Derrick Freske was three years into an architecture degree at college in Detroit when he made two decisions likely to strike fear into the heart of any college student’s parents. One: he was going to drop out of college. Two: he was moving to Los Angeles.
Lots of disaffected undergrads probably dream of quitting class in such a satisfyingly theatrical way, but Freske had thought the move through, and he had a real plan for making it in LA. Two years have passed now, and it seems to be working out.
Growing up in Michigan, in a town near Kalamazoo, Freske had become obsessed with photography. After taking a high school photography class on a whim, he discovered he had a knack for it—but after graduation, focusing full-time on photography didn’t seem like an option. Photography was a hobby, not a potential career. So Freske headed to college, but his heart just was not in it.
He continued shooting photos, mostly of himself, his friends, and fellow classmates, and sharing them on Instagram, where he quietly built up a very large following. Freske’s photos are highly polished, professional, and neon-lit to perfection (he keeps his lighting gear in his car at all times). And yet—as with all the best lifestyle photography—his work tends to feel more cinematic than commercial. It’s this sense of authenticity that’s helped Freske land some major commissions over the past couple years, from brands like Bershka, Gap, and Brandy Melville, to companies including Equinox and Chevrolet.
Perhaps Freske’s work continues to retain a personal feel because of the DIY ethic he still brings to it. He still shoots at home, often doing his own styling and with friends as his models. Of course, maybe it helps a little that he’s in LA now, where more of one’s friends are likely to be actual models. Recently, Freske’s started to get into shooting video as well, which seems like a natural next step; fresh-faced Froy Gutierrez (of the television show Teen Wolf) is a current client.
We called Freske up to chat about how Instagram has helped him land jobs, what his photo process is like, and his advice for other aspiring photographers who might be thinking about leaving school or work behind to shoot full time.
Format Magazine: What was the process of deciding to leave school like?
Derrick Freske: My first year of college, I took a break from Instagram because I needed to focus on school. I couldn’t do both at the same time. Then during my second year, I decided to just start posting again and taking photos of my friends at college. After that I started growing my Instagram again after losing it for so long because I wasn’t on there.
I started growing, and then this one brand reached out and I thought, “Maybe there is a job in this field.” I was always told that there wasn’t back in my hometown. It was that job that made me realize that I could do more.
When you were growing up, you didn’t see photography as a possible career? People didn’t really encourage that?
No. It’s the small town feel of you have to get a normal nine to five job and you can’t be in the art field. When I was in Michigan, what I was doing was like, senior portraits and weddings, but that wasn’t my passion either.
What was it like moving to LA after that?
It was a lot, because it’s a big decision just to quit school randomly and then move. But I made sure I was secure and ready to move; I stayed out here for the whole summer of 2016 to make sure it was the right move for me. That’s when I decided to quit school and stay out in LA.
How did you go about finding jobs once you got there?
I had a few consistent jobs there that I was doing in Michigan, and then I reached back out to them when I moved to LA, and they were all excited about it. Then I was actually able to meet up with these brands and these people who were giving me jobs in Michigan and it came from there. I just kept getting work after that.
You mentioned initially one brand that first reached out on Instagram. Could you share who that was?
It was actually Aeropostale! I remember wearing their clothes all the time growing up. I was shocked to see such a large brand reach out at the time.
Totally. That was the brand! Everyone wore that. How did they reach out? Did they DM you?
They just e-mailed me.
And they were like, “We want you to shoot something”?
Yeah, I shot stuff for their social media, and I still do today, so that’s cool.
Do you think other people found you through that work?
Yeah. Instagram is such an important platform for you to get noticed. I feel like as my Instagram kept growing and then being seen being posted by these brands, I feel like other brands tried to catch on and then reach out. Of course I reached out to a bunch of people as well when I first moved out here. But that’s basically how it all started.
How was that? Did you just cold call different brands? How did you go about contacting people you wanted to work with?
I just sat down and made a list of companies I’d want to work with, big and small, and then I started sending out the cold emails. But I was adding some personality to it.
What would you usually send, just a couple of photos? Or would you link to your Instagram?
