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Ways We Work

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Michael Shainblum

Photographer / Filmmaker

A few years ago I took my DSLR camera outside on a warm summer night and tried to capture the stars. I was able to get a couple nice shots and that's all it took to get me hooked on the experience. I spent some time researching how to get better and that lead me to Michael's incredible work. Michael was one of the first astrophotographers that completely blew my mind with what was possible to capture using a DSLR camera. Beyond the technical aspects he adds a unique final touch of artistry in post that takes his images to another level. It was a pleasure chatting with him about how he makes it all happen. -Matt

Tell us how you got started doing your craft?

I’ve always found it fun to be able to make things with my hands. As a kid I explored every possible different type of art form I could. I tried sculpting, painting, charcoal, and eventually graphic art after being introduced to computers in early high school. I really enjoyed graphic art and I was interested in photography as well but had never used a really nice camera. I did a little bit of film photography and I would take pictures of various random things. When I shot using a digital camera it lead me to learn about post processing images in software. I would bring my photos into Adobe Fireworks and mess with them to create cool effects. I started to learn Photoshop to do the same thing and would mess with photos, apply filters and so on. It was just so much fun to create whatever I wanted.

When I was 14, my parents bought me my first DSLR camera. At the time, I was interested in photography but I was mostly focused on graphic art. I was excited to be able to get high-resolution images that I could edit. The new camera was making me get out and shoot more and I started realizing that taking pictures was just as fun as editing and processing them; perhaps even more so. That's where photography started becoming a true passion. From then on, I would bring my camera everywhere I went. Friends and I would go eat tacos and I'd bring my camera, just because I wanted to take pictures of everything I possibly could. There was no rhyme or reason, I just loved everything about taking pictures.

What was your path to becoming a full-time photographer and filmmaker?

When I was 16 I tried to get a job to make a little money. I applied to a bunch of places but no one hired me. I knew I was good at taking pictures and I thought people might hire me to do it. So I tried doing a ton of different photography jobs. I did events, I did 2 or 3 weddings, I did portraits of friends and things like that. I dabbled in action sports photography and in concert photography. I really tried to explore a broad spectrum of what I could do with the craft and try to make a little bit of money at the same time. In high school, I realized that I really wanted to go to photography school. I didn't want to take SATs or ACTs. It just wasn't for me.

I went to Brooks Institute and got a photography degree in commercial photography. I started doing studio portraits and product photography; quite different from what I do now. I got into time lapse and fine art photography by doing a lot of behind the scenes video work and a lot of studio shoots in college. That type of work was what a lot of the professors told me I should be doing. They would say, "that's what's going to get you the money, that's what you're going to make a career out of. This whole landscape thing won’t work out.” The problem was, I wasn’t really into the studio work. So I continued to do landscapes and time lapse after work just because I loved it.

I ended up making a time-lapse film towards the end of college, about 3-4 years ago. I'd been doing time-lapse for a while but this was my first real film that I put a name to. The film was my first piece that had a concept and a story. When it was finished I put it on social media and it ended up going viral. I started to get emails and interview requests about it. About the same time, I was building my social media presence. I started a Facebook page and I started releasing Milky Way photos and people started following me. Things grew organically from the point onward.

With this new found attention, I started getting called for similar jobs. People wanted to hire me for time-lapse and landscape photography; the things I loved. I started doing the work and told myself that I didn't want to do anything else. Previously I was getting paid close to nothing to edit magazine videos and do crappy photography jobs and they just didn’t make me happy. When time-lapse got really popular and when my social media following got larger, I started getting known for it and people started hiring me and licensing the footage. I was like: "Yeah, screw all that other stuff. I need to figure out how to keep doing this!"

Looking back, what were some of the challenges you overcame?

It's hard to avoid getting burnt out when you do the same thing every day. A lot of photographers get burnt out and while they still love what they do, it's hard to avoid. Fortunately, for me, I do a variety of different things that's helped. For example, if I didn't want to go shoot photos, I’d go do some time-lapse or maybe if I didn't want to take pictures from the ground I'd take my drone out and fly over the beach. Dealing with burnout is definitely something that's really tough.

