Zero to Blue-Chip in Four Years

Hard work a a distinctive look helped Tim Tadder rise to the top

By William Schneider Back to


High-end commercial photography is a tough market to crack. Many aspiring photographers try, often spending many years in their efforts. Still, the road to photographic prominence is littered with half-successes and downright failures. That makes the quick rise of San Diego commercial photographer Tim Tadder rather remarkable. Just four years ago, he was starting the switch from photojournalism and editorial photography to commercial photography.

You’ll now find Tim busy with clients that include Microsoft, Miller Lite, Newcastle Brown Ale, Coke, Pepsi, Gatorade, Powerbar, Callaway Golf, Yamaha, Arnette Sunglasses, Listerine, Southwest Airlines, Gillette, and AT&T. His quick rise to the top and his distinctive style make a good case study for anyone curious about this business.

Tim grew up around photography—his father was a photographer for the Baltimore Colts and the Baltimore Ori- oles from the early 1960s through 1975. Tim would carry his father’s gear during games. Even so, Tim didn’t immediately seek a career in photography but instead taught mathematics and computers to high school students. While mountaineering in the spectacular Andes, Tim fell back in love with making pictures. After freelancing in Maryland for while, Tim enrolled in Ohio University’s graduate photojournalism program, then went on to newspaper internships.

The competitive edge

To gain lucrative freelance work outside the photojournalism and editorial world, Tim created his own promotional Web site ( back when it was still rare. He’d also hand out business cards on every assignment. As Tim puts it, “I pimped myself out to get commercial work. I’d ask them to come to my Web site and look at my work. I’d hope and pray the phone would ring and someone would hire me.”

Tim knew that he would have to have an attractive portfolio to bring in substantial commercial work. To improve his existing portfolio, he began to photograph people he had previously met on small editorial and journalistic assignments. Being a tall (six foot, seven inch) athletic person himself, he was drawn to athletes and to people whose appearance made them unique.

The photo of a swimmer wearing goggles is an example of one of these self-assigned portfolio shots in which he was exploring the style of bold lighting and high-contrast. His portfolio began drawing compliments from clients and photography reps. Word got around.

Another example of a portfolio-building picture can be found in his photograph of a tattooed man. Spotting him in a supermarket, Tim found the man’s rough-and-tumble appearance fascinating. After some hesitation, Tim finally approached him and simply asked “Can I take your picture?” The young man agreed, and the resulting portfolio photograph (Figure 3) showcases Tim’s dramatic use of light and pose that continues in his current work.

This self-assigned work provided a means for Tim to explore lighting methods and to invent techniques for subsequent Photoshop editing. Tim’s describes much of his work as “ambient with an edge.” He begins with ambient light as a base, and then builds the light around it. Often the photos are shot in various outdoor locations that include beaches, dry deserts, western ranches, and foggy mountain passes. Because of Tim’s close connection to sports, it was natural that he chose subjects who were physically notable and recognized for their achievements.

He began landing a handful of $30k or $40k jobs based upon his portfolio, but began to search for a photo rep to help him land big jobs. As Tim says, “Finding a rep is like courting. You approach each other slowly, give and take a little, then tie the knot.”

A photo rep has a support staff that can handle things that a photographer’s studio can’t do easily. With a staff of specialists, they negotiate the considerable fees for large shoots, take care of legal and contractual quibbles, and ease the client’s mind that an expensive shoot is ultimately deliverable.

As Tim states, “One of the biggest boosts in my career has come from having great reps that care about me and my career, and are amazing people. They have really helped me in the past year improve my business in a very cut-throat world.” Tim is now represented by Virtu, an agency that has offices in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.

A signature style

Tim is a self-described “lighting snob.” Through a combination of lighting technique using mostly Pro-foto strobes combined with substantial post-production work in Photoshop, his photos often have a very graphic quality. The contrast is high, but controlled. Being based in sunny San Diego, you may wonder how he conjures up the ominous skies featured in many of his shoots. As Tim puts it “…if it’s an ‘Oh my God’” day and it rains, we’ll just use the rain.” Even the clouds found on an otherwise pleasant day can take on an ominous appearance after being subjected to Tim’s creative lighting and subsequent Photoshop work.

“Be relentless about making pictures.” quips Tim when asked how he rose to success so quickly. “Try to always take a better picture.”

Tim’s photographs shows a sport or activity more from the participant’s point of view than that of a spectator. This may come naturally to Tim because of his own close ties to the sports world. It causes the pneuma of his pictures to be very different from that of most sports photographers. This critical difference may well be at the heart of Tim’s success.

Digital SLRs using short-focal-length lenses are commonly used to add drama to the subject. Because Tim believes in total control of the light, all his soft- boxes use grids. Many of his shots use strobes equipped with focusing reflectors and snoots to prevent unwanted light from spilling into the set.

Hiring skilled and dependable photo assistants is also important to Tim. “We have them submit resumes and we follow up with their references. We then try them out on a stock shoot or an editorial shoot.” Though his busy schedule and travel logistics mostly prevent it now, Tim had also given away items like iPods in drawings to his assistants to keep interest and morale high. It’s clear that a good work ethic and clever thinking in both the photographic and business sides of photography have contributed to his rise to prominence.

What does the future hold for Tim? For one, he’s broadening his style so that he doesn’t become pigeon-holed as the photographer who does only sports- themed photography. He’s also backing away from his signature Photoshop post-production techniques and experimenting with other genres of advertising photography. As Tim knows, if you have a look that’s getting attention, it’s only a matter of time until dozens of imitators appear. Being no stranger to competition, Tim says “There’s so much good stuff out there. You have to have an A-game to survive.”

About the Author

William Schneider
William Schneider is an associate professor in the School of Visual Communication at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. He wishes to thank the educators and administrators mentioned in this story for taking the time to contribute their insights.