Josh Ross is a commercial portrait and still life photographer based in Portland.

Show Notes

Recorded Monday, June 3rd, 2013, and this is episode number 16. Follow Ray, Kandace, Dan, or Needmore on Twitter. Please rate our show on iTunes!

The Interview

Ray:
Hi, Josh.
Josh:
Hi, how are you?
I’m great. How are you?
Excellent. It’s a beautiful day.
Yes. It’s perfect. Let’s start at the beginning. Where are you from?
I’m actually from Idaho. I’m from a tiny town in Idaho near McCall, which is a resort town that some people know. It’s a tiny little town, just 650 people. I lived briefly in Moscow in Pullman, and I went to high school in Los Angeles. I went to college in LA. I’ve been out there until last fall.
You’re recently of Portland?
I’m very recently of Portland.
Do you still do work in LA?
I do. My client base-my business-was built in LA. Most of my contacts and most of the people I know are in LA. Obviously, I’d love to transition as much as I can to Portland, but I still do work in LA.
Do you fly down there?
I do.
I guess that it would be easier to take pictures if you were actually there.
Sometimes people-I’ve been doing a lot of still-life and product work over the last year, and a lot of times they will just ship it to me, which is nice.
That’s nice.
It is nice.
Why did you leave LA then?
I am very clear on this and it’s very simple: traffic, the weather, and-well, I guess that’s it, really. Traffic and weather are the two big reasons that I left.
The traffic is horrible. It is terrible. I can’t even explain to you how bad it is. It is 24/7. At 12:00 at night on a Saturday you’re in stop-and-go traffic if you drive anywhere near downtown. For me, all the agency meetings that I typically take- which is a good portion of my work load is just meeting with people-you really have to give an hour and a half to two hours to get somewhere that is 20 minutes away. It might take you 30 minutes or it might take you an hour and a half. You just don’t know, so you’ve got to block that time. I was so tired of it.
The weather-everyone thinks the weather is so fantastic in downtown LA. If you live in Santa Monica or Venice on the beach, then it’s fantastic. The rest of LA is a desert and it sucks. This is a perfect-today in Portland is a perfect example of what people think LA is like, and what it is never like.
That’s how I felt about visiting Las Vegas. It’s Las Vegas. You
should come visit. It’s a 110 degrees.
It’s brutal heat most of the time. It’s no good.
Understandable. Are you liking Portland so far?
I love it. I can’t say enough good things about it. I really love it. It was basically everything that I had hoped it would be. There’s no traffic. The one thing I did not count on is how nice people are. I would never describe people in LA as not being nice. People in Portland are ridiculously nice.
That’s good.
We owned a house in LA. We lived there for five years. We talked to our neighbors a handful of times maybe. We’ve been here since the fall-six months-and I chat with our neighbors almost every day.
That’s nice to hear.
When we moved in, people drove by and slowed down and said, “Oh, hey, welcome to the neighborhood.” It just blows me away how nice people are.
That’s great. Did they know you were from California? When I first moved here, there was a big, “quit coming here from California.”I don’t sense that anymore.
I don’t sense that.
Maybe it was just a fad.
Kind of like when I travel I almost want to say I’m Canadian. When people ask me where I’m from, I often want to trend towards saying I’m from Idaho, which is true. I haven’t noticed any- nobody seems to care.
That’s good. I noticed that you used to do graphic design.
Yes.
Why did you leave your first love?
I went to school for design, and I did that for about ten years. I did love it. The thing I loved about it was always that I was always problem-solving. The thing I found to be a challenge-I imagine would be something that you run in to, because I especially found it in web work-is that everything is so drawn out and slow. You’re brought in to solve a problem, and by the time-and especially with web work, I found-by the time you’re out the door and it’s completed, it could have been such a long process. I just found it to be challenging after a while. With photography, since you’re always freelance and brought in on a project, the problem-solving is always very short. They have a problem. You come in, you provide a solution in a few days, a week maybe, and then you’re on to the next thing.
Can I say something? I hate my job. I can’t stand it here. I think everyone has headphones on right now. Just kidding. Do you want more water or beer or something?
Sure, I’d love a beer.
