In this edition of Work:Life, we talk with a photographer from Alta Loma, California named Deborah Tracey. Deb is a wife and a mother of three who went back to school in 2000 to study photography. She has since become a full-time photographer, specializing in portraiture, weddings and editorial work. She talks to us about missing film, loving people and how important being passionate about what you do is to success and happiness.
In 2000, you went back to school to study photography. What led you to photography, and were you looking at it then as a potential career, or merely a hobby?
My dad brought us to America in the early ‘60’s and with him he carried an 8mm movie camera. He was always filming us and I guess it was just a natural part of our life to have him recording our “moments.” He loved his cameras too. When I was a teenager, I used to help sell snacks, at my little brother’s ballgames, and my dad had taken these really great shots of my brother with a dirty face, all defeated in the dugout, and some neat action shots and I think it was at that point that I felt I would explore photography someday. I always had a camera, but when I had children, that’s when I wanted to capture everything they did. I think that’s how a lot of people start. From there, you find out if you have something more in you and a lot of family and friends would tell me I should “take it somewhere?” Where? I had no idea! I just wanted to see the kind of photos my dad took of our life. I bought my first good Minolta 35m camera and traveled to Spain, with my husband in 1998. I went crazy on that trip and came back with some good shots, but I knew I had a deep craving, after that, to learn the technical aspects of photography. I knew there was more I could have done.
There’s been a lot of discussion on whether or not studying photography in school makes a good photographer. How do you think it helped you?
Well, I don’t have my degree in photography, so I sit in the middle of this discussion. Going back to school put me in an environment that challenged me to learn. From the lessons, to the projects, you learn so much and eventually the “critique,” will humble you immensely. I think you look around and appreciate the talent and sometimes even see that you might have more in you than you thought. You can absolutely be “self-taught,” but growing up a dancer, I can’t imagine just teaching myself to dance, without some of those classes and lessons I learned. I wish I had the time to study photography for as long as I studied dance. Whether or not you are in a class, for example, just being a part of a group, like F&B, challenges you to be better and learn more and that’s what it’s all about. The most valuable lesson I learned in school is that you start with your eye. No skills. Then that eye is taken away from you, while you focus on the technique. For awhile you will be so frustrated with yourself and how you take pictures that you think you might quit. Then one day the technical skills “lock in” and your eye comes back to you and you are now thinking about “both.” It’s a great feeling.
How did you know when you were ready to “go pro”? Was there a particular photograph or event?
Within a few years of starting school, I was asked by one of my teachers, if I’d like to go on a wedding with her. I thought I was going to carry her bags and when she said I could shoot some black and white film, I thought I was going to be sick. To be honest, I had never given a thought about weddings and photography. Probably because my dad thought he might do that in the ‘80’s and what I saw was kinda goofy and I think he thought so too. Not so journalistic at that time!!! From the moment I saw the work and the emotions, I felt encouraged that I might shoot a real job someday and began to take steps towards building a portfolio. I also got a job shooting for a large company in Long Beach, leading or second shooting on weddings. I call that time “the trenches.” The longest days of my life! After a year, I wanted to “know” who my clients were. I learned a ton!
You started out as a film shooter. Now that digital has become the mainstream, what, if anything, do you miss about shooting film?
I know it sounds crazy to say how much I miss film, but I do. Film is beautiful. You pick the type you want to shoot, depending on the environment. I loved Kodak’s warm colors/tones for portraits and I loved Fuji for the cooler colors and the press film for speed, when shooting action. I would get excited to have a bunch of Ilford bw film in my bag and choosing when I would shoot it. You had to think with film, before the job and out on the job. You had to use your meter and work at it. I miss using a meter. I don’t know why it’s easier to meter in camera with digital, but I’ve had two cameras that are always a stop over! I think that digital absorbs light differently. I miss the natural contrast in film and the fact that the post processing work was really none! You already did the work before!! Since making the jump to “go digital” at the end of ‘07, it’s been a never-ending learning curve to reach my present post processing. There is always a new program to try or learn.
Has starting with film affected how or how much you post-process your images?
