Co-Owner and Principal Photographer
Deutsch Photography and Gotham Family Photos
New York, New York
Past affiliations include: associate, Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe
JD New York University School of Law
BA Pomona College
Seeing the big picture
Setting up to be a photographer after law
The challenges in both starting out and with success
What he might have done differently moving from law to photography
Listen to interview:
EXJ: So I made you a promise that I’m not Barbara Walters and wouldn’t try to make you cry.
Brett Deutsch: I would be surprised if you did. I say go for it.
EXJ: Well, I’m not into that. But I definitely want to learn about you.
EXJ: So you worked for about 10 years as a lawyer, including at Winthrop Stimson Putnam & Roberts, and ending up at Orrick before heading into photography. Those are really high-power firms. Did you always want to be a lawyer?
Brett Deutsch: I’m probably like everybody else. I wanted to be a fireman and a superhero at some point, But my dad was a lawyer and I went to college not knowing what I wanted to be. I thought about journalism for a long time. I thought about psychology , but the Psychology 101 class my first year didn’t fit my schedule, and I ended up never taking psychology. So that was out. I just kind of drifted into law school.
EXJ: A lot of people did. I did the Harvard summer program when I was in high school. I took psych and political science. I didn’t do as well in psych, so I decided psychology was not for me and I pursued law, which always interested me. You practiced for a lot of years. Did you like it?
Brett Deutsch: I liked parts of it for sure. I really enjoyed some of the research aspects of it and the brief writing. But I really was not a fan of all the arguing with opposing counsel, arguing over just about every little thing like what day is the deposition? How long is it deposition? Are these interrogatories going to be due tomorrow or the next week? The arguing was just nonstop.
EXJ: Yup. It’s very contentious. That’s the nature of law. So why photography? What was the impetus to make such a dramatic change?
Brett Deutsch: Well, when I got married back in 2003, my wife and I were trying to come up with a plan for our honeymoon. We wanted to go here. We wanted to go there. We wanted to go to this place and that place. Finally, we just decided to go to all of the places. So we quit our jobs, took a year off from regular life and traveled. It was an amazing year.
EXJ: So that’s where it all started, with picture-taking during that year-long adventure?
Brett Deutsch: It was the dawn of the digital era in photography. I bought a six-megapixel digital SLR, the very first digital SLR camera that the average person could buy, and I traveled with it for a year just taking picture after picture after picture. rediscovered that love for photography that I’d always had earlier in my life. So that was sort of a transition period for me.
EXJ: Is that when you made the career change?
Brett Deutsch: Not exactly, because when we came back from the trip around the world, we were broke! Orrick was amazing. I really have nothing but good things to say about the firm. They hired me back and I returned for just over a year. Then I invested in myself and started full-time photography right after that. I basically started my business in 2006.
EXJ: So it wasn’t so much an ah-ha moment but rather an a-ha experience, seeing the world and taking these pictures and then saying I love this and this is what I want to do.
Brett Deutsch: Yeah, I think that’s right. The year of travel was a chance to see the world, but it was also a chance to figure out what we wanted to do with our lives. It felt like it was time for a change. I didn’t think when I went that photography was going to be the thing, but it definitely ended up that way. Honestly, one of the most important things I learned traveling in the developed and lesser developed world was that more money does not equal more happiness. We met people who seemed very happy who lived with far less money than we did. My takeaway was that I needed enough money for basic necessities like food and housing, but it was up to me to make my own happiness. And that helped me break the golden handcuffs that law firm life provided.
EXJ: There are so many aspects to preparing for a business. Some people take business courses, some save for years so that they can invest in themselves. What steps did you take to set yourself up for the career change?
Brett Deutsch: Fortunately, from the investment standpoint, we just needed enough money to be able to keep living without an immediate salary. Photography equipment is not cheap, but it’s not like setting up a doctor’s office. I didn’t have employees. I didn’t have a lot of expenses. Being a lawyer was a great investment. I wanted to learn about studio photography, which is something that you just don’t learn in real life. So I took some night classes. Other than that, I probably erroneously assumed my nine or 10 years of being a lawyer were enough to know about business and to do everything else I needed to do.
