Interview with Richard Lanenga, Professional Photographer

by Cathy Sivak
Interview with Richard Lanenga, Professional Photographer

Award-winning photographer Richard Lanenga works with corporate, industrial and editorial clients worldwide. For more than 25 years, his work has appeared in international publications, annual reports, marketing brochures, image pieces, advertising campaigns and other media.

Richard's photography and visual design skills meet the ongoing needs of numerous Fortune 500 companies on a national and international basis, as well as non-profit clients including associations, hospitals, universities and charities.

In recent years, his work has been recognized by the Blackbook AR 100 and Kodak's Professional Photographers' Showcase.

Richard and a neighborhood pal embarked on the world of photography in the 7th grade when his friend got a darkroom setup. The fascination with photography found watching a photo develop in a tray of chemicals for the first time has not wavered since.

The duo haunted the neighborhood camera shop for tips and ideas, “They were pretty patient with us,” Richard remembers. Their photography skills grew as they experimented with different angles, lenses and formats throughout high school for fun, and for the school paper and yearbook.

Unsure about their career aspirations, the two friends attended Morton Junior College, in Cicero, Ill., to earn general associate's degrees. Success in their photography classes led their instructor to steer both toward further education and careers in photography. “He told us that if you go to a regular college and get a degree in photography, you learn a lot, but what you really need is to learn the technical side of photography in order to earn a living,” Richard recalls.

He went on to earn a photography degree from the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee (which has since closed it doors). Experience gained as a long-time staff photographer for a Fortune 500 company came in handy when Richard struck out on his own as a freelance photographer more than a decade ago.

You & Your Career   |   The Actual Work   |   Education Information & Advice   |   Job Information & Advice


You & Your Career

Tell us about your career in photography. How did you break into the photography world, and how did you advance to where you are today?

After graduating from school, I worked for a while in a job that was not in photography; a member of my church suggested calling another member who worked for Chicago Iron and Bridge Co. He needed summer help at the company's in-house photography department. I went to help out in the lab, and did all sorts of things: made prints, numbered them, sorted prints, mixed chemistry. The type of corporate photography they did there was exactly what I enjoyed; everything I learned at the school of art related to what they did. One day they'd need a portrait for the corporate magazine, another they'd need photography of the projects in the field, and once in a while, a commercial type shot. The job lasted through October, but they weren't ready yet to hire full-time. So I got a job in the darkroom of a small photography company, and got more experience. I'm a religious person, and I prayed a lot that Chicago Iron & Bridge Co. would call me back. God answered my prayers, and about one and a half years later, I was hired on full time.

I worked there for 18 years, and literally did everything. I traveled, got into video, worked in the in-house color photo lab, photographed all over the world and all over the United States under all types of lighting conditions. I mostly took photographs of construction projects: refineries, gas plants, and nuclear reactors and power plants were very popular at that time. I got a lot of experience over 18 years there, but the income wasn't growing as fast as I would have liked. When you start out young, you just want a job. Some people advise you to switch jobs to make more, but I didn't want to leave because I enjoyed what I did, and I made extra money on side doing freelance.

I got an offer to manage the photography department for the corporate office of Jewel Food Stores; it was an in-house photo studio for food products. After about 4 months, I realized it was not my thing. But I did get food photography experience and samples for my portfolio. Chicago Bridge called up and said ‘would you consider coming back?' I had been praying about that, just the day before, so I returned.

About four years later, there was a buy-out, changes in management, and it became difficult to work there. It wasn't fun anymore. I said, ‘Lord, I don't like this, show me where you want me next.'

In the spring of 1994, they called me into my supervisor's office and said they were re-engineering the corporate structure and closing the photo lab. In the back of my mind I had always thought I'd like to go out on my own. Now, 11 years later, I'm still in business and enjoying it.

What do you enjoy most about your career?

I like the variety. I get a lot of different types of assignments. I work out of my home or anywhere in the world, because I specialize in location photography; I do have a small studio at home. This year I went to the Netherlands for a board of directors meeting to take photos of each member of the board for the company's annual report.

Quite often, clients will tell me, “You've got 15 people, and you've got one hour to photograph them.” I can do that. You just have to have a system; plus, experience helps.

Sometimes you can take the most boring subject to photograph, and depending on composition and light, you can make it look like art. Factor in 90 degree heat, it's hot and dirty, and you have to come up with a nice photo. There was one client that made the garbage containers for the back of businesses. The client said, “I don't know what you can do to make this look good.” I offset the line a little bit. The welders were working on the containers; I moved a welder a little, got a higher angle and looked down. It's one of the nicest shots I have that shows how you can take a situation that doesn't have much appeal and make it look good.

I enjoy the challenge of creating an image. It's like creating a piece of art; you have to put all of the pieces together.

Who were the biggest inspirations for your career?