It’s nice enough to have a beer. Can we pause this?
I’m curious to hear your thoughts on that.
That’s an excellent point. That is a challenge because it can routinely be six months from the inception of a program until the launch. That’s absolutely true. I absolutely feel that way. Just going through a round of mock-ups takes as long as your whole project cycle.
I love to come in, have a very specific need, solve it, and then move on. The thing that’s great about design is seeing the finished product. You have this wow moment. You look at it and you say, “God, this looks great.” You get that great high. It’s a challenge when it only comes every six months.
To be fair, the projects overlap. I do get that high once in a while, but still, totally understandable. How long have you been doing photography?
I officially went on my own as a photographer in 2009, for four years now I guess. I was working as the art director in-house at a place, and I had the opportunity to leave, and I did.
Are you doing print design work or web?
I was doing everything. I was the only art director. I was the entire department. It was primarily print although it was everything. It was web also. I didn’t study web is school. I never fully made a transition to it. I was rooted in print. The world is as it is; I did as much web as I had the opportunity to do.
Did you have training in photography, or did it just take over?
I didn’t have any training in photography specifically. The actual mechanics of using the camera-I just learned that. It’s all out there if you want to spend the time. I’m really happy that I went to school for art. I think it’s very important. A lot of photographers say that you don’t need to or whatever, but I think it’s really important.If nothing else just to learn-one of the things I love about having art education is gaining an understanding of how to evaluate work. To be able to work and say, “That’s good and this is not,” and-if you can understand that your work is not good, then you will eventually become good. If you don’t even have the understanding to know that your work is not good, you’ll never go anywhere.
That’s a valid point. You’ve always shot digital? Is that fair to
say?
I have always shot digital. I shoot film fairly often. It tends to go up and down, but I shoot film fairly often. My favorite camera is the Rolleiflex that I have. I also have a Pentax K-1000 that was sort of-I didn’t know it at the time, but my dad and I had always used it when I was five.
The Pentax, is that a 35mm?
Yes. It’s a 35mm film camera that was very ubiquitous camera that’s totally manual and very simple and it’s really light. Everybody had it. Even up to a few years ago it was the student camera because they’re very cheap and basic. I have that camera, and I love it. I also have a collection of various other cameras. I shoot that from time to time. I’ve never shot it on client work. I tend to be sort of a person that likes to double check. Film is a bit nerve-wracking.I have shot film concurrently. I’ll shoot on digital and know that I have it, and then pull out a film camera and also shoot something. If I get it, then it’s great. I’ve shot some personal work that I, up until recently had in my sight, that was film work.
When you’re shooting digital, it depends on the type of work, but are you checking your work as you go on a display, or are you just looking in the camera to see how it’s going as you do that?
My ideal work flow is to be shooting tethered. I prefer to do that all the time. I just prefer to do that. My favorite way to work is with a great art director. We’re both there and we’re shooting tethered. We shoot stuff, and we both bounce ideas, we look at it, and then we both make adjustments. That way, at the end of the day, we know that it’s there and done. Everything has been signed off on and everyone’s happy and we know that we’ve got it.Sometimes I shoot working with the back of the camera. I don’t have the latest, greatest cameras. On the new ones, the displays are pretty nice. Mine is-I can kind of check it, especially once you know it. I can, I have sense of what’s happening, but it’s not where I can really check things on it.
Being a person who likes to check things-the back of the camera is woefully inadequate for most of that stuff.
Yeah. There were so many times when I was shooting where I would think, “Yeah, this is great, I got it.” When you bring it up on the computer and you look at it, it’s totally out of focus.
Totally out of focus.
You just can’t tell.
Otherwise you’re just zooming. Okay, that one is screwed up. Zoom, zoom. It seems like you do different types of work. Do you prefer portrait, or landscape, or what?
These days I do commercial portrait work and still-life work, or product work. I call it still-life; some call it product.
Still-life sounds better.
