christmas cards

100 Things I've Learned about Photography in 10 Years, Part III


Note: this is the final post in my 3-part series titled "100 Things I've Learned about Photography in 10 Years". You can catch part 1 here and part 2 here.

I hope you've enjoyed this series. Today it's time for the epic conclusion :)

Here we go with the the final group of 40:

61. Keep a folder/journal of the times when work you’ve created for someone has truly made a difference. Maybe you created an image of a family member of theirs that has recently died. Or a special newborn shot. When that heartfelt appreciation comes in (and it’s noticeably different than regular appreciation), take note of it.

62. Remove the ‘sent from my iPhone’ or similar email signature from your mobile device. Leaving it shows people that you are available to read/reply every moment of the day.

63. Your word is everything among clients and colleagues. Treat it as such.

64. Creating your style may take a while. It took me from 2005-2009 to narrow my focus to what I liked. And I’m still refining parts of it with every shoot.

65. Play with a ring flash, and then try using it only for slight fill.

66. If you get into off camera lighting, you will find yourself preferring either speed lights or strobes. Try to use them both for different shoots. You’ll quickly learn the pros and cons of each. Eventually you’ll use both on the same shoot for some particular reason.

67. Research your commercial clients as much as possible. Knowing what they’ve got going on is a great conversation starter.

68. Keep an idea file of shoots you want to do. I use Evernote for this.

69. When you come across cool shots/poses, take a photo and then store it in Evernote. There you can use tags (for example “female, standing”), and always reference it later if you need quick ideas.

70. Experiment with all sorts of lights - strobes, flashlights, pen lights, fluorescent, etc.

71. Anytime a client suggests having drinks or a meal after a shoot, take them up on it. More relationship-building happens here than during the shoot, usually.

72. If you put a light on a stand, use a sandbag. Always. Trust me on this. If you travel for a shoot, consider purchasing 'water/sand bags' that you can fill up with water on location. That way you can fly with just the empty plastic bags.

73. If you have children, you still need to take the time to photograph them doing their thing, even though after a long shoot the last thing you want to see is a camera.

74. Wired tethered shooting has always worked better for me than wireless.

75. Pack snacks/bars/etc in your bag for every shoot.

50's diner

76. If your client has images from a prior shoot that they don't like, seek to understand why. This will give clues on how to approach your shoot with them and what to avoid.

77. Don't be a picture taker, but rather a problem solver. The former just pushes a button until the client is happy. The latter wants to understand the needs of their client before they even get to the photography part.

78. Every image can be critiqued on some level, so don't think that a critique is always correct. Over time, you will be able to judge your own photos. And you will worry less about what the professional 'critiquers' have to say.

79. Shoot for free if you are so inclined. I've done it before and have learned a lot from each of those shoots. Not every gain is monetary.

80. The value that you bring isn't just equal to the time you put in, so don't price yourself that way. My pricing is based on 10 years of experience, not the fact that I can do a shoot and be done in 2 hours.

81. Spend some of your time working with a charitable organization. For a few years I photographed for Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep (infant bereavement). Those sessions showed me the true power of photography.

82. If you must watermark, make it small and out of the way.

83. Selective/spot color went out a long time ago.

84. Avoid the cliched shooting locations (railroad tracks, I'm looking at you).

85. Music can be great to set the mode during a shoot. Streaming services like Spotify are great for this, as you can have all sorts of styles and genres at your fingertips (vs. purchasing a bunch of music).

86. Learn about Facebook dark posts.

87. Study up on Pinterest's promoted pins.

88. Consider using Periscope/IG Live/FB Live for BTS/Q&A streaming.

89. Respond to comments/questions on your blog and other social media channels, *especially* if you started the post with a question. It doesn't make you 'look cool' to not respond.

90. Keep a log of the time you spend on various projects. It will help you determine what to keep doing yourself, and what you can outsource. It will also help you provide better estimates for shoots.

91. If you have completely different 'lines' (for example, commercial photography and pet photography), consider splitting them into completely different websites. You will also end up marketing and promoting them both differently. I do this for (commercial work) and (holiday work).


92. Long-term relationships pay off. As I write this, I'm currently on a flight for a shoot that came about because I worked with a guy several years ago on a band shoot. That guy is now a Creative Director at an agency. Because of that long-ago shoot and my continual work, he suggested me for the shoot.

93. Don't listen to the naysayers scream about the death of photography. Families and businesses will always need images. It won't matter that iPhone 12 takes pictures as good as your Canon 5D Mark 3; what will matter is that you have years of experience and know what to photograph and what not to.

