Don’t get mad, get better - Photographer Storm Santos
After leaving high school in LA, where he was born and raised, Storm toured as a professional musician for five years before transitioning to photography.
When a friend passed on a lucrative job shooting for Nike, Storm knew right away that this was what he’d keep doing. He soon found that the best gigs aren’t usually so easy to come by, and when a friend told him “Don’t get mad, get better”, it stuck.
Storm now has an agent and a substantial portfolio, and he’s working on jobs that give him lots of room for creativity.
And how does he keep the work coming in?
“If you can be cool to hang out with for 10 hours,” Storm says, “the 10% of talent is a plus”.
TRANSCRIPT OF THE BEING FREELANCE PODCAST WITH PHOTOGRAPHER STORM SANTOS AND STEVE FOLLAND
Steve Folland: Photographer Storm Santos. Hey, Storm.
Storm Santos: Hey, what's up, man? How are you doing? Thanks for having me.
Steve Folland: Thank you as ever. How about we get started hearing how you got started being freelance?
Storm Santos: Oh, man. It's a wild and crazy. It's really not. I mean I grew up here in LA which is, its kind of, I'm like one of the 10 people that did. Yeah. Born and raised here, surrounded by people who aren't.
Storm Santos: Yeah, I played music like really, really young. I started playing guitar when I was seven, and you know, like any other kid you want to be a rockstar, and as pretentious as it sounds, I kind of did it. I toured in bands professionally for five years right when I got out of high school, and being on the road just exhausts you. You don't want to be around people anymore, you don't want to hear anything. So kind of how I was, when I was playing guitar on the road I was taking pictures of bands, and also playing at the same time. And then I was just like, okay, I'm done doing this. I just still kept taking pictures through school, and then I got a job at YouTube, when I was not touring anymore, and then it still felt like a job, working at in office, and I was like, yeah, I hate this, too.
Storm Santos: And a friend of mine, he got sick, or broke his hand, or something like that, I forget. And he was like, hey I need you to help me shoot this job, and I was like, yeah for sure, and it was for Nike, shooting Mike Trout, big baseball player here. And I saw the paycheck and I was like, oh cool, I'm just going to keep doing this. Little did I know that those big paychecks do not come as fast and easy as that one did. And it was an uphill battle for the next few years. And the dust has settled and we're doing okay now.
Steve Folland: So just to put it in perspective, when did you actually step away from ... What were you doing for YouTube, by the way?
Storm Santos: I was actually working, this was like right when Google bought YouTube, I was actually working at one of their production studios called Maker, and they basically ... It was like a record label, they would find YouTubers that they believed in and stuff and they would help them produce and shoot their content. And I was working on a show called Epic Rap Battles of History, where these two guys get suggests from people and have them, and they write these incredible rap battles, like they're fucking amazing. And they were getting amazing numbers, like 75 millions views per episode, like it was crazy.
Steve Folland: And you were filming that for them, were you?
Storm Santos: I was on the team, yeah. Like I started off as like a production assistant, and then I worked my way up and I was working the camera department for them for that first year, and then I was just like, yeah I hate this. It's like someone telling you what to do shoot. Like it was great, like I loved ... It was like helping someone achieve their dream, you know what I mean.
Steve Folland: So, really up until that point, like the fact that your friend who was a photographer asked you to shoot for him, was off the back of doing your own personal shoots when you were travelling as a musician.
Storm Santos: And something I do in college, because right after YouTube I was like, okay let's get a degree and let's do it right. And he was doing that job and ... I think he was actually having a kid, I just remember getting the call and being like, yeah I'll go do that. And he's like, cool, a car's going to come pick you up, and I had never had anything like that before. My girlfriend was like, what's picking you up, who's picking you up? And I was like, yeah, black power from Nike, and she was like, fuck you, no it's not. And I was like, yeah it is. And we shot it down at Angel's Stadium, which was just cool, and that was kind of like the kicker.
Steve Folland: Wow, what an introduction. And so what did you study? Were you studying photography?
Storm Santos: Actually no, like my degree, which I finished, is in cinematography, I thought I was going to working in movies.
