Friday, September 9, 2011

Passion into Profession

This past weekend, I did a photo shoot (to get some new ‘author’ shots) with a wonderful photographer I’ve known for about five years now. I told him I wanted to share his story: not so much as one of change as much as one how he turned a hobby/passion into an ‘additional’ career.

Tom Schopper
(He will have a personal website out soon!)

Tell me a little about your passion that you discovered later in life.

Sure -- it is photography (namely actor headshots, model/portrait 
photography and live theatre photography).
How long have you been doing it?

In earnest, really only about 5 years now.

Right around when I met you! (And here I thought you were doing it so much longer.) What was your career prior to doing this?

The same as what I am currently doing (and to say that is it "boring" is an understatement): I am a career paralegal-turned-law department manager. I spent almost 10 years as a litigation paralegal at a large Wall Street law firm, then moved in-house as a paralegal at one of the largest magazine publishers in the world. I continued there as a 
paralegal for 4 years and then became the law department manager there
 almost 12 years ago.

What made you decide to start taking photos?

It was partly born out of necessity but was also fueled by a need I have to do something creative (both with my life *and* for fun). I have been involved in community theatre as an actor/volunteer for almost 17 years and for a time served on the Board of The Barn Theatre in Montville, New Jersey, handling their publicity...the problem was: I knew NOTHING about photography and it fell into my lap to do it!

So I went out and bought myself an easy yet fairly robust
 point-and-shoot digital camera (a Nikon Coolpix 995) which while still a point-and-shoot, had some nice bells and whistles. And for a few years I struggled and learned but eventually started to do some halfway 
decent work. At the same time, though, I started experimenting with the
 camera on my own ("for fun") and began to take some really nice, relatively artistic photographs. I quickly realized I had outgrown the Coolpix, and so in 2006 I buckled down and bought my first digital SLR – a Nikon D70s. And with that new camera, my creativity and my ability to take artistically pleasing photographs *really* were able to take off.

When did the 'fun' of taking a few shots start to turn into a side business?

In 2006, I was appearing in 4th Wall Theatre's production of the musical "Assassin". In talking with some of my castmates on day, it became apparent that a few of them needed headshots but did not have them. So one Saturday afternoon, I took a few of them behind the theatre before rehearsal started and shot a quick headshot for each of them. I honestly didn't think much of it -- but to my amazement, the headshots were actually quite good (AND my castmates were also happy with them too -- so much the better!). They kept telling me "You should do this on the side! These are GREAT!" I had never really even thought of turning my photography into a side business, but that was what really started that ball rolling. In addition to doing the headshot and modeling/portrait work, I still do a lot of nature/landscape/cityscape photography just for my own creative fun and have had 2 art gallery exhibitions; one at The Barn Theatre and one at the Westminster Arts 
Center at Bloomfield College and have been published in a coffee table
book about New Jersey.

Do you feel like this has changed your life?

Oh, boy -- and how! My photography has opened up a creative side in me that not even my community theatre work did. It also helps me 'see' the world differently in a way. The theme of my Westminster Arts Center gallery exhibition was "Finding Beauty in the Ordinary" -- and that is definitely something my photography has helped me to do. Whether it is seeing some obscure architectural detail of an old building in New York City, a rusted piece of barbed wire set against a snowy background, an old weathered barn door in the Garden State, a bird sitting on my backyard feeder, or the shadows cast by a dune fence on the beach, seeing beauty in the ordinary and finding beauty in things that others overlook are things that really make the "photographer" in me happy!

Words of advice for someone who understands they need to keep that ‘stay alive’ job, but might have a secret passion they aren’t tapping in to?

Do what makes you happy. That is SO important, especially these days when people's free time gets harder and harder t come by. Don't be afraid to try.... and don't be afraid to fail. Just like in life, I've learned just as much about photography from my mistakes and I have from my successes.

And find yourself a good mentor... someone you can bounce questions off
 of, ask advice from, get pointers from, etc. For me, that mentor was (and still is) a wonderful photographer named Joe Gigli. Joe has been an invaluable resource and friend to me -- and seeing his photography always inspires me to do better!


  1. What a fantastic blog on Tom!!! I personally *LOVE* Tom's photography and continue to see how he improves with every shoot! I've never actually met him in person, but consider him a good friend, nonetheless, as we keep contact via Facebook and SOME DAY, Tom will photograph me!!! :)
    Christine from Buffalo, NY

  2. Christine, so glad you enjoyed learning more about Tom and that you love his photography so much. He is really a great on facebook and in real life.