– Posted by Alumni Intern Chris
Wow. What’s changed for me since the internship, huh? A LOT. But in case you don’t know me, I was part of Team Awesome (also known as Season 2). To explain where I am now, I have to explain where I’ve been. If you do remember me, you can skip the next couple of paragraphs. 😉
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. I’d never done phtogoraphy or had an interest in it before, but within just a couple hours, I was hooked. Worked there doing family and children’s 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 hadn’t shot a wedding, or an event, or worked with models, or really ever shot anything “artistic” 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 don’t want some stranger posting pictures of their kids online!), and also due to my obligations for AWA. And in the moment, you think, “It’s no big deal, I’ll make it up later”. 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. I’d let myself, and Mark, down when it all finished out, and I was disappointed.
Now, that’s not to say I didn’t learn A TON during the internship. I did. WAY more than I could process. To this day, I’ll 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, it’s near impossible to process everything on the fly, but with Mark, it’s even more so. His motto is simple: GO. And he doesn’t have a throttle. You’re lucky if you get a chance to sit in and strap down before he’s flying through shoots and marketing and models and locations and more. It’s 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 bride’s mom, who wants a magical perfect day for her princess. I had pointedly avoided wedding photography before because of all this insane pressure I’d built up. His answer? “Huh. Never thought of it that way.” He shrugged and continued eating. Even after shooting a wedding with him, where I felt I’d failed pretty miserably, I didn’t get it. It wasn’t until I shot my first wedding on my own that it clicked. You can think there’s all that pressure, or you can decide to enable the couple to have a wonderful day. That’s it. Just do it. I’m a personable guy, I like to joke around and have fun, and I simply decided that’s how I’ll handle weddings. It was so easy, and to be honest, I’ve never noticed all that stressful stuff I’d freaked out about. Now, it could be that I’m a big believer in a good fit, but I treat my couples like friends so they don’t worry about the photos. And you know what? They love the results.
Marketing is something else that I just didn’t get until later. To a degree, I’m still not all that great at it. Honestly, with 5 kids and school, I don’t get that much time to go out and market, but I’m 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 I’ve never been in a make-it-or-break-it position with my photography, but I’ve had to learn a lot. Last year, in April, I opened a physical studio. I’d 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 it’s bills, but it’s 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 it’s 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. There’s pressure that wasn’t there before. But I loved my studio; it was my place to go everyday to work. When I wasn’t 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. I’d 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 couldn’t 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 while—okay, a long time—to do just that, but now I use them for on-site stuff all the time. I’ll 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. It’s allowed me to be MUCH more portable and versatile in the kind of shoots and locations I’ll 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 “a boss”. 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?), I’m a better photographer for it. Internships are a two-way street. Something I’ve learned since taking my own intern is that you can learn a lot from someone learning from you. I’ve learned stuff from my own intern that I didn’t know before. SHHH! Don’t tell her that!
Now, I know things have changed since Team Awesome split; Mark never stops learning, and that’s 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. I’m constantly reading them to learn more, along with countless photography blogs. I’ve 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. Don’t think, just do. The more you sit around and read stuff and “plan”, the less you’re out actually shooting. You’ll 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: “Mistakes are the path to good pictures”. I screw up all the time. Luckily not to the point that it’s ever made anyone mad, but when I do, I’m presented with the opportunity to find the solution. I love that. Overcoming obstacles makes me feel awesome, and I’m 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. I’ve 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 can’t 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 children’s and family photography to underprivileged families. Charity work isn’t for everyone, and it’s 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.
I’ll close with this: if I could do it all again, be an intern again, I would do it in a heartbeat. I always recommend Mark’s internship to friends who want to be photographers. It was the most fun 3 months I’ve ever had, and it truly transformed my photography and business. Mark’s an incredible teacher, and he makes it all fun. It’s intense, and I wasn’t prepared for that, but I didn’t give up either. I’m glad I didn’t, ‘cause I’d probably still be shooting day cares and not knowing a whole lot else about photography.