Steve Folland: Oh.
Storm Santos: Yeah, I really wanted to do that and be like the next fucking big hotshot cinematographer. Little did I know that the hotshot photographers are all 70, and they still today, and they're still awesome, and you have to wait for them to basically die to get a job.
Steve Folland: So you get the Nike job, you presumably do a good job, what happens next? You said that it wasn't as easy as you hoped.
Storm Santos: Well, yeah, I go that cool paycheck, and you're like, oh wow, you're looking at these three zeros, and you're like, wow, let's do this forever. And I was like, cool, how do I do this? And then every job that I wanted to go for they were like, yeah, you've done one big job, dude, you need to do more. So then I started shooting fashion because it was the most accessible thing here in LA, and I did that for like three, four years, and I realised like I fucking hate fashion. Like I have no interest really in shooting fashion at all.
Storm Santos: I was doing ... Like all these model agents here in LA, like I was doing all this very big entertainment looking type photos, but like for models it doesn't translate. They want these people looking pretty and gorgeous and sexy, and especially in LA it's like a market that like ... it's not really fashion, and it's kind of this middle grey area where sex sells, but it's not in like a fashion way, and everything really looks cool and ... I just wasn't doing it that, I had this one time I had this girl on an apple box, looked like she was floating and falling. And I photoshopped the apple box out, so it looked like she actually was floating and falling. And the agent was like, what the fuck is this? And I was like, yeah, I don't know. I don't know why I did that.
Storm Santos: And then a friend of mine was like, you should just shoot celebrity, man, you can do anything with them. Like you can get away with that shit, like all the cool images you ever want to do, you can do with a celebrity, and it will last forever. And those words, last forever, was like ... It was like a bell ringing in my head for like six months. I had just signed with my agent at the time, and I told her, I was like, yeah, I don't want to do fashion anymore, and like you guys can drop me if that's what it is. I just like kind of only want to do celebrity and entertainment images from now on. And she was like, yeah, we want that from you, too. And all of a sudden it just like worked out.
Storm Santos: But having the whole last forever thing was, still today is like something I hear in my head every time I shoot. Make an image that lasts forever.
Steve Folland: And so did you make a conscious decision to sort of start changing your portfolio, was there like a crossover period between fashion and celebrity?
Storm Santos: Oh, my God, yes. I think it was like I woke up the next day like, fuck this. I deleted everything, I was like, I don't want to do this anymore. Like the fashion stuff, I was like ... I mean obviously I kept what I could keep up, I just tried to like, let's keep up as much advertising type images up as possible so that I can get these publicists and managers to be like, yeah, I can do this, this is what I can do. I can make your clients look cool.
Storm Santos: And then my agent was like, yeah I got you a magazine, it was like one of the first celebrity things, it was like small stuff, I forget who it was. And we just shot the shit out of it, and then it just kind of like all started ... It just started all coming in which was cool.
Steve Folland: Just to put this in perspective, by the way, when was it that you did that Nike shoot?
Storm Santos: That was 2013, so it was like six years ago.
Steve Folland: Cool. And so you did a few years of fashion and then ...
Storm Santos: Now we're doing celebrity, like ... yeah, like maybe four years in the celebrity.
Steve Folland: And so when ... But when you were getting those first sort of fashion gigs, when they were telling you, you need to go out there and do more jobs, how were you getting those? Is it a case of hanging out with the right people, or knocking on the right doors? What were you doing?
Storm Santos: Honestly, dude, like cold emailing in LA is like a huge thing. You just like go sit down wherever you can sit down, coffee shop, home, whatever, and just pound out cold emails. Hi, I'd love to work with you guys, this is what I can do for your brand. And it's kind of like, as fucking lame as it's sounds, is copy and paste that shit as many possible times until someone says, oh yeah, we like you. I feel like there's no real magic formula, it's like a mixture of everything. It's like everyone in this town, in any town, London, New York, LA, everyone can take a picture and everyone can take it better than you, I always say. So, if you can be cool to hang out with for 10 hours, then the 10% of talent is a plus.
Steve Folland: I see. So it was once you actually got a foot in the door and you got on the shoot, then you would get to know the people and they would like working they would like working with you.
