A Photographers Interview with Mike Panic

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 grew up in Eastern Pennsylvania, about an hour northwest of Philadelphia and live less then 10 miles from the house I grew up in. Growing up I had little interest in photography but do recall the Canon ads for the EOS camera featuring Andre Agassi, somewhat ironic because I was never a tennis fan. At maybe 10, there was no way it was a hobby my Mom felt comfortable getting me into, but I did get a point and shoot camera about 3 years later which I took with me to local hardcore shows and took band photos. By 16 I had a used Canon Rebel X and zero formal training on how to use it or why things worked. To be honest, I’ve never had formal training to this time, 14 years later.

© Mike PanicShortly after I got that camera I asked some friends of mine who happened to be DJs if they would let me bring it into a rave that was coming up shortly. In the late 1990’s, cameras in nightclubs and raves were strictly prohibited, but knowing a few key people I was allowed all access of the club. The photos took were amazing, but I didn’t know why. I still didn’t know what the different letters and icons on the command dial meant, how the flash really worked or anything, I just really liked what I saw; the promoters and DJs did too and this started my somewhat of a career in nightclub photography. I spent the next year burning countless rolls of film trying to reproduce what I shot that night, reverse engineering what I later learned to be slow-sync, rear curtain flash photography.

From 2000-2004 or so I shot in nightclubs from New York City to Baltimore two to five nights a week while freelancing for a half dozen different magazines, record companies, DJs, producers, promotion and production companies. During this time, I refined my skills, read everything I could and listened to all feedback, positive or negative and tried to build upon it. Eventually, people started to need more posed shots album covers, magazine articles and websites, since this was the boom of the dot com era. This transitioned me into learning about studio and off camera lighting, location work and for the first time, directing people instead of capturing what was already going on. My passion continued and led into shooting more fashion work and then fine art nude.

Today, I mostly shoot fashion and fine art, but have been doing family candids and the occasional club gig now and again.

Can you describe the defining moment or image that made you want to become a photographer?

I don’t think any one moment; I’ve just always enjoyed doing it, capturing a moment in time. When I shot in clubs, my goal was to capture the raw emotion, sound and smell of the pounding music, spectacular light shows and enthusiastic energy of everyone dancing. If you were at a club or rave that I shot and saw the photos a week, month or year later I wanted those images to instantly bring back the sound, visuals and smell of being there. If you weren’t at the club or rave that night, I wanted you to look at the photos and be pissed that you missed such an amazing event. This translated to shooting candid families too, capturing moments that can be looked back on and remember the cool crisp fall air from the day you and your significant other took your two year old to the park for a day of playing.

© Mike PanicWhat was the first camera you ever owned and how did you come across it? Was it a hand-me-down, purchased at a garage sale, found on the side of the road?

My mom bought me a cheap point and shoot when I was about 13, one step above a disposable. I acquired a Canon EOS Rebel X about three years after that.

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

The first job was really working in clubs. After the initial go at it, I was offered money to shoot. The only thing I was nervous about was getting my camera destroyed in the club or stolen in some random city.

What is the biggest mistake you have ever made?

Not trying to learn as much as I can, as fast as I can. Not making an effort to shoot as much as I should be.

How did you decide to make photography more than a hobby? If photography is your full time job, how did you make that decision? What was your backup plan if the photography career didn’t take off? Any regrets? If you are not a full time photographer, what is stopping you? What is your full time job? Any plans to become a full time photographer in the future?

My full time job is a network administrator; the type of photography I really enjoy is fine art nude, which rarely pays the bills and fashion work. Because I don’t currently live in New York City or Los Angels it really limits the amount of paid work available.

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

There was no last straw, I entered into digital as soon as the 10d was available from Canon. The price point was 50% less then the d30 with twice as many pixels, it was also cheaper then the camera it replaced, the d60. For me, it was all about a price point I could afford, the 10d was the first DSLR that I could afford. Ironically, I’m currently shopping for a Pentax 67 camera and enjoy 35mm rangefinders, of which I currently have two. A Yashica Mat 124g also sits on my shelf at home that likes to come out and play now and again too.

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?

