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November 2, 2009

PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER INTERVIEW: Mark Robert Halper

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Written by: Lawrence

“I do think that branding is becoming ever more important for photographers, and we’re also one of the hardest kinds of businesses to brand. “

PAST

LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM: In your early years of high school, were you involved in the yearbook ? What sparked your interest in photography? Do you recommend all the weekend photographers out there to initially stick with the subjects they know and build from there? Do you have any suggestions on how to build that progression? How did you progress to where you are today in photography?

MARK ROBERT HALPER:
I actually didn’t get involved in still photography until College.  In high school I was interested in being a film maker, and later realized that still photography was my true calling.

My career has been a gradual progression and growth.  I essentially started in 1989 shooting very small jobs and slowly built my talents and business over the following two decades.

LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM: Do you still have photos taken from the early years when it all started? What were your subjects? Are the pictures online to share with everyone to compare with your work today?

MARK ROBERT HALPER:
I have those negatives, and even a few prints, but the work isn’t online anywhere that I’m aware of.  I mostly shot people I knew when I was learning, and was ironically more likely to ask strangers I found interesting to pose than I am now.  I think I had an inflated idea of my own talents at the time, which probably ended up serving me well early in my career.  In comparing my older images to my current work when I was looking at it recently, I was struck by just how much of my current vision you can find the seeds of in my earliest imagery.



LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM:  What books did you read at the beginning of your photography career that helped you prepare for today? Title of book, author and price of book please…just messing around, the title of the books should be fine thanks to google search. Do you recall any other resources that you referred to heavily to help you prepare for the photography business? We want to know what the must have resources are to fully equip ourselves when and if we ever plan to take that leap of faith.

MARK ROBERT HALPER:
There was one book called The Perfect Portfolio, but it has become appropriately dated over the past twenty years and wouldn’t be one I would suggest somebody read today.  My two current recommendations are The War of Art and The E-Myth Revisited.

LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM:  What was your very first professional photography job? Was this purely out of luck that you were at the right place at the right time? Was there a hidden plan to penetrate the market from within? Would you recommend it to new photographers trying to break into the market and that are having difficulty breaking in? Once you had your first job under your belt was it difficult to get another gig? What did you do to acquire more work besides providing awesome images? Have you ever considered being agency represented? If you are agency represented how did you attract a photography agent?

MARK ROBERT HALPER:
Hidden plan?  No, I was just trying to find what work I could.  My first important job was for a new magazine photographing a group that performed on stage for a Christian magazine – I think they were called The Power Team, and they did parlor tricks like lying on a bed of nails.  I was lucky in that the magazine liked my work and continued to hire me for two years until they moved to another state.  That one client got me going, and I owe it to a girl I knew who was assisting an illustrator working for the magazine, and happened to hear that they needed a photographer and gave them my name.


Agencies take a lot of money, and I’ve known very few photographers who had great experiences putting that kind of responsibility in somebody else’s hands.  The rep as savior is a popular myth, but in reality I’ve never personally seen a rep make a career.  Rather, very established photographers who shoot with great frequency on large projects are usually the only ones who benefit from working with reps, and they would do well representing themselves as well.

LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM: After your first job, What was the next photography gig you obtained and how did you go about your execution? Did you apply all that you’ve learned in all the books you’ve read ? Did you buy more books or accessed any more resources to help you jump to your next big step in the game of photography? What tools do you recommend that are a must have that helped you get to where you are present day?

MARK ROBERT HALPER:
I can’t possibly recall how the other jobs fell in, and have probably forgotten most of them.  I’m sure that what I learned in books, but far more importantly and predominantly  in workshops and classes, helped me to build a career.  I think the most important thing any emerging photographer can do is to do as much photography that challenges them as possible, and often that is continually re-approaching similar assignments and finding ways to do them with greater creativity and technical prowess.  I also am an equally big believer in workshops – it is the best way I know to get push and feedback from outside of yourself, and to be exposed to new ideas.  When you take workshops and don’t shoot much on your own, you loose most of what you learn in the workshops, and when you only shoot on your own you lack the feedback to really improve.

PRESENT

LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM: What keeps the money rolling? Your brand is possibly a huge factor to your longevity? Am i right?  Do you have any recommendations on brand building for weekend photographers and/or Photographers in general.

MARK ROBERT HALPER:
The money is rolling in?  I didn’t know that – in the current economy I’m defining success as staying in the black.  If you can maintain your business and lifestyle in 2009 and still come out of it with a bank balance that isn’t less than it was at the beginning of the year, you’re way ahead of most people.  We’ve done that for 2009, and added some money to savings as well, so I consider myself very fortunate.


