Photographer Profile: Nicole Mason - Portland, OR
Hi Nicole! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Hey! I’m Nicole. I’m a photographer based on the Oregon coast. Most days of my life involve a lot of driving, various cameras, at least one coffee shop, and being outside- typically in or by the sea. I began shooting weddings about 6 years ago while in college, when I discovered that I could have a job that would pay for being creative. I had built a small business before I even understood income taxes. I graduated a year early with my BFA in Studio Art and I shot a full season of weddings in Western NY before making a move to Portland, Oregon in November of 2014 to pursue my career in photography further. I’ve now started to take less wedding work, shifted my business toward photography for brands, and run a rentable photography studio in Portland that I began last spring.
What is your background (i.e. education, previous jobs, experiences that led you to create)?
I grew up in a small town in Western New York State near Buffalo, NY with my parents and my older sister. I always feel lucky when I think back to my childhood and how encouraged and supported it was to be creative, from family and friends to teachers. I had my first 35mm film camera in my hands when I was about 7 years old, and I remember taking it on trips to Arizona that my family took nearly every year to visit my grandma, who’s still a practicing artist in the Tucson area. Those trips would always be filled with museum visits, hiking, (sometimes riding horses through the desert), making arts and crafts with my sister and grandma, and walks around markets of local artisans and artists selling jewelry, sculptures, paintings, etc.
I loved a little bit of everything growing up (and still do). Sports and music were a huge part of my life until college was over. I played soccer and lacrosse throughout high school and college, played alto saxophone from 5th grade through my junior year of high school and taught myself a bit of piano and guitar along the way too. I’d say I always knew I wanted to be doing something creative with my life (except for the few years I wanted to be a veterinarian).
I was 17 when I left on a train to Montreal from Buffalo, NY with a few packed bags. I graduated 6 months early from high school to do an arts & music focused program where I spent four months in Quebec, Canada and then two more months in Italy & Sicily where I was either sleeping on the rooftop of a church in Rome, or on a sail boat docked on the coast of a small island. That was one of the first really adventurous and independent experiences of my life - meeting a ton of new people, living in different cultures with different first languages - I always think of this time as something that set the tone of the way I wanted to live: creatively and adventurously.
After returning from Europe, I went to a small private college just an hour south of the small town I grew up in. I studied studio art as my major for three years and graduated with a BFA, and during this time was when I simultaneously found myself starting my photography career, shooting weddings, family photos, dance competitions (almost forgot about that one!), assisting other photographers, - just about anything I could to continue to do photography as work instead of anything else.
What is it that drew you to photography, and when did you know that you wanted to make it your career?
It’s funny that photography was what I ended up doing because I hadn’t taken any formal class in it until college. But I grew up with cameras in my hands, and was always so interested in new technology. I remember saving all my allowance money or minimum-wage-work money and getting a new camera with it pretty much every time. I was also always making goofy videos or documenting summer adventures and trips with friends - I just did it naturally, I never thought about it as work.
I took my first black and white film photography class in college my freshman year, and I fell in love with the process and with the medium of photography in a whole new way. Images no longer just appeared on a screen after you took them, but they magically appeared on paper, in a pool of chemicals, in the dark, only lit by the dim red glow of the safe light. Timing had to be just right from developing the film roll to developing the prints. I went on to take every single photography class my school offered (not too much) taking the same course with a different name and new professor again, doing an internship with a wedding photographer, doing an independent study, and ultimately focusing my final senior show on photography. By this time I had already started shooting weddings, as well as events on campus, and most of my free time was spent roaming around taking portraits with friends.
I think one of the moments that made me realize that I could really make photography into a career was going to my first photography conference. I invested in going to Mystic, Connecticut with a few wedding photographers from Buffalo and I learned and experienced a ton from people in the industry and came away so inspired to create and run a business, and be my own boss.
Do you have specific jobs that you seek out to work on or do most people/businesses contact you or is it a mixture of both?
It is definitely a mixture of both, but at this point, as I transition into shooting for more brands, it is mostly me reaching out to people. I always had wedding clients approach me, so it is an adjustment to be on the other end, introducing myself and proposing work to clients, rather than the other way around. But I think it’s a great learning experience and something that you can’t be afraid to do - you get a ton of rejection as a creative person and business (something I’ve also learned) but to me, it’s a good thing. Because I’ve defined a style I want to shoot, I won’t work with everyone that comes my way or everyone I approach, and that’s okay. I’ve discovered that the most rewarding work comes with working with clients that have a shared vision, who understand and appreciate your work and want that exact style you have.
What makes you passionate about the work that you do?
