The View Finder: A Q and A with Photographer Francisco Estrada
No one captures the natural beauty, culture, history, and romance of Los Cabos quite like Francisco Estrada. The talented and much in demand photographer has a gift for striking imagery, for framing his subjects in original ways, and for illuminating the indescribable qualities that make life at Land’s End so very special.
This gift is why Estrada’s beautifully shot photos grace the covers of local magazines, are prominently featured in real estate campaigns, and are artfully displayed in some of area’s finest homes and hotels.
And it’s why three different companies have been built around his artistry, each representing mastery of a specific photographic genre: commercial and real estate photography at PhotoMexico, weddings and portraits at PhotoAmore, and fine art photography at 1949.
I recently sat down with Estrada at his studio in Pedregal to discuss life, work, and what beds and mattresses had to do with his decision to move to Los Cabos.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you became interested in photography?
I was born in Mexico City, and first started with photography at about age 8, when I went away to summer camp in Louisiana. I got this camera, and that was my first experience with taking pictures. But my father used to be into photography, too. He had many, many cameras. I was always interested, really. It was my passion, and I knew it was what I wanted to do for a living when I got older.
I was very into magazines…there is this famous magazine called México Desconocido. It’s very artistic, kind of like National Geographic. I would always take pictures, and think about working for them, which today I do. So I eventually got to live my childhood dream in that respect.
I also had this uncle who was a photographer and lived in England. My family would always say he was very famous there. So when I was about 13, it was my idea to sell everything I had and go there. He was my uncle, so I figured he’d have to help me.
Later, I started traveling. I got a job traveling all around México selling beds and mattresses. I began shooting a lot of black and white photographs at all the places I was visiting. I ended up losing that job, because although I was a very good salesman, I wasn’t so good at getting the money. My boss was like, “You sell a lot, but you never collect the money. We’re in red numbers here. You’re fired.”
So then I traveled by myself for a couple of years. I would go everywhere in México that I could. Chiapas and Chihuahua were my favorites. And everywhere I went, I would buy just one thing. I would then take it back to Mexico City and sell it to rich people. It was sometimes art, sometimes antiques, fossils. But just one thing that I could sell for 10 times what I paid for it. That was enough to pay what bills I had, and plan for the next trip. I was sort of an informal art dealer.
What led you to move to Los Cabos?
I first came to Los Cabos in 1996 selling beds and mattresses to hotels. We had some very good sales. And after that, about 1998, I had an opportunity to go back to school, studying mass media and communications at ITESO (Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente) in Guadalajara. When I finished there, I was pretty much broke. So I sold everything I had and came back to Los Cabos with about 80 pesos in my pocket. I bought a pack of cigarettes with half the money, and then started trying to find a job.
I got hired as an OPC for Pueblo Bonito. They fed me every day, and gave me a place to live. For my situation, it was a palace. But then when I lost that job, I also lost the place to stay, so it was tough. Around this time, though, I met this photographer named Bruce Harmon, and started asking him if he could find me work in the same field. He said no. “We don’t need any more photographers in town. We’ve got plenty. But if there’s something else you can do maybe I can help.” I told him I was a good salesman. He said, “How can you prove it?” I said I already sold everything I had. That made him laugh, and he said, “Tomorrow 5000 calendars are arriving in Cabo.”
He had made these beautiful calendars with beautiful pictures of Cabo. He gave me the calendars and I sold them in all the stores of Los Cabos. I’d walk around with my briefcase and so forth. After that, he started hiring me as a camera assistant. It was very educational, because what I knew at that point was very elementary. And he also helped me learn the business of photography. Those were tough times, though. This was 2002, when Aramburo was the only grocery store in Cabo San Lucas. They were difficult years, but I kept working. I got a job on the movie Troy, with Brad Pitt, and I would help them buy supplies for the artists. Things like that.