Yeah, I like it. When I started, I did all portrait work. In my background-especially as a designer-I did a lot of retouching. I worked as a retoucher in various times of my life. I did a bunch of work for GMC and Nissan, I think, doing retouching.The first good agency job that I had was from a company that did the dealer brochures for GMC and Kia, but I worked on GMC We would move in to the photographer’s studio for about three months at a time. I would retouch everything coming off of the camera. I worked with the art director. At the end of each shot we would have something that, from my point of view, could have went to print. The client would sign off on it and we would make changes if they were needed, and we would go back and forth on that. They would take my work and the larger files off of the camera, and the retouching house would duplicate it.So I had all of this background in the product work. When you work with people, you’re not the only creative one there. Everything is not up to you. You have this dynamic of-if you work with a great model, they bring something to the table, and you get this great back and forth. You never quite know what you’re going to get.When I was new, I thought it was great because it’s not all you. You get some feedback and some back and forth, and it’s great. As I’ve progressed more, I think I enjoy controlling it more. The product work is just me and the studio. It’s very technical. It’s very retouching heavy. I have come to enjoy that a lot. You sort of make things look perfect.

Talking about portraits a little more for a minute-I really do enjoy like your portrait work. I was really enjoying that website. What, to you, makes a good portrait. What kind of a relation with the subject is it that you’re looking for? What makes a great picture?
This is another thing about my portraits, I tend to work with the model as if they are a product. It can be good or bad; it just is. I typically will think out a portrait in a very methodical way. I’m like okay, this is what I’m going to get. I’m not typically someone, because there are some photographers-I’ve seen guys that just go out on the city with a model and they just walk around. At the end of the day they have 300 shots and 50 of them are great. I just don’t work like that. I think it through and I have this idea of what I want to get. I find the right model or I find somebody, and we work to get that shot. I’m very happy to get the shot and say, “we’ve got it. We’re done.” With commercial work, depending on what you’re doing, you may provide more than that.So I very much work with the model. I like to tell them ahead of time what we’re going for to show them-this is what we’re going for. This is what we’re trying to get. We’ll shoot some and then look at it on the computer and make adjustments and shoot some more. We try to get that iconic shot. That shot. I think that answers the question.
Do you have a setup in your house? Where do you usually shoot those
portraits?
I don’t have a studio in Portland these days. I do have a space at my
house that is a studio. I don’t really bring anyone there. If I
was screwing around on some personal project I could bring
people there. It’s big enough. I just don’t. For any sort of
commercial work I rent studios. I’ve found some great studios
that I’ve rented before. I do a lot of work on location as well.Often times, I come to people’s offices or even houses. I was
working on this one series for Yogi Times about the influencers
in the LA Yoga scene. They’re famous people, but they’re not
like Madonna. If you’re in the yoga scene you know them. That
was all shot in-all kind of crazy things. I would shoot in
people’s hallways and other ridiculous stuff. In whatever space,
I can make things work.
What’s the biggest challenge when you’re shooting people in portrait?
I typically have not worked with models in my career. Models are
great to work with, but for the work I do, I usually don’t end
up working with models. The biggest challenge is to get people
to forget what they think they know about a picture. People have
this idea that you’re supposed to smile and you’re supposed to
look. They think they know something. You try to get them to
relax, and-we’re just going to have a conversation. You don’t
have to smile. All we’re going to do is shoot a picture.
Are there contemporary photographers that you like or that you are
inspired by?
There are a ton of photographers. Although I had an art education. I
did a bunch of art history. I really don’t look at classical
stuff. I look at a ton of other photographer’s websites. I’ve
heard-and I’ve seen this in the case-that some photographers
look at other work and some photographers don’t. I’m definitely
someone who looks at other people’s work. I look at other
people’s work constantly. Anytime I see someone’s website that I
really like-I have Dido, what’s the company. It used to be owned
by Yahoo! They’re a social bookmarking think.
Delicious or something?
Yeah, I used to have a Delicious account. Then when they got sold, I
left them. But think of that. I have an online bookmarking. I
have a few hundred websites that are of photographers that I
really like. They’re categorized and I look at them constantly.I typically don’t name names when I’m asked about who I really
like. There’s a few reasons. Right now, it’s because I don’t
know them off of the top of my head. The real reason is because
they tend to be people that are either at the same place in
their career as me, or slightly ahead. It’s not as if there’s
some great far away person. They’re very close. I would tell
them, but I don’t necessarily like to broadcast that.
