Career Number 3: Turning A Lifetime Passion Into A Dream Job


This is the story of how I got started in editorial photography. The image above is the cover for the Spring 2020 edition of 405HOME, sister publication to 405 Magazine.


This month celebrates the 3rd anniversary of being a contributing photographer to those two publications, and in a way, the third anniversary of the beginning of my third career. People who know me well, know that photography has been a part of my life since my sophomore year of high school (back in the stone ages of the mid 1960's), when I bought my first 35mm SLR. But so has theatre, specifically, technical theatre, which was the original career path I chose -- lighting design, set design, stage management, production management. Stuff like that. I've worked and / or toured with a wide variety of professional productions that took me all over the US, doing all sorts of things, working with all sorts of major talent. I also spent 17 wonderful years as the production manager for the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, where I spent most of my time listening to some pretty amazing music performed by unbelievable world-class musicians.

Somewhere along the line, I was asked to teach a performing arts management class at Oklahoma City University, which I did, concurrent with my work for the OKC Phil. Fifteen years later, I was offered a chance to join the OCU faculty full time. I jumped at the chance, and after 8 more years of teaching, I retired. Two careers down. Now what to do.

The photography had always been there. One of the side benefits to teaching at OCU was many of my students were dance majors, so I started photographing them. I photographed dozens of dancers (mostly the ladies) over several years, and had a blast. I had a friend who owned a local dance school, and she was kind enough to give me a key and carte blanche to go into her dance studio to shoot photos any time I wanted as long as there were no classes going on. We spent many a Sunday or holiday in that studio, shooting away. You can see some of those photos here and here. Not too long after I retired from OCU, my friend sold the studio, and since I didn't know the new owners, the dance photography dried up. Besides, since I was no longer on the OCU faculty, I didn't know the new students, and the old ones had all moved away, either back to their hometowns or to NY or LA or the like. So it was time to do something different. I have a photographer friend who calls me every once in a while to fill him for him when he can't make a shoot. Usually it's a case of two of his clients wanting to shoot at the same time on the same day, and he obviously can't do both. He has enough confidence in me and my abilities that he's very comfortable with letting me have the gig, knowing his reputation will be well served. He called one day, saying that 405 Magazine was looking for a new photographer, and he didn't want to do that kind of work. Would I be interested? Sure!!! I'll take a stab at almost anything. Thing was, I had no idea what I was doing. I'd never shot for a magazine or anything of the sort before. But I have heard it said that a good photographer should be able to go into any situation and come away with a good shot. I don't know that I would classify myself as a "good" photographer, but I'm a decent one, so I should be able to get a "decent" shot. But I honestly didn't think anything would ever come of it. A week or so later, I was sitting in a class at the Bedford PhotoCon, which was being taught by one of my photo heroes, Joe McNally, when my phone started to vibrate (I always have it on vibrate in such situations -- guaranteed to ring if I don't). I let it go, figuring if it was important, they'd leave a message. Whoever it was, left a message. Several hours later, after class was over, I was finally able to listen to the message. It was from the Editor-in-Chief, asking me to send her my rates and terms so she could start putting me to work. Ooops. Time to put up or shut up. Or rather, to "fake it until you make it."

My first shoot was scheduled for April 14, 2017, to shoot the home of a local "celebrity." The mag staff was all excited. I let them be excited. I didn't tell them that after 40 years in professional show biz, celebrities were no big woo. Who it was doesn't matter now -- he has since retired from his profession, and moved out of state, so the house has (as far as I know) been sold. But I showed up -- with 90% of every piece of gear I owned -- two Nikon D810 bodies with grips, a Nikon 14-24mm f/28 lens, a Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, three Nikon SB-800 speedlights, my ever-faithful tripod, and a whole pickup truck load of other stuff. (I've since pared it down to the essentials, supplemented on occasion with some odd bits and pieces.) Learned a lot. Shot a lot. Faked it a lot. But there was something I got out of it -- colleagues I wouldn't trade for anything.


At that first shoot, I met three ladies I very quickly grew to love working with -- Heidi, the editor-in-chief of 405 Magazine (who has since left for other adventures), Christine, editor-in-chief of 405HOME, and who also writes many of the stories for both, and Sara Gae, stylist and editor-at-large. It was one of the few times Heidi came out on a job, and since I was never interviewed for the job, it was her (and everyone's) first chance to actually meet me. These ladies are smart, and they really know their stuff. I rely on that knowledge a lot. Three years on, and I've shot probably 95% of the homes that appear in both publications (an average of 14 per year), as well as numerous other things, including regular features, major articles, several covers, a number of "double trucks," and a fair number of ads. The houses have ranged from extremely fancy to just a little funky, a million-bucks-worth to on-a-budget. There have been many other shoots, too -- products and portraits and sports, food and the chefs who cook it. A story about urban renewal, another about bars & micro-breweries. Shoots that took only an hour, and shoots that took the better part of a week. In January of 2019, the magazine was sold to new owners, who have taken it in new directions. In October of 2019, we welcomed Melissa, our new Editor-in-chief, and a couple of other new folks. Writers, photographers, editors, all come and go. Some stay a long while, others' stays are fleeting. From day one, they have all been amazing, wonderful people to work for and with. Every shoot is different, and every one a challenge. I can never go into a shoot thinking, "I've got this," cause I don't. I have to use everything I've ever learned about photography every time, whether it's a simple portrait, or a shoot that lasts several days over numerous locations. Always different, but always fun. I've been in situations where I thought, "I could shoot this for a month and never cover it completely," and shoots where I thought, "How the heck am I going to shoot this?" But it gets done. And I am always learning more and more, about the business and about photography. And I am having the time of my life. I would never regret my theatre career, and Lord knows my time teaching the best students on the planet was wonderful. But the last three years have been an absolute blast. I love it. You can see more of my work for 405HOME and 405 Magazine here.

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Oklahoma Freelance Photographer

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Don Risi Photography
Oklahoma City 


Based in Oklahoma City, able to travel anywhere in the

continental United States

Using Nikon Cameras and Lenses exclusively since 1979.
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