Be Your Own (Creative) Boss
Photography Grad Ken Pao on the Perks—and Challenges—of Being Your Own Boss and the Joy of Doing What You're Passionate About Every Day
Miami Ad School photography graduate Ken Pao in his natural habitat.
Pippa Seichrist: What did you do right before coming to Miami Ad School?
Ken Pao: Right before I started at Miami, I had just finished my undergrad at George Washington University where I majored in marketing with a minor in electronic media. Photography was always a passion of mine growing up and one of the few things I felt I was good at. Instead of majoring in photography, my parents convinced me to pursue a business degree which I’m thankful I did. After graduating, they gave me the choice of giving photography a shot and supported me in pursuing my dream. I would have never been where I am now without their support!
PS: How did you discover the school?
KP: I had just finished four years of school and didn’t want to spend another four studying photography and getting a degree when I realized you don’t need one to pursue a career in that field. My search requirements turned to looking into shorter programs (two years or shorter) that taught me everything I needed to know about becoming a commercial photographer while developing a portfolio that would get me work. After looking at a few schools around the country, Miami Ad School naturally became my first choice because of the location (I mean, Miami... come on!) and also because they were offering a program focused on fashion photography, which was pretty much exactly what I was looking for. Knowing that there would be tons of models and beautiful weather to shoot in sealed the deal.
Some images from Ken's time in school.
PS: What were some of your biggest takeaways from your time here?
KP: Darryl Strawser, who was the head of the photo department at the time, taught me some of the most valuable lessons I’ll remember the rest of my life. Not only did he become my mentor and close friend, he taught me things that you can’t teach in any classroom. Anyone can learn all the technical aspects you need to know to be a photographer, but he taught me how to talk to my subjects, relate to them and put them at ease which isn’t an easy feat for a lot of people to do. I was always amazed when I watched him shoot and how he talked to his subjects, made them laugh and got them to put their guard down in order to get that perfect shot that captured who they really were and not who they were trying to be. I incorporate his methods and have adapted them to my own personality and demeanor which I definitely attribute to all the success I’ve had over the years.
PS: What do you have going on now?
KP: After shooting beauty/fashion for over nine years, I decided to take a break from photography and began to work at a few different startups that were photo and travel related. I was still able to use my photography skills during this time and learned so much about the tech industry. Since becoming a photographer, I had never had a full-time job before so all this experience was invaluable and has led me to where I am today. After working in the tech startup realm the past three-and-a-half years, I’ve decided to rebrand myself and go back into freelance photography, this time focusing on workplace photography and telling the stories of the startup industry. I recently launched a new extension of my business specifically dedicated to that: www.kenpaostudio.com
PS: How would you describe your style? What do you try to accomplish when creating images?
KP: I like to describe my visual style as clean and modern, with architectural motifs thrown in. Because I started shooting travel images growing up, I also have elements of photojournalism when it comes to documenting a company’s culture or telling a story and getting shots that don’t look staged.
Ken's work for clients doctors.com and Shutterstock.
PS: What is your favorite thing about your job?
KP: I love the flexibility of being my own boss, creating my own schedule and being able to travel when I want. The hardest part about working full-time was feeling like I was chained to a desk having to stare at a computer all day. I love telling stories through my photos and taking portraits of people that make them realize their self-worth.
PS: What is the most exciting project you ever worked on?
KP: I shot an editorial and cover for Elle Mexico. They flew me down to Cancun where we stayed at a luxe hotel and shot at a fancy location in Playa Del Carmen. I loved being able to combine my love of travel and fashion all in one story. We had a really fun team and we all had a blast working and playing together. It definitely didn’t seem like work when we were all just hanging out on the beach eating fish tacos.
PS: What’s the toughest part about being a photographer?
