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.