Q&A with Lifestyle Photographer John Schell

By Carmine Sarazen

John SchellJohn Schell is a lifestyle photographer and writer based in Los Angeles, California and Miami, Florida. Before making the jump to full time photographer, John spent fifteen years as a special education teacher in both New York and Southern California. His fun, energetic lifestyle photography is based on a lifetime love of surfing, skateboarding, music, general mischief and casual trouble-making. His work is representative of the timelessness of youth culture, often taking us back to the fun-loving, carefree summer days which always seemed to last forever.

John Schell

One of the things that makes a successful photographer is knowing when to take a big chance. I learned this recently while interviewing John Schell, a Lifestyle Photographer who recently relocated to Miami. I always find inspiration in those who know what they want, and then make it happen. John is also very experienced in working with a team, and developing relationships, both personally and professionally. I chatted with him about Phase One systems, what a “good” client is, and why natural light is such a beautiful thing.

1. Beatles or the Stones?

Well, I’m currently wearing a Rolling Stones tee-shirt as I’m typing this, so…

2. Your gear set up is very simple, and you shoot natural light, can you speak about developing your own style?

Well, it’s not something that I consciously worked on or tried to develop – at least not at first. When I began shooting, I was all about gear – the more the better, etc. The same held true with strobes – I strobed just about every shoot. Finally, there was a point when I just got tired of carrying everything around and decided to experiment with natural light. It took a while, but as soon as I figured it out, I fell in love and eventually sold off all of my extra lenses and just about all of my strobist gear. From that point, I think it was just me trying to find out what worked and what didn’t work. In regard to developing a style, well, I think that’s just a matter of keeping what works and ditching what doesn’t. Do that enough times you get into a groove, people begin to recognize it, and it becomes a style.

John Schell

3. If you could photograph one celebrity, who would it be?

Bob Dylan.

4. You just relocated to Miami, what’s the plan?

It’s true. After ten years living and working in Southern California, my girlfriend Holly and I drove cross county with our dog, Olive and now we’re all based out of Miami. The plan is to just continue to work as hard as we can. Holly has been putting up some gorgeous swimwear and beauty and I’ve been shooting a lot of lifestyle and men’s fashion. So, we’re just looking to continue to build a client base and continue to make a living doing what we both love.

John Schell

5. I love your writing style, it really speaks to a wide audience. How has it affected to work?

Thank you! This is a bit difficult to answer. Growing up, I always wanted to be a writer – I had an interest in photography, but I was always writing. Earlier this year, after years of putting it off, I started a blog as a way to connect with photographers who may have experiencing the same things I went through when I began or still might be going through now. After a few posts on my own website, I was picked up by fstoppers.com. I honestly never expected such a tremendous response and certainly never expected to be reaching such a wide audience. I’m grateful for every like, every comment, and every new fan who reaches out to let me know that what I’ve said has touched a note with them. As it relates to my shooting, I wouldn’t necessarily say that one affects the other, but both my writing and my shooting are reflective of my personality.

6. What do you do when you hit a photographic and creative wall, what gets you out of a funk?

I think it’s important to know when to put the camera down and go do another activity. When my photography hits a creative wall, I start writing. When my writing hits a wall, I pick up my camera (or shuffle through Lightroom looking for old photos to retouch). When they’re both not working, or I feel as though I’ve put enough time into them for a while, I find something else to do – go to the beach, read, go-karting, etc. I think we should be aware that putting the pressure on ourselves to maintain a constant stream of top-notch work is the quick path toward burning out, with small creative blocks being the first sign of that happening.

John Schell

7. What do you love about your new Phase One system?

The Phase One is fantastic! I don’t actually own it, but it was loaned out to me by Phase One and the guys at Capture Integration. I’ve been using it for a month or so now and it’s really quite an amazing system! In fact, I’ll be speaking at a couple of Phase One events this October 15th in Los Angeles and again in San Francisco on October 18th.

8. Can you talk about what it’s like to develop a team and how Holly has helped execute your shoots?

Teamwork is as important to a shoot as what gear your using. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve always managed to find great teams to work with and working together with Holly is no exception. Over the last year or so, she’s helped me put together and develop my style – keeping me on the path that I set out on and reminding me that distractions are just that – distractions. An experienced model herself, I’m grateful for the help she’s given me in working with models, agencies, etc. And now, she’s coming into her own as a photographer and really, the work she’s doing is incredible. So watching her develop her own style and seeing how much work she puts in behind the scenes has really been an inspiration to me.

John Schell

9. How did you get your first good client?

I’d like to think that every client is a good client. But I think that a lot of people are under the impression that good clients are the ones who pay you a lot of money or the ones who give you the most exposure and/or creative freedom. And while that may be true in some sense, in my experience, a good client is one that loves and respects your work enough to keep coming back. That said, my first good client, the one that keeps coming back, almost never happened, but I took a risk and introduced myself and several emails later, I landed a yearly recurring photo shoot with them every time they come to town. They’re certainly not my biggest client, but they’re good in that they keep coming back, they’re fun and friendly and most important, they like me. The other clients I’ve gotten I’ve managed to land through hard work and perseverance, constantly working on and honing my craft, developing a style and selling it as representative of what the particular brand is looking for.

10. You work with a lot of modeling agencies, how does it work? (specifically test shoots, how do they turn into clients, etc.)

Agency test shoots are basically free photo shoots that benefit the model, the photographer, and the agency. It’s a great way to build a portfolio, network, and make important industry connections while having the opportunity to develop a style. Turning an agency into a client isn’t the easiest thing to do, but it can happen – you just have to keep at it, put out a constant stream of current work and, when you’re shooting, keep in mind what the agency is looking for and shoot to those needs.

John Schell

Carmine SarazenAbout the writer:

Carmine Sarazen is a photographer based in South Florida. He works with small businesses, e commerce brands and wedding clients. He grew up in Pittsburgh, PA. After moving to South Florida for college and attending Full Sail University, he worked in the concert industry briefly. After realizing that making beautiful images was what he loved, he started to put a focus on it full time. Carmine is a nomad and ready to go where the next assignment takes him.

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