Community college opened the door. One designer I worked with as a professional told me, “You know what, you ought to go out on your own. There are people out there that aren't nearly as good as you.” He opened my eyes.

What has been your personal key to success?

You have to be honest with people. Sometimes I'm too honest. Work hard; the client has to see your enthusiasm and that you really want to create something special. I also has God to help me to do my best.

Your work has been recognized by the Blackbook AR 100 and Kodak's Professional Photographers' Showcase. How important is this recognition (as well as previous awards) to you, personally, and to your career?

It's nice to know that you are recognized. I personally know the photo is good, but it's nice to know someone else thinks you do good work. I don't know if matters in getting work

You formerly served as the staff photographer for a Fortune 500 company, and now you own and operate an independent photography business. How is this different for you?

The benefits in a big company are there, with the health insurance, etc. Something that is a challenge as a self-employed person, you need security for when you retire. I'm thankful that I'm still in the 20-year benefits pension through Chicago Bridge.

When you work for yourself, you don't have a steady income. You are sometimes wealthy one week, poor the next. It all depends on your workload, and when people pay you. When you work out of your house, it's important to maintain a schedule. Even if I'm not actually photographing something on a particular day, there are things to do…bookkeeping, filing, following up with customers, checking on prints at the lab.

One other difference in working for yourself is that you have the flexibility to take a morning off if you want.

What was your greatest success and biggest setback?

The successes are in knowing you did a good job on a project, and seeing your work in print. One setback is when a company you work with decides to cut their photography budget. Then you have to go out and find more clients… its frustrating when that happens.

What are some of your favorite projects that you've completed and why?

I just did photos for a web site for an armored car company. It was so much fun to play with the money. I had one stack of $100,000 that they wanted close-ups of.

They didn't leave me with the money; there was a guard there with a gun the whole time. One of the things I like to do when I'm on a neat assignment is get someone to take a picture of me on site

After I was done photographing the money, I asked the guard to take a picture of me with the money. He took the clip out of his gun, handed it to me and had me hold it like a Bonnie and Clyde type thing. I sent the picture to friends by e-mailed under the heading of ‘Rich's latest job.' They'd open up the e-mail, and see the one line I wrote: “I made a fortune on this job,” then open the picture. It was a hit.

I've taken photos overseas, on offshore oil rigs, on construction sites, lots of neat places. I always say that that I know a little about a lot of things, because when I'm on-site, I ask questions. By knowing what's special about what I'm photographing, I can highlight what the company wants to see in the final images.

What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?

I'd like to get more annual report photography, I'm good at it, and I enjoy meeting the needs of the client, working together as a team with a designer to create the photographs they need. The way has been paved already by the plan for the report, I don't have to come back with 20 views; the work is a reflection of my vision to fit into the design of the report. Plus, most annual report work is done in the late fall and early winter, and in Chicago, that is a slow time for location shoots because of the weather.

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about photography in order to be successful? Do you think that it's important to truly enjoy the field in order to be happy in life?

Yes. I really like what I do. There is stress, headaches. But I like to create. I like people, especially the working people on the floors of the operations I take photos for, and getting them comfortable enough to capture a nice photo of them working on equipment. You have to enjoy what you're doing, and of course you're happy as a result.


The Actual Work

What are some common myths about your profession?

There are a few:

  • That I take pictures of pretty girls all the time. I hardly ever do that!
  • That 40 hours a week I am taking photographs. Maybe about 20 percent of the typical week is actually spent taking photographs.
  • If you have a good camera you create good photos. That myth is especially true with the digital cameras. People think anyone can be a good photographer because of the camera, but it also takes an eye for composition and lighting.

Describe a typical day of work for you.

On a daily basis, if I don't have an assignment that day, I check my e-mail, I check on orders with photo labs, do paperwork and accounting, check into new equipment, pick up film, and make sales calls.

What is your favorite gadget?

My favorite gadget is a clamp that holds my camera. It clamps to anything for use for long exposures. I've clamped it to railings, ladders and posts. It's a great gadget.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

Sometimes it's the frustration of a potential client wanting a quote, and then they never respond. I never know what they decided and why.

The biggest challenge I've dealt with is the changeover to the digital world. Photography is mostly digital now, and the technology changes, which can be frustrating, because every two years a new camera comes out with umpteen more mega pixels. If you don't have the latest, clients may question your professionalism.

Traditional photography with Hasselblad cameras were typically three day projects. Now, for the most part, my Hasselblads are gathering dust. With traditional film, I'd take a Polaroid of the shot, move lights, check for windows reflecting, and check exposures. It would typically take three Polaroid shots to get the proper lighting and composition. Then I'd spend about two more days getting film developed, sorting film and sending it to the client. Now, with digital technology, that same assignment takes one day, which effects overall billing. With digital, I set up the shot, take a photograph, look at image, and within 30 seconds I've got the shot. I haven't quite figured out how to bill clients on the basis of the ongoing investment in the digital technology.