Storm Santos: Yeah. And I feel like should be with like in any industry. It's like you go to work and you're like, fuck, I do not want to see John today, that fucking asshole. But if you can hang out with John and he's working awesome all day, it's like, oh he also has good ideas, too, then that's like awesome.
Steve Folland: Where there moments when you were sending out those cold emails where you were not getting anywhere and you were starting think, maybe this isn't going to work?
Storm Santos: Oh yeah, man. I mean, yesterday. Yeah, dude, all the time. I mean, for every 100 emails you would send I would get like four responses. But I have no other tangible skills where I can go like, yeah, I'm going to go work an office job. There was no other way out, the only way is to do this.
Steve Folland: So what does your kind of like work life look like now? Is it tons of shoots in a row and then like loads of time off, or is it ... It is predictable? How's it working for you?
Storm Santos: It's really not, that's what sucks. Like this week and last week have just been like two a day every day, how do I retouch all this stuff? Because I still do my own retouching, I don't really send out that much. And you just sacrifice sleep, drink a lot of coffee. You want it, you got to do it. Because one of my assistants is like, dude, how do you like balance it? I was like, you just got to fucking want it.
Steve Folland: So you've considered outsourcing, or rather like bringing somebody else on to do the ...
Storm Santos: Yeah, I mean definitely like vet your retouching. There's a company here called Happy Pixel Project, and they are like, oh my God, man. They are like the best retouchers in the industry. You go on their website and you're like, oh wow, I am talentless, is how awesome they are. Like they've done everything you've ever seen on a huge scale, and when you see that you're like, oh I have no doubt in my mind that they make my stuff look exactly how I want it to. And it's stuff that is huge profile that I just don't have time for. Not that I don't have time for it, but you want it to have the proper love. So you're not like, oh my God, I'm chasing the clock, just send it out, man, pay the 150 bucks an hour and just be done with it.
Steve Folland: And does that mean that work comes in like quite last minute, as well?
Storm Santos: Oh, yeah. I did ... I don't know if you guys are getting that movie over there, I did the main lead kid from that Chucky reboot that's coming out for some magazine. And they called me two hours before, they were just like, hey we had a photographer drop out, can do this? And I was like, I love being like your backup, sure.
Storm Santos: I told the editor, because I wasn't working at the time and I was just like, why didn't you book me on this to begin with, why am I being you're sloppy seconds? And she was like, oh don't take it that way, and I was like, I'm just kidding, let's do it.
Steve Folland: How did you cope with the ... I guess the business side of being freelance?
Storm Santos: I have good wife. She is awesome, man, like she's in advertising and she's really taught me a lot of how to just like ... How to write emails and speak to people and how to chase down money. And in like the correct way so you're not looking like desperate or you're aggressive and just being on top of things. She taught me a lot and she's way better at that stuff than me. So, I don't know if that really good advice for anybody, but find yourself a good woman and she'll set you straight.
Steve Folland: What have you found then works for you when it comes to chasing the money, and getting the result but still being friendly?
Storm Santos: I have it written down on paper. Like just remember like this person owes me money, like have that shit written down, have it logged, it will help you, for anybody who's out there trying to start their business and learning how to do books and stuff. Like find an accounting client and like ... There's tons of free ones, like I use this thing called Joist, and it's amazing. It's free, and you can create invoices and log it all there. And if you use Quick Books you can sync it through there. It's really rad, but that's my advice, is write it all down, because you will forget when the money actually starts coming in. When jobs come in, and you don't remember who this $500 shoot three weeks ago, when you're trucking along, just move on and keep going.
Steve Folland: Yeah, that's true, because you're working to such pace, and presumably there must be quite a lot of expenses involved as well.
Storm Santos: So, I really say is like, invest in your business. So, I know a lot of photographers, like they'll go to my job and they'll just have like the client rent all that stuff out and hand you the money to go rent it. But I've kind of done it a little bit differently than a lot of people who do big jobs. Like I've bought a lot my gear, just because I want to be available at any moments notice. Like having my agent call me and be like, yeah can you shoot this in two hours? I have all the gear ready to go.