Yes! I have a very simple post processing routine, developed after realizing how much I missed film! Pre Adobe Lightroom it was much slower, but working on Macs with LR is as fast as you want it to be. Because of film and working to nail exposures and focus, I only do a light contrast, white balance, a light vignette if I feel like it, some black and white copies and that’s it. I will take my favorites into Photoshop and make my own vintage tones from varying mixes of actions or I might just make the color pop more or give a black and white a vintage pop. I also don’t sharpen eyes and have a theory behind it. These are the images I preview on my website. I also noticed I went from putting “prints in albums” to becoming a graphic artist, designing albums! I recently took that hat off and have outsourced all design work.
We’ve noticed that over the last several months you have really ramped up your use of social media to promote your business. Do you see more clients coming in because of your use of Facebook?
Yes. When the economy took a dive a few years ago, I saw a lot of people in this industry barely hanging on and some that were very smart with the social media, including a huge influx of newcomers. I’m not the first to promote myself, and have been slowly building a 75% referral based business, but I couldn’t rely on that solely anymore. I made a decision that if I truly loved to work, then I needed to step it up a bit and I’m glad I did.
You photograph mostly portraits and weddings, yet you started out doing nature. What made you decide to focus on photographing people as a profession, rather than nature or fine art?
Getting back to how I started, I was taking so many pictures and spending so much money on film and development, that my husband was the one that finally said to me, “why don’t you go back to school and learn how to sell something, like a landscape!” I said, “really?” and that’s what got me out the door. I thought that this would be how I would earn a few dollars here and there and pay for film. I found that I loved working with people and ended up in that area. I absolutely love to take my camera when we travel somewhere. A former wedding client of mine saw an image I took up in “Detroit Lakes,” Oregon and asked if she could buy it! I gave it to her as a gift. It meant a lot to me. I dream of travel to far off places, where I can shoot some incredible scenery, but I also think there is beauty right outside our front door – we just have to look for it.
You recently created an office space. Has this changed the way you do business or the way you are perceived?
A year ago, we took a room in our home, right by the front door and made it into a sweet little office space/showroom. It’s painted in my colors and there is work to look at everywhere. I even have a purple couch! It was originally intended to be an office and since we did this, it’s exciting to see potential clients and clients feel comfortable. We have a cup of coffee and no other disruptions. It has really helped my business immensely!
How does having a career as a photographer influence the rest of your life? Do you see things differently than you did before?
I see life more deeply than ever. I think I reached my depths when I photographed one of my closest friends, with her family. Smiling, walking, holding hands and dying of cancer. My work has made me think more about the challenges of life. I meet a lot of people and often times I know that they were put in my life to teach me something. To humble me. I often look at the images and cry. There are a lot of beautiful faces, but they are truly interesting and inspiring people. I just hope I deliver something thoughtful to them.
What is the biggest challenge in being your own boss? How do you balance your personal life with your work life?
I’m not sure I will ever balance it! As organized as I try to be, life will just come in waves, and it happens in work too. Certain jobs, can be so seasonal. I just push through it and my busy family accepts it. I live with other artists, so they don’t complain too much. When there’s a calm, I take full advantage of cooking, and hanging out. By this time my creative juices need reenergizing too.
What is one thing you have learned that you wish you would have known when you were starting out?
Probably how to see those little red flags in business. I’ve been very lucky in my 9 years, but there are those beginning years when you know something doesn’t feel right with a potential client – so you have to listen to your instincts. You have to find respect for yourself and not let people walk on you. It’s very hard when you really want to work.
Any portrait in any location…Who would it be and where would you shoot it?
Joni Mitchell, at home, in British Columbia, surrounded by her art. I’d also love to ask her what she thinks of the handful of young artists today that are challenging the industry, to be unique, like she did. She retired, disappointed over the control and dominance the record industry had over musicians, calling it a cesspool. I can’t imagine being told how to shoot on every job I did… (which is why we have to keep trying to protect our art, from being changed, too. Another can of worms!)
Finish this sentence: “If I couldn’t be a photographer…”
I would be an old ballroom dancer.
A ballroom dancer. What a fantastic answer.
We’d like to thank Deb for taking the time to participate in Work:Life and hope that you found it interesting and perhaps even inspiring.
Work:Life is all about connecting with and talking to working creative professionals. We want to hear from you, the photographers, the artists, the graphic designers who are trying to balance your creative, personal and even business lives as you pursue your passion. We want to hear about the little victories as well as the epic failures in the hope that these collective experiences will help to inspire other creatives who may be going through the same things. If you would like to be featured in Work:Life, or know someone who should be, let us know.
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