What are the greatest stresses, what causes you the most anxiety?

When people don't pay on time, you start to wonder if they are ever going to pay. You work hard on a project, and then 30 days goes by, 45 days. It's frustrating. I don't like to call people up and ask them for money. I've had maybe four or five instances in 11 years where the client never paid. It's like somebody robbed you.

Funniest photography incident?

When I first started out, I was working with another photographer at a retirement party. Everyone was in a pretty good mood. The other photographer had to go to the other part of the building to get a different camera. Some people came up and asked me to take a picture, and I didn't have the heart to tell them I didn't have an actual camera in my hands; I was holding only the flash. So I posed them, aimed the flash at them and popped it off. They never asked for the pictures.


Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your photography education. What did you like and dislike about your education?

My photography teacher from junior college steered me toward a career in photography after I got my associate's degree. I'm glad I went to the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee. It was a two-year program, and I enjoyed the quality of the instruction.

Each day we would have a professional photographer come in who specialized in a certain area. The key was that classes were taught by people who were in the business, who knew the business. During the course of week, we'd process film, make a print. The pro would critique the next week, in terms of poses, lighting, etc. After everyone's photos critiqued, we'd get another assignment.

For portrait photography, we'd learn about positioning and lighting, posing two or more people. Everyone who is photographed is not the most attractive person, so for practice, we'd have all types of people come in, like a person who was heavy set with thick glasses. The whole goal is to make people look nice, and we learned how to do it.

The commercial photographer would come in, and we'd do things like photograph a box of corn flakes. The next week, we'd shoot something round or something highly reflective. The architectural photographer, taught us how to photograph the outsides of buildings, and when it got cold, we'd work on the inside of buildings.

Another day would be dedicated to press photography, working with a newspaper photographer. And a cinematographer came in and taught us how to shoot and edit moving film.

What the school tried to do was give you experience in all aspects of photography, and then you could decide where to go with what you learned. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to do so many types of photography.

How can prospective photography students assess their skill and aptitude?

High schools have photo classes, and there are also camera clubs, which will challenge you to see if you are creative enough to consider photography as a career. A person can love baseball, but that doesn't mean you have the athleticism to play professional ball. It's OK, though, because you can still have photography (or baseball) as a hobby.

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious schools, departments or programs?

The Brooks Institute of Photography is one of the tops. But wherever I've gone with my portfolio, not once has one person asked me what school I went to, or what my grades were. Photography is a creative industry. The key to being successful is being able to show what you have done.

It's good to get an education. You want the school to provide you with the resources to provide you with a portfolio so you show that you can do quality work.

Would you change anything about your education if you could?

Maybe I should have gotten a business degree, too; I did take some business classes in junior college, but some marketing classes may have helped along the line.


Job Information & Advice

What is the average salary for your field? What are people at the top of the profession paid?

I haven't figured it out yet. The year that 9-11 happened was one of my best years ever. The next year was off. You just never know.

What are the best ways to get a job in the field of photography?

You've just got to pick what you really enjoy, and understand you'll probably get hired at really low pay to start with. Learn how the business works, techniques, and eventually go out on your own.

Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in landing a good job?

I think it's wise to at least go to a junior college. A four-year college is a good idea because the additional knowledge could be beneficial to your career.

What career advice can you give to photography school graduates wanting to make a name for themselves, to stand out from the crowd?

They have to have some really neat photos, creative ones that are lit properly. No sunsets, no rock groups: those photos are not the photographer's lighting, don't take a lot of brainpower to compose and create and don't show much about the photographer's expertise. Corporate clients aren't thrilled to see portfolio shots of rock groups, anyway.

What are your top pet peeves as a photographer?

  • People who don't pay
  • Those who don't respond when you send a quote
  • People who don't recognize there is a difference between a photograph and a snapshot. A photograph takes time, creativity and experience. To come into a warehouse or industrial environment and to take snapshots is not the same as setting up lights, moving equipment, sweeping the floor – creating a photograph takes more time than a snapshot. I prepare people ahead of time, warn clients that it will take time, to make sure people are wearing what you want the company to represent; does the client want a plant worker wearing a T-shirt with a beer advertisement? That isn't professional. …I've told people if you want the same type of work you saw in my portfolio, you have to give me time. I can take a snapshot, but it's not going to be good. Or I can take a photograph and it will be good.

Has the popularity of the Internet affected your profession?

Quite a bit. I have a web site that generates work; I get a lot of complements on it. The internet has also created a whole new type of market, for people who need photos for their own web sites.

What topics are emerging as hot issues in the field?

There's always a question of usage rights. Charging for usage of the images you take. That's typically decided upon in the contract when you agree to do the photography.

Best photography tip for a novice?

Don't photograph with the sun at your back. The lighting will be bad, with harsh shadows, and the people will be squinting.

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