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PPD Master Series: Jeff Rojas and the Fine Art of the Photo Business

By Jeff Wignall   Tuesday November 14, 2017


Unlike a lot of photographers that talk about photography being a lifelong passion that started at an early age, New York-based fashion and portrait photographer Jeff Rojas  got a somewhat later start. “I didn’t pick up my first camera until I worked at a private equity company after college,” he says. “When I was in high school I was working full time to help my parents out and I just couldn’t afford a camera. I didn’t get my first camera until I was in my early 20s.”

Ironically it was getting laid off from that very job and needing to fill a creative gap that brought him to photography as a career. “I felt like I needed to build something, I’m inevitably a builder, I love seeing something happen from start to finish and watching it grow,” he says. “I get very obsessed very quickly with new things and trying to learn something new and photography was one of those many things that I fell in love with and it just felt natural to me. I became deeply obsessed with photography. It’s all about artistic expression, thinking of something, watching it come to fruition, it’s another level of creativity.”

Interestingly, it was his love of building something else—namely restoring classic cars—that really drew out his initial passion. “I hung around cars at first just because I wanted to document the cars that I was building and then the passion went from the cars to the photography,” he recalls. “As I was trying to learn new techniques and I learn lighting, the passion went from restoring classic cars to photographing full time.”

Today Rojas shoots a mix of portraits, beauty and fashion and clients include Elle and Esquire. His images are marked by a very bold, dramatic and low-key look, much of it in done in black and white. He also devotes time to teaching both photography and marketing and has taught at CreativeLive, WPPI, Photo Plus Expo, Imaging USA and for the APA.

Rojas credits much of his success as a photographer not just to his skills behind a camera, but to his knowledge of marketing. He also says that a lot of photographers are underemployed because they fail to grasp the importance of marketing. “Nobody cares about it because it just seems a lot more difficult than it actually is and I think that photographers are just very artsy and they don’t know how to turn their art into a business,” he says. “Marketing is just not a sexy topic. How do you make marketing a sexy topic? How do you make math sexy for people?”

Rojas is also the author of several books, most notably his best-selling  books Photographing Men and Photographing Women. I recently spoke to Rojas about his passion for photography and for the business of photography and about his use of Tamron lenses.

PPD: You have a very sophisticated lighting style, how did you learn to light?

JR: I had really good mentors. One of the first things that I learned early on was that I didn’t know it all so I need to learn from other people. I used to drive to a camera store in New Jersey because they offered classes in things like lighting. I traded my time as an assistant and I got a chance to learn from some really great photographers, people like Robert Farber and Liz Freeman and lots of others. Because I was the assistant I had the chance to be very hands on with the lighting and learned to understand what they were trying to do. I was literally the grunt doing all the work, moving things, moving backdrops, setting up lights and so forth.

I think that when you’re learning anything new it’s easier to learn by doing it than by listening to someone talk about it or explain it. When it comes to lighting, for example, I don’t need someone to explain it to me, I need someone who is going to have me move the lights and raise or lower the power for that specific shot. I also mentored under my former business partner Lindsay Adler and often she used as many as six to eight different Speed Lights, depending on which set she was using. While I realized that I didn’t want to have her level of production, I did learn why she used certain lights.

PPD:  Do you maintain studio space in NYC?

JR:  I only rent studio space when I need it. The overhead is ridiculous in New York City and the last studio that I had was $4,300 a month just for rent and that didn’t include utilities or anything else. If you add in assistants, plus yourself, the cost is completely obnoxious and just running the studio becomes a full-time job. Everyone that I know that has a studio in New York and is shooting commercial work is also renting it when they’re not there. In essence that becomes a second business. You’re running a studio business while you’re also running your photography business. I don’t want to spend all day monitoring what another photographer is doing in my studio.

Jeff Rojas

PPD:  New York is such a competitive environment, was it an intimidating thing to hang out a shingle as a fashion and beauty photographer?

JR: I don’t think so and here’s why. Photographers today do too much work for free. They’re tearing apart the industry as a whole because they’re looking for exposure and they are willing to do things for less than what a normal rate should be. Those are not the clients that I’m looking for because I’m not looking for clients that want me to undercut myself or make me compare myself to another photographer. So for me having some form of business acumen is infinitely more important at this point.

