Mike Larson is a photographer based in San Luis Obispo, California. Since 1997, Mike has worked for personal and professional clients regionally and internationally. He and his wife Rachel run their boutique studio together, where they specialize in estate and vineyard weddings as well as other private luxury events. The business has allowed them to travel to locations around the world, including Italy, the South of France, Mexico, and Hawaii.
I recently called Mike up to talk about his background, unique photography style, and how he’s managed to make a career out of his passion.
LEX VALISHVILI (LV): Tell us about your professional background—how did you get started with photography?
MIKE LARSON (ML): I started when I was 17, from client demand and, of course, practice. My passion is in working with people, regardless of what I’m shooting. I personalize in weddings, but that has opened up into people enjoying life. And there are a lot of industries that have been pursuing me to photograph that aspect—a lot of food/beverage and hospitality that want to move away from stock and into actual real life. I like to do a lot of wedding photographs that are “unwedding”—just people enjoying the environment, situation, the consumption of food and beverages in a joyful, casual, but upscale and romantic setting. For the most part, wedding clients want that, but there’s an increasing amount of commercial clients that want that unscripted, uncommercial, natural look. It’s kind of like an “anti-stock” look.
The background of working with people—being able to read people and know what they want—coupled with an experience in marketing, has really helped. If I just photographed something because it looked cool, or was new for the sake of being new, it may not give potential clients the depth or the direction they need. So, I focus on being a really good listener and helping clients as if I was part of their business.
LV: Who was your very first paid client, and how did you find them?
ML: Actually, my photo teacher bought a print off me when I was 16 years old. It was an inkling that I was going to do this for a living one day
LV: How would you describe your photography in three words?
ML: It’s very much tied to who I am. It’s hard to say it in three words without sounding cliché. Let me split it up into two categories: the photography itself is unpredictable, perfect and natural. As far as for me, the photographer—because I really think photography is a combination of the product you get and the person you’re working with, so it’s a bit of a performance to create the product—I would say three words that I like to do things with excellence, fun, and intention. I pride myself on attention to detail.
LV: Has your style changed over the years, or have those factors remained there since the beginning?
ML: It’s always been that way, but my capacity to understand how I can improve those things has grown immensely. In other words, if you had talked to me five years ago, I would have said the exact same thing; but looking back now, I would say I was too inexperienced to really see how I could push those things further. You hit those 10,000 hours and things just click—you get it. The closer you get to the 10,000-hour mark, the more you just become better at what you do. And I’m still growing—it’s definitely a pursuit.
LV: What is your biggest achievement, professional or personal?
ML: I’m a bit of a contrarian in the fact that I don’t necessarily pay too close attention to personal achievements. I focus more on growth and being a good listener and servant than personal achievements.
LV: …Which can be an achievement unto itself.
LV: If you could go back to your 17-year-old self, what advice would you give to that person?
ML: I would say, “Don’t let your successes define your value, because to the equal degree your failures will make you depressed.”
LV: In other words, don’t find your identity in those things?
LV: You’ve been running your photography business for many years. What’s been the most challenging part?
ML: Probably getting excited for competition’s successes, as well as keeping a low cost of living so I don’t have to work myself to death to pay for it—living below my means. Every season’s different, of course.
LV: Is there anyone you personally look up to or follow in the field?
ML: I love my friend Jose Villa’s work.
LV: This one’s simple: Nikon or Canon?
ML: Canon. Always.
LV: What advice would you give to our readers, many of whom are just starting out as professional photographers?
ML: Get mentored.
LV: Finally, do you have a favorite quote or saying?
ML: “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.”