When it comes to his career as a portrait and commercial photographer, Ritchie White would willingly concede that the path hasn’t been straight and narrow without plenty of thought.
After all, the Columbus native and Pacelli High graduate ventured off to Berry College in northwest Georgia more than two decades ago to earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science. With that piece of paper in hand, he landed computer programming jobs with companies in Atlanta and West Point, Ga., before returning to Columbus for a position at the W.C. Bradley Co.
But his computer programming job turned into a web developer position and then web designer. It just so happened that a workshop his employer sent him to turned out to be a life-changer. He found himself learning amid a group of happy photographers, which got him to thinking about his own job of sitting at a desk and waiting for something to break in a computer or in a system.
Thus, White more or less caught the photography bug and began to purchase equipment, take photos and hone his skills. Ten years into his second career as Ritchie White Photography, the husband and father of four young children couldn’t be happier. He has a 2,000-square-foot studio at 1358 13th Street in the Midtown area of Columbus, but also spends plenty of time in his office at home and hanging out at various locations in the city shooting pictures of families and high school seniors to capture moments in their lives.
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The Ledger-Enquirer sat down recently with White, 44, at his studio to discuss his career path, the appointment-only job he found along the way, and just why he enjoys taking so many portraits of people in the surrounding community. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
Q. How do you describe your job?
A. I am a full-service photographer. A lot of people have a specialty and I really don’t. I do a lot more high school seniors, babies, head shots and commercial work than anything else right now.
Q. Tell us about that fateful career decision a decade or so ago.
A. I was at W.C. Bradley for eight and a half years. When I became a web designer, they would send me to conferences for Photoshop and that kind of thing, and half the people there would be photographers. I’m like, these people aren’t on call. They’re nicer, they’re happier. They enjoy their life a little more than I do sitting behind my desk and getting emergency calls about things breaking.
So when digital photography became affordable, that appealed to me, and I went and started buying equipment just to play with, because I enjoy the Photoshop side of things. I think like most photographers do, they start doing it for fun and then people start saying, ‘Oh, I love those pictures. Will you do some of my family or my kid?’ And then they start offering to pay you, and eventually you have a business and go get a business license and get everything together.
Q. So your hobby turned into a moneymaking venture?
A. It did. After about three years of doing that part-time, I already had a studio. I already had a full client list. I already had all of the equipment I would need. And I basically had two full-time jobs. I was still working at W.C. Bradley full time, but I was working just as much for myself and trying to manage both of them.
Q. Then there was ‘the’ moment for you?
A. Christmastime rolled around and I was turning away photography work left and right. My wife kept encouraging me to follow my dream. This was 2007, 10 years ago. So right before Christmas I just turned in my notice and have not had a slow day since … I literally finished my last day at W.C. Bradley and the very next morning I had my first shoot at my studio, and I didn’t have to buy a thing or do any marketing for a year. Still, to this day, I’ve never paid for an advertisement. Facebook, Instagram and word of mouth is the best thing. All of that together has kept me fully busy for 10 years.
Q. You weren’t nervous with the decision?
A. Of course, but thankfully my wife was encouraging enough to say, ‘I believe in you. You can do this, and if it doesn’t work out I’m going to stand by you anyway.’ I would not have taken that step of faith without her pushing me that way. But she had a vision and thought that I could do it, and I have. So it’s been a great thing.
Q. Why did you choose this Midtown location?
A. We were looking at some places and I almost signed a lease at another place that I would have regretted. I was mentoring another photographer at the time and she called me and said, ‘Before you sign those papers, I want to show you this place.’ So she brought me in here and I said ‘I can’t afford this.’ She said, ‘How about I split it with you and we’ll use it together.’ And we did a year or two and then she moved to Colorado. It’s another one of those things, I would never have ended up in this place without something like that happening. Then, by the time she needed to move, I was sufficient enough to where I could afford it myself, and it’s been a blessing. I love it here.
Q. Where do you typically try to do photo shoots, here in the studio, in city parks, the river walk, outdoors in general?
A. Some of everything. I scout for locations. I see new spots and make a note of it and keep a long list of locations. My business is really just me. I have assistants that work with me, and I have had full-time employees in the past. But I find that everything that needs to be done I can do myself. So I manage my business, from all of the phone calls to the emails to the scheduling to the editing.
So much of my business is not behind the camera, and that’s fine with me. I have four kids who are home-schooled by a stay-at-home wife. I can do most of what I need to do at home. All of the stuff when I’m not with people (shooting pictures), I can do at home. I don’t need to sit here in the studio and edit my photos and plan out my next day. I can do that there at home. So I have a home office, which is a great thing.
Q. On average, how many photo shoots do you do?
A. That just depends on what week it is. This morning and yesterday and tomorrow and three days next week, I’m doing 24 head-shot sessions for another company here in my building for their board of directors. So I do a lot of commercial work. I do a lot of work with Realtree and companies like that, even some with W.C. Bradley still. I have a lot of connections in that corporate photography world.
Q. What percentage is corporate photography versus shots of people and families?
A. It depends on the time of year. Once school starts back, people are wanting pictures, whether it be for their Christmas cards or their senior portraits or whatever. Babies obviously are year-round. Whenever they pop up, that’s when we go photograph them.
Q. I saw a little round baby sitting in a high chair on your website. It was such a great big cute smile on that baby’s face.
A. That’s the high chair right there. I use with it every baby. Hundreds of babies have been in that high chair. It’s over 100 years old. My wife found it on eBay and bought it for me as a surprise. I use it with most babies around the 9-month timeframe because it keeps them in one place and they can have a little snack. It’s a timeless look. I try to have a contemporary and kind of timeless look to my pictures.
