Finding Your Photographic Vision #1: Heroes

In light of the massive number of gear reviews and how-tos on YouTube, I felt like making a short vlog focusing on developing a personal vision.  In Part 1, I tell you about some of my own photographic heroes – Sebastio Salgado and Ralph Eugene Meatyard- and how they influenced some of my own work.

New Skillshare Tutorial Up on Creative Portrait Photography!


I’ve just posted a new Skillshare on my favorite genre of photography – the Creative Portrait.  Photography has been my primary teaching focus for a decade and I truly feel the conceptual part of how to put together a shoot is overlooked.  Technical proficiency is important, but so are finding subjects, designing an approach to shooting them, using styling properly, etc. so I wrote an e-book about this last year and now have this Skillshare version of the book up!  The next 10 signups are free- no need to be a Skillshare member- after that, it’s behind the premium paywall.

Excerpt #2 from “Capturing The Face- A Guide To Creative Photographic Portraiture”

Capturing the Face coverOver the next few weeks I’ll be posting excerpts from my new e-book on creative portraiture, “Capturing the Face”.  The book is subdivided into the 10 considerations we need to make when we approach a stylized portrait shoot.  The full 44 page, $2.99 e-book is available for the Kindle here, and if you enjoyed this I encourage you to check out my image transfer workshop video tutorials on Skillshare!

This particular excerpt is a discussion of “Styling”:


Styling was one of the most difficult things for me to get down in my own portrait photography, because I don’t know the names of particular fashions or hairstyles, and google image searches are a real crapshoot if you don’t know specific names.  I will work with stylists and send them inspirational imagery but that’s no guarantee that they know how to achieve the particular look, or if the model we are using has the right hair length/ size for whatever is available.  

The styling crew (hair, makeup and wardrobe) are the people who get the least out of any photos you take, so this is likely where some money is going to be spent.  Because I like a particular amount of production in my images, a hairstylist is top priority for a shoot- people generally cannot do their own hair as well as an actual stylist can, who has 360 degree access to the subject’s head. 

Makeup is something most men do not need for creative portraiture, and the majority of women I’ve worked with can do what I refer to as “going out on a date” makeup- stuff that looks great in real life but doesn’t communicate well in a photo.  An actual makeup artist can do film/ photographic makeup with astronomically expensive supplies and it’ll actually show up in the images.  Makeup artists are generally more costly than hair stylists, and if you have both hair and makeup on set, you’re easily adding an extra hour or two to the shoot time.  It’s a frustrating scenario to have a studio and models booked for 4 hours and hair and makeup eats up the majority of that time while the photographer stands around.

Beyond makeup is fx- bodypaint, gore, fake scars, adding jewelry, making people look frozen or cartoony.  The more specific the look, the more it covers, the longer it takes to do.  The bodypaint shoots I’ve done have ranged from 1 hour (a chaotic mess which still looked cool) to 6 hours (elaborate designs involving words).  Each time I work with an fx artist, I leave thinking it was worth it, but the process of getting it done is quite tiresome for all involved.

I don’t have too many words for wardrobe and prop styling- but one can see how budgets could spiral based on the styling alone.  It’s said that setting a film as a period piece makes the cost skyrocket in such a way that Hollywood does its best to avoid them.  If you do choose to create something that is period specific and requires styling, then there should be a lot of extra research to make sure everything fits the way it is supposed to.  A few years ago I came across a fashion shoot based on the D-Day, with a bikini model among  a platoon of soldiers who were all holding modern weapons but dressed in 1940s GI outfits.   

There was a time when my photoshoots were really over complicated.  Lots of patterns and textures and accessories and unique styling, and at the end of all that effort, I maybe got one portfolio piece out of it.  

The problems with a “busy” look are:

1. it’s expensive to get everything right and looking good, and if you start cutting corners (like getting stuff from the Halloween store for wardrobe), the whole scenario collapses like a house of cards.

2. the less versatile the look, the fewer outlets the final image has- unusable as gallery images, unusable as stock or mixed media pieces or anything really.

3. Busy compositions are overall less appealing than simplicity.  Think of “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles vs. “Master of Puppets” by Metallica.  What song can you actually hum?  Or to put it another way:  who wants to live in a house full of junk?

This takes me to shooting things very cleanly in an almost “generic” sense.  It’s a lesson I learned from Richard Avedon, Man Ray, and other photographic heroes with a strong sense of design, and movies like Drive or Pacific Rim or Jaws.  Start simple, and build it up, rather than get super complex and have it fall apart like a house of cards.

Adobe Lightroom Tutorial: How to use “Transform” in Portraiture

I got a decent start on tutorials earlier this year, and then it was a bunch of silence as I made music videos and video art.  With classes being on break during the holidays I’ve been able to catch up with a lot of new tutorials- and I’m open to any tutorial requests!  If there is anything you’d like me to do a photography “how to” video on, respond in the comments below or email me at

If you enjoy any of this work I encourage you to like and share it!  For more photoworks goodness peruse my Etsy shop, follow on tumblr and twitter and instagram, and rummage around on my full site.

How to use Tone Mapping in Model Photography

This video explores judicious use of HDR and Tone Mapping in model photography. I share my preferred method of tone mapping with an image I shot of model Aurora O’brien, and how to avoid exaggerated textures on human skin.