Storm Santos: In terms of like money on business side of like creative, like I just pay an assistant and if we need to rent a location we can do that pretty last minute. And I own my own studio here in LA, so I've tried to just make it as like not as expensive as it is. I will charge people for that stuff still, like I'll still bill them for studio or equipment rental, but I have it on deck and it's just another revenue stream, I feel like. That's a good way, it's like you spend the money but you'll get it back.
Steve Folland: That's interesting about having your own studio as well. Presumably you didn't start out with one.
Storm Santos: No, no, no. I have like a small apartment in Silver Lake here, it's like a neighbourhood in LA. And that was the goal, though, like have a work space that I can walk out in my underwear to and just be like, yes, let's do it.
Steve Folland: When it comes to, I guess like, who your hanging out with, like is there a community of photographers or are you all kind of like competitors?
Storm Santos: Oh, we're all so fickle, man. It's like ... We all hate and love each other at the same time. It's all a competition, in the most positive way. Everyone wants to be successful. But I feel like at the end of the day, it's like if you see someone that's doing the same style of stuff that you're doing, you're going after the same jobs and your friends. Like I have a friend here and we go up for like the same stuff all the time, and when he gets it I'm like, oh you son of a bitch, I'm happy for you but fuck, I wanted that. That passes, though, 10 minutes later you're like ... another job comes and you're like, okay cool. You can't actually really let it affect you, because if it does then that sucks. I don't think any human should let competitiveness affect their social relationships at all.
Steve Folland: And do you get to chat to them about the, I guess, the business side of it, or ...
Storm Santos: Oh, yeah. All the time. I have no shame, I ask. Like if I have a question I'll ask my friends. Actually, I have a mentor still and I call him all the time, and he's well more established celebrity photographer that's been in the game 25 years. And whenever I have a question I'm like, yeah I'm calling you right now, pick up the phone. And most of the time he's like, yeah, here you go, here's the advice.
Steve Folland: And how did they become your mentor?
Storm Santos: He was mentoring another friend of mine, and my friend moved to New York, and I was like, hey I heard an open spot, basically. He knew, I met him through him and I didn't really ask for him to mentor me, I just started calling him with questions and it kind of just became that kind of relationship.
Steve Folland: Cool. That must be so useful to have.
Storm Santos: Oh my God, man. There's been so many times where I'm like ... You have a business problem or a PR problem and I'm like, I've never actually handled this type of thing before and I just call him and he usually has the answer. So, I suggest people find someone that has been doing it longer and better than you have and just ask them questions. Most of the times they love that stuff. I know when my assistants ask me a question, I'm sure you get the same thing, like anybody who's coming up, you're like, oh I love to ... Everyone's a teacher at the end of the day.
Steve Folland: And how about a work life balance side of things? Sounds good, like walk into your studio in your underwear, but equally it sounds like you have a lot, well a lot of work, frankly, a lot of pressure on that side to things. How are you finding that?
Storm Santos: I feel like the live/work, especially when you a live work space, it's like a pro and con. You work, work, work, and then you're like, oh wow, I don't have to leave anywhere. And then you realised eight days in, you're like, wow I haven't left anywhere, and you're like, I want to fucking blow my brains out. I need to leave, I need to go outside and hang out with friends and get food or do something. It's like having cabin fever, you like lose it. So, I try to be social and work and try to mix those as much as possible. Going back to my wife, she's like, you need to go outside. So, have people who keep you in check in your circle, that's what I always say.
Steve Folland: And have you ever felt like you've been working too much?
Storm Santos: Yeah. I would say like literally last month I was having a conversation with some friends and they were just like, you need to start saying no to things. And don't be afraid to say no to things, like if it's affecting your mental health and the relationships around you, it's like jobs aren't going to stop coming just because you took a week off or a few days off. No one's going to forget about you.
Steve Folland: Yeah. But you haven't done it yet.
Storm Santos: Yeah. I did, we went up to San Francisco for a couple weekends in a row and just kind of shut off and came back. It was very refreshing. So I always say, like take small breaks, it will ... because you get burnt out, because then you kind of catch yourself, you're like, oh I've reused this lighting setup like three days in a row, or something like that, and you're just like, I need to shut off.
