Failure That Led To Success

I got a call in January of 2015 that excited me, but that I didn’t feel prepared to answer. It was Shane Lyle, owner of Strathmore Design, which is a pretty large retail company that does flooring, cabinets, kitchens, and more, and have locations across the South. Shane is a fly fisherman and through my book Fly Fishing Georgia, had come across me on Facebook and then started seeing my real estate photos I would post pretty regularly (I was shooting a lot of real estate back then). He reached out because his company was going to be running a series of ads on the back cover of HOME, which is a really beautiful magazine produced by the folks at Atlanta Magazine, and his company had recently completed a pretty stunning kitchen that they thought would work well for one of these ads.

This is not what the client or the magazine was looking for. This image has ugly light spilling everywhere, the overall colors are bad, and for the purposes of their usage, the composition isn’t even close (this image is almost five years old, so don’t judge me!).

This is not what the client or the magazine was looking for. This image has ugly light spilling everywhere, the overall colors are bad, and for the purposes of their usage, the composition isn’t even close (this image is almost five years old, so don’t judge me!).

I arrived the day of the shoot to a really big, beautiful kitchen. I spent about two hours shooting it and felt pretty good about things. I processed the images and sent them to the art director of the magazine, Clint Smith, and to Shane. “That’s not really what we’re looking for.” I had shot the images real estate style, which was all I knew at the time. “We don’t want them shot with a wide-angle lens,” Clint explained. “I’ll be happy to go back at no extra charge if the homeowner will give me access again,” I told him. So that was set up.

I started looking through some of the images that were running in that magazine and started to realize how different they were from my real estate images. I had shot a lot of kitchens, but never for something like this. And even though it might seem like it would be the same thing, honestly the only similarities between shooting a kitchen for real estate versus shooting a kitchen for a home/design magazine, or for a flooring/kitchen retail company, is that you’re shooting a kitchen. What I mean is, the compositions, the lighting, and particularly the lenses that you use to accomplish either of these are very different. Real estate photography is almost always shot with an ultrawide lens to showcase an entire room or space. Design photography is typically done with a lens of a more standard focal length or even a telephoto lens; in other words, it’s shot much tighter so that details don’t get lost and so that certain features - the shapes of cabinets, the backsplash tile, the appliances, or the grain in the counters - are the main subjects in the image.

I formulated a new plan and arrived a second time to shoot this big, beautiful kitchen. I spent another two hours shooting it and felt better this time. I processed the images and once again sent them to the art director of the magazine and to Shane. “That’s not really what we’re looking for.” But then Clint called me. He said, “I think you can learn this style of photography. I want you to pick up a copy of the magazine and look through the images again and tell me what you notice.”

I spent about two hours that night essentially staring at different images and asking myself questions about them. What lens was used to shoot this one? At what height was the camera for this shot? What are the light sources for this image? And that’s when it hit me. In every shot, not a single light bulb was turned on. One of the problems that my images had was that certain light bulbs would spill an ugly orange light onto the cabinets, while some other light bulbs would cast a nasty fluorescent onto the wall paint. That sort of thing is fine in real estate photography, but in design photography, the true colors of the paint, the tile, the flooring, the counters, and the art and decor must be true.

I wish I could tell you that all there is to design photography is turning off the lights and shooting with a slow enough shutter speed to let the natural light do the work. But, it isn’t that simple. In fact, there are nearly endless possible lighting schemes to achieve different looks and moods where supplemental light has to be added to the natural light. But that would be one boring, technical blog post, and that’s not the point of this one.

For whatever reason, Shane, Clint, and the homeowners were overly gracious and granted me a third try. I couldn’t believe it. They shouldn’t have done that. They should have hired someone at that point who was tried and true and knew what they were doing. But they gave me another shot.

For the third and final attempt, I called in the big gun, my wife, Stephanie, to help with staging and also to give me feedback on compositions. If you’re remember from my last post, I’m not an artist. She is, though, and at that point I hadn’t taken the time to study art and composition (I continually do that now), so I really needed her there. She was a huge help, and as soon as we wrapped the shoot, I fired off a few JPEGs to the art director. He called me right then and said, “Congrats! You figured it out!”

In the years since, they’ve called on me to shoot for more of their ads, which I’m grateful for, but I’m ultimately grateful for the lessons they allowed me to learn during that process.

On my third and final shoot attempt, after repeated failure from me and much grace from the clients and homeowners, this image was produced and all were happy. And I was relieved.

On my third and final shoot attempt, after repeated failure from me and much grace from the clients and homeowners, this image was produced and all were happy. And I was relieved.

The moral of this story is two-fold: (1) Keep learning, even when you fail miserably, and (2) Notice and appreciate grace that’s given to you and offer it freely to other people when they mess up.

Side note: When I was leaving the third shoot, there was a package that UPS had just dropped off on the homeowner’s doorstep. I knew the owners by their first names and also knew that the husband was a doctor. I picked up the package to take it inside for them and noticed their last name, which is very unique. I’ll call it “Smith” for the purposes of this post. “Is your husband the Dr. Smith?” I asked the wife. She smiled and said, “Do you know him?” “Well, about twenty-five years ago,” I said, “my really healthy dad started having some serious health issues, and your husband did open-heart surgery on him and gave him a titanium aortic valve. Your husband is one of the reasons why my dad is still with us.” So there I was, for the third time inside the home of the surgeon who helped give my dad quite a few more years onto his life. What are the chances?

