Interview with Damian Nigro, Poker Photographer

Today I’m happy to bring you an Interview with Damian Nigro, a seasoned Poker Photographer, Blogger and semi-professional Poker player. During normal times, Damian travels around from Poker event to Poker event in order to play card games and to report about them by shooting photos.

Damian has some cool insight on profiting from a niche within a niche, notably poker photography. Specializing on a niche is something that I try to hammer home often, both as a Microstock photographer and when working with clients on commissioned work. Let’s get started!

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Hi, Damian, as also an avid poker player and with some experience as a Poker Photographer, it’s a pleasure to interview you here on the Brutally Honest Blog. Please tell us about yourself, your blog and how you got into poker photography?

Hello Alex! Thanks for your interest. I am a the one who asks questions usually, so let’s give this a try 🙂

I was born in Luxembourg in 1981, grew up playing football then discovered music and ended up playing, producing and touring Europe extensively from 2000 to 2010 roughly. I came back to Luxembourg to open a nightclub but that was not for me. Sold my shares after barely 2 years and turned my attention to photography and traveling.

I got into shooting Poker photography completely by accident. In late 2010, I was renting a flat using it also as an office for two of my small companies in Luxembourg – it burned down. The family responsible for the fire in the building had no insurance and somehow, I ended up being screwed after a long legal battle. Long story short, my insurance would only cover a tiny fraction of my loss since there was no insurance company to get the money from on the other side. I had to sue the people responsible for the fire personally which I ended up renouncing since they were an African family that had made a bold move from there to come to Europe. They had arrived in our building a few weeks prior to the fire and were living in a social center with their two kids by the time I decided to give up the case. There’s a saying in Luxembourg: you cannot undress someone who’s naked.

After these events, I decided to keep focusing on traveling with the money I had left. I had discovered Poker a few years before and I had a lot of time on my hands with my home & office gone ablaze. The general idea was that if I traveled enough, I would need no new home.

I played a ton of online Poker, studied photography and started to play my first live Poker games a bit later. There is no place to legally play Poker in Luxembourg so playing live automatically meant traveling, which was perfect for me. During my music and nightlife years, I often had some sort of a camera with me; documenting tours, parties, journeys…posting them on my blogs but for private archive use only.

I did the same when I started to travel to live Poker events, bought a camper van at some point and set up an online calendar where I would post the Poker events I was intending to travel to in case one of my buddies wanted to join (mainly my brother back then). I would also share small souvenir photo reports. One day, a casino manager from Belgium called me and asked me if I would like to come to one of their upcoming Poker events. I thought he was inviting me to play since I used to be some sort of a regular at that room back then. It turned out he was ordering a photo coverage of their Poker festival. Someone would pay for my photos. I was truly amazed 🙂

Damian’s camper van

Bad beat about the fire…I really admire your positive attitude! What do you enjoy most about shooting poker tournaments? What do you enjoy the least?

Shooting Poker is a thrill. If there are 500 people playing a tournament, there are 500 different stories to tell. Telling stories is what I love to do most when shooting photography. I speak a lot of languages, so I was able to communicate with the vast majority of the people in the room: the players, the gaming staff, the waiters…it is a gold mine of impressions and view points and translates into great entertaining coverages.

500 different stories to tell…

Also, I am not at all into shooting portraits, except for special occasions or intimate friends. I don’t enjoy to interact with the ego of a model. In Poker though, people tend to be so focused on what they are doing (mainly as they don’t want to make a mistake which will cost money) that they generally don’t really notice you and keep acting naturally despite the camera. Ultimately that is what I ended up doing – avoid being spotted and shoot great natural expressions. I used to call those contracts ‘Poker safaris’ because I was hiding between the chairs and the tables just like wildlife photographers do when they try to approach a subject without being spotted. It has become what I do in photography generally speaking ever since. I prefer to describe myself as a reporter rather than a photographer. Describing what I shoot using blogs and captions is very important to me.

