I had the absolute pleasure of chatting recently with Appleton, USA based Editorial Portrait photographer David E. Jackson.
We talked for quite some time covering all manner of things such as how he first got started, what it was like building his business and at the same time holding down a full time job until eventually quitting and become a full time photographer, his thoughts on having a unique ‘style’ and lots more…
Dave is definitely one of the ‘Good Guys’ ; not only a talented photographer but someone who genuinely believes in helping and inspiring others. His generosity knows no limits and it’s for these reasons that I’m really excited to be sharing the content of our conversation here with you…
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Glyn> First of all Dave I just want to thank you for agreeing to do this and for giving up some of your time; I really do appreciate it.
Dave> Hey, no problem at all! It’s my pleasure Glyn!
Glyn> So how’s things? I can see from watching your blog that you’re real busy
Dave> Yeah, we’ve been busy lately trying to get our personal work wrapped up and placed into our new portfolio. We’re hoping to step out it sometime around late spring or early summer.
Glyn> Excellent stuff. Ok so Dave there’s loads of things I’d like to chat with you about but I guess to keep with the tradition and to keep the gear hungry folks happy if it’s ok with you I’ll kick off by asking what gear your using on a day to day basis when it comes to your camera, your lighting and so on…
Dave> I get asked that question a fair bit and my typical sarcastic response is ‘duct tape, bubble gum and chicken wire’. That’s always an interesting question because I’m an anti-gear person. Gear is obviously an important factor for any photographer, but when getting into a discussion about it I always tell people, especially those who attend my workshops, quality photos are not about the gear, about the lens with the red band on the end, not about the brand… but rather driven by the idea you are trying to communicate in an image or the feeling it evokes with the viewer. Fulfill your vision first using what you have in your bag and worry about the shiny gear fairy second.
Dave> Glyn let me tell you… if you were to open my gear bag right now, to be honest you’d probably feel a little embarrassed for me. People would gasp, ‘oh my God, I can’t believe you’re making photos with what’s inside here!” I have gear that I can rely on, gear that works for me, lenses that I can go to for a very specific reason and nothing more. I don’t believe on wasting money on junk I’ll never use, simply because it’s novelty. I know what my needs are for specific shots, so I can always go to them as needed. For the most part I try to keep things super, super simple. Right now I have a Canon 85mm f/1.8 lens that is broken. It doesn’t even work. I have 50mm f/1.4 lens that’s broken and I’m pretty sure I can’t find it at the moment. Yeah, I lost it. My main lens that I use right now is a 24-70L f/2.8 and it gets the most use. I also have a 70-200mm f/2.8 that I only take out when I’m shooting weddings, a 100mm Macro which is increasingly becoming my most popular headshot lens, a 16-35L f/2.8 and I also have a 35mm f/2.0. I just have lenses that are functional. Actually a conversation came up the other day between a couple of photographers and myself at our recent workshop and mentioned the 85mm 1.4L and the 1.2L and I told them that the 85mm 1.8 should be an L lens; it’s tack sharp, better than any lens out there and it’s affordable. I called it my “money maker”. My main body is a Canon 1D Mark IV and my back-ups include a 1D Mark III, 1D Mark II and a 40D. Buy used and buy smart.
Glyn> I guess if all the kit in your bag was looking immaculate and not a mark on it, then it would mean you’re not really working much but the fact you’ve got some broken stuff in there Dave you could say is a good thing huh…I’m trying to make this a positive thing you understand
Dave> Ah man, my stuff is all dented, dinged and looks f’ugly…it’s been through hell. But I’m a working photographer. It’s like looking at a warrior’s armor. If it looks shiny and new, then you haven’t seen any true nitty gritty, down and dirty action.
Glyn> It’s interesting what you say about the 24-70mm lens and that at the moment that’s the one you’re bringing out alot and then the 70-200mm you only seem to bring it out at a wedding because the complete opposite of that is Bert Stephani who I chatted with towards the end of last year and who also has appeared as a Guest on the blog. He was saying that he’s trying to use the 70-200 less because he feels it’s a very safe lens and he was going through a stage of forcing himself to shoot more with the 24-70mm.