Then one day I got this call from Ron Swanson, the gentleman that used to own Plaza de la Danza. He was my only client, and he told me to get over to his office right away. He said run, “because I’ve got a deal for you that was made in heaven.” So I run over there from this cheap internet café where I was, and I by the time I get there I’m covered in sweat. I go into the office, sweating, and there is this very beautiful woman there. Rod tells me she’s a producer for HBO, and her production needs someone they can trust. They needed a Mexican production assistant. So she tells me what they can pay, and I tell her I’m in. I ask what the TV show is about, and she says “sports.”
So the next day I’m at Chileno Bay at like 7 a.m. I’m eating from the buffet, and I notice all these tattooed guys and all these girls. So I ask one of the tattooed guys, what’s up with all the beautiful girls? What’s the name of the TV show? He says, “This is a series for Playboy. It’s called Hotel Erotica.”
It was a great job, but it was also super informative. I learned a lot of what I know about lighting on that production, working to put out a high quality product on what was a relatively low budget. And I learned so much about film. It was better than school. The pay wasn’t great, but even today I’m still using some of the concepts I learned working on that show.
Do you often integrate film into your assignments?
We specialize in photography. I know how to do video, because when I was studying in Guadalajara I learned a lot about multimedia. I know how to use the cameras. And I like the process. We have some dollies, cranes, and other equipment. And of course nowadays digital cameras allow you to shoot video with amazing quality.
I started shooting things for business, but I eventually started focusing more on photography. I can make more money with photography. Video is hard work. There is a lot of production, a lot of post-production. Photography is easier. People look at the photos and know immediately whether they like them or not. But I still do some video projects. For instance, for the past four years I’ve been working on fine art photography and a documentary about El Triunfo, the old gold mining town that was one of the richest places in Baja during the 19th century.
Actually, if you walk up into the Sierra (de la Laguna), you can find communities that still speak antique Spanish, the way it was spoken in the 19th century. The young people have left. But the old people are still there. They’re descendants of the soldiers that accompanied the priests who built the first missions in Baja.
When did you form your companies PhotoAmore and PhotoMexico?
Well I started over here, as I mentioned, about 13 years ago. I have this uncle who does a lot of things. He works with bees, he works with websites, among other interests. I asked him early on: Uncle can you do me a favor, and build me a website for my photos? Cheap please, because I’m basically sleeping on the floor. And he said, “yes, of course,” and gave me back a website with the name PhotoMexico. I said oh my god, what a name, and what a URL. We’ve had offers for it since.
PhotoMexico used to do everything. We did architectural, real estate, stock photos, weddings…everything. But at a certain point we started to separate. I mean, if you’re looking for a wedding photographer, you want a company that specializes in weddings. And the same with hotels and luxury properties. They don’t want a wedding photographer shooting their properties. They want a commercial photographer. So we started to divide the concepts.
PhotoAmore is the romance concept–portraits and weddings–and over the years we’ve shot something like 800 weddings. PhotoMexico now is commercial photography only, with a focus on real estate, hotels, aerial photography, and stock photos.
Is there any type – landscape, weddings, portraiture – that you have a particular affinity for? Does each type require a different approach?
I like all photography. I stopped doing promotion for my wedding photography because I wanted to focus more on commercial photography. But I still do it, and we still shoot about 100 events per year. I mean, I like both. The great thing about weddings is that it’s a very social world. It’s fun to be part of this romantic, celebratory atmosphere, but on the other hand it’s also very, very demanding. You’re running around all day. In twenty years, I’ll probably be too old and tired to shoot weddings. Sometimes I do a wedding on Saturday, on Sunday I have trouble getting out of bed. It’s demanding work in what is often very hot weather. Three or four weeks ago we were shooting a wedding in Villa del Palmar, and my assistant passed out because of the heat.
