Niki Strbian is a Czech photographer living in Finland where she is quite often referred to as the baby photographer. Her background is in logistics – she had worked in Nokia for over a decade when she decided to quit the office job and follow her passion for photography. I sat down with Niki to discuss her journey from “a mum with a camera” to being a successful professional photographer.
How would you introduce yourself as a photographer?
I specialize in photographing people using available light. When I work with lights, I use them to imitate the light coming through the window. About half of my work is babies or pregnant bellies, so being called the baby photographer fits quite well. My motto is “Take pains. Be perfect.” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I work hard to make my clients satisfied and I am constantly trying to learn something new.
What does photography mean to you?
It is something I enjoy doing and happen to be good at. It also means that I am self-reliant, which is very different from working for a corporation where you get paid even if you sometimes don’t perform perfectly or have long coffee breaks. This work is important to me because the results make people happy. When I was working for Nokia and a project was successful, people weren’t really happy. They were satisfied perhaps, but not really happy.
Do you remember some specific moment when you thought of becoming a photographer?
Not a single moment, it happened over time. I started taking pictures of my children and I tried to make some extra money during my maternity leave. Then I went back to work and stayed there for two years while doing photography extensively. I was trying to do both jobs perfectly, which became impossible – I was getting around three hours of sleep and kept waking up with my heart racing. I had to make a decision and I chose photography because I didn’t enjoy office work anymore.
How did you prepare yourself for this transition from stable income to uncertainty?
I was really lucky during this whole process. I got a severance package from Nokia – they were laying people off at that point and I decided to try photography for a year. The business experience from Nokia helped me hugely with running my own company.
What is still a challenge for you in this field?
The lights. I don’t feel too confident using them because three quarters of the year I just don’t use them. Every time the dark period starts I am a little surprised and I always tell myself that this year I will really learn to use them properly.
What is the best piece of advice you were ever given about photography?
Don’t be satisfied with a mediocre photo. If you feel it is not working, reshoot it.
What are your future plans?
Next year I would like to photograph single parents more regularly. People who are divorced or widowed and need to kind of “redecorate” their life. Having a picture of just them with their kids helps to achieve that.
You take photos of many people – who takes pictures of you?
My daughter who is seven years old. She sometimes assists me during photo shoots – she even reads my thoughts and brings me things I need because she feels the rhythm of the shoot.
How important is equipment in your opinion?
I used to use one objective for the first three years of my business. 50 mm objective on Nikon D300 body and it was possible, but then comes a point when you outgrow your equipment because it just cannot do certain things. So I bought more but I use every piece of my equipment. I still recommend 50 mm objective to everybody. It has the best quality/price ratio, great light sensitivity and it is so versatile.
Nowadays I have around seven to nine shoots per week with 600 pics on average and I need reliable equipment, backup body and objectives. Moreover, I mostly work with kids and anything can happen, so I bring two camera bodies and six objectives. In winter I also take the lights. For baby sessions I need a full car – a huge bean bag, different types of blankets and whatnot.
How do you prepare yourself for a shoot?
It all depends on the type of wishes my clients have. I meet with them first and see them how they are without a camera in their face. Then I can tell if they don’t feel comfortable during a shoot. It is really important to find out what they need and want. Some clients don’t know how to formulate their wishes so I need to ask enough questions or ask them to show me examples of what they mean instead of just describing their idea.
Do you have a preference for using the right or left eye for the viewfinder?
I use the right eye, but I try to keep my both eyes open, especially when I need to know what is going on around me.
Canon or Nikon?
It doesn’t really matter, it is important what you can do with it. I have a Nikon.
Do you have a favourite photographer?
I like many from different areas – Yousuf Karsh, Arno Rafael Minkkinen, Annie Leibovitz to name a few.
What advice would you give to an aspiring photographer trying to take their hobby to a professional level?
They should know that their hobby will become like ten percent of their work. The rest is business – getting clients, marketing, taking care of the website, sending invoices etc. For some people it might take the joy out of it. They will need to take care of many other things, so I would advise them to do it properly because it is about their own future after all and nobody else will take care of it for them.