I do think that branding is becoming ever more important for photographers, and we’re also one of the hardest kinds of businesses to brand.  I think that your design needs to look like your work (not of the moment, but over the long term), and that your design needs to be consistent from your website to your business cards, and even extend to the way you dress and present yourself.  I always suggest a professional designer for your logo (at the very least) for the same reasons you would tell a layperson why a professional photographer is important.  Your logo ought to be created not just as a good looking typeface, but as a reflection of your work, ought to work well when printed as a solid in straight black and white, ought to integrate well into varying designs, and ought to created with an eye towards still being visually relevant in twenty years.  If you look at what the big boys do, you’ll find that in most cases the design is very simple – and that’s how it ought to be.  Go around your home and take a look at the logos on the national brand items that you know, and you’ll be surprised just how subtle they are, and how close they are to just plain type.  In our business, Canon, Nikon, Epson, and Apple all come right to mind as great examples.  I recently revised my logo from 20 years ago, and all we did was remove the elements that seemed to make it better when it was designed in 1990 (since they were cool design elements at the time), and kept the rest of the same (balancing it as necessary).

LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM:  What is currently in your photography bag? Please be as detailed as possible for those starting out photographers that want to be just like you. From your photography equipment arsenal, what do you bring most of the time for your commercial shoots?

MARK ROBERT HALPER:
My camera bag has my Hasselblad H3D-39, an H1, an H2, an Ixpress 96C digital back, and six Hasselblad lenses (28, 35, 80, 100, 150 and a 50-110).  I have various cords and batteries to power and connect my equipment, as well as an assortment of flash cards and other storage devices to hold my images (always including an extra firewire powered drive so every image is in at least two places for backup when I leave a shoot).  I also have a 17” MacBook, pocket wizards, a brush to clean my sensors, a pack of silica gel to absorb humidity, two extension tubes, a digital gray card, and chargers for my batteries.  I assume that any piece of equipment can fail, and have sufficient equipment to keep shooting if that happens.

LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM:  What is your favorite image in your current portfolio and why? How did you approach the execution? Give us a glimpse on how you construct an image from scratch.

MARK ROBERT HALPER:
I really don’t have a favorite image, but I recently begun working on a new personal project shooting winemakers in the Santa Barbara area (studiomark.com/wine2009).  What I really am enjoying is creating images for me, sans art director or client.  I bring one camera, and use the same 100mm lens for all of the images.  I shoot with natural light primarily, and often add a single simple light source to my subject (all of which so far are available at Home Depot, rather than Calumet).  You’ll have to forgive me, but I don’t discuss how I create the dreamy look in my images.


LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM:  Is having your own studio space essential for any commercial photographer.  Do you have a photography studio of your own? If so, what do you look for in a photography studio?

MARK ROBERT HALPER:
For a studio photographer, I do think it is essential in most cases, but I intentionally purchased a home with an unusually large garage that I converted into a studio.  The most important things are to have room to work, and to create an environment that is comfortable and inviting for your clients and your subjects.

LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM: What types of commercial gigs are you currently involved in now and how did they surface? What are your recommendations on how we photographers diversify their product offering from Commercial and stock in today’s marketplace?

MARK ROBERT HALPER:
The commercial world has been irreparably damaged by cheap stock photography.  Every photographer who complains that there isn’t enough work for them, or that it pays too little, and has sold their imagery for less than professional rates, sold it royalty free, as micro-stock, or in a similar way, has only to look in the mirror to find the person to blame for their predicament.  Much of my current effort is being directed at my new consumer based portrait business, Halper Fine Art.


FUTURE

LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM: What are your immediate goals as a photographer and artist?  Are you planning on releasing any how-to books? What are your recommendations to people thinking about starting a photography book?

MARK ROBERT HALPER:
How-to books can often cause as much damage as they do good.  So many of the best images were done so simply that putting a diagram of somebody next to a window, or with a single light on the side, ends up feeling lacking in a book, so you end up with books that give you the crazy idea that lots of lights equals a better photograph, when the converse is more likely the case.  On top of all of that, with the really good photographers, the technique was used in service of executing their vision for a particular image, and not for your image.  It’s great to understand how something was done, and even to try and replicate it to learn, but far too many people stop there and just use other people’s setups and techniques.  Painters learn in part by copying famous paintings, but that work would never end up in their own portfolios.