Photography is just like any job where you do the same thing every day. Eventually you get tired of it. Photography can be a lot more fun than some jobs but you can definitely have too much of a good thing. Switching up the mediums has helped a lot with that problem. I've tried to keep myself interested in all sorts of photography and filmmaking and it's kept my work at a higher level. For example, If I did seascapes every single day, eventually I'd get to a point where, sure, I'm able to produce great work but the drive and passion was gone. This is the point where I try something else.

One topic that comes up a lot with creative people is the idea of comparison paralysis. It’s where you look at other people doing similar work and then getting in a self-defeating head space about your own work. Do you find that happens to you, and if so, how do you pull yourself out of it?

It's tough not to compare yourself to other people and tough not to compare the work. There are definitely moments where I say to myself, "Crap, I want to produce better work." I often look at other photographer's work and love it but instead of wanting to quit, it inspires me to try a little bit harder instead. I can see where some people may see an image that they think is better than their own–which is all subjective of course–and they want to give up. For me, it's just fuel to keep going, and it's not a need to compete; it’s a way to keep inspired. When I see an image that blows me away it compels me to push my work further to get to a similar level.

Some people think of this craft very competitively. For me it's not really about that. Photography has given me a community and it's given me some of my best friends. We're not out competing against each other. We're all in it together and we're photographers to have fun. We're exploring art and we're all supporting each other. That's really the most awesome part about it. If you ever do get in a funk where you hate your work, all you need to do is connect with another photographer friend and they always pull you out of it. I talk to some friends that I would consider some of the best photographers in the world and I say things like, "Oh, man, I'm not feeling what I'm putting out right now," and they'll be like, "Dude, I love your work! The work you've been putting out recently? It's amazing!" You get these warm comments from people that you really respect and it pulls you out of it. You can never really do something like that by yourself. You need support.

How do you balance going out and doing the creative work and then coming home and marketing yourself?

Balancing it is tough. I spend a lot of time in San Francisco on my computer processing images, dealing with clients, working on website stuff, invoicing and all that. I do try and spend a lot of time out shooting. I shoot in San Francisco a lot, so if I want to go out and shoot sunsets, not a problem. I just grab my stuff and go. It allows me to stay creative. I also love the big trips where I can go for a week to a month and shoot as much as possible. Then I come home and for 2 to 3 weeks I’m processing images and having fun. It's definitely a tricky juggling act.

This balance is definitely one of the hardest parts of what I do and I try hard to not get overwhelmed by it all. It can be easy to miss something. If I focus too much on the business side of things then I end up not producing enough content. If I focus too much on the creative side, then the business side suffers. It's not easy, but I just take it day by day.

What are some of the productivity tools you use to keep organized?

I don't use a single thing. I've tried using calendars and I've tried using to-do lists and all those apps. I end up writing stuff down and not touching the app. The best thing for me is to really know what I need to do. I can always go back and look at emails, which help me a lot. If there's something I really need to do, for example, if I really need to work on my website I'll write it down on my notepad and when I’m done that task I'll cross it out. If I didn’t get to the task, I would bring it over to the next day. I go old fashioned with it. Different things work for different people and all the crazy apps that come out inundate your phone with alerts and that just doesn’t work for me.

How do you stay on top of e-mail?

For a while, I had a pretty crappy email system. I was the guy with the cluttered inbox with hundreds of emails. My issue was I wouldn't archive or delete anything after I've read it or sent something out. I realized what works for me is keeping the inbox as small as possible. If I need something, I'll archive it and then search for it. If an email comes in, I try and respond right away. If I think it's an email where I'm going to need to follow up, I'll keep it in the inbox. If it's something where I know they're going to respond again, I’ll just delete it out of my inbox. I'll have maybe 10 to 20 emails that are kept in my inbox throughout the day. I'll probably get another 20 or 30 more, but those will end up being archived or deleted at some point. This system has helped me a lot because it’s in line with how my brain works; the less information I see, the better. It's really helped me stay on top of things.

What does a typical day look like for you?

It depends on what kind of job I'm doing. If I'm in the field and it's just for personal work, I'll wake up for the sunrise and then most of the day is spent scouting or just driving somewhere I need to drive to get new content. My whole day will be shoot, drive, shoot, drive, shoot, come back home and maybe process a little on the computer. I'll usually make sure I have cell service at some point throughout the day so that I can check my email. I focus on the art side of things as much as possible when I'm out on the field. When I'm back at home, it's kind of a combination. I try and stay pretty active. It's tough when I’m sitting in front of the computer all day. I try and work out, try and go for a run and free myself from the desk if I've been sitting for too long.

