Just Go Do It: An Exclusive Interview with Lisa Predko
Content Contributed by: Sarah Derer
I know a thing or two about photography and the business thereof. No, really. A thing. Maybe two. So when I wanted to know more, naturally I got in touch with one of my favorite shooters here in Chicago, Lisa Predko. Ms. Predko has built an impressive body of work and amassed an intimidating client list over her years behind the camera. So on a chilly day in November, I got myself down to her south loop studio for a candid conversation. She made me an amazing cup of coffee and happily offered up all kinds of good information. If you would like some invaluable advice on how to make it as a professional photographer, go ahead and peruse our conversation below. You will learn how to create beautifully diffused light for chump change, as well as how to deal with a subject who is prone to making crazy mouth movements when placed in front of a camera. I’m telling you, it’s worth your time. You will probably laugh more than once. I did.
How long have you been shooting professionally?
I started shooting on my own, for real, in 2000.
How long had you been doing it before you started making actual money?
Well, I started assisting in 1996, when I graduated from college, so, you know, while I was assisting I was still shooting, just not trying to do it professionally yet.
The biggest stumbling block for a lot of people, myself included, when you’re trying to get started in photography, is the initial investment in equipment is jaw-dropping and can stop people from actually pursuing it. Do you have any recommendations at all for getting around that?
You don’t need expensive tools to make amazing photos.
Can you elaborate on that? I think that’s the truth.
One of my favorite inexpensive tools was introduced to me by Flint Chaney. It’s a shower curtain. I feel like we’ve talked about this before…
We have talked about this before, and I don’t think I have shot anything without at least one shower curtain since then. I’m so thankful to have gotten that tip, and I’ve given that tip on many occasions since then…
A shower curtain is incredibly cheap and it creates beautiful diffusion. So there are affordable workarounds. Granted, I still call it my “Swedish diffusion”…thank you Flint…and that was brilliant because you don’t want to yell across the studio, in front of a client, “Hey, can you grab the shower curtain?” because that just doesn’t sound as professional.
Getting a good image made is actually pretty straightforward and you don’t really need to have a lot of fancy tools to make that happen, but it’s more a concern with making sure the client feels good about the money they’re spending on you.
I remember assisting on a job and we set up all of these lights for this photographer, and didn’t ever turn them on. It was kind of a beautiful thing. You know? And it was just to make it look like there was something happening. But instead we just used natural light from a window, which looked beautiful.
Do you have a favorite [lighting] setup?
It depends on the situation. It depends on what you’re doing. It depends on what your subject can handle. You know? I’m such a fan of hard light, but not everyone looks good under hard light.
You do use really intense [light], and that’s one of the things I like about your work…
I’m inspired a lot by old movies. You know? Like watching old Alfred Hitchcock, stuff like that, The Twilight Zone, TV show stuff. The lighting in those was really amazing, and it’s sort of almost like a stage lighting kind of thing. I think that’s where my light comes from.
Who have you really enjoyed shooting?
Well, we just photographed Chief Justice Rita Garman. I was really excited to meet her. She was really awesome. Her story was just really great. She’s really an inspirational woman. I like shooting women. I do.
Why is that?
I like women to be the heroes. You know?
Yeah, and there’s a funny thing that happens when you’re standing behind a camera and someone is posing for you if you have that connection of similar experience. It makes it easy. And women are posing all the time. We’re always very aware that we’re being looked at. So when a woman steps in front of a camera it’s kind of a natural relationship to have.
Hmm. That’s interesting. I don’t know. I’ll have to think about that. Rita was really inspirational. Her story is that she was going to law school at a time when not many women went to law school, and everyone thought she was just going to find herself a husband in law school. But that was definitely not the case. She actually was on a path and on a mission and she had supportive parents that helped her do what she wanted to do.
So how was she to shoot? What was that experience like?
She was great. She was actually a lot more comfortable in front of the camera than I thought she was going to be, but I think that she’s probably done this a lot. It’s sort of like you said, she’s kind of used to being on display. So, I think she was very conscious of her movements, which is nice.
