When I think of the word ‘iconic’, Bambi Cantrell immediately comes to mind! Bambi is a genuine lover of people which is why her work has the ability to speak volumes in a single frame. Bambi has an array of awards, recognitions and accomplishments in appreciation of the wonderful work she has created over and over again throughout her 25+ year career as a photographer. Bambi is the first woman to receive the “Icon of Imaging” award by Microsoft, she has also been presented with the “Golden Eye” from the Russian Federation of Professional Photographers, named one of the “Top 10 Best Wedding Photographers in the World” in 2007 by American Photo Magazine and in 2003, The United Nations presented Bambi Cantrell with the “International Leadership Award”. And I could keep going on and on with more awards and acknowledgments! Did I mention that she’s also the author of 3 Best Selling books, “The Art of Wedding Photography” “The Art of the Digital Wedding” and “The Art of People Photography“. Yes, she’s the real deal and yep she happens to be that kind of incredible!
But as awe inspiring as all of these acknowledgments are, what I believe truly sets Bambi Cantrell apart is her generous spirit and desire to share. No question about it, Bambi is an incredibly talented photographer but it’s her welcoming personality that really makes her shine so brightly! Bambi once said, “I just love people, and believe truly great photographs are a reflection of who the client is, not who I want them to be.” It’s an showcase Bambi Cantrell as our 20th “Inspire Me Friday” interview!
What’s in your bag?
Canon 1D Mark IV
How long have you been a professional photographer and what motivated you to become one?
I’ve been a professional photographer for over 25 years. And my motivation was I absolutely love photography. I always have. Since I was 5 years old I’ve always loved pictures. When I was a little kid, if my parents wanted to keep me out of trouble they’d just give me a photo album and I could be content for hours. I just love the interpretive value of photographs and I’m very moved by the fact that each person can interpret an image differently.
Tell us a little about Cantrell Portrait Design, inc?
I have a full service studio. We photograph families and children and do head shots and portfolios and of course weddings. I have an 1800 sq foot studio in the historic Arsenal building which is in Benicia, California and I have huge 20ft ceilings and brick walls, hard wood floors and it’s just an amazing space to be in. Benicia is an amazing little town that’s about 35 minutes from San Fransisco. It’s the best kept secret in the bay area and the weather is really nice here. The community that I’m in, this building houses hundreds of artists so it’s very much an art community which is very stimulating emotionally. I’ve got painters and sculptors, and people that work in glass. Just some amazing very well regarded world renowned artists are in my building.
What’s an activity that makes you lose track of time?
I’d love to say something clever but Jerry already took #1 so I’ll say playing with my dog Cooper.
Where might we find you when you’re not working?
Good question because I work a lot. At the risk of sounding not too clever, sitting on my back porch, drinking a glass of wine and listening to the birds. Doing some landscape photography which seems to be kind of my passion these days. I’ve found a love for it that I never ever would think I would. And I’m crazy about it! It’s very, very, stimulating emotionally, it’s a great release for me and it’s a great creative outlet for me.
Where was your most memorable wedding?
I have to say my most memorable wedding was here, and I didn’t shoot it. It’s crazy but I’ve had lots of wonderful, amazing events that I’ve had the privileged of photographing over the years. I photographed Steve Sheanin, the owner of Rangefinder Publishing, and I had the honor of photographing Skip Cohen, the owner of Going Pro, his daughter and his son’s wedding. I’ve photographed people like Gary Payton, the basketball player – his wedding. All of these events were very, very special but I have to say the one that is most special to me is the one that I attended as a guest and that was my son’s wedding because it really changed the way that I felt about wedding photography because I was on the other side of the camera for a change. It made me appreciate what goes into planning an event because I paid for his wedding and all the people that came to that wedding were very, very important. It made me realize how important the people are that come to the wedding.
