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Never Work for Free, Always Have Fun, and More Advice from Commercial Photographer Court Leve

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Court Leve is a well-known and respected photographer in Northern California and  voted Best Photographer in the Lake Tahoe-Truckee region for 2010. Specializing in action sports, wedding, portraiture and pet photography, Leve combines a journalistic and traditional approach to his work that results in highly acclaimed emotional and captivating images. His work has been published in National Geographic Adventure, Powder, Ski, Skiing, Freeskier, Parade Magazine, ForbesLife Mountain Time, Spirit Magazine, Southwest Art, and The New York Post. His clients include The Ritz Carlton, Lake Tahoe,  LinkedIn, Sportmaster.ru, Warren Miller Entertainment, Canine Hardware, Points North Heli-Adventures, Astro Gaming, Clear Capital, Cebridge Communications, Squaw Valley, Panoptyx, Plumpjack, Zeal, Kombi, Helly Hansen and more. In this interview, he shares with us some of his insights and lessons learned in the notoriously difficult field of freelance commercial photography.


Kevin Quinn.  Cordova, AK.  PNH

Cordova, AK.

BL: Describe your transition from hobbyist to professional photographer.

CL: Becoming a professional photographer seemed meant to be. Ten or so years ago, I was shooting anything and everything I could as a hobby when my neighbor, who was trying to start a sports journal publication, asked if I wanted to photograph a local adventure race. The shoot took all weekend and I wound up meeting and working with the staff photographer of the Tahoe World newspaper out of Tahoe City, California. When we were finished with the job, I let him know that I was available if he ever needed an extra shooter  and he told me that, despite his guilt over giving shorter than two weeks notice to the paper, he was to moving out of town. So, as it turned out, I started my job as the staff photographer for the Tahoe World Newspaper that Wednesday.

Portraits of Phil Olsen

Portrait of Phil Olsen

BL: During that transition, what hard lessons did you learn that are cautionary tales for others?

CL: Number one lesson I learned starting out and my biggest piece of advice to offer new photographers: don’t ever work for free! This is one thing you will need to be constantly reminded of.  Inevitably at some point, a client will expect you to, or will offer you trades as payment (or even assume you are free). “Never work for free” is the biggest business rule in photography and we all have broken it at some point. Arguably, working for free initially could be viewed as a “foot in the door”. I mean,  you can’t get published unless you’ve been published, right? But I was warned early on that if you work for free you will always be known as the photographer that works for free and it’s true.  Bottom line: working for photo credit just doesn’t pay the bills. The same goes for pricing yourself too low; don’t be the cheapest on the block. Your time and creativity are worth something. It may feel like you are losing a client but, really, a client by definition is someone who pays for services. In addition to these lessons from the business side, learning how to work with people and earn their trust are integral to success and seem especially true when shooting for a newspaper. Finally, learning your subject and what is important to the audience is key. The smallest details can mean everything.

High Sierra Fly-in

High Sierra Fly-in

BL: What is your next big challenge you must face in order to continue advancing in your career?

CL: The next challenge in my career is to keep my phone ringing with new clients. I think this needs to be a rigorous pursuit for anyone that runs their own business. Figuring out how to market yourself and where to look for new clients is a big task and inasmuch being your own boss can be very scary but also very rewarding. You need to be ready to hang on to your business and sanity through the ups and downs and be able to adapt to a changing environment with new ideas.  For example, I’ve recently started an Event Photography business, sourcing out fellow photographers to corporate entities that are hosting events in the regions between Lake Tahoe and San Francisco.  The challenges in this enterprise are twofold; one in creating a new business and two in finding good, reliable photographers to hire and represent my business. Taking this risk, however, and exploring this idea leads me to a new a way to keep my business alive and creates opportunities for me to grow.

Portrait of Billy Fier

Portrait of Billy Fier

BL: List a series of people, places, things, and/or ideas that continually provide you with inspiration.

CL: I find inspiration from the usual places, the web, print, etc. I also find inspiration from people’s personal photos (yes, cell phone photos included!). Now more than ever, no matter where we go we are bombarded by hundreds, if not thousands, of images daily. On the news, in advertisements,  on social media, etc. I love seeing awesome photos taken by someone’s cell phone – photos taken by someone who claims to know nothing about photography and yet who has captured something interesting. These people aren’t afraid to try new things and aren’t constrained by needing to be technically correct. Looking at the work of well-known photographers is great but I like seeing shots that are unique and spontaneous.

Aerial flight from Juneau, AK to Cordova, To Valdez.

Aerial Flight from Juneau, AK

BL: How important has social media been for your professional life?

CL: I’m not a huge social media person. I don’t tweet. I do have a Facebook business page…somewhere! (BL: It’s here, Court. You’re welcome.) CL: I’m terrible about this part of my business and maybe I should be better. I do wonder how relevant social media is to my work. I’m super busy and I don’t know how interesting people would find my life. Some of what I do is exciting – like the shoots in Alaska with skiers, snowboarders and helicopters. But the bulk of the rest of it is just work! Do you want to know I just paid my taxes? Boooring. Blogging? It seems like if you are going to blog then you need to be prepared to do it on a regular basis or it could backfire. Ever visited a blog and the last entry was from 2005 or something?

Adrian

Portrait of Adrian

BL: If money were no object, what piece of gear would you love to have?

CL: If money was no object? Someone to edit all my work for me. Do you guys rent that? Or I’d have to grab a RED camera and all the bells and whistles that go along with it, just because! Honestly that’s a tough question. I truly enjoy the technology that’s out there and I like trying new gear, whether it be a new lens or just a pocket camera.

