Business Smarts: Learning From Legends

By Lindsay Comstock

STRONG AND STEADY ASCENT: Dave Black’s expertise with off-camera lighting has served him well throughout his career. Above, he used light painting to illuminate world renowned ice climber Chris Alstrin’s ascent of an Ouray, Colorado ice wall at night. For detailed lighting tips, visit Black’s Web site.

When Bob Krist, Nancy Brown and Dave Black began their careers, the path for a photographer was fairly straightforward. Sit-down portfolio reviews with editors of the most renowned publications were a reality. And photography was a medium requiring a conscious development of the practice, not yet a mode for the level of instant gratification digital technology has imparted.

Entering a Brave New World

If the 20th century marked an era for recording the decisive moment, then the 21st century must be a whole lot more interesting. With an eye to the future, our hands on the hottest new gear, and our brains programmed for social networking, we are no longer discriminate about captured moments. Today, Facebook boasts more than 250 million photo uploads, and Flickr, more than one million—daily—making the case that more people than ever consider themselves a photographer to some degree of the word.

A lot has changed since many university photo programs were designed, and much of the academic sphere is striving to catch the swiftly progressing current of industry development. Yesterday’s imagery du jour may have been über-Photoshopped and hyper-realistic HDR; today it’s light-leaks and digitally produced vintage film grain; tomorrow we could discover vivid new realms with plenoptic lenses or be back relearning the analog techniques that landed us here in the first place—or both. But who has time to perfect the style of the day when one’s life is consumed with Web site updates, blogging, tweeting, posting and enhancing one’s online identity? Let’s face it, to be competitive as a photographer today, you must not only have stellar camera skills but also be versed as a videographer, designer, journalist and savvy business person.

Our featured photographers are photo business legends from whom we can glean some knowledge: Each emerged from a different avocation to build a solid career with a distinct focus; each survived the transition from film to digital; and each reaps the benefit of a rewarding career today. Although trends and technologies will always keep us on our toes, these industry veterans divulge a few core principles that are here to stay and in turn offer hope for the emerging brand of multidisciplinary imagemakers.

Photo © Bob Krist

INTREPID TRAVELER: For a Travel & Leisure magazine story about the Palace on Wheels, a luxury train in Rajasthan, India, Krist joined a camel safari in the Thar Desert.

Follow Your Passion and Trust Your Instincts

Bob Krist had an acting career in mind when he took a leave from his English and theater studies at Springfield College in Massachusetts to travel with a theater company in Europe, purchasing a camera to record his adventures. A fellow actor who moonlighted as a photographer took Krist under his wing. After graduate school, Krist supported his acting career by taking headshots, earning more money shooting than acting. He got his first full-time job at a now defunct New Jersey newspaper, The Hudson Dispatch. “I went to the interview in a suit and tie and was given a three-week tryout,” he says. “I had the best luck ever, stumbling on more spot news than I could imagine. I got hooked on journalism—I thought it was good research for acting.”

Nancy Brown modeled in front of a camera for 20 years before she decided to take her interest in photography seriously. Although she often photographed her family and friends, she had never taken professional photo courses. After she enrolled in classes taught by successful art directors at the New School and the School of Visual Arts, one of her instructors realized Brown’s talent and helped land her first gig shooting for Woman’s Day magazine. Before long, Glamour magazine also picked her up, and Brown’s commercial career took off. It was these first jobs that supplied her with the confidence to shoot, she explains.

Dave Black was a gymnast throughout his adolescence and collegiate years. He studied commercial graphic design and drawing at Southern Illinois University, where he also took a black-and-white photography class to fulfill his degree. Similar to Brown’s story, his instructor recognized Black’s potential and assigned him additional photography projects. “This allowed me to continue to be interested in something that I hadn’t planned on doing,” he says. After college, Black took a job coaching a gymnastics program in Colorado, always with a camera in hand. “I would bring prints to competitions and show people. It was fun, and people liked seeing pictures of their athletes,” he says. Black’s acquired knowledge through direct experience as a gymnast allowed him to excel at photographing the sport, and before long, the U.S. Gymnastics Federation approached him with a job offer to be team photographer.

Find Your Niche, and Keep Your Footing

Today, setting yourself apart from others takes perseverance and a strong recognition of talent. For Brown, Krist and Black, it was taking risks and developing their strengths that allowed them to corner their respective markets.

After five years shooting for a local newspaper, Krist had become adept as a photojournalist. Armed with a portfolio, ten story ideas and accolades in the field, he secured a meeting with Bob Gilka, then National Geographic’s director of photography. “Gilka tore my portfolio apart, but he liked my proposal for a story on New Jersey.” It was Krist’s ability to present a well-written story proposal that made Gilka notice him, paving the path for future assignments.

Dave Black’s big break came when he photographed the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. Women were making their big debut, and he photographed the major accomplishments of these female athletes. “If Mary Lou Retton hadn’t won the gold, I’m not sure if my career would have accelerated so quickly. Doors just opened up,” he says. These groundbreaking images of female athletes put him on the map as a reputable sports photographer and served as his launching pad for coveted sports assignments with major industry publications including Sports Illustrated, Newsweek and Time.

© Dave Black

BALANCING ACT: US star gymnast, Jonathan Horton of Houston, Texas performs the Maltese Cross on the rings. Ranked number one for the US Gymnastics Team, Horton is preparing for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, England. Shot for the International Gymnastics Marketing Group and lit using Nikon SB-900 Speedlights.