Sometimes we as photographers, we get kind of jaded and only think about the bride and groom and the bridal party and nowadays it seems like wedding albums are only a collection of the bride and groom jumping in the air, running down the street or sitting in the café and there are no pictures of family and no respect for the fact that these people were even there. It’s really sad and it completely changed my perspective of the wedding experience and it made me realize how important it is that I photograph the bride with her mom or dad and the relatives, the aunts and uncles. These are very important people. I mean my sister in law diapered my son, Cameron, and she was like his second mother. And I can’t imagine a photographer turning to her and saying, “No, you can’t take pictures of this.” It’s just so ridiculous. And so it made me realize the value of photographing all of the human experiences and not being afraid to do portraits of people and it seems like especially today the portrait aspect has become very sloppy. Like, “You guys just stand over here,” and they just kind of throw them together and there’s no passion about them. Nobody cares about them. It’s just, “Oh we got to do it. Let’s get it over with fast.” When in reality, you know as a mother, this was really important to me. I not only wanted to be photographed with my children, I wanted to look good! And I think that takes skill and I think that’s one thing that’s missing today. So many times people think they’re only documenting an experience without giving consideration. Was it a flattering portrait? Did they look good? Because I got to tell you as a mother, as a mature woman, we don’t see ourselves the way we look, we see ourselves the way we think we look.
Where would you like to shoot that you haven’t yet?
I would like to photograph a wedding in Prague.
Describe a typical day for you.
A typical day for me starts about 5am. I’m very much a morning girl. I like getting up early and getting my day started. I’m usually in my office by about 7 and about 7-9 I work on my blog. I’m a very active blogger and really try to blog everyday about new techniques, and my latest clients. Then from 9-noonish is when I’m working on stuff like album designs and retouching of images and such. I retouch my images before clients ever see them. I personally don’t believe in letting anyone see unfinished work; I wouldn’t dream of it. You never get a second chance to make a first impression and I want to make sure the first time they see my images that they are freaking out. I want them to equate the beauty of my images not with Photoshop tricks but with photographic skill. It’s been my experience that when you show an unfinished photograph and then say, “Oh I can retouch it later” they equate the beauty of the image with cheap tricks instead of equating it with what it really is – your talent as a professional.
It’s very typical to do a portrait session in the afternoon. I’m not a high volume studio. I do probably three or four sessions a week. But they are very nice sessions; we take our time doing it. And then the rest of the time I spend in marketing and getting photographs printed for my clients or for my hotels so they restore my services. I’m very much a boutique studio. I don’t do the high volume kind of thing. I don’t do 20 sessions a day for $200.
Tell us about a trial you had while shooting a wedding and how you over came it?
Oh gosh I have a number of trials for weddings after 25 years. One of the ones that stand out it my mind is the night before a wedding, about 10 years ago, I got the stomach flu and I was literally up all night long throwing up and the next morning I had to decide, was I going to get up and shoot this wedding or do I stay home? I decided I was going to suck it up and be a big girl and shoot it. I met the bride at the church and I was really feeling bad and literally felt like I was going to faint. I kept saying, “Okay I need to go to the bathroom for a second” and just sit down for a minute because I was going to pass out. And then I came back and said, “ You know I feel just a little sick. Does anybody have any SweetTarts or something like that.” And the mother of the bride had a packet of SweetTarts. She gave me a couple and that’s all I needed. I had depleted my body of electrolytes and I needed some sugar in my system and once I got that I was cranking it out and I made it through the day. I don’t know how in the world I did it but that was the best wedding I shot all year. I just got through it and did what I had to. I’ve never ever missed a wedding.
