Los Angeles and New York City-based photographer Michelle McSwain brings unique, joy-filled style to brands including The Wing, SoundCloud, AMC Networks, Peloton, and Wine Spectator. Her images are bright and honest, filled with warm light that makes her subjects, whether it’s portraits of people, animals, or a sparkling glass of rosé invite viewers (and consumers) in.
And like any talented, hardworking photographer – especially those balancing family life and new parenthood – her shoots and career are packed with a slew of challenges that she conquers in stride.
Fellow Luupe photographer Seher recently caught up with Michelle to learn more about her influences, challenges, and the many creative forces that drive her inspiring work and career.
Seher: Your work is so bright, bold, and playful while still gentle and grounded. where do you think this comes from?
Michelle McSwain: My style comes directly from my outlook on life. I’ve always been a playful person and have never really taken life too seriously so when I began shooting, naturally, I was drawn to brightness, lightness, and fun. My hope has been that others see my work and feel a sense of fun and lightheartedness as well.
Seher: What values would you say are focal to the way you approach your work?
McSwain: The biggest value I always keep in mind when shooting is to have fun and make something I like. I became a photographer because I enjoyed it so keeping in mind that this is fun and not to take life too seriously is what I always try to remember when on stressful shoots or creating work.
Seher: What’s one of the most exciting or fulfilling shoots you’ve done? what made it that way for you?
McSwain: I recently had an opportunity to bid on a large campaign for one of the biggest brands I’ve ever shot for and I won the shoot.
I had four days to assemble a team in a new city, prep the creative with the agency, and find a nanny for my seven-week-old baby. That was the kicker. The shoot was two twelve-hour days and it was the first time I was away from my baby. But honestly, I think the hardest part was finding time to pump on the shoot since I was breastfeeding. I was sneaking off into the single bathroom on set for quick 5 minutes pumps throughout the shoot to relieve my boobs as quickly as possible and then jumping right back on set and directing the models. Somehow I pulled it all off and we got gorgeous images.
I’ve never felt more proud of myself or fulfilled for having the courage to accept such a large job postpartum, leave my infant with a brand new nanny, pump on set, and pull off a beautiful two-day shoot. It made my already deep appreciation for working mothers 10x deeper.
Seher: That’s incredible. Congrats on being a new mother. How do you feel motherhood informs any shifts in how you view the world?
McSwain: Thank you!! I’ve always had respect for mothers but now since becoming a mom myself and running my business, I bow down to all the mothers out there and truly know they are the real superheroes in the world.
Seher: Do you think it’ll influence your vantage point as an image-maker in some way?
McSwain: I’m not sure how becoming a mother will influence my work entirely just yet but I do know it’s already made me value my time so much more. It’s also impacted the way I view other mothers. Simply put, mothers are incredible and capable of literally anything.
Seher: What was one of your biggest challenges when starting out as a photographer?
McSwain: Getting paid enough to survive and honing in on my style have been the biggest challenges.
Seher: How did you overcome it?
McSwain: It took several focused years of doing lots of shoots for free or little money before I was able to get a portfolio with enough work that would land me bigger jobs. And honing in on my style was a process as well. What worked for me was putting together countless test shoots exploring different ideas and shooting as much as possible. Each time, I would hone in on my style and gave myself the space to explore what I was naturally drawn to. I still put together test shoots and try to do 6-8 a year to keep pushing myself and the look of my work.
Seher: What’s a challenge you’ve faced as a more seasoned photographer? How have you approached solving for it?
McSwain: Navigating budgets has been challenging as well as dealing with the new age of social media and what that means for usage rights.
Seher: How have you approached solving for it?
McSwain: Within the last year, I started putting a minimum on what it would cost for me to do a shoot. I used to say yes to everything, no matter how little the pay. But I started valuing my time more and even though it was very scary to do at first. It’s opened me up to so many bigger opportunities.
As for social media, I create a contract for every single shoot I do, no matter the size, and put extremely specific Usage terms in it. I always charge now for anything additional than what was specifically discussed in terms of where and how the images can be used.
Seher: Paint a picture of your ideal client; what makes someone great to work with?
McSwain: My ideal client is someone who loves light and bright colors and wants to create fun work together. It’s also someone who is down to earth and ready to think outside the box. And, not that this is everything, but a client with a respectable budget so my work and time feel properly valued.
Seher: What’s your dream project? Give us details!
McSwain: Madewell and Lush. I’ve always wanted to shoot a Madewell campaign as well as a LUSH cosmetics campaign.
Seher: What makes for a great photograph?
McSwain: One that evokes empathy.
Seher: What makes for a great photographer?
McSwain: Sincerity. Empathy. Humility.
Seher: When you’re not making gorgeous images, what do you enjoy doing most?
McSwain: Exercising, going on hikes with my dog, wine tasting, and being outdoors with my little family.