Dave> Yes, I hear you there. It really is that “safe lens”. Typically if I had the option, I’d shoot a ceremony wide angle, moving in nice and close, however sometimes I’m restricted to how much I can move around during a ceremony. After all, this is northeast Wisconsin and I’m generally shooting in a church with crazy restrictions so that 70-200 comes in real handy.
Glyn> Dave, I think the first time I was exposed to your work and got to know more about you was when Zack Arias was doing his portfolio/web site critique series and I remember distinctly that yours was one that Zack loved; he just couldn’t say anything negative at all. Now that must have been a great feeling; in fact I think the only other critique I remember getting the same response was Allen Ross Thomas’. So like I say that’s how I first got to know about you but one thing I’d love to know more about is, how did you get started?
Dave> Ok, a little bit of background…
I grew up in Wisconsin and eventually moved to a small town called Appleton where I currently reside. After I graduated from high school and losing my drivers license due to receiving two speeding tickets in the same week, I realized that I had an interest in getting into Law Enforcement; I got in and loved the profession early on. I always thought Law Enforcement would be a great job and become my lifelong career. I spent 14 years in the profession, the last 9 of which I worked for a local agency here in the Fox Valley. During this time, I always had a big interest in music and graphic design. My friend Keith and I started an online music magazine blogsite in 1999 in which we did interviews with bands, CD reviews, etc.. As a result, we ended up going to a lot of live shows and often snagged a press pass. At the time, I’d always take a 35mm point and shoot camera with me just for the sake of having some pictures. After a while I realized that none of my pictures were looking anything like the kind of shots I was seeing out there on the internet and I became increasingly frustrated. I mean, ‘why can’t my pictures look that cool?’
I ended up picking up my dad’s 35mm Mamiya 1000DTL camera and started shooting film. And lemme say, I went through a lot of film… and I spent a lot of money on processing it all. Those early roots of shooting film, for me, were instrumental in beginning to find my voice as a photographer. I learned a lot on the fly. Composition, the mechanics of shooting manual, how to see things with a camera without getting caught up in post production techniques, learning to find and read good light, etc. So I kind of found my baseline voice in photography while I was working as a police officer. Eventually, the job changed for me. I had some high profile cases in my career, some stressful calls that made me think ‘is the stress worth it?’ I found out early on, the job doesn’t consist of eating donuts and sipping on coffee…
Glyn> Ah the stereotypical cop huh?
Dave> Exactly! It changed for me. It definitely changed for me and I realized I was slowly growing away from it with this budding hobby of photography. At the same time in my own personal life, as a husband and a father, I was slowly becoming somebody that I didn’t want to be. I hated the thought of going to work, I hated the thought of waking up in the morning, I was constantly irritable and my family didn’t want to be around me. It was at that point, I realized I could do one of two thing; I could sit in this job, rot and become cynical or I could take a hold of my life and my photography and turn it into a career. So those were my options. During the last two years of my Law Enforcement career, with the unrelenting support of my wife, I ended up making a lot of important decisions. With that came extensive personal sacrifices to begin pursuing my photography seriously, build a business, create a tangible business plan, find my style and eventually put an exit plan in place to walk away from my cop gig. I left in December of 2007. In the last year that I worked, I burned up 17 of my 20 vacation days to shoot weddings and develop a small client base. In that last year I worked ridiculous amounts of overtime, forced on 12-hour shifts, and would them come home and burn the candle at both ends. I did that in order to handle the business while maintaining my life as a father and a husband. Just alot of stress, you know?
It paid off. And in the end, I knew could finally leave that job knowing that I’d made the right decisions. And it wasn’t a just a snap decision. It wasn’t a “have camera – have a business” thing. Financially we planned things out. Going back to the gear thing, I did not spend a heap of money and set unrealistic goals of who I wanted to be as a photographer; I didn’t buy gear and useless crap that I didn’t need. I used what I had and I still do that to this very day. It was a thought out transition.
Glyn> Dave hearing that, do you think it was a brave decision you made? Because to me it sounds that way with you having a family and moving away from a regular job…
Dave> Glyn, there was no other option for me. I had to be a photographer. It’s who I am. There were no other options for me at the time. I could either act on my talent or leave it behind in the dust. But I don’t want to be that guy who regrets not taking a risk or leap of faith.
