People always ask me what it is that I’m hoping to be as this blog develops. Am I training to be a photographer? A graphic designer? A writer? Well, it’s a little bit of everything as I’m hoping to one day work for or have a web-magazine of my own, telling stories about creatives in our newly border-broken world, and sharing their experiences. This year is all about learning for Cait and I, and where better to learn from than the pros themselves. So manicures be damned, we’re getting some pro tips and a new series. Enjoy!
So it all started a couple of months ago. Cait said “Berto is coming!” I thought, ‘okay another friend is visiting, cool.’ But this Berto turned out to be none other than Roberto Westbrook, the plenty talented photographer who’s work has been featured in everything from National Geographic to the New York Times just to name a few, and a bunch of awards to boot. Roberto never worked a day in the world of investment banking that he originally trained for in college. With subsequent formal training in photography and a dedication to authenticity, he has not only worked on editorial features, travel stories and advertising campaigns over the past decade, but also in stock photography too. This is one of the projects Roberto had come to Cambodia to do. So when we all piled into cars to Kep two weeks ago, Roberto was in for the ride, the seafood and a lot of beautiful shots of that little seaside town. Back in the city, he even had a little (and very early morning) photoshoot of professionals in the Penh and got some of us to model (I also got to take some fun meta shots!). During a break in all this photography, I had the chance to ask Roberto for some advice on photography and breaking into the business.
You yourself went to formally study photography. Do you think it’s necessary for beginners to do the same?
No, it wasn’t even necessary for me to go back to school. There’s always been ways to learn photography. When I went back to school, I sat down and thought about ‘how can I get better?’ I knew that a lot aspiring photographers will go and assist a photographer. That’s one way to learn. You learn not only the creative side, but also the business side. That’s really valuable for a lot of people. But to do that, you need to be assisting almost every day in places like New York or Los Angeles. For me it made sense to go back to school, especially if I could get it paid for through scholarships and by working as a teaching assistant. I also really like school. It was a worthwhile investment for me. I would never advise anyone to go into debt, a lot of debt for photography school because you’re coming into a very competitive market and you’ll just be saddled with debt as a huge burden. People just have to figure out what. If you’re great in school and you like school, maybe that’s the right path. Online courses and local photography groups may also be less expensive.
Did your personal style of photography take time to develop?
It definitely developed. I always knew I really prefer authenticity to something that’s really staged. So when I started out, I wanted to be a National Geographic photographer, and I always try to take a documentary approach and inserting yourself in the scenes in observing and photographing. But as the media landscape has changed and everyone was going freelance, there seemed to be less opportunities in editorial and I had to shift my focus and start looking for more commercial work. That forced me to go into an arena where you do set things up; but I try to bring what I’ve always liked about documentary work into that space. So when I do my own shoots, like the stock shoots, I’m trying as much as possible to be an observer while also realizing that the pictures must be beautiful to a certain extent, where there’s composition, lighting and all those things that make a photo great.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
I draw a lot of inspiration from painting and older art. I try not to look at too much contemporary photography because I don’t want it to affect how I shoot too much. I know if I look at somebody’s picture, I’ll bring that to mind for my next shoot, and I’ll consciously or unconsciously try to copy it to a certain extent. So I try not to do that too much and try to look at paintings, drawings and how people use colour in painting and drawing to try and bring that into my own photography. But that said, I definitely still look at magazines sometimes. I have very mixed feelings about the visual trends that are going on and try to avoid that as an influence.
What do you think is the most important element of a photograph?
For me, there’s always two things I’m looking for: light and gesture. I learned that term from a guy named Tom Kennedy. You could just as easily call it body language. For me, the gesture and the interaction between people and sometimes just the individual and what they’re doing; I’m trying to get something interesting out of their body language.
I love natural light. For me it’s fairly directional. I love a Rembrandt style light, that’s always really nice. I’ve been shooting a lot of stuff backlit, partially because I like and partially because it’s trendy right now. I tend to shoot a lot in slightly open shade because that’s flattering to people. That depends on the person you’re photographing. Sometimes its about what the right light is one them. I generally like an early morning light, or if it’s in the middle of the day, something like just at the edge of the shade so it’s still sculptural. If you go too deep into a shaded area, then it starts to get flat and muddy. So it’s always about being at that edge of shade and light for me.
What’s the best thing you could buy if you’re just getting started?
One good lens. That’s my one recommendation. It would be just picking one prime lens that’s pretty fast and goes to at least f/2.8 is a good starting place. Not messing a whole lot with zooms and not feeling the pressure to buy three or four lenses. You can do amazing work with one amazing lens whether it’s a 35mm or a 50mm, and that’s where people need to figure it out. If you’re a documentary photographer, probably a 35mm or 28mm is a great lens just to work with and learn that focal length and how close you need to be without stepping back. It makes you move. Having one focal length makes you move a lot which I think is really important in learning composition. If someone’s a portrait photographer, maybe they want to start with a 50mm or 85mm. If they love shooting people, that really focuses you. The 50mm is a good in-between lens that you can do a lot with.
What’s the most overrated thing you could spend money on?
People are constantly buying bags because they can’t find the perfect bag. That seems to me to be a waste of money. One camera and one lens is all you need. Sometimes you don’t even need a bag. I also think UV protective filters that they are always trying to sell you. I think those are unnecessary. Especially if you’re trying to shoot backlit. Because it just adds one more element to potentially create extra flare and abberations. That’s my personal take. I know some people would say you need it to protect the glass. I’m pretty nice to my stuff. I always protect it. If I’m walking through a jungle, I cover it. If I drop it, I drop it. That little UV filter is not going to protect it.
Any tips for breaking into the business of photography?
Find a mentor: someone who is willing to share and talk very honestly about the business. If you can find someone to talk to you about it, that’s really wonderful. There are a lot of creative people out there. But where photographers and a lot of creatives need help is in the business side. So if you can find someone to help you understand the business and getting clients, that’s pretty important and help people understand how hard it is to break in.
Breaking in is so hard. You have to be social and I mean that on every sense of the word. Not just on the social networks, but in person. These days, it’s as much about knowing people and being a good person. People know so many good photographers. You not only have to be a good photographer but a nice person that people want to work with. Just be likeable and get out there and meet people. And let them know that you do what you do.
Part of being likeable is being professional: delivering on time and doing what you say you’re going to do. Because that’s what people expect.
Was it difficult to ask to be paid for your photography in the beginning?
The weird part, wasn’t the discomfort of being paid, but the amount. I think when I was first starting out, I didn’t realize really how much life costs once you account for health insurance, equipment insurance, all the gear, the computers, which you have to update every few years. When you first start charging people, you don’t think people are going to pay this, but you gotta just say “I’m worth it, this is what it costs for me to be in business.”
Wonderful Machine is a very good resource, especially for estimating jobs. There’s also software called Blink Bid that’s really good for creating estimates. And comes with built in suggested licensing prices. Going to a site like Getty Images is a great way to get an idea about how much photos should cost.
It takes a while to establish yourself. You have to be patient. You should give yourself at least 5 years before you feel comfortable in it. It’s discouraging, but it takes a while. From the time you quit and go part time on a job, it might be 5 years before your living standards you’re used to are coming from photography.
Thanks so much Roberto for your advice!
All photos by Tiffany Tsang. Please request permission for use. Mega thanks to models Cait and Lin!