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An Interview with Photographer Mario Oliveto

Updated: Oct 27, 2021

Mario Oliveto is a Philadelphia based photographer who has incredible skill and knowledge with the camera. Oliveto has beautiful fine art work, but his part in a new era of wedding photography that seeks to get rid of the, “alright, everyone bunch together,” photos of the past and create art of a meaningful event by fading to the shadows and just capturing life has made him a professional success. He is the winner of the 2018 ILEA Greater Philadelphia Best Event Photography Award as well as a winner of the 2019 Weddingwire Couples Choice Awards in photography. His work has also been published in Philadelphia Magazine and Mid-Atlantic Events Magazine. Oliveto’s use of natural light, clean composition and ability to capture real life moments really makes him a star photographer. I was fortunate enough to meet Oliveto and get to know his work totally by circumstance, and thus I got to actually sit down and do this interview face to face. I think we had a marvelous conversation that I’m very excited to share with you all. Since it was done face to face and not remotely I got to really go in depth with him, getting background on his work and style, talking school, critique of industry, it’s so nice to get to talk to artists and really take deep dives on our views. I hope you all enjoy the text and images that I got out of this!

1. First things first, give us a little background on your school experience. What led you to going to art school and where you went?

So I come from a really artistic family. My grandfather was a sign maker in the 50’s, he would do old-school sandblasted signs, hand painted, hand done. He hand lettered trucks. So, I grew up in a sign shop. My aunt was an art director for a company out in California, she also was the art director for a company that worked with drawbridges in Center City when it was around. My uncle is a furniture maker. So very artistic background, art was never far from my lifestyle. My mom graduated from Moore College of Art and Design in Philly as a fashion illustrator. So, when I was a kid they kind of just gave me a paintbrush and saw what happened and I guess I had a natural ability as a kid and that developed into adolescence in art and then it just transitioned into college.

2. So you paint and draw, the more classical stuff we’ll call it, but what led you to photography?

When the first digital camera came out I was like 13 years old and I knew that as a 13 year old that grows up in the suburbs, everyone skateboards and wants to get sponsored and, as a very terrible athlete, I knew I could make my friends look really, really cool by making dope photos and videos for them. So that’s all we did growing up, I just learned how to work a camera and take really, really cool photos of them and that led into music and bands. Which transitioned into me taking even more photos of bands because at that time no one had a digital camera, and I had like an old one from my aunt so it was a really easy way to get around the whole film thing. A lot of bands wanted photography but were like, “we can’t afford film,” so I said I have a digital camera so we can just shoot and if we get anything cool, you can have it, I don’t care because it doesn’t cost anything and that’s how that kind of took off. I really enjoyed it, having a traditional painting and drawing background, my photos were controlled more like paintings, so it wasn’t just snapshots it was more attention to light, textures, composition, detail, not so much just taking a photo. So, I think the people i shot for really appreciated that background because I wasn’t just a photographer, I was an artist first.

3. You do wedding photography professionally, did you just kind of stumble upon that business or was it a personal choice?

So every photographer in the world will tell you that the number one thing everyone asks you when you’re a photographer is, “do you shoot weddings?” That is like the number one question every photographer is asked and every photographer hates that question because weddings notoriously the most boring thing to shoot when you’re a creative photographer. For a long time what I thought about was, like, I would never want to be a wedding photographer, that would be the biggest form of selling out and kind of relinquishing all the creative aspects I love about photography. But, I noticed a shift around 2012-2015, after college, where more people my age were getting married and they didn’t want a traditional wedding photographer like our parents had in the 90’s where it was very traditional, standard, stilted photography. These people wanted to be a little more creative, they wanted to tell a story, they wanted to have their personalities come out in these photos and they wanted photos of them but weren’t about them, if that makes sense. They wanted the details of the day, they wanted a whole story involved, like the architecture, the place they were, big, elaborate wide shots, tight shots that might only have the bride’s mouth and the grooms hand in the composition. You probably would never be able to recognize that that is the person who got married but that’s an interesting shot. So when that shift happened, I was like, I can totally get behind this. I love product photography, landscape photography, portrait photography, architecture photography and weddings give the avenue to pursue all of those things at the same time and in a creative fashion.

4. Are you more of a natural light photographer where you manipulate what’s put in front of you or are you more staging the scene with your own lighting? Or a mix of both?

100% natural light, I know how to work off camera flash when we need it, during a reception it’s obviously necessary, it’s usually pretty dark. But, my favorite photography is just watching the situation unfold in front of me, where I have almost zero involvement, super candid, super photo journalistic. A lot of brides have a hard time understanding that at first and they’re like, “get a candid photo of me and my mom while we cheers,” and they literally try to fake cheers in front of me and I’ll have to constantly remind them to just go about their day, just trust me and I’ll capture it and 90% of my clients come back to me and say, “I didn’t even see you grab that photo. Where were you in that room?” One of my favorite photos is a simple shot of a woman sitting down on a couch, drinking a cup of coffee on her wedding day and you can see her breathe a sigh of relief and the photo shows that and this isn’t something she asked me to capture, it just kind of fell into my lap.

5. So, you like to use natural light but how much does editing go in? How much does the post production matter to you or do you really rely on what you shoot?

As much as a filmmaker relies on color grading, a lot of my post production is just that. Just a little bit of color grading. I might punch in those highlights a little bit more and take out some shadows to give a little more detail. I shoot RAW so a lot of information is recoverable in camera, I only shoot manual so those settings are really dialed in for that specific situation and a lot of time I just nudge my clients into better light and that’s it. Like, if you can find a window during bridal prep, that’s all I need, and I can come back with a really awesome photo. I true to use as little post-production as possible but only really to play with those highlights and shadows.

6. So you recently did a series at City Hall (in Philadelphia), which are super awesome(see top image), do you usually work with models in your personal work? Or does that stuff range around?

It can range around. In my personal work, and this is going to bleed into my next topic but, I try to go out into the world with a thought in mind. That particular day I had seen that set of stairs like a 100 times during my bride prep and I was never able to get a photograph there and every time I walked down that staircase I looked across and I thought the architecture was so cool and what could I put there to make that situation really pop? The stair shot, where he’s walking down the stairs really just came to me because he was doing that at the time and that goes back to that photo journalistic thing. But, my personal work can range from anything from people in a bar, to a landscape, to a portrait, it usually comes from whatever I’m doing in my active life.

7. You said shooting in a bar or shooting in city hall, obviously those are places where a lot of life is going on, so when you’re doing a shoot there are you trying to section that off so you can isolate your model? Or are you just trying to capture what happens in the moment? (Obviously it can vary)

It’s two different concepts, the one where he’s standing on the staircase (see top image) that was a very thought out shot. I wanted that to have a certain vibe and feel to it. But there’s plenty of other times I capture other things that tell a story with the crowd involved.

At this point in the interview, the wings I ordered arrived at the table in a bowl of brussel sprouts... This was not at all mentioned on the menu so Cedar Point in Fishtown, Philadelphia, I’m calling you out. That’s some bullshit and the brussel sprout to wing ratio was horrendous. But anyways, back to what Mario was saying.

A lot of times I tell an interesting a story including the elements, like guests and bystanders and people that would never know they were in a photograph that ended up in a magazine. Like, I shot something that went into Philly mag and it was just that, it was just a shot of a bunch of patrons in a bar and the bartender was serving a drink and they didn’t even know that they were getting photographed. It was a cool shot and they had no clue they were even being photographed in and it ended up going somewhere.

8. So you mentioned Philly Mag there, you’re a Philly based artist, you do some stuff in the city, you’re on the board of the ILEA, give us a rundown on what that it is and what you do in the city.

The International Live Events Association, formerly known as ISIS, fun fact. It was the inner city something, but they changed into ILEA (I can’t imagine why). It’s a good board, a lot of party planners, that kind of thing, live events. Anyone who puts any live event on in Philadelphia is a part of that organization, so like the Made in America stuff, when the Eagles had their parade, any run, any event that happens in Philadelphia, they’re a part of it. It was just a great way to just get work as someone looking to photography live events, those were the people I needed to so I joined their organization and they asked me to a board member a year later. Yeah, it’s a lot of fun.