You see, there was a turning point in my career in August of 2002.
While working one morning, my partners and I received a call of a man acting suspiciously and stepping into the path of oncoming traffic while walking down the street. When we arrived on the scene, we were aggressively approached by this man, who eventually attempted to attack us with a machete. This guy was coming at us fast with a weapon and it was apparent he meant business. I remembered having my gun drawn, repeatedly telling myself ‘I don’t want to shoot this guy, I don’t want to kill this guy!’ While charging us with this machete over his head, he made a last second right turn towards the other two officers with me and my partner ended up shooting him 6 times. And he lived.
It was one of those instances where I just realized it’s really ‘life or death’ out there. And although I handled myself on a daily basis with solid ethics and the utmost morals, I also knew that this career had changed for me after going through an incident like this. I guess it was at that point I realized there are more options out there for me. Glyn, you know there are options out there for anybody. That a career transition can be made by anyone who feels stuck in a career they loathe. I’m here as proof.
Glyn> Ok so here’s a question for you Dave…when you were in Law Enforcement and at the same time building your photography business, when you were working with clients did you keep it from them that you were also a police officer…that you had a ‘day job’ for want of a better phrase. Did you ever feel that if they knew that then maybe they wouldn’t take you so seriously as a photographer?
Dave> I never found that to be an issue. And to be honest, I never held that back from my clients. Because when you strip it all down, I am who I am. There’s no changing that. My personality needs to speak from a place of honor and that’s why I’m working with the clients I do; because they respect me for who I am…I’m Dave Jackson. I’m just a dude with a bunch of rickety gear who likes making killer photos. Sometimes I’m goofy, sometimes I’m shy, sometimes I’m sarcastic, but most times about having fun and connecting with people. When bringing up the cop profession… sure there would be some odd, awkward moments. But generally I found that my profession didn’t matter and often after a shoot I’d get people saying ‘Dude, I can’t believe you’re a cop.’ And that’s because I’m putting myself out there as a person and not as a career choice; and for that reason I’m more human. To be successful in any profession, especially photography, it’s important to be a real human, not a machine. To be a person that people can relate to and communicate with. We are people first, photographers second.
Glyn> You mentioned a short while back Dave about when you were developing your style. Now one of the things I’ve talked about a lot with the other guys is style…it’s a subject that always, without fail would come up. Commercial Photographer Tim Wallace I remember saying that he firmly believes that your life experiences show up in your style and that every time you take the picture you’re photographing a bit of yourself and your experiences too. At the time I guess that seemed quite heavy but when he explained it, it made perfect sense that your style is heavily influenced by the person that you are and the experiences you’ve had in life. So, when it comes to style Dave what’s your take on it?
Dave> I think Tim is spot on here. I don’t think that you can choose your style, I think your style chooses you…if that makes sense…
Dave> I also think if you’re good at what you do then it just occurs…you can’t force it. You can’t force a style. It naturally progresses. Heck, I can’t say that I’ve completely found my style yet. But I’m finally getting close to having my style find me. Each and every day that I’m picking up a camera…each and every day that I’m going out on a shoot, I’m constantly shooting for myself and moving closer to finding my unique voice. I think that’s a constant and evolving process that never truly ends.
This past Saturday we were looking through some of my early work from 2004 and then comparing it to some of my recent work. There was no comparison. I think that your style is a culmination of everything; the way that you handle yourself during a shoot, who you are as a person, building different skill sets … all that stuff kind of snowballs into your eventual style. It’s important to define you’re voice. I’m not going to say style, but define your ‘voice’ as a photographer and that can only happen once you get through all the technical confusion of photography and begin to approach the human element of creating an image and at the core, what you’re trying to say with your work. Along my journey I have had inspiration, as far as those people that have stood out to me in the industry and those who have helped me get closer to where I want to be. It’s a culmination of finding inspiration, emulating certain people’s style and learning how people create their work. But eventually we need to take the little bits and pieces from everybody out there that we look up to, put them into a bag, shake the crap out of it and call it our own. Do you know what I mean?
Glyn> So is there anybody in particular now that you look to for inspiration or has it gone beyond that and you get your inspiration from just every day kind of stuff?
