Pro Photography: A Career in Sharp Focus

Tom Lukken snaps the shutter on success

Tom Lukken

At 22, Tom Lukken is already taking off as a professional photographer. That might seem young, but Lukken actually launched his career some 14 years ago when as an 8-year-old he received his first point-and-shoot camera. He loved the fact that he was able to freeze time and capture memories that might otherwise be forgotten.

“I have almost my entire life photographed in some way or form,” he said. “So I can literally sift through images and see everything, which is awesome. That’s what really got me hooked.”

At age 14, Lukken set his mind on the idea that he wasn’t going to spend the rest of his life working for someone else. “I will be my own boss,” he told himself—and that became his main goal. He loved art, but didn’t think he had the talent to be a painter or illustrator so he picked up his camera and took it everywhere he went, working constantly on building his skills. He took every photography class he could in high school, but had trouble finding the right photography program in college.

“Knowing your equipment in and out is huge. Because if something happens you have to know why it’s happening, not just it’s happening.”

“I went to a few other schools before coming to DCTC, but I didn’t like any of the programs,” he said. “I just wasn’t fitting in. Then I came to DCTC, met the photo instructors and absolutely loved them. They’re great guys and always there to help. I got so much instruction from the technical side and how I should be going about my business—how I needed to be looking at things in a professional manner.”

Lukken believes that he wouldn’t be running a successful business without the classes he took at DCTC and the knowledge he picked up from his instructors. “The thing about the teachers here is that they’re all photographers,” he said. “They’re still in the industry, they’re still shooting—and they all own businesses. So whenever I had questions, I would go up and talk to one of them and they were more than happy to share anything and everything they possibly could with me.”

Thomas Lukken Photography

A year and a half into earning his A.S. degree in photography, Lukken started his own business, Thomas Lukken Photography, and things just seemed to fall into place. Family and friends provided natural networking opportunities, and he used social media to its fullest extent to get his name and his work in the public eye.

“I have a Facebook page I use just for my photography,” he said. “I want anyone and everyone to see it. I want my images out there, which is one of the best ways to generate business. I also use Twitter and I have a few blogs, not just one.”

Social Media on the Job

Word of mouth has proven by far the strongest method of advertising for Lukken’s business. “I can send out two thousand mailers or tell ten people and I’ll get more business from telling ten people than I will out of two thousand mailers—and it’s a lot cheaper,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing, I guess. I’ve done the fliers, I’ve done all that, and it’s just not there compared to the instant gratification I can get from putting something online and saying, hey, check this out, check this out, and having five to six hundred people look at it within two days.”

Lukken’s first niche as a professional photographer was taking portraits of children and then families, but he’s since branched out to become an accomplished wedding photographer. He credits much of his success shooting weddings to Rick Stidger, a seasoned, award-winning master photographer who served as Lukken’s mentor during his first months on his own.

“Rick kind of just took me in and let me follow him around at weddings and shoots on the side,” Lukken said. “I learned a lot from him. He’s been in the field for 20 years. It was great just going to a wedding and not having the pressure on me to do anything but absorb what’s happening and watch the way he deals with people.”

Photo from album for a Montana wedding | Thomas Lukken Photography

Lukken pointed out that stressful situations pop up at weddings as a matter of course because so much is riding on catching one-time moments that would be lost forever if something goes wrong. Knowing exactly how to deal with inevitable problems has been one of the top benefits of working with Stidger.

“The first wedding I did by myself I was terrified,” Lukken said. “I have one chance to capture one thing. I can’t mess it up. It’s their wedding day. They’re letting you in on a very important event and you have to know what you’re doing. You have to be confident. You have to know your equipment—that’s one of biggest things I can emphasize. Knowing your equipment in and out is huge. Because if something happens you have to know why it’s happening, not just it’s happening. And that was one of the things Rick taught me.”

Landscape photography is another aspect of Lukken’s professional career and it’s something he pursues with pride because he knows that it’s much more difficult than it looks. He points to the college’s North Shore Photography workshops with DCTC Instructor Darrell Tangen as an unbeatable way to improve your nature and landscape shooting while significantly advancing your overall knowledge of digital photography.

Regarding advice for up-and-coming photographers, Lukken has this to say: “If you’re truly looking to pick up photography and be good at it, always have a camera on you because you never know when that one shot’s going to come up. When I was at DCTC, a few good buddies from school and I would go on photo adventures every other day. We’d go to the Cities, we’d go to the woods, we would just shoot and then critique each other’s work—and then we would improve on it. I would shoot from a hundred to a thousand images a day. Every time you take one image you’re getting better because you know what not to do the next time.”

Thomas Lukken Photography

He highly recommends going to school for photography, not just for the teachers and what you’ll learn from them, but from the intense competition with fellow student photographers. “There’s nothing like being in a classroom with other people and the camaraderie of pushing each other. It’s the only way I got better. Every week is a competition with each new assignment you get. Somebody would do something that would blow you away and the next week you would do anything you could to top it. You force yourself to get better that way.”

As for his chosen industry, Tom Lukken couldn’t be more pleased with the openness and cooperation shown by his peers. “The new wave, the new era is pushing photographers to band together to keep the industry strong,” he said. “I network with every other photographer I know. They’re all about helping each other out. They’re all about sharing. If you have a question and they can answer it, they will. They’re just great people.”

Thomas Lukken Photography Gallery

Tom Lukken Interview

If you have questions about the DCTC Photography and Photographic Imaging Technology programs, please contact any or all of the following instructors: