Finding Your Way To Professional Photography: 5 Things I Learned From Sitting Down with John Schell

I was originally going to call this article "five things I learned from coffee with John Schell" but in typical Schell fashion, our meet up involved Pho which doesn't mix too well with coffee. The former Fstoppers writer and current Los Angeles-based photographer has had one of the quickest rises to popularity that I've seen in photography in quite some time. His identifiable style and consistent stream of quality work have made him an extremely identifiable brand that has grown a 20,000 plus Instagram following in a fairly short amount of time. Here are five things I learned about Schell, his work, and his journey to photography.

1.) There's No One Right Path To Professional Photography

Through following, studying, and speaking with professional photographers, especially those in fashion-related fields, I've seen that everyone's journey to professional photography is a little bit different. But, none have highlighted that more for me then Schell. A 12-year veteran of the classroom, teaching primarily at the secondary level, Schell made the bold jump to full-time photography as recently as the summer of 2014. I think most of us that follow Schell and his work see him as a bit of a fixture for his genre, so to see the scope of his accomplishments and realize that his major jump in careers is so new was unexpected to say the least. 

For those of you who have taken an art history class, you probably have heard, as have I, of great artists picking up their craft much later in life and becoming wildly successful. Schell, while certainly nowhere near the "much later in life" category, certainly can serve as an inspiration to those who have aspirations but maybe haven't even picked up their first camera yet. Schell, for all intents and purposes, picked up a camera for the first time about five years ago while living and teaching in San Diego. It was while shooting and directing his friends "Trash the Dress" session, that he realized the first glimmers of his true passion.

I bought a point-and-shoot to travel through Europe with. When I came home and looked through my photos, I was instantly transported back to the place and time where the photo was taken. I love that a photo can do that. After a few months of being home, I decided it was time to upgrade the point-and-shoot to a beefier DSLR. So, after scouring the Internet for reviews, I used some savings and bought myself a Canon 5D MkII, which I used to take photos of friends, pets, flowers, etc. It wasn't until half a year later, when shooting my friends' 'Trash the Dress' session in the Anza Borrego desert, that something clicked. I knew that moment, that photography was going to play a major role in my life.

2.) You Don’t Need $30,000 Worth Of Gear To Shoot Professional Campaigns

Schell is not a gear junky. Really, he's not a photography junky like a lot of us. In speaking with him it became evident that he isn't all too concerned with what the others do, how they shoot, what they shoot, or what gear they have. Schell shoots in a fairly minimal style, not lugging around tens of thousands of dollars worth of gear. Certainly if you have seen his work or follow him on Instagram, like so many do, you can see that his lack of heavy-duty gear has not slowed down the quality of his work. I would argue that the consistency of his images is due in part to the lesser degree in variables that large quantities of gear bring to the table.

3.) Social Media Matters

Social media is a big player is today's marketing strategy for photography, like it or not. In only a short time Schell has grown a significant audience via Instagram, currently at 20,000 plus followers, and he isn't stopping there. As I was speaking to him about his rapid growth via social media, Schell made it clear that he is happy but not content, his sights are now set at the 100,000 follower mark. And why? Vanity? Nope. Social media translates into bookings. Most of his clients, whether it be models looking to build their books or brands looking for Schell to shoot their next campaign, came across Schell for the first time via social media. The online presence that so many see as superfluous is equating to a successful career in professional photography.

Social media, specifically Instagram, has always been the face of my brand. Not only is it easy to curate, but it’s much easier to get views than it is to direct people to your website. Besides, for the most part, websites aren’t all that interactive. On my Instagram, I can chat directly with not only fans and friends, but brands as well as people whom I look up to and respect in the industry. It’s been a fantastic source of both inspiration and work.

4.) The Importance Of Building An Identifiable Brand

If you are new to Schell's work, go to Instagram right now and scroll through his wall of posts. Now, you probably have a good idea of what I'm talking about: Consistency. Schell's work is consistent. The style, the post-production, the look and feel, all consistent from shoot to shoot. This consistency is what allows us, the viewer, to remember him. We associate that style with that photographer. I would also attach a large percentage of Schell's quick rise to how consistent and identifiable he is as a brand. Companies looking for someone to shoot their next campaign don't hire a good photographer, they hire the "right" photographer. Meaning, they hire the person who they identify with the style that represents them. By building a body of work that connects, it makes Schell more memorable and hirable.

