05/26/2016 03:03 EDT | Updated 05/27/2017 05:12 EDT

Monica Semergiu, Photographer: If You Love What You Do, Keep Doing It, Even When Times Are Tough

More than ever we live in a nation of instant photography: selfie sticks, photo filters, and photo feeds. We spend more time creating a perception of how we want people to see ourselves than spend time in a moment when a photo is taken.

For the longevity of professional photography this creates an added challenge to engage people in portrait sessions and meaningful moments. California-based Photographer Monica Semergiu's work caught my eye on Instagram for her creative use of photo sessions like her Living Room series and Nudes in Nature series: the series challenge her to take better photographs and for her subjects to be present, like lying on a beach naked.

Semergiu digs into the emotion behind the camera, and how to cut through an increasingly tough and competitive industry:

What about your subjects continue to stay with you long after the photos are done? 

Their personality. Their warmth and kindness. Them being casual and relaxed in front of the camera and trusting me. Them loving themselves the way they are, and not expecting me to turn them into someone else in Photoshop.

With some subjects I only have a few minutes, so it's all about getting the photo quickly and efficiently, but it's enough to feel their good energy.

Some people are not used to being photographed, and you can feel their stress and tense body posture, so my main job is to make them relax and feel like I'm their friend. 


Semergiu shooting behind the scenes for her Nudes in Nature series. Credit: Monica Semergiu


A final shot from Semergiu's Nudes In Nature series. Credit: Monica Semergiu

What do you want people to take away from your living room portrait sessions? 

When I studied photography in college, I neglected the studio lighting classes, rebelling against them, thinking to myself I will never shoot indoors using artificial light.

I was all about shooting in nature, candid, documentary and photojournalistic style. I started realizing the importance of understanding and mastering all types of light, and using artificial light to my advantage, even when shooting outdoors. I realized I love making portraits and wanted to get better at doing professional portraits in a studio environment.

So I started offering portrait sessions in my living room, and the interest was greater than I ever expected. It's an experimental project, where I learn how to pose people, how important posture, hands and arms can be in a portrait, how to light people's faces in a creative way, how to make them comfortable, and how to get them to look at the camera in a certain way.


A portrait from Semergiu's living room series. Credit: Monica Semergiu

Think back to the first photograph that you were proud of. Why?

There were two moments of pride, and both related to the joy of process and manual labour.

The first moment was in a black and white photography class where I developed the roll of film myself, then printed the photo in the darkroom myself. Several agonizing hours later of figuring out the focus on the enlarger, dodging and burning, the concentration of the developer, I was finally seeing a print that agreed with me from all points of view. I was so happy that I made it myself, with my two hands, from scratch.

We value something we laboured on for hours so much more than something we pay for or that is given to us for free. The second moment was a similar case: shooting my first roll of film with a medium format camera, making a giant print myself in the darkroom (this time it was colour) and seeing how sharp it was: a 16x16 colour print of my friend Laura wearing a bright red dress in Death Valley. 


Semergiu's setup for her living room series. Credit: Monica Semergiu

How do you balance the photography that pays with the photography you're passionate about? 

That's a great question. In an ideal world you get paid for shooting work that you're passionate about. It doesn't always happen, but I do my best to get hired for work that I love shooting, and am learning to turn down work that doesn't fit with my style and portfolio.

When I left my tech job, I was unhappy with being in the same office every single day for 10 hours a day. I was craving being outdoors more, and finding a way to combine work with being outside. So naturally I thought of outdoors photography, be it travel, sports gear, adventure, portraiture or weddings. So I tried to steer my photography business in this direction, which is what I want to be shooting more of in the future. 

How do you decide what photos hang on your walls? 

I actually don't have too many of my own photos on my walls. Instead, I keep an inspiration wall, where I tape various photos I find online that I like. The inspiration is either for body poses, lighting or just compositions that speak to me. I also tape up mood boards for various shoots I'm working on. 

Anything else you'd like to add?

Maybe a word of advice to new photographers and to people switching careers to photography. You won't succeed overnight, and those who do are exceptions to the rule. It's not that glamorous. The secret ingredient is hustle. Work very hard, don't give up, don't get discouraged. It's a really tough industry to be in, and it's getting harder every day with the rise of great photo gear, instant sharing, amazing cameras on smartphones, or other changes that dictate how photographers are hired, and what they make for their photos. It's maybe a note both to self and to others at the same time.

If you love what you're doing, keep doing it, even when times are tough. 

Follow Semergiu on Instagram and visit

I'm fascinated by creative women -- their passions, challenges, and contributions to society. If you know a creative woman to feature, please tweet @kmarano.

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