I think I know what you mean. I imagine there are web designers who
try to avoid looking at websites that their contemporaries are
making because they want their work to be more pure. Like you, I
have a pile of bookmarks and I love looking at other people’s
stuff because it gives you ideas. It helps you keep your
standards high.
Yes, that’s another thing. It goes back to what I was saying about
understanding how to look at work. You have to practice. I look
at tons and tons of photography so that I can-it’s like studying
for school. I follow the trends, and I see where things are
going. If I’m thinking about doing a shot, I like to look at
how other people have shot it and see what worked and what
didn’t and just assess it. I figure it’s all been done anyway.
It’s all been done, yes. That’s true. I probably don’t have that
problem in web design.
That it’s all been done? I guess it’s always progressing.
I’m sure there are innovations in photography. In web design, if you
were to look the industry for six months and come back, you’d
say “Whoa. I didn’t know you could do that stuff1 Wow, that’s
crazy!”
I’ve been doing a lot of splash work lately with liquids and things.
It’s been an interesting space to be in. For the first time in
my career, there’s very few people doing it. It’s actually
rather hard to find-with portraits, there’s a hundred sites that
you can look at and think through every aspect of a shot. With
the splash work, there’s actually very few people doing it. You
can get some ideas and you can look at some stuff, but there’s
not a lot out there. I can understand with the web design thing.
It’s a fairly new thing that I’ve come up against. There’s
nobody else to look at here. It’s good and it’s exciting. It’s
different.
Talking about change in that industry. There’s new conceptual cameras
coming out that are focus-less. Have you read up on those at
all?
I know about them, the Lytro. I tend to be a curmudgeon about camera
stuff. What I would like a camera to do is-I need aperture, I
need shutter speed, and I need the button the click. I don’t
need a lot. I’m happy with things like the Iso getting better.
I’m not someone that’s crazy into the latest and greatest
gadgets on a camera because I don’t really use them. I never
take my camera off of the manual. It’s not because I’m trying to
be like…
You’re like the fixed-gear bicyclist.
Yes. I just don’t need it. If there was some great thing that made it
be great, then fine. Photoshop is a perfect example. Every new
Photoshop that comes out, they say, “There’s this great new
thing.” You don’t use it.
That’s true.
You use it three times because it’s cool. Every few generations
there’s one knew thing that you might incorporate in to your
work flow. For the most part, it’s the same since version 3 or
2.
That’s very true. Are you on Instagram?
No.
Have you thought about it?
Sure. I’m not against it. I don’t have a real problem with Instagram.
The thing about Instagram-I’m heavy in to social networking. I
do tons of Twitter and Facebook and a lot of LinkedIn for
business stuff. I just don’t see the place for Instagram. I have
built a community through Twitter and Facebook. When I want to
show a picture, that’s where I show it. I don’t see the need to
build another community.I wish that Google+ was awesome and that Facebook died, but it
is what it is. Instagram is something where I say, “I hope they
succeed.” I’m happy to show my work on Facebook or even
Twitter. I actually use Flickr a lot. It’s a different audience.
It’s a photographer audience.The other thing about Instagram-which I mentioned when somebody
else asked me about it-I love having a phone and camera, and
using that but it’s very separate from that. It’s like a split
personality. Business stuff is on a camera. Anytime I put
something out through those channels from that camera, it better
be top-notch because art directors are judging it. If I put
something out there and it’s sub-par, they think, “If I hire
him, maybe I’ll get that sub-par picture.”When I want to shoot something that’s just a snapshot, then I
use the camera on my cellphone. I really don’t care if it looks
good. I have no interest in it being a great thing. I just don’t
see the place for Instagram.

Understandable. I’m curious-and this is totally off the topic-why are
you hoping that Google+ takes off? I’m just purely curious.
Because it’s wonderful. Have you used it?
What do you like about it? I’m just curious.
Things work. Facebook is just-I find it frustratingly to be the
lowest common denominator. They are the kind of developers that
I wouldn’t want to work with. If was working with them, I would
fire them. They leave stuff that doesn’t quite work and they
don’t think things through. They come out with a new version
when they haven’t fixed the old stuff. They never quite think it
through.
