John Schell Interview: The Importance of Authenticity in Lifestyle Photos

John Schell is a lifestyle, commercial, editorial and advertising photographer currently based in Los Angeles, California. A New York transplant, he started his photography career after nearly fifteen years of teaching special education at both the middle and high school level.

When did you first know you wanted to be a photographer? How did you start in photography?

John: Looking back at family photos, there always seemed to be a photo of my dad with his cameras so early on, it was there that an interested was first sparked. Years later, I took a photography class in high school and it was there, I think, that I further developed the interest.

This was in the early 1990’s, a few years before digital cameras were invented when our only option was to shoot and develop our own film. I was a student who loved science, history, and literature, and photography appealed to all three of those interests. Later on, after high school, I developed a love of filmmaking and began to combine that with my other love, which was the ocean and surfing.

Over the next few years, I filmed and produced a few small time surf films which had showings a few small, local theaters.

For the next fifteen years or so, I let photography slip into the background while I attended to other things, eventually starting a career as a high school special education teacher in NYC.

It wasn’t until about 2009, after an eight-week backpack trip through Europe with a tiny point and shoot, that I began to feel that old love of photography come knocking. When I returned home, I decided I needed to upgrade my little Canon Oowershot ELPH for something a bit more robust and I bought up my first DSLR, a Canon 5D Mark II.

From that point, it was like reuniting with an old love. I knew I wanted to be a photographer—whether it was full time or as a hobby, it was something that I allowed myself to become completely obsessed with. In 2014, I quit my teaching job to pursue photography full time.

It’s been an adventure, for sure and although the cameras have upgraded and changed over the years, I haven’t looked back or put my camera down since.

What are the difficulties of lifestyle photography?

This answer is twofold: first, I think the main difficulty of lifestyle photography is the same in any genre of photography, which is that every genre is saturated with people who are producing such incredible content, it’s often difficult to stand out.

I think also there is a perception that lifestyle photographer, as a genre, is fairly easy to do—and, admittedly, the entry point, associated costs, and technical prowess are much lower than, say, sports photographer and/or high-end fashion photography. But like anything else, to make something look easy often takes a tremendous amount of hard work and skill and I think people, especially those who hire photographers, often assume that because someone is able to take a nice lifestyle image, they’re somehow ready to shoot their respective lifestyle campaign. Obviously, that’s not the case, but… the battle continues.

Secondly, I think another difficultly with lifestyle photography in general is authenticity. A lot of the emails I get are photographers asking me how can they too capture natural moments.

Without going into a full-blown workshop here, I can tell you that the moments look real because they are real.

When I was first “learning” how to be a photographer, I went through stage after stage, trying my hardest to replicate the images I saw other photographers taking. Needless to say, it didn’t work. It wasn’t until I took a long, hard look at myself and what I brought to the table that I realized the uniqueness of my work has a lot to do with my personality (as does everyone’s).

What I mean by this is simple: if you want to take fun photos, you have to be fun. I don’t mean to say that I’m always a barrel of laughs, but on a photoshoot, I try to remember and convey to everyone that we’re supposed to be having fun. Once we reach that point, the everything else just flows naturally.

There is obviously a lot more to it than that, but that’s a brief, super brief explanation.

How important is location for your kind of work?

Location is very important to me. Growing up on the east coast of the United States, in a small town on Long Island, New York, I dreamed of living in Southern California. I spent my summer months rushing back and forth to the ocean, spending as much time in the water as I could before the cold weather returned and the beach was off limits. When the opportunity to move to Southern California and its year-round summer weather presented itself, it was a no-brainer.

As I’ve often said, I consider my work to be a tribute to Southern California and I do my best to showcase the all of the beauty we have available here.

You’re mostly using natural light in your images, can you tell us why?

I know I might ruffle a few feathers here, but unless it’s done really well and really subtly, using lighting on lifestyle shoots just kills the mood for me. If I’m looking at someone’s lifestyle work, I want to imagine myself in that moment, with the subject, and I want to lose myself within the frame. If someone brings in lighting, and it’s obvious, then it completely takes me out of it.

In my work, I strive for authenticity—99% of what you see of my work are real, true moments. If I had to take a minute—or even a second—to plan out or set the lighting beyond what’s naturally available, I feel like I’d lose something special.

What is your current gear?

For a while it was an ever-changing collection of lenses and bodies. But recently, I hit upon a few things and my current kit is perhaps my favorite setup I’ve ever had.

Currently, I’m using a Canon 1DX Mark I, 24-70 f/2.8 and 70-200 f/2.8 MKII, 35L f/1.4, 17-40 f/4, and an Aquatech Delphin water housing. This is mostly my commercial kit – what I use when working with some of my larger clients. It’s also what I use when shooting sports, surf and/or waves (from the water).

Recently, I happened upon the Fuji XPro-2 and 23 f/1.4 and I have to say, it’s been a love affair from the very moment I took it out of the box. I was looking for a camera that gave me high quality images, high portability, and the ability to remain candid. In the X-Pro2, I found exactly that. It’s the perfect complement to my 1DX and, unlike the 1DX, it comes everywhere with me.

I decided that I was going to start taking my camera with me everywhere. I had some friends who did that, and I always remember enjoying their photos. They were snaps, mostly, but they were true; honest, unadulterated, slice-of-life type images which held tremendous value as memories. I missed that. I wanted that.

Is there any piece of equipment you wish Fujifilm would announce soon?

Another million pack run of FP-3000B? Honestly, I keep my setup pretty minimal, only using the 23mm f/1.4 at the moment. But browsing through what equipment is already available, I can’t think of a single thing they’re missing (true story, I typed out a suggestion of a lens I thought would be great to see them make, and as it turns out, they already make it).

I’m sure there are folks who have a laundry list of what they’d like to see announced, but I’m quite happy with what I have and can’t think of anything I’d need that isn’t already available.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone wanting to pursue a freelance career in photography, what would that be?

I think the best advice I’d ever gotten (or given to others for that matter), was that if freelancing is something you really want to do, you have to stick to it, and not just stick to it, but stick through it.

There are going to be times when you’re questioning the decision to go freelance and unless you’re already independently wealthy and/or are supported by a rich uncle somewhere, there are going to be extended periods of being penniless.

It’s going to be tough and it’s going to make you question everything you thought you knew and/or wanted. But if you do decide that this is what you want, you can’t give up at the first, or second, or third sign of struggle.

Find unique ways to be competitive, find unique ways to market yourself, find those unique ways to bring in clients.

You’re going to have to accept and understand the struggle and ultimately you have to work through the struggle. When you do come out on the other side, both you and your work will be better for it.

Finally, where can we see more of your work?

My website has the majority of my work, but my Instagram (@johnschell) is where I post all of my new content as well as travel and personal photos.

About the Author: Samuel Zeller is a Swiss photographer and editor of FujiFeed. To see more interviews like this one or learn more about FujiFeed, click here or follow them on Instagram. This interview was also published here.

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