Student Success: Justin Gage
Growing up, Justin was fascinated with his father’s old SLR camera. Twenty years later and working in the fashion industry, he finally decided to dive into the world of photography himself. After studying at NYIP, Gage was able to participate in shoots as not only a creative director and stylist, but as a photographer and visual artist himself. We recently got in touch with Justin to share insight on the industry and to see where his career has taken him since.
1. When did you realize that photography was the field you wanted to pursue?
When I was a kid my dad had an old, leather-cased SLR and I thought there was almost something mythical about it. But it felt so unaccessible to me.
In my early twenties, I was working on custom fashion design for clients- unique pieces. Since I didn't always have inventory on hand, I started hiring models and photographers to make a catalogue of my designs before they were delivered. The exposures were correct but there was something that always felt slightly off about the shots. So instead of hiring a photographer, one time I decided to buy a camera and shoot the stuff myself. The quality of the first images may have been far lower than the ones I hired photographers for, but the feeling was there- so really my style and skills were first developed as a consumer myself that had that need.
2. When (and why) did you enroll at NYIP?
It was my Christmas present last year. I had been looking at different photography courses because my business really started picking up, but it was becoming a routine of doing the same type of portraits over and over again. I wanted to have the academic challenge to push me towards things I was not yet doing, or maybe to confirm some things I had discovered by experience.
3. What was your coursework like?
It's great to be able to study when and where and as much or as little as possible. Sometimes I would knock out a unit in a week, and on others I would spend a couple months. The important thing for me was at least to log on and do SOMETHING regularly to practice and improve.
4. Was your mentor helpful during the process?
The mentor system is brilliant. It brings a personal human contact to the curriculum. My mentor was always encouraging, but always also challenging me to do better and always giving me tips to improve a shot even if she absolutely loved it. And growing is so important to me- it's great to feel pride when you look at your work, but it's even more rewarding when you push yourself to be better next time.
5. How did you get started with a real-world career?
I would assist other photographers and talk to guys who really knew their stuff and were successful before going “all in” I did a realistic assessment of myself and custom-tailored some realistic goals. One of my first paying jobs was in a park. I was working for minimum wages, but my goal was to get pay stubs that said photographer on them.
6. What do you always carry with you in your camera bag?
It really depends on the job, but one thing I use a lot for my commercial portraiture clients is my remote camera trigger. These clients are usually business owners or upper management and are not used to being photographed. Taking the camera out of the equation usually really helps to make them feel way more comfortable.
I’m also really big on networking too, so I usually bring along a mountain of business cards. The cameras and lenses will change depending the location and assignment, but I always have a pen and notepad since I spend a lot of time on planes and trains. I also always have my Sekonic L-308B II with me.
7. What did you learn in your first years as a working professional that you wish you could’ve learned at NYIP?
I think it's easy to see the world through rose colored glasses when you are reading things in a course, but there is a huge part of photography that has to be experienced for yourself. I really don't think there is a golden formula for workflow, pricing, client outreach, etc.
NYIP is great about giving guidelines- but then these guidelines are tools, and like any other tool, it’s up to the craftsmen as to how he or she will use tit. When you are first starting out, it's easy to carbon copy what you saw in the courses, or on Facebook or on Model mayhem, but really what you should be doing is figuring out how you are going to set yourself apart, and that's a leap of faith in yourself... which artists are usually not good at.
8. Tell us everything about Justin Gage Photo Studio!
Most of our clients are based in Monaco. From the beginning, when we moved over we wanted to focus on serving the English speaking communities on the Riviera (even though within the team we speak 6 languages fluently).
I would have to say that one of my key values is relationship building. Relationships with our clients, with one another, with other people from the industry are extremely important. To some, this will sound obvious- but where we live, people are extremely possessive of their work.
I take everything about the business very personally. From the moment someone requests a quote, it's a very personal and emotional process for me. Usually, if I have done my job correctly, I know more about the client than I do some of my closest friends.
During a job, 90% for me is prep work- and even once on site, a lot of the work is then animation and communication with my team and my models. I always try to be positive. Even if my lights are completely off, I will tell my assistant “that looks great if we can just bring the key-light down 1 stop it will be perfect!”
I spend half my time working- and as much as possible, I am trying to go out and volunteer more. I actually just got back from Uganda where I am very engaged with an NGO called Chances for Children- the foundation takes in Orphans from the Slums of Kampala. It's important to me because photography is first and foremost storytelling, and these kids have a story that needs to be told, as well as the guy that runs it on the ground. I would like to think it helps me stay humble and grounded.
99% of the time, I don't post my paying clients’ work unless they bring up that they want to be on there, or if it's to have a link to their page or business. There is an aspect to that method that can sound crippling, but when a client is booking a boudoir shoot for the first time and only got to see prints when we met in person, she needs to know that her image will not surface anywhere unexpectedly.
9. We noticed on your site that your portfolio is separated into 6 different categories of work you do- do you have a personal favorite?
I think a lot of photographers starting out struggle with things like wardrobing, so this has been an ongoing challenge to myself. If I can pull off a shot with the model virtually wearing garbage, it's easy to make her look good wearing a $5000 dress (well for the most part).
10. If you had to pick one, what was the most memorable photography project you’ve ever completed?
My first catalogue and campaign shoot was for a Spanish designer during the Cannes film festival at this gorgeous villa in Cannes. Not because it's my best work ever, but because it really set the bar for my work and style from then on. I am still impressed I had the guts to take certain liberties with the angles. At the time, I got a lot of grief for a lot of the shots. I listened, but decided to stick to it- and I’m glad I did.
11. Describe a day in your life as a photographer.
I’m a night owl, so I am usually up until around 2 AM doing my admin or post processing. I take my son to work every day at 8am and then regardless of having paid assignments or not, I force myself to shoot.
This was especially important when I was just starting, to get myself out there. If people think you are consistently busy shooting, they will be more comfortable to work with you, and it also keeps your skills sharp. At any given time, I am also prepping logistics for several future shoots I may not currently have time for, but just so I can immediately have something ready if I am feeling “Photographer's block.”
12. What’s the most rewarding part of your career?
It's all worth it for me when women look at the pictures I take of them and find themselves beautiful, especially women past their 40s and 50s. Whereas men are somewhat reaching their prime at that age, women have really been burdened with unrealistic expectations as to what they should look like at all ages, and I think we have traumatized woman about looking in the mirror. So nothing is as fulfilling as helping women reconcile with her appearance.
13. If you could give one piece of advice to our current and prospective students, what would it be?
Don't ever get to the point where you think you know it all! Once you start getting good, you will start feeling like the opportunities are infinite, like you have just started scratching the surface. But don't try to be anything or anyone other than yourself.
Just because “Joe” is charging this much doesn't mean that's what you need to charge. Just because “Mimi” gets 200 likes on Facebook when she posts her photos doesn't mean that's what you need to shoot. Find your own voice, find your own style, come up with your own workflow, know the “rule book” -but be ready to throw it out the window. Be intentional about everything you do. Try things even if they sound stupid… ESPECIALLY if they sound stupid. Chanel used to say “in order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different”
Yuki Tansengco’s ‘Project Tassel’ grants many students from less fortunate communities with a free graduation photo experience, including: hair, make-up, and portrait. NYIP student, Laya Gerlock is one of the photographers working on this wonderful project. We contacted him in order to talk about what has been keeping him busy and to find out more about Project Tassel.Tell us about…