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VOL. 43 | NO. 49 | Friday, December 6, 2019

Artistry in a Snapchat world

No way award-winning photographer Colby McLemore is phoning it in

By Joe Morris

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Heading out for a day with his camera is nothing new to Colby McLemore.

What is a little different these days is how, where and when those photos might be used. A lifelong enthusiast, McLemore decided a few years ago that taking photos to support his thriving real estate career was all well and good, but he wanted to do more.

Soon he’d converted a professional tool into a thriving, commercial business and picked up awards ranging from the Knoxville News-Sentinel’s Reader’s Choice Award for Best Knoxville Photographer (five years in a row) to the American Advertising Federation’s Big Wig Award (three in a row) and Photographer of the Year by the Tennessee Professional Photographer Association and the Professional Photographers of East Tennessee.

He took time out to talk with The Ledger about his career, his business philosophy and his artistic vision.

How long have you been in the Knoxville area?

“I moved here about 14 years ago. I was doing business in Sevier County at the time, but am originally from southwestern Virginia, a little town called Wise. I’m a military brat, so lived all over, I wound up in Sevier County after I got my degree in biology from Clinch Valley College [the University of Virginia’s College at Wise], so I could work in a family-run real estate business. Then it ended up not being in the family anymore, so I went out on my own.’’

When did photography enter the picture as a profession?

“I was doing photography for most of the Realtors, and then began doing work for hospitality companies and rental-cabin owners, and then added in some entertainment and destination-editorial clients.

“I eventually realized that I was working harder and harder at photography and less and less at real estate, so I decided to make the switch.’’

How did you train in the profession?

“I got into photography in high school, actually. My dad was a hobbyist, and so he paid for film and developing. I photographed like crazy and really enjoyed it. But when I went to college, I was paying for that myself and, at the time, I had higher priorities, so photography kind of fell to the wayside.

“As I moved into real estate, it was more of a tool than a passion. Even so, I wound up with about $10,000 to $15,000 worth of equipment and met a lot of hobbyists who swept me into what they were doing. I began having fun with photography again, and soon I was involved with and teaching at the University of Tennessee Photography Certificate program, and really diving into the local camera clubs. Soon it was clear that I could, and very much wanted to, make this a business.’’

What did that look like in the beginning?

“It was all business, just commercial shoots. Then I began moving on, mostly weddings and formal portraits, where I learned a lot about portraiture from some masters. Then I began working on what I was good at, not just taking anything that came my way.

A shelf of awards adorns the wall of Colby McLemore’s Knoxville photography studio, a testament to his skill and hard work over the years.

-- Photos By Adam Taylor Gash | The Ledger

“I joined local, state and national organizations. I’ve held every position on the board with the Professional Photographers of East Tennessee, for instance, and at the state level have been very involved with the Tennessee Professional Photographers Association. Nationally I’m with the Professional Photographers of America as a Tennessee representative.

“After doing a lot of consumer work, though, and improving my skills there, I found that I also was getting better at business-related work. From owning my own business, I understood their needs, concerns and pain points, and what they would be looking for when it came to photography for advertising and other uses.

“So about 10 years ago I went back to mostly business work, and I would say that’s the best move I’ve ever made.’’

The technology of photography is vastly different than when you began and keeps evolving. Everyone with a smartphone is a photographer, to some degree. How do you keep up?

“It hasn’t been that much of a challenge, honestly. Now that I don’t have that process of sending things to a developer and getting prints back, or doing my own development, has meant I can do a lot more. I have a strong technology background, and even though I am in my 50s I have been able to adapt better than many of my contemporaries.

“My father was a college professor in computer science who began two departments, so we had some of the first home computers available in our house. I had the very first hard drive you could have, so as a young man I was learning to adapt to technology in a way that was unprecedented at the time.

“That’s not to say I leaned too much on it – my early digital photos were very poor quality and very expensive, so I wouldn’t say I’ve always been on the cutting edge. I just like to keep an eye on what’s going on and play with it to see what works for me, and what’s better than the technology I am using now so I can make the switch if I want to.