94. Figure out where your best 'idea spot' is. For me, it's the shower, hands-down. Lots of great ideas came from there (although so did high water bills).

95. Print your images. They do nothing if they just sit on a hard drive. I am still working on this.

96. If you are nervous about an upcoming shoot, it doesn't show that your weak - it actually shows that you care.

97. If you don't feel nervous about any of your projects, you probably aren't being pushed outside of your comfort zone. Find a project that will push you there. That's where all the growth is.

98. Be helpful to those coming up behind you. Never spoil their excitement for reaching a photography milestone that you completed several years ago. Share in their joy and excitement.

99. If you have a question about these tips (or anything else), email me at and I'll do my best to answer it.

100. Always remember that God has given you this special gift and it's up to you to use it to create wonderful works of art - enjoy the process!

What do you think?. Were there things that have worked for you that should be included? If so, leave a comment below. I'd love to hear about things you've learned!

Also, if you'd like the whole list as a downloadable PDF (along with my other PDF titled "How To Shoot For A Magazine" and my Art Wall Photoshop templates), just sign up for the mailing list and you'll get it right away!


100 Things I've Learned about Photography in 10 Years, Part II


Note: this is the second in my 3-part series titled "100 Things I've Learned about Photography in 10 Years". You can catch part 1 here.

I hope you enjoyed part one of this multi-part post! Today I was having a conversation with a wedding-photographer friend about backups, which reminded me a lot about #16 from the last post. You can never have too many backups. Heck even this post has a couple backups. :)

Here we go with the the next group of 30:

31. Send a new client a gift after your first big shoot. I send cookies.

32. When you like one image over another, really study it to figure out why you like it. Then check out other people’s work to see if they made an image similar to yours that you don’t like. Did they make that pose work? Why? How?

33. Be professional and confident, but don’t be bossy or arrogant.

34. Find out when you can share the images online, and make sure your client is ok with you doing that.

35. Assistants ‘assist’ you, not ‘do all labor’ for you. Get in there and help them with setting up stands/etc. Good ideas can come about during that time.

36. Know when your idea isn’t working and move on. Don’t be afraid to say that it’s not working.

37. For your website, don’t have more than a few images from a particular shoot unless the images are incredibly different. You don’t want prospective clients looking at your site and thinking “there’s that girl again”.

38. Try to record as much behind the scenes footage on a shoot as possible. Even little snippets with an iPhone are great.

39. Come up with a personal series (or 2 or 3) to shoot. Creative Directors love to see that you are passionate about different subjects and will make a shoot happen just for yourself.


40. Editorial and music photos won’t pay a lot, but they are a great place to experiment and nail down your style.

41. Discover your favorite photographers and learn their style. Once you’ve figured it out and practiced it, combine it with another photographer’s style and see what you like of the results.

42. Nobody ever buys chicken dance photos from a wedding.

43. Figure out what you can outsource. For weddings, you can have someone else edit your whole shoot and produce the album. For commercial/compositing work, you can use a service like to cut a subject out from a background. I’ve used them for years and they do great work.

44. Build a ‘resource’ list in your address book or email client. Have a list of assistants, retouchers, stylists, etc ready to go.

45. Take photos of potential photo spots and build a location image library inside of Lightroom/etc. When someone says they want to shoot in front of a purple wall downtown, you’ll know right where to go to find it.

46. Build an email list. This should be your first priority over Facebook, Instagram, etc.

47.A lot of colored gel can scream ‘1980s’. A little bit of colored gel can add character/dimension.

48. If you want to use a smoke machine in a building on a shoot, make sure to turn off the smoke alarms first.

49. Experiment with all sorts of gear by renting it first at places like and

50. Look for ways to collaborate with other creatives on personal shoots. For example, you do the shoot and they do the retouching, or vice versa. This gives you both great images for your portfolios.

51. Take the time to create a great bio page. A video here is a plus.

52. Get BTS videos on YouTube. Or interview videos. Or any type of videos.

53. Experience the difference of having a makeup artist on a shoot with you.

54. If you are traveling with your gear as a carry-on, be sure to pack a small bag just in case your rolling bag is too big for the overhead or they are out of overhead space. That way you can put the most important pieces of gear into a small bag which you hold in your lap or under the seat in front of you while they check the roller.

55. Become part of a local photography group in your town, or start your own (as I did with It can be a general interest group, or something specific like a portrait or newborns group.

cat opening a cat door

56. Build up a referral network of other photographers in different styles, and pass work around if it’s outside of your skill set or interest.

57. If you have the opportunity, hit up a conference like WPPI, Photo Plus, Imaging USA, etc. You’ll learn a lot, establish some great relationships, and probably get a good deal on some gear.