I did have one other experience at a wedding that was really heart rending and it really highlighted how important wedding photography really is. Eight years ago, about a week before the wedding I was sitting in the country club talking to this bride about her wedding and she was 33 years old, this was her first wedding and obviously very very important to her. In the middle of our conversation we had two 5.6 earthquakes right in a row; within a minute of each other. And we were at the epicenter so needless to say all the glass in the country club were falling off the shelves and the chandeliers were swaying it was just scaring the heck out of us. And we just sucked it up and we got through it. Now let me tell you one other thing about this wedding. Back tracking about 6 weeks before, the brides 19 year old sister was out at The Cliffs House in San Francisco with some friends and was playing on the rocks by the edge. She slipped on some rocks, fell of the cliffs, into the ocean and died. Her body was swept out to sea and they spent weeks trying to find it and they never found it. So we’re sitting at this country club with the earthquakes and the stress level was really high. Well, the wedding day rolls around and I get to the bride’s home and you could literally feel the tension in the home that morning. The father of the bride was still obviously grieving very much for his daughter, the youngest child in the family, the one who had died. He was absolutely speechless with fury that his daughter was going to go ahead with her wedding and he would not even talk to her on the wedding day. He would not stand to be photographed with her, would not touch her. He was just so furious. Have you ever been around two people that were fighting and even though it’s not your battle you still get very upset? Well that’s the way it was. It was unbelievable! When she walked down the aisle, he stood next to her with his arms folded across his chest, and he would not even touch her to walk down the aisle. Needless to say she was very very upset. During the middle of the ceremony we had another earthquake and it was during the middle of the groom’s prayer. I mean you talk about weird things, this was really really strange. So anyway, after the wedding the mother just tried to make peace, she got married and they had their nice little reception. Then literally less than six months later her mother was killed in an automobile accident and if they had not had the wedding when they did, she would not have been there. And I hate to be backing up the hearse but at the same time again sometimes we forget about the people at a wedding. Weddings are history, family history. Not just bride and groom but family history and it’s about mom’s and dad, brothers and sisters and posterity and the wonderful uniting that happen at a wedding so I think it’s just important for us to remember that on the wedding day.
What advice would you give to newbie photographers?
Humility over ability. Do not get your panties in a wad and think just because you’ve had a little bit of schooling that you don’t need to start at the bottom of the food chain and that you don’t need to be told what to do by those who have been doing it for a long time. I cannot tell you how many people want to intern with me on a regular basis and I very seldom am impressed. Because so many times they come in and it’s, “Enough of me talking about me, what do you think of me,” and it’s all about “I’ve had this school, and this schooling,” and it’s not about life and about paying your dues. One of the things I’ve discovered in my 25 years that if you want to get somewhere get somebody to teach you, if you want somebody to open their doors and teach you everything they know, be somebody they want to be around. Be somebody who makes their life easier not more difficult and they will share the universe with you. You can be taught anything if you’re a humble person but if you do not have humility you will never be anything because you already think you know it all and know everything. So first and foremost I’d say learn to be humble and when you get into that studio, when you start to intern with somebody make yourself so valuable that they can’t imagine life without you and then they will treat you with respect. They will give you anything you want because you’ll be so valuable to them they won’t be able to let you go. But if you get in there and think it’s all about you and start having this attitude, let me tell you it does not play well because we don’t need them.
The future newbies that are coming on, they may want to someday go on their own so we’re training our future competitors. I personally don’t have a problem with that because if they stick it out with me, then they realize they get to do all the cool stuff and I’m stuck doing all the stupid stuff, you know like with taxes and stuff like that. There’s no job in my studio that I won’t do, when I say humility over ability that’s the motto I live by. To this day I’m always trying to circle myself with people who are better and smarter, that have more skills or different set of skills than I do. I don’t claim to be the best but I know I’m one of the best and I think that when you’re one of something there’s always something you can learn. That’s a plus not a negative, when there is something you can learn from someone else. When you do, it makes you continually grow as an artist and it means that you’re never going to reach the top and if you never reach the top that means you’re never going to go down the other side and I am never going down the other side. I’m never going to be that little old lady with all those stupid ribbons hanging around my neck talking about the picture I took in 1982. I’m just not going to be that way.
A couple of other things a newbie needs to know, they need to know an f stop from a bus stop. This is an area that so many new photographers lack skill in. They think, Oh I’ve got a good camera. They’ve been completely brain washed to believing that all they have to do is take thousands of pictures to get a good shot. Well yeah, you can give a camera to a monkey and teach him how to press the shutter and he might get a good shot too. I don’t think it’s an accident that I take good photographs. New photographers need to learn their craft, the art of posing and how to sculpt the body with light and learn how to use different f stops and shutter speeds. They need to go back to the basics of learning good photographic techniques. It’ll even help them if they’re photo journalists and they don’t prompt imagery. It doesn’t mean they don’t need to learn about quality of light or learn how to sculpt the body with light. It’s just as important, if not more important, for a photojournalist as a portrait photographer.
