Jeff Rojas: On Photographing In the Studio And Not Giving Into the Trends (Premium Interview)

All images by Jeff Rojas. Used with permission.

Photographer Jeff Rojas has always been a modern photographer with a whole lot of class that isn’t seen in a lot of modern photographers. He carries himself professionally, shoots, educates, etc. Oh, and he’s a fantastic portrait photographer. Jeff has some interesting thoughts and thought processes when it comes to marketing oneself as a photographer.

So he we got a chance to speak about this and his reverence of Irving Penn.

You’ve been one of the more recent photographers that believes and tries to emphasize men as portrait subjects. And in all of your images you’ve got this sense of edgy elegance to the final product. This is pretty much a trademark of yours, something that genuinely says “This is a Jeff Rojas photo.” What makes you lean towards this style of imagery?

That’s very kind of you. Thank you. Honestly? I’m not 100% certain. I wish I could give you a concrete “this is why” answer, but I can’t. It just felt like me. Funny enough, like many other photographers these days, I didn’t go to school for photography and didn’t get a chance to study the greats.

A makeup artist I work with recommended I should see a gallery at the MET because the photographer’s work reminded her of me. I didn’t listen to a name… in fact, I just decided to go on a whim one day. That photographer turned out to be Irving Penn. Walking through his gallery made me feel oddly at home. To make things weirder, I started seeing a lot of similarities in our work. Let me also be clear to say that I’m not at that level YET by any means…but I felt an odd connection to his body of work.

What do you personally think makes for a great studio portrait?

Photography like any other art is subjective, but I believe it starts by capturing the essence of your subject in a way that engages the viewer.

When you first got started in portrait photography, what were you like back then vs now? What are some major milestones that you feel you conquered?

One of the biggest hurdles that I faced was finding my own style. I worked alongside another photographer for the better part of two years and it was difficult to develop my own identity – my own voice. Second to that was feeling like my work wasn’t good enough for “everyone else.” The truth of the matter is… the only person you should be worried about liking your images is the person paying for you to take them – not other photographers and not your friends.

What deems an image to be portfolio worthy for you personally? That is, when you’re done looking at all the images from your session and you’ve culled and edited, what determines whether or not an image makes it onto your website?

I had a little bit of an epiphany a couple of months ago where I sat down with an art director and a photo agent to critique my portfolio because I started to feel like my portfolio was a mishmash of miscellaneous shoots I’ve done over the last few years. Truth be told, it was. It felt like therapy. They both sat me down and said: “show what excites you.” If that doesn’t sound traditional, don’t worry. I didn’t get it at first either. Long story short, you ABSOLUTELY want to show the work that you want to be hired for… but you should also be excited by the work you’re creating. If you’re not showing that work, then it shows on your face when you present your book to someone. Be proud of what you create.

“Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is the one they would like to show to the world… Every so often what lies behind the facade is rare and more wonderful than the subject knows or dares to believe. – Irving Penn”

Lots of photographers have talked about portraiture and a connection with the subjects that they photograph. Do any really memorable quotes really stick out at you and you feel have come to help define who you are as a photographer?

No…Although this is going to sound WEIRD. I think as an image-maker you have to fall in love with your subject in that particular moment in time. Nothing pervy. Just in the moment, capture that person for who they really are.

For you, what makes a black and white portrait effective? Of course, you need good content. But you’ve obviously already got that. But what often makes an image better when rendered in black and white?

Lighting is one of the most overlooked parts of black and white photography. It’s not about “convert to black and white” and you’re done. Quite the opposite really. You should have a thorough understanding of contrast and lighting in order to translate dimension in black and white since you can’t rely on color to do that for you.

How do you think men and women differ in the studio when being portrait subjects? Do you think that age plays a part of their personalities?

“A beautiful print is a thing in itself, not just a halfway house on the way to the page. – Irving Penn”

I think personality plays a factor more than age. As the old saying goes “age is just a number.” Some people love being in front of the camera, for others, it’s like pulling teeth. Regardless of gender, our job is to make each feel comfortable and evoke the best expression we can out of our clients.

You’ve never really been one to go with trends it seems. Instead, you’ve always been a photographer that really has some edge and definition in his own work. What are your clients typically like? Who are they? How do you think they differ from others (let’s say Peter Hurley)?

It’s funny that you say that… because although I’m aware of trends, I do my absolute best to carve my own path. For instance, HSS outdoors is a really big thing right now, as is Oliphant Backdrops. Two years ago, it was feathers and parachute dresses. Before that, it was lens baby and optical distortion. I don’t want to be one of those photographers. Let me be clear. I LOVE Oliphant backdrops and I use High Speed Sync, but I’m less concerned with what other photographers are doing and more concerned with what my client’s needs are.

Peter and I have different clients. Peter has a great portrait photography business focusing on actor and professional headshots and I’m actually shooting a lot more commercial work these days (commercial advertising). As such, it’s been a lot less formulaic than his work. Each client’s needs are different and my workflow to accomplish the assignment can vary from simple to complex. It really keeps things interesting.

What do you feel is more important: being someone that a client wants to work with, marketing, or your portfolio? Why? I think that you can agree with me that there are some absolutely terrible photographers out there that kill it at marketing and there are photographers with great portfolios but abysmal people skills.

Here’s the short answer: Create a marketable portfolio that makes clients want to work with you.

Here’s the long answer: “There is art in commerce and commerce in art.” Absolutely quote me on that. Why? Because it’s true. There are great photographers who cannot afford to pay rent and there are crappy photographers who make six and seven figures. Listen, how many photography institutions have closed in the last 5 years? How many companies in the photography industry have closed their doors? How many people have gone out of business? How many agencies have closed their doors?

It’s the reality we live in. I don’t believe in focusing on what you can’t control – you either adapt to the market or get eaten alive. That’s business. As a photographer you’re providing a product or service, you’re in the business of photography. I don’t care how great your skills are – if you don’t learn how to market them effectively, that’s your own fault. No one else’s.

Here’s an example. Joe runs a mechanic shop in New York City. Joe has been working on gas powered V8s his entire life. One day, everyone has switched over to electric and other alternative energy powered vehicles, but Joe didn’t take the time to learn how to work on those. Joe goes out of business.

I don’t blame the industry for evolving. I blame Joe for not investing the time to learn. That’s the brutal honest truth.

Stop complaining about having to learn how to market your business and do it.

“The severe portrait that is not the greatest joy in the world to the subject may be enormously interesting to the reader. – Irving Penn”

What are some things that you feel every studio photographer should always remember when they’re on set?

Have fun. Between the marketing, sales, accounting, operations, etc., it can be easy to forget why you started in the first place. You probably didn’t start for the money, you started because you had fun doing it. Don’t lose that.