58. Become a content empire (I’m still working on this one).

59. Find mentors. Mentors to help you with technique. Mentors to help with business. Mentors to help with being a good person.

60. When you make a promise, immediately think to yourself how you can over deliver on it.

The series epic conclusion is coming Tuesday, 6/23. However, if you'd like the whole list as a downloadable PDF (along with my other PDF titled "How To Shoot For A Magazine" and my Art Wall Photoshop templates), just sign up for the mailing list and you'll get it right away!


100 Things I've Learned about Photography in 10 Years


Note: Part II is posted here. It's taken me 10 years to write this post. Well, not exactly. More like a few weeks. But it comes from a decade of experience.

10 years ago this month, my son Brandon was born. That was the month that I started learning photography. I didn't go to photography school or anything like that. I just had a voracious appetite for all things related to photography. I read books, watched videos, and took tons of images.

Just getting to that starting point was a big deal. My wife had given me a film camera somewhere around 2001, and I gave up on it because I couldn't understand what was happening and how I could improve. The birth of my son and the purchase of a Canon 20d changed all of that. Now I could see every improvement (and mistake) I was making. A path forward became much more clear. Every shoot brought about the tiniest of improvements.


Not that I didn't suck as all get-out initially ---> :)

Since those first bad images I've gone on to shoot weddings, families, seniors, newborns, magazine covers, headshots, advertising images, and more. I've had to weave through all of those styles and subjects to define my style and approach. As with all creative pursuits, you have to put in the time to figure out what you like - what is fulfilling.

And what you define as 'fulfilling' one year can be less-interesting the next. It's always-evolving. It's a process I've gone through for 10 years, and one that I anticipate will continue for the next 10.

So here, over 3 parts, are the 100 most-important things I've learned about photography. I tried to include technical, creative, and client-relationship tips. And I'm sure I've left some out that I would include had I written this post a year ago or a year from now.

Here we go with the first batch of 30!

1. Often the simpler ideas are better.

2. Don’t just shoot what you’ve set up - walk all the way around it, shooting above and below it.

3. Have backups for your backups.

4. Shoot for the end product - not everything needs to be photographed in the highest RAW setting.

5. Clients like regular updates while you are doing the post work on their images.

6. Learn to sketch, even if just a little. It can really help sell a photo idea.

7. Don’t be afraid of lens flare - just be sure to photograph the same angles without flare.

8. Tethering can show you what’s in or out of focus much better than the back of your camera.

9. Don’t keep shooting the exact same angle over and over until you think of the next angle to shoot. Clients don’t need 20 shots of the same pose.

10. If possible, scout locations ahead of time and write/sketch out your ideas. This applies to commercial work as well as weddings.

Will staney

11. Knock the safe stuff out of the way first before the fun/exciting stuff. This way you can get the trust of your subject/client first.

12. Remember that it gets tiring for a subject to hold a pose/position for too long. Give them rest breaks while you check images/discuss plans.

13. Always capture as much as possible in-camera. Trying to create lighting in Photoshop is hard and often fake-looking.

14. When shooting for magazines, remember to back up and give space for text around your image.

15. Let the shoot requirements (number of images needed, available time, etc) inform your lighting/gear decisions.

16. Employ 3-2-1 backups (3 copies, 2 locations, 1 of which is offsite).

17. A phone call to follow up after you sent a potential client some info can be a good thing. Just hearing your voice means you are a real person and not just an email reply. And the same is true for hearing their voice.

18. If you want to get into celebrity photography, check out this post by my friend Doug Sonders. And then practice nailing a shoot within 1-5 minutes.

19. Don’t be afraid to ask others at your shoot for their thoughts/input. I’ve lucked out with a ton of great ideas this way.

20. Try to bring an assistant to every shoot if possible (definitely for commercial/editorial work). It gets you into a team mindset much more quickly.

rob thomas

21. You will get hungry and thirsty after an hour or two. Plan for it. Never be embarrassed to need to eat.

22. At the shoot, always remember who is your client and who’s not your client. Try to help the latter when they have questions/suggestions, but remember you are always responsible to the former.

23. If you have any interest at all in compositing, collect your own images, starting with clouds. Those are what you usually always replace first in an outdoor scene.

24. Tag your image collection, but don’t go overboard with it. For example, “clouds” is fine. “clouds, puffy, white, midday, wispy” is overboard.

25. Only tag what you might need later. It makes no sense to tag 500 wedding dance images as “dancing” if you wouldn’t use them later on for some other client or project. Otherwise tag only your favorites from that event.

