Like a lot of photographers, portrait and lifestyle shooter Erik Valind, whose career started in the Tampa/Orlando area where he grew up, had one overriding career ambition: to make it big in the Big Apple. “I’m an outdoor guy, so I certainly didn’t uproot everything, leave paradise and move to a concrete jungle for the scenery,” says Valind. “New York City is the heart of the photo world and I figured if I wanted to really do this for a living, I needed to make it there. As the old song lyric goes: ‘I want to wake up in a city, that doesn't sleep, And find I'm king of the hill, Top of the heap.’”
Even though he knew that New York was where he wanted to be, Valind says he had to take a somewhat roundabout route to get there. “I spent two years in Detroit which was kind of neat because it was a good transition, a step up from the Tampa/Orlando area market to a bigger secondary market,” he says. “But I’ve now been in New York for almost six years. I guess you could say I’m a real New Yorker now.”
The transition from Florida and then Detroit was just as daunting as he thought it might be. “It was huge,” he says. “After the first year that I was in Detroit and I started doing more and more back-and-forth traveling between there and Manhattan. It was definitely a learning process coming from each of the different areas. Going from Florida to Detroit I had to adapt a little bit and kind of got mixed feedback on my portfolio. And it was the same thing when I came here.”
At first he says that finding clients was mostly word-of-mouth. “It really wasn’t until this year that I began working with companies like Agency Access and using creative consultants and doing the typical mailers and that kind of thing,” he says. “In the beginning I basically just cold called or worked my way in through social media or just got referrals from people that I knew and had worked with previously. For me finding clients is very organic and very direct.” Among the clients he’s shot for include UK fashion label Ted Baker, Uber, Yamaha Music (he shoots all of their Grammy-winning musicians), lawn-equipment maker Ariens and Gravely and Hasselblad/Bron. He is also an online instructor with KelbyOne.
Valind, who is a Tamron Image Master, recently spoke with writer Jeff Wignall about the challenges of making it as a photographer in the New York photo world and his shift to more active lifestyle assignments.
PPD: On your site you describe yourself as a lifestyle photographer. To someone outside of the business, how would you describe what those types of subjects and assignments involve?
EV: Lifestyle photography is a broad description in my mind. In essence it’s about capturing real moments in whatever your subject’s area of pursuit may be. Whether it’s an athlete on a morning run, or friends goofing off and having fun at the beach. Distilling those moments and feelings into a still image is my goal as a lifestyle photographer. Thankfully the advertising world sees the value in these moments and likes to use such imagery to sell a brand’s lifestyle too. For this reason I try to focus on clothing and accessory lifestyle companies.
PPD: Has lifestyle photography always been your primary interest?
EV: Yes. I grew up in Florida and on the beach and lifestyle work is what I’ve always shot and been drawn to because it’s where I grew up, but I’ve always subscribed to the whole “show what you want to shoot” idea. So while I’m shooting events, or I’m shooting ecom or products for catalogs, I’m always showing the lifestyle stuff so that when these clients and other people look at my work and website they see what I’m able to do and the direction that I’d rather go.
But I’m very practical about it, I have to make a living somehow or another, so I’m not going to turn down those other jobs. Earlier it was mostly those jobs and it wasn’t always necessarily what I particularly wanted to shoot but I had to make a living as a working photographer and so I took that work.
PPD: Do you do most of your work on location or in a studio or a combination of the two? Do you have a studio in the city?
EV: I don’t keep a studio in the city, because most of my work is shot on location. Nowadays the overhead of a full studio doesn’t make sense for most photographers, especially in an overpriced city like New York. The beauty of working in a major city is the abundance of rental photo studios though. So when a job calls for it I just rent a specific studio based on the assignment.
PPD: Has it grown easier to get the kind of work you want now that you’ve been in New York for several years?
EV: Yes. And I’m finally putting together a serious marketing campaign with all of the regular print mailers going out and the email blasts. I made it to the top three choices for a quarter-million dollar job for a pharmaceutical firm last month and though I didn’t get the job, it was the first time I’d put together a $120,000 bid for still photography. The next level is finally opening up and it’s really good to see because it’s positive plus it’s a reaffirmation for all of the hard work that you’ve put in and the work that you’re doing and the direction you’re going. It’s nice to get noticed.
PPD: What is it about environmental portraiture that appeals to you? Is it more challenging than studio work?
EV: Working on location is infinitely more challenging than studio work. I love environmental portraiture because it gives me another tool in which to tell the subject’s story and their location. I’m also a glutton for punishment so working in a very quickly-changing light in a remote location is enjoyable for me with the problem solving that comes along with it.
PPD: You’ve written a book about portrait photography and obviously have a really great knowledge of portrait techniques. What do you think are the skills a photographer has to have to excel at portraiture—photographically and otherwise?
EV: People skills! It doesn't matter how technically proficient you are as a photographer, you’ll never be a good portrait photographer if you can’t vibe with your subject, put them at ease, and get them to open up for your camera.
PPD: One of the topics you discuss in the book is establishing trust with your subjects. Can you talk about how you do that with both professional models and just ordinary folks?
EV: Models are people too. I try to break everyone out of their shell, whether it’s the basic canned looks a model walks in with, or the slight discomfort most people feel in front of the lens. Easy ways to break the ice are setting a comfortable “stage” and finding some common ground to build rapport with. I like to play the subject’s favorite music on set, and then find things we have in common to talk about. Only after we’ve gotten to talking and laughing do I start to shoot. People first, pictures second.
PPD: A lot of your work involves athletes and very active lifestyles, do you come from an athletic background yourself?
