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AMA: Helena Price, Photographer + Creator of Techies Project

over 3 years ago from , Photographer at helenaprice.com

Hi everyone, nice to meet you! I’m Helena Price, an ex-techie-turned-pro-photographer based in San Francisco, CA.

By day I am a commercial and portrait photographer with a big focus on Silicon Valley. I also just recently launched my first personal project called Techies: http://www.techiesproject.com.

You can find my portfolio at helenaprice.com, on Twitter at @helena, and Instagram at @helenadagmar.

If you have any questions about making photos, working with photographers, building a creative business, the project or anything else really, leave 'em here and I'll do my best to answer as thoroughly as I can.

I'll join in Tuesday 4/12 around noon pacific.

36 comments

  • Shane MoloneyShane Moloney, over 3 years ago (edited over 3 years ago )

    Hi Helena,

    I don't have a question. I just wanted to say - fantastic work on Techies! The portraits, and your portraits in general, are amazing. Congratulations to you, and the team, on the whole project.

    6 points
  • Joel CalifaJoel Califa, over 3 years ago

    Hey Helena,

    Techies is such a treasure trove of good stories and the portraits are gorgeous. Thanks for making it! Where did the idea start from and how long have you been working on it? Did every application turn into a feature? If not, how did you decide who to showcase?

    I'm also super interested in how/when you decided to transition to full-time photography and how you went about that. I know a lot of Photographer friends who are struggling, and it seems like you're really thriving. Any tips for them?

    Thanks! :}

    6 points
    • Helena PriceHelena Price, over 3 years ago

      Thank you!! + thank you for these questions, let me take them one at a time -

      Where did the idea start from and how long have you been working on it? It's kind of a complicated. I've been wanting to do a project of this format for 10 years now, and I've been slowly working towards getting to a place where I could do something like this. I've also wanted to do a personal project on the tech industry for several years now, but again wasn't really in the place where I could do personal projects of this degree until recently. So both of those interests came together when I had the idea for this project in December. I announced the project January 5th and worked on it non-stop for 3 months until launch.

      Did every application turn into a feature? If not, how did you decide who to showcase? Nope. I did my call for subjects and had over 500 applicants in two weeks. Whittling it down to 100 folks was an extremely difficult/emotional process and involved hundreds of hours of reading through applications over and over and over. I ended up leaning towards people who 1) come from unique backgrounds - ones you wouldn't expect of someone in the tech industry, 2) went through significant obstacles and roadblocks to get to where they are today, 3) continue to experience obstacles in the tech industry, but 4) stay in tech because they are incredibly talented, love the work that they do, love tech and want to see it get better. That said, every person's background and experience vary wildly across the 100.

      I'm also super interested in how/when you decided to transition to full-time photography and how you went about that. I know a lot of Photographer friends who are struggling, and it seems like you're really thriving. Any tips for them? I think a lot of folks think photography success is something that happens overnight if you do it right, but the reality is that it takes time. This project took 3 months but in reality I've been working on it for years - building my own personal experience and expertise, building my network, getting myself to a place where I can dedicate the time and money to it. Same with building my clientele - it looks like it happened overnight, but it was largely a result of me spending years building out my network and expertise in tech (and thus bringing something unique to the table for tech companies looking for photography). So my advice is to be patient and not rush it. And when you do get an opportunity, give it 110% effort, smash deadlines ahead of schedule, deliver the highest quality work possible, and treat everyone with so much care and kindness that they want to recommend you to everyone they know.

      It may also be helpful to check out the last AMA I did where I barf out TONS AND TONS of advice on this subject! https://www.designernews.co/stories/52487-ama-helena-price-photographer

      4 points
  • Alyssa QuinnAlyssa Quinn, over 3 years ago (edited over 3 years ago )

    How did you find folks for the Techies Project? Was it purely by submission? You have such a great range of subjects from those I've read about frequently to those that are flying farther under the radar. It's quite refreshing to see a project not stick to a traditional hierarchy of job titles and seniority in its presentation. Love seeing John Maeda in the same line as Emily Eifler.

