Tronicle Spotlight: Getting In Focus With The Snappiest Photographer Of All Time

When I say “snappiest,” I don’t mean he’s one of those photogs from TMZ that stalks Miley and rapidly fires off 200 shots of her leaving the ice cream/ tattoo parlor.

No, unlike those silly shutterbugs, this guy is an actual pro. His eye for detail is so profound, I’m pretty sure he can see every pore on my face from San Diego. He’s so imaginative I bet he contacted Crayola with a look-book of pantone colors that he invented. And his pets (2 kitties, 1 doggy) are so good-looking you wonder if they starred in that Purina TV commercial last year.

Meet Chris Panagakis. A warmhearted, generous and hilariously sarcastic individual, Chris is the kind of dude you fall in love with right away. He’s an outstandingly talented chef who will make you laugh in between bites of his drool-worthy homemade grilled cheese/ caramelized onion sandwich ambrosia.

I met him in 2009 while we worked at the same interactive postproduction company. We both eventually parted ways with the company in pursuit of our creative passions (his photography, mine writing), and we reconnected last year. I had just decided to embark on a new career trajectory, and I needed gorgeous photos before I could launch my new website.

During our shoot, I was so nervous that I could feel the sweat pooling in my socks. I was shaking. My voice went up 6 octaves and I knew the photos would be ruined. (Ironic that a loudmouth like me hates being in front of the camera, eh?) But Chris somehow calmed me down and worked his magic. The photos took my breath away. The images were sharp, beautiful, and told a stunning, well-rounded story of who I am. I couldn’t be any happier with the results.

These days, you can find Chris working on a new portrait series with local diva Miss Barbie Q, while preparing a whole new fashion portfolio, and taking head shots at his West Hollywood studio. He was kind enough to put down his camera for a moment and give us an exclusive peek behind the lens of his life.

Tell us how your got into photography. When’s the first time you picked up a camera?

My mom was a press photographer before my birth, and her Canon FTb is one of the sacred objects of my earliest years. Apparently it seemed like the right moment because I’d finally asked the millionth time and not broken anything expensive recently. For whatever reason, she first taught me how to use it the summer after I turned five. It was all a matter of lining up the needle with the doughnut (to set the exposure using the light meter) and getting the honeycomb to go away (meaning you’d focused properly). I’ve been shooting for over 30 years. Wow, way to make me feel old.

What’s your favorite thing to shoot (and why)? People? Objects? Food? Events?

People, people, and more people! I love the quality of the connection I make when photographing portraits. The lens I prefer to shoot them with requires me to work within just a couple of feet of my subject, so right off the bat it’s a fairly intimate experience. Already close, I create a pocket world for just the both of us (or more for group shots!). In that world, we have an extraordinary conversation, even if it’s just a minute, during which I’m taking pictures. I feel a kinship with hair stylists and bartenders in these moments. A lot of my subjects actually tell me it’s very therapeutic.

What’s your absolute favorite shot that you’ve ever taken and why? 

Ask a mother to name her favorite child in front of the whole family at Thanksgiving dinner, why don’t you? How about I tell you my current favorite? It’s definitely this picture of my friend Brian, which appears in my Larrabee Treehouse Guestbook series. His transcends the ridiculousness of it all in a way that sums up this past year of my life pretty well.

What is most difficult/ challenging thing to shoot?

Shooting shiny products, especially those in the sphere clan, makes me want to kick puppies. (Editor’s note: that’s a joke, in case you have no sense of humor. Chris is an avid animal-lover.)

Is photography similar to video, in that there’s always a new piece of software, a new piece of equipment, and new trends to keep up with? If so, how do you keep up with the ever-changing landscape?

Heaven help me, yes. The aesthetic trends are easy to keep up with. Living on the Sunset Strip, all I have to do is look out the window at the billboards to know the latest fad in commercial work. For software, I try to do some sort of training or tutorial at least once a month to keep up on the latest techniques. I worked in my college’s equipment cage for most of my time in school. The immediate availability of so many expensive toys sort of inured me to the romance of gear. All I really care about it whether a piece of equipment is appropriate to the job. When I need to work with a new doodad, there’s always someone on hand at Samy’s or Calumet to show me the ropes.

Tell us about retouching. Can it make a bad photo into a decent one, good one, or great one? Are there different types of retouching? 

My photographic world could not function without the art of retouching. What I do is idealize a subject, be it a person, place, or thing. Which isn’t to say that I’m making a fantasy image that is merely based on the photo I captured. Mostly I’m cleaning up blemishes, dust, and assorted chunks that would distract the viewer from my subject. When I manipulate colors, it’s only to make my digital work look more like the old timey film processes (3-strip Technicolor and Fuji chrome film specifically) I dearly miss.

I love the ability of retouching to allow me to correct technical (exposure, contrast, lighting) flaws that otherwise would have doomed a good shot in the old days. When I’ve already got a technically and creatively solid image, retouching can take me from great to mind-blowing. But if all I’ve got is shit, then there’s no amount of Photoshopping that’s gonna make that better.

What advice would you give to someone who’s just getting started in the field?

Learn solid technique. Use the manual mode of your camera. Know the names and images of the photographers who came before you.

Photography is pretty much the most important keepsake from big milestones, like your wedding. Is there anything that prospective brides should keep in mind to get the photos that they want?

When looking for a photographer who is going to take pictures of you in any situation, the key is finding someone with whom you’re comfortable. Anyone can take a pretty picture of smiling people, but big events like weddings are about so much more. You need to have a personal connection with and trust of your photographer so that you’ll be able to be open and show the fullness of yourself and the moment to the camera. Otherwise all you’ve got are memories of dresses and floral arrangements.

What is your absolute dream or “I know I’ve made it when…” moment? aka….Having your work in a particular gallery? Getting asked to shoot a celebrity wedding?

I’ll know I’ve made it commercially when I ask Bette Middler if I can get her a cocktail before we begin shooting. Artistically, I fantasize about making it into MoMA’s annual New Photography exhibition.

Tell me about the transition of film to digital. Do you prefer one over another and why?

I’ll spare you the navel gazing and suffice it to say the transition was hard for me. What it really comes down to is that camera equipment should be no more a part of the shot than the strobe head used to light the background. It used to be you could spot a digital capture from a mile away, and that’s no longer the case. The fact that I can shoot, process, retouch, and post an image in under four hours and achieve results better than I could ever get from 35mm film converted me to the digital side forever. What’s lost in quality of color and grain is easily made up for in Photoshop so long as you show restraint.

Say someone comes to you for headshots. How is that different from you shooting an event, like a wedding or event?

When you’re shooting people at events, they’re already in the moment, having a good time, smiling, laughing, etc. It’s easy to engage with them and get beautiful, genuine images. Headshot subjects want the same vibe but begin from a dead stop. So I have to work to get them into a place where they can give that energy to the camera without it feeling fake or forced. There’s a reason I offer everyone a cocktail before they step into the studio.

Any final thoughts for the audience?

My college mentor, Abby Robinson, said the only people who become photographers are those who cannot do anything else. My mother died in 1999, and it was a decade before I could even look at my camera again. I pretended a career in digital content production was what I wanted in the meantime. Turned out Abby was right.

Keep in touch with Chris!!

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3 thoughts on “Tronicle Spotlight: Getting In Focus With The Snappiest Photographer Of All Time

  1. I loved working with Chris. His work is awesome and he is fun and easy to work with. So glad I found him through you, Kim. Great interview with stunning photos!

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