– Posted by Alumni Intern Chris
Wow. Whatís changed for me since the internship, huh? A LOT. But in case you donít know me, I was part of Team Awesome (also known as Season 2). To explain where I am now, I have to explain where Iíve been. If you do remember me, you can skip the next couple of paragraphs. ūüėČ
About 6 years ago, I took a retail job in the mall at Picture People. Just a part time gig while going to school, something I thought looked like fun. Iíd never done phtogoraphy or had an interest in it before, but within just a couple hours, I was hooked. Worked there doing family and childrenís portraits for about 6 months and started working for a company going around to day care centers and doing school portraits. After about a year of making 17% commission, I realized I could just do it on my own, and do it better. I did that for a few years before coming across the Craigslist ad that changed my life: the internship with LeahAndMark.com.
I hadnít shot a wedding, or an event, or worked with models, or really ever shot anything ďartisticĒ because my focus had always been retail (quick-selling prints) photography. The internship looked like a fun way to break my boundaries and learn new stuff. Now, I have 5 kids, and I was still running my business, not to mention the internship literally fell on a super-busy time for me: back-to-school and the lead-up to Anime Weekend Atlanta, of which I was an Assistant-Director at the time. Back in the day, Mark required 1 shoot a week (as opposed to 2 a month now), something that several weeks I fell short of, not being able to use my school photo shoots due to liability issues (turns out most people donít want some stranger posting pictures of their kids online!), and also due to my obligations for AWA. And in the moment, you think, ďItís no big deal, Iíll make it up laterĒ. But that was the fastest 3 months of my life, and I was left at the end feeling unfulfilled. Not by Mark, but by myself. Iíd let myself, and Mark, down when it all finished out, and I was disappointed.
Now, thatís not to say I didnít learn A TON during the internship. I did. WAY more than I could process. To this day, Iíll be on a shoot and something that Mark tried to teach will click into place. I expect that to happen for a long time. Like with any kind of learning, itís near impossible to process everything on the fly, but with Mark, itís even more so. His motto is simple: GO. And he doesnít have a throttle. Youíre lucky if you get a chance to sit in and strap down before heís flying through shoots and marketing and models and locations and more. Itís insane. And AWESOME. I learned pretty quickly to just open my ears and mind and try to gather information to process later.
For example: I was sitting with Mark at lunch one day and I asked him how he kept cool on weddings. I mean, to me, the pressure of a MAJOR shoot, with zero option of a reshoot if you mess up is huge. Then you have family members getting in your way, people telling to get this shot, or the bride getting upset, or even worse, the brideís mom, who wants a magical perfect day for her princess. I had pointedly avoided wedding photography before because of all this insane pressure Iíd built up. His answer? ďHuh. Never thought of it that way.Ē He shrugged and continued eating. Even after shooting a wedding with him, where I felt Iíd failed pretty miserably, I didnít get it. It wasnít until I shot my first wedding on my own that it clicked. You can think thereís all that pressure, or you can decide to enable the couple to have a wonderful day. Thatís it. Just do it. Iím a personable guy, I like to joke around and have fun, and I simply decided thatís how Iíll handle weddings. It was so easy, and to be honest, Iíve never noticed all that stressful stuff Iíd freaked out about. Now, it could be that Iím a big believer in a good fit, but I treat my couples like friends so they donít worry about the photos. And you know what? They love the results.
Marketing is something else that I just didnít get until later. To a degree, Iím still not all that great at it. Honestly, with 5 kids and school, I donít get that much time to go out and market, but Iím getting better at it. I still go over my notes from the internship to get ideas. I do have the benefit of having a wife that makes enough money that Iíve never been in a make-it-or-break-it position with my photography, but Iíve had to learn a lot. Last year, in April, I opened a physical studio. Iíd been doing well enough with my photography that I figured a budget of roughly $1000 a month was fair for my own location. It was a small place right off the square in Carrollton, where I lived. It did okay for itself, floating itís bills, but itís biggest impact was it forced me to rethink marketing. Marketing a hobby, or even a come-to-you kind of business is completely different than marketing a location. Some of itís the same: shoot more, show everything, blog, social media, etc., but a LOT is different. All of a sudden, you have monthly overhead. You have a door to get people through, and you start having a public face. Thereís pressure that wasnít there before. But I loved my studio; it was my place to go everyday to work. When I wasnít on a shoot or working on photos, I was working on marketing. Unfortunately, we moved in September to an area with much higher rent prices, so I had to close the studio, but my business name is still Off the Square Photography.