What I don’t like about Poker photography is the waiting around. It gets especially tough towards the end of a tournament/festival. Players are super-thrilled but all the staff is waiting for is for the event to finally end after days and nights of action (usually 3/4 nights). The same happens to us, the Poker photographers. You’re basically waiting for that final shot, the winner’s photo holding the trophy. It’s mandatory to wait for it since the Poker room or brand’s promo during the coming days will almost exclusively be based on the fact that this person won a lot of money and that it could be you next time. Sometimes, the money at stake is huge and the battle is fierce. For instance, at the World Series of Poker Europe in Berlin in 2016, I covered a final table that lasted for more than 11 hours. Some days are just incredibly long.

The waiting around for the winner was also exhausting for me! Please walk us through a typical day as a poker photographer shooting, let’s say Day 1 of a major poker tournament.

There is no academic way of shooting Poker photography. It’s a niche within niches and there are very few people making a serious living out of this. As a result, it’s liberating because you evolve in some sort of a no-man’s land with no rules really. I cannot tell for other Poker photographers but since I play a lot myself, it is easy to be interested in what is happening at a tournament. I like to be one of the first to arrive to shoot random stuff in the Poker room. The room itself, when it’s empty, is also quite interesting to shoot since everybody pictures a buzzing room full of action when thinking of the event.

Poker coverages are long and there is never enough material for the bloggers to illustrate dull phases of the tournament when not so much is happening. Often, I am also blogging myself so I exactly know what kind of photo I will need to illustrate the story I am about to tell. That’s a winning combo obviously when trying to create engaging content for readers.

I just go with the flow: I follow the evolution of the game, take advantage of breaks to gather info from the players and I try to be there at every stage of the game. Some reporters like to spend their time waiting for action far away from the tables only showing up when big decisions are about to be made. I like to be there to witness the pressure building up gradually.

If you are working within a media team, you regularly get missions like ‘get me a photo of that guy with the green shirt’ or totally random stuff like ‘I need close-up photos of chips’. You also get a ton of photo requests: the players who want a souvenir, the guys who must prove their wife/girlfriend that they were actually there and not elsewhere. Or alternatively, the ones that really don’t not want to appear in the photo report since they called in sick at the office for that day. In addition, the dealers may request a new pic for their CV or to impress their auntie on social media, the Casino Manager who wants to pose with one of his good customers. That’s the annoying part to me because it tells no story, but it makes people happy, so why not?

I need close-up photos of Poker chips and cards is an usual request by Poker Managers

Towards the end of the workday, there is a lot of data managing going on. Sorting pics, post-processing on Adobe Lightroom, generating and uploading galleries, verifying links that are posted, updating results, taking care of social media stuff, etc. Marketing and management services of casinos usually care very little about Poker since it’s a game that generates little revenue compared to others, such as slots and table games. For us, it is very nice because in most places, you can really work just like you want if you respect the few general guidelines that you are given. The downside is that you have to do it all day usually. As already mentioned before, Poker coverage days are very long days, often ending at 3 or 4AM.

Where have you traveled to for poker photography. Which was your favourite poker room and tournament to shoot?

I have been shooting poker tournaments seriously since 2012 and I am also a semi-professional Poker player. So it’s not always clear whether I travel to play or to shoot. To me it is but not necessarily to other people. I have basically had no home of mine since I started doing this. I like the idea of being a House photographer though because you tell the story of a House, of a staff and of players you know. I don’t do a lot of isolated photo gigs. What I like to do is to find continuity, to follow and document an evolution of things and people. I’ve been a ‘resident’ photographer for casinos in Belgium, Morocco and in the Czech Republic. I was still traveling around but I would come back to those places when they needed me. I’ve also teamed up with multiple brands and tours as a photographer/ambassador. There are infinite ways to get around…

Facade of the Casino de Spa, Belgium

To answer your question, I can use the hashtag I have been using a lot on social media over the past (oh dear!!!) 10 years: #allineverywhere . I am known for being reliable, flexible and available in the business so I have been everywhere in Europe, really. The recipe is quite simple: no home, no wife, no kids and no debt – just like in the music and film production business, my Poker partners knew I was almost never refusing to go on a trip. I think I have played and shot Poker in over 25 European countries. Then there’s Macao and Las Vegas obviously. I have toured the USA as a Poker player for 3 months straight in 2016 but I have not played cards in South America, although Alex tells me the games are great in Rio, yet and I only know Morocco when it comes to the African continent.

