Adventureous, thoughtful, talented, determined. These words sum up my impression of Miller Mobley, a 25 year old portrait photographer who stopped by Atlanta as part of a commercial shoot for Regions Bank.
Originally from the southeast, Miller moved to New York City, about a year ago, with his wife and business partner Jana. New York is obviously ‘a good place to be’ for a photographer, and while they’ve been enjoying big city life, he’s keen to pay homage to his hometown, Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Miller went to school at the University of Alabama where he studied Studio Art. The curriculum covered photography basics, but the self-study program he embarked on is what ultimately propelled him into the industry.
During a phone interview, I had the opportunity to chat with Miller Mobley about his fast-moving career. His answers were candid and his style laid back.
How was your experience shooting in Atlanta?
My job with Regions Bank was a 13 day, ‘music tour-like’ route through Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, and Atlanta, Georgia. The photographs I took feature small business owners that received loans from Regions Bank so they could get their businesses going. The photos will be featured in several prominent business magazines. We had a lot of fun traveling around the southeast together. I was able to bring my wife, my producer, and my lighting assistant. We worked hard, had fun hanging out afterwards, and got to explore new places. Plus our experience with Morel Studio Support made things easy. You provided us with amazing equipment. There’s nothing better than having equipment delivered to you when you show up in a big city. Honestly, I’m not used to it. I’ve traveled with a bunch of gear in suitcases in the past and it can be a hassle. Working with you guys was pretty cool”.
Awesome! Speaking of gear, what are some of your favorite modifiers to work with?
Lately I’ve been a big fan of using beauty dishes with grids. The light is focused and makes the face pop. In this shoot I used five beauty dishes with grids…so I can light everything with those. I also used a 7ft pro big umbrella behind the camera for fill.
I noticed that some of your past work has been pretty dark and has a lot of shadow.
I once heard someone say something along the lines of, “It’s not how much light you put on the subject. It’s about how much light you can take away.” That stuck with me and I love playing with that idea. It creates a dramatic look. Well, I also tend to like dramatic pictures and movies and music. Some people don’t know how to respond to it. I’ve heard “this work is too dark” before. So I know that I need to show range and I’ve been making an effort to lighten things up a bit.
Personally I like the look but I can see how that may not work for some clients. I have a somewhat non-relevant question. Who would you most love to take a portrait of?
Well, honestly, I’m dying to take a photo of someone well known. I have a few people in mind but I’d have to say my number one would be Kanye West. There’s just something about him. I would really love to take his picture. I also think Jack White would make a cool portrait and Tim Burton.
I hope you get that opportunity soon. I think that would be pretty cool. What made you decide that you wanted to take pictures as a career? What inspired you?
My biggest inspiration came from my stepdad’s copy of Richard Avedon’s book, In The American West. His portraits moved me. They are powerful and authentic. Then when I was 15 years old I really wanted a video camera. My parents got me a cheap video camera and I’d take videos of my brother skateboarding and us doing kid stuff. One year later I decided I wanted a serious camera for Christmas. This one cost something between three and four thousand dollars. My stepdad, who is no longer living, wanted to buy it for me but my mom was opposed to it. He bought it for me anyway. It was exciting and meant a lot to me. Because of that I gained experience with video.
I originally intended to be involved in the film industry but my college didn’t offer any film classes. As part of my Studio Art major I took photography classes and enjoyed taking still photos. Then I just went for it. With camera in hand and some new Profoto gear I started playing around and taking pictures. And I took a lot of pictures. I would walk up to strangers and ask to take their portrait. To learn about lighting I would set it up, experiment, fail, and start again. So at 20 years old I put a book together and showed it around to ad agencies. Then paid jobs started coming in. After a while I began spending more time taking pictures than at class. Ironically, I started failing my photography classes. I had a discussion with my dad and together we decided that it made more sense for me to pursue my photography career full-time then to continue school.
Wow. That’spretty amazing. There are a lot of inspired artists out there trying to make it. Youdefinitely did some things right to get where you are now. What is one bit of advice you have for budding photographers?
Lately, I’ve been aware of how important relationship building is in this business. I think some people go into it thinking that they can just be behind the camera and make pictures but I’ve found that people want to work with people they like…people they want to be working side-by-side with. That was how I got this last job which has been my biggest so far. So my advice is to remember that relationship building is still really important and you’ve got to continue to get out and meet people. I’m really lucky because my wife, Jana, is great with our clients and helps to build and maintain our relationships with them. I tend to be more reserved so she balances me out. She studied and worked in accounting and takes care of the business end of this job, she’s a great teammate. So like I said, I’m really lucky.
Thanks for that. Do you think you’ll be back in Atlanta anytime soon?