Falling Into Commercial Photography

Architectural photography is typically accomplished with longer lenses, different lighting schemes, and more complex editing than real estate photography.

Architectural photography is typically accomplished with longer lenses, different lighting schemes, and more complex editing than real estate photography.

I can remember when Stephanie and I were shooting family portraits and weddings years ago and I had started regularly reading some photography blogs and websites and would come across posts about commercial photography, the prep, the pressure, conceptualizing images instead of just shooting what was going on at a wedding, for example, or posing some photo subjects. It gave me a little anxiety to even read about the commercial genre. I’m not an overly-competitive person and don’t have some deep inner need to prove myself to people - I’m not lazy or apathetic, I’m just comfortable in my own skin, I guess. I had no ambition to enter into this genre in any way. And here’s a big admission: I’m typically not very creative on-the-spot when it comes to conceptualizing an image for an ad or for a customer’s home page (I’m pretty creative when there’s planning beforehand, though - More on that in a few paragraphs).

Back in 2014 I was on staff full-time at our church and so was Stephanie. We shared an office for five years and those were some good times. She was my boss, and she was a good one, too, and watching her work and deal with people was like getting a master’s degree for me. Again, she graduated number one in her class of several-thousand people from UGA and in 2018 was named one of America’s 100 Most Creative People by Country Living Magazine. So I’m not just looking for brownie points by saying she taught me a lot. She really is exceptional. Anyhow, we had Shiloh in 2012 and Steph continued working full-time, often bringing Shiloh to work with us. So the three of us shared an office for about two years. Man, what a great time. In 2014 we had Afton and at that point Stephanie came to me and said that she wanted to be home full-time or as close to full-time as possible so that she could focus her huge brain and heart on these two little ladies. Again, I was on staff at a church, and not one of those churches where the pastor zips around in a Leer Jet and the staffers are making six figures. I was grateful for my salary, but it wasn’t quite enough to pay all our bills by itself.

An image I shot of our home five years ago, which technically is pretty bad as I look at it now (the image, not the house), but lead to an interest in architectural photography.

An image I shot of our home five years ago, which technically is pretty bad as I look at it now (the image, not the house), but lead to an interest in architectural photography.

The January prior to that we actually got a good snow and I wandered up and down our street at about 1:00 a.m. shooting photos of the homes on our street and sending the images to my neighbors. We live in a little downtown area and the homes on our street are of varying architecture, but it’s really a beautiful street, so I was proud of the images and happy to give them to my neighbors as gifts. One of my neighbors, who was a real estate broker, called me and asked if I would have time to start shooting his listings after work for a little money. We had one kid, were pregnant with our second, I was working on a master’s seminary degree, and Stephanie and I were both working full-time. But I said yes anyhow.

I didn’t know much about real estate photography, so I started searching for articles and tutorials on real estate photography and architectural photography, watching any videos I could find, watching them again, and then reading and re-reading any articles I came across. Like most any niche in photography, there is way more to it than one would think at surface-level. Unfortunately for a beginner, it isn’t just a matter of buying a nice camera and a few nice lenses and leaning on them. For any professional photographer, knowledge is the greatest asset that can be added to the arsenal.

I started looking at architectural images that caught my eye and asking myself why I liked them. What made it good? How was it composed? From what height was the image shot? How was it lit? How was it processed? What lens was used?

I look back particularly on the images I produced from that first year in that genre and cringe. They are TERRIBLE. I’m not being humble. I can’t even post one of these because I’m afraid it would show up in a Google Image search linked here to my website, people would see it, I’d go out of business, and my girls and I would be out on the street. It’s really that bad. But, I’m thankful for those awful photos. They remind me of a time when I was in the steepest part of a learning curve that in photography might flatten out a little, but never gets East-Texas-flat. Those bad images led me to better images that my clients today can be proud to share to show off what they do and who they are.

This and several other images that I produced for a great client, The Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation (, ran as full-paid ads in multiple issues of Outside Magazine in 2018.

This and several other images that I produced for a great client, The Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation (, ran as full-paid ads in multiple issues of Outside Magazine in 2018.

What I’ve learned since those first real estate shoots is that, like almost anything else, when you go from simpler, lower-paying, less-specialized work and start climbing those ladders, the pressure does go up a bit (a lot for some shoots!), but you adapt and learn and get the knowledge you need to succeed. Since I now work almost exclusively with business owners or marketing/brand managers, my big fear of not always being conceptually creative has been met by these professionals working with me to shape the concepts and direction of the images. I’ve learned that a few focused discussions and a solid shot list that’s been created through collaboration can lead to great results, even when my natural creativity stalls. And I’ll tell you this… I’m a great copycat. I really am. That’s part of how I sell my work to new clients. If they can show me some example images, we can go through what they like about them and I can tailor how I shoot and edit to fit the desired style for them.