Google+ is a little more elegant.
Yes. They’re engineers. They innovate and they see a problem and they
fix it. They don’t just come out with some new thing that-
Facebook just frustrates me. They have a great audience. It’s
not that I have a problem with the audience.
A billion people can’t be wrong.
Exactly. I just wish that they would-a perfect example of my problem
with Facebook is the Facebook Android application. It’s as if
three people use it, and there’s nobody on Android. The thing
crashes constantly. It never works right. I find it very
frustrating.
You can install Facebook Home and it will take over your whole phone.
If you are Facebook and you are releasing something that gets one
star on Google Play, you have a problem. It’s not as if they
don’t have resources.
Definitely. What do you do the rest of the time, when you’re not
taking pictures? What are your hobbies?
I have a son. He’s thirteen months old, and that takes a lot of my
time these days. I also run and do some cycling when I have some
time. I used to rock climb and do speed skating on roller
blades, which is kind of weird. I always roller bladed, so when
I got older I tried that. I do a lot of athletic, outdoor stuff.These days, since I’ve moved to Portland, my new hobby is
brewing hard cider. I’ve been loving it. It’s very Portland,
too. Mostly, these days, my son takes my time. I play some video
games. I play a ton of StarCraft, I have to admit. Once mom and
baby go to sleep and it’s 10:00 at night and I’m done working,
I’ll play some StarCraft.
When you take pictures of your son, do you tend to not want to use
the camera and just use your phone?
I have two ways of doing it, and this goes back to my earlier
discussion of the dichotomy of-I use my cellphone and take
snapshots and they’re great. That camera is always with me and I
never hesitate to take a picture with it. I have no problem with
that. It doesn’t have to be great. The point is to show
something. I also shoot stuff of professional quality with him.
I try to do it as often as I can.
How do you get him to hold still long enough for that?
You don’t. You have to design it around him. The last studio shot I
did of him-it was about four months ago-when he was just
starting to stand on his own, I had his mom hold him, but you
only see her arm. Her arm and he’s holding onto it. You can see
her arm and he’s holding on to it. You don’t get a lot of shots.
You’re not going to shoot tethered and make sure it’s perfect.
You’ve got to test everything. You sit him down and you get ten
shots. If you don’t have it, then you’re done.I have also shot kids before, in general. It’s a lot of work.
You just play and pay attention. You set everything up in such a
way that it’s really forgiving. You just sort of play and wait
for the moment to snap a shot.
When you’re doing work-say the product work with someone who’s in LA
and you need to do some stills for them, some product shots,
some splashes-are you sending samples to them by email? How do
you collaborate with someone who’s that far away? What sort of
tools do you use?
I primarily use email. If I can, I try to get them to set aside some
time where they’re available to chat. It doesn’t always happen
that way. That’s a fantastic way of doing it.
Like a Skype kind of chat?
I don’t Skype because-I would if someone wanted to. Typically, I like
to let them work while I work through something. I just want
them sitting at the computer so I can say, “Hey, what about
this,” and send them a quick picture and ask them if I’m going
in the right direction, that kind of thingTypically, though, we end up talking about it ahead of time. We
have a basic understanding of how things are going to go. I
shoot stuff and I show it to them. It’s either going on the
right track or it’s not. Eventually we get to the point where
it’s going the right way. I show them stuff early and often is
what I try to do. I go, “Here’s the shot shown directly out of
the camera. Just look at the lighting in this section. Is this
starting to look right? Is this what you’re looking for?”If they say yes, then I move on and get the next piece. When
it’s all done, I put it through post-production if we’re ready.
If they say it looks great, then I do the production on it and
send it off to them.
Do you use Lightroom?
I can work without Lightroom, but it would be crazy at this point. I
love Lightroom. I cannot say enough good things about it.
Have you played with the version 4 Beta yet?
I think it’s 5, but no, I have not.
I’m sure it has some great features that you’re going to love.
It’s so funny. I looked at it and said, “Those are things I don’t
need.” One thing that’s nice about Lightroom is that it’s not
expensive. I might upgrade the Lightroom.
It’s 99 bucks, right?
