Professional advertising photographer shares 10 business tips

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Photo by Rob Hagen.

Sydney Stevens
Oxford Stories

In the advertising photography business for nearly 40 years, Rob Hagen has learned a lot about the industry and what skills are needed to succeed.

“The advice I would give today is the same advice I was given,” he said.

At age 18, Hagen began his career as an advertising photographer. His first job was being the second assistant for a food and beverage photographer named Jack Jackson.

By 1983, he became the president of Hagen Photography Inc. His clients included Miller and Pabst Brewing, Johnsonville Foods, and Weight Watchers. Hagen also worked with multiple publishing agencies, such as Hal Leonard Publishing, Western Publishing and West Bend Company.

He enjoyed collaborating with companies and sharing creative ideas. He owned Hagen Photography for 17 years before he decided to work for a large publication.

Hagen was hired by the Reader’s Digest Association to transform a film studio into a digital food photography studio. Working his way up to senior food photographer, his objective was creating and designing for print and digital reproduction. He expanded the photography branch of the association.

Hagen said the studio started with three staff members and grew to six. After 12 years at Reader’s Digest, he opened Hagen Photography Inc.

Located on the shores of Lake Michigan, Hagen Photography Inc. continues to do freelance work. From working at a large publication for 12 years, to owning his own company, Hagen has learned vital information about the advertising photography business:

sets (1).jpg1. Take pictures everyday. There is always an opportunity to take a photo. You do not need a fancy camera, film or a darkroom. “There is always a camera in your pocket. There should be no excuses,” Hagen said. Taking pictures everyday will train your eye, and soon you will get into the habit of taking pictures wherever you go.

2. Create the image in the view finder. In other words, when taking a photo, do not think in terms of “fix it or crop it later.” Think of a finished product, one that stands on its own instead of relying on something else.

3. Work for great photographers. Slowly work your way up. While gaining experience, you will also learn what kind of photographers or companies you want to work for. “School will only get you so far. Apprenticeship is still a thing.”

4. Think differently. Every aspiring photographer should try different angles and lighting. “Experiment,” he said. Trying new things will help you understand what works and what doesn’t. It will also assist in the creation of your brand.

5. Create a style of your own. Finding your style is one of the key components of becoming an advertising photographer. Having a personalized brand will solidify your skills as a photographer and bring in business. “A unique style will bring work you want,” he said.

6. “Move in closer.” By moving in closer when shooting, the photo becomes less complicated. Take a landscape of a house, for example. Farther back, you may get a busy street, signs or other houses. When moving in closer, the focus of the photo is only the house.

7. Pick a time of day. Different times of the day cast different light. “Sunrise and sunset hours are more interesting and flattering light,” he said. A certain time of the day may aid in the mood trying to be portrayed.

8. Learn post production software. Taking the photo is half the battle. Uploading, editing, submitting, etc. are possible following steps. With technological advancements, darkrooms and other forms of developing are no longer a necessity for some photographers. “The digital age has put the ‘darkroom’ in your computer,” he said.

9. Passion for the subject matter.  As a photographer, you must be able to find what you are passionate about shooting to create your best work. It could be anything, from sunsets to trees. It does not matter because, as long as you are passionate about it, the photos will be good.

10. Practice, practice, practice. Everyone gets better with practice, especially photographers. The more photos you take in everyday life will result in better work and progress. It will also raise your skill set.

Hagen said with practice and determination, people can acquire the skills to work in the photography business.

“Expressing your creative individuality when creating work will lead to you to success,” he said.

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