Patrick Chin Interview
Navigating Success Beyond Big City Hubs: A Florida Photographer's Playbook on Freelancing
Patrick Chin is a freelance commercial photographer based out of Winter Park, Florida.

MK:          Hey Patrick, I'd love to start by talking about how you got into Photography and why you're so passionate about it?

PC:          I’ve always found myself drawn to the arts. In my youth I was obsessed with drawing, and I thought maybe one day I’d be an illustrator or an architect or something. In high school, I discovered a love for playing music and was in many bands throughout the years after that. I still love playing to this day but I tell people now that I was a musician in a “former life”. I don’t get to play nearly as much as I’d like to. Then during my first year in college, 2005, a friend gifted me a 35mm Canon FX from the 80’s.

It was all metal and had the most epic clang of a shutter sound. I knew instantly that photography spoke to me. The satisfaction of finishing a roll and seeing what came from it was such a high for me. For close to a decade after that I had that camera with me basically anywhere I went. It wasn’t anything special, but it was special to me. I had no idea what I was doing and I would never say I was trying to become a photographer during this time, that wasn’t even on my mind, but in hindsight this was all part of the journey for me.

MK:          I’d love to hear the story of how you sold an iPhone photo to Apple in the early days?

PC:          So fast forward to 2013 and I had just taken a new job with a screen printing shop as an account executive - essentially it was an inbound sales role. I did that for not even a few months before my boss at the time saw my instagram and asked if I was a photographer. This was in my “iphone only” era on Instagram and I took a lot of pride in trying to use Instagram as a creative outlet for my photo work, even if it was just all shot on my iPhone. I transitioned roles at the company into a marketing job and started doing all of their visuals and social media and whatnot. It was my first time using a “real” camera. They bought me a Canon 6D and some studio lighting and I cut my teeth there learning everyday. “Youtube University” and a few very helpful friends are definitely to credit with the steep learning curve I was on in that year or so at the screen printing shop.

In December of 2014 I was let go from that job but I had just had my first child, Harper, and really needed to find work fast. I accepted a job offer the next day to begin work at a local agency in Spring of the next year which meant I had three or four months that I could “freelance” until I took that job. In reality I was just unemployed for a few months, but I tried to make the most of it and I put the word out that I was freelancing even though I didn’t have one client to my name. Not even a month into my half-hearted freelance career I got an email from an agency claiming to be representing Apple and they were asking if I was interested in having some of my photos used in a campaign about iPhone photography. This was the first ever “Shot on iPhone” campaign so I didn’t have any real understanding of what this was or how they would be used but I figured I had nothing to lose by saying ‘yes’. They were interested in four of my photos that they’d found on my Instagram or VSCO Grid and we ultimately agreed on them buying one of my photos which was on a billboard or two and primarily went to print for magazine ads and things. It was more money than I made in 2-3 months at my last job and that was for just one photo and that was really when the switch flipped for me that maybe I could really do this. I hadn’t even considered actually making the jump to freelance yet, but having my photography recognized by a company I admired so much was just the push I needed. Soon after I told the agency I was actually going to pass on the job offer and now here we are 10 years later.

MK:          You’re based in Winter Park, Florida. What advice do you have for creatives who want to be successful outside of the big centers like New York, LA?

PC:          It’s been a decade of freelancing for me now and I feel like I’ve learned and seen enough to know that it’s definitely not for everyone. I’ve seen friends that I think are extremely talented really struggle to make things work and I just ultimately don’t think your success is tied to your skill nearly as much as it is to your networking and social skills. That said, if you are a creative in a smaller market I think you can absolutely build a great career for yourself but unfortunately I do think the ceiling is lower for you compared to a creative in a large market like LA or NYC or somewhere. That’s not to say anything except that I think a lot of the biggest productions still happen where you’d expect them to, and if you want to work on those kind of projects/budgets you need to be willing to travel and work in those cities. I love living in Winter Park with my family but I also love to travel and I’m very grateful I get to experience so many places so frequently. I made an effort very early on to not really make a big deal of being based in a specific place - I tried to share work from all over the place and I think it’s served me well to not be associated with any particular market. I make myself available wherever the projects need me and I like it that way.

MK:          What got you into shooting hospitality, fine dining and lifestyle? Do you recommend others try and nail down a niche?