EXJ: You know, someone I interviewed said you think you know all of it, but there are so many business aspects. Oh, I love being this or I love doing this, but that’s only a portion of what your day consists of. There are all the business aspects. There’s the marketing, the financial aspects, the bookkeeping. There’s so much that’s involved.So you took some photography classes. How else did you hone your photography skills? Practice?
Brett Deutsch: Yeah. I think the best way to become a great photographer is to take lots of pictures. There’s no magic to it. At the time, in 2003, YouTube didn’t even exist. There weren’t a million videos out there about how to be a great photographer. So I just shot and shot and shot. I bought some books on photography. I did all the regular stuff. I looked at magazines and looked at photos and tried to emulate things. But mostly, I just went out and shot pictures. Naively, I didn’t think there was any difference between a professional photographer and an amateur photographer, except a professional photographer gets paid for it.
EXJ: There’s a big difference in my opinion.
Brett Deutsch: For sure, but I’ve seen great pictures from amateurs, and I’ve seen terrible pictures from professionals. I think the biggest difference between a professional photographer and an amateur photographer, other than the income, is that a good professional can go into any environment and solve the problem. There’s always going to be a lighting issue, or a space issue, or some other issue. I go into a shoot expecting this and that but that’s not at all what I end up getting. Then I have to figure out how to get the photo that the client needs. If I go into a perfect situation and an amateur goes into that same perfect situation where the light is beautiful and we both have the same camera, we’re probably going to get very similar pictures. But if we both go into a tougher situation, which most of what I do is, then hopefully I’ve learned over the years how to solve those problems. That’s what taking lots and lots of pictures and shooting in lots of environments has enabled me to do.
EXJ: Yeah. But I have seen people have everything right and the picture just isn’t great.
Brett Deutsch: When you find those great shots, you need to learn from them. How do I repeat that?
EXJ: A friend of mine was studying photography, and I got to do modeling. There was such an evolution in her skill. What you’re working with can help a lot.
Brett Deutsch: That must’ve been fun for you to see your friend evolve over time. You must have learned something about photography by watching her do that.
EXJ: Oh, absolutely. She brought me into the darkroom. I watched how pictures were developed. We were kids and we were working with film back then. She ended up at the School of Visual Arts.
Brett Deutsch: That’s where I did all my night classes. It’s a great school.
EXJ: It’s phenomenal. My nephew went there for graphic design. You also studied in Japan and Amsterdam while attending college and law school, which must have been incredible. Did you do a lot of photography then?
Brett Deutsch: That’s funny. You really pulled things from way back. So actually, Amsterdam to this day remains a disappointment for me when it comes to photography. I met up with a friend of mine who was also doing a semester abroad. We traveled together and I managed to get my camera stolen in Barcelona. I don’t know but I guess because I was a poor student I just didn’t replace my camera. I have almost no pictures from Amsterdam except for a few I took when I borrowed somebody’s camera. I should have bought a new camera. I can’t remember now what my thinking was. I’m sure it was money. But a camera is not that expensive and I’m sure I could have pulled it off. But I have a lot of pictures from Japan.
Although, I think the way we all took pictures back then was different. We didn’t constantly have cameras around us back then. So I took pictures then of the exciting things and I’ve got lots of those moments, but I don’t have the day-to-day moments. I wish I had captured more of those, like most of us do now. The way we think in the digital era is different than the way we thought in the film era. And I wish I had more of those pictures.
EXJ: There’s a very big difference. With film, you had to wait to develop it. Digital is in the moment. It’s immediate. If the shot’s not good, you can just do it again.
Brett Deutsch: Yeah.And we all have cameras with us all the time now. I think having cameras in phones really did change things. It’s created a different way of thinking about photography for us. It was really a brilliant development that I didn’t expect.
EXJ: Do you find that camera phones impacted your career with so many people taking photos?
Brett Deutsch: I think it’s changed things. Certainly, people are capable of taking pictures that they weren’t capable of doing before, and that’s probably not great for professional photographers. But the need for digital imagery has so hugely expanded that I think in aggregate there’s way more need than there ever was before. So overall, professional photography is in a good place right now. But it’s the high-end stuff that’s really needed. The lower-end stuff is getting killed.
Sears doesn’t have photography studios anymore because parents take a million pictures of their kids and some of those pictures are every bit as good as what they’d get at the Sears photo studio. I still do a fair amount of family photography, but it’s really only for people who want and can afford something different and special. They don’t need the inexpensive shots anymore.
EXJ: What surprised you when you went into business? What do you wish you knew back then?
Brett Deutsch: I didn’t appreciate how much of the other stuff you have to do in business. I spent a ton of my time early on just going to the post office. We used to mail out DVDs and photos all the time. It was crazy how much time I spent just running back and burning DVDs and just doing little odds and ends that were really taking so much of my time away from the actual photography. But more importantly, I didn’t appreciate just how important it was to find a specialty. I wish I had started with a mentor and spent time not trying to be my own guy. I was so ready after working for 10 years at a law firm to just be my own person and do my own thing. But I wish I had worked at a job in the photography world before I started on my own. Being somebody’s worker wouldn’t have been fun, but I think in the long run, it would have sped up my ascent.
EXJ: I think that’s very true. Whether you’re paid for your time or you apprentice in some way in your spare time, you can really learn so much about the art and the business. One of the challenges in any sort of creative business is scalability. You are the talent and people are paying for you. So how do you make your business scalable so that you can really make a good income? What are some of the strategies you found worked?
Brett Deutsch: That’s something I think a lot about so this is an easy question for me to answer. The scalability is two-fold. You have to get rid of all those tasks that I was talking about earlier because the only way you can make money is by taking photos and all the other stuff, whether it’s the editing, retouching, bookkeeping, or marketing, is time-consuming and takes you away from the photography, which is where we make the money. So my time should be devoted to photography. We’ve tried our best to outsource. My wife and I work together now. She joined me in the business more than seven years ago, and she has a marketing background.
EXJ: Oh, that’s great.
Brett Deutsch: It’s incredible. She really runs the business end now. She does all the marketing and a lot of the editing, some of which she outsources. For a long time, I was really too anal and hands-on. I did all the retouching myself, but I finally started sending the retouching out. That enabled me to maximize my time working directly with clients. And we have also scaled in other ways. I have second photographers and videographers who work with me regularly and we are trying more and more to utilize them whenever it’s practical. They’re great talents, and we’re able to grow our business and income by using them in addition to me.
EXJ: We had our second daughter’s wedding almost a year ago and it was incredible to see how photography and video have advanced over the years.
Brett Deutsch: It’s amazing to see and it’s fun for me to be part of all that. But when there are two photographers and a videographer or two videographers, there’s a lot going on. I always hope we’re able to hide in the bushes a little bit and not distract the party guests.
EXJ: Any other advice regarding growing the business?
Brett Deutsch: Networking was something I did not understand at all when I started out. I didn’t do any networking in any formal way until probably five years into being a photographer. Networking has really helped us grow our business.
EXJ: What does networking look like in the context of photography?
Brett Deutsch: Well, it’s the same as in any other field. It’s meeting people who need your services or business or know people who do. We’re members of BNI and Gotham Networking, as well as other networking organizations. The Legal Marketing Association, LMA, is a great network for me and I hadn’t joined it until recently. I should have joined many years ago.
EXJ: Speaking of networking, I’d like to introduce you to Neil Handwerker. He’s the founder of the company that I’m doing this work for. Neil has a huge project and it’s all about transitioning lawyers and helping them succeed. There are courses, there’s everything people need. So we’re doing interviews and we’re doing these different projects. There will be a need for photography. I’ll connect you with him. Hopefully, it turns into something great.
Brett Deutsch: Thanks so much.
EXJ: What do you love the most about your work?
Brett Deutsch: I love capturing those special moments whether it’s a business moment or a personal moment, whatever it is. I really love that people see those images afterward and they treasure them. I love when I walk into people’s homes and see photos I took on their walls or they show me pictures of their homes with my pictures in the background on their walls. I love when I go to a client’s website and the first thing I see is a picture that I took on the client’s banner. Those things mean a lot to me. Capturing something that’s important to them really touches me.
EXJ: How about what’s most challenging? It can be from when you started out or it can be now.
