A Question of Photography: Marshall Troy - Commercial Photographer

Marshall Troy is making some serious waves in the commercial photography community. He has single handedly created a powerful photo operation in Manhattan, New York - shooting high impact imagery for clients including Target, the Food Network, Harry’s and Diane von Fürstenberg, and with agencies like Phear Creative, Launch Collective and Flying Machine. We met up with him at his studio, where he took a break coordinating 3 concurrent shoots to speak with us...

Photo Op: How long have you been a professional photographer?

Marshall Troy: Am I? I’ve been in the business for over a decade, let’s just put it that way.

A GUINNESS BULLET - 2013 - personal - Shot by Marshall Troy Photography | WATCH behind the scenes video.

A GUINNESS BULLET - 2013 - personal - Shot by Marshall Troy Photography | WATCH behind the scenes video.

PO:Why do you say that? You’ve got a pretty impressive set-up here.

MT: That’s my sense of humor, I suppose.

PO: Fair enough. But at this point you have a good grasp of the technical side, it’s just about creative exploration, right? You’re honing your craft.

MT: I think I’m always trying to improve. And that includes the technical side. I have to, if I want to stay competitive.

PO:Tell us more about how you stay competitive?

MT: I try to keep tabs on what other photographers in my space are doing. I want to know what they’re up to. I also stay on top of trends. The problem with trends is that by the time you see them, it’s almost too late to use them yourself. But you can evolve with them and apply them to your own work. It’s important to differentiate yourself that way, while staying relevant. But most importantly, I set aside time to shoot images for myself as my own personal creative outlet. I often find that my most publicized images are the ones that I shot for myself. My Guinness shot is a perfect example of that.  

PO: How did you get into photography initially?

MT: I was given my first camera when I was in 6th grade. I began shooting landscapes and sunsets, or funny portraits of my friends. At the time it was a hobby, and something I did for fun.

PO: So did you know you wanted to be a professional photographer from an early age.

MT: Actually, I really liked video and motion and I saw photography as a stepping stone to getting there. But I wasn’t really thinking too much about my career at that time. I was just enjoying taking photos. I thought I was going to be a lawyer!

When I was at high school my teacher persuaded me to apply for Columbus College of Art & Design. Once I was accepted, I started out studying video, but soon changed my major to photography. The photography professors were really great, and the quality of the students’ work was very high. The university is known for its Fine Art and Commercial photography, and gave me the opportunity to do some work for big brands, like Victoria’s Secret. I think this is the time I began to lean towards Commercial photography, as opposed to Fine Art.

PO: How so?

MT: I think that I gravitated towards Commercial Photography, because I enjoy being given projects that usually require problem solving within a set timeframe. Commercial photography is very technical, and I am a very technical guy. There is often a lot of pressure involved and you need to have your lighting, your set-up, your props - everything - exactly right.

UNTITLED - 2013 - Boston Magazine - Shot at Marshall Troy Photography

UNTITLED - 2013 - Boston Magazine - Shot at Marshall Troy Photography

PO: Do you think Commercial photographers need to be more technical than other disciplines of photography?

MT: I wouldn’t say that. What I do know is that Commercial photographers are problem-solvers, they need to figure things out on-set quickly. I am very hands-on: I want to get the most-clean product shot possible. More than once, I’ve been called MacGyver on set as I tape, glue and nail things together to get the shot I need.

PO: What type of Commercial photography do you shoot?

MT: Commercial still-life. This breaks out into product, food, packaging and editorial.

PO: How did you end up here in New York?

MT: The summer before I went into my senior year I managed to get an internship with a commercial photographer Andy Spreitzer. He was based out of New York and worked with some high profile clients, like Verizon. When I was here I fell in love with the city. And I recognized that this is where you need to be working if you want to be a commercial photographer. I hustled that last year of college so I could come back here.

PO: Did you go back to working with Andy Spreitzer?

MT: Yes. I ended up assisting him for a while.

PO: Exclusively?

MT: I assisted a couple of other photographers, but mainly Andy. Honestly, I wish I had assisted more.

PO: What makes you say that?

MT: I actually think I learned most of my trade secrets from assisting other photographers. I learned important things like how to run a business and etiquette on-set, as well as smaller things like how to frost a bottle well, how to create steam and how to make a sexy highlight on a vacuum cleaner!

I also learned about client interaction: knowing when to say something, and when to keep my mouth shut and get on with my job. As a photographer you need to be a leader. Sometimes you’re vocal, sometimes you’re not. When you’re assisting you find out a lot about yourself and your approach.

And I assisted all types of photographers: fashion, event, and commercial. It’s important to try different things to know what you want to do. With Andy I learned that I wanted to be a commercial photographer. I loved the focus on making the product as beautiful as possible.

THAT WAS EASY - 2015 - personal - Shot at Marshall Troy Photography

THAT WAS EASY - 2015 - personal - Shot at Marshall Troy Photography

PO: So assisting made you into a better photographer?

