Music Photography Nashville

Photographers, Photo Schools and What Makes a Photo

I've been a full-time photographer for over 10 years now. Due to me basically throwing away the first 21 years of my life, I never went to college. So when I became a photographer I had to teach myself everything. Back then there's were little in the way of online tutorials or blogs that walked you through the process of becoming a photographer. Not wanting to be a hack; I would sit on the floor of book stores in Nashville and learn all I could about the art and craft of photography. Fast forward to today and as many people are fond of saying "everyone is a photographer now." The field of photo making has definitely become very crowded with people buying their first camera and then literally the next week being paid to do a shoot. Due to the sudden influx of these new photographers many older, established professionals look down on, make fun and fear these "newbies." They act like the old guy telling the young kids to get off his lawn. They bemoan about how these young people are destroying the culture and business of photography with $500 photo shoots. I personally welcome any new/young photographer into the field. We all had to start somewhere; none of us entered the scene knowing half of what we should have.

But what does make me sad is the way photography is being understood by so many new shooters. As well as talking to photographers in Nashville, I belong to several photo groups on Facebook, Google + and others. These are places where new photographers post work to be seen and critiqued by others in the community. What I've seen for the last few years is a heavy emphasis on gear and lighting. Someone will post a great photo and all anyone wants to know is "what lens did you use?" Which brand of lighting was it" What camera did you shoot it with", "What f/Stop did you use?", etc. I never see anyone ask "how did you get the person to smile like that?" "What's the story you were trying to tell?" etc.

In these groups if a photo is even the slightest bit soft, out of focus or shadowy it gets berated as a bad photo. Meanwhile any photo, no matter how boring, stale or hum-drum it is gets raves upon raves if the lighting is "technically perfect" or there's a "nice bokeh." Basically, someone will post a photo of a girl standing with a bland pose, no emotion, nothing to draw a person in, but the background has pretty, blurry bokeh and people will say it's the greatest photo they've seen all day.

They are not seeing the humanity behind the photo, only the machine. My fear is that we are raising up a generation of photographers that don't understand that what makes a photo great is not the technical as much as it is the human connection. Some of the greatest photos have been; blurry, poorly lit, grainy, etc. but the one thing they all have in common is that they have captured a moment that evokes an emotion from the viewer. This is especially important for commercial photography, as the photo needs to prompt the viewer to take an action (buy a product or service, donate money, etc.)

I've never been a big fan of photo schools because A) I never went to one B) I've heard a lot of people talk about how much they focus on fine art and not on commercial photography. But I'm recently changing my mind on the subject. I know see that without a proper education in the history and fundamentals of photography a person can easily think it's all about what brand of gear you use or how technically perfect you can light a shot.

A photo school won't teach you everything you need to know to become successful, but the foundations are essential to the story telling that is photography. For those who can't go for one reason or another; do what I did and park yourself on the floor of a book store and learn all you can.


My Story: How I went from Florida teen to Nashville Photographer

I haven't always lived in Nashville and I haven't always been a photographer as a career. I have a lot of people ask me all the time how I first got into photography and how I ended up where I am now. People like to hear inspirational stories of others so they can learn from people's mistakes & successes and follow similar paths to success. Well, my story is anything but traditional and not something I would exactly encourage other people to follow step-by-step. The first 20 years of my life is a very long, crazy, insane and sorted story. In a nutshell; I went to 6 different high schools and barely graduated at all. I failed 11th grade because I lived a block away from school and I would go to first period which was guitar and then I'd walk back home and go to sleep or cruise around town. So at the age of 20, when I finally got my life together I didn't have many career choices to pick from, especially since college wasn't really an option considering the grades I had.

It was around this time that I met my girlfriend who is now my wife. I was heavily involved in the punk rock scene in South Florida and so her and I would make underground magazines (zines) using cut-and-paste methods and copy machines. As these progressed we started getting a little more technical with the advent of Macintosh computers that you could rent at Kinko's. So after a couple years of working on the Macs at Kinko's I really started getting interested in graphic design/printing and decided that's what I wanted to do for a living. So when we moved from South Florida to Atlanta I got a job at a printing company being the delivery driver and within a year I was managing the shop.

We then moved to Orange County, California where I got a job at another printing company. It was there I met a guy who gave me my first break in graphic design. He hired me to design T-shirts, flyers and magazines for all of the concerts that he put on in southern California. The work was fun and I really grew and learned a lot in graphic design. Like I said before, I had never gone to college so I had to spend hours on end on the floor of Borders and Barnes & Noble studying everything I could about graphic design. I didn't want to be a hack; I wanted to make sure I was being true to the craft and doing things with excellence.

After about two years in California we decided to move back east and chose Nashville. When we got here I found a good job at a software company doing graphic design. About a year into that job the amount of freelance design work I was doing was paying more then my job was, so I decided to quit my job and start my design company out of my house. Things went really well and about two years later I opened up an office off of the Franklin Square just outside of Nashville and hired two employees. The design firm did very well and 2003 was the best year ever had being self-employed. I was doing websites and print work for very large companies like ESPN, Fender, Purpose Driven, record labels, etc.

During that time I had been doing some photography on the side for some of my clients. I never liked using stock photos, so whenever photography was needed for one of the projects I tried to shoot it myself. This led to a few purely photography jobs. Then one day I was vacationing with my wife and kids down in Seaside, Florida and I just had an epiphany. I looked around at the sun and the fresh air and realized that I was so tired of sitting behind a desk all the time doing my design. By this time I had moved my offices back home and my employees worked remotely from their homes. I was feeling very isolated and didn't get to be around people very much. Whenever I thought about doing my photography it always made me so happy. I loved being around people, shooting different things all the time. I enjoyed the lifestyle and the craft/art more than design. To be honest I was very burnt out on graphic design. I would be driving down the road looking at billboards and re-kerning the letters in my mind. I was so ready to be done with graphic design and jump head first into photography full-time.

So at the peak of my success with the design firm I just shut it all down. I told all my clients I was getting out of design and would just be doing my photography full-time. It was a huge leap of faith and also a very stupid thing to do. I feel like sometimes being naïve is a great thing because you think you can do anything even if it makes no sense to anyone else. But with my wife's blessing behind me we did just that; we shut the design firm down and went straight into a full-time photography business. The good thing was that I had existing relationships with my design clients, so I got a lot of photo work off of them which most people starting a business wouldn't have.

There's obviously a lot that I can mention in between starting a business and ending up where I am today. I'm not going to go into every decision I made and every single step that got me to where I am now. But I will say in order to be self-employed and stay self-employed for a number of years you have to live a fearless life. I don't have a formal education behind me, but what I do have is great instincts and a great sense of design and style. I don't think you can overestimate the importance of trusting your instincts and your decision making skills. Commercial photography is an art form that requires great people skills, decision-making skills and instincts. You also need to be able to see beauty everywhere, even in the smallest detail.

I love what I do, I love Nashville and I love the people and clients I work with. I encourage everyone to follow their dreams and to not let fear get in the way of the next step. And even more importantly to not let fear get in the way of your art. Fear is the enemy of creativity.