Storm Santos: All it does is help you, I feel like it helps me ... And I can only speak from what I know, so that works for me and taking a break helps me creatively, because I'll come back with fresh eyes, instead of all red and glossed over.
Steve Folland: And you mentioned having an agent quite earlier on, is that just like a given in your industry, or in your town as I were, and does all work come through an agent or is some direct?
Storm Santos: A lot of it's like direct. If it's stuff that I know, it's like small, but I still really want to do it and I don't want my agent, like say, I can just handle this real quick. I'll text her and just be like, hey I'm doing this thing, I just wanted to let you know in case I get book on something else. So I still keep her in the loop with everything, but I don't have her handle everything. But it's like bigger money jobs I'll have her get involved, where it's like a business thing, where it's like kind of more legally, I'll have her on stuff. We have a pretty good relationship where it's like, I'll let you know what I'm doing but you don't need to be involved with everything.
Storm Santos: The question you were saying, where like everyone has one here in this industry, it's like, no. I know tons of photographers who are way larger than me that don't have agents. And I know some that smaller than me that don't, too. I kind of like landed in the right place at the right time to get one, it was nice. Everyone kind of wants one, but I mean, if it works, it works, that's what I always say.
Steve Folland: And one of the main benefits is for those bigger clients, so that you don't have to deal with the intricacies.
Storm Santos: Yeah. I mean one of the main reasons I really wanted an agent was, because I don't like talking about money, I really didn't like to used to talk about money back in the day. I didn't want to talk to a client or publicist or manager or network, whatever, about ... Talk about money, negotiate money, argue about it back and forth in a positive way, and then me walking on set and they'll still have an idea ... I feel like, I didn't want to have the lasting an idea of like, oh we talked about money yesterday. I'd rather them have, associate the money with my agent and me just walk on set and only associate me with creative. That was like a huge thing for me. It's like I didn't want to be a person that was a taste in their mouth about any time of money, business stuff, I only want to be having the taste of creative in their mouth. Like only thinking about that stuff when I walk on and walk off set.
Steve Folland: Obviously, you're very creative, you're doing a lot of client work. Do you still do your own thing as well, like is there any side projects, or is it all client work?
Storm Santos: Yeah, no, all the time. I feel like whenever I'm like, if there's an actor that I really want to work with, I will reach out to any time of representative and just be like, hey I'll shoot this for free, like please, I just really want to work with this person. But you guys got to let me do what I want to do. Like, I'll give you guys some stuff that you need, but just let me do what I got to do. And most of the time they're like, yeah for sure. We'll take free press any day.
Steve Folland: That's so cool. I suppose that comes from, you're making the most of being in that particular city.
Storm Santos: Yeah. I mean anywhere else it probably wouldn't work. I mean I feel like New York is the only other place. I don't know, London, too. It depends like where your ... if you're going for like the Hollywood. I mean in the celebrity side of the world, LA's pretty perfect.
Steve Folland: Yeah. What would you say has been the biggest challenge for you being freelance?
Storm Santos: I think just having yourself on a schedule, that's the worst thing for me. It's just like realizing like, yes you're freelance, but you still have a job. And I feel like sometimes you'll be like, oh two o'clock and I haven't done shit today. And you're like, oh I have so much to do that I need to like sit down and do it. So, that was always a challenge, it's just like ... Just remembering, putting yourself on a schedule, and a healthy schedule. That's something I still struggle with.
Steve Folland: Actually, there was something I wanted to talk about, like presumably Instagram, for example, is really important to you. How do you stay on top of like pushing yourself out there with that?
Storm Santos: Man, I'm like the worst at it, too. Sometimes I'll forget and my wife or like an agent will be like, you need to post more, like you need to post more consistently, and I'm like, fuck yeah, I really do. And it's kind of just like ... To be honest, like I'm not a huge fan of Instagram, like if I didn't need to have it, I totally wouldn't. But I totally understand the value of what it comes with and what it does for like having you be available creatively every second of the day. So, I think just ... I kind of just set it and forget it, I don't let it affect what I think is valuable in my images. I kind of just like, I post it and I'll check if it for like the first, I don't know, five, 10 minutes, make sure everything's working. And I kind of just let it be and I'll check it the next day. And I'm just going to like ... if one does well, and it's like, I don't give a shit, I liked it.