Dave> My inspiration has come from a lot of places. In fact, let me backtrack a little bit…When I was just starting out in the photography world, while shooting bands, I would search the internet and find photographers work I fell in love with. Eventually I mustered up the courage to send a bunch of emails out randomly to photographers saying, ‘I love your work, you inspire me, and how the hell did you make this awesome picture?’ I did this all the time and I NEVER heard back from any of them, ever. Except for one person. One person took the time to be honest, genuine and real. That person was Zack Arias. Zack made a huge impression on me at that point and over time I began to create this online relationship with him. At some point along the way he kind of became a long distance mentor, but more importantly I eventually built a friendship with him. To the point that now I can call him up and not talk photography…you know, just talk about life. He’s made a big mark on me and he’s always been there; but he’s been there with honesty… and he’s been a good friend. I look at him, Meg and the kids more as family now.
I draw a lot of influence from photographers. Some friends, some not.. Yousef Karsh, Annie Liebowitz, Dan Winters, Travis Shinn, Mark Seliger, Chris Buck, Adam Elmakias, Joey L, Marc Climie, Jon Canlas, Michael Howard…and so on…
Glyn> Moving on Dave, what do you see as being one of the biggest mistakes that people trying to break into the photography business world are making?
Dave> Ok…”I got this SLR for Christmas and now I’m going to quit my day job and create a photography business in the next 3 weeks.” Please know I don’t want to come across as harsh, but that’s what I see at ground level. What’s happening, in my opinion, is that a lot of photographers aren’t spending the time to build skill sets, to learn the technical and business stuff early on, before they are going out there and taking on paid client work. It’s a path of self-destruction. Yes, it can work… but rarely does it survive and thrive.
Glyn> I’m guessing it’s no different in the US as it is here but one thing I see is people getting a camera like you say for Christmas and then setting themselves up in business real quick and going out shooting weddings because…and I quote “it’s a quick way to make money”.
Dave> Yeah sure, but there’s a component to that…everyone needs to start somewhere and I’m not going to be the guy that says you can’t start out by being that $300 photographer; those people are not killing off the seasoned shooters in my opinion. Everyone needs a starting place, but to really put yourself out there and create a business without having the technical foundation of photography formulated or some business sense about you.. is essentially laying out a path of self-destruction. That, and people back themselves into a corner by following the ‘what’s hip now’ trends in the marketplace. When those trends are no longer hip, they find themselves having to either dig out of the hole they fell into or fold their business. I think that a lot of people starting out need to do their research and homework before they get into business. You’d be surprised how many people are in business, in the photography world, and don’t have insurance, that don’t have any kind of financial plan, don’t have any short, mid and long term goals…plans in place for ‘what if this fails?’ They’re just going out there and hoping for the best. And hope doesn’t pay the bills. My wish for other photographers starting out is that they make every best possible business choice early on so that things don’t collapse on them down the road.
Don’t get wrapped up in high-end gear, slick studio spaces and trendy lifestyles only to end up driving yourselves into a meaningless financial hole…it’s so unfortunate.
Glyn> How important do you think social media is nowadays Dave?
Dave> I think first and foremost, there is no better form of social networking than actually getting out there, getting to know people, meeting people face-to-face and having people associate with who you are as person. That is THE best form of social media in my opinion. The human element.
Glyn> That is exactly what Photographer Allen Ross Thomas said when we spoke. He said he loves twitter, he loves Facebook but you cannot beat face to face interaction…
Dave> Absolutely. You have to get out there and get face time. Not iPhone facetime either. Actually meet people and build your own network over an ice cold beer or a cup of coffee. In the context of Facebook and Twitter, yeah. I think it’s important. I think everyone out there in business needs to embrace social media. If you’re not growing, then you’re going to be left behind. Having said that people use social media in different ways. Four years ago I was promoting my business through MySpace. Then Facebook came along. And look how that has changed in the last year. Now Twitter is huge. Embrace it! But at the core, you cannot beat real conversations. It’s certainly a great way to get your work out there too; to show your recent work to clients and potential clients.
Some photographers, particularly wedding photographers, are getting a lot of work through places like Facebook. They’ll shoot a wedding, upload albums to their Facebook page and tag their clients. Then their clients and their friends see your work and more leads are generated.
