MCDM graduate Kirk Mastin (M.C., 2009) has always been interested in art since he “could pick up a pen,” but little did he know he would leave the photography business several times before giving it one last shot.
Before joining the MCDM program, Mastin earned a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science from the University of Colorado, as his parents weren’t keen on supporting an art degree, and he continued his education by pursuing a Master’s degree in Economic Development in South Africa.
“There weren’t any jobs when I graduated, and while I was in South Africa I dated this girl who was a photographer,” Mastin said. “The combination of seeing how she worked and also not really being in love with the program I was in made me reevaluate what I wanted to do.”
Upon returning to the states, Mastin taught himself photography while taking a few courses at Northern Arizona University. He eventually began working at newspapers as a photojournalist.
“I decided that I should start my own little side business because even back then the newspaper world was upside down and no one was making money,” Mastin said. “People were worried about losing their jobs.”
That was when Mastin Studio was born, specializing in wedding photography. During that time, he was also teaching himself how to do video and documentary projects.
“I was really getting into multimedia, but I could never figure out how to make money with that, so I stayed in wedding photography,” Mastin said. “My career was okay, but I felt like I couldn’t pull it all together.”
With interest in documentary work, business, and photography, Mastin heard about the MCDM program and “it seemed to be exactly what I needed to make a decision to move forward,” he said.
Mastin dipped his toes in working at start-ups and doing other odd jobs, but he knew that if he was going to come back to photography for the third time, that he was going to do it his way.
“I quit photography several times because I wasn’t enjoying it or I couldn’t make it work financially,” he said. “Looking back, I realized I wasn’t doing it for the right reasons. I was following what other photographers were doing, like the standard jumping photo or only having a flower in color with the rest of the photo in black and white, which wasn’t staying true to who I was or the photographer that I wanted to become.”
Going into that wedding season with no preconceived ideas of how to run his business or what to shoot, Mastin decided that he was going to have fun and photograph weddings without thinking about them as just being weddings, but rather a study of human nature and found beauty. He developed an interest in a unique style that resembled fashion magazines and editorial work, while giving more direction to his subjects and ultimately making him stand out in the market.
Another way he stayed true to himself was remaining loyal to film, which only about two percent of photographers do nowadays.
“I tried digital, but it doesn’t have the right feeling for me,” Mastin said. “I believe in film; I love it and I have an emotional connection to it.”
Since the film industry has slowly died over the past several years, Mastin was able to buy a $35,000+ scanner for $5,000 to reduce the cost of using film during shoots. Since there are still certain situations that require digital, like low light settings or quickly moving objects, Mastin began to play around with the digital editing software Lightroom to see if he could match his digital photos with his film scans.
“There are probably 80 or 90 sliders that you can adjust the colors and tone, so over a few years I slowly built my own recipe to match film,” Mastin said. “I started letting a few people use it, got really good feedback, and they kept bugging me for the latest updates as I continued to make it better.”
Eventually enough people asked him about the product, that he decided to start selling it, and thus Mastin Labs was the second company he was heading as a one-man band.
“The response was insane,” Mastin said. “There must be a lot of pent up yearning for film.”
There is no digital camera that excites Mastin as he thinks producers have reached the end of the line with innovation and it only provides one look. With film’s 200-year history, it is able to portray emotion and character, according to Mastin.
“The biggest thing is that digital was made by engineers, where film was made by artists,” Mastin said. “People ask me all the time why I shoot film when I have these presets that perfectly emulates it with digital. But even if you can’t see the difference, there’s still something about it that isn’t the same.”
While film gives the perfect look of imperfection, Mastin also prefers the process of film over the constant feedback and review of digital photography.
“You’re breaking the connection with the subject constantly and that interruption prevents you from actually getting to more meaningful photos where you’re building a connection and an energy with somebody,” Mastin said.
It may make the average photographer uneasy to not see what they are shooting in a small screen on the camera milliseconds after the shot, but not Mastin.
“Digital makes me more nervous,” he said. “With film, the thought in my mind isn’t that I hope it turns out good, the question is how much more awesome is it going to look than what it actually was?”
With help from MCDM, Mastin has mastered the use of a website, blog, and social media to enhance both businesses.
“The advice I give other photographers with social media is that it’s a numbers game,” Mastin said. “You want to build audiences as big as you can, as fast as you can, on as many channels as you can – but on the flipside of that, you only want to show your best work.”
Mastin only blogs about 25 percent of his shoots with the notion that “you should only show what you want to shoot.” He has developed different systems for himself that allow him to remain a one person business with a bright future ahead.
“My hope is that Mastin Labs continues to make tools for photographers that make photography more fun and more human,” he said. “By building Mastin Labs and shifting my business to a more online model, it allows me to free up time to pursue documentary work.”
Originally from Seattle, Mastin has traveled to almost every continent and spent 15 years away from the rainy city before returning.
“I thought I would never come back – I hate the weather, but it’s really special here because no other place feels like home.”