MT: Absolutely. And being an independent photographer made me into a better assistant.

PO: What do you mean?

MT: When I was in the transitionary period between being an assistant and an independent photographer, I would have to play both roles. So as I started running my own shoots I learned I needed certain things at a certain time, which would make me more useful when I was assisting, because I could anticipate the photographer’s needs.

PO: So what makes a good assistant?

MT: Four things:

-Being two steps ahead of the photographer. Knowing what I need before I do.

-Don’t be on time. Be early.

-Know when to speak, and to whom. You’ve got to understand the protocol for being on-set. Don’t go and agree to things with the client without consulting the photographer first. It can be very derailing.

-Above all else, have a positive attitude. Negativity can kill a shoot.

PO: How big is your team?

MT: I have 2 assistants and a studio manager / producer. I also hire from a network of freelancers - stylists, food stylists, prop stylists.

PO: Where do you find your freelance help?

MT: Actually I met most of them when I was assisting myself. We were all starting out in our respective industries and I’ve built them into long-term relationships.

PO: Whats a good on-set experience?

MT: It always helps to know the scope of the project in and out. The number of sets, the shot order and the client expectations of the day. No surprises. It means everyone knows their place and can work as efficiently and effectively as possible. If it’s working smoothly then I really operate as a ringmaster - coordinating my team while I apply the creative vision from the Art Director or Creative Director.

PO: What’s it like working with ad agencies?

MT: You know it’s a little ironic: when you meet with Art Buyers at ad agencies, they want to know your creative vision, how you conceptualize; yet when you shoot for an agency you are really executing the agency’s vision…

PO: So you’re hired for a creative vision you don’t really implement?

MT: Ha! Kind of. And it can be tricky because you have to create something visual from a written brief. Ultimately though, you know they have hired you for your creative abilities, so you have to provide input to take the shoot to the next level.

BEAT WAVE - 2014 - personal - Shot at Marshall Troy Photography

BEAT WAVE - 2014 - personal - Shot at Marshall Troy Photography

PO: Let’s talk about how you find work. Are you active on social media?

MT: I have Facebook and Instagram accounts - but it’s often a bit of a struggle choosing what content to use. Sometimes we’ll have awesome behind-the-scenes footage, but the client won’t let us use it. That’s frustrating.

Tumblr has been helpful in getting work. I tag clients in photos, which in turn creates connections and a community in which you’re at the center. For example, I learned how to sprinkle a cake during one of my shoots. I tried it out for myself at home, and put it out on social channels with a shout-out to the Food Network. It ended up getting a lot of hits. And it was an interesting and cool way to keep up with clients. 

Honestly, I don’t do enough on the social platforms. I really haven’t been able to find the time.

PO: And how do the ad agencies find you?

MT: You know what, a couple of agencies have found me through Google! I work so hard to get in front of their Art Directors, and they end up searching me out! And a few times a client will have found an image I shot and reached out to me directly.

But otherwise, all of my clients have come from referrals. I really don’t do much by way of marketing.

PO: Are you repped?

MT: No. I really don’t feel it is worth it at this time. My first rep was great: she worked really hard for me. But she was more of a high-end fashion agent, and this was not my career path. Then I was repped by a bigger agency, and they brought me no work. In fact, I brought them work which they’d then charge a 30% commission on. It was crazy. I ended up doing all the estimates, invoices anyway. At that point I realized I might as well hire a full-time studio manager to the work instead.

PO: Where do you find your inspiration?

MT: Funnily enough, Barnes & Noble. I love looking through the photo section. I’ll just chill there for hours, going through all the incredible books. I’ll pick up some of the magazines too, to see what’s current. The books are where I spend most of my time.

PAPER NOT PLASTIC - 2015 - Flow - shot at Marshall Troy Photography

PAPER NOT PLASTIC - 2015 - Flow - shot at Marshall Troy Photography

PO: What is the worst cliche about photography?

MT: Someone once said it was easy - just clicking a button. I wasn’t too happy about that.

PO: What advice would you give to an up-and-coming photographer trying to get into commercial photography?

MT: For me, it was never saying ‘no’ to a job. You discover yourself quicker. Also network a lot. Connections are so important.

Quick Fire Questions (no more than 10 seconds thinking allowed):

PO: In a word, how would you describe your photography?

MT: Clean.

PO: If you weren’t a photographer, what would you have liked to have been?

MT: An astronaut. Seriously.

PO: Best city in the world?

MT: New York. It’s has so many opportunities for me.

PO: On-set pet peeve?

MT: I have three: - 1) dirty bathrooms, 2) when someone touches my screen, and 3) when a client says “Can you just shoot that, I can’t visualize it”!

PO: What’s the worst thing you can say on a shoot?

MT: "No".

PO: Apart from a camera, what’s the one thing you can’t do without on a shoot?

MT: A card.

PO: Best photos: Instinctive? Or planned?

MT: Instinctive.