March Featured Member: Mike Olliver

March Featured Member Mike Olliver

Interview and photos by Amie Chou


How many years have you been in photography?

I’ve been making my living from photography for almost 15 years.

How did you get started in this field?

Purely by chance. I was working at a post production facility, and my company asked me to take some stills during a video shoot — of the late Steve Irwin, “Crocodile Hunter.” There was another photographer, Steve Barrett, who had been hired by the client to do a portrait of Mr. Irwin. He and I started talking, and next thing I knew, I was taking longer lunch breaks to assist him on local shoots! I became increasingly smitten with the variety of assignments and flexible schedules, and within a year, Steve introduced me to Mike Langford, of Capital Color (a well-respected Q-lab specializing in E-6), and I began working there part-time. I was able to meet a lot of prospective clients (photographers) and began assisting a stable of photographers on a regular basis. This allowed me to jump full-time into assisting, and eventually, I was able to “cut the cord” and make the jump to full-time shooter.

Who are your photographic or artistic influences?

I couldn’t name anyone for you. My inspirational sources are constantly evolving. If we’re speaking of the formative years, it would be a very strange juxtaposition of National Geographic and Playboy Magazine. (Sorry, Mom!).

How long have you been in the area and what brought you here?

I originally came to DC in 1990, just after I graduated from college. A friend lived down here, and since I played guitar, he invited me to live in his basement, and join his band. I never intended to stay in the DC area, but ended up staying here until 2004, when my wife Linda and I moved to Baltimore.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing photographers in the metropolitan DC area?

I think it’s the same as it would be everywhere – a lower barrier to entry for the aspiring photographer, which creates a larger pool of photographers competing for a dwindling amount of decent jobs. We have the added problem of not being regarded as a production based area, so for bigger jobs, especially involving outside agencies, clients tend to look at our shooters last, even though the job may be in our back yard.

Can you define a specific “turning point” in your career?

Well, those seem to occur on a semi-annual basis. My career has been a series of twists and turns. However, if there was one thing that changed it for the better, it would be the recession.

What was the best advice you ever received? Any advice for emerging photographers?

I have received great advice from almost every photographer who mentored me. In fact, specific conversations and advice come back to me in many situations, when I need to draw on past experience.

I can’t stress enough how valuable it is to become an assistant before going out on your own -barring something like photojournalism. Do not become complacent if you’re assisting. Schedule your own shoots, take the pro-bono gigs, if they will augment your portfolio, and keep learning about the business of photography on your own. There are many photography trade organizations that have more than enough information on the business of photography, based on your preferred sector of our industry. I happen to be partial to APA! 🙂

If you could go back in time – would you change anything?

Quite simply – I should have been a shameless self-promoter. This could have accelerated my career, and I could be much farther along right now. I am still very shy about putting myself out there. It’s a character flaw in this business.

If you were to become a shameless self-promoter how would you go about marketing yourself?

I need to find something that actually cuts through the noise the rest of the world is making. I plan to focus on using Linkedin, a combination of targeted promotions and follow-up calls for portfolio visits, and i really want to blog – once a week if possible. I honestly feel, and know, that I need to first create the work that will sell me as an individual, and creating more and more personal work, or additional outtakes from assignments, is paramount to my marketing plan. I’m on my way, but I need to focus on creating a consistent vision within different facets of my work.

What inspires you and how do you keep the creative juices flowing?

For me, it’s simple. My eyes. I challenge myself to really look whenever I go anywhere. Truth is stranger than fiction, and it is constantly informing the way I see things. For the last 8 years, I have also been making photographs in Maryland’s state parks, and now – closer to my home – Leakin Park – an urban forest. I am constantly amazed by how much I miss, even though I am walking the same paths 200 times a year. I never fail to find something new to photograph. To me, it is just as important to leave the camera at home. I’ve made just as many pictures in my mind, and those have informed my decisions to come back with a camera and re-capture those elements later.

Although this exercise is process-oriented, it doesn’t feel like work. I have developed some really strong work habits by doing this, and I am also able to compose and work much more quickly on jobs, with better results. This has made me a much better photographer, and has definitely influenced my newer works.

How would you describe your style?

In my working style, I tend to focus on bringing out the personality of any subject I am photographing. For me, it’s pretty easy to do that. Even in my fine art work, I tend to find subjects that convey some type of personality or communication, so there can be an interaction for the viewer.

Personal style is something that evolves. I am a late bloomer. I’ve been working on reading spatial relationships, and interpretation of light for years. After 15 years of trial and error, I pretty much know what I like. I’ve been told that my work is honest. I’ll take that as a compliment. I do like to embellish a bit in Lightroom or Photoshop, but generally, I take what’s given as it exists in life, or on the set.

Tell us about your most memorable assignment.

I used to work with another photographer, who hired me to do some general architectural shoots for a hospitality client. We spent quite a few midnight shifts on the road, photographing food courts in airports. I was miserable. I did learn how to keep running on empty, though. While I admired my colleague for doing whatever it took to keep his business running, I remember telling myself that I would never put myself in a position like that again. Fortunately for me, I have not returned to those types of assignments. They serve to remind me that I have no business bidding on certain jobs, and that I should focus on playing to my strengths.

Do you consider yourself an artist or a craftsman?

That is a good question. I have an artist’s brain, that is certain. I would love to say I’m a craftsman with an artist’s sensibility, but I know myself too well. I don’t have the patience to be a craftsman. However, I have just enough German in my blood to access the perfectionist in me, when it comes to the client’s needs and my own standards for each job.

Why do you think clients choose you?

I am eager to make clients feel comfortable, and please them. That is why my repeat clients choose me. I am also very personable. If we’re talking about a first job, or a cold inquiry, I would say it’s a combination of the work they see, professional estimates and communications, and many times – price. So many of the clients today know very little about photography, and they also want “all rights” and immediate delivery of their photos. I have to constantly, firmly but politely, educate them while competing with a growing number of people who will give everything away. In the end, I probably get one out of every 15 jobs, but at least I’m not doing much more to make much less money and that is important to me.

Lastly, three words that describe you?

These are words that I’ve heard from others – fun, generous, and light-hearted. If you’re looking for a fourth, I’ve also heard the word goofy used more than a few times.


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