How To Become a Professional Photographer Without Assisting: Grace Chon

April 6, 2017

By David Walker

In 2009, when anyone left in advertising was lucky to have a job, Grace Chon says she told her boss she was quitting to become a full-time pet photographer. She had an MFA in art direction and had worked as an art director for more than five years. At the time, she was at Deutsch/LA, and had just finished work on a major car campaign in New Zealand. Now, she’s shooting lifestyle portraits of people and animals for Purina, Fancy Feast, Jax & Bones, and other commercial and editorial clients.

© Grace Chon

Chon’s clients have included Purina, Fancy Feast and Jax & Bones. © Grace Chon

Working as an agency art director, she says, “is fun, but it can be soul-sucking at times. You’re throwing out ideas that get killed all the time.” She had always loved animals, so she had started a pet photography business in 2008. She was also photographing shelter dogs on weekends to help them get adopted. “I did it for the creative outlet, and to do something meaningful,” she explains.

It turned out she was really good at photographing animals because of her training as an art director. “When you’re an art director, you have a distinct vision in mind, and you execute it: framing, composition, props, subject,” she says. “You’re looking at things holistically…I want to see the whole environment, and I want it to be meaningful, arranged in a way that adds to the story. If there’s something distracting, I’ll take it out.”

In 2010, Chon landed her first commercial job, shooting a Purina campaign for Fallon. “The art director said she had somehow discovered my pet photography work and followed me for a few years,” Chon says. Around the same time, she hired photography consultant Suzanne Sease to help her edit her portfolio. Chon started showing her portfolio at reviews and to art buyers, and by 2014, she quit the pet photography business to focus on commercial and editorial work full time.

Thanks to her art directing experience, Chon brings an agency insider’s perspective to pre-pro calls with creatives. “I know what it’s like to be in their shoes,” she says. “I can instill confidence. I know what they need, and how to do it, and my work shows that I’m able to accomplish what it is they want.”

She brings her insider knowledge to the set, too. “[Creatives] are like, Oh my god, are we going to get this? Is the client going to be happy?’ I know what that feels like, and that helps me help them feel comfortable and confident in my work.” And at times, she says, she does the work of the art director on set—while deftly protecting their egos, of course.

Chon says her agency experience taught her another important skill: patience. It’s important for photographers not to worry about a slow response to a bid for a job, she explains. Behind the scenes at an agency, “it’s a wait-and-see process,” she says. “Be patient. There’s a whole lot going on that you don’t know about, and have no control over.”

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