    For the interviews, did you stick with a structured set of questions or let it be more freeform?

    Thanks for doing this AMA! I found Techies Project very inspiring. It's great to see folks who look like you and experience the same issues as you experience. It's a good reminder that tech isn't always so homogenous.

    3 points
    • Helena Price, over 3 years ago

      Thank you! I really appreciate it.

      Re: finding folks for the project - It was mostly submissions, and a handful of folks I reached out to because I thought their stories would bring a lot to the project - ie John Maeda. I'm glad you liked seeing known next to unknown faces, because it was intentional! So much of this project is built around challenging people's ideas, and in this case, putting well-known faces next to unknown faces is meant to challenge people's ideas of what makes a person "important," and whose stories are worth reading.

      Re: interview questions - I had a structured set of questions that I used as a baseline (you'll see some common questions throughout every interview), but I researched and customized every interview to each person. I wanted folks to know that I was genuinely interested in them and their story, and willing to put in the extra work to make sure the interview was designed for them specifically.

      3 points
  • Helena Price, over 3 years ago

    Hey everyone!! Thanks for coming by. I'll start cranking out answers to these now, but feel free to post questions all day.

    2 points
  • Cory MaryottCory Maryott, over 3 years ago

    Hi Helena :) Happy to see the new work up, and some familiar faces on there too!

    A follow up to Chris Johnston's question above about business stuff— how do you get good clients? I feel like its often feast or famine, and many clients balk at the prices I estimate (which I've done in good faith and often with the help of more seasoned professional friends). I know you've told me before that great personal projects are a key starting point, but are there other things to keep in mind?

    Would you tell us a bit about the process of working with an agent? How does one go about getting represented? When is a good time to do so?

    Have you ever pitched work to a potential client for pay? How did that work?

    Are there any other photo business lessons you've learned that you haven't shared yet ?

    Now that Techies is up and live, what are some hopes/dreams/plans for the future?

    Thank you thank you ! Hope we cross paths again sometime soon.

    2 points
    • Helena Price, over 3 years ago (edited over 3 years ago )

      Hey Cory!!

      Ok I'll answers these one by one -

      How do you get good clients? I feel like its often feast or famine, and many clients balk at the prices I estimate (which I've done in good faith and often with the help of more seasoned professional friends). I know you've told me before that great personal projects are a key starting point, but are there other things to keep in mind?

      I think a lot of it is education and testing the market. Even today (even though it's a little harder now that I'm repped and I'm not involved in negotiations anymore), I approach every negotiation with two goals, even when they are the one who approaches me: 1) I have to sell them on me and what I bring to the table vs. another photographer (even if they aren't talking to anyone else), and 2) I have to make sure they feel like they understand and feel comfortable with what they are getting for their money. At the most basic level this definitely means educating the client on market rates (which I am sure you are doing), but beyond that it's really about selling them on it. If that means having deep QA sessions with them about their objectives, putting together custom PDFs of work samples, or going through every line item of an estimate to let them know what everything means and why it is valuable, it's all worth it to get the job.

      I think it's also important to be flexible and know that rates really do vary widely, and if you love the opportunity, being willing to wiggle on price a little bit to get a job is normal. My rates still vary all the time depending on budgets, size of client and opportunity, and I still have to hustle to win jobs. I'm not sure if that ever ends. :)

      But yeah, I think it's a combo of that, meeting everyone you can, and making work you want to be hired for (either by creating it on paid shoots or doing test shoots for yourself) that will lead to better and better clients over time.

      Would you tell us a bit about the process of working with an agent? How does one go about getting represented? When is a good time to do so?

      I never ever expected to be repped. Not in the first 10 years, at least.

      My general understanding of the rep landscape was something along these lines - "Don't ever expect to get repped. No reps are looking to fill their roster. Most people will never get repped in their lifetime. So don't even bother thinking about it."

