My John Russo Workshop Experience

Chris Orwig photographing models at Day 2 of the John Russo Workshop in L.A.

So, as all of you have probably noticed, I haven’t been so diligent on writing new blogs and getting things posted in any kind of a timely manner. I am trying to correct that course and hold myself more accountable to writing, sharing, and – hopefully – teaching a little bit by documenting my indirect and unique trajectory through the world of “Professional Photography”. You see, accountability and diligence are probably two of the most difficult things to find when you’re an entrepreneur of any kind. It feels like it’s even more difficult to find in the creative fields because we’re “artists” rather than “business people”. That’s horse****. We have to be business people first and foremost with a talent and desire to pursue the creative fields. Nobody I have met recently defines that statement more than Celebrity Photographer John Russo.

In December, I had the pleasure of being able to fly out to Hollywood and attend John’s first ever workshop in his studio. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I signed up, but I felt like I needed a kick start to my creativity and desire to further my business. I had an awesome 2018 and as my first year in a new business I have absolutely zero complaints. But, I also felt like I was being pigeonholed into a specific type of photographer that I wasn’t sure appealed to me entirely, and I was struggling to think outside of the box and find the clients I wanted to work with outside of the Houston market. I figured flying out for John’s workshop was something completely different than what I was doing, and John’s work is absolutely stunning so it had to be a win-win situation. I had no idea that I was going to get a masterclass in how to market, position, and hustle tirelessly. See, if there is one word that describes John, it’s “hustle”. He never stops and never acts like he’s on top and can let things come to him. He’s always going and I think that was the most profound piece of wisdom I derived from the entire experience, but I’m getting ahead of myself…

Image from Day 2 of the workshop.

Let’s go back to the event itself.

When my Uber pulled up, I really had no idea what to expect as I stepped out onto the curb and looked up at John’s studio space. I assumed it would be a lot of local photographers and I would be the outsider coming in from Texas. I assumed that it would be a lot of photographers who were specifically already working in the Celebrity industry or targeting Celebrity clients. I made a few other incorrect assumptions as well. What I found was an amazing group of individuals who came from all over the world and all different paths in the photography industry. Hell, to emphasize that point further, we even had a Wedding Photographer from Ukraine in the room! We were also joined by some pretty notable names in the audience including Sue Bryce and Chris Orwig (funny story about that incoming!). It was awesome to get to meet everybody over breakfast alongside John and his team.

A member of John’s team, Tas, was awesome to get to talk to and pick his brain. Fun to photograph as well!

Each day was comprised of different topics, but flowed along the same schedule: Breakfast, business and marketing talks, industry experts coming in, and then some shooting and hands-on activities in the afternoon. After getting through the introduction phase of the first day, we immediately dove into what comprised Celebrity photography. Everything was on the table and John was completely open to answering any questions we had and explaining how he broke into the business and kept his style fresh and timeless. We talked about how to interact on set with different stakeholders and collaborators, all the way to how to help a subject feel more comfortable posing in front of the camera and feeling natural and at home in an unnatural setting. It was an awesome morning of Q&A with John topped off with a visit from a magazine producer to explain what she looked for in her photographers and how she finds them.

A top down shot of the whole crew getting after it on Day 1 in John’s studio.

Having been in sales, a lot of the information itself was pretty known to me, but what impressed me the most (if you couldn’t tell from the initial paragraph) was how much of this John was still doing even being a known name in the industry. It always comes down to who is on top of mind when a client is looking to hire somebody, and how comfortable they are with what that person is going to provide them. In the celebrity industry, everything has to be as seamless and easy as possible, but it also has to be perfect. Image is everything in that world, so when you’re hired to shoot a job it’s not just your ass on the line, it’s the asses of everybody that has hired you and everybody around you. If it isn’t spot on in this day and age, you’re going to live in internet meme infamy for eternity. So the pressure is real and it amazed me how consistently John has been able to do what he does and it was inspiring to see him still hustling this far into the game. I loved it and couldn’t wait to get back home and implement what I was seeing.

But, the magic just kept on rolling. We immediately followed lunch with a visit from one of the guys that changed the publicity game for how movies released from 20th Century Fox. Just to be in a room with him and pick his brain on what he looks for, how he finds people, and who he hires was such an unprecedented access that it made the entire trip and workshop worth it even if it was the only thing we did over the course of the two days.

Model Ken Waller during Day 1 of the workshop.

After that it was finally time to shoot. Now, I will admit that while I love photography, shooting in workshop environments is one of my least favorite things to do. I feel like I’m being rushed by those around me, I’m shooting on somebody else’s setup, and it just feels contrived to me personally. So, I tend to stand to the side or jump in as an unofficial assistant for everybody else. So, you’ll have to excuse my lack of images I’m inserting into this post as I think I only took about 45 frames the first day and maybe 200 frames the second day. I know some of the other students in the workshop took upwards of 2000 frames! It all comes down to styles of shooting. I tend to step back and watch others as the experience and learn from what I see.

Another shot of Ken from a different angle/light setup.

That learning process started by watching John set up the first shot with model Ken Waller and how he worked with Ken to get exactly what he wanted. The concern wasn’t on a meticulous detail to light positioning or camera settings, but a looser and more fluid approach to how the posing and connection between photographer and subject was formed. It was an awesome contrast to see compared to some of the other photographer’s I’ve had the pleasure of watching and I took more from watching John’s approach than seeing the images he created during the workshop or how his team set up the lights. It’s something I’ve tried to translate more into my own approach as I know that my natural instincts as an engineer can cause me to dwell on lights and lose the connection at times. I feel like that observation alone has drastically altered how I shoot on set.