Have you ever shot anyone who was a complete surprise as far as how they were going to be in front of the camera?
Actually, there was one guy, he was a CEO at a casino and I was warned before I got there that he was going to be incredibly difficult to photograph. And, you know, I’ve been doing this a while and I love people, I do. I love people. I love asking questions. I like to hear people’s stories, and I’m super genuine and super interested…I think that helps to make people comfortable. My thought [was]… I got this, you know? No problem, I can get this guy. And the guy walks in, and I expected that he might look a little funny or something, because no one told me what to expect. So he walks in and he’s a fairly handsome guy and gets to the spot in front of the camera and everything’s going fine. We’re talking, everything’s good. And then as soon as my hand was on the trigger he just had this nervous reaction and would start making these crazy faces. Inside, I was laughing, because it was funny. The expressions were funny, like crazy mouth movements. For some reason the process of being photographed was so stressful for him that he had this weird involuntary reaction.
Anyone who’s shot photos of people knows that as soon as you put a camera in front of a person, they may completely change. They become very aware of it and some of them make duck lips. Some of them make crazy mouth movements. You never know.
Yeah, I felt really bad for him. I figured out the solution to that was I just had to keep my hand on the camera and stand really close behind it so that he was still looking at me, and then we just had to have a conversation. We just had to talk the whole time, and then I just kept clicking when I thought that his expression was looking better.
Did you feel like you had enough time? That, to me, is the scary part. If you know you have 10 minutes with someone…and they’re really uncomfortable, you have no time to really change that.
I’m trying to think of an eloquent way to say this, because I’m not very eloquent. I’m much better with photos. There was this famous personal trainer that I had to photograph for a magazine, and he was extremely unpleasant and extremely rushed and just didn’t want to do it. At some point in my head I…and I always want to create a great photo of somebody. I want to make them look their absolute best. I want to make them look better than they look. I want that for them. In this particular case, it was one of those things where I just threw my hands up and was like, you’re just going to get whatever you get, because you’re putting out bad energy…That’s hard to deal with, and I’ve only had that happen once.
So he really made an impression…
He did! He did. I hate to say it, but even with that I still got a really decent photo, but I almost wanted him to look worse.
That’s when the professional in you has to come out and say ‘no.’
I feel like it’s a two-part relationship. It’s not just me giving to them. It’s also what they’re going to give back.
Luckily, with someone like that, the photo is a mere instant.
I still wish he had been nicer. It could’ve been so much more fun. I want to make people feel good. I do.
Is that one of the things that you like about being able to shoot?
I love that. Yeah, absolutely. I love when I can bring real people here to take photos of them, and they come into our strange little world for a little while. We photograph a lot of lawyers and this is not their typical hangout. I love that, and I think that they like it too.
Is there anything you would say to someone who might want to shoot professionally? What’s step number one?
Take pictures. Take lots of pictures. You just have to do it and you have to love it. This isn’t a job to do if you don’t love it. This job is too hard to do if you don’t love it, but it’s really easy to do when you do…I think I have the coolest job in the world, and I’m so thankful to do what I love. I don’t do what I do because I want to be a rich person. I mean, certainly I need money, money is great, we all need money, but I feel rich having food in my refrigerator and food in my pantry. When I see that I’ve got food and a place to live, I feel like I’m doing okay. And I get to work with amazing people.
Who are some of the amazing people you get to work with?
Well, my crew. I hardly do any photos without my crew. It’s very rare that I go out and just shoot on my own. It does happen…but generally, I like to light. I am really into lighting, and so I like to bring lots of stuff when I go take pictures and it’s hard to bring lots of stuff by yourself. You certainly can’t get as much done if you’re just a one-man show. So it’s really nice to have people who appreciate my vision and trust my vision and want to help me create this thing in my head. That’s amazing. That just blows my mind. So yeah, just go do it.
To see Lisa’s latest work go to lisapredko.com.