Poker in Eastern Europe

That said, most of the legit Poker action is concentrated in the Western world with a few hubs in Asia and in the Pacific so I think I got the main spots. I don’t have a favourite room or event though. Every stop is specific. Dublin is great for partying and socialising, Tangier (Morocco) has a neat small room with sea view, Amsterdam offers game in the heart of a great European capital with top service, Prague and Bratislava also tick a lot of boxes in terms of leisure and culture and you can always turn to places like Estoril, Seville, Madrid or San Remo if you like it sunny and warm.

Personally, I like it a lot in the Eastern part of Europe. The Baltics, Belarus, the Czech Republic, Macedonia and Georgia are great place to play cards. Not so much to shoot photos though. Unlike in the West, these tend to be games in exclusive private environments. They are very pleased to see me bringing my money to the table – my camera is not so welcome usually except for a couple of promotion shots.

High-roller!

When I was shooting poker tournaments, I really struggled with the lighting conditions. How do you manage to shoot such great shots in such low light? Please show 3 examples of the settings used.

I lost a big archive disc in 2016 when I got my camera bag stolen in Las Vegas while I was shooting the World Series of Poker. Since then, I have published roughly 30,000 (mostly) Poker photos from around 30 countries again. Just to illustrate how difficult it is for me to come up with 3 specific shots, but I’ll try…

The lighting conditions in a casino are not especially poor. They serve a very specific purpose. Actually, many high-end casinos do a pretty good job when it comes to lighting their place. The goal is either to keep customers awake or to bring them down from their gamble high. But in no case, they were meant to make a photographer happy. It was never intended to have photos taken in there. It is actually prohibited to shoot photos in nearly all casinos anyway (even with smartphone) so why would anybody care about the photographer’s opinion? As a matter of fact, you need a very specific authorization to be able to enter most of the casinos with a camera and some zones still remain off limits. The players’ privacy is crucial and security teams take this very seriously.

Technically, the lighting is either dimmed or flashy. Both extremes are common with usually nothing in between. Let’s face it, people don’t go to casinos to experience normal stuff. For photography, the dimmed light forces you to use very luminous lenses. Easier said than done since they are usually expensive pieces of equipment and I am not a fan of traveling with expensive gear. Also, it’s tough to legitimize a high-end equipment like that considering the standard Poker gig salary. Instead of systematically going for the f1.2 solution, I have become pretty good at stabilizing myself. It’s amazing how stable of a tripod the human body can become if you take the time to work on your breathing and to find the right pose leaning on a table or against a wall for example. With that ability, I got pretty good at shooting sharp at speeds as low as 1/15 or even 1/10 using cheaper f2.8 – f4 lenses.

This is very specific to Poker though since you are shooting subjects that don’t move much most of the time. You have to come up with a solution since using external lights is usually a no go during live play because it would distract too many people in the room.

Poker Pit Boss, Jose Cabral

You spoke a little about lenses in your last answer – could you please expand on that. What kind of gear do you use to shoot poker tournaments and any other gear you’re looking to invest into to perhaps one day?

I have been mostly using Canon 70Ds for the last 5 years. I just love them. They are robust without being too expensive. My main gear of lenses consists of a 50mm, a 17-55mm, a 10-18mm, an 85mm and a 70-300mm.

Before the pandemic hit, I was looking into investing in a couple of really nice lenses like the 28-70mm f2 and I was also considering mirrorless options since the bodies are smaller and lighter but I am very happy with what I am using right now. I can actually shoot anything I like to shoot with what I have. I believe it is far better to master a machine and knowing exactly what its limits are rather than upgrading gear just because it’s the new standard. Market standards are illusions. You can shoot great photography with an old analog camera or with a smartphone. There so much more to it than the size of a sensor. Speaking of which, I consciously keep preferring cropped sensors to full frame bodies because of one of my photography hobbies (last question).