      I think this was a great thing, because removing that possibility in my mind focused me on building a business on my own and not waiting for help. The fact that my rep cold-emailed me out of the blue, and that any rep emailed me within my first two years of working full-time, is nutso and I still can't believe it.

      That said - based on what I know now, the way to make yourself attractive to potential reps is to be completely self-sufficient. No rep is looking for someone that they have to take care of or build a business for. They are looking for someone who already has stuff going on, where the two of you can each bring something to the table. For me, I can bring Dara my entire existing business, and in return, she can connect me with her larger world of big advertising and editorial. It's a really great, symbiotic relationship and we can help each other level up in different ways.

      So long story short, don't wait for a rep, you can be awesome on your own. + if a rep comes along down the road, awesome!

      Have you ever pitched work to a potential client for pay? How did that work?

      Only when they've requested a pitch, and that doesn't happen often (but will probably happen more the more I transition into the big ad world). It's in the case of a large brand looking to have multiple photographers bid against each other. In that case, it usually involves a custom PDF of work that fits the general vibes they're looking for, and a lot of phone calls and meetings. + sometimes I don't get the job! But that's all part of the game.

      Are there any other photo business lessons you've learned that you haven't shared yet?

      Oh man I don't even know. I'm learning new stuff all the time. I think right now a big thing for me is building my reputation in the world of bigger productions and crews, and the best way to do that is to treat your crew really really well. Pay them what they want even if it means you have to take it out of your own fees. Treat them as equals and with respect (this seems like common sense to me but apparently a lot of people don't). Pay them ahead of schedule. Do everything you can to show that you give a shit about them and it will come back around in one way or another.

      Another thing is to never become complacent or lazy no matter what level of success you get to. It's a blessing and a curse that I've always worked with a sense of desperation (early on bc I had no choice, and now because I don't know how to get rid of that feeling). But no matter how hot shit you are right now, it could all go away in a heartbeat so always keep hustling.

      Now that Techies is up and live, what are some hopes/dreams/plans for the future?

      I think my first priority is to chill out for a second and just reflect on everything. I'm definitely still doing normal jobs and continuing to work on the project, but the bigger challenge than any of that is how to retain my focus, stay true to my vision for the project and stay true to myself. I think this is the first of many many projects I will do in this format so there is a lot of reflecting to do so I can do a better job next time.

      <3

      2 points
  • Mike MaiMike Mai, over 3 years ago (edited over 3 years ago )

    Ayo Helena. I submitted to Techies, now what? ;)

    Real question: Do you do most of your photo editing in Lightroom or Photoshop? What feature do you use the most from each program?

    2 points
    • Helena Price, over 3 years ago

      Hey Mike! That's so awesome!!

      I actually use Capture One for batch editing - I usually shoot tether so clients can approve photos in real time, and Capture One is the industry standard for that. It's where I do all of my selects and batch stuff like colors, levels, perspective correction, etc. Then I pull my selects into Photoshop for more advanced stuff, like plating composites, dodging/burning, cleanup, and other magic.

      If you want to see any of it in action, my snapchat is basically all photoshop (and sometimes being on set and sometimes my cat).

      3 points
      • Max StoiberMax Stoiber, over 3 years ago (edited over 3 years ago )

        I just want to mention that I've been following her Snapchat for a while and I highly recommend it. I've never done photography, getting a behind-the-scenes look into a profession you have no idea about is really really interesting!

        1 point
      • Mike MaiMike Mai, over 3 years ago

        That's great information, thanks a lot!

        0 points
  • Chris Johnston, over 3 years ago

    Hey Helena,

    First, very nice work on techies. It is an amazing resource and I hope it takes off.

    My question is, when you first transitioned to photography, how did you go about building up your business and finding and approaching contacts? And a follow up question, looking back at the transition, is there anything you would have done differently?

    1 point
    • Helena PriceHelena Price, over 3 years ago (edited over 3 years ago )

      Hey Chris, thank you!