I don’t worry about other photographers. I don’t worry about what they’re doing in the marketplace and I don’t worry losing the clients that aren’t going to pay me. What I’m looking for are the paying clients that understand my value. I want clients with whom I can have a conversation and say, “This is the value that you get from working with me.” When you can articulate that, then you set yourself apart from the crowd. The most successful photographers that I know financially are better business people than they are artists.

PPD: What is the toughest part of the work that you do. Is it the creative and technical aspect of your work or the business aspect?

JR:  The toughest thing is quantifying value and finding the right kind of clients because when you find the right type of clients, you don’t have to justify and quantify your value because they understand it and they respect it. The technical aspect is something that can be picked up. Honestly, from my perspective, everything else in photography can be learned quickly with mentors and experience. Learning how to run a business and marketing yourself and diversifying yourself is so much more difficult than the creative aspects.  

PPD: Do you spend more time running your business and marketing yourself versus shooting?

JR: Most of my time is spent running a successful business. I think the  creative part of photography takes a back seat to the actual business aspects of being a success. I would say that 60 to 70 percent of my day is dedicated to running a successful business. Being completely candid, what I realized quickly on was that a lot companies do not understand the value of image making. They don’t understand the type of images they should be shooting or how they should be shooting them or the content that they should be trying to produce.

In the last couple of years I’ve spent much of my time helping marketing companies realize the value in understanding their photography needs to the point that they’ve also hired me as a consultant. I’m helping these companies build their brand identify. So 70-percent of what I get paid for is the concept and the idea and where the marketing direction is going and then, of course, I also get to shoot it. I don’t think that’s a bad thing to do in this marketplace. I’m not taking a seat to wait for someone else to give me an idea, I’m being very proactive instead of reactive and I think that most artists are reactive.  

PPD: How do you uncover clients that need this type of guidance and how do you explain those concepts to them?

JR: You have to lead them to that process. If I walk into any business, I’m not going to tell them that what they’re doing is terrible, I’m going to offer them a set of leading questions to help me show them why they’re not being as successful as they could be. As an example, one of the companies that I work with has had a very difficult time breaking into the U.S. market. They have a great market in Japan, but they have had a very hard time breaking into the U.S. market and I asked them point blank why they thought that was. I press companies on those type of questions to see how much trouble they are having and why they are having that trouble and I also try to get them to acknowledge that it’s their fault. And then I convey what I can bring to the table.

Now, some people are going to come back to me and say, “Well, you’re just a photographer.” My response to them is that I’m a successful business person and that in a market of dwindling opportunity my career has risen and I make more money now as a photographer than I did when I was working in the private equity field and that I’ve been able to grow my business against the grain and here’s how I did it. When I can explain that to a marketing company, I’m no longer just a photographer, now I have a set of skills they want to hire and then at the end of the day, replicate that on a larger scale. And they don’t know how to do that.

PPD: Do you have a favorite type of photography that you like to shoot?

JR:  New things. I don’t like shooting the same things multiple times. I didn’t start in photography to be stagnant. I’m always looking for the next project and the next adventure and I know it sounds cliche but my favorite project is always the newest one. I love a challenge and when I feel bored it’s a depressing feeling. I need to feel that I’m progressing and I can move forward and that I’m challenging myself.

PPD: What Tamron lenses are you using for portrait work?

JR:  I would say the new Tamron SP 24-70mm F/2.8 Di VC USD G2  and the Tamron SP 90mm 1:1 Macro  are always my first choice in lenses. From there I would jump to the Tamron SP 85mm F/1.8  prime and then to the Tamron SP 70-200mm G2.

PPD:  That’s interesting that you mention the Tamron 90mm Macro as a favorite lens for portrait work, why is that?

JR:   Oddly enough that is the one lens that never leaves my bag.  The Tamron 90mm Macro is one of the most versatile lenses for me because as I’m shooting beauty photography or as I’m shooting fashion I have much more control over my lens. If, for example, I want to shoot detail photographs of clothing I’m able to do that and still have the ability to step away from my subject and keep them in focus.

Here’s the thing, that 90mm macro, although it has a very shallow depth of field, is great for portraits because it can focus anywhere from 11 inches to infinity, where as with the 85mm lens I’m restricted to working at a minimum distance of 31.5-inches from my subject. The 85mm is an amazing lens, it’s great, but for the work I do it’s not as versatile as the macro lens.

