Photographer’s Q&A – Steve Russell

This week’s Q&A is with photographer Steve Russell from the Toronto Star.



What were your first steps in the industry?

One of them had to be buying my first SLR, the Minolta Maxxum 7000!

My big first step was to enroll at Loyalist College. After that, it would have to had been my March Break internship at the London Free Press. It was the much-sought-after internship because it was paid!

Part of the reason I got that internship was because I made the drive from Belleville to London during one of the worst snowstorms of the season. I was the only candidate to show up for the interview.

I worked hard during those two weeks and was offered the summer internship.


When you were a student, what did you want to do after graduation and are you where you thought you would be now?

When I first got into photojournalism school, I wanted to be primarily a sports photographer. But by the time I’d graduated, I discovered that I enjoyed all aspects of photography. I knew that a newspaper would be the ideal place for me.


What or who are your biggest inspirations?

This goes way back, to when I was in my early teens and lived in Peru. My father was a serious amateur photographer and we subscribed to National Geographic, Time and Newsweek. I read those magazines because there was a severe lack of English-language material in the country. Along with some news and sports pictures I’d clip from the two newsmagazines, there was a series of Lufthansa ads shot with a photojournalistic slant.


The 20-minute bus ride through Sudbury back to their hotel after being eliminated was painful for Tryone Habans and most of the Jean Vanier High School basketball team in Toronto. March 6, 2003 (STEVE RUSSELL/TORONTO STAR)


Did you have a mentor? How important are mentors?

Mentors, I’ve had many over the years: the staff at the London Free Press during that summer internship, followed by the Toronto Star staff. I made sure to pick the brains of Peter Power, Richard Lautens, Jeff Goode, Bernard Weil, Patti Gower and the rest of the photographers and editors.

I continue this practice today. I still keep an eye on everyone’s work and ask questions. My pool of mentors still includes the Peter Powers and Richard Lautens’ of our world, but now has expanded to include Lucas Oleniuk, Tara Walton and our multimedia team.


Baby Eric’s father comforts him as they wait for the transport team to ready him for transport. A cardiac problem for 11-day-old Eric Koszuba means that he will have to be transported from Sandlakes Hospital in Newmarket to the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, May 19, 2004. The transport team stablizes babies from all over the province so that they can survive the trip to Sick Kids. The team made over 900 calls last year. (STEVE RUSSELL/TORONTO STAR)


What was a pivotal point in your career?

That is tough. It might have been when I didn’t get into my preferred college program and was forced to enroll in the photojournalism program.

It might also have been when I got that London Free Press summer internship. I heard they had someone else in mind for it but that my two March Break weeks there had changed their minds. That summer in London helped me get the Toronto Star internship. It was a great summer to work hard, shoot lots and make mistakes.


How important is multimedia to you?

I love the idea of multimedia and feel that if it is done right, it is another powerful tool for us to tell stories.


How do you ensure that you are progressing as a visual journalist?

Hard work, experiment and try to learn from everyone, from the old coots to the young up-and-comers.

I also am my greatest critic. Rarely do I look at my stuff and pat myself on my back. I always look for ways I could have been better, whether it be how I dealt with someone to what I was thinking when I framed up that picture.

To keep me focused and my head a manageable size, I keep one of my graded Loyalist College assignment sheets in my locker: the Sports Feature assignment from Professor Peter Power’s class when he taught photography at Loyalist.

He graded me at 55% along with the remarks, “I think you could have come up with much better had you worked at it.”

I keep that assignment with that red “55” showing so that I see it every time I open my locker (see the first picture in this column).


What are some of the must-see websites you visit? Please include why you visit these sites (e.g. inspiration, guidance, information, education).

Wow, I’m not really a photo web site seeker. I’ll look at,, and I’ll research a photographer here and there.

I do try to look at the wires once and in a while, when I’m at work. I also try to look at our site, But we do such a bad job on displaying photos, it just frustrates me.

I’ll look through more books and magazines than web sites.

There are two books I try to read ever year or so, both are written by Dave LaBelle: “The Great Picture Hunt” and “Lessons in Death and Life”. The second book helped me through a lot of difficult stories.

Also, when I start taking photography too seriously, I read “The Shy Photographer” just to make me laugh!


An early morning fitting for prosthetic legs leaves Lewis Wheelan feeling tired, frustrated and in pain at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto on February 25, 2002. Wheelan was injured in May 2001 in a workplace accident that claimed both his legs, one arm and some fingers on his hand. (STEVE RUSSELL/TORONTO STAR)


What is your favourite way to unwind?

I love to work out. But to look at me right now, you’d see that I haven’t been to the gym in a while. I hang with my one-year-old daughter. It’s loads of fun and really takes the stress of work away. I try to reno the house.


What’s the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you about being a photographer?

When I was at Loyalist, photographer and photo editor Rob Skeoch taught us Photoshop and gave us a big list of advice, full of gems:

• Decide where you would ultimately like to work and move there.
• Resist a 300 f2.8, go for a 400 f2.8.
• Your entire portfolio should be replaced two years after graduating.

From my Toronto Star colleagues Peter Power, Bernard Weil and Richard Lautens, I really learned that it’s more important to be consistently good rather than occasionally great and mostly sub-par.

Another lesson: to forget a bad day quickly or forget a bad first period. (Pete Power will know what I’m talking about!).



Category: Photographer's Q&A

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