EV: Yes, I grew up playing absolutely every single sport in high school and into college even if I didn’t have time to do the team. I’d join clubs or work out with teams if my friends were on them. I wasn’t allowed to be inside growing up. It was one of my dad’s rules: if the sun is out, you’re out. It’s very different from kids growing up today.
That’s why I’ve kind of been re-gearing my work towards the active lifestyle and the fitness stuff. I realized that those are the things that I still get excited about and when it comes down to it, the kind of clients that you’re working with or the talent that you’re working kind of dictate your days because you’re sitting on the set with them all day. I realized that maybe I wasn’t so drawn to some of the fashion personalities, or the diva personalities—I’m more into being with the people that enjoy life, enjoy being in their bodies and enjoy being outdoors. That’s the kind of talent and clients that I want to work with, so I’m kind of re-gearing my portfolio to those types of clients.
PPD: You obviously have a very in-depth knowledge of artificial lighting that you use in your lifestyle and portrait work, but much of your work appears to be lit naturally. Is that one of the goals of your lighting technique, to keep things natural looking?
EV: Absolutely. When I was learning lighting, I used to employ extra strobes and would light things for the sake of lighting them. As my style matured I wanted my lighting to be less obvious, or more a subtle way of enhancing my subjects and making them look their best in a given environment.
PPD: Where did you learn to light and how would you suggest beginners might practice?
EV: I’m completely self taught. Years and years of trial and error. Again I’m a glutton for punishment. Beginners today have countless resources online such as my classes from KelbyOne and Creative Live. Locally they can learn from camera groups and fellow photographers. Once you learn a technique then grab a friend or family member and offer to trade them snazzy new Facebook profile photos for their time, then practice whatever new technique you learned until it becomes second nature, then rinse and repeat. My friends always have the best FB photos.
PPD: How do you quickly evaluate what the lighting needs will be for an environmental shot?
EV: Less is more when working on location. I like to see what the available light on any given location is doing, then leverage that to light the majority of the image. Then I’ll consider bringing in strobes or reflectors to accent and enhance the light on my subjects.
PPD: On your site you list an almost even mix of zoom and prime lenses found in your kit. What advantages to you see to using prime lenses?
EV: When I’m on location I’m always dealing with available light. To leverage that to its fullest extent I either have to crank the ISO or use fast glass. The Tamron primes all have wide apertures of f/1.8. This means I can gather a ton of natural light in my photos without getting the noise of high ISO. At the same time this leaves me with beautifully blurry out of focus backgrounds that really make the subject pop out of the photo.
PPD: What are the challenges of using a single-focal-length lens as opposed to a zoom?
EV: Unfortunately when using a prime lens your legs are your zoom so this means I’m moving around a lot to get different frames and compositions. This is fine when working in open spaces but can get tricky when shooting in more confined spaces.
PPD: Which particular prime lenses are your favorites?
EV: Tamron 35mm f/1.8. Hands down that is my all-time favorite lens. Ever! The 35mm focal length is how I see the world and want to visually relay that in my work. It’s wide enough to show some environment in the image, but not so wide that it distorts people in the picture, and has a gorgeous bokeh when shot near wide open. That’s another beautiful thing about it as well, you can actually shoot it wide open and the image is still tack sharp from edge to edge. They also added VC (Vibration Compensation) which cuts out the camera shake, something that’s important with my style of shooting handheld in low light conditions.
PPD: Do you have a favorite zoom among your Tamron zooms?
EV: The 24-70 was the first Tamron lens I owned. At the time it was the only 24-70 with image stabilization, that allowed me to shoot at slow shutter speeds in dim settings to maximize the ambient light in my shots. The Vibration Compensation feature kicks in to make sure I’m not getting camera shake when hand holding at these speeds. The range is also perfect for wide shots all the way in for medium telephoto portraits.
PPD: Do you think that social media has been helpful in building your career or making people aware of your work?
EV: I have around 4,000 likes on my Facebook page, 5,000 followers on Twitter and 13,000 on Instagram. Social media has a huge impact on my work! I’ve landed new clients off of Twitter and on FB I keep in touch with current clients so that Im always on their mind to rehire me. FB is more conversational and less sales-pitch oriented, so it’s a nice “soft” reminder”. And Instagram is heaven for visual creatives. It’s a place to constantly show my work and lifestyle. Whether or not people would want to work with you weighs into the hiring decision at this level. No one wants to be on set all day with someone who’s a jerk or boring at best even if the their work is decent. In the end you get out what you put in. Don’t just pimp your pictures, engage in conversation, be nice, be helpful and it’ll come back to you. Social media mirrors life.
PPD: Also, I noticed that you have a Youtube channel and that one of the things you do are unboxing videos—you did a nice unboxing of the Tamron SP 85mm f/1.8. What do you think the fascination is with unboxing videos, they seem extremely popular?
EV: I think unboxing videos are great for the same reason POV GoPro videos are so popular. You get the high of opening that new lens like its Christmas morning—all without having to shell out the money. It’s just like people love watching videos of helmet cams as BMX riders launch off of huge ramps. Its educational, informative and you get the high of the ride from the comfort of your home.
PPD: What is the toughest part of what you do photographically? Is it the travel, the dealing with people? Or do you enjoy it all?
EV: I enjoy just about everything related to photography. I shoot to make a living and I also shoot to unwind. It’s definitely a lifestyle for me, not a job. The business side of things is the toughest part though. I went to college for business and am thankful for every minute that I showed up for. No one likes negotiating, chasing down clients for payments, or wondering where their next paycheck will come from. But the cost of doing business is worth a life behind the lenses.
PPD: Do you think this is a good time for younger people to consider starting a photo career and what advice would you offer them?
EV: Its never been a better time get into photography, though at the same time it’s the worst of times to start out and try to make a full time living at it. But that’s a whole other can of worms that we don’t have room for here. Maybe next time?