PPD: What is it about the Tamron lenses overall that you like?

JR: Tamron lenses have definitely improved significantly and substantially over the past 10 years, both in quality and in their marketing strategy. They were the underdog in the lens world for a long time and the company realized the value of wanting to step up and move forward so they pushed hard with their quality control and they have made an effort to put out new and innovative products all the time. For me as an entrepreneur that’s infinitely important to me because I’m working with a company that is on the cutting edge of technology. In looking at all of the Tamron lenses as a whole, they are a group of lenses that I can say are sharp, they get the job done and they provide that quality at a reasonable price. I think the Tamron lenses are something that every person can afford and utilize.

In my work I like to be able to convey that to people, that these lenses are an amazing product and I’ve used them for some great publications. I really think that photographers should look to using Tamron lenses as a first choice rather than automatically looking to more expensive lenses for no other reason than that they think more expensive lenses will automatically be better.

PPD: Speaking of working in close to your subjects, you obviously have a great rapport with your subjects. Are you a natural director?

JR:  I just like people in general. I shoot less and I talk more. If you look at Annie Liebotwitz’s work as an example and you study her behind-the-scenes videos, most of it is purely conversational. There’s less shooting and more talking. I think technology today has made the photographers somewhat lazy in a way, it’s shoot more and pray that you’re going to get that shot and I try not to fall into that same mindset.

Think about all of the time that you waste at the backend trying to weed through all of those photos looking for that one good shot. You’re better off just getting it right in the camera the first time. I shoot less and I talk more because I want to become acquainted with who I’m photographing in a way that is very personable. I become friends with the people that I photograph because of that and I’ve been lucky to meet some amazing people and I’ve had some wonderful opportunities because of that. Some of the models that I’ve shot have recommended me to art directors based on the relationship that we have, not treating them like a subject and not treating them like a thing. I treat them like people and I appreciate their time. I try to listen more than anything else.

PPD: Do you have a small crew when you’re shooting? Is there typically an art director on set?

JR: The smaller the group the better for me, the less of a production the more intimate the shoot becomes. The less hands on deck the better. It’s just easier that way. For smaller sets I’m usually alone or there will be a hair stylist and a make up stylist. The make up stylist that I use is an amazing make up artist and she’ll put in her two cents, so it then becomes a team effort. She and I become our own art directors in that way. She’s worked in the industry for 10 or 15 years and she really knows what she’s doing.

For some of the commercial shoots I include an art director, but I try to make sure that the art director is very invested in the process. As an example, with one of the mens’ clothing lines that I work with, in the past the art director that was hired to work with me would just wait to see images come back from the shoot. She wasn’t happy with that, she wasn’t content. She would have to wade through several hundred photos from the shoot to find that one ideal shot. So I asked her to be there, on set, just for a couple of hours and I tethered the camera to her laptop so she could see things in real time and that way she could look at shots as there were made and tell me which ones she liked or didn’t like and then we would move forward.

PPD: Are you shooting a lot of video and are you enjoying that?

JR: I am and one of the first shoots that I did after I got laid off from my day job was a video that I did for Harley Davidson. I shot a commercial for them. I shot it with a 5D Mark II. Shooting video and creating video content has been wildly important for my success in marketing. I don’t want to do large video productions, but when I’m doing smaller productions I’m happy incorporating video. As my clients ask more for video I am all for that but I would prefer to be the director of photography, not just the camera operator. I’d rather look at a scene and say, “This is the ideal shot” and let someone else hold the camera and make the shot rather than be the person behind the camera that’s shooting it.

PPD: Are you shooting behind-the-scenes videos of your shoots?

JR: Absolutely. Most of the stuff that I have on Youtube is all behind-the-scenes content that I’ve shot and used as teaching segments.

PPD:  What advice do you have for someone that is thinking of going into the business?

JR:  Be unapologetically ambitious and don’t let people stop you and tell you that you can’t do something. Everything that you do, as long as it’s focused, will have some fruition. It may not be tomorrow or the next day, but if you have a plan and a goal and you’re not willing to take “no” as an answer, you will make it happen.

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