      I guess for me I've never thought of it at finding and approaching contacts. I've always been super into meeting people, and I knew that meeting people could ultimately help me when building a business or a brand, but I never tried to conflate the two too much. As soon as you think of it as "networking" or "building contacts," your motives are off and people can tell you are just meeting people because you want something from them - if you can try and distance yourself from your end goals and meet people just because people are awesome, it will pay off more in the long run.

      For me that manifested as meeting as many people as I could while I was in tech. I didn't have any money, but being nice was free, so I spent as much time as I could just showing interest in people, doing favors, making intros, doing the best I could to help out anyone in the industry without expecting anything in return. I had no idea it would later translate to tons of positive word of mouth for my photography business.

      My biggest advice I give to people when building their network is to go out and meet as many people as you can - but don't have an agenda. People can smell it. '

      Here's more on that topic from an earlier AMA I did - https://www.designernews.co/comments/161146

      Re: Anything I would have done differently, probably not. That's not to say the last few years haven't been extremely painful at times. But I'm a big believer that I wouldn't be where I am if I didn't go through exactly what I went through, and made the exact decisions I made, right or wrong as they were.

      That said, the one thing I wish I had known earlier was how to be better with finances. I'm horrible with money and in general it scares me, probably because I've never had much of it historically. I now have a bookkeeper/CPA/financial advisor but I wish I had known more about that stuff as soon as I got started.

      0 points
  • Max LindMax Lind, 3 years ago

    Hey Helena - thanks for joining us!

    • Techies appears to be a massive undertaking, talk a bit more about the logistics of the project itself... how did you schedule interviews/photo shoots? What was the transcribing process like? What tools did you rely on?
    • How did the website itself come to life?... what was the process working with Martha and Alonzo?
    • The "first three months of 2016" was Techies project... what does the rest of the year look like? :)
    1 point
    • Helena Price, 3 years ago

      Hey Max! Thanks for having me!

      I'm in the middle of writing a GIANT process post that will detail every little bit of how the project was made, but as for the tools themselves - I used Google Forms/Spreadsheets to collect and manage submissions and Calendly for booking the interviews and photoshoots (this was a lifesaver and made that process pretty easily actually). Normally I really enjoy transcribing stuff but I knew I wouldn't finish the project if I had to transcribe 100 hours of interviews myself, so I talked to a bunch of transcription companies about who could do 100 interviews for the cheapest and the winner was TranscribeMe at about $3500 (most quoted around $6k). Transcriptions ain't cheap!

      It was so so awesome working with Martha Schumann + Alonzo Felix on this project. I originally figured I'd just build the website myself, but when Alonzo reached out to see if I needed help with visual design, and then Martha reached out about dev help, I knew we had the chance to build something really awesome. I sat down and mapped out the general vision of the project with Alonzo but generally left any aesthetic decisions to him - he's crazy talented and I trust his aesthetic and judgment. They basically whipped the site together in the last month as I was finishing the project. It's pretty incredible what they did with what little time we had.

      The rest of the year is very TBD. I'll still be working on the project in my spare time, but definitely not at the same rate - I think I would die of sleep deprivation and malnutrition (at one point things were so crazy I was forgetting to eat). I'm excited to see where the project goes and other than that, it's back to doing my normal work and taking better care of myself.

      3 points
  • Steven CavinsSteven Cavins, over 3 years ago

    Did you ever consider a podcast as a medium? It feels sometimes like most podcasts are mostly dedicated to "famous people" but I always thought hearing from every day, under the radar kind of people would be an interesting format.

    1 point
    • Helena Price, over 3 years ago

      I think that would be amazing. At the end of the day, I am a photographer and want to continue dedicating my time to photography, but I hope this project inspires folks to do similar work in other mediums (or the same medium!).

      0 points
  • Jeff MartinJeff Martin, over 3 years ago

    Hi Helena!

    First off, I love Techies, the photography is top notch and the website is simple and great.

