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5 Strategies To Take Stunning Photos, With Chris Zuppa, Senior Staff Photographer at The Penny Hoarder

I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Zuppa, Senior Staff Photographer at The Penny Hoarder. He is regularly on the go capturing original moments and aerial shots (as a licensed drone operator) that help tell inspiring personal stories about entrepreneurship and debt payoff, and contribute to editorial features on interesting ways to save and make more money as published by The Penny Hoarder. He encompasses 15+ years experience as a professional photographer and his work has been recognized in POYi, NPPA, National Headliner Awards, among other notable awards and publications.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

There’s no real defining moment for me. It was a slow progression. I took photography classes in high school and college, but I didn’t realize that photojournalism was a career. I was inspired by the famous Farm Administration Security (FSA) photographers like Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Gordon Parks. During the Great Depression, they photographed the impact of the Great Depression on American lives for the FSA. Their work wasn’t photojournalism, per se. It was funded by the U.S. government, so a contemporary journalist would call it propaganda. But their photographs were an accurate portrayal of crisis and it helped inspire policy change intended to help people. That’s the goal of good photojournalism: to inspire change for the good. Many of those photographers also worked for the great photojournalism magazines like Life magazine later in their careers.

So maybe that was the defining moment — when I first saw those powerful images.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I visited Guantanamo Bay to photograph a profile about the place. It was a bizarre experience. The military keeps a tight control over when and where pictures are taken and they censor journalists pretty badly. It was one of the most restrictive places I’ve ever worked. Officials granted access to photograph morning prayer. I had to get up at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. to be escorted to the guard tower that overlooked the prison yard where prayer took place. The military didn’t want the inmates to know I was photographing prayer, so I was required to stay hidden in the tower until prayer began. It was so bizarre.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Here’s one:

As an intern at the St. Petersburg Times, now the Tampa Bay Times, I was photographing a story about a scientist who studies fire ants. He was collecting samples. I wanted to capture a lower, more interesting angle, so I laid on the ground. When I stood up, the guy looked at me and I saw horror on his face. My stomach and pants were blanketed with fire ants. We used the photo, but it was a (literally) painful reminder to look where I lie down when going for a lower angle.

Or this one: This really isn’t a funny story, but it was very important to my career. I had just been offered my dream job at the St. Petersburg Times, now the Tampa Bay Times, after interning there for a year. Right after my job offer, I was assigned to photograph a very emotional story about a man who found a handwritten message left in a Pepsi bottle. The bottle was discovered 19 years after it had been tossed randomly off a pier by a seven-year-old boy. The note read: “To whoever finds this letter please write me a letter and let me know. Roger J. Clay.” The note listed the kid’s address. The boy died in an accident years later as a young adult. The Times told the story about the note, the boy who wrote the note, and the man who found the note. I photographed the man meeting Roger’s mother for the first time at a restaurant (Unfortunately, the story link doesn’t exist anymore.). It was an emotional scene because the mother was still grieving from Roger’s death. It was also an extremely difficult situation to photograph because I was using an early version of digital cameras that produced poor quality stills, the scene was backlit against a door, and the man towered over Roger’s mom and me; I’m barely 5’6”. So when the man and Roger’s mom embraced, they were in terrible light and her face was buried in his chest. I scrambled to find an angle that wasn’t backlit. I wasn’t ready with my flash and I didn’t think in advance about the height difference. So alas, I made a very bad picture of the hug. Right after getting hired!

I had a Journalism School professor who discouraged using flash. He thought that photography should be captured in natural light. I get his point. But I think the better lesson is to teach young photographers how to use a flash well. If I know I’m going to need a flash, I always have it ready. Just in case.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

The Penny Hoarder is a digital publication driven by its mission to help people save and make more money. The company also cares about great visual storytelling. In an era when publications have cut back their investments in visual storytelling (even wiping out entire photo/video departments), The Penny Hoarder has created a very talented photo team. That makes good business sense. We are a visually savvy society. One study found that photos are the first thing readers see and react to, and readers can tell the difference between images taken by amateurs and professionals. Publications that wiped out their departments are losing readers and money. The Penny Hoarder is doing very well!