9. So I have to ask for all the gear nerds out there, what are you shooting through right now?

I primarily use Nikon and only because that’s the first camera I was ever given. I love Sony, I would love to shoot on a Sony more regularly. But for right now I have a Nikon D750, a Nikon D850 and a new mirrorless Nikon Z6 which I’m branching into more these days and I absolutely love the capabilities of that camera for mirrorless video. It’s just top notch.

10. Well you mentioned going into video these days so talk about some video projects. What got you into that?

So many people in my industry are, for lack of a better term, trying to become influencers and create Youtube content. And they’re all looking for a very niche market where people do video but not necessarily event videos. I don’t know if you’re familiar with different channels where people have these talking bit videos but then they transition into this really interesting B-roll. So say they’re explaining how to make a drink and then they’re talking about the drink they’re trying to do and then it pans to a shot of a person stirring the drink and pouring different things in there. There’s not really a market for that right now, hiring a videographer is either you hire a wedding videographer or you find a production team that makes music videos but there’s really no in between. So a lot of people have been reaching out to me on the photo side like, “Hey I have a gym (or something) and I’m trying to build a following around this or that,” can you take photos? And that’s no problem, I’m a photographer, so I can do that and bill them for that. But then they say they want to make a video so I’m like alright, we can toatlly do that, so relying heavily on my artistic roots in composition, and understanding filmmaking a little bit, and color grading from photography to get a more cinematic look I was able to achieve some really cool results of really simple things.

11. So you’ve got some schooling in photography but would you say that video is a very learn as you go process?

Very learn as you go, back to basics though. The education in photography was great because a lot of people try to jump into things and I feel like they try to do too much too soon but if you just rely on your basics and as long as you have good composition and lighting you can really do a lot. Don’t try to get crazy with it, I didn’t try to get too creative too fast and I just relied heavily on what I did with photography. I just kept it simple.

12. Any exciting projects that you have coming up? Or anything that you’re doing that you’d like to share?

I have two editorial shoots coming up that I’m really looking forward to. These are sponsored shoots with different venues around the Pennsylvania suburbs and that leads me to be like an exclusive photographer so that’s, from a business standpoint, very exciting. From a personal standpoint, I’m working with this guy to really build his Youtube following and Instagram following. We just did another solid shoot last week for him and we’re getting ready to shoot videos for my other friends personal training company, whose getting ready to buy his own gym. So he’s super duper successful and really awesome, great dude, he really doesn’t restrict me at all as far as building content and I can make some awesome video and great content for his clientele.

13. So, let’s shift gears a little, I like to ask about separate industries. One being the scholastic side and the other being the professional art side. So starting scholastically, photography is a very different industry, a lot of people just figure out as they go, would you say you learned more from your schooling? Or did you kind of learn as you go in the professional world?

So the professional world gets very stilted because if you’re a professional photographer you have a client and the client’s needs have to come first. No matter how creative you want to be, no matter what vision you have, unfortunately the client will always Trump you and be like while this looks really creative and beautiful, it’s not really fitting our brand, or these colors don’t really fit with what we’re trying to do. A lot of times, especially if you go into really really commercial photography, I did an internship for QVC, they literally just tell you the settings and everything, you’re literally just pushing a button. You have to 100% maintain their brand. And I don’t even believe that’s photography, you’re just setting up a camera and hitting the go button. It’d be like the same thing as telling someone who puts on Spotify and calling them a musician, it just isn’t the same thing. Scholastically, I really enjoyed art school because they gave me a project and parameters to follow while letting me explore and experiment and try new things and come back with different results than everyone else did. While everyone got the same project guidelines you could come back with your own thing and then talk about it with someone else, professional art is so much different.

14. A lot of people tend to get stuck on the idea of the project or adhere too tightly to the guidelines they’re given, and sometimes professors force that. Would you say that in school you had a lot of freedom?

