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?