Brett Deutsch: Starting out, just finding clients was the most challenging thing. It took a while. On day one, I had a couple of clients, but turning a couple of clients into enough clients to make a living was a long process. Now the problem has reversed. It’s really hard to handle the workflow. We were so busy in 2022 that I was trying very hard not to disappoint clients by not turning things around fast enough. The challenge now is optimizing our workflow. How do you get the work done or do you not take on as much work? I’m learning, but saying no is not really in my DNA.
EXJ: I feel that way too. When you say no to someone on one occasion, you don’t know what else you’ll lose. They may find someone else to do the work going forward.
Brett Deutsch: That’s 100% right. There are so many examples in my past when I took on a small job that I felt wasn’t important to our business. Then that one small job turned into a huge client. I always hesitate to say no to anybody for that reason, but also just because I enjoy the work. And I don’t want to say no to an existing client because then that client may find a different photographer for that job and that photographer may turn my client into their client and I’ll lose that business.
EXJ: Reliability, knowing they can count on you, is an important part of the business. What advice would you give people who want to leave law and start a photography or another craft-related business?
Brett Deutsch: What I said about wishing I found a mentor early on is important. Find an experienced person who wants to either hire you or intern for somebody. Consider getting a degree in the craft. I have a friend who left law to become a photographer, and she went and got a degree at the School of Visual Arts. That really launched her career in a different direction than mine. But what she wanted was very specific. She wanted to do fashion photography, and the degree helped her grow in that direction. And I think it really behooves you to learn not just the craft, but the business itself. They really go hand in hand, so you have to do both.
EXJ: I have to agree with that. There’s just so much that people are not thinking about and those are the business aspects. What are some specific steps you’d suggest a person take who wants to go into a craft-type business to improve their chances of succeeding?
Brett Deutsch: I guess it really depends on what success means to them. If success means becoming an incredible artist, then study the art as much as possible over and over again. If success means making a living, then study the business. Hopefully, it’s some combination of the two, but I think they both require dedication to learning the process, not just doing whatever it is you want to do.
EXJ: Did you find certain skills really translated well into your business? Perhaps a way of thinking or doing things?
Brett Deutsch: Curiosity is an important thing in most businesses. I’m curious about people. I think that was useful in law and now in my photography business. I learn a lot about my clients through our conversations. It’s not very different from how a headshot session would work between you and me. We have these same conversations. I’m usually asking more of the questions than answering them, but sometimes it’s the other way around. We just talk and, as a result, I get people to relax and just be themselves. I think that natural curiosity helps me do that. Then hopefully we’re all very comfortable in the conversation and I’m just taking pictures as it happens.
EXJ: I think that law gives you a way of thinking in terms of business as well. But as a litigator, you have to get a jury comfortable with you. There’s a sense of likability and trust, and I think you have to build that into photography as well, in a sense. The more comfortable the subject is, the better the pictures will come out.
Brett Deutsch: I think that’s right. In big firms, we almost never dealt with juries. Mostly we dealt with other lawyers. Interpersonal skills work in lots of different things.
EXJ: Including when you are negotiating.
Brett Deutsch: Interpersonal skills make even more of a difference for associates in their relationships with their law firm’s partners. And I think I was good at that.
EXJ: Right. I think how you relate to other people impacts the comfort level in negotiating and in everything you do. If you’re likable, people will open up more. And so, whether it’s opening up in terms of a negotiation or opening up and feeling comfortable to relax and trust you for photography, I think it carries over.
EXJ: So, you really answered all my questions. You obviously studied up, which made this easy.
Brett Deutsch: I tried not to, actually. I didn’t want to think about it too much. So, where does this end up?
EXJ: It’s going to be on ex judicata’s website, which is the name of the company. We’re gathering content first and then the website will be going live soon.
Brett Deutsch: Well, it was really nice meeting you. Hopefully, we’ll run into each other at upcoming LMA events or elsewhere.
EXJ: Absolutely. Sounds good. Oh, before we go, if people want to see your work or learn more about him, visit Brett’s website at deutschphoto.com.
Brett Deutsch: Thanks, Nancy.
EXJ: Take care. Thanks so much.