Well I’m here about five to six times a year. So I’m sure I’ll be back down there soon.
Cool! We look forward to seeing you around. Anything else?
Just that I found Morel Studio Support through the blog. I was researching something and it was there. I like that your website is clean, fresh, and easy to navigate. The blog is fun and informative…so keep it up!
First off, tell me how you got started in photography?
I got started in photography in high school because I couldn’t do any other subjects. I didn’t like math, I hated geography but I had an art class, and in that art class we had a black and white photography project. So I borrowed my dad’s old film Minolta and I’ve kinda been in love with it ever since. I got started because it was the only thing where I felt I could create something from nothing.
Where did you go from there?
I want to say I just started taking photos. I was teaching myself photography in 10th grade and no one else was really doing it at my high school. It wasn’t an art magnet school, just a regular high school. I would always have my camera around my neck and you’re 14-15 years old and everyone wants their pictures taken. I would literally go through a roll of film every two days just taking photos of my friends. The developing, understanding how all the nasty lights in the school worked, you know, all my photos came out underexposed so I learned aperture and shutter speeds, how to compose my shots better.
You command a lot of attention without ever opening your mouth. Has that been a good thing?
Oh definitely. I was a 6’6’’ black guy in a predominately white high school with a camera strapped around my neck. I played basketball for one year and then I stopped so I already had some attention around me from people who only have one-track minds. When I stopped playing basketball and starting doing photography, a lot of heads turned. It was a pretty interesting time.
Honestly, I didn’t recognize [any benefits] because my whole family is tall. I never really thought about how my height could be used to my advantage unless I was doing a physical sport. I think I do get a little more respect because I am taller, but I try to lead by example and be stern but fair.
You also seem really mature for a young guy. How old are you?
And you’ve already got a lot of experience under your belt. How did you get the portfolio you have now?
I attribute that to knowing what I wanted to do so early in my life. My dad and my mom were huge helps in that they didn’t feel like fighting with me. They were like, if he wants to do that, if he’s this passionate about photography and he’s this passionate about art then we might as well try to culture that.
They sent me to the summer programs at the Art Institute and I did the Rising Star program at SCAD when I was still in high school. Once I graduated, my dad hooked me up with a friend of his who owned a DVD hip-hop company called the Raw Report. It was 2007 and DVDs were pretty much the thing and not everyone knew how to put videos on YouTube yet. When you wanted a video, you’d buy a promo DVD. So I worked for the DVD hip-hop company for about a year after high school. I’d be going around and taking photos of all these iconic celebrities from T.I. to Usher to Shawty Lo. They took me to Miami to do a whole bunch of stuff for Rick Ross, so doing all that stuff early on gave me a real comfortable feeling in my craft. I knew that if I wanted to do this, I have to act a certain way. It was really seeing people who did it wrong and not wanting to do it that way. Knowing when to keep quiet, understanding when people on set were better than me. In a sense, just paying my dues.
You started out in stills and then you got into video?
My relationship with video started in high school. Stills were going good for me and then in 12th grade my teacher talked to me. She said we’re doing this project for our black and white class but you’ve been shooting for a while so I want you to really challenge yourself, I want you to do something with film.
I didn’t know anything about documentary except what I’d seen on National Geographic. At the time, my high school and Clayton County were going through some weird accreditation issues. They had some really funky rules because of it and there were some fights where kids had gotten hurt. There was this weird lock-down situation. We were high schoolers, so it got blown out of proportion. We saw it as a locked-down communist state and people were talking about rallying together against the rules. I took all of those things people were saying at my school and I turned into a faux-documentary. It was an hour-long feature essentially making fun of my school. This sounds bad now that I look back on it, but for about a week I’d follow around different groups, tell them what I was doing, and I have them bring out a lot of stereotypes. At the end of that, I probably had about 15 DV tapes on a Sony, I think it was an X1 cam, edited it in iMovie and presented it to my friends. That’s how I got into film, palling around with my friends and filming stuff.
How have you balanced out stills and motion?
Horribly. [laughs] But in a good way. When I started doing photography, I knew I wanted to do both, so I started doing both. This was 2007, 2008, before the 5D really took off and no one was really doing the two during that that time. They were focusing on photography, they were focusing on film and everyone I really admired were either directors or photographers. Skip ahead a couple years with the development of DSLRs and budgets getting the way they are, photographers are becoming filmmakers and filmmakers sometimes have to be photographers. It’s kinda weird, I feel like I’m failing into this niche market. Some photographers who I admire are now asking my help for video because they’re just now getting into it and vice versa.
