challenge for me. I was a cop and knew very little about running my own business. In fact, I’m probably still not doing it right.

We asked: What is your favorite part about the photography industry? What, if anything, would you change about it?

Don said: The old schoolers may disagree with me, but I love the digital age. The advancement in cameras and lenses over the last decade is amazing. I envision the market going to mirrorless technology soon and I wonder if that tech will be in the forefront while DSLRs and format cameras end up where film is today. I hope I’m around to see where things land. With that said, I don’t think I’d change anything. I’ll sit back and let evolution take its course.

We asked: Where do you typically find most of your inspiration? Do you find yourself hunting for it, or does it come to you naturally?

Don said: I’ve had some people suggest to me that my experiences in police work have carried over into my photography. Maybe they’re right. I guess with some exceptions, I lean towards dark, demure, poignant and far away, especially in my personal studio work. I purposely shoot with only one strobe at a time to capture that mood. I really like dark warmer colors in about anything I shoot, but I’m also a classic black and white fan. I love that timeless, raw, noir look by pushing my highlights and low lights as far as I can take them without losing detail. I think it has an old Hollywood appeal and adds to the mystery.

On the other hand, I like to think my admiration of such artists as Sandro Miller (who I’ve studied under), Irving Penn, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Bresson, Avedon, Sally Mann, McCurry and others who lean towards darker more poignant images has lead me to try to emulate them.

Maybe a little of both.

Find more of Don’s work on his website.

If this article was of interest to you, take a look at some of the other articles in the Questions with a Pro and Questions with an Educator series.

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