We also have a third brand now, 1949, which specializes in fine art photography, and this is something else I’m committed to for the next phase of my career. We shoot film with 6×6 Hasselblads, medium formats. The idea is to put together galleries of high-quality photos showing the original Baja: the missions and traditional sites, etc. We’re doing some great stuff in El Triunfo.
Right now there is a trend locally towards this type of photography. If you look at some some of the hotels that have opened or redecorated since Hurricane Odile, you see a lot of fine art photography on display in rooms, and in public areas. At The Cape (the new Thompson hotel that recently opened on Playa Monumentos), for example, the photos are representative of Southern California surf culture. But other luxury properties are buying work that represents local history and culture.
It takes time and money, but we’re starting to produce 1 or 2 high quality fine art photos per month.
How do you decide whether to shoot in black and white or in color?
It depends on what we’re doing. With fine art photography, we shoot a lot in black and white. With commercial photography we rarely do. Everything is in color. With portraits and weddings, we do both. But I don’t think about it when I’m taking the photos. That’s something that’s generally decided in the editing process. We’ll look at the way it turned out and maybe say, “This would look good in black and white.” That happens pretty often, for example, when we’re doing wedding photography.
How can people find your work?
Most of the people find my work on the internet. We have a very effective system online. We’re hosted by PhotoShelter, and they do an amazing job. They’re connected with the best labs in the United States. Everything we do is high resolution, and we have a back-up online with them. We don’t ship anymore so much as we send links. It’s more environmental and people get the links immediately.
As I say, these websites are all connected to the labs. For instance, I had this job a couple of years ago. I get a call from a client who is selling this incredible property on the Pacific Ocean side of Cabo San Lucas, and they want some high quality images, a gallery of panoramic photos they can put up in their Dallas office to show this potential buyer who’s coming in.
They wanted to know how I was going to send the photos, so I said let me check. I find this very good lab in the Dallas area, and I call them and find out they can print them for a certain amount of money. Quite a bit of money, actually. It was very high quality. Anyway, a couple of days after they’re delivered I get a couple of messages to call the seller. I think to myself, oh no, something must have gone wrong. So I call him back and he says, “Thank you so much! I don’t know how you did this! But the photos are amazing, and the guy bought the property!”
Well, the lab was great. I just pushed a button and made money. And everything we do now is like that. I mean we can generally deliver within 24 hours. Our editor is very good, and if we shoot a wedding on Sunday, by Monday or Tuesday everything is online.
Los Cabos is a very beautiful and very photogenic place. Are there any particular sites you find yourself drawn to because you love them as a subject or a backdrop?
Well, all of the coastline is very beautiful. And this side of Pedregal, where my studio is, I like a lot because of the direct sunlight. It all depends on the light. On the Sea of Cortés side, you get the great sunrises. On the Pacific side you get the beautiful sunsets. I love Cabo and the surrounding areas. Lover’s Beach, in particular, is always amazing. Sometimes I’ll tell people that want to have a special portrait, let’s meet at 6 a.m., grab a panga (water taxi) and head out to Lover’s Beach. We’ll give them a tour, explain all the unique rock formations, and then get some truly spectacular portraits as the sun is rising. It’s an incredible time of day to be there, because nothing is going on yet, nobody is up but us. In the case of weddings, the bride may have to get up at 4:30 for makeup, but it will be worth it.
I know you do a lot of photography for magazines. Who are you working for these days?
I work for a lot of people locally, especially Los Cabos Magazine and Cabo Living. I also contribute to México Desconocido in Mexico City, and occasionally to some of the airline magazines.
Are there any upcoming projects you’re looking forward to?
We’re focusing on hospitality clients. After Hurricane Odile, we’ve been spending a lot of time photographing renovated hotels, like Hilton, Esperanza, and others. Ultimately, we’re happy to be working. Last year was one of our best years ever. Not in terms of money, but in growth. Right now a lot of people have an opportunity to be part of the rebuilding of Cabo, and personally, I think it’s going to be better than ever.
Originally posted on Aug 25, 2015