Right now I’m more confident than ever that I can juggle both. I’ve only gotten some jobs because I can do both. Some of my best clients right now bring me on to do video projects and then have turn right back around a week later and do the photo work. Sometimes that’s fantastic because you get to control a project from start to finish. Now more than ever, juggling both is a necessity. With the way the market is, it’s getting to the point where people expect you to do both. I just want to stay behind the lens.
Tell me about college. There are a lot of good and bad feeling about art school. Did SCAD give you good preparation for the job market?
I’d gotten this question a lot of times. At first, no, but they’re getting a lot better at that. Now a lot of their classes require you to do internships. A lot of their classes make you collaborate with outside companies. This is the biggest kudos I give to SCAD, the fashion department partnered with ELLE magazine and about 12 fashion designers from SCAD got to premier their collections at this years Mercerdes-Benz Fashion Week. That was huge. I’m not even a fashion major but I took a lot of photos for my friends’ books so they could get into this. It was a really humbling experience just knowing what my friends went through to be presented with this opportunity. To go to New York, to hobnob with these people and see their collections. These are like 20-21 year-olds seeing their work on the runways. A friend of mine literally fainted when she got there.
I can’t even blame SCAD 100% because you’re not going to know what the industry is like until you get out there and do it. This goes for any art school, any university in general. Their main thing is to educate you and give you the tools to go out there and do your stuff. Things change so fast. Unless you take the time to get out of the classroom, go do an internship, go do a freelance job, you will go through four years of college and not know what the hell you’re doing.
SCAD and a lot of schools just don’t teach you about paying your dues. No school can teach you that. I have these friends who are out there now and they think they’re owed this and yeah, their work is good but they haven’t proved it to anyone other than the people they went to college with.
How did you pursue work outside of school?
It was hard. SCAD’s classes are two hours and 30 minutes a piece, four days a week with Fridays off. But the workload they give you is really, really intense. My first year I had a nice scholarship going in but because I decided to do so much work outside the class I lost it. My parents hated that but I didn’t regret it.
I was just killing myself. I would do my work to the best of my ability and then turn right around and go do a gig at a club for $75 an hour shooting nightlife photography. Really humble beginnings. If you’re not hungry, if you don’t want to work when you start out, that’s the quickest way to fail.
That’s the only reason I can say I have as much work as I do, because I had a passion to work. I wasn’t shooting nearly enough in school and when I was, I wasn’t shooting what I wanted to. Rather than complain or bitch and moan about it, I just decided to go out and shoot, because I knew there where people out there who wanted their photos taken. Whether or not I was in college didn’t make a difference to them as long as I could do the job. That’s how I was able to travel to London and do fashion piece over there.
Do you see yourself going down one path at this point?
Yes, I do. Early on in my career I didn’t know what I wanted to shoot and now that I’m a little older, more mature, and a little deeper into photography and the industry, I can really see why my portfolio wasn’t focused when I started. Everyone who came to me wanted something different. Atlanta’s a very unique market. New York, L.A., London. All those markets are defined and Atlanta isn’t. People here just want photos that are good. When I was shooting, some people wanted headshots, some people wanted a full model portfolio, some people wanted CD art, some people wanted fashion. All they knew was that I could shoot and it looked good. In sense, that was enough for them.
It was a good and bad thing. I spent a lot of time hopping around instead of honing in on a type of photography that would have helped me develop that eye.
What is it you want to shoot more of?
Most recently I’ve decided the best photography I do is fashion advertising. Pretty much advertising ala Calvin Klein ads, Diesel, Michael Kors. I work better outside, on location. I work better when there’s natural elements, where I can sculpt light around existing light. It’s what’s taken over my heart. Unfortunately, Atlanta’s not the best market to do that in. I’ve been doing what I can but sooner than later I’m going to have to make that big move to New York. I’m just making sure that when I do, I’ll have the portfolio to survive up there.
What’s the hardest thing about trying to break into the photo industry?
Gaining the attention of reputable contacts…the agencies you want to be signed to, the artists you want to shoot for. Unless you have a connection, you’re just another address filling their inbox. You’re just another photographer who says they have what it takes. That’s the hardest part, trying to gain the attention of those credible people. Unless someone vouches for you, who’s going to take the time to check you out?
Tell me about your cinematography and how you got involved with the feature you worked on this summer.
When I was doing a lot of photography, I wasn’t shooting film and when all my photography clients would dry up my film clients would come out of the woodwork. For the past four years, that’s just been the way it is. I started early on at SCAD interning for this art director named Tim Barrett. He owns a studio that a lot of different directors come through because he’s like an in-house production designer. What he needed was a liaison between the art department and the directors. I was that liaison. Horrible hours, but I got to meet so many great directors and spend so much time on sets. I stayed in touch with a lot of those directors and they threw me a lot of work.