There’s definitely a number of things that make me passionate about the work that I do. Toward the top of this list, is that my work is something that I get to share with the world. I get to work with other creative people, invite others to a space to create in, and share the work I make on a regular basis. I get to find and create and share my perspective of life, and I think that’s something really special about my job.
It also keeps me on my toes - I’m always seeking new experiences, different ways to see things, something else to learn. You have to figure out what’s next and how to do things more efficiently all the time as a creative business owner - it’s an ongoing cycle of how to do what you’re doing, and continue to improve it and adapt to the way the world is constantly changing.
Overall, I love art and design and my creativity is fueled by that alone at times. I’m constantly inspired by so many various forms of it, from interior design, to creative direction, to fashion. I’ve slowly transitioned into the opportunity to work with these types of artists in the industry, and it’s a really amazing collaboration that happens when our vision aligns across our various mediums, and a complete project from the process to final product is documented and able to be shared.
When and why did you want to open The Portland Studio?
I opened the studio last year in April. I had actually rented a small studio space in the basement of the building the previous year, as my personal work space, and then I left it behind to pursue more travels. But while I had been in that studio, the building had been purchased by a new owner and they were renovating the entire upstairs. I’d sneak up and look at the spaces upstairs that were being restored by new white walls, lined with beautiful tall windows, yet maintaining their original hardwood floors and exposed brick walls.
I had a meeting with the managers and discussed what rent would be. It was definitely out of my budget (since it was 5x what I had been paying for my personal little basement studio), so I continued on my way, left the building, and for the next few months I was in search of a space while figuring out how I could do this studio idea.
I knew of a couple other studios in town at the time, but really nothing like this space and what I had in mind for it. I felt like I’d been doing my own photography for a while which was great, but I had this urge to expand in to something more - something with more people involved - something I could share. After a few months of searching Craigslist and trying to drive around town to find a space, I landed back on a listing for my old studio building. The renovations were nearly done and it looked amazing. I went in to tour a few spaces, proposed my idea, and came away with approval to do it.
Do you have a team at the studio? If so, what steps did you take to find and build that?
I do! At first, it was just me. I quickly realized that that was not going to work well at all. I was terrified, but I posted that I was looking for a studio manager and I ended up finding my first employee. I got a ton of response to the Instagram post about the position - a lot of aspiring photographers. I knew I didn’t need a photographer though - I needed someone to be well-organized, managing a calendar, customers, posting to social media, and keeping the studio clean and tidy; I didn’t want to hire a photographer who’d be disappointed by the position, because it actually doesn’t really require any photography skills at all. I had luckily just been listening to a podcast about hiring and hiring the right people, which I think really helped me in the decision. I met with Annie, who runs a marketing business with her sisters, and knew she was perfect for the position. She has been managing the studio appointments, e-mail and social media since last June. This past month, I added two lovely interns to the crew, so there are now four of us. There’s a lot more work than I could have anticipated in running a white room! Haha. We all are in constant communication in a group chat about appointment times, creative direction, photos, social media posts, etc.
What is your relationship with social media?
I try to keep a really good balance with social media. Actually, the only apps I even use are Instagram and Pinterest. I never got into Twitter, and have pretty much lost touch with Facebook for good. Instagram just makes sense for photographers, and it’s an amazing tool to show your work and promote your products and services.
I’ve always held back from sharing too much - I believe in being vulnerable and honest, but I don’t agree with sharing every second of your day and letting it become a distraction to reality and productivity. I’ve decided to recognize that it’s a powerful and useful tool for my business, and to mostly use it for that. Of course, I still post some personal stories and photos, but I want to be aware of how much time I spend on it and make sure I’m devoting most of my time to in-person conversations, experiences and connections.
As someone who travels a lot, do have a favorite or most memorable moment(s) that you would like to share?
I think that New Zealand is the most magical place I’ve ever been, and I’m lucky to say that I’ve been there twice in the last two years, once to each island. I drove around the South Island a couple years ago with some friends, and it was definitely one of my favorite travel experiences. We lived out of roof-top tents on a land rover for a couple weeks, eating eggs and avocados, sandwiches and raw vegetables, hiking to mountain lakes at sunrise and taking the ferry through Milford Sound (twice). I like places where you can be surrounded by nature for miles and not be in a line of tons of tourists, so this trip was incredible.
What are some of the setbacks or challenges you face with your photography work and the studio?
I think being the owner of two small businesses can sometimes take its toll on my own energy for creativity. It’s another balance I’ve been learning (and part of why I spend only half of my days doing intense work). It takes a ton of energy to be creative, and I think it takes about double the energy to continuously be managing and maintaining and directing a business. I’m working toward ways of freeing up my time for more creativity, less business management - mostly by handing off some of the responsibilities of book keeping and admin work.
