First Takes: Emerging Pro

Braxton Wilhelmsen, Digital Photo Pro Emerging Pro

This is a photo that makes you smile. Or at least it makes me smile. I shot it as personal work, but it has been licensed for use in 500 stores on the East Coast for an in-store ad and was recently on the cover of Popular Photography. Getting that cover was a first for me.

Braxton Wilhelmsen

In 2014, Braxton Wilhelmsen was the winner of our annual “Emerging Pro” photo contest. Just two years out of college, Wilhelm already had a distinct, artful style that blew the judges away and earned him the top prize.

Wilhelmsen says that winning the contest actually shifted his photography focus. At the time, he was working full time as a product photographer for the stationery company American Crafts, a job he found after graduating from college. One of the prizes for that year’s iteration of the contest was a 6K Scarlet-X Red Dragon camera. Generally, Red cameras are more known for their motion video capabilities (though hi-res still images can be captured). The new camera inspired Wilhelmsen to try shooting and editing his own videos. As a result, for the last year or so, he’s been making lifestyle and how-to videos for the website Dressing Your Truth, an aspirational/inspirational company.

Braxton Wilhelmsen, Digital Photo Pro Emerging Pro
This is a sort of signature look for me. I know I’m not the first one to shoot this look, but I’ve done a lot of headshots like this one, and there’s something that I really like in the directness, the impact, the cleanness of the retouching and the simplicity of the lighting. It just hits me in a way I don’t get from other setups.

This isn’t to say that Wilhelmsen has completely transitioned away from photography. These days he works on freelance projects when he can. “I don’t shoot everything. There are projects that come, but aren’t a good fit,” he says.

Based in Salt Lake City, Utah, Wilhelmsen says, “It’s not a very high-supply location for [commercial work].” He says that in turn, he’s started toying with the idea of selling tutorials.

“My five-year plan is to have a website that teaches [photographers] quickly.”

For Wilhelmsen, making quality photography tutorials is something that he feels is lacking. “One of my biggest struggles has been the lack of reliably tutorial content,” he says. “It’s made by people who don’t know what they’re doing, or you have to sort through hundreds of videos for one good video.”

His goal is to make tutorials and informational videos that extend beyond just the act of photography.

“College is mostly fine art. They don’t really teach you to make an image to sell things,” he says.

One lesson he learned was to stuff his portfolio full of the kinds of projects that he wanted to be hired for (something he didn’t know when he graduated). For Wilhelmsen, that means sports and outdoor lifestyle.

He recalls one of his favorite professional shoots was for a company that manufactures Browning, Mossy Oak and Real Tree outdoor products. He was able to hire a crew and go up to a cabin where he shot in the woods, as well as on location at a ranch.

“It’s probably the most fun I’ve had on a shoot,” he says.

Braxton Wilhelmsen, Digital Photo Pro Emerging Pro
This is typical of what I’ve been shooting for the last couple of years. Combining artificial and natural light, shot on location, with a full-body subject and background both in focus, all intact including the sky. I just love this slightly artificial, painterly feel in images that makes them suitable for ad work.

His hope for future freelance projects is to get on with companies that want high-end location shoots where he can really dig into the creative process.

Wilhelmsen offers one strong piece of advice for any photographers looking to get their name and their images out there.

“You don’t win any contests you don’t enter, and if you do win, it can change your life a little bit. Don’t be intimated.”

To see more work from Braxton Wilhelmsen, visit

Isabella Bejarano

Sometimes the passion for photography is an innate drive that inhabits a person from the first moment they touch a camera. For others, it’s something they fall into or become passionate about. For Isabella Bejarano, her professional photography journey started the latter way. Halfway through her graduate school program, she found her footing as a photographer.

“I went in not being 100 percent certain that photography would be it for me,” she says.

Isabella Bejarano, Digital Photo Pro Emerging Pro
Joel Mignott, shot for Photogenics Magazine, July 2015. I planned a trip to L.A., reached out to the magazine’s creative director and pitched a story to her. She liked it, so I put together a very small crew to help me make it a reality.

However, she says that halfway through her program, she started to fall in love with photography and really seeing the changes in her work.

In 2014, just a year out of school, Bejarano packed up her bags and moved across the country from San Francisco to New York City.

“I said, ‘I’m [going to] move to New York and try to make this happen,’” she says. “Two years later, I’m still in New York, things are great. There’s still a lot that I feel I still need to do, but when I think about where I was to now, it’s a tangible difference.”

Bejarano was diligent about growing herself as a photographer and as a business when she got to New York. In some cases, she was lucky in that she had a built-in network of friends in the city who helped her with test shoots, portraits sessions and the occasional referral.