For a while I definitely got lazy. I was eating pretty unhealthily and I was just processing all the time. I was like a machine processing in a dark room, and that can get really unhealthy. I've been so much happier getting out and going on a run to the Golden Gate Bridge and going out and having a social life. Most photographers are pretty social but there's definitely some photographers that like to do their own thing. I'm very social, I like to talk to people and I've got some great friends in San Francisco. It’s important to me to have a good work-life balance. It can be hard being a professional photographer and not turn into a machine that produces images all the time. It can consume you if you let it. I've become so much happier by being a real human being, while at the same time having a career and passion for photography.

To that point, how you balance being out there all the time and then being at home and balancing relationships and family?

It is a tricky balance, but in my life photography and creating art is the most important thing to me. Friends and family are obviously extremely important as well. However, I need to do what I need to do to follow my passion. I need to get out there and I can't let anyone stop me from doing that. Like I mentioned, I balance things by spending a lot of time going out with friends and when I do, I won't bring the camera and I won’t think about photography. Saying that, I also go on trips with my photography friends. I have a great time with them talking about photography and the industry. It’s extremely fun. I also like to just hang out and do nothing, go to the beach or have beers on weekends and so on.

I used to bring my camera everywhere, but now, if I'm going to go take pictures, I need to be in the zone. I need to prepare myself. I don't want to work on the fly. Creating art and creating imagery is really thought through for me. If I want to go out and shoot something, I need to have that goal beforehand. There are definitely times where I’m about to go out with friends and then look out the window and say “oh crap, the clouds look really cool, though.” [laughs]

Overall, it's not that hard for me because I don't have the responsibilities of a wife or kids and all those things. I'm sure for somebody who does have those responsibilities, their answer would be a lot more complex. I'm sure in the future, I'll have to figure that part out.

What's some of the best career advice you've been given?

It was my parents telling me to follow my passion. If I hadn't take it I would have probably listened to the people telling me what I “should” do instead. I'd probably be doing something that I wouldn't be happy doing. I've had a lot of people tell me throughout the years that what I'm doing probably isn't going to work, and that's tough. That is really tough. It's hard to not say to yourself, "I need to do something else because all these people that I respect are telling me that maybe this isn't a good idea." Having my parents be so supportive and say things like, "Hey, do what you want, just risk it. If it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. Just keep trying" was so helpful. This advice was definitely the best advice I could’ve followed; do what's going to make you happiest. Fortunately for me, what I’m doing has definitely allowed me to be happy. I was having dinner with my parents last night and they're like, "Cheers to your success! You’re doing what you wanted to do and you're happy and we couldn't be more proud." That was pretty cool.

Why do you do what you do? What makes it all worth it?

A lot of things. The first is for my own sanity. I need to create images. It's a need, it's a physical need. I love it. It makes me happy. If I wasn't getting paid to do it, I would do it anyways. What makes it worth it is being able to inspire people and getting people excited to go try new things. I think if somebody has a urge to express themselves, photography is such a great way. Art, in general, is a great way to express yourself, whether it'd be writing or sculpting or painting or making music. The thing I like about it is you're able to put yourself into your work. I'm able to tell people what I'm about, what I'm thinking or how I see the world. I think that's one of the coolest things. Hearing people's thoughts and seeing how super happy my work makes them is really great. When I hear things like, "Hey, you inspired me to get into photography, and now I want to make it a career." That's a really cool thing. To be able to change somebody's life like that. I did not think I would ever have that ability to help somebody in that way.

Who would you like to see featured on Ways We Work?

Rob Whitworth is a really cool filmmaker. He does so these amazing short films that are just incredible. Check him out on Vimeo. His work is kind of time lapse based but it goes beyond that. Rob's a really creative and I'd think he'd be an interesting person to learn more about. My friend Ted Gore, he's really cool. He does some pretty great photography. Erin Babnik is pretty awesome as well. She's a really creative photographer. My friend Alex Noriega is really great and my friend TJ is a pretty amazing photographer as well. They all have a different drive and they all create pretty unique images. There's so many people!