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Tony Willis: riding the road to creative freedom

Meet Tony Willis. New Jersey-based photographer and filmmaker​ and advocate of Affinity Photo.

Tony is the founder of SOTG Studio and the work he creates is both powerful and edgy—it’s fair to say we’re huge fans! Following on from one of his recent shoots, we enlisted Tony to talk us through his journey and what he believes it takes to becoming a professional photographer.

The act of becoming a professional photographer is a daunting undertaking, a journey that requires your commitment and more than a little bit of stubbornness. This drive will hopefully take you to a place where you set your own hours, make your own budgets, and select your own projects. Your dream destination is built on total creative freedom.

When I think of my journey toward professional photography, I imagine myself in a car, prepared for a long trip, well aware that rain may come, traffic may slow, and darkness may fall several times before I reach my end point. I find myself somewhere on the road to that dream destination, not quite able to drive away from a full-time job, but inching closer to that place all the time. All of these so-called obstructions only serve to strengthen my resolve as I grip the steering wheel tighter and settle in for the ride.

Here are some of my notes from the road.

1. Know your origin

Growing up, most of my friends were very talented in creative arts. I had friends who could play several instruments, friends who could sing, friends who could dance, and friends who did all three. I needed an outlet of my own as I witnessed the freedom my friends experienced when they were able to express themselves in their craft. This is how I found photography.

I studied Graphic Design at SCAD (The Savannah College of Art and Design), so I was only able to take one photography class as an elective. Even though I desired to do photo and film, I wanted a background in design so that I could bring a myriad of artistic elements to all of my work. Having this rich experience in Art History is always part of my starting place when I take on a new project. Flipping through books on Rembrandt from my local library or visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art to spend hours in front of Thomas Eakins’ paintings is like filling up at the gas station before hitting the road.

“I witnessed the freedom my friends experienced when they were able to express themselves in their craft. This is how I found photography.”

2. Plan your route

After spending some time perusing work from master painters, I usually choose a colour palette, which will guide my decisions on location, background colours and textures, and clothing. Though I may only choose one or two looks for my final edits, I have always been open to trying as many options as possible. There are so many streets you can take that will lead you to the same place, so why not try them all to see which route you like best.

For my recent shoot featured on Affinity Spotlight, the planning began weeks ahead of time. After securing the location, I had to hire a model for the day. I asked a designer I work with from time to time to begin scouring thrift stores for clothes that matched my chosen aesthetic for the project. I invited my team to join us on the shoot so that the energy would be vibrant and upbeat.

After nine hours of shooting, which included several outfit and hairstyle changes, background reconfigurations, a team pizza break, and numerous playlists, I felt good about the work I put in that day. Out of all of the images, I knew I had taken some really great shots. I also knew that though I love shooting in natural light, I would probably choose the darker, moodier images to edit. Rembrandt’s subjects shadows and Thomas Eakins’ use of blacks always find their way back into my work.

“There are so many streets you can take that will lead you to the same place, so why not try them all to see which route you like best.”

3. Embrace your detours

As you drive down the road along the charted course, reading the words, “road closed,” can be frustrating and confusing. On my journey to becoming a photographer, I have heard the equivalent words of, “we’ve decided to go with another candidate” or “we no longer have the budget for this project.” Here, my fellow travellers, is where the rubber meets the road, where some drivers may turn around and head back home while others will follow the signs to get them around this blockade and back on track. Through my explorations, I have found that when someone says no, that only opens the possibility for someone else to say yes in the future. I have also found that the later yes is always better than the original no would have been.

These detours not only come in the form of interruptions to your creative career, but also disruptions to your daily workflow. Since I’ve been taking photos for a while now, I have come to expect many challenges for every project. Typically, these trials include problems with the location, weather, model, equipment, and team availability.

“As long as I show up, I can take a great photo.”

I have adopted this mantra, “As long as I show up, I can take a great photo.” This means even if everyone else I expected to help flakes on me, I can still move forward. Even if it rains and snows, I can still find a magic moment. Even if my location falls through, I can still take a photo somewhere else. Once you get behind the wheel on the day of your project, don’t get out of the car until you make it to the end.

4. Proceed to your destination

Many photographers may feel pleased once they capture what they know will be an incredible photograph, thrilled to get back to their computers and edit their work. Though the prospect of finalising a concept to completion is exciting, this is where I usually have to refill my tank in order to keep going.

I’m a classic extrovert, so I thrive off of being around others. I’m also still that same kid from my origin story who loves to watch others work in their creative craft. Trudging upstairs to my home office is my final barricade to pass on my way to the finish line. I don’t enjoy being alone for long stretches of time, but often, the editing process demands such an activity.

“With the iPad app, anywhere can become my office.”

The Affinity Photo app on the iPad allows me to be around people when I need to see other travellers but still have to keep moving forward. With the iPad app, anywhere can become my office. Whether I’m sitting in my living room while my three-year-old daughter is having a tea party with her princess dolls, or I’m hanging in my local coffee shop, rubbing shoulders with other creatives and students working on their current assignments. I can make those places part of my project’s journey.

Looking up and seeing my wife and child play while I edit pieces from my latest shoot makes the voyage worth it. Working next to other focused people, trying to meet deadlines, helps me keep my travel schedule too. Affinity has made it possible for the last leg of my expeditions, which are often the hardest, to be a bit easier to traverse.

Sometimes, the life of a creative can be a lonely experience. The long hours, the late nights, the sacrificed time with family and friends—these moments surrendered to the road are all a part of the journey. Be sure to fill up your tank often—whatever that means for you—and don’t forget to invite a friend or two on your next trip. If it’s a photo shoot, they could be a great help to you. If it’s to join you for coffee while you edit on the iPad, be sure to tell them to bring along a book or their own project. It might be a long drive.

“Be sure to fill up your tank often—whatever that means for you—and don’t forget to invite a friend or two on your next trip.”

To view the editing process of Tony Willis’s recent photoshoot in Affinity Photo click here.

See more of Tony’s amazing photography and video on his website or follow him on Instagram @sotgstudio.

Artist relations

Jess is part of our artist relations team. When given the luxury of peace from an excitable toddler Jess loves nothing more than curling up with a trashy novel, a family-sized chocolate bar and a G&T.

Credits & Footnotes

Images and videos are copyright © of Tony Willis and used with permission.