When we spoke for this article, Zack Arias was in the midst of preparations for several new adventures, including a trip to London, where he was slated to lead a small speedlight workshop, as well as a total overhaul of his website, with new PhotoShelter integration and another brand-new site, Dead Pixel, which is destined to become a central resource from Arias on everything from shooting tips to gear reviews. Based out of Atlanta, the photographer is omnipresent on the web, with an absolutely massive Facebook and Twitter following. A visit to his Tumblr page will uncover an extensive archive of 1,500 question-and-answer sessions, and he follows up the majority of questions on gear by pointing out to his readers that they should get out and shoot.
"I’m a big advocate that you’ve got to learn the technical side of photography," says Arias. "You need to learn how to light, you need to learn how your cameras work, you need to learn how your lenses work and all of that, but you can’t stay focused on it. I see a lot of photographers get really focused on the technical, but they can’t let go of it and then shoot. It’s almost like a Karate Kid-Mr. Miyagi kind of thing, where you’ve got to wax on and wax off, but at some point you have to close your eyes and be able to do it by feel and touch and emotion. I’ve put a lot of years into learning the technical and now what I’m trying to do with my life is forget it."
Arias’ photography is mostly portraiture driven, and he has chosen recently to diversify by expanding from commercial and editorial work into street reportage, as well. Whether working in the studio or shooting off the cuff, as he does so often with his street work, his style is mostly about capturing the idiosyncratic and humorous character of his subjects against minimal backgrounds that still reveal the environment for establishing context. He began with portraiture by working with local bands, expanding from $100-a-day sessions into large campaigns for record companies. But this all-eggs-in-one-basket approach to his portfolio almost kept him from becoming the success he is today because his career, which was tied to the music business, tanked along with the music business.
"What I’ve learned," he explains about the resulting bankruptcy that nearly forced him from photography, "is that as great as photography is, and as creative as photography is, the fact of the matter is that you’re a businessperson. You’re running a business, and whether that’s a landscaping business or a laundry business or a bank or car dealership, you’re a business, and dealing with the money aspect of being in business is the most difficult thing to do, especially for creatives because our brains aren’t wired that way.
"I was a full-time music photographer," he continues. "I was paying my rent and feeding my kids by shooting bands, and within 60 days it was all gone. And it really sent me for a loop. I talked to some well-established folks in the music industry, and they said, ‘Yep, it’s gas prices!’, because musicians live on the road, that’s how they make their money, by touring. And once they started spending all their extra money on gas—cause they’re not touring in a Prius, they’re touring in some ’79 Econoline van that gets two miles to the gallon—there was no more money for photos. I was kind of a luxury item at that point."
Arias says that he was faced with the decision of slashing his rates, which would return him to the point at which he started, or he could find another way forward. It was at this point he began to diversify by building his editorial and commercial photography.
"I tightened up my belt, and things like workshops helped me fill in the gaps," he says. "I had hit a plateau with my work and going out, and hitting the streets and shooting on the streets has really kind of revitalized me, and kind of put the paddles to my chest and started me back up again.
"A lot of bad decisions were made, and a lot of things went wrong," he adds, "but I look at where I’m going today and where I’m trying to be tomorrow. Your hope is that you make a mistake and you learn from it. You don’t do that same stupid mistake over and over again. Everyone is going to screw up and everyone is going to make some mistakes, but looking back, I’m thankful that it all went to hell on me. I’m thankful that I had to walk away from photography, I’m thankful that I had to go get a day job at Kinko’s, and I’m thankful that I had to start again from the bottom. It makes me appreciate more. It makes me realize that it could all happen again."
Arias’ readership includes photographers attracted to his straightforward, shoot-from-the-hip honesty, his breadth of knowledge, and the fact that he loves and cares about photography. One would think that billable work simply falls from the sky, and while it’s true that his social-media presence affords him quite a bit of opportunity, he’s also incredibly proactive on generating clients and projects. He still cold calls and sends out mailings. He spends a lot of time pursuing clients that he wants to work with, even going as far as to line up several of them in an area for in-person portfolio meetings when he travels to areas like New York or Chicago. He says that the purpose of these meetings is not to secure commercial campaigns in the big city, but instead to let them know that there’s a photographer capable of producing high-quality work for a campaign if it calls for a location near him in the Southeast. It’s this business acumen that has kept him afloat over the last few years through very tough times.
Arias says that many photographers think that editorial is a wash, for example, because the rates are so low and the work so intermittent, but he finds it to be a really good way to get his foot in the door. "I did an editorial shoot for Harvard Business Review," he says, "and I photographed the CEO of Coca-Cola, and then that turned into some introductions at the company, which turned into jobs shooting for Coca-Cola. These were bigger projects with bigger budgets than the initial magazine job that I did there. Editorial is good work, and it’s very valuable to me."
He points out that the work of a photographer involves much more than merely clicking the shutter these days, and when he’s not shooting, he’s generally online.
"Being online all day, it’s good and it’s bad," says Arias. "It’s the yin and the yang, it keeps me busy, and it brings in work, but it’s also distracting and keeps me from other work. There are times, usually at the end of the year, where I go on a one- or two-month fast from social media.
"I still haven’t found a balance!" he laughs. "But my wife and my family support me and they stand by me. I’m constantly going to my wife and saying, ‘I’m really sorry that my head is up my ass with work’, but I’m driven. I have to get the shot. I have to win the client. I have to go into the fire
and grab the prize and get out alive. I have to be on the game, and I have to make this happen. I can’t support my family on a $10 per hour job, and that kind of job is all I know outside of photography. I’m very driven."
What I Use
|"What I call my hero camera," says Zack Arias, "is a Phase One IQ140 medium-format system. But then anything that’s run-and-gun or on-the-fly, I use Fuji cameras. I have the Fuji X100S and the Fuji X-Pro1. I got a Fuji X100, just as a carry-around camera, and that camera really started my love of street photography. I started walking around and shooting full jobs with the Fuji, and then I did a couple of jobs for Fuji themselves. I thoroughly enjoy working with those cameras. I love my Phase, I love the image quality that the Phase gives me—I’ve never been able to have such amazing digital image quality before—but I love my Fujis; they’re my favorite cameras.
"With lenses on the Phase," he continues, "I’m using a 55mm leaf-shutter Schneider lens and an 80mm Schneider leaf-shutter lens. For the Fuji, I have the 14mm, the brand-new 23mm and the