Ascending the Summit

by Larry Brownstein

John Mireles

March 01, 2010 — When John Mireles was studying at the University of California, Santa Barbara where, he says, “My major was rock climbing and my minor was everything else” his passion for the sport instilled him with the same philosophy he applies to his photography. “I have always believed in aiming for greatness. [But] when I say greatness I don’t mean like [being] the king of the world. I mean doing great work, having great relationships with my clients, always setting the bar really high and not just settling for what everyone else is doing.” As a rock climber, Mireles had to develop this mindset, where his aim was always to reach the summit; enjoying the satisfaction of having achieved his goal only briefly before it was time to find the next cliff to scale.

While traveling with some of the best climbers in the world to incredibly scenic places like Buoux in the South of France, it was a natural thing for Mireles to take pictures of the climbs. Doing this, he soon found himself selling the pictures to magazines such as Climbing, Rock and Ice and Outside.

At the time, though he had a taste of success as a photographer, he wasn’t really making money from it. “There was only so much I could do photographing climbers hanging off a cliff,” he says. A defining moment came when he took a class in advertising photography given by Mark Edward Harris. The class visited Jay Silverman’s studio in Los Angeles. When Mireles learned about Silverman’s astronomical day rate, his eyes opened wide: “You can make a lot more than the peanuts I was making as a climbing photographer,” he says. He realized that the real money in outdoor photography was in shooting product photography for outdoor clothing lines, so he began to do more studio work.

The other lesson that he took away from the studio visit was that “image is everything. You’ve got to look like a pro.” That was a lesson he took to heart. Even though he had little money in the bank, he worked with talented people to put together the best marketing and portfolio materials he could afford and began to go after bigger clients with bigger budgets.

He also joined Advertising Photographers of America (APA). Every year the Los Angeles chapter invites the best reps to come in and review portfolios. Mireles went all out, putting considerable time, energy and money into the process to show the best work with the best presentation he possibly could. Each year he would go in with great hopes and expectations. “Every year I would go and they would say, ‘Yeah, that’s nice. Next!’ They would shoot me down. It hurt. But I kept coming back. You know, you fall down seven times and you get up eight! Then one day they said, ‘Well, this looks great. Let’s talk.’ And that took a good six years,” says Mireles. Thereafter, he landed representation and was eventually shooting for clients such as Amgen, Dupont, Sempra Energy, Sprint, Intuit, etc.

He was having a good run doing advertising photography for several years when work dried up as a result of the dot-com bust. The phone stopped ringing. He did a direct-mail campaign and was told, “We love your portfolio, but we have no work for you.” Mireles had to re-evaluate.

That’s when he had an epiphany. He’d had a preconception that wedding photography meant using a Hasselblad and taking a lot of formal family photos. “There was no way I would be a photographer if that is what I had to do! I would do pretty much anything besides that. Then I became aware of this budding school of wedding photojournalism. I thought, ‘Hey, that’s kind of cool. Not only can I do that, I can do that better than the people that are tops in the field.’ I came to that realization and immediately decided that I was going to shoot weddings.”

As an advertising photographer, Mireles was accustomed to the idea of testing whenever he wanted to try something new. So he got models and wedding dresses and did some experimenting. He also did some second shooting for a wedding photographer. And he shot three weddings for free. Once he was done, he had great samples. He began advertising and set up a Web site. He met with wedding coordinators and wedding venue managers. And, in a remarkably short period of time—about five months—he began booking weddings.

Transitioning from advertising photography to weddings was no doubt a challenge, says Mireles. “An advertising photographer’s clients are used to seeing the most beautiful photography day after day. You’re dealing with the most sophisticated client on the planet. The people that create advertising are so jaded, so cynical, so used to being surrounded by great, great work, that if you show them crap they’re gonna laugh at you.” Mireles considers his days in advertising to be a big advantage, having prepared him to excel at weddings.