KP: Like any freelancer, it’s hustling and having your next shoot/paycheck lined up. It’s awesome to be your own boss and work when you want, but not so awesome to have to pay for your own insurance and not have a steady paycheck. I’m lucky to have some consistent clients I have relied on over the years which is a godsend to any freelancer. Also, these days everyone with a phone is a photographer which has made it hard for some clients to justify paying professionals their fees as they could just hire “someone they know” with a DSLR.
PS: How do you see the role of a photographer evolving?
KP: Social media has played a huge part in how photographers promote themselves these days. There are many non-professional photographers that are very talented and have made a name for themselves on Instagram and not shoot for big clients. That in itself has also influenced how clients are requesting images for ads/campaigns as they all want that IG look which is less produced, more “user-generated” and authentic.
PS: What is your favorite thing to shoot?
KP: I love photographing portraits of people as I like to find out what makes my subjects tick and portray them in the most authentic way. I’ve always had a natural flair for talking to people and putting them at ease which makes for the best portraits when they feel the most relaxed. The most rewarding part of portraiture is the self-confidence my images give my subjects when they see the final images of themselves.
PS: These next three questions come from some of our photography students: How do you decide to go after a client?
KP: This can be a tricky question as every photographer or freelancer probably has their own methods. I would say networking and word-of-mouth has always been the most successful way of building a client base. When I was just starting my career in beauty/fashion, I would set up as many portfolio shoots as possible with different hair/makeup/stylists. Not only were we creating images for our portfolios together, I was also building relationships with them where they would then recommend me to their clients. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gained clients that way.
Ken's Cancun Elle Mexico Cover + Editorial Shoot
PS: What is it like on a shoot when a client is next to you?
KP: Being on set with a client can be nerve-wracking but very helpful as they ultimately have the vision of how the shoot should turn out. I’ve learned from my assisting days, watching other photographers, to always cater to the client and make sure they are happy. If they aren’t, find a way to make it work and never tell them something isn’t possible. Usually clients give the photographer free reign to do what they like since they hired you and trust your vision, but sometimes they need a push in the right direction if they are questioning a shot. It’s your job to give them a gentle push without it seeming like you’re calling the shots.
PS: What do you look for in an assistant?
KP: I actually don’t work with assistants that much unless I have a really big production where I need the extra hands. Most of the time I keep my lighting pretty simple and can manage everything myself. When I do work with assistants, I like to hire people who are easy going, fast and take direction well. If you do decide to assist, which I think every new photographer should, only assist photographers whose work you respect. If you don’t, then I can guarantee you’ll be miserable!
PS: When you aren’t working do you still take photos? What do you shoot?
KP: Yes! Travel photography was my passion long before I decided to focus on beauty, fashion and portraiture. I mainly take travel photos for fun now as a way to document my trips as this world is already over-saturated with travel photographers. When traveling, I like to take shots of landscapes, food, architecture and portraits of people I encounter. I also have a strange obsession with photographing local markets as it combines my passion for eating/cooking and seeing how locals go about their daily lives.
PS: What advice do yo have for someone considering photography as a career?
KP: To be successful in this profession you need to have technical and people skills as well as a refined aesthetic. The first two are obvious since no one wants to work with someone who doesn’t know how to light properly and who is hard to be around. The refined aesthetic comes through learning from your mistakes.
As a photographer you are also the art director and ringleader. The results of every image you produce ultimately falls on your shoulders no matter how many people are involved in the production. As a result, you have the final say in everything from choosing the location, to the props, styling, hair, makeup and casting, so having an understanding of what looks good and what doesn’t is key. Clients will ultimately hire a photographer for their vision, taste and what they can bring to the table.
Also, shoot as much as possible for your own portfolio when you first start out. Only shoot images/stories that match the type of work your dream clients are producing. I’ve met a lot of photographers that only shoot what they think would “sell” or try to copy other successful photographers styles. This just ends up hurting them since their own vision gets lost and their work looks like a diluted version of someone else's. Shoot what you are passionate about and use your own unique vision. That vision, and your ability to consistently deliver it, is why clients will seek you out.