Glyn> You mentioned about making the move over to more editorial work and I remember a short while back you did the shoot with the Shear Chaos Salon and made up the whole circus themed set; is that the kind of work you want to do more of?
Dave> Yes. Hell yes. That shoot was a mutual collaboration with our friends over at Shear Chaos. And it was all personal work. I’m finding right now, that personal work is the best way for me to fine-tune my dynamic as a photographer. In February 2010, I was going through this stage of thinking ‘Dave, who are you as a photographer?’ I was taking on some fashion work in the studio and I enjoyed it. But after a short while I realized it’s not what drives me. Sure, I’ll always take the job and enjoy shooting it, but it’s not what plucks at my heartstrings or defines my portfolio. It all boils down to evaluating my skill sets and finding my place in the greater market. What am I going to do that’s going to create a unique name for myself? I asked myself a lot … ‘Who is Dave Jackson’? I needed to strip it down. The answer was right in front of me. I’m a editorial portrait photographer. As of late, we’ve been doing a lot of personal work at our own expense so that I can step out and say, ‘this is me’, ‘this is who I am!’ I know that I’m not going to get jobs shooting guys dressed as clowns holding knives, but I’m going to get more and more work as a result of it and I’m going to start landing projects that are unique and based off my strengths.
We did a recent commercial shoot for a huge radio station in Milwaukee where they wanted all clean head shots for their website, ads and local billboards. I had maybe 5 minutes with each person. But after I’d wrapped up their ‘safe’ headshots, I made time to shoot some personal shots. And those shots lasting only minutes will end up in my new portfolio.
It’s a constant process. Getting out and shooting personal projects in order to step out with a unique portfolio.
Glyn> I totally get the personal work because it allows you to get out and shoot exactly what you want to shoot otherwise if you’re just shooting for clients then it’s very limiting.
Dave> It can be tough. At the moment I’m still shooting weddings and senior portraits. It’s my base. My safety net, if you will. But at the same time I’m shooting personal work and re-envisioning my direction. I’m going to continue to shoot weddings and the small projects in between, but I will start scaling it back as we get the new portfolio out there and start meeting people in the advertising market. It’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be daunting process. But when I set a goal I go for myself, I have to make it happen. Just like when I left law enforcement, I had to be a photographer.
Glyn> I was going to ask you how important you think personal projects are but I think you’ve answered that it is clearly very important if you want to develop
Dave> Right. If you are picking up your camera only when there’s a paycheck associated with it, I’m sorry to hear that… because you are not growing, you’re not making mistakes and you’re not learning during the process. If you stay with what’s comfortable, then you’ll just stay at the same level. Once you break away from that comfort zone and start making mistakes, you’re out there learning new things. That’s when you’re growing within yourself.
Glyn> And if you’re not making mistakes you’re not doing enough
Dave> Exactly right.
Glyn> Dave I know that you have workshop series called ‘Breaking the Rules’…can you tell us more about that and maybe what someone attending would expect?
Dave> We just wrapped up our sixth Breaking The Rules workshop. It’s constantly evolving, but the long and short of it is… that it’s a broad spectrum class in portrait shooting and my goal is to get people to think about generating new skill sets and to become re-inspired within their own work. To give them options. It’s an overall look at portrait shooting. It’s not a lighting workshop; sure that’s mixed in there, but it’s designed so that people can start thinking about what they can do to improve their work and will help them to get going in the right direction. The workshop embraces all levels of photographers who attend; from beginners and amateurs to those at a more advanced level. While I cover the basics, there will be stuff that the more advanced person will glean. How I’m shooting, my workflow, how I interact with clients and so on. I want to give photographers who are either struggling or starting out something that they can take away and help them to develop their work. That’s what I learned early on…the principle of giving back.
I love teaching. I love educating other photographers. I really enjoy it. The workshops, to me, are not about financial gain; they’re about showing people new techniques, helping them, motivating them, inspiring them…getting them thinking. One of the most fulfilling things at the end of a workshop while doing critiques, is looking at some of the attendees photos saying, ‘holy crap…these are sweet photos, this is cool, really, really cool’. To see actual growth. It’s rad.