So in my college experience, I practically could have failed every project I ever did at any given time because I would actively look for loopholes in project guidelines that would allow me to be more creative and then I would have to sell and convince my project to my professor that you’re not gonna fail me because I was within the guidelines ever so slightly to the point where it was almost funny. If they gave me a little bit of an inch I took it a mile. The problem with art school is, If I can say this (which he totally can, air that shit out!), there’s a lot of issues with art school in that a lot of people that go there have to be taught the basics and don’t want to know the basics, and they don’t want to put the time in to learn very concrete things in art and I get it, you want to be super creative, you want to be this incredibly ridiculous abstract, whatever you want to do, whatever your vision is, whatever you want to throw out to the world is great and I totally support that. But within reason, there is a certain ability of skill that comes with being an artist, there’s something that if you’re going to call yourself an artist , you have to understand and you have to be able to do the concrete basic stuff. Then you can manipulate that and explore in whatever creative facets you want to do. And I felt in art school they were always trying to reel people back in to be like just stay within these guidelines and it will help later and now as a professional it makes sense. Because I was like alright, they were building a foundation, they weren’t just trying stilt you and control you and make you play their game. They were trying to building a foundation and I always found that the friends I had that didn’t last were the ones that just wanted to make ridiculous shit that made no sense and then at the end of everything they were just like, “well they didn’t understand,” and I was like well ok, you didn’t understand that they just wanted you to just draw the figure, don’t go crazy, just draw the figure, this is the class, stop doing your shit.

Right here we really got into a tangent of talking about how the rise of abstraction has sort of ruined the base skills of art because even though the original abstract artists were doing crazy stuff, they did that because they could do the normal stuff but that’s what everyone was doing. But now everyone wants to skip the base, the normal stuff, and just do their whacky art but they don’t understand why art has gotten there. Then we got into the religious and monetary aspects of art and how the “geniuses” we look at today were only doing the things they did because the money was in what they were doing and with the people who wanted the portraits and the religious figures and what not. People often forget that art was a trade at one point and it was viewed in that way at the time but now we glorify it so much because it was done so well but now people have gotten so far removed from that because the classic work wasn’t their vision and it had to be released, but now it’s almost released too much. Great talk portion but very hard to transcribe effectively so I just summed it up for ya.

15. So I don’t really know shit about photography so this platform has allowed me to explore and ask about the craft in a lot of ways and it all started with an article I wrote questioning this smartphone era we’re in where everyone now has a digital camera in their pocket. In some ways that’s been excellent for the photography industry but in a lot of ways it’s really watered it down. So I want to know from photographer’s perspectives the effect that social media has had on the industry and talk about the difference between who’s a real professional and who’s the quintessential iPhone photographer.

I’ve given this a lot of thought and I’ll take it one step further. So, in the small world of wedding photography alone, people even without smartphones will have a camera and what defines a professional is anyone who gets paid to give a product or service. What it doesn’t explain is how much was that exchange and what were the services for? Are you considering photography as a whole, one blanket statement? Or are you considering someone who did a family shoot for $50 the same exchange as someone who did a wedding for $5000? Just because you used your camera and took a photo and someone paid you for it, now does that make you a professional? I don’t know… technically yes. But I think in my niche there becomes so much relying on insurance, whether or not you’re incorporated or an LLC, or all of these of aspects in the business world where a lot of photographers take a photo and now all of a sudden they have a facebook page and they’re professionals. It’s so easy to make a logo on a watermark and slap it on a website and now you’re in business. So, I’m gonna go with clients, your clientele is what makes you a professional.

We really got off onto another tangent here, so much so that I had to stop recording because it was totally not an interview anymore. But the conversation was so good we talked far beyond the recording, so this certainly won’t be the last time I talk and work with Mario on the Plebeian platform. I think we’ve left it off at an excellent point though, I hope you enjoyed the background on his work, the paired images and our critiques, interests and conversations on the industries of school and professional art. You can find more of Mario Oliveto’s award winning photography on his website, his professional Instagram (@marioolivetophotography), and his personal Instagram (@oliveto). Thanks so much for reading!


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