Cordova, Alaska,

Cordova, AK

BL: What are some tips for gracefully handling competition, poor reviews, and/or disappointed clients?

CL: I feel competition is a healthy thing. I live in the Lake Tahoe area and also spend a significant amount of my time in San Francisco. There is plenty of work to be had in these two locales. I was probably more concerned about finding and competing for jobs when I was first starting out. At that point, it felt as though my livelihood was in the balance with every job I bid on. Over time, that feeling has faded as I’ve learned the cycles of the business. I’m still competitive and want the work but if I don’t get a job, I know there will be another opportunity down the road. I’m sure I’ve had a disappointed client or two over the years but honestly I can’t say I’ve ever had anyone call or email and tell me I blew it. I do my absolute best to deliver what my client is looking for. I think understanding your client’s vision and understanding each other’s expectations are key elements in avoiding an upset client.

Scenic images from PNH.  Northern Lights

Northern Lights

BL: Does your personal shooting differ greatly from your professional shooting and how so?

CL: There are no boundaries when shooting for your own enjoyment, no right or wrong. I like the challenges of working with clients but it’s also nice to remove the stress and create something just for me – not what needs to fit a certain aspect ratio for an ad or make sure there is room to put a logo. I also take more chances with my own shooting, whether that be with trying new gear or a new approach to a shot which, ultimately, helps me with my work. It’s important to still have fun when shooting and not get burned out.

Northstar Trekking Helicopter images.  Chugach Mountains

Northstar Trekking Helicopter, Chugach Mountains

BL: If you had to stop photography today what new venture would your pursue?

CL: If I stopped shooting photos I’d become a helicopter pilot. I think I have a cool job now but whenever I get into a helicopter it’s clear who’s having a better day in the office.

Wendy Wilbanks Street Photography

Portrait of Wendy Wilbanks

BL: What would you say is the strangest essential thing you keep in your gear bag?

CL: Can’t say I have anything to strange in my gear bag. I guess a compass would be it. My parents gave me this little antique compass that looks like a an old pocket watch. It lives in my bag – that and my space pen.  Somehow in over a decade I haven’t lost either.

Skiing images of Marco Sullivan shot for Warren Miller Entertainment.

Marco Sullivan

BL: What is your personal opinion on post processing? How big of a part does it play in your overall workflow?

CL: For me, post processing is a necessary evil even though in the end it’s incredibly satisfying to see the full potential of an image. Honestly, I would be fine with just shooting photos and never sitting in front of a computer again. Post processing is a big part of my workflow, whether I shoot a corporate event, a wedding, or heli-skiing. It’s the part of our work that clients don’t see and don’t realize how much time it takes. It’s not glamorous. If it sounds like I don’t like post processing it’s probably because I don’t like post processing.

Street Scenes of San Francisco

Street Scene of San Francisco

BL: What aspect of photography took you the longest to learn?

CL: The aspect of photography that has taken me the longest to learn is to always have fun with it and relax. A while ago I landed a great job shooting an ad campaign. I nearly gave myself a heart attack with all the what if’s running through my mind. A good friend and fellow shooter told me simply, “You’re just taking pictures”. Some of the simplest and best advice is to have fun with your work and the rest has a way of falling into place.

Flight from Truckee, CA to Death Valley, CA

Flight from Truckee to Death Valley

BL: How often do you look at other photographers’ work? If often, do you have any recent favorites?

CL: I have to admit that while I recognize there is a ton of great stuff out there, I am pretty bad about regularly looking at other photographers’ work. I shoot a bit of skiing and I’m always impressed by guys like Scott Markewitz or Christian Pondella who, day in and day out, are out there getting cover shots and big clients and creating incredible images. I admire their ability to do what it takes to get “the shot” as much as I admire their work itself. I know how hard it is to carry gear while skiing, setup on a massive slope, stay focused, and be safe all at the same time. These guys do it non-stop and are really successful in an industry that is highly competitive. Also, Los Angeles photographer Dave Nagel is a commercial photographer I admire who has a great look and feel to his work.

Motorcycle Ride across Golden Gate Bridge

Motorcycle Ride Across Golden Gate Bridge

BL: If you could only bring 5 pieces of gear with you to a deserted island (assume you have access to electricity) to use for the remainder of your days, what would they be?

CL: Stuck on a deserted island for the rest of my days with five pieces of gear…is my girlfriend there? They would have to be:  Nikon D800, 17-35mm lens, 24-70 lens, 80-400mm lens, and the 85mm f/1.4 lens. I think I could pull off just about anything with that setup.

Lifestyle images of Tom Day shot for Warren Miller Entertainment

Portrait of Tom Day

BL: When do you get most frustrated as a professional photographer? Conversely, when do you feel most elated?

CL: I get frustrated with things that are out of my control such as weather, clients changing their minds after all of the initial prep work is done, gear breaking, etc. Sitting in front of a computer editing and working with clients with unrealistic expectations would have to be up there on the frustration chart, too. Art Directors should learn a little bit about photography and the limitations of lighting, etc. Definitely the most rewarding parts of my job have been the experiences I have had, the people I have met, and places I have travelled to. It’s what my photos represent – the stuff that you can’t capture on film and that lives between the images I make in the form of memories. That means the most.


Special thanks to Court Leve for sharing his experience and images with us. You can read more inspiring photographer interviews on the BL Blog.

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Alex "2.0" Huff is a portrait photographer based in San Francisco. Her tutorials can be found here on the BorrowLenses Blog, 500px, Shutterfly, Snapknot, and SmugMug. She specializes in studio lighting. Follow her work on 500px.

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