A Photographers Interview with Erik Lawrence

Please tell us about yourself as a person and as a photographer. Where did you grow up and what sparked your desire to photograph? Were you active with the photography department in high school? Where are you living now?

I didn’t get into photography until I was in my mid 20s, I was a Paramedic and I was looking for something else to do for a living, I had a friend that had just graduated from the Art Institute for graphic design and he mentioned some of their programs. Thats it, I am a total product, taught from scratch using a formula. By the time I was graduating 2 years later, I was pretty well rounded with my knowledge of photography. We were taught to use mostly large and medium format cameras, 35mm was for photojournalists. Digital hadn’t made the scene yet so I spent tons of time in the darkroom and making trips back and forth from labs to the studio developing film. After I graduated, things started going digital, I couldn’t have planned my education with worse timing. I wanted to go into advertising at first, get a studio and shoot table top stuff, but after getting out there, I learned about this whole other world of hanging out of helicopters and photographing things in cool places. I was traveling all over as an assistant, getting into some great adventures, I haven’t considered a studio since.

What was your first paid photography job? Did you enjoy it? Were you scared? Did you make any mistakes?

My first paid gig came from the job placement department at my college. The job was to walk around this huge education conference at the Convention Center in Denver and photograph booths. I remember thinking “I just spent all this time and money learning how to light subjects beautifully and now I am being paid to walk around and take pictures with a flash on camera”, it was kinda funny to me, and they were paying me $800.00 a day …. cha ching! My first job from an agency came a few months later, complete with layouts, a designer, stylist, etc… Thats when I really felt like I was in the industry, the stress was nearly unbearable, huge budget, lots of people on set and in the studio. I didn’t sleep much that night, when I picked up the film the next day and things looked good, I think I did a little dance and treated myself to a cigar.

What was the last straw, the final decision maker to make you go digital? What do you miss about film?

It was never really my decision, it was the clients that insisted. Anyone can shoot digital or at least use it to teach themselves how to light and compose, no cost other than a camera. Film forced you to be methodical, cross your Ts and dot your Is, you really had to have a knowledge of color temps, exposure control etc….. trial and error was very expensive with film and polaroid. I miss the exclusive nature of the Professional, the line between pros and hacks is blurred now, between photos and digital art.

What is the hardest part of the job when shooting for a client? What is the hardest part of the job when shooting for yourself?

Every job seems to have a different set of challenges. Sometimes its the volume of post production work that I just hate, sitting for hours at the computer editing . When shooting for myself the hardest part is knowing when to stop trying to improve the shot.

Do you try to help others learn about photography? If so, please explain how.

Yes. I am all for helping someone find the shortcuts. If you really want to learn photography, find a mentor, get some equipment and start shooting, practice all the time. Its’ really just like learning guitar, buy one and start playing, practice, practice, practice. Try to recreate some photos that you like. Read blogs, visit web pages, find people to photograph, get access to locations, shoot until it becomes second nature to you. Build a relationship with light, thats what sets the pro apart from the hack, use of light. Learn how to shape light, how to take advantage of existing light, how to recognize hard light, soft light, warm light, bounce light, how to create the light you need to accomplish your vision. The business part is a whole different story, taxes, promos, billing, usage rights etc….. you have to learn that part too.

What and/or who inspires you in life and photography and why?

I can’t see idolizing someone who takes photos…… its not like saving lives, we are photographers not Firefighters or cops or nurses or volunteers at the homeless shelter. Photography is pretty self serving “hey look how talented I am, don’t you want to pay me to make photos for you?” here is my web address and here is my blog, here is a promotional card and here is a link to my nice photos of what you are looking for” and here is the bill for my services.

I am inspired by people who do truly amazing things, the most we can hope for as photographers is to photograph someone doing something amazing. When was the last time a photograph of someone making a photograph was inspiring….. except to other photographers of course.

Do you consider yourself an artist first before thinking about the job ahead of you?

The thing you usually have to consider is what is it about your work that got you hired for that particular job. Did the client hire you because they liked the series of portraits you did in black and white? Did they respond to the shots of oil rigs at sunrise? I find you are usually hired based on your best work, and your best work usually comes from lighting the shot or shooting early morning or late afternoon light. If the client is hiring you based on your sunrise shots but they are sending you out on location at noon you will have a hard time filling their expectations. You often have to fight to get yourself in a position to give the client what they want.

What is the best advice you would give a photographer just starting out?

Again, find a mentor, someone who is wiling to work with you and show you both the technical and business end of photography.
My own opinion is that the industry is in a huge shift right now, partially because of tough times and partly because of the digital evolution. I would tell anyone considering a photography career to think twice, there is half the work and 10 times the number of photographers there used to be. Web presence is everything,

The key to creativity is…

Practice always so that when a creative opportunity arises you have the tools to take full advantage of it.