Steve Folland: Cool. So you don't go for like the whole stories thing and ... I don't know, I guess selling yourself and the personality of Storm.
Storm Santos: I kind of. I've seen a lot of people ... This is the one advice I can give about isn't, is I don't like when photographers, or any type of creative medium, you don't have to be a photographer, anybody who's doing anything freelance or any type of work they're trying to showcase is show people ... If you're trying to use that a because platform, is show people how you are at least a little bit, don't just have it like, here's my portfolio on Instagram, because who is this person? You're just another picture, you know little icon on Instagram. People got to know at least a little bit about you, they need to latch onto sometime of personality.
Storm Santos: So I will post stuff on the stories, like that's a little bit more fun than just posting Instagram posts and then have a magnifying glass on it. I don't really care what I post on story stuff. Like last night I was at the movies with friends and I posted that. And it's kind of like, people see that like, oh you're an actually human being, you're not just, this is not just like a work portfolio. That was some advice I got early on that I think is like pretty good. Shows that you're human.
Steve Folland: Yeah. And especially when you were saying about how important that personal relationship is in what you do.
Storm Santos: Yeah, 100%. Especially if you're showing like your interests and stuff that you find funny or something like that, I feel like that's what people really latch onto.
Steve Folland: And I love your website, by the way, I just wanted to ... When did you, as it looks now, you know, if people were to go and look in 2019, when did it start looking like that as it is now?
Storm Santos: When square space was like, this is how easy it is to make this, that's when. I don't know, I really like simple and easy, I guess. Like I go on websites that are like crazy, flash, HTML, like a thousand menus. I just want it to like hit you in the face right when you open it, it's like, whoa, then you just go into the work and it's like, this is it, there's no real fluff.
Steve Folland: Cool. So you were able to do that yourself a few years ago?
Storm Santos: Yeah, man. I feel all those types of like, here's an easy to build a website, have made it so easy for people to create a website. Here I am selling a second website service, they better give me 10%. Yeah, it's like the internet has made things really, really easy for people to be successful. They bring you the tools to not need to spend a trillion dollars on making a website, and if you ... I just kind of like pieced together 10 people's websites that I really liked, and I was like, these all things work for me and how can I put my flare on it, I guess.
Steve Folland: And how about that sort of animation type GIF of your name as well?
Storm Santos: Oh, yeah. I feel like ... That was a new thing. I had a different one before where it was like a lightning bolt as my name, and I was like, this is kind of corny, let's change this. I'm still ... I mean the foundation of kind of why I shoot celebrity, like being able to do cool creative stuff, but at the end of the day I'm still like a huge fan boy of like just everything that people work in, like all these TV shows and all these movies, which is like kind of why I went to film school and tried to get a film degree. So like fitting the TV animation thing in there was just kind of like a nod to myself, just be like, oh this is why you're doing this. It means nothing to nobody else it just looks fucking cool to everyone else, but to me it was like, oh cool, like there's still like some ... there's a reason why I love TV and I love nerd shit and I'm a fan boy of all these people and all their work at the day.
Storm Santos: It's cool to work with other artists. That's a really deep explanation of an animation.
Steve Folland: Now if you could tell your younger self one thing about being freelance, what would that be?
Storm Santos: Just fucking don't get mad, get better. That's the thing, when I was first starting out, that was a thing I friend told me, and that's like his fucking motto, and I say that to myself, too. It's like if something doesn't work out your way, don't get pissed, just get better, because ... I feel like that's so, so strong. And I was really glad that my friend said that to me early on. So to anyone who's out there who's like upset that it's not working out, work harder. If you're genuinely care about what you do, it will come.
Steve Folland: Storm, thank you so much and all the best being freelance.
Storm Santos: Steve, thank you so much for having me, I appreciate it.