My idea of how-to is to use a method that puts the photographer in the position of making your own deliberate choices, based on what he or she finds beautiful, interesting and/or compelling about their subject, and do it in service of the client of the reason that the photo is being created.  I do that in my workshop, but don’t plan on putting it in a book.  I also don’t think that reading about it would work very well, I think that most photographers need more guidance during the process, and that is especially true when somebody is more experienced, which feels counter-intuitive, but is absolutely true.

LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM: A lot of professional photographers are starting to run workshops. Will you start offering workshops in the future? I know TIME is not your friend, but there are ways to get around that maybe offering internship opportunities to intern with you for a small fee during one of your paid shoots. Or maybe provide an opportunity to be a spectator for one of your weekend shoots?

MARK ROBERT HALPER:
I’ve actually been offering workshops for many years, and over the past five or so years have been consistently running my “The Professional Portrait” class two to four times a year.  (This is the one that used to be called “Photographing People for Publication”.)  It’s three very intense days with me, and in that time I will make you a better photographer.  I am also doing a workshop called “Saving Your Photographic Career” in November, and have on ongoing workshops that meets via web conferencing two Monday evenings per month.  Info is at www.TheExceptionalPortrait.com

Regrettably, taking people I don’t know on shoots has too much potential to backfire.  I learned that the hard way when I brought along a crazy person who ended up threatening to damage my client relationship because he didn’t like me.  In truth, I didn’t like him either; and he was fighting an uphill battle with me from the moment he arrived, which was about an hour later than his call time.  Ironically, he spent what seemed to the better part of the day on the phone with his mother – a trait that should send anybody running in the opposite direction if encountered in a grown adult male.


Charging people to just be on a shoot seems wrong to me.

LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM:  I am sure you’ve read many articles discussing how in the future videography and photography will be one? What are your thoughts on that and how will you evolve to the new morphed medium?

MARK ROBERT HALPER:
I bought a new 5D II when all of this began as well.  Photographers think their world is opening up to video since the 5D does that, and videographers think they can now grab stills from a Red, but in the end this is just another example of a shrinking market that will have one creative required to do the job of two, and something that will further drive down rates since it will subtract from the number of people the client will need to hire.  From a client’s perspective, this is phenomenal, but from ours this is really just a reaction to a shrinking market that will only serve to make it even smaller.

Video (and we are talking about video, although with less depth of field than we are used to), only will really exist on the web for the applications we’re discussing.  Reverie is a great little piece that shows off what the camera can do, and how good Vincent is as putting together a quick production, but in the end it’s a video, and it isn’t the kind of video that clients often need.

Great advertising photography has always been great photography – just look at the work of Penn, Avedon, or even Annie’s better stuff twenty years after it was done to see how our perspective on it changes.  On the other hand, what we create for the web with our 5Ds isn’t likely to last a moment past when out client changes the content.

LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM: Ok so thinking about the future and how it is very important in any endeavor especially the photography business. What do you suggest photographers do in the future to solidify their presence in the industry? What will you do to ensure that you remain on top, not taking into account your photography niche?

MARK ROBERT HALPER:
I do the best possible work that I can, and always strive to get better at it.  I look for new markets, and find ones that will match well with me and creatively satisfy me.  I think this is an industry where it is uniquely hard to solidify much of anything – there is always somebody coming up who wants to be where you are, which is the way of things.

LAWRENCEATIENZA.COM: Thank you again for your time and giving back. What would you like to leave for us photographers to think about when moving forward with photography for the future? If you have any words of wisdom will be appreciated.

MARK ROBERT HALPER:
The world, it is a-changing.  If you have any other option, do something else professionally.  If not, then it is more important than ever to create a business that is based on earning a real income that will support you and allow you to grow.  Stay away from shooting what can be easily found in stock, what can be replaced with stock even if the imagery from stock will be different (a client that wanted environmental portraits very happy with people talking over a conference table when the cost is only $6 for that stock image), or work easily created in China before the products ship here (such as most website/catalog work).

It is and will continue to be more difficult than ever, to build a successful, long term, photography business, but it is still possible.

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About the Author

Lawrence
Lawrence Atienza is a Jack of all Trades and Master of ALL. Whether it be in the realm of Advertising/Advertising operations with over 10+ years of experience to dabbling in the creative realm of photography and founding/writing for http://www.PhotographySILO.com, Lawrence Atienza gives his all. You can find him on Google+,Twitter and the major social media outlets.




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