Making It In The Marketplace
Two Seasoned Pros Share Their Views

With many photographers pulling up stakes as rents soar and landlords take advantage of the burgeoning rental market, it was a pleasant surprise to walk into the spacious studios of Michael Indresano and Craig Orsini, two Boston photographers who have made it to the top ranks in today's advertising and editorial marketplace.

The resonating factor of new technologies offered an opportunity to some photographers to go for the gold and reinvent themselves to fit into the new world. Michael Indresano began his apprenticeship in 1985 working with numerous pros and seven years later at the age of 26, opened his first studio. Four years ago he bought a building and designed a beautifully appointed 4500 square foot workplace with an outdoor patio and parking. In one room portfolios and tear sheets are separated into people and product categories and include portraits from sports celebrities to CEOs, while the product section offers a ready selection of everything from toothbrushes to food.

Today the studio is packed with Art Directors, clients, and models, a "go-see" for a major clothing outlet's TV promotion. (Fortunately I was not there last week when the studio was shooting a parade of snakes, skunks, and alligators for the Animal Planet series on television.)

The First Break
Indresano's first break came in the early 1990s when Computer Vision called in his people portfolio for a 30-day shoot in eight different countries. He had no people portfolio so he stalled them saying he was booked for the next four or five days. On those days (and nights) he did people shots--just what the client wanted.

He used the proceeds from the Computer Vision job and bought a Hasselblad, location stands and cases. "I maxed out all my credit cards and took the plunge. I was scared I wouldn't make it and be able to pay my bills so that really put a fire under me. Though the economy was slow, after that shoot business increased about 50 percent a year until it leveled off in 2001.

The Digital Move
"I was fortunate to buy this studio," he says, "because rents are so high now. I saw ahead of time that I had better buy something and pay off a mortgage. I knew I had to go digital since I was turning down a lot of work because we weren't set up for it. Digital was the future so I recently invested in another building exclusively for digital photography three blocks away, bought the equipment and hired a photographer and a color manager. I have a tenant, too, so I am in there pretty much rent free. I also employ several assistants, a producer, and two salespeople between the two studios. There are weeks now that both studios are shooting and I think I made the right decision. The business is now about 50 percent digital and 50 percent traditional."

What makes digital so attractive according to Indresano is that it is less expensive for the client. "There was no choice," he says. "The marketplace is different and right now people are looking to cut back. They let me know they are going to get a few estimates. What brings them back is that they want my style."

Indresano's style is graphic, dramatically lit, and clean. Not one for multiple items in a shot or busy backgrounds, he sticks to simple, beautiful product shots that awaken the viewer's interest more than a regular straightforward picture might--for instance, in one, a pair of shoes stand on end, almost dancing together and is typical of the unusual interpretation he is known for.

Indresano, who can still work a 25-hour day, advises photographers starting out in the commercial field to put in the time. "Though promotion plays a big role, a lot of work comes in through word-of-mouth," he says. "Animal Planet came in because the client saw my spread on Jay Leno and Keith Lockhart in Black Book.

"Most importantly, students must have a wide knowledge of digital photography and the bucks to buy equipment. I paid off a Kodak DCS 560, a MegaVision S3 Pro for my Fuji GX 680, and a Sinar Bron that does a 72MB file. That's over $100,000 in digital cameras and the same amount in lighting equipment, plus the six Mac G4s and scanners and a MacBeth color reader for the digital studio. Take the plunge and make sure your equipment is top quality. "If you are feeling overwhelmed and discouraged, don't! Do a little bit at a time. Hit the streets and keep showing your portfolio. There's competition and it's hard work but you need to stand out."

Craig Orsini--Goals Achieved
Always on the cutting edge, Craig Orsini set goals and marketed his skills to become a major shooter in the Boston area and has now created a national profile. After running film for 31/2 years as a full-time assistant to Boston photographer John Van S, he set out on his own in the early '90s. The boom was over and "the first four years were brutal," Orsini recalls.

I have watched Orsini over the years as he wooed Art Directors, buyers, and clients, meeting people and sending out his book. Today he has personal relationships with all the art buyers in the area. Orsini says, "I can call any art buyer and hold a conversation with them and when I put a new book together can show them work. This is special and I feel fortunate that I can sell myself this way. I have only recently taken on a top rep in New York to prepare for another national push."

Though Orsini maintains a large working studio he keeps things lean and mean. "I grew up in a family business," he says, "and still have their work ethic. Tim Gilman is my right-hand man and runs my studio when I am not here. Julie, my office manager, handles my billing and we are a team. I can't handle everything myself any more and I rely on them.

"Ninety-nine percent of my work is digital and that is the resonating factor in how things have changed. Digital has grown more in the past four years than its predecessor has in the past 75. The people who are lagging in business are the people who are not paying attention."

Today Orsini's mainstay is production and "people stuff' such as the recent campaigns for Boeri Ski Helmets and Titleist Golf. Fully equipped for any job his equipment ranges from a Kodak ProBack for the Mamiya RZ to a Nikon D1X along with a Phase One Scanback for files over 100MB for his 4x5 camera.

"There's tons of work out there," Orsini says, "but every job requires a different approach. Digital is not going to change the job but I can be more creative, shoot more and see it right away, as opposed to waiting a day for film, then wondering if it is going to scan right.

"A couple of camera bodies and some lenses are no longer enough. Now it's a matter of having a good digital camera and a good-sized Macintosh to work in Photoshop. I have six Mac systems running here including a mobile one for when we travel. Tim and I networked them so everything is printed from one system. We try to do everything ourselves rather than hire vendors to work on the computers. That way we can usually fix problems that arise and can remain pretty self-sufficient.

"Photographers starting out must realize that going to college or photography school will only go so far. They need several years of hands-on training. It's rare that a wonder boy or girl comes out of school and when they do, it is often short-lived. A lot of photographers are hot for a couple of years and then disappear. Either they didn't invest correctly or plan for down the road.

"For my wife and I it was a big decision whether to buy a house or invest in the business. I knew this digital thing was going to happen and that I could make it work. I took a personal loan and bought the Phase One, a Mac, a Kodak dye-sub printer and am still investing--not only in the hardware but in the 'mindware.' I keep educating myself with new equipment. Now that I have the reputation of being up-front I want to stay there.

"Today, a photographer must know digital to survive. You cannot build a business without that knowledge and to say you only shoot film you eliminate 40-60 percent of the business out there. There are photographers who believe that carving a niche is the way to go but I believe that you have to be able to do whatever the phone is ringing for. If someone calls you to shoot a can of pears you are going to shoot that can on white seamless and if they want a corporate headshot the next day, you do it because you know the rent is due."

Good personal relationships with buyers as well as with his crew have contributed to Orsini's success. And--he is still out there with his portfolio.

Indresano and Orsini are highly professional and both are driven to reach the top. Carol Fatta, owner of Spectrum Labs, who has worked with both men extensively says, "They both have an uncommon blend of 110 percent commitment to imaging and to the industry and because of this have weathered the storm and survived."