There are so many people coming into the photography industry these days, I mean everybody who has a camera thinks they’re a photographer. Stand in line, folks. At the end of the day you may get lucky and take one or two pictures that are good. People who are still in demand, like myself even after 25 years, I’m still regarded a trendsetter and good enough to have people want me to photograph their events. It’s because when I photograph an event like a wedding, I know how to flatter the body and I don’t think there isn’t a woman in the world who wouldn’t love to appear less fatter than she is. So I would say learn your craft and learn what photography is all about because it’s not about your camera. Cameras don’t take pictures, people do. I could have the same oven as Wolfgang Puck, but I can tell you there’s not a way in the universe I’m going to create the same kind of meal that guy does, because I don’t have his skills.
Where do you look for inspiration?
I look to movies. I love movies, in fact one of my favorite movies is Pride and Prejudice. I love the movie itself but the cinematography in the movie is absolutely beautiful. I love the lighting and I love the mood that is created by the process of the film. The whole film has an exquisite tonality about it. It just draws you in. I also draw inspiration from other photographers; Joe Buissink, Michael Van Auken, Jim Garner, Jerry Ghionis
and Yervant are some of my favorite photographers for giving me inspiration. I draw inspiration from people who don’t even do the same photography as I do. For instance Costas Mallios, Skip Cohen, Don Blair, Scott Bourne who photographs nature, and animals and creatures like that. It doesn’t matter if you photograph a bride, a baby, a bird, a cat, a lion or a leopard you still have to have good photographic technique and so I just apply those concepts to whatever I’m doing.
If you weren’t a photographer what would you be doing?
I’d probably be a fashion designer. I’ve always loved fashion design and I’m crazy about fashion. When I was younger I used to make everything I wore. When my son was a young child, I used to make everything he wore. I just love fashion. I think it’s such a creative outlet and I think that’s what I would want to do if I wasn’t a photographer.
What has been the highlight of your career?
I’d have to say the highlight of my career has been having the privilege of photographing some of my closest friend’s weddings or their children’s weddings. That is number one for me and the reason is because some of the people in the industry that I’ve grown friendships with over the years, that could have anyone photograph their event or their children’s events have asked me to do it and that’s an incredible honor. I have won awards and stuff like print competitions, but I don’t get all woozy over that. I don’t know why but it’s not my Holy Grail. My Holy Grail is more of people coming up to me, people who I’ve influenced and seeing them become absolute shining stars, like my friends Dawn Shields and Jim Garner, who have been people who I mentored and helped over the years . I know for me that’s so much more powerful than an award.
I’m not saying those awards are not as important, they are very nice. As far as awards, the top for me would be Microsoft’s Icon of Imaging award. It was huge for me because I’m the first women to become recognized as an icon for them. Being recognized as the first women to receive the Golden Eye Award from the Russian Federation for professional photographers was really important and I have to say that it’s kind of nice to be that first women recognized to do things. I like that very much and it’s probably only because I’m the oldest in the profession of women out there that are in the photography business, but hey, I don’t care!
What has been your best marketing idea?
The best marketing we’ve done is taking care of our vendors from our weddings. I don’t have a huge advertising budget but I spend my advertising dollars really wisely. I want to make sure my favorite vendors, my favorite catering managers all are appreciated. I will take them to dinner or send them for a weekend somewhere nice to say thank you. People are people and what I find from event planners and such is that they don’t have to refer you and they aren’t going to refer you if you make people’s lives difficult. You may be the best photographer in the universe but if you’re a jerk to work around, they’re going to find somebody else who’s easy to work with because beauty is in the eyes of the check book holder. I want to be a team player and take care of them.
What question do you like being asked?
Do you want to go to breakfast?
What are common mistake you see newer photographers making?
