What I Learned From a 16 Year Old Shooting the NY Times Magazine Cover

What I Learned From a 16 Year Old Shooting the NY Times Magazine Cover

I'm guilty in being the one telling myself that if I had the gear I wanted, I would go out and shoot the projects I wanted to shoot. So nothing happens until I actually buy the gear. What you and I know is that it's not the gear, it's the person, the patience and the will to do great work that makes your photography a force to be reckoned with. And I've realized that the photographs I look at most, of my own and photographers I admire, are the candid images of models in the greenroom before they go out on the catwalk, or the model I'm shooting for a test, where the moment between shots appear and capture her walking to my instructed area. 

What Does Matter

Where you go determines the quality of your photography. Its not about how old you are, what experience you have, or what gear you have. Its about the experiences you open up for yourself, the people you meet, and the adventures you go on. It's going out late at night or early morning to get the star trail shot you envisioned, or to get to the top floor of the tallest building in your town or city to get the long exposure of the cars passing by. 

Building your photography career can take time and success is definitely not something you can expect if you do not work towards it. You need to create the environments where these experiences can happen, people can see your work and get a glimpse of your lifestyle and personality.

If you want to start as a photographer, it's best to start today. There is nothing that will make it happen for you. It's not like a financial analyst or MBA student that just finishes school and gets the job they've always dreamed about. 

Photography is very much the dance between reality and fantasy, creating good times with the creative teams who join you on the day, but doing more than your best to deliver the work your clients were hoping for. 

Being A Photographer Is Almost Like Being A Rock Star

It's an unusual job. You're seen by people wherever you decide to shoot at, and not in the office. You're directing, giving instructions to where everyone and everything must be. When you first start out, it's building the following, just like a band would when first starting out. But when you have a name that people start knowing and using, you gain some influence. Although most people won't admit to it, most people idolize photographers, they want to be you, have your life and they look up to you.

And most importantly, when your song is sung, and those images you shot are published, it better be with that power they've come to know you for. 

Getting Commissioned

Nico Young just shot the cover of the New York Times Magazine. He's 16 years old. He was commissioned to shoot the cover and a photo essay. His task was to document the timeless rituals of high school, so he had to shoot the times he felt best reflected life at school. He did the break times between classes, the moments his friends went for a smoke and the parties. He documented what he experienced on a daily basis, and covered it for the magazine. 

When looking at his work, it's noticeable he's been shooting for a while, and this isn't the first photographs he took. People had to know that he's the guy who will best produce interesting images for the magazine. He already had work to show before he was commissioned. 

An older photographer won't be able to get these images. There is just no way. He had a certain amount of trust form his mates at school, who all had an idea of him being a photographer already so he didn't have to create that impression, it was already done.

He's only 16 and he's shot the cover of New York Times Magazine. This can be seen as a threat because I for one am not that young and can't really do anything about it, but it can also be seen as a challenge. 

The Gear He Shot With:

  • Canon A2E with 40mm lens, 28mm lens, 35mm lens and 50mm lens
  • Konica HG Point and Shoot
  • Mamiya RB67 with 80 mm lens
  • A rented Mamiya 7II with a 65mm lens

He shot candidly for most of the images. He mentioned during our discussion that people would take him raising his arm as a cue to strike a pose, although he didn't instruct them to do so. 

What Can I Learn From This?

Show Up

If it's a portrait project you want to do, go out and do it. I have this project I'm busy planning where I want to shoot all the men who inspire me in my city and towns around the city. I have already put together a list and concepts for each. Now it's to do it, to show up and actually shoot the portraits. Do the work, get out and shoot the projects you have in mind. No one is going to do it for you. 

Shoot What You Love

Shoot what you love to shoot, even if you also shoot professionally for clients where you don't get to use your own creative expression all the time. Make time to do it, because, even if the work you are drawn to now doesn't have a marketing angle at this moment in time, there's a very good chance it will in future. If you don't go shoot it, this opportunity won't exist. 

Challenge Yourself

Surround yourself with people who challenge you in a positive way. Hang with the stylists, the artists, and the guys who don't follow the status quo. Be you, but don't conform to the mundane. We're all online for a large amount of time per day, whether it's on our phones or desktop machines. Make sure your feeds create some sort of inspiration or challenge. Don't settle for the funny cat or dog videos (unless that's something you'd like to get into). Read books written by creative folk, and don't just focus on the writers focused on photography, read fiction, books on minimalism, composition, and art. Use the other creative industries to stimulate your idea-generation. We've covered Chase Jarvis's Youtube video about the dirtiest secret in photography, and it will hold truth in your time to come. 

Get Excited

If someone asks you to shoot something for them, get to it and do it with the largest batch of optimism and excitement you can scoop together. It is often not the photos delivered, but the experience the person has with the photographer that gets you the next job. Excitement translates into passion, and it surely makes an impression. 

Photography, Like Life, Is Not A Journey

Journeys are usually from point A to point B. Life is not a case where you are now born (point A) and then die (point B). It's more realistic to compare life and photography to a song. You play a song, not for the end, but for the story and message the song evokes within while it's being played. Alan Watts says it best, and here's the video to sum it all up:


All images used with permission by Nico Young




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Bob Bell's picture

Can't beat Alan watts! Awesome post, cheers :)

Will Dongleur's picture

Inspiring article!

Jay Jay's picture

While i'm really happy that he is one of the lucky few to get a major cover opportunity, any high school kid armed with their iphone could have taken those photos. Any of them. I've also seen 12 year olds produce flat out stunning photographs that go well beyond professional-level quality. But was he chosen just because he uses old cameras or because he has the eye to really capture high school life? The imagery is ok, but not great- just ok. Or was he chosen bc he's a standard high school kid and because he uses cameras as opposed to an iphone to shoot?

To me, nobody cares what equipment you use, they only care about the final product. I dont tell people what camera i shoot with because... nobody cares. All they care about is the images i put out, as should be with any photographer. What can you learn from all this- being successful/getting noticed is equal parts luck and equal parts having the right connection. That's it. I see plenty of great photogs get passed over and even more average to flat out amateur photographers get picked for jobs, it was all from the people they knew who got them those opportunities and not necessarily because they were the best person for the job. It's just the stark reality of the profession.

JJ Casas's picture

You definitely hit it on the head in terms of how to get work: yes, it helps to be good in terms of taking photographs but you just need to better selling yourself and being consistent at that.

When people ask me that they want to get into photography, I ask first "Do you want to take good photos OR do you want to make money off of it?" If it's the former, self educate as much as possible via books, forums, magazines, etc. If it's the latter, for sure still get better technically in photography but you surely have to focus more on the business side to get paid work.

Jay Jay's picture

I agree. Doing something you love is one thing, but if you want to earn a living or get the paying jobs, having the right connections and knowing the right people trumps having much experience at all. It's unfortunate, but also the reality. (Though talented photogs do get their fair share of breaks, but it takes constant and consistent work to do so)

Great article. We all have to remind ourselves that we have to go out and shoot, not just think about shooting. And good gear is nice, but the iphone takes wonderful photographs...