I still shoot for a couple of realtors right here in my downtown area, but aside from them I’m out of the real estate photography game. Now my business is about 60% architectural photography (for clients like architects, designers, custom builders, and some big clients like STAINMASTER Flooring) and about 40% lifestyle clients like Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops,, Winston Fly Rods, Peach State Pride and their family of state-branded companies, Vexus Boats, etc. And mixed in there has been some really fun editorial work for publications like Southern Living, Gray’s Sporting Journal, The Flyfish Journal, Atlanta Magazine, etc. And now, this is all I do. I love it. I have great clients really without exception, with whom I love to work and speak and meet with and conceptualize. As a not-artistic person, I would have never thought I’d be doing something like this to support my family and fill my days. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

UP NEXT: The failure that lead to success.

My Journey to Photography, Part I

Like many professional photographers out there, my journey to photography as a full-time living was an unintentional one. I had always loved photographs that I had seen while pouring over magazines covering sports, cars, woodworking, and fishing, and I had always had a curiosity as to how such images, which were so much better than what one would find in a family photo album or hanging in frames in the average person's home, could be so drastically better than what anyone I knew could produce. And while I often carried a cheap, disposable film camera with me on adventures, my curiosity hit a ceiling when I couldn't figure out why those disposables, which I now know were fixed aperture lenses at f/8 (a pretty boring aperture for many applications, but always a safe bet), couldn't produce a blurred background or dramatic depth or light.

In 2008, at the age of 26, I was contracted to write my first book. I had worked in the publishing world for a few years and while working for a couple of magazine groups I had sold ads, handled layout and design, and written quite a bit of features, briefs, and a couple of regular monthly columns, which was just enough to convince my experienced publisher to take a risk and contract a guy in his 20s to tackle this project. The book layout was a big 8.5"x11" cut, 160 pages long, and had well over 200 photo holes to fill... And I couldn't really shoot a photo to save my life. One of my co-workers and friends at the Morris Sporting Group - a great family of magazines based in Augusta, GA, that publishes the legendary Gray's Sporting Journal, American Angler, and Fly Tyer Magazine - Chad McClure also happened to be a great photographer and was quickly convinced to partner with me for this project that would cover some three-dozen of Georgia's best fly-fishing waters. I would write the book, he would photograph it. But, since I had learned that editors were more likely to purchase freelance submissions that were a package of both the copy and the photographs, I asked Chad if he would also teach me photography while we produced the book. He agreed. And he was such a great teacher. He explained everything simply, and to see his results during those explanations made learning a breeze.

In the fall of 2009, the book was released. In the years since then, Fly Fishing Georgia: A No Nonsense Guide to Top Waters has won Best Outdoor Book (Georgia Outdoor Writers Association, 2010) and is still on shelves around the South in places like Bass Pro Shops, the many great fly shops in and around Georgia, in Barnes & Noble stores, and many more local bookstores.

I was so excited for the book to come out and the process of writing it was a work of passion for me, for sure. But by the end of that project, I had a new, stronger passion. Photography had become an obsession. I'm not at all ashamed to say that at the age of 26, my parents bought me my first DSLR. It was a Nikon D80 with the 28-80 kit lens. It was cheap, it was slow, it was bad in low-light, it didn't handle skin tones well... But it was awesome! I had been married for a couple of years, had a mortgage, a couple of jobs, etc., but my dad had nearly killed himself to close the biggest deal of his career and when he did, he came to Stephanie and me and said he wanted us to both pick out something we had wanted to get. And I love that it happened that way. His hard work, which had nothing to do with anything I had done, granted me the tools I needed to begin to learn and grow as a photographer. That's grace. And that's something I'm now hoping to be able to do for my daughters as they get older. I'm very thankful for that.

Just a few months after receiving that gift, I sold my first cover image. It was to CATCH Magazine, a beautiful photographic publication of fly fishing content. I remember Brian O'Keefe, a partner in that publication at the time, seeing that image and telling me he wanted to use it as the cover of their second edition. I couldn't believe it. Brian was and is an awesome photographer, and I couldn't believe he thought that much of something I had taken. Val Atkinson, one of the all-time-great outdoor photographers, had a photo essay on the inside... And I had the cover?? How did that happen?

david-cannon-photography-sporting-fly-fishing-catch-magazine-november-2008-brian-okeefe-todd-moen (1 of 1).jpg

My first cover

CATCH Magazine, 2008

Apart from that image and just a small handful of others, I look back on my work from those days and I cringe. I made so many mistakes, and my post-processing was what you typically see from someone who is just learning how to edit an image. How can I describe this style kindly? Subtlety was not a consideration. Like most new editors, I applied a dizzying amount of contrast and saturation, I experimented with spot-color (cringe), and I even had my own painterly HDR phase (double-cringe). Fortunately, I still look back on images from even 12-18 months ago and cringe a little bit, and honestly, I hope that's always the case. I love learning new ways to shoot, light, and edit, and if that desire ever wanes, I'm probably at the end of this love.

I'll continue this story in part two soon, when Stephanie and I were traveling wedding- and portrait photographers on the weekends while still both working full-time jobs. Thanks for visiting, and please feel free to reach out!