Close up portrait of Jason Bell from Day 1.

With that said, I did jump in after the group had moved on to different subjects and try to create something of my own. I adjusted lights here and there to fit my own style of shooting, or swung around a model positioned for one shot to create something entirely different from what I saw the group doing. The result – I felt – were some images that stood out as different and removed from the “workshop” style of photographs that are typically created in that kind of environment (everybody ending up with the exact same shots of the same models in the same positions…) But, it was amazing to see all of the fantastic work created by the photographers when we went over some of our images on Day 2. Our homework was to go back to our places for the evening and create an edit of 2 images that we felt were the best. No more than 2 which was a difficult and educational task in and of itself.

Portrait of Chris Orwig, the guy who unknowingly taught me Adobe.

Ok, time for the Chris Orwig story. At the beginning of the day I’m sitting there ready to get things kicked off and Chris walks in. I see him and think to myself, “Man he looks familiar but I have no idea where I know him from.” Then we get to introductions and Chris says his first name and that he used to skateboard and got into photography after he injured himself. I immediately think that I might know him from when he was a skateboarder and possibly a pro that would have been around when I was watching a lot in the early X-Games days.

Towards the end of the day I get a chance to talk to him more and see if what I believe in confirmed. It wasn’t, but I still couldn’t figure out how I knew him until we went to trade instagram handles. When he said, “It’s just my name – ‘Chris Orwig’.” It all finally clicked! I didn’t necessarily know Chris from his face, I knew him from his voice.

Back in the days of Adobe CS5 and lynda.com, Chris had unknowingly taught me all about Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. I knew nothing and I was always trying to find someplace else to learn from, and I had learned all of my initial skill sets from Chris over the course of many hours of listening to his tutorials. I fanboyed out for a few moments and just stood there laughing to myself in disbelief. I shared the story with Chris and I’ve been fortunate enough to keep in touch with him since the workshop in a friendly and collaborative friendship. I’m sure this is one of those “you had to have been there” sort of stories, but it was hilarious and awesome all at the same time for me in that moment. Of all of the big names there – John, Sue, and Chris – I had been following and learning from Chris a decade beforehand and absolutely would not have been standing in the position I was in if it hadn’t been for him. Gratitude and awe were about the only things I had on my mind when I took off to head to the hotel at the end of Day 1.

The image of Jason that I submitted for image review at the start of Day 2.

Day 2 kicked off with the image review (as mentioned above) and it was great to see the different styles of shooting and editing provided by each of us. Everybody’s eye is so different and what appeals to one person may be completely different than what appeals to somebody else. The “workshop effect” that I was so worried about was rarely present throughout the shared work, and having John there critiquing and giving feedback was another invaluable aspect of the entire experience. A few of my own shots are sprinkled throughout this post to give you an idea of the amazing level of models that were brought in for the shoots and a few behind the scenes images of everybody working in the space together.

Sue Bryce photographing DJ.

As soon as the image review was finished we has another guest coming in to speak to the group about reps and how a photographer can go about working with a rep, and what a rep can do for a photographer. It also gave some insights into how to get on a Publicists radar and what it looks like to reach out to them and network in the Celebrity industry.

Image of Gunner Burkhardt from the set of Day 2.

Day 2 was definitely more of a shooting day and the location, models, and creative team John had put together was unbelievable. Getting to interact with that level of talent, and meeting the creative team – styling, hair, makeup – that John uses on actual shoots was all just bonus to what I had already seen and learned.

Image of Gunner Burkhardt from the set of Day 2.

The shooting part of the day was much more easy going and fluid than it had been on Day 1, and the space was huge with more models available for shooting in different areas. But, again, what I learned from the most was watching other people shoot and interact. For me, stepping back from the camera is – a lot of the time – where I grow most as a photographer. When I’m in the lens I’m so focused on what I’m trying to create that the opportunity for growth is limited only to what I see or have planned for that particular shot, shoot, or project. There is growth, no doubt, but not as fast or as extensive as it is when you’re in an environment like a workshop or a meet-up shoot and watching other people work. Seeing John, Chris, and Sue all work was something that I couldn’t have put a price on, and certainly worth more than what it cost for me to go and have this experience.

Jacob Anton in natural light streaming in through a window.
Same area, different positioning.

So, as I sit here and wrap up this lengthy post, I come back to my initial thoughts on my writing and blogging: Diligence and Accountability. Those were two of the key themes I saw recurring throughout John’s workshop and two of the biggest things I brought home with me from LA. I found accountability in continued contact with John and Chris to make sure I’m doing what I need to do and being accountable to my goals as a professional photographer. Networking at events like this have an intangible benefit that you just can’t get from watching YouTube videos or listening to podcasts. You have to go, interact, watch, listen, question, meet with, and learn from individuals with similar interested. I say that rather than like-minded individuals because what are you going to learn from somebody who thinks the same things you think? Get outside fo your box, keep learning, and be diligent in accomplishing your goals. We live in an extraordinary world, at an extraordinary time in our history, and you shouldn’t settle for anything other than an extraordinary life. Be diligent in reaching out for your goals and see what happens next. You never know where that next inspiration will come from unless you put down the phone and go find it.

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