Some professional photographers just set out on their own and learn all they need to by experimenting with their cameras and lenses to create images that sell. I think most wedding photographers go about it this way. They don’t really have a mentor, they just pick up an automatic DSLR and start shooting friends’ weddings, eventually ramping up their skills and becoming good enough to charge money for shooting weddings.
In my case I just fell into photography. I was married to a model from Canada. We had just moved from Hawaii to New York City so she could follow her dream of modeling ‘Big Time’. I began walking the streets with my camera to see what I could shoot. Pro photography found me in the form of Ted Leyson, veteran paparazzi photographer, who was shooting shots of me from over some bushes. He thought I might have been an Olympic bicyclist. I had just finished some laps around Central Park and I must have somehow looked the part. Anyway, I asked him something about his camera, and some more questions about photography. Before I knew it I was hanging out with him on a regular, then daily basis. We walked the streets for 8-15 hours a day and did nothing but immerse ourselves in photography. We shot celebrities, flowers, fights, interesting scenes, accidents, and anything that interested us. We had the time, the cameras, the motivation. Before meeting Ted I didn’t have a real defined interest in photography. After, it was all I could think about it. The dream grew as a result of contact with my first mentor, Ted Leyson.
At least once a week I’d duck into photo galleries and photography museums so to speak, to see what some other pro photographers were doing. I saw many exhibits and got many ideas looking. I met Alfred Eisenstaedt, and Richard Avedon. I began thumbing through pro photographers’ photo books at Barnes & Noble. I spent hundreds of hours looking at images in these books from the top photographers in the world. I paid attention to the details of the image, and the equipment they used, their education. I thought for a while that I would go to a photography school. I figured photojournalism was what I enjoyed most. It was most like what I was doing with Ted. It was exciting to be walking the streets looking for the action. It was quite a rush to arrive at an intersection where a bus had just run over an elderly man that pushed his wife out of the way at the last second… his eyeglasses still on the street, circled with white paint, and a large puddle of blood in the street. It was exciting to be threatened by Woody Allen or questioned by John F. Kennedy, Jr. The lifestyle of a photojournalist seemed like endless fun.
I wanted to learn all about printing photographs and developing film and slide-film. I interviewed with Philippe at Lamont Custom Color Lab on West 33rd Street and he hired me to develop slide film. I learned a lot about color balance. I started hanging out with the guy that did slide duplication. Then I made friends with David Grey. He did large Cibachrome prints for some of the top photographers in the city. I watched him dodge and burn areas of prints and run make inter-negatives. I talked photography with David every chance I could get. David was my second mentor.
I worked full-time there for a while, and then I got an offer I couldn’t refuse. So to speak. My wife told me that a fashion photographer she knew had an opening for an assistant. He asked if I wanted the job over dinner where he was flying high on cocaine. I said yes, and began the tough life of a pro photographer’s assistant. He was well known, but more of a catalog photographer. He had done fashion in the past and had some success. He was Richard Avedon’s main assistant for years before going out on his own. He had a house in the East Hamptons on the beach and his day rate was around $10,000 USD. He had an awesome studio on the Upper West Side. He gave me boxes of Tri-X 400 film and free reign of his studio and darkroom. It was here I got to play with all his pro equipment – Hasselblads with lenses that cost thousands of dollars; a fleet of Nikon F bodies and the full complement of lenses. I learned to use perspective correction lenses, learned to love the 135mm F/2 portrait lens. I used his Gitzo tripods and studio lighting all for my own gain as I shot model’s portfolios when he wasn’t there. I wouldn’t call “Tony” a mentor. But, working for him did give me access to a lot of gear and people that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
I became fascinated with a couple photographers styles that really hit me. Jay Maisel and his nephew, Stephen Wilkes. They were both advertising photographers. Jay’s images really hit me hard. They still do. I just visited his site and grabbed that image above from his portfolio. His sense of light, color, and form really hits me. Stephen was just getting started but was already shooting for Nike shoes and other major advertisers. Jay was a legend in corporate photography. I loved their sense of color – eye-popping saturated color. I began shooting like them on color-slide film. Previously I shot 90% black and white negative film. I shot hundreds of rolls of Kodachrome, Ectachrome, Fujichrome. I learned the intricacies between the different brands. I made a portfolio of my best shots, printing Cibachrome on the massive machine at Lamont’s Lab. I wrote Stephen Wilkes a hand-written letter and sent it to the studio he listed in one of his books.
I was very surprised when Stephen called me at my home the next week and invited me to come to the studio. I went and pseudo-interviewed with him. He invited me to start coming by whenever I wanted. He said he needed another assistant and would like to have me around. It was an invitation to hang out there with him and see what he was doing. Did I take it? Nope. I never went back. I felt so inferior to what he was doing. He was Jay Maisel’s nephew for god’s sake! Though he liked some of the shots in my portfolio, I couldn’t imagine that I was ready to work on the level that he represented. I went back to work at Tony’s cocaine-infused studio and thought, “Someday, I’ll be good enough to be Stephen’s assistant.”
That was that. Stephen was my role model, my pro photographer mentor, and yet I couldn’t even bring myself to start hanging around him. His book, “California One,” had me mesmerized. I blew him up to god-like status, almost like I had with his uncle Jay. I wasn’t worthy!
It’s funny to think about now. But, I was 22 years old then and no formal education in photography. I had read a dozen books – in detail and knew the technical aspects of photography, but actually putting it all into action, was something I wasn’t confident about. I wasn’t ready to work with the best. What a shame – right?!!
I shot on my own for many years, getting much more into computers than photography or video. Only recently have I realized I need to be a pro photographer again. I got inspired by a guy named, “Devin Graham” on YouTube. Devin shoots dreamy 3-5 minute travel scenery and action videos with great accompanying music. He uses the GlideCam a lot and his videos are well saturated with color and technically pretty right on.
Devin is my latest mentor, and yet I won’t be shooting just like him, but it gives me a starting point to get going shooting in my own style. I’m not sure how my style will develop as time goes on and I experiment with all the ideas I want to implement.
Mentors inspire us to get going in some direction.
They might provide direct help, or help through a book or share knowledge some other way. I’ve been inspired in person by real photographers I’ve met and worked with. I’ve been inspired by gallery exhibits, photos in books and magazines, and in the last decade by images and videos found online at Flickr, Facebook, and YouTube.
If you are considering becoming a pro photographer, you would be better off to find a mentor or mentors to help you on your journey. Find someone you can ask technical questions. Find someone that shoots the way you do, or in ways you would like to. Find a mentor that is actually DOING what you hope to be doing as you turn pro, and try to learn everything about that person’s shooting technique, gear, education, accomplishments, and schedule – so you can go meet and learn from them!
I am currently stalking Devin Graham like a fiend. I have watched all of his behind the scenes videos at his YouTube channel. I have read every word of his blog. I have seven pages of notes I have taken as I watched his videos and read his blog. I’ve written down every piece of equipment he has mentioned, or that I’ve seen him use in his videos. I’ve watched half a dozen interviews with him on YouTube. I’ve joined his FaceBook page and Twitter feed.
Every day I am studying one or two of his videos to see the techniques he uses while shooting and editing. I’ve learned a lot, and I’m ready to start applying it to my shooting. Just waiting for some more equipment through the mail.
Do you have a pro photographer mentor to help you get going? Who is it? Why that person?