How to Find Your Niche and Become the Best You Can Be

"Headshot King" Peter Hurley

Larry  Weidel: I am here with Peter Hurley, the “Headshot King” named by Popular Photography Magazine and a personal hero of mine.

Peter Hurley: Thanks for having me. I’m psyched to be here.

LW: I’ve read about you in all kinds of articles over the years and watched videos about your techniques with photography.  

You’ve got the headshot down to a science.   You really make it a common subject and have really mastered it.  It really shows how attention to detail can make all the difference. 

And that’s what winners do. Glad to have you talk about winning.

PH: I think the thing for me is that I found that niche.  I found one thing and then focused on becoming the absolute best that I could be in that genre.  That gave a lot of juice and things to go after, especially here in New York City.

I was a struggling model, actor, and bartender.  I saw what was being photographed out there and that encouraged me to actually pick up a camera.  When I picked up the camera, I was like, “I’m going for this.”

I think being focused on just headshots was really where the success started because I didn’t waiver and I didn’t look at anything else.

I didn’t even want to.  I’m a trial and error guy.  I’m like a self-taught photographer, and I thought, “I don’t need to know all of that other stuff. I need to know this.”  That was a recipe that worked.

LW: You have all the competition in the world in New York.  Everybody wants to be an actor.   Everybody wants to be everything.   How did it come to you that, “I’m going to find this one thing, and I’m going to get known from doing that”? 

PH: I was just trying to make a few dollars at first. I was like, “all right, well, I don’t want to be bartending anymore.”  I wanted to focus on an acting career.  I just was not cut out for that.

When I picked up a camera, I was just dabbling, but I fell in love with it.  I don’t feel like I work.  I take pictures for a living and it’s just great.

It’s escalated into me being able to travel around the world, teaching people about their appearance, educating them on how important their picture is, and how important their relationship with their appearance is.

We go back to where I came from and how this all started.  I kind of applied the principles that I applied when I was training for the Olympics.  I had finished the Olympic trials and lost.  I was miserable, but my girlfriend at the time said, “I’m going to go to Europe and model.” And I was like, “All right, I’ll follow you.”

So I went over there and met up with this photographer in Madrid and he took some pictures.  He said, “Hey, I’m going to teach you how to use a dark room.”  I’d taken photography in high school and had worked in the darkroom a little bit, and I thought “I used to like that.”

Even though I looked at one of my old report cards and my photography teacher checked off “lacks enthusiasm.”

This photographer, Ramiro Montoya, took me under his wing. I bought a camera over there and I came back to New York.  He had taught me how to use a dark room and I set one up in my mom’s basement.  I would shoot in New York all week.  And because she lived down in Jersey, I’d drive down on weekends and do my processing.

And what I saw was the opportunity.  I saw what the top of the game was like and what people were charging, which was like around a thousand bucks a headshot.  I had been fortunate enough to work as a model at the top of the game.

Bruce Weber was my inspiration.  He was what encouraged me to pick up a camera in the first place. I had previously done a Polo ad with him.  I was on the set of Ralph Lauren, hanging out with Bruce Weber and the ad of me sailing my boat happened to go all over the world.  Because of that, I ended up having this modeling career.

When I finally picked up the camera, I was looking at what the top of the game was.  Then what the top of the game in headshot land was, and gauging where I fit in. It was an uphill battle, but it was one that I enjoyed so much that I just wasn’t going to stop.

I remember as a model actor bartender, I couldn’t rub two nickels together.  I was working pretty good too.  My agency was happy with me, but I had never made more than $50,000 a year.

You can’t really live off that in New York City.  So I knew I had to up my game.  People were charging a thousand dollars a headshot session.  I was like, “I gotta get on that gravy train somehow.”  I wrote on a goal card in 2000 that I wanted to make a thousand dollars a week with photography.

I don’t know when I started charging a thousand dollars to get in front of my camera, but it happened pretty rapidly.  I think that was like 2000, that I picked up the camera.  2002 that I started shooting headshots.  By 2004, I was considered the best in New York City, and in 2005 I was probably charging a thousand bucks.