Right now, business is as dead as it can be and so are all my income sources so I guess the gear I have at my disposal will do for everything I am intending to shoot.

Shot by Katerina Lukina at King’s Rozvadov

You spoke about investing into new gear, therefore I assume you were making OK money from the gigs. Is there much money / perks in shooting poker tournaments? Under normal non-Covid situations, how would you advise someone who would like to specialize in this niche?

If feel like you can be a good wedding photographer even if you’re single or it is possible to shoot great pictures of cars even though you have no driving license but honestly, if you are not into the game of Poker, it will be almost impossible to make it as a Poker photographer.

First of all, it’s not well paid, I mean, not enough to make a decent living out of it. You generally end up being super overqualified for the jobs you land. The main added value you can bring as a Poker photographer (for yourself as well as for your employer), is the passion you inject in and harness from your work. I have never met a good and dedicated Poker photographer that was not dedicated to the game as such to some extent. I am not necessarily talking about playing semiprofessionally like I do but you have to know and understand what is happening around you, who’s turn it is, when the big decision comes… Most of the communication during gameplay is non-verbal so if your analytical skills are good enough, you can predict what type of hand some players are likely to have in specific situations which actually comes down to predict the future. If you think you know what hand a player has, you can sort of predict his future actions or states of mind and you can decide to position yourself accordingly depending on whether you are interested in his expression, the expression of his opponent or the reaction of the crowd. If you know what’s coming, you can only get a great shot.

I understood why I was good at shooting Poker tournaments when I was shooting a Pétanque tournament one day in Germany. I found it very difficult to get the right shots although the game itself is slow and pretty simple. I could not perform well because I know almost nothing about strategical aspects of the game and therefore, I could anticipate nothing. It felt like I was always too late for the cheering, to catch that satisfaction smile or  to capture that moment of deception when a player just understood that he is going to lose. I felt really stupid.

Ultimately, it’s important to keep in mind that Poker brings the casinos very little money compared to other games so most of them will not be inclined to pay a high price for your photos even if they are top quality.

Do you also shoot videos?

No, hardly. I still work for video production companies (cinema, design) and I was a lot into live streaming Poker events at some point but shooting video is a whole different dimension of time management and investment in gear.

I’d rather participate than launching video projects myself since I love my flexibility and my minimalistic lifestyle. Basically, I have a 10kg bag on my back (mainly photo and office gear) and a 20kg bag in my hand (clothes and stuff). Not much room left for a lot of video gear like tripods, mics, lights…

I like to shoot a good old timelapse from time to time though!

Covid has been a real killer for your business as obviously nobody is traveling and most poker rooms are shut down with the ones that haven’t the players have to wear masks which cuts out expressions considerably. How have you handled this down-time since March 2020? Also, how do you foresee the poker photography situation panning out in the near future?

Oh well, I guess the sad part of the interview starts here 😛 I was playing Day 1 of the main event of a Poker festival in Seville, Spain in March 2020 when Covid lockdowns started raining down on Europe. The tournament inevitably was interrupted (and never resumed since then) and my first move was to stay at friends near Valencia for a bit. Since I had no home anyway, I was very comfortable with not really knowing where I was going to spend the next bunch of weeks. When it became clear that we were going to be in this mess for months, having no home became more of problem than a solution. I was welcomed at friends in Luxembourg, stayed there until the end of summer 2020 and spent most of the winter in Cascais, Portugal.

March 12, 2020 in Seville Spain…right before the tournament was interrupted and lockdown restrictions began

Covid lockdowns struck like a lightning. It took only a few weeks to destroy what we had been developing for years. We were about to release a major cinema project on big European markets in spring 2020. That did not happen obviously and the film was released on a leading online streaming platform instead. A nice move all in all but the financial loss is catastrophic and let’s not talk about the time wasted. Poker-wise, I had landed pretty cool deals with international Poker brands and I had almost 30 trips already booked for the year when they told us to stay at home.