Glyn> I’m almost reluctant to ask this next question because you’ve talked a lot about developing your skill sets and getting it right ‘in camera’ and so on but people always want to know how big a part Photoshop plays in your work
Dave> Let’s look at the core of my work…I preach to other photographers that the image has to be about as perfect as it can be in-camera when it comes to lighting, composition, exposure…everything. It needs to be right in the camera because that is where a great image starts. All of my work needs to be near-perfect right from the file and when it comes to post production, it’s just a matter of minor adjustments to tweak contrast, color temperature, sharpening and we’re done. The images must look good out-of-camera, so I have to do minimal post production work. When it comes to my editorial, conceptual work… yes. Photoshop comes into play. Only after I’ve created a solid base image, is it that I’m going into Photoshop and make some significant tweaks; dodging and burning, tonal color grading, etc.. to give my images the final polish that’s going to make it a little more marketable. Yes, I work on my images to make sure they’re perfect. Yet I think you need to acknowledge when you’re going too far. It’s very easy to do. When you’re working in Photoshop, you need to know ‘why’ you’re using it. Not just for novelty… You can’t just bring a crappy image in CS5, play around for a while and call it a day. You need to use it for a purpose, for a reason to accomplish your final vision. Otherwise you’re spraying air freshener over an un-flushed toilet.
Glyn> Garbage in, garbage out…,
Dave> Absolutely and you can quote me. You basically need to know ‘why’ you’re doing what you’re doing in Photoshop. Just like ‘why’ you’re using a certain type of light modifier, aperture, etc.
Glyn> But the bottom line Dave is that you’re not relying on it because some people nowadays seem to think ‘it’s easy for you guys’ you just take a simple photo and then it’s photoshop that makes it what it is…
Dave> Exactly and some people do rely on it. Take a look at my SIMPLE+DIRTY work…you’d be surprised how little Photoshop has gone into those. If you find the right light or you use the right lighting while on-location, it looks like it’s already been edited right out of camera…it’s that simple. You’ve got to get it right, right from the start. Look at Joey L’s work. He’s dialing in his lighting to get his pictures exactly how he wants ‘in-camera’ so there’s just a few tweaks in Photoshop. And it’s that type of work that’s getting noticed right now.
Glyn> Every time this subject is touched on it reminds me of Zack on his OneLight DVD when he’s walking through the streets of Atlanta saying that if you’re saying to yourself I’ll fix that later in Photoshop, put down your camera and slap yourself hard across the face because you’re being lazy… kind of sums it up perfectly huh?
Dave> I love it! It’s so, so true. Some of the best lyrics to come out of Atlanta!
Glyn> Dave, one last thing…if you could offer one golden nugget of advice…what would it be?
Dave> Regardless of whatever you want to be in the photography world, in your career, in your life… I think the most important thing is that you need to remember the things that are important to you. It begins with you. Value yourself. Everything begins with you. Then value your family and the people who support you everyday. Love your family and those people around you; put them as a priority. Because let’s face it, photography may not be here in 2 days, 2 weeks, 2 months or 2 years. So you need to have other priorities in your life besides photography and your career. Just let the other pieces fall into place. If you really want it bad enough, it’s going to fall into place. But never forget about your foundation…ever. My wife has been there for me from the beginning and she’s stuck by my side and supported my decisions… even when the odds were against us. She loves me, my work and she puts faith in our business. Heck, she even comments on my blog when others don’t. But the foundation is our love for each other, our kids and our family. Everything I do is for my family. Trevor, my studio manager, is family too. That’s why this all works…because it’s all about love.
Glyn> Nailed it Dave…100% percent; totally agree with you because without that, what is this all for?
Dave we’ve covered a lot of ground here and I’m really conscious of not wanting to keep you away from it all for too long so I just want to say a huge thank you for giving your time up for this and sharing your thoughts and feelings and experiences…I really do appreciate it. Dave again, thank you so much for your time …
Dave> It’s my pleasure and I certainly do appreciate what you’re doing Glyn. It’s cool that you’re out there, helping other photographers grow. I’ve been through your blog and I’ve followed some of your tutorials and I think it’s fantastic what you’re doing. Stay at it man…
Glyn> You bet, and one day I’ll definitely buy you that beer…
Dave> Absolutely; great chatting with you!
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