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

When I was starting out I was told: It’s a marathon, not a race. There’s a lot of ups and downs in this profession, so it’s important to pace yourself. That’s hard to do as creatives. Here are three quick tips:

  1. Find personal projects that you care about to work on, then find ways to do them. You’ll end up doing your best work.
  2. Sometimes, there’s an unfortunate attitude from some publications and organizations that photography does not have real value. If you run into a potential client like that, don’t let it get you down. Move on and find organizations that value your skills.
  3. Be willing to adapt to change. My training is in still photojournalism, and I never thought that I’d be doing 360 videos, drone photography/video, short video narratives and more. Be willing to learn those skills to stay relevant, and be willing to take jobs (e.g., weddings, event photography, advertising, or a side hustle) that will enable you to pursue the kind of photography you want to.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

There’s been a lot of people along the way who have helped me out, but one person sticks out in my mind. While in journalism school at the University of Missouri-Columbia, I wasn’t very confident in my ability as a photographer. I was taking a class from Rita Reed, who worked as a photojournalist. She’s now retired but she did some amazing, groundbreaking work at newspapers. She pulled me aside and gave me the encouragement I needed. She offered to help any way possible, which included landing me a prestigious internship. We all need a mentor or two like that in our lives.

Are you working on any exciting projects now?

I’m working on a multimedia story about the oldest drive-in movie theater in Florida. There’s still a good number of drive-in theaters in the U.S. (several hundred), and they are an affordable place for middle class families to go see a movie. It costs about $14 (excluding food) for a family of four to see a movie, compared to about $50 for a brick and mortar movie theater. This type of story is perfect for The Penny Hoarder’s audience.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

One of the most rewarding stories I photographed and produced a video was about the plight Florida’s freshwater springs face. Florida has the largest concentration of freshwater springs in the world. They are a treasure and important tourist draw. But they are facing some real issues with toxic algae outbreaks from pollution and declining water flow from the aquifer being over pumped. The story helped draw attention to the issue.

Can you share “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Take Stunning Photos”. Please an example for each.

  1. Zoom with your feet. Not everyone can afford a fancy telephoto lens that will get you closer to a subject. Sometimes our phone is all we have or a camera with one wide angle lens. So don’t be shy. Step closer to the subject of the photo to get a better image that fills the frame. Granted, this approach isn’t full proof. It won’t work for sports photography when you have to photograph from the sidelines and the action is in the middle of the field, but it works well for portraits and other situations where you are not limited where you can go.
  2. Don’t have a tripod with you, use your elbows. There have been a number of times that I wanted to make a picture in low light but didn’t have a camera flash that would brighten the room. Long exposures (the time the camera’s shutter is open to capture an image) result in blurry images because you need a tripod to keep the camera steady. One approach is to turn your elbows into a tripod by laying flat on your stomach and placing both elbows on the ground while you hold the camera. Or lean against a wall, bring your elbows in closer to your chest, and hold your breath while pressing on the camera’s shutter button to limit your movement even more. It won’t work for super long exposures (e.g., 30 seconds), but it could work for about a second long exposure.
  3. Use a chair to get a higher vantage point (using safety precautions). I’m a short guy. Sometimes I need to get higher to make the picture. So I’ll stand on a chair. Of course, I try to use good sense to be safe and I sometimes remove my shoes. If it’s in someone’s home, I always ask their permission.
  4. Bend your knees to get a lower vantage point. On the other hand, kneel to get lower, especially when photographing kids. This will put you down at their level, which makes better, more intimate pictures.
  5. Pay attention to the light. Good photography is all about the light, especially portraits. The light is best early in the morning and later in the evening. Midday light produces what’s called “Frankenstein light”, or ugly light that produces harsh shadows. During situations like this, some photographers will put a flash on top of the camera and use it to fill in the shadows. This technique is called fill flash. I personally don’t like the fill flash technique in most situations because it can be unflattering to to your subject. I’d rather set up strobes off camera to create a more interesting lighting effect, or simply take the person to a shaded spot where the light falls evenly on the face. The latter approach wins you points from your photography subject for keeping them cool on a bright, sunny day.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I would not say I’m a person of great influence:) Far from it. I think one of the best photography ideas is already being done: Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton. It shows that everyone has an important story tell.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@chris.zuppa for Instagram

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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