We looked at an image he took at a wedding in Puerto Vallarta that he says is representative of his style. He had been shooting late in the afternoon in a courtyard where the bride and groom were dancing and kids were playing all around. The white walls of the surrounding buildings bounced beautiful light all around. He noticed a girl jumping up and down and, since he was on the opposite side of the courtyard, he quickly repositioned himself and crouched low near the girl to get the shot of her jumping with other kids moving through the scene (see page 175). It is a complex, even chaotic capture, yet the bride and groom are dancing serenely in the middle of it all. Mireles used a Canon EOS-1D Mark II with a 16–35mm lens to capture the moment.

The shot was enhanced in Photoshop. He tends to avoid running filters and messing with colors to create trendy effects that are popular with some photographers today. Rather, he prefers to use Photoshop as a digital darkroom, doing some dodging and burning and other subtle adjustments.

His lighting experience also comes into play at weddings, albeit in a lighter, faster system. He brings a Profoto Pro-7b pack with a head and an umbrella or he’ll point the head into a pop-open diffuser that his assistant holds. He thinks of it as a two-light setup, as the sun is often used as a rim light. Mireles says that as the quality of wedding photography has gone up significantly in just the last five years, it is critical for photographers to improve their lighting to distinguish themselves.

While Mireles continues to do weddings, he is once again shooting advertising. He also does kids portraiture and family portraits. He says clients really respond to his point of view and sense of humor.

Mireles runs PhotographersToolKit.com where he sells photographers’ contracts for wedding and portrait clients and for working with associate photographers. Mireles thinks that most photographers just borrow from what they find on the Internet, or write something themselves without considering the subtleties. He points out that a relationship with a bride can last several years, from the time they book him to the time they receive a wedding album. Therefore, it’s important to anticipate as many potential problems as possible. For example, if there is a legal issue and the bride has moved to another state, where will the case be adjudicated? He partnered with a lawyer who ensured the basic legal issues were covered and who took Mireles’ requirements and drafted the proper legal language.

He also does workshops for photographers. “Our focus is the business side as well as the creative side.” He says you can’t have a great business without great photography and you can’t make the great photography unless you run a great business. The two work hand in hand.

Mireles uses several Web sites to focus on the needs of each type of client: www.johnmireles.com is for his advertising clients, www.ventanaphotography.com is for his wedding clients and www.ventanakids.com is for kids portraits. As if this weren’t enough, he also has an email newsletter that he sends to photographers called “The Photographer’s Business Coach.”

Here is an inspirational note he wrote in one of the newsletter issues: “Take on personal photography projects. All of us got into photography not to make a million dollars, but because we love [it]. So often though, creating images that inspire us falls by the wayside as we grind our way through the weddings and family portraits. By creating new work that we love, we’re often taken in new directions that we can then apply to our commissioned work. Think of personal work as research and development. Without R&D, there’s no new product growth and no way to keep up with your market.”

He also has a blog at http://mirelesblog.com. He tries to update it once or twice a week and enjoys the immediacy of the feedback from readers. He says that the blog allows a more casual and conversational type of communication, whereas the Web site is a more formal medium.

As John philosophizes, “I’ve learned that my career is like a river. Where I once thought that it was a straight shot to the ocean, I’ve instead learned that it twists and turns, sometimes overruns its banks and sometimes dries up. If I let clients dictate the path of my career—that’s like hemming in a river with concrete.

“I’m not a wedding photographer or a portrait photographer or even an advertising photographer. I’m a photographer who loves to create great images. Great clients look for great work so it’s a business model that not only keeps me happy, but pays well too.” After all, the pursuit of greatness is not without its benefits.

Writer/photographer Larry Brownstein is based in Los Angeles, CA. He has authored several photography books, is represented by Getty Images, Alamy and California Stock Photo and has a growing wedding and portrait photography business. His Web site is www.larrybrownstein.com. His blog is http://larrybrownstein.bigfolioblog.com/

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