When shooting for a client the hardest part is teaching them how to ask for what it is they want accomplished. I compare it to the song that they have stuck in their head and can hear the words but can’t vocalize it. In some respects, I wish clients would look more closely at the previous work of a photographer, realize their style and choose the photographer that best fits their needs. Let the photographer shoot their style, that’s why you should hire this one over that one.

When shooting for myself, I think the hardest part is just getting motivated to do it and not being so hypercritical of every image. I, like most photographer friends, share the same feeling that we love our work for about 30 days then hate it and never want to see it again.

© Mike Panic

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

Yes, back in 2003 I started a forum online for photographers (it’s since died a somewhat slow death). I’ve also written several photography related articles on my side-project of a blog, Randomn3ss.com. The articles focus on how to make money selling digital photos to how to get better prints from your digital camera. I’ve also managed to make some friends in the photo world and get first crack at some pre-production pieces for review, like this Horseman Bellows system for DSLR cameras.

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

A lot does, not just one specific thing. Olaf Starorypinski is a local photographer that somewhat took me under his wing when I first started doing more studio work and I always look to his masterful lighting for inspiration. Fashion magazines, Deviant Art, random Tumblr blogs all inspire me. Boston.com’s The Big Picture is also one for just jaw dropping images.

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

Not really a fan of this question. I capture light, create memories and pull single frames out of moving life, the job, regardless if the client is a CEO of a company or myself, all requires the same skill set.

© Mike Panic

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

Read http://www.photo.net/making-photographs – twice. Take a class on how your camera actually works. Look at lots and lots of others’ work and try to figure out how it was shot, if strobes or flashes were used, figure out where they were placed, what modifiers they had and why they did it the way they did it. It’s nearly impossible to create something new, reverse engineer others work and then define your own style once you understand how it all works.

Post processing is not an evil thing either, but just because something is trendy (ahem, hello HDR) doesn’t mean you have to do it.

The key to creativity is…

Not locking doors?

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?

Shooting a friends Pentax 67 was a pure joy, partly why I want one of my own.

Currently I shoot a 5d, 24-70 f/2.8L, 70-200 f/4L IS, Sigma 12-24 non-fish (amazing on full frame) most all the time. Along with that goes a 580 EXII & Stroboframe Press-T flash bracket.

Same gear as above for myself, but also enjoy my Holga, Rollei 35 rangefinder, Konica c35 rangefinder and a few Lomo cameras.

What is your favorite time of day to shoot outdoors?

I’m going to say 3 hours before sunset, only because I can’t get myself out of bed before sunrise. I tried once this year and was amazed at how fast the sun actually came up (was shooting a model). I do enjoy the light, but it’s just not in my bag.

© Mike Panic

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

It is what it is. Everything is subjective. What I find annoying is those who criticize because it’s easier then complimenting. Everyone can point out the flaws in the Mona Lisa (no eyebrows) but rarely to people talk about what they do like about it. All it tells me is that the commenter is a negative person and didn’t experience my work with an open mind. Ignorance is not always bliss.

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

I shoot what the job requires. RAW is great if I can’t nail a white balance or am dealing with challenging lighting situations, but if I’m shooting a job for a client under controlled lighting that I know will only be used for their website, why should I bother shooting RAW. I’m a photographer, which means I will shoot the best possible image in the camera then post process to my style. I’ll catch a lot of flack for this, but I hate hearing lazy photographers say, I’ll just get close enough and fix it in post. When it takes less then a minute to do a custom white balance or to expose something properly, why shoot a lesser quality image and then fix in post what you were too lazy to do in camera? I love Lightroom and Photoshop and the flexibility it offers don’t get me wrong, but I’d prefer to spend as little time correcting photos for poor shooting as possible and use that time to do more creative things.

How do you protect your camera when not in use? When traveling? When on the way to a job? What if it rains? Any specific brands you love more than others?

My move my gear from there to there bag is a Crumpler Whicky & Cox backpack. It holds nearly all my gear + Macbook and has made several trips across the country with me. Crumpler simply makes great products, period. My current working bag is a Tenba Messenger bag (size small). I chose it because the top cover flap has a zipper that runs the whole length giving full access to the inside. No need to unbuckle and un-velcro the flap to get inside and switch a lens or grab the flash. I’ve crammed all the gear I listed earlier + my Macbook and a few magazines in it, a bit tight, but it worked. It’s my shooting bag though, meaning I take it when I’m intending to hold my camera and need more then just the lens on the body.

