In the age of Instagram, it may feel like everyone is a photographer, but when deciding who to hire, it’s about more than just an eye-catching picture. If you’ve been to any of Chicago Planner Magazine’s events, you may have seen a stealthy, dark-haired man with a small roller bag of equipment and a long camera lens. That would be Dan Merlo, one of the first photographers I met in my professional planning journey. I remember standing on the rooftop of the hotel where I was working an event for a few hundred people. Being a new venue manager there, I prided myself in at least ensuring that all of the vendors were taken care of, since I was mostly observing at that point. I struck up a conversation with Dan, who allowed me into a world I’d always been intrigued by, but never knew much about – professional photography. It seemed like a rather glamorous job, but also one that required the kind of skill too often glossed over in school. He answered all of my questions and gave me his card, which was useful a few years later when I needed a photographer for the first event I decided to do solo. While I had come across some other photographers in between that time, Dan stuck out in my mind because I appreciated the quality of work he provided, all while answering my questions in between departures to get “the shot”.
As planners, we work with many great people, and yet they don’t always get the attention they deserve for what they are able to do. Over a few sessions, I sat down with Dan to discuss what it takes to be a good photographer, and what sets a professional apart from the rest.
Like many pros, Dan started his career working for another photographer. While it was oftentimes difficult with less than ideal pay, Dan learned the ropes of working parties and weddings. In fact, his first “professional” gig was taking pictures of people’s pets with Santa in Kankakee, which he describes as a “humbling” experience.
When asking Dan about what a new photographer should know, he explained that regardless of the type of camera – whether an expensive, professional Nikon or Cannon or the latest iPhone – you have to know the basics.
“You have to understand lighting, and how to position someone in a flattering way. You can’t just rely on photoshop or editing software because the shot itself has to be quality first. Technology will keep improving, probably to the point where it may fix a lot. But you put that same iPhone into a photographer’s hands – someone who knows how to SEE – it will be a totally different result. Technology is just a tool to achieve a vision. Learn how to see. Learn how to recognize light, moments, composition.”
As a creative person, who in college was also considering a career in music, Dan blends professionalism with an eye for atmosphere.
“I wasn’t always sure I wanted to do photography. In fact I tried everything–piano and trombone, acting, writing, directing, graphic design, drawing, painting, radio DJ–I mean everything creative I tried it out. I entered college in piano performance, but felt limited with that as my only outlet. Since photography is my profession, I’m free to pursue music creatively on my own, taking gigs at jazz and blues clubs around town or touring with my funky brass band.”
All of the qualities that go into Dan’s experience are represented in his portfolio. When you go to MerloMedia.com, the work explains itself. Bright, readable photos showcase a wide range of events, including a whole section dedicated to celebrities – a well-lit trove of familiar faces many of us only wish we could meet. From famous Chicagoans like rapper Common to former Bears player Brian Urlacher, to Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan, Jason Sudekis, Jimmy Kimmel, and many more, Dan’s commitment to quality has caught the eye of media companies like ABC and HBO, who hold very high standards.
From green screens to red carpet/step-and-repeats, I have seen Dan work a variety of events and do things many photographers don’t. There are also those unwritten details like knowing who to photograph in a crowd, or how to get reaction shots during a discussion without interrupting the experience for the people in the room.
It is so important for a photographer to have not only the technical skill but the instinct.
While social media has expanded the amount of “professional” photographers out there, it takes more than just good pictures to allow someone to ascend to a level that makes corporations and big-name companies want to work with you, because as Dan explains
“You can’t recreate a moment, and you need to trust that the person capturing those moments knows what they are doing.”