I don’t remember if it’s 99 or 199. They run specials and sometimes
it’s 99. Nowadays you could be on the Creative Cloud. I’m not.
That would not be feasible just for that application. That’s 50
dollars a month. They throw it in for free for us. I still use
Aperture because I can open my iPhoto library and I have years
and years of iPhoto.
I work on a Mac, but I don’t use iPhoto. In fact, I don’t even have
the i-apps installed. I uninstalled them at some point. The
think about it I never really understood the Apple philosophy
behind Aperture and iPhoto, whereas my whole career I’ve worked
with Adobe. When you work in Lightroom, it’s the Adobe
philosophy. I understand that because I’ve always worked with
Photoshop.
The reason I like Lightroom is because it doesn’t feel like a damn
Adobe product. It feels like its own thing. It’s like switching
from Facebook to Google+ for me. Things like Photoshop and
Illustrator feel like they have the weight of 25 years, a
quarter century, of baggage. Lightroom feels like they just took
their best and brightest, locked them in a room, and said, “Do
something crazy.” The interface is completely out of the blue.
It is its own thing. I do like it a lot.
That is true. I would agree with that. It’s really just Camera Raw,
wrapped in its own wrapper with a library. It’s Bridge mixed
with Camera Raw.
Do you use a retina laptop or Mac?
No. I’d love to, if at any time you’d like to ship me one.
I was curious because-for us, doing the web design stuff, Bridge is
really handy, but there is relatively little cause to use
Lightroom.
I could imagine.
Bridge-it feels like a very neglected product. I totally sympathize
with Adobe. They’ve got to prioritize. They’ve got so many
applications out there that-certain ones are money makers, and
Lightroom is one of those.
You can’t even buy Bridge separately, right?
The changes for CS 6 was, “We fixed three bugs,” but the application
hasn’t changed in 10 years.
I completely agree. I used to use Bridge for when clients give you a
disk full of assets. It’s nice to be able to flip through.
It’s a good way to look at the thumbnails. If the photography doesn’t
pan out, what’s your fallback?
There’s no fallback.
I’m joking. I like the answer, though.
You’ve got to go all in.
This is kind of a cliché question, but if someone else is looking at
your work and thinking, “That looks like so much fun. So much
better than this web design shit.” What do you recommend
someone do to-you seem like a pretty good example. You have no
formal education in that. What would you recommend someone to
someone who’s on a different career path and wants to try their
hand at that? What would your advice be?
First, I would caution them that, as with any job, it is a job, and
it is not the fun part. Photography is one of those things. I
would actually say being a musician would be like this too.
People think, “I’m going to be a musician. This is going to be
great. I’m going to play a guitar and get girls.”Being a musician or being a photographer is being a sales
person. You’ve got to hustle. If I was giving advice I would
say, “Don’t think that it’s going to be super easy. You’re going
to have to really hustle. Learn to be a really good sales
person.” Because that’s how you’re going to get work.It’s a little cynical, and I probably wouldn’t tell someone
this, but, if you’re a really good salesperson, you can be a
photographer without being a really good photographer. You see
it all of the time. If you want to be a good photographer and
you want to have great artistic integrity, just shoot
constantly. Just shoot, shoot, shoot. Look at lots of work.
Evaluate what’s working and what’s not. Keep shooting.As far as business, become a good salesperson. Don’t be bashful
about it. Your work is great, even if it’s not. Just believe
that it’s great and keep working. It’ll get better. If you can
evaluate work and you believe your work is great and you’re a
good salesman, you will be successful. Your work will always get
better. Whatever stage you’re at-if you’re good at selling
yourself, there will be a client that’s at that stage as well.
Not everything has to be for a national company. You can shoot
something that’s just okay. Find the right client for it. When
you’re better, you find the next client.

Sage advice.
I hope so.
Josh Ross, thanks for coming down today and talking to me.
Thank you. It was a pleasure. I’m glad we were able to make it
happen.
Before we go, where can people find samples of your work online, or
get in touch with you, or socially network?
The best place to go is JoshRossCreative.com. I have all my social
networks linked there. I welcome connecting on any of those. I
always love hearing from people.
Perfect. Thanks and enjoy the lovely afternoon.