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 have a friend who does camera repair and get a hook-up.

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?

Studio shooting for me, Coldplay works really well. I let models listen to whatever they want, otherwise down-tempo drum and bass like LTJ Bukem or Aphrodite work really well. Sometimes though you just need to hear Appetite for Destruction by Guns n’ Roses.

© Mike Panic

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

Band? Too many, not enough space to list just one. Book? Helmut Newton’s autobiography was really good, so was Lance Armstrong’s book, It’s not about the bike. Museum, I’m ashamed to admit this, but I’ve done at least a half dozen shots on the grounds of or surrounding areas of the Philadelphia art museum but never stepped foot inside. Favorite photographer, David LaChapelle is up there, Terry Richardson for his attitude, Olaf, Alison Conklin, etc. etc. Artist – Jason Thielke & Dave Kinsey, I really like screen prints.

What is your favorite photograph you’ve ever taken?

I don’t have just one.

What is your favorite photograph from another photographer?

Ya know, I’ve never really thought about it.

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

Nope, I just breathe and shoot.

If you could take your art in any direction without fear of failure or rejection, where would it lead? What new thing would you try?

I don’t think I’d try new – old is the new new. I’d refine my abilities to do better work.

Do you find yourself always looking at the World wondering how it would look as a photograph?

Never had that thought.

© Mike PanicIf you could only shoot one thing over and over, what would it be?

Like Helmut Newton did, shoot fashion, ask the models to stick around to shoot art and kill two birds with one stone.

When you meet someone for the first time and they find out that you’re a photographer what kind of questions do you get from them relating to photography? What is the strangest question you’ve been asked from someone you just meet for the first time?

Usually they just want to know some random thing about a setting on their own camera, usually a point & shoot that I don’t know anything about and sadly can’t help them. Or, a question about the DSLR they just bought, that I again am probably not familiar with but they want to know how to change a setting. Usually the interesting questions come when people find out I shoot nudes.

Do you prefer big lighting, a strobist style lighting or mostly natural light?

All of them, it really depends on the situation, client and final outcome of the shot. I’m not going to knock the greats like Joe McNally who are famous for setting up dozens of speedlights, but if he wasn’t sponsored by Nikon don’t you think he could do the same thing with a generator and 2-3 strobes on location? I remember seeing one photo of a setup he had that was like a Christmas tree of speedlights, had to be 40 of them there, in the dessert. Nuts.

What radio sync system do you prefer? (PocketWizard, Radiopopper, etc)

I actually have a ghetto rigged hotshoe to PC cord sync setup that I clipped the PC cord off and a friend soldered on a 1/8th audio jack. I have a cheap set of radio triggers (similar to what you find on eBay) that work on my Alien Bee strobes and for my 580EX II on a light stand for location work. Given the choice, I’d take the PockWizards if someone was buying them for me, hint hint.

What was the most challenging photography job you ever had?

I think they all come with challenges, weddings are something I rarely do and tend to be the most overwhelming. If you have a hardware failure or miss a shot, you can’t exactly go back and shoot it again.

What do you do to challenge yourself?

Ask for input. Ask people how they’d shoot it differently. Take a step out of my comfort zone now and again.

© Mike Panic

Any projects you are working on currently? Anything planned for the future?

Nothing currently, lots planned for the future, making time to make plans happen is the problem now.

For someone really considering a major life change is it worth it to quit an office job with a fixed salary for freelance photography? Any advice on getting started?

Maybe. Realize that there is no paycheck every two weeks and there is no such thing as weekends off, you work for your livelihood until you become well established enough to take weekends off. Additionally, there is no such thing as a paid vacation anymore, unless you are working on location. To get started, offer to shoot your friends and family in exchange for a home-cooked meal

Anything you would like to add for our readers?

Read as much as you can, retain and apply it. Humble yourself, understand photography is subjective to the viewer and don’t skip a class or seminar because you think you don’t need it.

View more photographs by Mike Panic: randomn3ss.com, mikepanic.com, twitter.com/mikepanic, facebook.com/mikepanic

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, @donkeymaster, @GrfxGuru, @thomasflight, @paulwestlake

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

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