At The Glossary, we believe in women working together and helping one another. Why do you think it is important for women to support each other?
I think there’s an amazing alliance among creative women, especially right now at a peak time in history for women’s rights and equality - the more we stand behind each other’s work and ideas, the more powerful we become, together. The more we become leaders and role models to other women and to girls growing up now, seeing that they can run businesses, have a voice, and become anything they dream up.
What creative women do you find inspiring?
There are so many! This is tough to answer, but a few that come to mind that have regularly inspired me are Jen Szeto, with her fashion and photography she shares at @windowofimagination, Ellie Baygulov - (@elliebaygulov) a stylist and photographer, Nessa K - (@nessakphotography, @nessakdraws) an incredible wedding photographer and illustrator, Lindsey Pruitt - (@lindseypruittco) a creative director and designer with amazing style! I really could list about 50 women that I know personally here, and it’s not only their art/creativity that inspires but that their running businesses themselves as well and taking risks to do what they love & make the world a better place!
What have you learned from creating your own business that you think can apply to any creative endeavor?
I think taking risks, going with your gut, and being adaptable is key to any creative endeavor. Things rarely go according to plan, (in life and in creative projects), and I’ve learned that adapting to how they’re actually working, the direction their going in naturally, is the best thing you can do sometimes. Nothing creative would ever happen if people didn’t take risks. The very act of being creative starts with an idea that you are trying to communicate or express, and often, you’ve never tried to do it before - so you have to just try and see what happens. More often than not, I think you’ll be surprised.
Do you have any resources that have been helpful to you that we should know of?
I use Pinterest a LOT for gathering shoot inspiration, getting ideas, and keeping them organized and in one place. I find it extremely helpful to give clients a vision that way or just start shot-listing / mood boarding for personal use. I also love to go on Creative Market for design templates or mock-ups because I love making well-designed proposals or displaying my work in a new way, but don’t always have the time to make something from scratch. I love looking to print publications for inspiration as well. Some of my favorites (though always discovering new ones!) are: Woven Magazine, Cereal, Lagom, This Is Paper, Water Journal & Frankie.
How do you manage your time?
Typically, when I’m home, I get up early and head straight to my favorite coffee shop to get some work done for a few hours. I’ve discovered that I’m my most productive self in the morning, and by the time early afternoon hits, I’m pretty much useless so I’ve kind of split my days in half now most of the time - mornings for work, afternoons for play. And then if I get into a groove I might get some more work done at night.
Being a photographer, my “work” time fluctuates a ton. Some weeks I may have a shoot every day for hours (which then makes for hours and days of editing time), and some weeks I may not have any shoots. I’ve learned to take advantage of the times that I don’t have shoots - though I usually have other personal work to do (preparing social media posts, working on my website, reaching out to clients, etc.) but recently I’ve been trying to spend a lot of time outside when I don’t have client work. I’ve been learning to surf since last summer, so I spend a ton of time at the ocean, and I love just being active, so I’ll plan road trips to new places or go out on hikes.
How do you deal with moments of self doubt?
If I’m getting stressed about a shoot or doubting that what I’m going to do will be good, the number one thought I have to remind myself is that it has never not worked out. There’s always something good that comes out of a shoot. Maybe not every single photo, or it wasn’t how you pictured it, but it has never been a complete failure - that usually helps me to get back in the zone and be confident in what I’m going to create.
What are you trying to learn right now?
As far as creatively, I’m trying to get better at design. I love it so much, but I never had much formal training or education in it. I only took a few classes in college, and otherwise, I’ve just always appreciated and recognized it - anything from interior design to graphic design to print layout to architecture - I am just in awe of it.
In life, I’m trying to learn how to be more efficient and balanced. I’m trying to minimize my belongings and responsibilities right now in order to feel more free to travel, spend time with people, and experience new things.
Is there an upcoming project that you are really looking forward to?
I always have a million ideas in my head! Yes. I have a number of shoots that I’m working on planning (personal ideas), and I’m hoping to get some renovations done to the studio in the near future.
What are some of your favorite places in Portland?
The city is full of so many good spots, but some of my favorites are coffee shops, plants shops and parks. A few of my go-to coffee spots are Heart, Barista, and Good coffee. Plant shops: Pistils Nursery, Solabee and Sammy’s Flowers. Forest Park and the international rose garden are a a quick escape to nature. Downtown, the Ace Hotel (complete with black and white photo booth in the lobby) and Powell’s book store are a couple favorite ways to spend a few hours in the city.