How Professional Photographer Mark Weinberg Gets On Top of the Game

All images by Mark Weinberg. Used with permission. Intro written by Cassie Boorne.

Mark Weinberg is an award-winning freelance photographer based in New York City. He specializes in commercial and advertising photography and has worked with an impressive roster of clients including Target, West Elm, One Kings Lane, Food52, Kenneth Cole, Aveda,  and Whole Foods Market. We interviewed Mark about how he built his freelance photography business in celebration of his upcoming online workshop, Building a Photography Business.

We have a special discount for Phoblographer readers at the end of this post.

Talk to us about how you got into photography.

Mark: I saved up for my first point and shoot Pentax 35mm camera when I was ten. My parents split the purchase with me; It cost $80, which at the time seemed like a very large sum of money. I don’t think I fully understood the cost of film and developing each roll – luckily my parents were kind enough to keep buying and developing the film.

We took many road trips during this time period. The one that stands out the most to me was our visit to Arches National Park. I remember something special about the images when I got them back. The color and structure of the red rock fascinated me.

I continued taking pictures but nothing more than casual photographs until I started high school. I remember the instant I knew photography was for me. I was touring a new high school one summer, and they had a large format camera workshop going at the time of the tour. As we were touring the photography facility, one of the professors walked out of the darkroom with a wet fiber print in a tray. It was an image of a flywheel at the Baron Woolen Mills in Brigham City, Utah. The image was contact printed from a 4×5 negative and had such incredible tone and depth to it that, over 17 years later, I still have a vivid memory of it. I was captivated, and I remember thinking, “I want to do that.”

What made you want to get into food, architecture, advertising, interiors, landscapes, etc?

Mark: I love cooking and eating great food. Photographing food and working with amazing chefs and stylists has been a very fulfilling experience. I considered going to school for architecture at one point, and working with architects and photographing their projects is always exciting.

In college, I interned with a studio photographer in-house at a catalog. It was a wonderful experience, and I met people that have become lifelong friends and mentors. Through those connections I met some other photographers that shot food and interiors. I began assisting them on their shoots and transitioned to being a digital tech for them. While assisting, I was marketing my own work and building my portfolio. I would shoot for bakeries and architects and always took my camera when traveling. Little by little I began shooting more projects on my own and assisting other photographers less.

Talk to us about where your inspiration comes from for your creative visions? If you had to trace back to your earliest influences on your work into what your photography is now, what would those be?

Mark: The main thing I look for is light. Whether it is a still life image, a movie, a photograph of food, or a fashion photograph, I am inspired by the light. I look at what other photographers are doing as a point of reference, but I try to look to other creative genres for inspiration.

My earliest influences creatively were some very traditional large format black and white photographers: Paul Caponigro, Tillman Crane, Michael Kenna, Chip Hooper, John Sexton. I learned so much about light, structure, tonality and composition by studying their work.

I’ve interviewed a number of photographers like you, and they typically end up telling me that most of their work isn’t done and spent behind the camera but mostly trying to work the set to become exactly what they want it to be right before they push the shutter. Do you feel you have the same experience?

Mark: This can definitely be true – it depends on the subject matter and client. A lot of my work for restaurants and bakeries is a little looser and it’s about finding good light and making interesting images on the fly. My advertising and interiors/architectural work is generally more planned out, and I am shooting for a specific layout or product packaging that has already been designed and the image needs to fit that crop exactly. Some shoot days we make 2-3 images total, spending 3-4 hours on each shot. On others, there can be 40-50 or more final images. I enjoy both methods, but I do love the structure of the planned-out shoot and having the time to perfect the lighting and the set.

Photoshop is essential and wonderful, but it should be a tool not a crutch. It should be used to elevate an image or as a worst case scenario fix, not a bandaid for bad lighting etc… It takes a long time to retouch dust –  it’s worth 30 seconds and a damp cloth to wipe something down. I believe in getting it right in the camera.

So how have you gone about marketing your creative vision? We know that you’re doing a Modern Thrive workshop soon, but what big questions do you find going through your head when you go about putting yourself out there?

Mark: I started with a small portfolio, some emails, and postcards of my work. Over the years I have grown my portfolio and made it more cohesive in style. I have two portfolios now, one exclusively for food and the other for interiors and architecture. I cold call/email and do research to connect with the decision makers at companies. Referrals and word of mouth connections are priceless and they do come, but to get that kind of work you have to get out there and meet people and do work. When you are genuine, people can sense that. It is okay when your work or style isn’t right for a certain company, you just keep looking until you find the ones that you are a good fit for.  Timing is everything. Most of the time companies don’t need to hire someone the moment you first call them. Building a relationship and staying in touch over months and years is what it takes to make the timing right sometimes.

How effective do you think Instagram is for marketing and what do you think most photographers do absolutely wrong when it comes to trying?

Mark: I don’t get much work at this point directly from Instagram as most of my clients are larger corporations, etc. That said, it is an excellent way for me to stay in touch with clients and prospective clients and for them to see what I’m up to as well. I try and post a mix of my commercial work and personal work. I think one thing people make a mistake with is having two Instagram accounts, one for work images and one for personal images. My goal is that my personal images share similarities in lighting and composition with my work images and that posting both on one account helps show more about me.

How much of your time is spent shooting vs marketing, editing, social media, blogging, etc.? Most photographers spend less time shooting actually.

Mark: On average I shoot about 75% of the time and 25% is split between editing, marketing etc. This was reversed when I first started out but has shifted to more and more time shooting over the past few years. There is a lot of back-end work that most people don’t think about such as invoicing, backups, gear maintenance, bookkeeping and accounting, hiring other freelancers to assist and do retouching, pre-production for upcoming shoots, conference calls, renting cars, booking flights, booking hotels, etc. etc.  I enjoy both the actual photography and the business side of it as well.

What do you think will be the biggest change in photography marketing this year?

Mark: For me, I am going to be printing more promotional pieces that I will send to current and potential clients. I think a beautiful print has a much better chance of being impactful than an email that can be scrolled through and archived in a matter of seconds. Nothing replaces in-person meetings. So much of a photo shoot (in my genres of photography) is working with people and teams. I plan to continue setting up as many meetings as possible to meet people in person to show my book. Taking cookies to a meeting never hurts.

Mark is hosting a three-day live online workshop for anyone interested in Building a Freelance Photography Business. You will get an inside look at how Mark built his business, and the things he wish he had known when starting out. Phoblographer readers can get access to the entire workshop for $67 if you sign up before February 3rd with discount code “phoblographer”.

See the full schedule and reserve your spot here.