An Interview with Dale M. Johnson, Professional Photographer

An Interview with Dale M. Johnson, Professional Photographer

An Unconventional Angle: Pursuing a career in photography through different channels

I have been a professional photographer in the Greater Cincinnati area for eleven years. My work has been published in all of Cincinnati's major publications and is published on a weekly basis by one of Cincinnati's prominent entertainment weeklies, CityBeat (I also write articles about music for the same publication). I've taught photography seminars to children and adults for the Cincinnati Recreation Commission. I've had exhibits in local galleries, including a permanent exhibit of my work at a local club. I'm the Visual Director of the MidPoint Music Festival, which means I coordinate a staff of 6-8 photographers, do promo shots for the festival and photograph the festival itself. My photos have appeared in the artwork of local CDs and I design CD artwork as well. I do promo shots for local and regional bands and I've photographed a few big names like Lucinda Williams and Los Lobos in concert in a professional capacity. I have an exhibit scheduled to open locally in the fall and another one in the works for early next year.

I began taking photos in the "conventional" photo biz of weddings and kids' portraits and was deeply unsatisfied. But, I live in Cincinnati, which is not known for its thriving photography market. I had to get creative if I wished to make a go at taking photos for a living as well as pursue subjects that interested me artistically.

I went to an arts organization in town (Enjoy The Arts/START) and offered to take digital photos, gratis, of their then upcoming arts festival. I began attending local original music concerts to become proficient at taking photographs in a variety of lighting conditions (usually pretty dark). Those were the best decisions I could have made in regard to my career. I made so many contacts through the arts festival that jobs started pouring in.

My work with the local musicians led to a regular freelance job with CityBeat as well as my position as Visual Director for MidPoint. I also became the "go see guy" for regional publications for music shots. I make my own appointments and I do what I love, 365 days a year.

I am lucky to have found markets not always thought of by those considering a career in photography. But, it wasn't all luck - I never sat back and waited for someone to "discover" that I was a "great" photographer. Also, I've never pursued work because of a buck. I've pursued work because I want to see what I want to see. It's a passion, and people respond to that. The greatest thing is that it is a very attainable goal.

First, have a unique vision. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, but with photography (as well as any other creatively-driven occupation), unless you're making a career of forgery (which, while lucrative, is illegal), imitation won't get you very far. Once you find your own vision, you will be able to adapt it to your clients' needs, which often leads to fun challenges

Second, think unconventionally in regard to subjects and clients. When people say "photography", it might conjure up images of fashion models and celebrity portraits. One might also think of weddings or family portraits. However, as I've discovered, there's so much more.

A few things to consider when you're in search of clients:

  • Real estate offices, law firms, restaurants - any business that has to deal with the public and have a "human face". Call them up, tell them how you can give them a more effective and trustworthy presence to their customers. If they have an ad campaign running, tell them how you can do it better. Be honest, but constructive.
  • Local festivals and events. Not only do the organizers want documentation of the events, but local papers also want the same documentation. Publication in a local paper or magazine is a good way to accumulate tear sheets.
  • As I've discovered, local musicians and artists are always looking to promote themselves visually. Go to art events and artists' studios and attend local concerts and build a rapport with people and show the bands and artists how you can maximize their visual impact.
  • Pets. People love their pets, which can range from their mixed-breed dog to their thoroughbred horse. You can take photos for keepsakes or for insurance documentation, for example.
  • Cars. People love their cars and customize them to their needs and desires. Attend a car show and tell the owners what you can do for them.
  • City governments often require photos of their officials and events that they present. They, or their chambers of commerce, also require photos of their cities to promote their cities. Show them what you can do for them.
  • Pursue exhibition of your work through your own studio (if you have one) or a friend's gallery. Or, visit clubs, coffee shops or restaurants that regularly have art or photo shows. Find the person in charge and show them your portfolio or web site.

I do any combination of the things I mentioned and more. I'm very happy doing them, both personally and financially. There's no law saying that you can't do the same. If you think a bit outside of the traditional lens' view, a world of opportunities will open up.

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