Not every successful professional photographer planned to be a photographer. Ann Elliott Cutting is one of them. Ann’s client list includes Nikon, Nike, Lexus and Microsoft. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Oprah, Parenting and various science publications, and she has shot some of the big names in popular music.
But when Ann was in her early twenties, she found herself standing at the crossroads when it came to choosing a career path. “My background is in science,” says Ann, “I did a four-year BA in biochemistry course at the University of California, San Diego. My career plan was molecular biology, but I also had an artistic side, including an interest in photography, which was a creative outlet. I had to choose between doing a science PhD or going to art college. I thought, ‘I’m young now. I should take the path that has the most risk before I have commitments, like a family.’”
Ann did a four-year BFA in photography at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California (her place of birth). “My early photographic influences were Cartier-Bresson, Irving Penn and André Kertész, but as I got into more conceptual photography, I started liking more contemporary photographers,” says Ann.
In 1987, Ann’s course finished and she placed an advertisement in a source book, “Through that I got myself an agent, who was particularly good at getting people started,” she explains, “most of my work was in the music industry, shooting album covers for artists like Bonnie Raitt, Patti Labelle and Kenny Loggins. It was super fun, because I was young and into music.”
Ann did music photography for around five years, before moving onto advertising and working on campaigns for companies such as Target, Lee Jeans, Nike and Microsoft. “That was great fun too,” says Ann, “it was bigger productions, a lot of location work and working with bigger crews.”
When you look at Ann’s portfolio, three things immediately hit you. The first is that her images are beautifully composed and lit. The second is the diverse range of genres she covers including, sport, science, food, people, still life and lifestyle. The third is the wide range of photographic techniques she employs which include, digital imaging, large format, motion – even plastic toy Diana cameras.
“There’s a technique side of photography and there’s an emotional side, and I like both,” says Ann, “sometimes one drives the other, and in order to get a certain emotional feeling from an image, you employ certain techniques. So, I like to test a lot, and play around with things and techniques, and then utilize them to illustrate an idea.”
A low-cost, plastic toy camera seems such an incongruous object to have on a professional shoot, so how did that arise? “It was for some editorial work that required a certain look. When you work with a toy camera, you’ve got three simple settings, one shutter speed and you don’t know if you’re pointing it in the right direction! Large format is totally opposite – you’ve got these beautiful giant negatives. I miss Polaroid terribly and I support the New55 project [black and white 4x5 instant positive-negative sheet film].”
“There are so many techniques you can use with digital,” adds Ann, “It becomes illustrative, Photoshop is definitely part of my toolkit. You’re primarily shooting for the concept you have in mind - you’re shooting the elements. Then, you’re compositing and playing around with all the layers, to try and get your point across.”
Ann’s appetite for new photographic techniques is undiminished, “I’ve gotten into animated GIFs, which is interesting, because there’s motion with brief concept. I’d like to try high-speed photography in a lab, and also do some microscopic photography. There’s software which lets you take several images 10 microns apart and then fuse them, so they’re sharp, and that interests me.”
Despite the wide range of techniques Ann uses, she describes her primary equipment as, “Pretty simple. A Nikon D800 and then all the lenses you can think of! For lighting, I use Profoto – I really like their strip lights. I use small, microscope lights for still life. I also use a lot of available light. My studio has a huge, two-story window on one side, so I use that light a lot, because it’s natural.”
The diversity in Ann’s work accelerated in 1990s, she says, “That was when art directors would pigeon-hole you, but liked to see how you brought your vision into other genres. Also, as a photographer, you go in and out of different areas of interest. You may exhaust one or get excited about another one.”
Technique and imagination are important for any professional photographer, but other skills are vital, says Ann, “People starting out in photography forget that so much of it is a business, and so much of it is a production and working with a team, and how to manage all of that. Those are two big learning curves.”
Ann enjoys the collaborative nature of photography, “The optimum-sized crew for me is around 6-10. Over the years, we have built an amazing team, where everyone knows each other well and we get each other’s vision. It’s just a really cohesive group – it’s like a well-oiled machine. Having said that, I don’t mind playing around on my own in the studio, and that’s the testing part.”
Marketing matters, adds Ann, “It’s really important to market yourself; otherwise people don’t know you are out there. And nowadays, it seems you have to be everywhere.” Gaining new clients and then retaining them can be challenging, so what’s the best way of achieving this?
“It sounds clichéd, but you have to stay true to your vision and your style,” says Ann, “try and have a vision that is fresh and unique and reproducible. Stay in touch with clients – although don’t overdo it. Be collaborative when you work with them – you’re helping them solve a problem. Try not to be overwhelmed, but think, ‘this is a fun puzzle. Let’s figure it out and let’s make it look cool too!’”
Ann is optimistic for the future of professional photographers. “I teach part-time at ArtCenter College of Design and I see students getting good jobs and working for fun companies. I think photographers coming out of college today have many more areas to spread their work around. It might be advertising, social media, an online magazine. Having those diverse skills is an asset.”
Ann acknowledges that life is harder for photographers, because there’s so much supply, but adds, “What separates professional photographers from everybody else are high production values, having the legal aspects all in place (like talent releases) and delivering a professional product to the client on time within budget.”
She adds that there is still a lot of work at the high-end, such as advertising, “They have big production values and want someone who can deliver something that is complex, and who can work with the client and their agency, and manage a team.”
Ann’s final advice to would-be photographers is, “Find a niche, be passionate about what you do and work hard at it. That takes a lot of time and effort. Timing is everything: being in the right place, at the right time, with the right work and a little luck is also the key.”
So, does Ann have any regrets about her career choice? The answer is a resounding ‘no.’ “Every day you go into work and it’s different, and that keeps it interesting,” she says, “there’s always another puzzle to solve and that keeps me engaged.”www.cutting.com