Everything I had been working on went down the drain and by mid-May 2020, I was done cancelling everything I had planned for 2020. The good thing about playing Poker seriously is that you are used to thinking in terms of bankroll, not in terms of monthly wage. I decided to get some Poker coaching and started to study and play online Poker like an animal, particularly Pot Limit Omaha. Between September and December 2020, I was able to play live at Casino Estoril in Portugal, where Alex was also a regular, but lockdowns came back in place just before Christmas 2020 and all has remained shut until after Easter 2021 as Portugal struggled with a new wave.

I was declared a non-essential worker by my government, leaving me with no public help or compensation for our governments’ questionable decisions to lock us all up for months so I figured my taxes would also be non-essential from now on 🙂 Luxembourg does not tax Poker revenues so I went for the temporary but fully professional Poker option, mostly online. It’s not been glorious but it’s paying the bills. Officially, I am still registered as a photographer and cinema production assistant but I haven’t really worked in a year and the future is looking bleak.

I began to answer this one by saying that this was the sad part because I think that some events are defining and change things forever. For those who are old enough, remember how easy and enjoyable it was to travel and jump borders before the 2001 attacks in New York. I was taking planes like a bus. After 911, security measures were put in place that redefined our whole travel experience and almost every building in the world that serves the purpose of hosting visitors became guarded by security agents or camera systems. Things have never been the same again. New global standards were put in place and widely accepted by everyone. I think something comparable will happen these years in the wake of the Covid circus. Living and traveling after the pandemic will likely be governed by new standards and the impact can be potentially huge.

Personally, don’t think I will get back to what I was doing. So many structures I was working for and with have disappeared already. In Poker, one says that the deck is being re-shuffled. Big historical market leaders come crashing down, start-ups took their chance but often burnt their wings in a highly tormented and volatile entertainment sector. Some new leaders are emerging and reshaping the market and I still get some requests to work for projects but they are all either on hold or depending on future developments of the situation, as you can see in the promo of a recent Poker tournament in the Caribbean (Punta Cana) hosted by the Spanish Golden Series.

By now, I usually refuse all of them since it usually ends up being more waste of time on top of a wasted year already. The truth is, nobody knows anything about what the future will be for reporters. It’s not only Poker we are talking about. Our job was to shoot and document occasions where people come together for cultural, political or entertainment purposes. Hardly anyone has been regrouping over the last year and those who have been usually preferred to do so discretely in order to avoid controversy. Nobody needs a photographer to be discrete.

Oddly enough, my future as a Poker player looks brighter than the one as a Poker photographer right now.

Tangier, Morocco skyline

Have you dabbled in Microstock photography? If so, have you had any success? How about fine art prints?

I have! Actually, I’ve read most of your brutally honest stuff, your e-book and I regularly follow your blog. With the archived photo content I have at my disposal, I considered starting a Microstock photography career and my guess is that I could have done OK as I have a lot of content that is gathering digital dust. The reason why I did not give it a try was that, after carefully researching what I was potentially getting myself into, I figured that I did not need/want another time consuming activity that would only bear fruits in the long run…maybe. As you always mention, Alex, earning passive income from Microstock is a marathon not a sprint. From what I see happening these days, it looks like Microstock photography is getting less and less sustainable as a professional activity as royalties are being reduced by greedy agencies. Covid did not help there either.

Fine art print by Damian

I play Poker at the moment which is already a pretty bumpy way to try to make a living. I did not want photography to become something bumpy as well. I still shoot a lot photos, although nobody hires me for the moment because of the current situation we’re living in. I also did some small photo reports for free or very low wages while I was in Luxembourg during the first lockdown – only for people I know and love. Not everything has to be about money.

At the moment, I shoot mainly for me. Photography has always be sort of something therapeutically pleasing. I enjoy the process of prepping and going on a shooting. It’s mostly not a job to me. It’s always a mission, an adventure. I don’t want to lose this. Microstock photography is a lot about volume and repeating schemes that work (to make money). I understand the business model and although I feel like I could have potentially done well, I also feel like there is a good chance I would have hated it.