I would link to my Instagram and then my website. I would show them past work, because what I like to do is for brands that I want to work with, I do a shoot that’s something they would want. You show that you already can do it, so that they already trust you in doing that.
What’s one brand you’ve worked with that you’re really excited about?
My favourite brand that I worked with was actually Equinox, the gym company, and I just liked how chill and how easy to work with they are. I love that they gave me creative control for everything too—that’s fun.
I wanted to ask about your Instagram. I’m sure everyone probably asks you about this, but what was your strategy for creating a community there? How did that come about? You have such an amazing audience, and it’s so engaged. I feel like every photographer wishes they could build that.
Thank you. I don’t even remember, because it’s been six or seven years on Instagram. I started back when it first came out. But what I used to do is just take self-portraits all the time. I guess that initiated putting a face to the photographer, that kind of thing. After that when I moved to LA, and I started experimenting with portraits in college, that’s when I started getting the fan bases of people I’m shooting.
Do you have any tips, if someone’s not very established and they’re looking to share their photos on Instagram?
So, I tell this to every single photographer that asks me: just keep on shooting. When I first started off, it wasn’t anywhere near what it is now. I kept shooting. I would shoot every single day.
Once your portfolio starts to get better, you get bigger people and better people. You get more equipped, because it’s growing the more you practice. It’s not going to happen overnight.
Do you have any tips for how you curate your Instagram?
I even have trouble with that one, because I have thousands of images I have to go through. But I’m very focused on light and color; my theme is just color. As long as the colors fit into my feed, then I’m like, “Okay, this works tonight.”
The colors in your images are always so vibrant. How do you achieve these effects? Do you have a special lighting setup?
Yeah, actually there’s a video about this recently. Basically I showed off my lighting equipment. I have multiple setups, but that’s one of them. I just have portable lights. Within that, I put colored gels and then just take it everywhere. It’s always in my bag.
Could you walk me through a typical shoot?
The biggest part is the setup. It’s like contacting the make-up artists, and styling. It’s all the behind the scenes that takes the longest part. Then I have my two to five light setups that I set up just on my blank wall in my home. I don’t even have a fancy studio setup. It’s just a blank wall right by my bedroom. People just come over and we see what we can do, and then I shoot the photos.
Do you do a lot of post-production? Do you edit a lot?
My process is super simple. I just mess around with the colors mostly. Other than that I keep everything very natural—because I believe in keeping how people look very natural. It’s just my color work that I change.
I wanted to also ask about your website, because I know you recently made this Format site. How do you decide what to put on your website? How do you use it to support your career?
I consider my website my business card, nowadays, because I don’t like handing out business cards anymore. I feel like it’s not as genuine. I just send over my website, because then it’s a visual representation of what I do, rather than a card someone might throw away. I love how I can put everything I’ve done on my website. And I love using Format because it’s so easy—it’s set up perfectly for photographers.
For my website, I do the best of the best that’s on my Instagram. I also put photos on my website that I might not release on Instagram because it’s more what I do work-wise. Because sometimes my work has a different feel and style than my normal personal work. Instagram is basically just my personal work and what I do with my friends.
Do you feel a lot of pressure to keep your Instagram updated, or to respond to people on there? I know for a lot of people, when Instagram is such a big part of their work, it can feel like a chore, can be a bit stressful. How do you keep it fun?
I just consider Instagram part of the job. You almost have to train yourself to post every day—at least a couple of times a week. It’s hard to post every day now, but at least a couple of times a week. And I respond to comments because my community is the people who built me. I make sure I give back and answer their questions and respond and thank them. It takes a couple of hours out of my day, but I love doing it.
How has it been different pursuing your photography in LA, as opposed to in Michigan? Do you feel more inspired, or is it more competitive?
I’m definitely more inspired out here, but it’s definitely way more competitive out here. Everyone is trying to do something before someone else, and you just have to act on it, out here. You have to be super quick, and if you’re comfortable you’re not doing enough.
Featured models, from first to last image: Dagny, Andrew Beasley, Katharina Holler, Valentina, Katie Olsen, Raiza López; cover image: Jerry Maestas (left) and Haley Permenter.