She says she also tried to introduce herself to as many modeling agencies as she could while maintaining a couple contacts that she’d started in San Francisco.

Assisting was helpful to her career, as well. For the last two years, she’s been an assistant to portrait photographer Robert Maxwell when he comes to New York. She also managed to get in as an assistant with an artist agency.

Bejarano says that the agency and Maxwell taught her how to be more professional and opened some doors for her.

“The production departments have access to so many things. [It was] good for me to understand what studios are around. I was able to assist a couple of their photographers because I was there.”

Being able to watch other professionals go about their work gave Bejarano ideas on what she wanted to copy and bring into her own photography.

Isabella Bejarano, Digital Photo Pro Emerging Pro
I collaborated with stylist Dani Paretts in Miami for the second time while I was there on holiday early in 2015. She pulled some strings, and the Freehand Hotel let us shoot in their beautiful bar/restaurant area, which fit perfectly with the ’70s vibe we were going for. Lucy’s Magazine ran the story later on.

Currently, Bejarano works with a lot of young fashion designers. Usually, she’s helping them put together their first or second lookbooks. A couple of designers have built relationships with her, and she’s done all of their lookbooks.

For her, seeing how the designers are growing, struggling and succeeding offers a parallel to her own career. “It’s nice to come together and create something,” she says.

“Moral of the story is: I try to get involved in as many thing as I can that I feel [will] lead me to where I want to be.”

Bejarano has set her sights on establishing her career to the point where she can work with more-established designers, publications and production houses. Through her assistant work, she’s seen what a decent budget and creative challenge a large production can be, and Bejarano sees those kinds of shoots as her future.

To see more work from Isabella Bejarano, visit

Laura Bello

Traditionally, when we think of a professional in the world of photography, a couple of classic images form in our minds. Perhaps it’s Bill Cunningham on the streets of New York, camera to eye, catching people’s daily lives, or Ansel Adams traversing the wilds of America, or our friend Tom Bol in his studio.

Forgotten are the photography-adjacent careers that are available.

Laura Bello, Digital Photo Pro Emerging Pro
From the editorial “Into the Void” for Dark Beauty Magazine. Centered on dark, avant-garde makeup and styling and taking inspiration from many sources, including 18th century hair and runway looks by Pat McGrath. Featuring model Sara Toffolo and makeup by Amanda Marsala.

When Laura Bello was diagnosed with gastroparesis, she found her career options somewhat limited as she chose to stay in her hometown of Rochester, New York, to be closer to family.

Fortunately, she’d already found a second love within the art of photography—retouching.

Bello comes from an artistic background. Before photography she saw herself as a drawer and painter with a desire to draw portraits of women.

“I was never that good at that,” she says. “I couldn’t get up to that level.”

She found her love of photography through her twin sister, who shot portraits in and after high school.

Out of curiosity, she tried out photography and almost instantly fell in love with it.

Most of her skillset was gained from watching her sister or finding tutorials online. She took a couple of community college classes but says that most of the stuff they taught, she already knew—except for a retouching class that taught her the basics of Photoshop.

“Retouching is such a big part of my photos; it helped [put me] on my right path,” she says.

Bello sees herself as an editorial beauty photographer, with the occasional fashion shoot and interest in glamour and food. “I don’t want to become a jack of all trades and master of none,” she says. “I feel like if I focus on beauty, it’ll move me forward faster in that genre.”

If a big campaign shoot or magazine shoot came her way, she’d love to do it, but Bello says it would need to be a casual environment.

Laura Bello, Digital Photo Pro Emerging Pro
From the editorial “Idol” for Lucy’s Magazine. For this shot, the model was coated in gold paint to give the appearance of a golden statue. Featuring model Jessieka Martinez-Soto.

“I try do to freelance work from home, that’s why I like retouching as a career. I’m much more able to work on my own time, work from my apartment.”

One of her favorite career moments came when she got an invitation to work for ImpactDigital, a graphic design and retouching company based out of New York City. She was able to go to the city and train with them.

“[It] was really amazing. My first experience with a studio environment when it comes to retouching,” she says.

The art of retouching, Bello says, is in finding the fine line between going overboard and not doing enough to make a difference.

“It’s a tricky balance. You want it perfect, but you don’t want it unnaturally perfect. I’m trying to balance that. I think there’s a lot of disagreement there.”

Beyond pushing herself to be a better retoucher and photographer, Bello says that her current goal is to, hopefully, move to New York City. She wants more access to freelance jobs and major brands and publications.

“I [want] to push my work to the next level.”

To see more work from Laura Bello, visit

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