Chuck Espinoza is a freelance portrait and lifestyle photographer living and working in Los Angeles. We chat with Chuck about ditching a job in investment banking for a more rewarding career in photography and get some great advice for anyone considering shooting underwater. Enjoy…
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you first got started in photography.
I’m married with two kids and I live in a suburb of Los Angeles called El Segundo – if you have ever flown into LAX, you’ve landed in El Segundo. In 8th Grade, I found a Pentax Spotmatic my Dad brought home from Vietnam. Although my Dad was into photography, he was an early adopter of Polaroids and didn’t have that much experience using the Pentax. His instructions were to make sure I set the ASA correctly and to adjust the aperture or shutter speed so that the meter was in the middle. I was a skater and so all of my early photos were of skateboarding and my friends. In high school I drifted away from photography; it wasn’t until about ten years later that I bought another 35 mm and started shooting again.
Before my career as a photographer, I was an equity analyst at an investment bank. After a handful of years in that business, I grew to hate my job and learned that no amount of money would make me happy. As I started to try and figure out what I wanted to do with my life, a mentor asked “What would you be willing to do at 4am and do for free?”. The answer to that was photography. I started interviewing photographers, trying to get some insight on how I could become a professional photographer. A few months later I ended up getting laid-off due to downsizing and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. That was in the fall of 2003.
When I left the investment bank I was shooting a lot of urban landscapes and surfing; I eventually started to poke around with fashion/portraiture and, with my continued research of the photography industry, people suggested I should start to specialize in one area. I just wasn’t willing to pick a specific genre; because of my experience working as a financial analyst, I figured with photography I would just shoot what I wanted and let my style and preferences work themselves out. I was afraid to pick and make the wrong choice. Over the past 13 years my interest, style and goals have narrowed themselves down. In hindsight, those people were right; art directors and art buyers want to know that Photographer X has a specific style and can always be counted to shoot X. They don’t seem to like a photographer that shoots architecture and portraits no matter how good they are at both. They have very specific boxes they are trying to fill in and it’s easier when the puzzle piece is an exact fit. I’m glad I had the opportunity to wander around photography and learn what I enjoy shooting and what I shoot just to make a buck.
As I started to try and figure out what I wanted to do with my life, a mentor asked “What would you be willing to do at 4am and do for free?”. The answer to that was photography.
Would you say that you have defined your style and, if so, how would you describe it?
My style could be defined as portraiture with a fashion and lifestyle edge. It has a very Southern California vibe. Through my connections via Instagram I find that it is similar to the vibe I see in a lot of Australian photographers. I think the beach and coastal lifestyle helps shape the culture and my style. Whether it’s in the water or in the studio, I care more about the subject and what they are conveying in the photo. The technique, equipment or wardrobe are secondary to my thought process.
Who or what are your main sources of inspiration?
My main sources of inspiration still come from printed magazines. Just the other day I came across a five page advertorial in Vanity Fair by Alex Prager. Here you have a successful fine art portrait photographer making these amazing images that are 100% her style yet they are being used to help sell clothes. They are unique and interesting and thought provoking. That’s what I aspire to shoot; images shot for me that also provide the client with the value that they seek by using my photography. The photographers shooting for the pages of Vanity Fair, Equire, GQ, Fast Company, Interview, Wired are my inspiration – Seliger, Leibovitz, Streiber, Testino, Ockenfels, Weber, Yu Tsai, Ben Watts, David Bellemere, Platon, Demarchelier, Dan Winters, Steven Klein, Lindbergh, Russell James, I could go on and on.
Instagram has also become a source of inspiration. It is great to be exposed to so many new and creative ideas that I wouldn’t be exposed to if I were just looking at commercial and editorial shots in magazines.
Shooting in the water is so unpredictable and exciting that I feel as excited as I did when I first started shooting.
Some of your recent work has seen you take to the water for a series of underwater portraits and bodyscapes; tell us about the kit you are using for this and any tips you could give photographers keen to try out this style.
Two years ago, I was inspired to shoot a model in a pool using some crappy cameras I already owned. I had a point & shoot 35 mm camera I had bought for a surf trip and an underwater housing for my Canon G9 (2007 era point-and-shoot). I found a model who happened to have access to her parent’s pool and it started me on the path I’m on today. After a year of shooting with 35 mm underwater cameras and a seven year old digital point-and-shoot, I figured it was worth the expense of upgrading to a professional housing for my DSLR. Last year I bought an Aquatech housing for my 5D Mark III and it was one of the best photography investments I have ever made. The housing was an expensive investment and I’m glad I spent the year prior experimenting with fairly inexpensive cameras. I’d suggest for anyone wanting to shoot in the water, the way is to start with cheap cameras. I hate the idea of using a GoPro for still shots but it’s a great way to shoot in the water without risking ruining $5000 in equipment. Cheap point-and-shoots, Nikonos’ or similar 35 mm cameras are a great start. Shooting with a DSLR in the water has huge risks; I run the risk of ruining the tool I use to make a living every time I take it into the water. Unless you have photography insurance or the financial means to replace a body and lens I would suggest starting small. Even with professional housings there are still risks of loss; I’ve had two instances where the housing leaked because of a rubber gasket (both times my fault) and, had I not had enough experience and a great housing, I would have ruined my camera. I suggest not risking everything on a $300 Made-in-China housing from eBay.
Shooting in the water is so unpredictable and exciting that I feel as excited as I did when I first started shooting. After years of shooting in studios, I have a pretty good sense of what the outcome will be if I put this light here with this light modifier. Shooting in the studio started to get boring. There was only so much excitement I could bring by changing lights or building sets but in the water all bets are off. Whether it’s the models ability in the water, the waves, the physical demands on both the model and I working underwater, it’s all a challenge every time I shoot in the water.
What is next for you? Are you working on any projects that you can tell us about?
The ocean temperatures in LA have already dropped and so shooting in the ocean is probably done for the season. I’ll spend the fall and winter seeking out heated pools and continuing to experiment and try new things underwater. We just moved to a new house last weekend and I’ll be working on turning the garage into a new studio space. For the past 14 months I’ve lived in a house where the situation wasn’t ideal for a good home studio.
My feeling is that when I’m not employed I need to be shooting for me. I need to practice and exercise my creative muscles to keep myself fresh and hopefully shoot exciting work that gets the attention of art buyers. Tomorrow I have my first meeting for a project where we will be integrating a photo I will shoot to be used as a backdrop in a large faux hotel lobby installation. It’s a huge design and install that will involve interior designers, a set designer, prop stylists, models and a lot of math that’s way over my head. These are the types of jobs I love – solving problems while being creative.
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All images copyright Chuck Espinoza.