Basically, figure out what you want to do. That is, figure out what you love, and shoot in that direction. I grew up on the beach with a surfboard under my arm and a skateboard under my feet. When I shoot, when I dream, and when I’m inspired, this is what bubbles to the surface. I’m eternally grateful to have found such a market for my work, for doing what I love shooting what I love.

5.) Knowing Exactly What You Want And Being Brave Enough To Go For It Makes For A Happy Creative

There's no way around it, Schell's jump from a secure full-time job to the uncertainty of professional photography was bold. And, he has continued that trend over the last year. When jobs or clients have looked to push in a direction outside of him, he has made the hard choice to move on from the client. When opportunities have risen that appeared outside of his focus, Schell has moved on from them as well. Choices, that Schell voiced, that were not easy; and while the result of those choices may have meant a short-term financial loss, they have meant for a very happy creative, as was evident from my time with him. Schell seems certain in what he loves about photography and seems driven to maintain a focused direction that keeps him on a path that is surrounded by work he is passionate about. We can only look forward to where this focus and passion drives him in the future.

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14 Comments

Mokhtar Chahine's picture

I love John's work, I remember he reviewed a sigma lens back in the day and thats when i first started following him. His style, colors, posing, angles are all in the right place. He is a genius when it comes to making something out or nothing.

John might hate me for saying this, but this is just my opinion, I ended up unfollowing and others just because my feed just ended up with too many half naked women, nothing wrong with that thats for sure. But i suddenly got fed up with Instagram accounts filled with things that people will eventually like and want to follow (nudes, 6 packs, weddings, female squats, sexy women posing in a sexy way...you get the point, no offense but you are gonna like it and hit that follow button sometimes)

I still love John's work and check it from my to time.

I aint hating, but people should also realize that the genre John chose is very easy to like. He happens to be a genius at it too.

John Schell's picture

Thank you for the kind words and I totally agree. Living in SoCal we're bombarded with 1/2 naked people all the time, so it's really just a non-issue. I do, however, see how it can become a bit much.. Thanks!

Mokhtar Chahine's picture

Wishing you more and more success.

Eric Pare's picture

Not mentionned in this post, but for many of us, John is the most entertaining character available on Facebook. I don't go to comedy shows anymore. I go to John Schell facebook wall instead.

John Schell's picture

Ahh, you're too kind. Thank you, Eric!

John Pyle's picture

John is not only talented but an inspiration also. Great article. Keep it up John...you know I am watching ;)

John Schell's picture

Thanks, buddy!! I know it. :)

Morgan Ringwald's picture

John, I love your photography and you've come a long way through hard work and dedication ... but I created an account here just so I can make funny comments about you outside of Facebook. Is that cool with you?

Chris Nigul's picture

I started following John just before he had quit he's dayjob and I also agree with the author his uprise has been fast for sure, glad I have witnessed it. Your work is as amazing as it is inspiring and ofcourse the sense of humor you have man... Gets me every time!!
Oh and Olive, what a life that best friend of yours has: eat, sleep, run on California beaches and chill with beautiful people - that's f...ing life man. Cheers John!
Chris

Jon Barrett's picture

You may need to rethink number 2, since he just acquired a 1DX. :)

James Moxley's picture

Great article, so true it's not really about how long someone has been doing photography but it's really about the last photo they took and with John's work it is super consistent, similar to Sean Archer in that they have a style they are known for. Just curious how does John upload his photos to instagram? Gramblr or the dropbox method? I've never done it myself, mostly I post to 500px and flickr.

John Schell's picture

Thanks, James. That's a huge compliment! I upload via dropbox. :)

Andy McRory's picture

The author leaves out the fact that, prior to his "full-time" jump in 2014, John had been shooting part-time for literally months. He's also my support network. I celebrate him, as you all should.

Brian Carpenter's picture

I don't think the quick rise in social media is very surprising given the subject matter and quality of shoots and final product. I've seen his work and love it. It is true that it is almost all skinny, hot, white chicks at the beach. I'm a landscape photographer, but recently did a photo shoot of my wife... at the beach... and posted the pick to Instagram. I had over 25 new followers within 6 hours. Normally I wouldn't get that within a month. I think John has figured out the formula to quick social media growth, post lots of top quality photos of hot white chicks on the beach.