Undervaluing their services. In other words because they’ve only been photographing for two or three years they undervalue their services and they allow their clients to dictate their pricing. The most valuable piece of advice I ever got was from Denis Reggie. In 1989 I sat in a program that he delivered at WPPI. I was new in the business and I was literally starving to death. Let’s put it this way, I was so cheap I couldn’t afford to higher myself and I was giving so much product away at the end of the day I was paying the client for the privilege of photographing the event. And sometimes photographers think, “Oh I have to get some weddings under my belt to do this or that.” I would say rather than do that go intern with somebody who is a really good pro to learn the ropes. Pay your dues that way. Don’t screw up somebody’s wedding and not be well paid to do your craft. So many times photographers allow the clients to push them around and to dictate their policies, their pricing, and that’s why photography, especially wedding photography has become the garbage men of the photo industry. It’s all the shoot and burn people who shoot a wedding and burn them a disc and only charge $500 or whatever the case may be and it’s because they have no appreciation how much work goes into a wedding and they allow the client to dictate their policies and prices. I absolutely do not allow a client tell me how to run my business. I don’t allow them to tell me what I’m going to charge them. I don’t allow them to tell me when I’m going to be paid. This is my profession, it’s not my religion, it’s my profession. As a professional you wouldn’t walk into Nordstroms and go to the sales people and tell them you want to buy a shirt but only pay a third of what it’s worth. I think that’s so completely ludicrous. And because photographers are artist they do tend to let people push them around.
Tips or tricks?
When photographing children, cat and dog toys are best for getting their attention. Make sure you have another person who’s the idiot that makes them laugh and you can stand behind the camera actually pressing the shutter. When it comes to pricing your products, make sure you build a very big profit on the front end. In other words before you show up for that wedding you are extremely well paid for your talent and not so you have to rely on selling them the pictures after the fact because that’s not going to happen. It’s just too easy for people to copy our work these days. It’s not how much you charge, it’s what you get to keep. What does that mean? That doesn’t mean I’m telling you to charge thousands and thousands of dollars to do your job, just make sure that you have no more than 20% cost of goods in that. In other words, you want to make sure that what’s costing you to do that job is a very insignificant part of that so you can be really well paid for your talent and keep it simple. Keep your pricing simple so you don’t have to be a freaking rocket scientist to figure it out. And also, I can say this is probably the most important thing, remember who your client is. It’s women, not men, so don’t get analytical about it. Find a way to make images that are emotion evoking because at the end of the day it’s the bride and her mother that make the decisions, not the dad. Unfortunately, he just shuts up and writes the checks. So remember to create images that are emotional, that grab attention and put images on your website that are different and not pictures that you can see anywhere. If you have the same picture, like the bride and groom standing at the alter looking at the camera, bride and groom looking at each other, from behind walking down the path, I’m sorry but there are about 2500 other photographers that show the same thing on their website and all you’ve done is give the client a reason to go find a photographer who is the cheapest. Then it’s about buying a carton of eggs not buying your talent.
Any books, DVDs, or workshops you can recommend?
I actually have three books that are co written with Skip Cohen and published through Random House now, The Art of Wedding Photography, The Art of Digital Wedding Photography, The Art of People Photography (see below for links), and I’m currently writing my fourth book which will come out next year published by Random House which is going to be called The Language of Lighting and Posing. As far as workshops go, there are a couple of educational programs that are coming up that any person should never miss: Skip’s Summer School is going to take place August 9-11, in Las Vegas. Mother says don’t miss it. I’m also going to be part of WPPI’s road show. If you go to wppinow.com you can find out more about it. Photoplus in New York on the last week in October is a venue that I never miss and I absolutely plan my calendar around WPPI every year. I will not miss that. It is the most important, educational venue out there and I have not missed one since 1989. I wouldn’t be where I’m at without that educational forum.
I’m kind of a proponent for education. It’s so important that we constantly grow. I just took a landscape class from Scott Bourne, and I think it’s important to push yourself and some people think, “Oh I only photograph children, that doesn’t apply to me,” when in reality people are people. You can learn things from any instructor. So I am a really really big proponent for taking educational programs. I’m going to cut back on teaching next year. I’m going to spend more time in my studio next year.
If you had one super power what would it be?
The power of subtlety.