Chele Jones's style is big, bold, vibrant, and bursting with energy – which is perfect for shooting Southern California seniors who want to stand out rather than blend in.
We have been in love with Chele's gorgeous, colorful website from the start, and have been following her journey from Austin to Irvine, dying to know more about how she's making a splash in a brand new city.
This week, Chele was gracious enough to give us a peek into her creative process, how she discovered her passion for photographing seniors & teens, and the secret to standing out in an ultra-competitive market.
Kick it off by telling us about yourself, your passions, and how you got into photography!
I've always been passionate about any kind of art, whether it's music, painting, drawing, writing, dancing - I've been drawn to creating as early as I could dip my fingers in paints. It wasn't until high school that I found photography. I took it as an elective, inspired by both my dad and stepdad (and National Geographic) to try it out and immediately fell in love.
I began working with the basics of shooting black and white film and doing my own darkroom developing and processing. I went on to major in photojournalism in college but ended up specializing in portraiture because of its authenticity and personal positivity. Today, I am full digital (with exception to occasional polaroid thrown in for some retro fun) and embracing what today's technologies have brought us in this industry.
I would say of all the niches I've covered, in the 30 years I've been shooting, I'm most taken with high school seniors and teens for a myriad of reasons - the diversity of each session, the creativity, the styling, the enthusiasm, and best of all, giving them a unique and special, personalized, superstar experience all their own.
What’s it like being a photographer in one of the most competitive locations?
This is the third time I've relocated in a decade, and it takes a good while to get things going. I've been here in Irvine getting "settled in" since September and it's always difficult starting over in a brand new place from scratch. Orange County in Southern California has more photographers per capita than any other geographic location that I know of.
I had PhotoBiz take care of my SEO and update my website with all the nitty-gritty location info. The rest is just a matter of networking, marketing, and getting local people buzzing about my name and work and letting them know I am out there and what I do.
Photography isn't just about portraits. It's also very much about the experience and service you provide and your involvement in the community you serve. There are ideal clients for every kind of photographer and niche. I tend to keep my head down and focus on my own ideal client and being visible to them, over competing with other local professionals. If people love the experience and images you provide them they will shout your name when others ask about it.
Your locations are simply amazing. How do you find the PERFECT places to shoot?
Thank you! I really work hard to find the perfect set of locations for each individual client!
My best locations come from hours of driving, exploring, natural curiosity (what's down this road or around this corner?) and hiking, as well as a natural desire to create in a space that has caught my creative eye and inspired me just while out and about. In the latter case, I keep the locations in mind for future clients and eventually the right one will come along to match that location.
I have spots logged in all the cities I frequent as I find them, but I typically seek locations based on each kid's personality, style, passions, theme, and more specifically, what we have planned to wear or do during their custom photoshoot. A location needs to be cohesive and complimentary to the outfit and lighting needs. The client and I plan their outfits together two weeks in advance of their photoshoot so that I have time to locate ideal spots within close proximity to each other in order to provide them as many looks as possible within one session. To catalog locations and remember them for future use, I use my iPhone GPS location feature. It has been a lifesaver!
Why do seniors come to you?
That's a good question. Ultimately it's usually the parent's decision and I personally believe that it's because I provide both what the parents want (usually bright classic portraits) as well as the editorial Instagram aesthetic and films that the kids want these days within one big, unforgettable experience.
Individually, I have clients choose me because they loved what they saw on my website and social media platforms. I had one mom choose me for "a beautiful experience" because her daughter had been in a scoliosis brace for several years. I had two moms choose me because they loved the work and saw that I was an openly LGBTQ-friendly business and that was important to them.
The seniors themselves that go for my work are kids that want something creative and different and diverse from classic portraiture. Many of them have friends that had a photoshoot with me and told them about how much fun it was. The seniors that come to me want to stand out more than they want to blend in. I see it as telling the story of who they are at this crucial milestone in their lives... I strive to capture all the angles and expressions that will soon change so much, once they leave the nest and begin adulting. These are the little things the parents will cherish. I think kids feel they can be truly authentic working with me. I give them my most authentic self and they give the same in return and the parents can see that and often cry when the images and films are revealed to them for the first time.
“The seniors that come to me want to stand out more than they want to blend in. I see it as telling the story of who they are at this crucial milestone in their lives.”
– Chele Jones
How important is your online portfolio?
An up-to-date online portfolio is an absolute necessity these days. You can make a book (and you should), and you can get published (and you should), but without an online presence you are virtually nonexistent in today's world. The first place people look for anything about you or your business is online. The most likely place your ideal client will discover you for the first time is online. Whether it's asking friends or other parents for recommendations or by scrolling upon some of your work shared by a mutual friend who has hired you, it is more likely to happen online than anywhere else. They look to validate your legitimacy, your work, and the consistency of your works and they also search for reviews of others' experiences with you and your business.
What are some kinds of photography you’d like to do more of (or haven’t gotten to try yet)?
As far as genre and niches - I've tried just about everything over the last 3 decades except commercial editorial and food photography. Food is my love language, so I'd love to give food photography a try just for fun. I've done everything from landscapes and architecture to newborns and weddings, which is how I came to land on my favorites. Going for one or two specialties is a little scary, but once you knock everything else off the list you realize what you miss the most and that is how I found what I wanted to specialize in.
I still do some of the other stuff when people inquire, such as families and a couple of weddings a year, but get to do a lot more of what I love the most by exclusively marketing to High School Seniors and their families. I do have one other brand. I could not give up couple's photography, which branches into adventure sessions and elopements and allows me to travel a bit more and express a darker, moodier, sensual side of my works that I definitely wouldn't use within my vivid and often whimsical senior and teen brand.
Chele Jones is an award winning internationally recognized senior & teen photographer based in Irvine, California.
Her signature bright, vivid, and sometimes whimsical style makes a big impact with teens & parents who want a photographer to help them stand out – not blend in.
To see more of Chele's amazing work and to connect with her online, visit chelejones.com.