What is your favorite camera that you have used or owned? What camera and lens combination do you use most of the time when photographing for a client? What about when photographing for yourself?

I really miss shooting with my Sinar 4×5, its still my all time favorite. I just shoot 35mm now, Nikon D300 currently,that seems to change every 2 years or so. I find myself going for wide angle most of the time, around 20mm, wether for personal stuff or for a client. Also, all the lenses in my kit are f2.8 or faster, that slow glass with the floating f-stop with frustrate you to no end.

What is your favorite time of day to shoot outdoors?

Late afternoon into sunset. I love the low warm light…. who doesn’t? Also during inclement weather, right after a rain storm or when clouds are moving really fast, the light seems to be changing constantly. Sometimes you can just sit and wait for the light to hit where you want it, when it happens, its like magic….. you make your own luck, you have to be there to get lucky.

How do you deal with rejection of your work, losing a job, not making a sale or a negative comment?

That was something I experienced often when I was in school and my work was being critiqued by fellow students. You have to be able to recognize the difference between fact and opinion. I have never had a client “reject” my work, although I have had a couple reject my invoices, for that you either have to play hard ball or count it as a write off. Negative comments are fine as long as they are constructive, otherwise you have to just take it with a grain of salt, you can’t please everyone.

Do you prefer RAW or JPG and why? If RAW, would you prefer a system that uses the DNG RAW format?

RAW files are like negatives, I always shoot RAW. I want the biggest file with the most information I can get. Jpegs are compressed files, thats what I usually send the client when I have done all my editing, I archive both the RAW files and the edited Jpegs that the client received.

How do you protect your camera when not in use? When traveling? When on the way to a job? What if it rains?

It never sits for too long, always in a camera bag. I take take the lens off and put a body cap on, I cap all of my lens on both sides. I like to keep the battery fully charged so I will typically put it in the charger and then in the camera bag, not in the camera, until I am about to use it. I make my lens changes quickly to minimize the chance for dust to get on the sensor. The camera and lens are always part of my carry on luggage, never checked. If its raining, I’m not shooting, so the camera is stowed.

Do you clean the CCD yourself or send it away somewhere? If you send it away, where to and how much does it cost?

I just use a rocket blower and the mirror lock up to blow the inside out. I never touch the sensor.

I recently started a project called 5511 where a client pays $5 for a 5 minute photo shoot when 1 artificial light is used and they receive 1 digital photo. Is this something you would be interested in trying? For me it is something fun and challenging. What are you thoughts on that?

Whatever inspires you, go for it. Sounds like setting things up, finding subjects, and cleaning up after would take more time than I would like for $5, but its a great way to challenge yourself I’m sure.

What music sparks your creativity? Do you listen to that when shooting a job? Do you listen to music at all? Do you listen to what the client likes?

If I am in the studio, I like to have some music going. If there are clients there I keep things pretty conservative but if its’ just me, I’m rockin’ out. I am pure rocker, keep the jazz and the soft stuff in the dentist office

What is your favorite band? Movie? Book? Museum? Website? Who is your favorite photographer? Artist?

I like Dream Theater, YES, RUSH, Zep, Floyd, Halen, progressive rock and metal. I’m a guitarist so I really like to hear music that pushes that medium. The classic rock station is usually what I try to find when I am getting in the rental car in a new city.

For movies I like Michael Mann flicks, his lighting and shooting style are cutting edge.
Museum…. uh haven’t been lately. Website…. “TED”, there is something there for anyone interested in learning new things.

What is your favorite photograph you’ve ever taken?

I did a shot of my campsite in the Colorado mountains at night a few years ago. I light painted the whole seen and it looks really surreal. It was part of a long road trip I was doing with a good friend so when I see it, it reminds me of a great week.

Is there something you always ask yourself or think just before you push the shutter button?

Is that in Focus??

View more photographs by Erik Lawrence: eriklawrencephotography.com, eriklawrence.blogspot.com

Thank you for reading the interview. This interview was presented to the photographer with questions asked by me and submissions from other photographers. The photographer is asked to answer only what he/she is comfortable with. If you would like to contribute to future interviews, please submit your your questions to me on Twitter, Facebook or on the Interview intro blog post, What would you ask a photographer?. Thank you for reading and enjoy the interview.

Some questions supplied from the following Twitter users:
@pjtaylorphoto, @ishootinraw, @donkeymaster, @GrfxGuru

Some questions supplied from the following Facebook users:
Brian Walter, Faylin Myhre, Leslie DeLorean, Patrick Connor

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