Case in point, I once worked an event where the client hired a stand-in photographer last minute for a corporate education program. This other photographer had a great website for branded products, but wasn’t able to adjust to an interactive, human setting. They were putting their lens in people’s faces, physically moving people and interrupting breakout discussions to get shots (attendees had paid a lot of money to attend which was why it was especially bad). Finally the client asked me to speak to them about being less invasive, which inevitably did little good. While this person had a great portfolio, it didn’t necessarily mean they were the best person for the job. I remember thinking to myself “Dan would NEVER do this!” When I bring him in for an event, I know Dan is working hard, but he has a way of seamlessly working through a space to capture moments organically, without disruption. It’s not a skill you can assume even great photographers have, and it’s one Dan himself said he had to hone over time.
“You do have to learn how to work different events,” Dan explained. “It took me some time to get better at it. Getting the shot requires patience. You have to wait it out, like deer hunting. But when you see it, you know that shot is exactly what you have been waiting for and then you have to go for it immediately.”
That process 100% explains my first experience with Dan where he was conversational and then would politely say “excuse me,” and dart off, lens raised. What I didn’t appreciate then was the years that went into balancing that skill – holding a whole conversation while patiently waiting for that moment to come, and not missing it.
It’s that kind of diligence and versatility that often gets undervalued by those who aren’t as familiar with the industry, and one of the primary reasons I have continued to work with Dan over the years. I tell him the type of event I’m having and not only does he know what I’m looking for, but he always brings fresh ideas to the table, integrating options for new technologies, or simply an improved version of an existing service.
For example, he does high volume professional headshots, which I used for an event with a clothing brand that was promoting work wear. At the event, people told me they came specifically to get a headshot. As a planner, what made the experience premium was the ability to instantly retouch and send photos during the event, with the option for me, as the event organizer, to receive a copy of the images and request attendee information in the form they filled out.
True to his creativity and always developing his craft, Dan actually has an entirely separate website for his refined portrait work on DanMerlo.com, where he really works on depicting the essence of a person in an image, a skill that many corporate companies value in a world filled with stagnant headshots.
The way that Dan continually pushes himself demonstrates the work it takes to evolve into the professional he is now. Formerly in a business partnership, he has since ventured out on his own, and it’s no surprise that for the client, that transition was seamless. He has now added additional photographers and technicians to his team who help him manage his vast number of bookings, which include international work, and celebrity events for major media companies. His dedication to creativity and innovation, coupled with his eye for good photos makes it easy to understand why he’s busy not only in Chicago, but everywhere. In 2019 before the pandemic, Merlo Media produced 106 jobs, ranging from week-long trade shows to two hour events.
Companies know that Merlo Media elevates the experience with a variety of interesting options.
“The good thing about having my own business is that I get to use my creativity when designing backgrounds for green screens, or coming up with unique ideas for clients who want something specific. My regulars trust me and that’s where I really get to have some fun.”
It’s those thoughtful intangibles coupled with a commitment to staying within budgets and deadlines that make all the difference and provide the added value.
“People will think, oh this photographer is cheaper, what’s the difference? But they may not be timely, or get you the shots you want, or deliver the overall quality you need,” explains Dan. “You may never even see your photos at all!”
Getting the final product to the client quickly is a key part of being a true professional. It’s a combination of knowing what your client wants, understanding the purpose of the photos and quickly, especially when you bridge over into the corporate world.
The years Dan has put into building his career and now having his own business has allowed him to pass on this professionalism and skill, when he brings on new people to help him out – a sign you’ve truly made it.
“You can train people on a lot of the details for the business, but you have to have the eye and the personality. If I work with a photographer to help me, I have to really trust them because they are representing me and working with clients who I may have known for years. My job has shifted from shooting all the events, to grooming my team to deliver a consistent quality service. My job has changed to managing the Merlo Media brand. This means choosing the right people, developing systems and expectations. Delivering consistent quality results.”
The best event partners are the ones that are good people, and while Dan usually sports all black –or flashier clothes when the occasion calls (like his shiny blue vegas suit jacket or a custom black leather purple satin vest made by his mom)– at the heart of it all, he’s a good person to have around. He works hard, gets back quickly and above all else, always ensures that no matter what the job is, we’re having fun.