    Do you have any plans to scale Techies beyond Silicon Valley/SF? I had an idea where, what if you had other city editors, who would take care of techies in their area of operations -- how well would that work? (with you approving any new interviews to ensure quality, of course). Just an idea, but curious what you thought :).

    Thanks for the AMA!

    1 point
    • Helena PriceHelena Price, over 3 years ago

      Hey Jeff! Thank you!!

      I will likely do a stint of Techies shoots on the east coast this summer, and I have always made the project open to anyone from anywhere (I feel like the concept of "Silicon Valley" describes more of a general ecosystem than a geographical region in 2016). While expanding/scaling this project sounds awesome, it was never my intention to expand this to an organization with a network of employees/volunteers to manage - my intent was to spark dialogue and ultimately inspire more people to do similar projects in the space.

      0 points
  • John KimJohn Kim, over 3 years ago

    Just wondering - how did you decide to order the portraits as they are now? It doesn't seem to be alphabetical.

    1 point
    • Helena PriceHelena Price, over 3 years ago

      This part was done with the least rhyme or reason. :) At this point it was so close to launch that I was frantically adding names in the order that transcriptions were being completed, so it's mostly random. I made Nancy Douyon first because she is a badass and I loved her interview.

      0 points
      • John KimJohn Kim, over 3 years ago

        Haha thanks for answering- I didn't really have much to ask because I've listened to the Design Details Podcast - I'll be looking forward to the book version of the project as well. :)

        0 points
  • Daniel GoldenDaniel Golden, over 3 years ago

    Hi, Helena. Thanks for doing this AMA!

    From start to finish, roughly how long did it take to ship Techies? What was the process like? (from the inception of the idea to sharing the first iteration of the site)

    1 point
    • Helena PriceHelena Price, over 3 years ago

      Hey Daniel!

      I announced it on Jan 5, and shipped it March 4, so just about 3 months on the dot.

      The process, in one word, was insane. That said, I do well with sprints and I'm not sure if I would have done it if I hadn't set some hard constraints and publicly committed to it. I don't regret doing it all in three months, but I also wouldn't recommend it if you care about your general health or well being. I'm gonna post a gigantic process post soon that details every bit of the process from start to finish - hopefully other folks will find it helpful when creating a project of their own.

      0 points
  • Jeff HeatonJeff Heaton, over 3 years ago

    Hi Helena!

    Big fan of your photographic style. When I'm taking photos I feel the urge to stylize and add to my photos to make them stronger. Yours, however, seem reduced - clean, clear, more real-life. Could you please talk about how you get that clarity? Whether it be how you choose the light you shoot in or in how you process your photos. Thanks for your time!

    1 point
    • Helena Price, over 3 years ago

      Hey Jeff! Thank you!

      Hmm let me think about this for a second. It's hard to say because I just shoot the way I know how. But let's see...

      My post-processing is definitely about making the photo look the way that I saw it when it was happening, so this means no filters (I can't actually use filters with Capture One, the editing software I use, even if I wanted to), and usually no big color changes, though I tend to slide my tint a few points toward the red side more often than not. In photoshop I will sometimes dodge where I want to accentuate the light, which for me is always the most important part of (my) photos, but as I get better technically, the less post-processing I tend to do now.

      I'm also pretty obsessed with technical precision, so I spot-focus to make sure the subject is crispy and spot-meter/look for balanced light (whether I'm hunting for natural light or creating it myself) to make sure the exposure is perfect exactly where I want it to be.

      That said, I think there's no right or wrong way of doing it, and I think it's great to explore a lot of different aesthetics before figuring out which one you're drawn to the most. If that means doing filters, etc, that's totally valid!

      0 points
  • Emanuel SerbanoiuEmanuel Serbanoiu, over 3 years ago

    Hey Helena,

    I've listen to Design Detail podcast episode with you and I have to ask: How many puns the guys made 'off-screen' ?

    1 point
  • Luke ChengLuke Cheng, over 3 years ago

    Hi Helena!

