“The Work We Do” is an interview series that asks creatives with daydream-worthy jobs how they got where they are—and what it’s like to live a day in their shoes. Today, I’m thrilled to feature photographer Nicole Franzen.
I’ve been following Nicole since she first started blogging, back in 2010. We would alternately leave comments on each others’ sites and one day she offered to take some photos of us with Hudson. He didn’t fully cooperate, but I have always been grateful. Since then, Nicole’s career has (deservedly) taken off and I’ve always hoped to hear more about it! I’m so glad she agreed to talk about following her passion to become a professional photographer—and to create a stunning portfolio.
Your website describes you as a “food, lifestyle, and travel photographer.” In which particular field did you get your start?
I got my start in the restaurant industry, actually, at the age of 14. I started at the bottom as a busser, then worked my way up. At 17, I moved to the Caribbean, where I got my first waitressing job. I was always very serious about food—I wasn’t waitressing for the cash. I was doing it for the love of all things culinary.
I learned so much during that time—I was always asking questions. Eventually, I moved back to New Mexico, which is where I’m from; then to South America for a year; then to New York. That was about eight years ago.
How and when did photography enter the picture?
I’ve always had a love for photography, and in my travels and my day-to-day life, I’ve always had a camera in my hand. But when I arrived in New York, I still wanted to be in the restaurant industry—I hadn’t considered making of career of combining the two until I was in my early twenties.
Once the idea had occurred to you, how did you begin pursuing that career?
I bought my first SLR camera, and I started a blog. At the time, I was visiting the farmers’ market once or twice a week and experimenting a lot. I’d buy ingredients I’d never tried before, and then I’d cook them and try to photograph them. I mostly failed at that for the first year or so—looking back at those photos is funny now. Still, the blog took off.
You mentioned failing at food photography for the first year—how did you learn what you needed to know to get better, and to launch your professional career?
I kept practicing. I kept shooting every day. I asked other photographers if I could assist them and everyone turned me down — but I kept studying the work of people who inspired me, thinking, what’s the common thread here? What are they doing?
I also used social media as a tool to share my work, and to keep meeting people. That was a big goal in the beginning: to meet new people all the time. Overall, building my career was a gradual process.
Do you ever regret not going to school for photography? Or to college in general?
I moved to the Caribbean instead of going to college. I was a little bit of a rebel in that way. I came from a single mother home and didn’t have money for a college education—I also wasn’t sure what I wanted to do yet. So I decided to take a non-traditional path. There are moments when I wish I was a better writer, or that I’d studied art history, but what can you do? The path I took was valuable in different ways.
What would you consider the most challenging part of your job?
Managing clients is hard, because mostly, all I want to do is focus on being creative. Also, when you work for yourself, you can’t really take a sick day. You’re pretty much working all the time, because there’s always something to be done. But I love what I do, so I want to do it. I feel really grateful.
What role has social media (especially Instagram) played in the development of your career?
It’s been huge. I’ve had editors approach me, saying, “We want to give you this story because we love the way you live, the places you go, the things you shoot, and the way you shoot them.” It became a selling point. It’s amazing how you can connect with people on Instagram—it’s mind-blowing at times. I’ll post a picture of my messy bed, and then think, oh my god, all of these people are looking at my messy bed now.
As with everything, it has its advantages and its disadvantages. You have to know when to disconnect, and when not to share.
That’s great advice. What other suggestions would you offer aspiring photographers?
Be persistent. Practice every day. Always focus on moving forward. And, be your own worst critic, but don’t forget to pat yourself on the back when you do achieve things. That’s important.
What’s also important is taking the time to do personal projects. In any creative field, whatever it is you’re doing becomes work—as a photographer, you’ll have to shoot things you may not necessarily want to shoot because you have to pay your bills. So make the time to do your own thing. It keeps you inspired.
What in particular inspires you the most these days?
Travel. I think of myself of a visual storyteller, and when I travel, I like to capture everything from the architecture of a place, to the way the city streets run, to the people, to their homes, to the food they eat.
Are you working on anything at the moment that’s particularly exciting?
I’m working on a children’s look-book, which is a completely new thing for me. Every year, I evaluate what I’ve shot, and what I want to do more of, and what I want to try next. If I’m just shooting a ton of food, I get a little burnt out. I like to mix it up. I’m inspired by changes.
Thank you, Nicole! It’s been so inspiring following your career. How interesting to learn about the challenge of finding professionals to shadow (and to think that you must be asked the same all the time now). I appreciate the advice to be persistent—and practice.
For more, visit Nicole’s website, blog, and Instagram.
P.S. See all the previous entries in The Work We Do.