Today I want to share a conversation I had with photographer Chris Conti. Chris is based out of Boston, Massachusetts and is a self-made businessman and artist.
Published with permission of Keegan Hobson Photography
What inspired your interest and love of photography?
I’ve always been a pretty outdoorsy person – I love hiking, backpacking, rockclimbing… and I think what initially sparked my interest in photography was that I wanted to be able to capture the beauty of nature, to savor it. Then, sometime in grade school, I saw some of the work of Ansel Adams, and that was it, I was sold.
What were your first steps in starting your own photography business?
Well, at that point I had been shooting increasingly intensively for close to fifteen years and had built up a pretty solid body of work (mostly on film). But as most pro photographers who start out as hobbyists discover, usually the type of material you shoot as a hobbyist isn’t the same as the type of material that is commercially viable. So even though I had a catalog of thousands of images, very few of them were appropriate for a commercial portfolio. That meant I had to go out and start shooting specifically with an eye toward the types of images I would want to sell to clients (this, by the way, isn’t one-and-done process: I’m still going out and shooting new portfolio material as I’m expanding my client base and entering new areas).
Other than creating portfolio material, the most important first step (and again, this is a constant effort) was getting my name out there – putting together a website and getting people to look at it, as well as various other publicity activities.
What goals did you set for yourself when you began Chris Conti Photography?
When I started out I wasn’t under any illusions about how hard it is to be a successful creative type. My first goal was simply to be able to make a living.
How have your goals changed as your business has become increasingly viable?
When you start getting a little more successful, you start to have the flexibility to choose your clients a bit better. One goal that I had had as I started getting more clients was to transition away from types of work I didn’t prefer to be doing long-term and into types of work I really enjoyed and found challenging. For me, a big part of growing is finding the things you really want to focus on.
What is one obstacle you overcame along your journey? How did you resolve your problem?
I started out differently than many other photographers do – I didn’t start out working as a photographer for another company, or as an assistant for another photographer. Lots of new photographers get their first client contacts this way – they carry over from their previous jobs. Since I started working for myself right out of the gate, I didn’t have that pool of potential clients to start out with. So, I had to market myself that much more, and work that much harder to generate publicity and get my name out there. I spent a little money on advertising, but mostly I just took advantage of the opportunities for free publicity that the internet offers. The internet is a wonderful thing that way.
Working for yourself it must be hard to delineate when is work time and when to relax. What do you do to “recharge” your creative batteries?
This may be sad to say, but it is the truth: the line between “work time” and “off time” is pretty non-existent. In lots of salary jobs, when the day’s over you go home and don’t think about work until you get back to the office the next day. Working for myself, there’s really no such thing as complete, 100% off time. When I’m not doing work for a client, I’m either working on portfolio material, doing new-client outreach, teaching myself a new skill or technique (the learning never stops!) or thinking about calls I have to make or emails I have to send. I think about photography when I go to sleep and I’m thinking about it when I wake up in the morning.
That’s why I don’t think its possible to work for yourself unless you truly love what you do… because you never stop doing it. I’m lucky, because I truly love photography, so I don’t mind never getting away from it. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing.
That said, if I get tired of something monotonous or feel like I’m in a rut, it always helps if I throw my camera in a backpack and take a hike.
What is a current project you are working on?
I’m lucky in that the particular “sense of place” flavor of photography that I do is applicable to a really wide range of clients, everywhere from schools and universities to hotels and resorts to city and state tourism boards. My newest project that I’m hoping to get running with in the next few weeks is actually for a grocery store chain that wants to highlight some of its local food suppliers; farmers, bakers, etc. A supermarket can seem like a cold, sterile and impersonal place, but I’m excited to help show consumers the faces and personalities of the people whose work behind the scenes provides the food they put on their tables.
Any suggestions for beginning or aspiring photographers?
I guess I would say three things: first, be informed and realistic about the challenges, difficulties and disadvantages of this line of work (by talking with working photographers). There are plenty of downsides, and photography as a profession definitely isn’t for everyone. There are a lot of very talented people out there, and competition is tough. If your stuff is just so-so, it’s going to be really hard to be successful.
That said though, the second thing I’d say is if even after thinking about these things you’re still convinced you want to pursue photography, then don’t give up too quickly. If you’ve got the talent and the perseverance to work hard, eventually things will happen, even if they take longer than you think they should.
Finally, focus on what you’re best at. Don’t try to do everything. The old saying “if you try to do everything, you end up doing nothing well” really is true. This doesn’t mean you have to completely pigeon-hole yourself and sometimes it takes some experimentation to find out what you really are best at, but of the photographers whose work I’ve seen, it really does seem that they do their best work in a relatively tightly focused area.
What camera did you start with and what do you now use?
My first camera was an old manual Nikon rangefinder camera made in about 1970. We’ve certainly come a long way from there! I’ve gone through a half a dozen cameras since then, but my current camera bodies are a Canon 5D Mark II and a Canon 7D (as soon as the 5D Mark III body comes out I’ll probably be buying one… I’m a bit of a gear junkie).
Any must have software or products for your photography-related use?
Of course, everybody is familiar with Photoshop… it’s been a basic, essential part of a photographer’s toolkit for years. But additionally, more recent “asset management” or “workflow” tools like the Adobe Lightroom or Apple Aperture software are invaluable. As for other gear… I’ve got literally closets full of lights, stands, reflectors, diffusing cloths, and on and on and on… as a photographer you tend to accumulate a lot of stuff.
Advice for Creatives who want your life?
Ha, I’d warn anyone to think twice before they say they want my life.
Honestly, a lot of people seem to view creative fields in overly romanticized, rosy terms. The truth is that there are a lot of cold, hard realities in this profession. But, if it’s what you love and you’re willing to dedicate yourself to it, it can be very rewarding. But you have to be willing to work for it!
Are you inspired by artists and creative thinkers? Who are they?
Absolutely. I think it’s extremely rare to find an artist who isn’t inspired by other artists. For me, the work of people like Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and many others makes me feel like I’m opening my eyes for the first time every time I see it. There are also scores of current photographers you’ve never heard of doing truly amazing work, and finding a new person’s work to be inspired by is a near-daily occurrence for me.
I want to thank Chris for taking time out of his busy schedule to have a chat with us. It is inspiring to meet with someone who dives into their passion as he has!