LIGHT. My god, the thing I never picked up while working with Mark was the use of flashes. Iíd always shot on a backdrop, using high-powered studio strobes, so I never had to mess with settings on my camera to figure stuff out. My camera was a set-it-and-forget-it deal, going between my one set of settings for shoots and Aperture Priority mode for everything else. That was it. Then Mark came along with these little battery powered lights that really annoyed me. I mean, the light was harsh and underpowered, and I couldnít get them do what I wanted. I mean, really annoying. But you know what? They work when you stop to figure them out. It took me a whileóokay, a long timeóto do just that, but now I use them for on-site stuff all the time. Iíll still pack the strobes for big family shoots, but for anything with smaller groups, a couple of flashes work just fine. Technically speaking, working with flashes was probably my biggest take-away from the internship. Itís allowed me to be MUCH more portable and versatile in the kind of shoots and locations Iíll work with.
Oh, one other thing I learned: how to handle interns. I have my own awesome intern now, Jennifer, who I have a blast working with. From Mark, I learned how to manage people and work with them while not seeming like ďa bossĒ. Having someone to work with and teach is amazingly fun, and while I was reluctant to take on an intern (am I really that good?), Iím a better photographer for it. Internships are a two-way street. Something Iíve learned since taking my own intern is that you can learn a lot from someone learning from you. Iíve learned stuff from my own intern that I didnít know before. SHHH! Donít tell her that!
Now, I know things have changed since Team Awesome split; Mark never stops learning, and thatís the benefit for each successive season of interns. And honestly, we all should never stop learning. I have a big library of books from Joe McNally, Scott Kelby, Syl Arena, David duChemin, Matt Kloskowski, and others all on my iPad. Iím constantly reading them to learn more, along with countless photography blogs. Iíve attended workshops too, but all of this is useless until you do the one thing that you learn most from: Shooting. Get out there. Shoot. Donít think, just do. The more you sit around and read stuff and ďplanĒ, the less youíre out actually shooting. Youíll never land a client if you plan your marketing, or read that next book. You have to have a portfolio, you have to shoot. By all means, spend time learning, but the best teacher in the world is experience. Screw up. When you do, you have to figure out how to fix it. Joe McNally opened his workshop with this quote: ďMistakes are the path to good picturesĒ. I screw up all the time. Luckily not to the point that itís ever made anyone mad, but when I do, Iím presented with the opportunity to find the solution. I love that. Overcoming obstacles makes me feel awesome, and Iím all about feeling awesome. And you know what? When I mess up and have to try something different, I usually do end up with a great shot.
Something that I learned on my own, for myself, is that charity work is incredibly rewarding. Iíve worked with several charities, from Trees Atlanta to my ongoing, close relationship with Project Live Love, doing everything from donating work for auctions to shooting events, to doing product photography. I very, very strongly believe in giving back to a world that has given so much to me, and I canít describe how it feels to help with organizations that impact the community. In addition to my ongoing work with Project Live Love, I also strive to sponsor one charity a month through my services, and I have a dream of my own charity organization providing childrenís and family photography to underprivileged families. Charity work isnít for everyone, and itís certainly to a degree a financial drain, but for me, the personal reward far outweighs the opportunity cost when I have the honor of giving back. I strongly encourage everyone, photographers and non-photographers alike, to find a way to give back to the community in their own unique way every once in a while.
Iíll close with this: if I could do it all again, be an intern again, I would do it in a heartbeat. I always recommend Markís internship to friends who want to be photographers. It was the most fun 3 months Iíve ever had, and it truly transformed my photography and business. Markís an incredible teacher, and he makes it all fun. Itís intense, and I wasnít prepared for that, but I didnít give up either. Iím glad I didnít, Ďcause Iíd probably still be shooting day cares and not knowing a whole lot else about photography.