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Winner of ‘Top Photographer’ shares how he did it and offers tips for rookies

Scott Borrero started his career on the other side of the lens as a model — but it wasn’t until he asked a photographer for help with a new camera that he started on a journey leading him to win a new web series with a similar flip, morphing Top Model into Top Photographer. Borrero, now a 29-year-old freelance commercial photographer, said that without that mentorship and his willingness to ask for help, he may have never even wound up on the web series hosted by Nigel Barker, let alone taking away the title and $50,000 prize package.

With the guidance of veteran photographers helping to shape his career, Borrero recently shared his experience from Top Photographer with Digital Trends — along with a few tips for new photographers in the same spot he found himself in less than eight years ago.

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Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Borrero said his modeling stint allowed him to meet several photographers, including Anthony Deeying. Asking Deeying for help was what launched Borrero’s interest — and later career — in photography.

“Always ask the people you know for help,” Borrero said. “If I hadn’t asked Anthony, I might not be here right now.”

Trust your gut

While shucking off that initial nervousness to ask a photographer for help launched his career, Borrero says those same nerves popped up as the Top Photographer series began. The freelance photographer says he was in his own head, overthinking his shots and it wasn’t until he decided to relax and have fun that his work gained an extra edge.

“Being part of Top Photographer really taught me to relax and trust my gut. Leading up to the final day of the competition, something just fell off. I was stressing too much and not having as much fun with it,” he said. “By the last challenge, I knew what I had to do. It was so important to remind myself that I was there doing what I love. So, I just went out and had fun and it made all the difference.”

That last episode allowed Borrero to shoot his favorite image from the competition, with the open assignment to shoot whatever he wanted helping the photographer to trust his gut. Borrero headed to the Oculus structure near the World Trade Center — since he had lived in New York, he knew he would be risking crowds and the possibility of being tossed out by security to shoot with the architectural leading lines at the site.

This shot helped earn Scott Borrero the Top Photography title in a web series sponsored by Adorama.
This shot helped earn Scott Borrero the Top Photography title in a web series sponsored by Adorama. Scott Borrero / Top Photographer

Don’t be afraid to look awkward to find that winning angle

Borrero’s winning shot is taken from an unusually low angle, starting with the bottom swoosh of the model’s dress and looking up into the lines and patterns of the Oculus. “Honestly, the very best way to get creative and find new angles when photographing is to look very awkward when you are composing a shot,” he says. “Some of my best photographs I’m laying down somewhere you normally wouldn’t, squeezed into a tight corner or hanging from some ledge — all so I can find a unique perspective that no one else has shot from.”

Another trick Borrero uses to find unique angles is to pretend to shoot video — moving the camera around 360 degrees and up and down while watching for that sweet spot.

Play with color

Borrero says color, contrast and composition are the three most important technical elements in an image — but color plays a particularly important role in his work. His winning shot plays with white, while his portfolio is full of shots that use both complementary and contrasting colors.

For Borrero, color is all about drawing the viewer’s eye exactly where he wants it to go. The color scheme also plays a role in creating a mood in an image, he explains, with oranges and reds for warmth or blues and purples for a more serene scene. He often arranges image collections by colors, putting images with complementary scenes next to each other.

“I love color,” Borrero said. “As a kid, I was always drawing and my favorite tool was the colored pencil. I would spend hours on end shading and blending colors into my drawings. Now, as a photographer, I get to use those same principles in my photographs.”

Take advice from anyone willing to give it

Borrero says competing on Top Photographer was an incredible learning experience, noting that even the smallest comments from Barker had a significant impact on him. “At one point, I came up to him after watching some of his behind-the-scenes videos online and I asked him, ‘Don’t you worry about people copying your style when they can see your lighting and how you shoot?’ Nigel took a breath and calmly replied with something to the effect of, ‘Well, you see, they can have all that, they can copy everything I do, but they’ll never have these,’ as he lifted his hands and pointed to his eyes. For such a small gesture, it was huge to me, and will stick with me for life.”

Borrero suggests that future Top Photographer contestants — and any other photographers — listen to advice from their support team, whether it comes from contest judges or friends. “Most importantly, don’t close yourself off and try to be the best on your own. The people you work with — and if you ever have a chance to be on the show, the contestants, and crew — can be an amazing support system.”

Be persistent

Borrero’s willingness to ask for help did not just turn into a photography hobby, but a career. The Top Photographer says his career started out like many pros do — shooting senior portraits, families, and anything else he could photograph. The key to moving from hobby to career — and family photographer to a commercial photographer with work for brands like Canon, Nike, Jeep and Ram — is persistence, he says.

“Throughout your career, there are going to be so many moments or opportunities when you can throw in the towel, call it quits,” he said. “That’s because it truly is difficult to make a living as a photographer and even more difficult to break into the upper echelon, but as long as you relentlessly pursue your dream — it will happen some day.”

The complete Top Photographer web series showing five finalists’ work is available on Adorama’s YouTube channel.

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