Photographer You Should Know: Cody Pickens Lights the Way

March 13, 2017

By Brienne Walsh

Why You Should Know Him

Cody Pickens commands a playful and technically masterful style that’s earned him assignments from the likes of Google, TIME and GQ.
@codypickens |

Cody Pickens has built a thriving career as an editorial and commercial photographer with the perfect balance of self-determination and flexibility. Curious about the arts throughout his childhood in Missouri, he signed himself up for a photography class as a student at Orange Coast College, a community college in Costa Mesa, California. He switched his original focus from drawing and painting after getting hooked after just one class, eventually receiving a certificate in photography. “Perhaps doing all those still-life paintings and drawings helped me to understand how light works,” offers Pickens, whose work is marked with his ability to capture its many different nuances.

A Shift In Focus

In school, Pickens shot whatever came in front of him, focusing his camera especially on two of his favorite hobbies at the time: skateboarding and skiing. But that focus changed when he began assisting one of his photo instructors, Walter Urie, a successful commercial photographer based in southern California. “[He was] shooting for and working with clients that had way more budgets than any skateboarding client at the time,” Pickens says. “My long-term interest began to shift more toward that type of commercial photography.”

A couple years later, Pickens moved with his now-wife to the Bay Area, where he spent some time riding road bikes, among other things. “I was just enjoying the move to San Francisco, and being young without many responsibilities,” he admits. “Becoming a bike nut for two years was something that I really enjoyed and I have really fond memories of those days.” But, well rested, he returned to photography when he turned 27.

Olympic Track and Field star Erica McLain, shot for self promotion in San Francisco.

Promo Power

He found work assisting for photographers, such as Howard Cao, by cold-emailing their studios. “I let everyone in the city know that I was available to assist or able to help out with anything,” Pickens says, “even to sweep the floors.” Cao taught him how to promote himself, namely how to create mailers and set up meetings with potential clients.

He knew that in order to break out on his own, he’d need a knockout portfolio, so when Pickens wasn’t assisting, he picked up whatever miscellaneous jobs came his way, like portrait assignments for small local publications and test shoots with models. By early 2010, he felt comfortable sharing his accumulated work. “I had just enough decent imagery to feel kind of…almost sort of like…a proper portfolio,” he says with a laugh.

The most prestigious clients were on the East Coast, Pickens figured, so if he wanted to “make it,” he had to meet with them directly. “I thought to myself, I’m done assisting. This is what I’m going to do: I’m going to go to New York,” he says.

Pickens updated his website, his logo and made promo cards that featured his eye-catching portrait of the industrial designer Adam Savage (opposite page), originally shot for San Francisco’s Make magazine. Photo editors were greeted with the image of Savage (who’s also the host of the Discovery Channel television series MythBusters) sitting on a chair wearing a replica Apollo spacesuit. Pickens followed the promos with emails, asking to meet face to face.

Many of the editors took the bait. Pickens booked a flight to New York and a number of one-on-one sit-downs. He suspects it’s because the image on its own is compelling enough, though his moxie probably did the trick too. He left with a number of promising contacts and returned to the Bay Area. There, he was conveniently situated to take portraits of rising technology executives in Silicon Valley, as quite a few of the editors he met in New York—from Fortune, Inc. and Fast Company—promptly hired him to do.

Adam Savage of MythBusters at M5 Studios in San Francisco, a shot Pickens used for wide self promotion.

Creativity By Hand

Tech executives are deceptively tough subjects; they’re not used to being in front of a camera, and what’s more, translating their metaphysical work into a two-dimensional composition is not simple. But Pickens was up for the challenge, turning to his sketchbooks of ideas he constantly updates for creative reference. “I write down things that I see in everyday life that I find quirky or interesting,” he says, “and I’ll keep that tucked away.”

He came to each shoot prepared, having conducted research on his subjects and, based on what he learned, trying to predict how they would react in front of the camera. Meanwhile, sketchbook scribbles like “balloons at ceiling, night shot with Instamatic camera looking up,” or “political figure/red suit/gold necklace/poofy swoopy hair/background matches suit (red),” all inspired by real or imagined scenes, pushed his work past the predictable portrait.

His ability to think on his feet gained him trust, and editors stayed loyal to him even when they switched publications. When Kristine LaManna left Popular Science for ESPN The Magazine in 2010, she continued to hire Pickens even though at the time he hadn’t shot athletes before. Today, they are one of his specialties. He continues to shoot for ESPN, and other major sports outlets—Golf Digest, Men’s Health, Outside Magazine and Sportsnet—have followed.

“This is how the industry works,” Pickens observes. “You get hired by someone at one magazine, and maybe it’s not the most interesting work, but if you make the best of it, you can start a good relationship.”

In 2012, he signed with Redeye Represents, an agency based in Los Angeles, and he’s been able to tack on Apple, JetBlue Airways, Visa, Intel, AARP, World Wildlife Fund and Google to his client list.

Ted Danson for Variety, shot at Universal Studios.


One thing that sets Pickens apart from his peers is his crisp, technically masterful lighting. Just as he always jots down ideas, he constantly takes snapshots of lighting he likes. “You can make up something really great from something totally mundane,” he says, like the way late afternoon light looks when it hits a building window. 

Continually experimenting with light in his studio, he’s built a stockpile of effects that he can tap into at shoots, and he knows his gear well enough that he can recreate within minutes, for instance, the appearance of a strip of sunlight. “It’s really important to know what your kit will do in any given situation so that you can create something on the fly,” says Pickens, whose kit includes strobes, a Hasselblad camera system and Profoto beauty dishes.

This photographer is busier than ever now, and his subjects remain as diverse as they were when he first started; Golden State Warriors player Andre Iguodala for San Francisco, augmented-reality engineer and scientist Meron Gribetz for WIRED Germany and Team USA Olympic athlete Lindsey Vonn for Red Bull are among some of his most recent shoots.

His other secret, essentially, is that he just doesn’t stop shooting. “Right now, I’m exploring the genres that are cousins to my normal day-to-day work shooting celebrities and athletes,” Pickens says. “I’m looking at what connects them to the world, whether that be shoes, apparel, gadgets or industrial situations.” The aim, as always, is to be able to build on his repertoire of work and expand it beyond limits.


5 Tips for Finding The Right Light

1. Observe the natural light in your daily life. Make notes and snap phone photos for future reference. It’s always helpful to know how light moves, reflects, warms, cools and enhances.

2. Research all the great painters from the Dutch Golden Age. These are the masters, and it’s good to understand how they used light on the subject and scene of a painting.

3. Conduct test shoots. Rent different modifiers and schedule shoots back-to-back to test different situations, making notes and diagrams of the light placement as you go. Try committing to four shoots a month for three months straight, each having a different theme and lighting style.

4. Push your lighting techniques with purposefully tricky setups. Shoot a group of 30 or more people. Shoot a white pencil on a white seamless backdrop. Make the light loud or quiet, cool or warm, reflected or direct, soft or sharp. And remember to keep good notes on what works and why you like it.

5. Be overly prepared for the actual assignment. Scout or have someone send photos of the space you’ll be shooting in. Bring at least two or three ready-to-go sets for your subject, and allow for several hours of setup. Have a simple grab-and-go lighting setup on the side when shooting people with limited time. You never know when you’ll get an extra few minutes here or there.

Brienne Walsh is a writer and critic. She’s contributed regularly to Rangefinder and PDN for several years, and she has a blog called A Brie Grows in Brooklyn.

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