    First, I want to thank you for doing this project. It's an incredible body of work--not only the impressive kaleidoscopic visual aspect, but also the richness of the stories that are told. I can tell that you put care and love into your relationship with each subject.

    My questions:

    1. How did you decide on the formal aspects of the portraits? Why the saturated colors, dramatic oblique light from the left, and deep blue background? Also, how did you choose which visual aspects to standardize (e.g. the cropping) and which to not standardize (the way the heads are posed)?

    2. What impact have you observed from your project so far? It's still pretty young, but what conversations or further work have you seen arise from it?

    3. When I'm producing images, I'm often my biggest critic: "It's too exoticizing," or "not visually interesting enough,"or "too superficial" etc. What reservations did you have when you were making your work and do you have any critical thoughts about your work now that it's done?

    0 points
    • Helena Price, over 3 years ago (edited over 3 years ago )

      Hey Luke! Thank you!!

      In order:

      How did you decide on the formal aspects of the portraits? Why the saturated colors, dramatic oblique light from the left, and deep blue background? Also, how did you choose which visual aspects to standardize (e.g. the cropping) and which to not standardize (the way the heads are posed)?

      From a straight gutteral standpoint, I usually know what color I want to use as soon as I get an assignment - I wanted to shoot George W. Bush on a pinkish-beige background, for instance, and I wanted to shoot these on navy blue. It makes zero sense, but it's what my gut wants.

      Beyond that, I wanted to photograph the subjects in a way that didn't feel stereotypically techy, and felt more like an editorial magazine portrait. I wanted to put the subjects in a context normally reserved for CEOs or people who land magazine portraits. I wanted the aesthetic to feel dignified and elevated. In terms of the lighting, I just lit it how I always like to light stuff - directional and soft. I often use windows to get this kind of light, but for this I needed to create 100 consistent portraits so I used lights to essentially create a fake window.

      I chose the photo collaboratively with the subjects, and we went for photos that felt best encapsulated them and their personalities. For everyone, that was a different pose and expression. The consistent crop was something Alonzo suggested for the grid, and I think it was a smart visual decision and good for the design.

      What impact have you observed from your project so far? It's still pretty young, but what conversations or further work have you seen arise from it?

      I'm trying not to follow every conversation happening around the project because it is emotionally exhausting. That said, it has created a lot of valuable and sometimes heated discourse, which is what I hoped it would do. It's been shared more than I could have ever imagined and I have received so many notes of how it's changed people's lives already, which is so awesome and makes all of it feel totally worth it.

      When I'm producing images, I'm often my biggest critic: "It's too exoticizing," or "not visually interesting enough,"or "too superficial" etc. What reservations did you have when you were making your work and do you have any critical thoughts about your work now that it's done?

      Oh man I had tons of reservations about doing this project. I thought no one would apply. I thought everyone would underestimate it (and many did). I thought that it would expose me to a ton of hate and criticism. I get scared doing projects this early in my career knowing that I will be way better at what I do five years from now. That said, if I let those worries get the best of me this project wouldn't exist and I probably wouldn't be making work in the first place.

      There are tons of things I wish I could have done better. I am a perfectionist forcing myself to work at a startup pace, so things get compromised. There are a million typos and bugs that still need to be caught. I hate that the photos aren't perfectly consistent in lighting and color. But at the end of the day I have to remember that's not important to the core of the project and I had to make priorities, and next time I'll try to give myself more time or delegate better so I can get those damn colors right. :)

      0 points
      • Luke ChengLuke Cheng, over 3 years ago

        Haha thanks for the candid responses! I really dig the motive behind your formal choices-- to elevate each person you worked with. My friends who had their portraits taken for the project seem super satisfied! And for what it's worth, I think it's quite superhuman to have produced 100 portraits and interviews with such visual consistency in three short months : )

        0 points
  • Art VandelayArt Vandelay, over 3 years ago

    @Helena your avatar is awesome.

    0 points