Q. How long do photo shoots last?
A. My sessions typically last awhile. High school senior sessions, many of them will take four to six hours, maybe split into two different days. But I’m really able to capture who they are, their hobbies and interests, and not them trying to be someone else … so that in 20 years they can look back and say, that was the real me when I was 17. … We really work hard to make each session unique to them. Even if there are multiples at the same school, I’m going to make sure that their picture is not going to look like their best friend’s pictures, that they are different enough.
Q. Are those pictures taken both indoors and outdoors?
A. For seniors, it’s typically outdoors, and we can do some in the studio. If we do go in the studio, it’s maybe an hour of their session. I almost always end those senior sessions at sunset so I can take advantage of that last hour of light. One of my specialties is sunset pictures, lighting the subject separate so that I can capture very vivid sunsets along with them.
Q. What’s one of the best locations in town that is truly scenic and really great for pictures?
A. Downtown by the Riverwalk is great for sunset pictures. On the Columbus side, the sun sets over the river, so it’s really pretty, and you can get (photo clients) either high up on the parking deck, or down on the rocks by the river and shoot from down low. And then on the Phenix City side, the sun’s setting behind you, so the Columbus side lights up as soon as it’s dark. The lights across the 13th street bridge are beautiful, and the Synovus Centre and the Riverwalk, all of that is well lit. And the power station even has spotlights on the water that create some dramatic light.
Q. So you use both sides of the river?
A. I do, at different times.
Q. How about weddings, do you do those?
A. I’ve photographed over 100 weddings over the past 10 years. I used to photograph a good many of them, and now I limit them to three or four a year, which is about right for me because, honestly, they’re like a big project, each one of them.
Q. There is pressure with wedding shoots?
A. There’s pressure and there’s a lot of work before and after, not just the day of, and it seems to be a very long project. I enjoy doing them as long as I’m a good fit for them and as long as I don’t do too many of them, because they can slow down everything else I do if I take on too many of those.
Q. You teach photography classes as well?
A. One of my favorite things that I’ve been doing lately is teaching workshops.
Q. When did you start that?
A. About two years ago. I have a good friend who’s a photographer and he lives in Canada and Mexico, and he’s a smart guy. I was telling him I need to cut down on weddings, but I need something to replace them with. He said I needed to start teaching workshops, but I said I would be terrible at that. He said to just give it a shot. So I put one together and did a trial run and I loved it. Since then, I’ve been teaching them about once a month here in the studio … I’m actually good at it. I didn’t think I would ever be good at teaching, but it seems to work well.
Q. What makes them so successful?
A. Having them be small groups and the one-on-one interaction. My classes are never more than eight people, so it’s very hands-on. We come in here and everybody’s comfortable and I’m teaching with PowerPoint and showing pictures and we’re talking through them, and I’m getting up and doing demonstrations. Then we’ll get up and do an exercise to practice what we just learned. We’ll shoot in the studio or outside or at the park, and then we come back and review those images and then go on to the next stuff. So it’s very hands-on and I’m teaching people to use their camera no matter what brand or model it is. It’s a lot of very interactive learning.
Q. Is this basic or intermediate instruction?
A. The main one that I teach the most is called camera basics. It’s intended for people who bought a digital SLR or received one as a gift thinking they would get great pictures because it’s a great camera. Then they put it on automatic and realize that their phone takes better pictures … But once you harness the power of the camera and know how to use it correctly, you are going to get great pictures … My hope and what I’ve found is that when people leave here, they’re excited to go learn and practice, and I see them posting stuff constantly on Facebook, and I can tell they’ve really learned something, which is pretty cool. They start posting really beautiful pictures of their family and their vacations and everything else. They’re excited to have a new passion for something.
Q. You have another class?
A. The other one I’m teaching next weekend is called natural light for portraiture. It is all about light. It’s the artistic side of things. It’s how to see light, how to manipulate light, how to make good lighting decisions. It’s really training your eye to understand light and then how to make good decisions for portraiture specifically. It’s intended for people who want to take pictures of people.
Q. Finally, what do you enjoy most about your photography job?
A. The most rewarding thing would be documenting peoples’ lives and creating something that’s going to increase in personal value for them over time. They may just think, ‘Oh, we’re just taking pictures for our Christmas card right now.’ But 10 years from now, looking back on that picture, things may have changed and they’ve grown, and that picture will be priceless to them. I’m constantly freezing a moment in time for people, whether it be a wedding, whether it be a milestone in their baby’s life, whether it be a high-school senior, it’s a milestone for them. I really enjoy doing that.
Current residence: Columbus
Education: 1991 graduate of Pacelli High School; earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Berry College in 1995
Previous jobs: Oxford Industries (Atlanta) as a computer programmer; Interstate Telephone Company (West Point, Ga.) as a computer programmer; and W.C. Bradley Co. (Columbus) as a computer programmer, web developer and web designer.
Family: Wife, Molly, (married for 21 years), and four children ages 12, 8, 6 and 2. Their kids are home-schooled by Molly and home-school teacher
Leisure time: He loves to fish, which he does most evenings in the family’s small pond; he enjoys spontaneous adventures with his wife and kids, whether that’s a camping trip or a visit to the grocery store
Of note: He’s a fourth-generation entrepreneur/business owner in Columbus — his great-grandfather was the first Kodak dealer in Columbus in 1905, and his family owned and operated The White Company and White's Bookstore for nearly 100 years; he’s also a mentor to Columbus High School seniors for their senior projects in photography (nine years so far); he and his wife were married for 10 years before deciding to have kids, and they now have four