In the world of high-quality editorial portraits in San Diego, nobody does it like Robert Benson. (If you think you know someone who does, e-mail me at and I’ll try to profile them as well.)

His website boasts creatively lit images of everyone from Mayor Jerry Sanders and his daughter to the military men and women he worked with as a Navy photographer. His specialty these days is portraits, but he shoots everything from corporate gigs, to newspaper assignments and magazine work.

I caught up with Benson via e-mail for this edition of Perspective to talk about the way he sees the world and how he keeps his business running in the freelance world.

Tell me about your work as a military photographer and how that shaped the way you do things today.

I joined the Navy as a photojournalist the day after my high school graduation and retired (don’t like that word, makes me sound old and washed up even though I’m 41) after 20 years of service. I lived overseas for seven years, traveled to more than 25 countries and had a great time. I started doing serious photo work for the military in Hawaii, where I worked on the staff of a weekly newspaper, then later, in Washington D.C. I was assigned to the official magazine of the U.S. Navy, All Hands magazine. The world was my beat, and they sent me all over the place. Navy also sent me to Syracuse University, where I studied photojournalism. During my last 10 years in the Navy I freelanced at areas where I lived, shooting for the Virginian Pilot (in Virginia), Fairfax Journal (in Washington DC), the North County Times (San Diego). With the Navy behind me, I’m doing photography full time now and have been lucky enough to stay fairly busy with incoming work.

Your blog is much more robust than most photographers. Why is it important to you to have all of those videos, interviews, camera reviews, lighting diagrams, etc.?

First off, thanks for taking the time to talk with me! With the blog, I want it to be interesting. I’m of the mindset that if you’re going to do something, you may as well do it right! The blog isn’t all “me me me” either (like many of them are); I write about other photographers, what they are doing, and interesting photo news happening around us. Having a blog is the single biggest thing a photographer can do to market themselves. Every time a new post is made, it’s like creating a personal website on the Internet. I have 198 posts to date on my blog — I’ve saturated the Internet with “San Diego photographer” and “Robert Benson” and other important messages or keywords that result in work. Even if no one reads the blog, it’s important for me to have it … it gets my name out there. Before blogs, photographers would make phone calls to editors, send out emails and postcards and do other creative self-promotion. That stuff still exists, but a blog gets a heck of a lot of bang for its buck. I’ve had two large jobs in the past month that have come from someone “finding me on Google.” They found me on Google, as a result of the blog.

So the blog is mainly for self-promotion, but it’s an easy way to keep family and friends up to date on what I’m doing. The videos and such make it interesting. My posts are always short. Who wants to read? We’re photographers and want to look at stuff.

To succeed as a freelance photographer, you have to be extremely aggressive in finding work. You have to promote yourself, or get a rep to do it for you. The phone isn’t going to ring unless efforts have been made to make it ring (not sure if that makes sense). I have a rep in NYC, Aurora Select. Next month I’m going to NY to make rounds with editors. But I’m getting ahead of myself …

As someone who has photographed Mayor Jerry Sanders more than I’ve photographed my own family, I feel like I know all of his expressions and mannerisms. You had a great photo about a year ago of the mayor. Apart from the terrific light, he had an interesting smirk on his face. How did you go about getting that expression out of him and what was he like to work with in that portrait setting?

He was there at the shoot with his daughter, and that helped open him up quite a bit. I use an assistant that is a good conversationalist and tells bad jokes. That helps lighten the mood. On a portrait shoot I always aim to have fun, and make things a pleasant experience. The more at ease the subject is, the more they open up.

Some of your best and certainly most original work comes in the form of tintypes (an older style of image that is created on a sheet of metal). Tell me about the process of making these portraits and some of the challenges you encounter.

Three years ago I got obsessed with tintypes after seeing Robb Kendrick’s stunning cowboy tintype work. I contacted him, asking where I can learn the craft. He pointed me to Will Dunniway, in Corona, California. Dunniway teaches weekend tintype workshops, and he taught me everything I know about the complicated process, that uses silver nitrate (blinds if it gets in your eyes), potassium cyanide (deadly if ingested) and other funky chemicals. I make tintypes the way they were done back in the late 1800s using a big wooden 8×10 view camera. I process the tintypes on site at the shoot, while the plates are still wet. I do this in the back of a rented Uhaul or even my car. I’ve shot tintypes for Outside Magazine in Alaska, the Boston Globe, and other smaller publications. Part of the draw for me with tintypes are their uniqueness … there’s not a lot of people doing them.

You shoot a really wide range of work. Your focus seems to be on high-quality editorial portraits, but I also see the occasional piece of straight photojournalism work. Where does your passion lie — in the work staging and creating photos or in documenting things as an objective observer?

I go through phases, constantly look at what other guys are doing, and slowly over the past few years I’ve been trying to focus my niche a bit more, which is portraits with an edge … through lighting or moments or some other magical item. Like a lot of editorial portrait shooters, I started off doing only photojournalism. I like creating images, not just documenting images. My photojournalism background shows in portraits I think, or the way I do them: I don’t over direct. I let things flow while I’m shooting with portrait assignments, and see where they go. A lot of times I’ll have a general idea of what I want to do, but also let chance play into things, and let the subject do their thing and see where it goes … sometimes nice moments happen.

You juggle a lot of clients, from USA Today, to ESPN the Magazine, to San Diego Magazine, to local businesses. How much of your time is spent doing business versus time shooting photos. And how do you balance and prioritize betweens all of those clients?

The USA Today gigs, the ESPN Mag assignments and other national publication assignments comes only once every 1-2 months. It’s the local commercial gigs that keep me busy. I shoot business type images in San Diego, Orange County and LA. Work comes in waves — sometimes I’m extremely busy, other times I’m not. During those not-so-busy times I focus more on the business end — doing invoices (least favorite), shooting stock photography (I shoot stock which ends up on Aurora, Getty and Corbis’ websites), doing the blog, editing past shoots, planning future shoots, etc. Editorial work is on the decline obviously, but other forms of photography keep me busy.

Favorite piece of camera gear: Changes all the time. Can’t pick just one.

3-5 photographers you are influenced by: Gregg Segal, Eric Ogden, Dan Winters

Favorite assignment of 2009: Hmmm. Nothing jumps out. What month is it? July? I went to Vancouver in April and shot world championship bobsledding, figure skating and luge. That was fun.

— Interview by SAM HODGSON

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.