As for Fine art prints, I don’t know. I have a bunch of ideas but, in a similar state of mind as mentioned above for the process of planning a shooting, I am lacking the will to use single photos as simple commodities. If I talk money, I like to sell whole reports and be useful to a cause, a community, a brand. Somehow, I don’t feel my photos are for sale. It’s hard to explain, maybe there’s quite a bit of imposter syndrome stuff going on there.

During my last months, I mostly stayed in Portugal and I have shot some great photos of the stormy and deserted Atlantic winter coast. Since Portugal’s craft is a lot about ceramics and cork, I selected a series of photos I liked, found a decent way to print them on Portugal-made tiles and we framed them with nice local cork. I like the result a lot but I’m stuck now with the feeling that they are not good enough to be sold. I sense what’s coming – I might end up printing only a few prototypes and using them as personal gifts. Selling prints comes down a lot to projecting yourself onto a network you have at your disposal I guess. I feel like you are rarely selling your photos as a photographer. I always feel like I have to sell myself and I don’t enjoy this. I would probably need coaching to get better at that.

Impressive swell at Nazare, Portugal…uploaded to Alamy

I see you’re really into astrological photography, please tell us more about that!?

This is basically a leftover of my education. I studied mathematics and physics with a special interest in astrophysics. Besides I got a degree in cultural event management because back then, I was passionate about science but I could not see how I could possibly manage to make a living of it other than by being a teacher which was out of the question for whatever reason. I gave up the idea of becoming a scientist as a young adult but the fire kept burning inside. I spent for instance 4 years based in Brussels because of a girl I fell in love with. I was staying there with her when I was not traveling and I joined the ULB (Université Libre de Bruxelles)’s Astronomy & Astrophysics Institute. There were open lectures and meetings every Wednesday and, when the weather was ok (good luck with that in Belgium), I had access to the university’s dome featuring a telescope and a 2000mm lens that I could be used to observe and shoot the night sky.

Astrophotography is one of the domains where having a cropped sensor is actually not bad at all, one of the reasons I stuck to my 70D bodies over the years. Since you are working with very dark skies, you will have to opt for long exposures (10-30sec) to catch enough light anyway so it’s not too bad if your lenses are not that luminous. The advantage a cropped sensor gives you, although you catch less light, is that it will sort of magnify what you’re shooting by quite a bit. I like to use my 70-300mm to shoot the moon for instance. Fully zoomed at 300mm and considering the Canon APSC crop factor of 1.62, the result can be compared to shooting with a 486mm lens on a full-framed sensor. Throw in a 1.4x or 2x extender and you end up in heaven, for real 🙂

I shoot the moon a lot. It’s outside our planet but still close enough to be easily observed with a standard camera gear. It blows my mind to take photos of things that are not from this world. No need to say I am a big fan of space exploration in general.

It’s a humbling exercise to spend some time thinking about the Universe and it’s dynamics. Everybody should do it for five minutes every day. It puts things into perspective – literally.

Damian is a lunatic 🙂

Thanks Damian and look forward to seeing you soon in Estoril and crushing those tourists!

Let’s see if the tourists make it to Portugal this summer and if I will still be around when they do so. Thank you for this nice opportunity to speak my mind in a brutally honest way 😉

About Alex

I’m an eccentric guy, currently based in Madrid, Spain, on a quest to visit all corners of the world and capture stock images & footage, when things go back to normal (mid-2021??). I’ve devoted eight years to making it as a travel photographer / videographer and freelance writer (however, had recently go back into full-time office work to make ends meet). I hope to inspire others by showing an unique insight into a fascinating business model.

I’m proud to have written a book about my adventures which includes tips on making it as a stock travel photographer – Brutally Honest Guide to Microstock Photography

One comment

  1. Thanks, Damian, great interview, it is really great to hear personal stories. I wish you all the best and hope that travel will pick up soon.

    Liked by 1 person

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