Adapt to Change and Diversify for Resilience

Black says it was his ability to specialize that set him apart. “I was concentrating on one thing,” he explains. “If you bounce all over the place, you just become average at several things. People like to recite the Benjamin Franklin quote as saying a ‘Jack of all trades, master of none,’ but it’s actually ‘Jack of all trades, master of one.’” He says photographers should focus foremost on shooting but have an understanding of several other disciplines. Black became an expert at lighting, first lighting action sports on location when others were not, then focusing on long-exposure light painting. In contrast to his high-profile assignments covering 12 Olympic Games, Black’s most treasured career highlight is a commission for the National Geographic compilation book Where Valor Rests, which allowed him access to light-paint in Arlington National Cemetery.

Krist’s penchant for writing proved beneficial to his success as a travel photographer. “In 1987, my photographs were on the covers of Islands, National Geographic and Travel and Leisure, but I couldn’t get the attention of companies like Nikon or the Maine Photography workshop. Travel and Leisure threw me an assignment to write about photography—it wasn’t until I started writing that these companies began paying attention to my photography.” Later in his career, when travel photography began to lose its luster, Krist decided to tell visual stories with video. “I had to be able to do something that the guy on the photo tour couldn’t reproduce,” he explains. After going fully digital in 2003, he began shooting videos of communities in his hometown and on his travels. “I caught the right part of the wave. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time,” he says, “and being willing to chase stories. Finding the water in the desert is the skill.”

Brown relocated from New York City to Florida around the same time digital was beginning to dwarf film. “It was a huge change,” she says. “I had to hire someone to teach me how to use the computer.” She says her success came with recognizing the evolving business and adapting without changing her photographic style. “I like the digital world now that I’m in it. I feel lucky my timing has been right so far. But you have to be willing to invest in what you’re doing, and you have to be able to market yourself. You bury yourself if you get discouraged,” she explains. Alongside her studio work, Brown teaches workshops, has worked on many how-to books and always keeps up her abundant stock image portfolio. In 2005, she fell in love with Chinese culture, during a trip with the American Society of Media Photographers; she has made six trips to China to date and in 2011 published the book Simply China, with sponsorship from Nikon.

Making it in Today’s Market

Brown and Black agree that many university programs lack photo classes that teach the medium’s fundamental principles. Both point to lighting as one of these invaluable skills. “Being able to control light opens up a creative world that is so much broader,” Black explains. “If you learn how to control light, you will be so much ahead coming out.” He believes that assisting photographers while in school is one of the best ways to learn the trade.

Brown strongly advises budding photographers to learn video. “If you want to be a photographer, go for it. But it’s the other skills that will help you survive. You have to know more than how to make images. Motion will make your stills better. You must shoot a lot to hone your skill and get rid of what you don’t like,” she explains.

Krist is also a strong proponent of video, pointing out that, as his still photography assignments have slowed down, his stories with moving content have become increasingly valuable. “You must self-assign stories,” he says. “Don’t specialize—you need more than one discipline going for you. You have to generate your own projects and nurture your own portfolio. If you’re doing something intelligent and passionate, there will always be a market for it. There is no clear-cut path, and I’m not sure what the new paradigm will be. You have to be willing to adapt or die.” Krist is excited by this new Golden Age of photography but believes a new model for making a living in the field must be developed, since the market is oversaturated with imagemakers.

Black’s advice is equally charged. “Keep branching out with your specialty. Those who can shoot great images to capture the action and use off-camera lighting at the same time become double threats,” he explains. “The bar is really high. You have to get really great at something. As we say in sports, ‘you gotta knock someone out to be the undisputed champion.’”

Photo © Nancy Brown

SYMBOLIC SIGN LANGUAGE: A group of young Tibetan monks give the A-ok in West Sichuan Province.

Brown, Krist and Black each count on Nikon gear for image making excellence. Here’s the full list of the cameras, lenses and lighting they each carry.


CAMERAS: Nikon D7000, Nikon D5100
LENSES: AF-S DX Zoom-NIKKOR 12-24mm f/4G IF-ED
AF-S DX NIKKOR 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR
AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED
AF-S DX NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G
LIGHTING: Nikon SB-800 Speedlights


CAMERAS: Nikon D4 for sports and Nikon D800 for portraits and Light paintings
LENSES: AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED
AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED
AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II
AF-S NIKKOR 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 ED VR
AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II
AF-S NIKKOR 400mm f/2.8G ED VR
AF-S Teleconverter TC-14E II and AF-S Teleconverter TC-17E II
PC-E Micro NIKKOR 45mm f/2.8D ED
LIGHTING: Nikon SB-900 Speedlights
Nikon SU-800 Commander
Elinchrom Ranger RX 1100 ws AS
Elinchrom 600 RX
Elinchrom  1000R Sport
COMPUTERS: Office: Custom built PC by 2 Doors  Design,  Travel Laptop: HP Pavillion dm1z
SOFTWARE: Latest versions of Windows, ACDSee Photo Manager 12, Nikon Capture NX and PhotoShop.
BAGS: Lightware
ADDITIONAL GEAR: RadioPopper PX wireless system to trigger Remote Speedlights, Pocket Wizard Multi MAX to trigger Remote cameras, Pocket Wizard FLEX with  HyperSync to trigger Elinchrom Strobes. FourSquare by Lightware Direct softbox and mount to hold multiple Speedlights.


CAMERAS: Nikon D90, Nikon D200 and Nikon D700.  
LENSES: AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED
AF-S Zoom-NIKKOR 17-35mm f/2.8D IF-ED
AF-S DX Zoom-NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G ED II
LIGHTING: Nikon SB-800 Speedlights, Dynalite strobes
COMPUTERS: Two Mac desktops and a laptop for travel
SOFTWARE: Camera Raw, Photoshop and Lightroom
BAGS: Pelican
ADDITIONAL GEAR: SanDisk cards, ThinkTank card holders and two backup hard drives on location. Light tripod, which is rarely used.



PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue



Tout VTS



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