Don Giannatti Interview: How to Become a Professional Photographer

 Lighting Essentials - Don Giannatti - Featured

Don Giannatti is a professional photographer who focuses on commercial and fine art photography. He runs the Lighting Essentials blog where you can learn more about creating beautiful lighting. PhotoWhoa readers, make sure to pick up his free e-book on portrait photography.

How did you learn photography?

My dad was a professional photographer for a while, and I learned a bit from him. But it was later in my teens when I discovered the work of Adams, Cunningham, Weston and Strand that I wanted to learn how to make such glorious images.

I was mostly self taught. I took a few workshops and spent every waking hour pouring over magazines and books and monographs trying to make images that were like the ones I was constantly looking at. Not in a ‘copy’ sort of way, but in an overall look to the image.

I moved to LA for a few years and assisted some great shooters there. That is when the education into photography took off. I assisted by day, shot in the evenings, and processed when I should have been sleeping. Glorious, long days of pure photography.

Lighting Essentials - Don Giannatti - Example

When did you realize that photography could be a profession?

Well, that was always a goal. I wanted to be a photographer that got assignments all over the world to go and take photographs of exotic places and gorgeous women and incredible food. And I wanted to be paid for it. Being paid is sort of a measure of success if you want to be a commercial photographer.

I watched other photographers having all the fun, so I decided I wanted some of that… and just did it. Quit the job and opened a studio. Bam…

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What are three tips you would give to the amateur photographer looking to go pro, but who’s not sure about the financial feasibility?

1. Make damn sure you are ready. Not only with your gear and talent, but with your mindset. Being self-employed can suck the suck out of suck if you are one of those people who need a boss to tell you what to do, where to go and how to do it. You may have heard the words ‘self-motivated’ but until you become a self-employed photographer, you have no idea how incredibly difficult that can be. You have to be willing to work a half day every day. Whichever 12 hours you choose.

2. Make sure you have a support system. An unhappy spouse or significant other is a problem that will become a wound. Surround yourself with positive people who truly want to see you succeed – people who believe in you. There are times when you are going to want to quit, to just throw up the arms and say ‘screw it’ – I’m done.”

At those times, having people in your life that will tell you to stop whining and get back to it are invaluable. They are your buffers. Find those people and hold them dear. As to the naysayers… well, this is hard, but it is a fact of life. Ditch ‘em. Get them out of your life or to the margins so they cannot infect you with negativity.

3. Make photographs you love. Make photographs that make you happy to make them. Don’t let it all become commercialized and commoditised. Let the fantastic gift you have for making still images flow from you. Shoot every day.

Every. Day.

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Can you tell us a brief overview and summary of the books you’ve written?

Lighting Essentials: Subject Centric Lighting for Digital Photographers (Amherst Media)
This book is an overview of the type of lighting I believe in. Subject Centric means that the light that is presented from the subject is the goal of lighting, not just throwing up a light. Different modifiers present differently on different subjects. With subject centric lighting, the photographer begins to visualize the image before setting up the lights – and then they know what lights to set up.

Lighting Essentials: Lighting for Texture, Contrast and Dimension in Digital Photography (Amherst Media)
This book takes a very close look at the different ways that lighting can be used to enhance, or mitigate, the features of any kind of subject. When we realize that the qualities of the subject itself will determine how the lighting we use is presented from it, the ability to make the light we want is improved greatly. This book is a real nuts and bolts examination of lighting.

Don Giannatti’s Guide to Professional Photography (Amherst Media)
This book is a must have for anyone considering becoming a professional photographer… especially in a small or medium market. It discusses the various genres of commercial photography, how to break into a market, building a portfolio, and finding your niche.

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What inspired you to write your books on photography?

I loved photography books when I was becoming a photographer, so the idea of making one myself was pretty intriguing. I considered it a challenge to write a book, and I do love challenges. And the approach I take to lighting is, while not unique, not that prevalent, and I want to help photographers understand that the process of lighting is understandable.

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What are three ways a new photographer can accelerate their learning curve?

1. Shoot lots of photographs. Make photographs that are simply fun to make. Challenge yourself with images that are difficult to make.

2. Do not attach oneself to any single way of doing something. If you like natural light, cool… learn to use strobes too. If you use strobes on everything, add some natural light skills to your toolbelt. Do not tie yourself to a single approach to anything you do.

3. Workshops, seminars, meetup groups… anywhere you can immerse yourself in the creation of images and also be around others who are equally as committed. Research your workshop opportunities and make sure you find out what goes on there before you spend your money, but a good workshop can be very valuable.

And if you take a workshop, or an online class or seminar, put what you learned into practice. Photography is an action activity, not a mental game. You must create to see the creation.

Lighting Essentials - Don Giannatti - GentlemanHow did you get into commercial photography?

I hate having a ‘job’. I was able to make money as a photographer, so I began freelancing right from the beginning. I liked the world of advertising and marketing a lot, so it was a good fit. Plus, there were all those models who liked to hang out at the studio… heh.

If you mean why commercial instead of weddings? I am not a wedding photographer. I don’t care all that much about weddings period, so the whole genre is uninteresting to me. And if I do it and am not interested in it, well… that’s a job.

And I hate having a job.

What do you do when you’re on a shoot and can’t seem to take great images?

Great images? I fear that for most of us commercial photographers, ‘great’ images are not the goal. I can make a pretty damn fine image of a widget on a white background, but not sure it will ever be in my portfolio or considered ‘great’.

The goal of the commercial photographer is a homerun every time at bat. That homerun is set up in advance by the expectations of the client. THEY determine if it is indeed a homerun.

There are times when finding that homerun is more difficult than others, but there are no base hits in this business. So you press on until the image presents itself.

I will work every angle and pull from a multi-decade deep set of tools and images that I have done and/or seen to find a way to make a good shot in a terrible situation. And I depend on my skills and my ability to visualize to present the client with the best alternative to any challenge.

Managing the expectations of the client, and helping to define just what the homerun will look like in his scenario helps a lot.

Lighting Essentials - Don Giannatti author

How did you land your first client?

Well, I had been shooting mostly girls for quite a while (fancied myself a fashion shooter back then) and my neighbor was an art director for a small design firm.

He asked me to take a photograph for him and handed me a shiny metallic bottle and a piece of paper that was the ‘layout’.

I figured this would be easy, I mean really – a stupid can? How hard can that be?

It took me the better part of a week to make that image. He was very patient and would show me where the shot was failing, so I would go back and shoot it again, process the negs, make the print.


On the fourth time delivering the shots, he smiled and said… “Yeah, that looks good.”

I was hooked on the challenges of shooting this kind of work.

Then he handed me a check for $400 (1978) and I was totally hooked… LOL.

After that experience, I spent a year developing my skills, quit the job, sold the house and moved to LA.

But that is a story for another time, and a cold Corona… or two.

Make sure to pick up another one from the author of Lighting Essentials free e-book on portraiture!