What’s Your Niche?: Kristen Angelo, Cannabis Photographer
May 11, 2017
Kristen Angelo’s approach to photographing the pot industry and culture is “like any other reportage photography,” she says. Shown here, cannabis drying after a harvest at a growing operation. Click to see more of Angelo's editorial and commercial work.
Angelo takes a documentary approach to the marijuana industry. “I want to humanize [it] and deliver an authentic portrayal of my subject,” she says. Here, a marijuana grower assesses the crop.
One of Angelo's biggest challenges is earning the trust of her subjects. "I always [ask]: What are you comfortable with me photographing? Can I photograph your face? Can I share your identity? Are you more comfortable with just your hands and your feet showing? Wherever they want to take it, I’m fine with that."
PDN: How did you get into this niche?
Kristen Angelo: In 2014, when Washington State legalized cannabis, my boyfriend and I had friends who acquired licenses for recreational retail stores. They asked my boyfriend to visit farms and evaluate their products. I went with him, and it kind of tugged at my heartstrings. My father was a lifetime user and grower. So I feel quite connected with [the culture].
I did a little research online and found there was a lot of bud porn [ie, detailed, macro shots of cannabis flowers], and there was a lot of posed [photography] that was trying to make the cannabis culture sexy. But that’s not real cannabis culture.
PDN: What did you want to do differently?
KA: My approach was: Let’s tell the whole story—how these [growers] got here, what’s the philosophy behind growing. It was all about showing the big picture. And I wanted to humanize it. I wanted to share with other people that this is not taboo, that it’s not scary, it’s a powerful grassroots social and political movement that’s making substantial progress, and it’s exciting.
PDN: But it’s still taboo in many parts of the country. What would you say to people who look askance at the work you do?
KA: A really good way to look at it is like any other reportage photography. My purpose is to deliver an authentic portrayal of my subject. Looking at it from that perspective, I don’t really see anything wrong with it. I think a lot of the misconception [about the cannabis industry and culture] is that people are uneducated on the topic.
PDN: What are the misconceptions you’re trying to counter?
KA: I think we’re all familiar with the stereotypes that linger: [that cannabis growers and users] probably don’t have a job, maybe they’re lazy, they’re stoners, maybe not that intelligent. But in actuality people running these farms are entrepreneurs. They’re very intelligent and business-minded.
PDN: Do you have difficulty getting access to growing operations?
KA: Not particularly, but that is probably one of my biggest challenges: earning their trust. I always [ask]: What are you comfortable with me photographing? Can I photograph your face? Can I share your identity? Are you more comfortable with just your hands and your feet showing? Wherever they want to take it, I’m fine with that.
PDN: What are some other challenges?
KA: At first it was a challenge making a living, and legitimizing it as a career. Now I feel established and confident in calling myself a cannabis photographer.
PDN: You seem careful to call it cannabis instead of pot or other terms. Is that intentional?
KA: I don’t avoid it [the word “pot”]. My website is [called] A Pot Farmer’s Daughter. But the image that I’m projecting is important. If I use the word “cannabis,” it’s a bit more respected. It’s politically correct.
PDN: How did you get your business up and running?
KA: I would say 90 percent of my connections evolved through Instagram. I established an Instagram account and shared only my professional portfolio there.
PDN: How did you get people to notice your feed?
KA: I researched who in the cannabis community is on Instagram, and targeted who I might want to work with [using hashtags]. Now I pitch to mainstream publications.
PDN: Who are some of your clients?
KA: I just left CannaCon Expo, which is a three-day [cannabis tradeshow] in Seattle. I was on assignment for mg magazine. That’s a business-to-business magazine [for the cannabis industry]. Cannabis Now, a cannabis culture publication, also found me through Instagram. The very first relationship that I had with a magazine was Marijuana Venture magazine, based in Renton, Washington. I met the publisher at CannaCon [in 2014]. I didn’t have a large enough portfolio to where I felt comfortable pitching myself to someone, but I took his card with intent to connect with him at some point. So I spent a year building a portfolio, and then called him.
PDN: Do you do commercial work, too?
KA: I do. I work with Weedmaps, a tech company with an app consumers can use to shop for [retail] products. Weedmaps contracts me to shoot products for their menu and right now I’m managing the photography for about 25 different recreational stores. I’ve also been hired by soil and lighting companies, and an independent marketing company based in California. Then of course there are independent cultivators who are looking to have a portfolio to help them with their sales.
PDN: What are rates like for editorial and commercial assignments?
KA: Every publication has a different budget. I have a client I charge as little as $50 per image, and a client who pays me $300 for a full-page spread and $1,500 for a cover. Right now I’m averaging about $1,500 per month in editorial fees, and about $6,000 per month for commercial work.
PDN: What gear are you using?
KA: I’m shooting with a Canon 5D Mark II, which is a bit outdated but it still works fine for me. I’m going to run it into the dirt! My favorite lens is a 35mm L. It’s a great storytelling lens. It pretty much lives on my camera 90 percent of the time. The other 10 percent of the time I swap between a 50mm f/1.4, or an 85mm f/1.2, and a 100mm macro lens.
PDN: Are you lighting things?
KA: I’m an all-natural light kind of girl. On occasion, I’ll bust out a flash if I’m indoors. But I feel like manipulating [available] lighting provides a sense of mood. It’s one of the things I love to capture with the camera, so I just roll with it.
PDN: Any other special gear you carry?
KA: For product photography, I was using a 24×24 Savage Luminous Pro LED shooting tent. I’ve just upgraded to an Orangemonkie Foldio, which is more compact and a little bit easier to travel with.
PDN: What’s the competition like?
KA: There are definitely more and more people marketing themselves as cannabis photographers, but I’m really focused on developing my own strong body of work, evolving my craft, and building strong relationships with people I want to work with. I do see a lot of people on social media who come to me to ask questions about how they can get into the industry.
PDN: What advice do you give photographers interested in this niche?
KA: My first piece of advice would be to do it because you’re passionate about it, not because it’s a trend. My second piece of advice would be to know your way around your camera, because there are extreme [variations] in lighting conditions. And just find your own voice. That’s always important.