LW: What an incredible story.

The whole time you were shooting would you of rather been sailing?

PH: I still sail.  I just got off the water this weekend and I got my butt kicked.  Talk about winning.  I won two Regattas in another boat.   I went to a national championship in a different boat that I hadn’t been practicing with. I got tossed around a little bit but those are the things that drive me.

I am in the midst of training for a world championship in September in Barcelona.  I always look at sailing as a couple of things.  One is I kind of gauge myself, my thought process, and patterns based on how I train in the boat.

I was competing at the top level at the height of my sailing career.

I was on the United States sailing team, ranked 17th in the world.

The peak was right when the Olympic trials happen.

Then I actually quit and picked up a camera because in the United States there’s one representative that goes to the Olympics in the boat.

But I finished fourth and my buddy went to the Olympics in Sydney and I didn’t get to go.

That was when all this started to happen, where I had to figure out what I wanted to do with myself.

What I noticed is the work ethic I had with the boat and I just turned it toward my photography.

That was really interesting.

I did a TEDx talk with a psychologist and she said, “You know, it’s really tough to work with you. It’s  You’re like a lighthouse. If one of the beams is on me, I’m good. But then your brain just goes off into never, neverland. And I got to wait for it to come back around to me to work with you again.”

People have said that I have ADHD tendencies.

The two times that I noticed that I’m most hyper-focused are when I’m on a sailboat or when I’m looking through the viewfinder of my camera.

I think that those two things alone really changed everything for me.

I think it was the focus and the attention to detail, especially with the photography.

I see things through the viewfinder that I think a lot of people miss and I think that’s super important.

Loving photography, loving what I do, and just putting that attention on the things that I deem most important, which are the little things that people miss.

I think when you miss that stuff, you see other people taking off in areas and you’re like, “Why is this not happening to me?”

I think it’s because the attention to detail is not there.

I like to have massive attention to detail on whatever I’m working on.

LW: I’m curious about the TEDx talk. 

It’s one thing to do a TEDx talk but how did you get paired up with a psychologist?

PH: Another photographer that I work with a little bit had a friend who was doing the TEDx talk at MIT.  He said, “Hey, I’m going to put your name in the hat on this one. She really thinks you’re interesting.”

So this woman called me and she said, “Would you like to do a talk?”  I was super honored and amazed by the people and the concepts that get discussed on those things that I was honored to be even asked.

I said at the time that my pet peeve and the biggest thing that I’d love to solve for the planet earth is having people accept their appearance, be good with it and actually enjoy the body that they’re born into and live in while they’re here on this earth.

The talk was really what I’ve been trying to do on an individual basis with people that get in front of my camera and that makes them feel good about the way they look and the fact that that’s the way they were born.  That’s what we have to deal with, but society is so tough on us in that regard.  It’s difficult sometimes.

Sometimes I’ll have the most beautiful person in front of my camera and they can’t even see it for themselves at all.  During the talk, I told a story about when I was shooting Miss Universe. She had won in ’99 and I had to shoot her for a cover of a magazine.

She turned to her husband and she said, “Honey, I can’t stand my face right now.”And I was like, “Oh my gosh, Miss Universe can’t stand her face. This is crazy.”  Dealing with that daily is really the thing that irks me.

It’s such a joy when people walk in and are just like, “Yeah, just take my pictures. It’s going to be fun. Let’s do it.”  They have a healthy sense of their relationship with their appearance.

We have a relationship with our appearance and it can change over time, depending upon the shape we’re in and obviously how we feel about ourselves at that moment.

We have a relationship with our appearance and it can change over time, depending upon the shape we're in and obviously how we feel about ourselves at that moment. Click To Tweet

I think it’s different for every single person.  Trying to find a way to get people to embrace their appearances is what I’ve been attempting to do.  But, it’s easier said than done.

Click here to listen to the Million Dollar Mastermind Podcast episode 275 with “Headshot King” Peter Hurley

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