“There also continues to be the debate about film vs. digital, but that’s also accompanied by people using phones as much or more than they are using cameras. There has never been a better time to be a hobbyist photographer. And because that work is inferior to what my clients need, fewer people with high-end cameras works in my favor.

“There are still people using film, but that trend has begun to die out, as well. I hope it never goes away, because as an art form film photography has so much value. The entire artistic process is so different than that for digital, and how artists engage with that process is, as well.’’

What’s catching your eye now on the tech front?

“The artistic process for me consists of understanding the subject matter and what I want to come out on the other side of the camera,” McLemore explains.

-- Photos By Adam Taylor Gash | The Ledger

“We are seeing a revolutionary shift from DLSR [digital single-lens reflex] to mirrorless cameras, and a lot of talk about that. I was definitely not an early adopter, and just bought one the other day. I feel like letting other people work out the kinks and then looking at the value proposition is a good way to proceed, because I’m in business, not buying a toy, I want to see a lot of research before I spend the money on something that can be very expensive.

“That said, you have to keep up with what’s going on in your business. If you don’t want to adopt to new technology fairly quickly and change with the times, you’re going to go out of business.

“There will always be new technology, new processes, new needs and new pain points. I have seen some crazily good photographers not adopt, and they went out of business. It’s not just how well you use the camera. It’s how well you also know how to run your business.’’

What non-photography skills help you to develop your business as far as client relations are concerned?

“A lot of my job is talking to one person, who has hired me, and also knowing that I need to please someone else who I may not have met. I show up to a shoot and that second person is there, so I have to make sure they know what is going on, and that I am not in their way or affecting their business in a negative way while I am there taking photos.

“I have to anticipate needs and problems beforehand, and also focus on the photography itself. If you don’t focus on both of those things, you’ll rue the day, because the complaints you see on review sites just as often are about the professionalism of the photographer as they are about the photography itself.’’

What do you try to convey in business photography? What’s the story you want to tell?

“The lighting, the angle, the content, all should focus on a unique selling proposition, showing how that company is really good when put up against their competitors. Someone looking at that image should see why they want to hire these people, should give them a visual that may or may not be accompanied by words about who they are, and what they do well.’’

What are your favorite types of shoot?

“I like direct food photography, because it is very hard to do well. I love collaborating on it – not just getting a shot, but working with the chef, the designer, all the people who are coming together to create the food, the background and everything to stage the photos themselves. When people see that photo and their mouth waters, they may never know how much has gone into making that physical and emotional connection happen.’’

How does that kind of work play into your sense of artistry?

“I love the image; that’s what it’s all about. I’m not even thinking about the camera, because that’s just settings and buttons.

“The artistic process for me consists of understanding the subject matter and what I want to come out on the other side of the camera. I want to connect with the subject quickly, and if it’s a person make them feel relaxed. When it’s portrait work, I have to understand that how people see themselves may not align with how others see them and helping them understand that.

“The same goes for a product shot – it has to represent what the company thinks it is, but also what the end user has in mind for it as well.’’

What’s the one photo that you’d pick if you could only save one piece of your work?

“I did a shoot for Moonshine Mountain Cookie Company. If you go to their website, it’s on there. The reason I love that image is the owner came to me with a truck full of props and different items, all things I could use. One of the challenges a working photographer faces is not just producing exceptional images but also bringing the client into the process, to really come prepared.

“It’s like someone coming in for a portrait without combing their hair vs. someone coming in with everything in place and ready to go. For the cookie photos I was able to get really creative and indulge my artistic flair. I was only going to be there for an hour, and suddenly it was almost four hours later, and nobody cared.

“It’s great when someone gives you a lot of toys to play with. I have many other photos that have gotten more accolades than those, but they are my favorites because I know how much fun I had taking them, and also I know that other photographers can see them and recognize every bit of collaboration and work that went into setting the stage and creating the shots.’’

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