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How I Became a Professional Cannabis Photographer

Kristen Angelo explains her journey to photographing cannabis for top publications and legal businesses.

My father was a pot farmer and he served time in Oregon in the 90s. I was 18 years old when my dad went away and I had three younger siblings between 8 and 12—it was traumatizing for my family. My dad was a mechanical engineer at Boeing and we owned property on Vashon Island, a reclusive hippie lifestyle island out here in the Pacific Northwest. We lived a great life. There are so many negative stereotypes about cannabis users and growers and my family didn’t fit any of them.

When my boyfriend got a job as a buyer for a legal marijuana company in Washington state, we travelled to farms together and he encouraged me to bring my camera along. At first I didn’t think I was very interested in cannabis, but then it became therapeutic. It made me really proud of my family and my dad. I was watching this entire social and political moment evolve in my lifetime. I remember visiting my dad in prison and asking him if he ever thought pot would be legal, and he said, “I don’t think I’ll see it in my lifetime.” Now it’s actually happening, and that’s exciting to me.

There’s some allure in thinking that I’m photographing a seedy underworld of drugs, but actually I feel very safe. The environments are warm. The cannabis community is tight-knit and I love getting to know the people that I’m photographing on a personal basis—their history, where they’re from, and why they’re passionate about working in the cannabis industry. They all have interesting stories and we relate. I think that’s what really clicked for me. It was an emotional investment.

I credit a lot of what I’ve been able to achieve in such a short time to social media. I started an Instagram account and started showing my work. Through that, I was able to network and build relationships with people in the industry who wanted me to come and shoot their farms. They gave me access and trusted me. I built a really strong portfolio.

A lot of the publications that I work for found me through Instagram. It was a simple as them sending me a message and being able to respond to them immediately. You also have to have a website. It’s a requirement for photographers today. You’re able to reach such a broad market if you’re online and visible.

Stock photography has been pretty successful. Right now I’m working with a company called Stock Pot Images, it’s the first stock-photo agency to specialize exclusively in cannabis-related imagery. It’s a great company, they’re really great about promoting photographers.

However, most of the stock imagery that I license happens when people contact me personally and say, “I saw your photo in a publication or on a website and I’d love to check out your portfolio because we’re a start-up looking for some images, etc.” For those occasions, I maintain a cloud-based library of over 40,000 images strictly related to cannabis and the clients can select from there.

I also shoot on location for Weedmaps so I manage the photography needs for 20-30 recreational stores around Washington state. I’ll go on site and shoot product there. My gear actually reeks like weed, to be honest with you. My camera strap has resin on the grips. It’s funny.

I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark II and it still works great for me. I’d love to upgrade—this guy probably has another 50,000 shutter clicks left on it to go. My primary lens is a 35mm. It’s a great storytelling lens. I “zoom with my feet” which allows me to get a lot of different perspectives. If I’m shooting something for commercial use, I’ll swap to a 50mm or 100mm macro and a lightbox. But when I’m doing storytelling work, it’s just my camera body, my 35mm and manual mode, so I can manipulate the lighting situation the way I like to shoot.

I do not recreationally use cannabis when I’m in work mode. I know a lot of people who can and who do and do it very successfully but for me personally, I feel like when I’m on the clock, I need to be on the clock 100%. Otherwise, I love edibles—I think edibles are a great way to consume. I love to microdose, I’ll eat a piece of chocolate before I sit down at my computer to edit for five hours, but if i’m going to be making phone calls or taking meetings or out in the field shooting, I prefer not to be under the influence of anything.

I would definitely say that there are types of cannabis photography that I’m not interested in taking, but if someone else loves taking those images, I don’t want to insult their creative outlet. For me, personally, I think that trying to sexualize cannabis with women is absurd. It’s kind of annoying and I’ll never shoot it. However, I’m sure it serves a purpose in some markets and if people can do it successfully, good for them.

The philosophy I follow is: if you really love it, just shoot it. Shoot it every day. Never turn down an opportunity to shoot what you love. Don’t be afraid to ask for access and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and promote yourself. That was a barrier that took me a long time to get over, before I ever entered the world of cannabis photography. Then I thought, “I’m just going to send that email. I’m going to send it to everyone. I’m going to send an email to Huffington Post and Time magazine and maybe no one will ever get it. Maybe my work won’t be good enough and no one will respond. The worst they can say is no.” But, I would say that 98% of the time, the response that I get is really flattering and really beneficial to my career.

Visit Kristen Angelo’s online portfolio and follow her on Instagram @apotfarmersdaughter.

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