PC:          The funny thing about this is I don’t really practice what I preach. I do often tell people that I think it’s beneficial to have a niche and to be a “master of one” if you will, but then I look at my own work and I know I don’t do that. I think my work is extremely cohesive in *vibes* and it all feels the same, but I shoot so many subject matters. I do often work in hospitality but I love that because it requires so much of a photographer - some days it’s interiors, some days it’s lifestyle, some days it’s f&b, and I think it’s made me a more well-rounded photographer. I got into shooting hotels kind of on accident; I reached out to a hotel asking to stay for free if I posted about them on IG. I’m so embarrassed about this in hindsight but at the time I was maybe 2 months into freelancing and had no idea what I wanted to focus on. I just wanted a free place to stay while on a trip to Los Angeles. The hotel did respond to my email but they said “no”. I guess she had looked at my (very modest) website though because she then followed up by complimenting my work and asked if instead of a trade if they could hire me for a full-day shoot while I was out there. She asked my day-rate, which I had to google what that was, and I just took a shot in the dark and asked for $800/day. The hotel agreed and I thought I pulled a fast one. I couldn’t believe someone was going to pay me real money to take photos. Turns out I loved it, and so did they, and that was the first hotel I ever photographed. I used those photos to try to get other hotel work and slowly but surely I started to get more. It’s a niche I’ve really loved and I’m thankful it worked out the way it did.

MK:          Any advice for those who are thinking about making the jump to Freelance?

PC:          I’m convinced success as a freelancer is something like 40% skill, 20% people skills, 20% luck and timing, and 20% blind optimism. I know I’m not the world’s best photographer by any stretch. I think your work can impress and get you hired the first time, but longevity is based on getting hired again. What gets you hired again is if people liked working with you, liked being around you, liked communicating with you before and after the job. Don’t be an asshole.

MK:          What made you want to start Sum Studios? And why specifically do you think lighting is so important in photography?

I love shooting with natural light. When everything is perfect with natural light, it’s amazing, but the problem is that it changes and of course it’s not always perfect. In Florida, in the Summer it rains almost every afternoon. I got frustrated having to rely on the sun and started to dabble with using strobes on location shoots. I had experience with strobes from my few years in the studio at the screen printing shop but had never tried mixing them with natural or ambient light. It took a while to find my style but I became obsessed with what was possible once I started controlling the lighting. I could change the mood of the photo, the color or the time of day, I could draw attention to certain things - it’s so much more fun having control and understanding of lighting. I still feel like I’m learning all the time.
Sum Studios made sense to me as a way to help people like me take next steps towards incorporating or understanding lighting more in their work. I reached out to two of my closest friends and favorite photographers and I felt like between the three of us we could cover a lot of ground with showing the different ways we all like to use lighting in our work. I admire Kirk and Caleb’s work so much and I love them as people. They also have a heart for teaching and it’s been seriously the most rewarding thing I’ve done in years. We did our first workshop in Miami in 2022, we did year two in Los Angeles in 2023, and we’re looking forward to year three of Sum in 2024. I found using lighting extremely intimidating before I got the hang of it. I didn’t know exactly where to learn or how to learn. I’m grateful I can hopefully help a few people learn with me. We treat it more like Summer camp than a workshop - we do all of our meals together, we all stay in the same hotel, and we just have a great time hanging out for a whole weekend. It’s really special I think.

MK:          A lot of AI tools have been released in the past year, I’ve noticed many of them are focused on generating photography. Do you have any thoughts on how these tools will change your industry?

PC:          I’m low-key nervous about AI in a more existential sense, but I’m not yet sweating it cutting into my work. Maybe I’m naive, but I just believe that most people have an aversion to things that don’t have a human touch. Most of the AI images I’ve seen look like crap in my opinion. It’s kind of like seeing a movie with practical effects vs seeing a recent Marvel film full of terrible CGI. They feel so different and I think most people can feel that difference even if they don’t know why they feel that way. In the photo realm, I’m anticipating a push back towards film or at least grittier imagery - less perfection, simply because that will feel more authentic. More true. That said, I think AI will likely bring a lot of things with it that are really helpful for photographers/creators. There are a ton of new Photoshop AI tools that are kind of mind-blowing with how much time they save. It’s hard to say what things will be like in even five years but for now I’m not too worried.

MK:          I hear you are a bit of a whiskey connoisseur, what’s a favorite bottle you’ve been drinking at the moment?

PC:          Haha I don’t know if I’d describe myself that way but I think I’ve been privileged to have tried a lot of things that most people won’t ever have the chance to try in their lifetime. As an everyday type of whiskey, I love Weller Antique or Weller 12yr. They’ve become increasingly harder to find, but they’re delicious and at retail cost they’re amazing value. I also love Four Roses Single Barrel picks or Russells Reserve Single Barrel picks. If I’m gonna talk about actual favorites and not everyday stuff, my favorite whiskey in my collection is probably this specific Willett Family Estate pick from a store in Tallahassee, where I grew up. It’s a single barrel bourbon, specifically barrel #3602. People in really nerdy whiskey circles refer to it as “Waffles”. It’s 22years old and was originally distilled at Heaven Hill before being bought by Willett and aged there before bottling. There were only 120 bottles of it ever so it’s exponentially more rare than something like a Pappy Van Winkle or something most people would be more familiar with. All of those older Willett Family Estate Single Barrel bourbons are really special. I share it with anyone that I know will appreciate it, even if they don’t know how rare or special it is. Whiskey shouldn’t be treated like a trophy, it’s meant to be drank and shared.

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