One particular director was Damian Marcano, who took me on as an intern. He taught me Red workflow, how to use the Red, and Steadicam operation. He’s the one who really made me think and understand if I’m going to turn on a camera and shoot something, it better be something worthwhile because there’s so much garbage out there, how are you going to rise above it?
I worked with him for about three years. Currently I’m on with him as a cinematographer. It was just proving myself to him. I would show him I was growing and as that happened he gave me more responsibilities. When it came to this feature film he was shooting down in Trinidad, his home country, he said he needed a cinematographer who liked long hours, no pay and hot environments. And I was like, “Just get me down there. I’ll kill it.”
A seven hour plane trip later I’m down in Trinidad. Shooting 11 days, 14 hours a day during a state of emergency with a giant Red on my shoulder with little or nothing to light with.
Give me some highlights of that shoot.
The film is called “God Loves a Fighter.” It’s about a hit man and a prostitute who try to save this little girl from being sold into sex slavery. So they break their string of bad to do good. In itself, that’s a complicated script. A lot of locations. Lots of environmental elements.
When we went down there, Trinidad was in a state of emergency. That means it was pretty much being ruled by military police at the time. The police had found a truckload of cocaine and heroin like three weeks prior so they locked down the entire city. They had an 11pm curfew and if you caught after curfew without a pass you were immediately locked up. Alcohol sales were limited. Police were literally raiding houses almost every other night just because they could.
Because of that, a lot of things we wanted do to we couldn’t. We couldn’t have a night shoot that didn’t start at 6pm because we couldn’t be out past 11. That hindered our schedule, but in a way, it helped. We were able to shoot in some really bad parts of town because there was a lockdown.
On about the ninth day of shooting our camera fan broke in our Red. Trinidad, as you can imagine, is not a place where there’s a Red shop right around the corner. So what ended up happening when the camera would overheat is we’d stop, put the camera in a black trash bag and put it in a bucket of ice for about 20 minutes. That was a really fun experience. About the third day our follow focus broke and we had Nikkor lenses. In addition to being the DP, I was also the camera operator so you’re trying to pull focus on still camera lenses on a cinema camera when you don’t have proper lighting in a tropical environment with a camera that’s overheating.
I can’t imagine dunking an entire camera into a bucket of ice water.
It wasn’t ice water yet. It ended up turning into ice water, but every time we had to put the camera into that pail, really it was one of those family-reunion ice buckets made of Styrofoam, me and the director would dread putting it in there. I remember one time I looked at him at him and asked if we should say a prayer first. But it worked. It cooled down and we kept shooting. By any means necessary.
And you made it out alive.
Made it out alive with a fantastic, fantastic trailer. Some of the best stuff I’ve shot in my life to date. Really looking forward to the feature film and how it’s going to be put together. If I had to do it again, I would do it in a heartbeat but I’d make sure I didn’t leave my shoes in Trinidad. I had to wear flip-flops on the plane.
It’s pretty impressive to shoot a feature film in 11 days by any standard.
It was not easy. It was literally about 10 pages a day. Luckily, most of it was action and we had fantastic actors. The director saved all non-essential shots for a later date. I still don’t know how we did it.
So what’s your plan for the future?
Right now, I have a general idea. I definitely want to do more film work. It’s an exciting time for me and I think in every photographer’s career, where you’re doing a lot of work and it’s slowly but surely becoming work you want to do. I’m getting more ad work, I’m getting more print work. I was just hired by an agency to direct my first commercial piece. It’s a little humbling and weird to experience because it’s my first legit commercial as a director. And when I say legit, I mean I have a production company asking me what I want to shoot and we have castings that I get to pull from. Anyone who understands indie productions from the smallest scale…to have someone say, “This is what I have for you, all you have to do is show up and shoot it.”…I almost cried.
Are you happy with the choices you’ve made so far?
I am. Sometimes as a photographer it’s hard to see that. I think I’m on the precipice of being able to do some great stuff with great people. Hopefully everyone will be happy so I can move onto the next project, which will be a little bigger. Then the next project and the next project. So we’ll see.
I’m glad you haven’t let being from Jonesboro hold you back.
[laughs] Sometimes I tell people I’m from Jonesboro and they look at me like I’m from a foreign country or something. I feel like they want to say, “Oh my God. Well, this is running water, so uh, have fun with that.”
Morel Studio Support wishes everyone a safe and fun New Year’s celebration! May 2012 be your best year yet.
If you’re planning on heading down to Atlanta’s Peach Drop, here is a cool article with tips to simplify firework photography. Atlanta has a serious need for some quality New Year’s Eve firework pictures. Insert “Atlanta, New Years Eve, fireworks” into Google Images to see what I mean…hence the photo of a random firework picture above.