26. Experiment with the slightest amount of fill, both on and off axis. Just enough light to help define the subject.

27.  Keep yourself educated with the ‘top 3’ photography education resources I can think of: Chase Jarvis’ CreativeLive, Scott Kelby’s KelbyOne, and Jeremy Cowart’s SeeUniversity.

28. Someone once said that photography is 10% shooting and 90% moving furniture. This is true.

29. Show your subject how to sit/stand/etc. - don’t just tell them.

30. If you love an image, ‘compliment’ it to your subject. Let them know why you like it, even comparing it against images you’ve already shot of them. If they know what makes them look good, they will repeat it.

Note: Part II is posted here. If you'd like the whole list as a downloadable PDF (along with my other PDF titled "How To Shoot For A Magazine" and my Art Wall Photoshop templates), just sign up for the mailing list and you'll get it right away!

Santa In Carbonite


Announcing our 2014 Christmas card - Santa in Carbonite!

At the end of every year we collect all of the cool card ideas that we thought of during the season. I then create a calendar event for the next November, listing out the ideas we thought of. Last year we came up with a Star Wars Christmas card idea with the boys guarding Santa Claus, frozen in carbonite. Call them Imperial Elves.

Building A Set

To create this image I decided to build a miniature set in my studio. It was about 18 inches tall, and I used mostly balsa wood to build it. For the platform lighting I connected some USB led lights and then gelled them orange.

Star Wars Christmas Card Image 2
Star Wars Christmas Card Image 3

To get the concrete texture, I used a product by Liquitex called Ceramic Stucco. It’s great at producing a gritty, concrete-like texture to a surface. After applying it, I used a combination of Liquitex Basics paints and airbrushing to get the worn effect.

Star Wars Christmas Card Image 4

With all of the texturing and painting done, I tried out a few angles to see what worked best (you can see one angle with the camera below). Ultimately I decided on a front view, as it provided a nice symmetry to everything.

Star Wars Christmas Card Image 5
Star Wars Christmas Card Image 6


For lighting, I looked at stills from the original movie. There were overhead vents that had light spilling through them, raking across the walls, hitting the floor. To accomplish this I created a simple roof with the vents cut out. I placed a 580ex flash overhead with no diffusion, and adjusted the ceiling and light location until I got just the right amount of ‘rake’ across the walls and floor. I placed a flag over the sit to keep the light from the 580 from hitting the rest of the area. I just wanted it to come through the overhead vents. I also had a soft front light to serve as a general fill.

The exposure was long - 3.2 seconds, f/10, ISO 100. This gave me a good balance between the flash light coming in and the glow of the USB lights. Here’s a diagram of the lighting setup.

Star Wars Christmas Card Image 7

Creating Santa

To create our frozen Santa, I found a 3D model online of Han Solo frozen in a block of carbonite. I took that model into Cinema 4D and used its sculpting tools to turn Solo into jolly old St. Nick. I left some of the face details so that it still looked like Han a little bit :)

In Cinema 4D you set up a camera and lights like you do with a real shoot. So, I simply matched everything to how I had lit the set (shot at 35mm). I also added in two glow lights (one at his feet and one to the right side to mimic the light coming from the control panel).

Star Wars Christmas Card Image 8
Star Wars Christmas Card Image 9

'Principal Photography'

Photographing the boys was pretty straightforward. I had a soft light for fill. I also ran an overhead strip to simulate the vent light, as well as an orange-gelled floor light to simulate the glow from the platform behind them.

Star Wars Christmas Card Image 10

Once all the elements were photographed and rendered, I took everything into Photoshop for compositing. I did some touch-ups to the walls and platform grates, and I added some smoke from the top. Here's a shot of how the retouch was coming along before I cropped it:

Star Wars Christmas Card Image 11

And here's the back:

Star Wars Christmas Card Image 12

Would J.J. approve? I hope so!

This was just one of the cards I created this year over at Be sure to head over there this week as voting officially begins this Saturday for the coveted 2014 Refrigerator Award trophy!

Star Wars Christmas Card Image 13
Star Wars Christmas Card Image 14

New Christmas Card Site Launches

Some of you may know that every year I create custom Christmas cards for clients over at I sort of 'fell-into' doing this after we created a fun diner card several years ago. So far I've created cards in Austin, Dallas, and a few cities in Oklahoma. After some hard redesign work, I'm excited to share the brand-new website now at! There are now 40 card samples posted. I've included a fun description/anecdote from each of the shoots. There's also a new blog section as well as an online store (where I'll be selling some custom products down the road).

Check out everything, and if you're interested there's a 20% discount to go along with the relaunch that ends on Tuesday, August 19th.

Here are some sample images of my work. Check out more on the site.