I teach workshops in photography and visual art at several Phoenix-area recreation and art center programs, and I love teaching photography so freakin’ much I’m recording tutorials of some of my techniques.  The goal is one tutorial a week so feel free to subscribe to my youtube channel or this blog for more virtual lessons!

Tasteful HDR

Pano with no HDR

It took me a long time to warm up to HDR photography- I am in the camp of photographers who find a lot of those images tacky, unreal and overprocessed.  Sometime last year I started using Nik software’s HDR Pro Photoshop plugin, and mixing a tone-mapped image as a 30-60% layer on top of a “natural,” unprocessed image.  The final result shows some craft while staying believable and keeping true blacks.  These panos were shot at the Tonto Natural Bridge north of Payson, Arizona.

Natural Bridge mixl hdr
Panorama with 50% HDR and 50% non-HDR image
Natural Bridge full hdr
Full HDR panoramic

Remixed Media + In Camera Manipulations

Sierra McKenzie dolled up in a torn up assemblage.
Sierra McKenzie dolled up in a torn up assemblage.

Last year I did a couple articles for Model Mayhem about making images more creative, one about mixed media and the other about in-camera manipulations.

The entire text of both articles is below, but it’s worth backtracking to the original posts and there’s more photographic examples of what I’m talking about. I’m aware that there are many more non-photoshop techniques to make stuff interesting looking, but these are what I most commmonly use.


Part 1:

There are times when I love the computer and all it aid me creatively, and there are periods where I’ve spent so much time staring at a screen I want to scream. These are the times where I want to make tactile art- get hands wet, use paint or drawing, burn, freeze, and otherwise engage in a physical process while working on photos. I am sure this calls back to my college years in the darkroom and working with other media. Mixed media has been part of the photographic art since the first false color was painted on a black and white print, and is everywhere today, from scrapbooking to the highest level of graphic design and fashion shooting. Bringing in other media can take an ordinary image and give it a layer of “meta” context.

Sylva "Scar" reacting to her pinata.
Sylva “Scar” reacting to her pinata.

1. The simplest means of adding media is to print an image and alter it physically. Andy Warhol famously added gaudy paint to images he didn’t take, in the simplest means of enhancing what was already in the frame. Paint could also add details- for example, painting makeup on a model’s face after the fact, or adding an environment when there wasn’t one previously.

Actress Stephanie Danielson as bodypainted by artist Jamie Graden, who did the illustration after we printed this photo.
Actress Stephanie Danielson as bodypainted by artist Jamie Graden, who did the illustration after we printed this photo.

2. Drawing on a print is a bit trickier since lines then to be less noticeable and many types of print paper don’t accommodate drawing media very well. In this sample image, the bodypainter didn’t have time to paint all the details she wanted- so after the fact, using a large print and tracing paper, she drew the lines on a different sheet. This linework got scanned, inverted and dropped on top of the model’s bodypaint to create the final piece.

3. Other objects can be collaged on top of the print in creative ways. One humorous sample I’ve seen involved food items like green beans and orange slices organized into parts of a model’s anatomy, all on top of the print. More abstract means of collage may involve chaotic assemblages of multiple photos or substituting textured paper for wardrobe.

Mosh with embroidery by my wife Vesna.
Mosh with embroidery by my wife Vesna.

4. Embroidery on a print can give the impression a subject is interacting with the linework- energy forces tugging at them, a spiderweb holding them in place, something radiating from them.

5. The forces of nature can be employed to alter your print in less planned, but no less interesting, ways. Freeze the image, burn it, leave it in water or bury it in dirt and see what happens. The weathered textures some people look for in their images look more convincing when they are real and not simple photoshop blends.

Mosh wearing Vital Vein fashion latex, shot Sept 2011
Mosh wearing Vital Vein fashion latex, shot Sept 2011

These are really just the start of what one can do when other media gets mixed with photography. Far from invalidating the art form, images that make creative use of actual handwork and real life effects stand out amongst the deluge of straight digital work on the internet.

Lacheln in Jacci Jaye styling, painting by me (obviously the photo as well)
Lacheln in Jacci Jaye styling, painting by me (obviously the photo as well)

Part 2

This time we’ll look at some of the in-camera alternatives to post-processing manipulation.

It’s worth noting that all of these effects are time-tested, some going back to the very dawn of photography in the 1830s. Done properly, they still look and feel as fresh as any of the latest Photoshop plugins.

1. Controlling time

The camera controls exposure via the aperture, the ISO setting, and the shutter speed, and it’s this last factor that can create the simplest of the special effects. The shutter allows the photographer to control the amount of time that passes when an image is captured, so we can have a lot of time pass–resulting in a blurry image if the camera is handheld, or there are moving subjects in front of it–or we can shorten the length of time–making some objects freeze that wouldn’t normally be visible to the naked eye. Simple enough, right?

Throw some flash while shooting with a slow shutter speed and an effect called “dragging the shutter” occurs. It’s generally how we see these images showing, say, a baseball player in motion, with the player frozen, but a subtle blur of where he used to be.

If you are dragging the shutter– say, 1/15th of a second shutter speed– and zoom your lens, or pan quickly to the side, you’ll see even stranger effects. “Strange” as in Star Wars or 2001: A Space Odyssey style “strange.”

A more complex way of capturing multiple images in one frame, without blurring, is to use powerful strobes that fire at intervals within a darkened space. The best examples of this style are the work of Dr. Harold Edgerton in the mid-20th Century. Definitely worth a Google.

If your subject is stationary during a long shutter speed exposure, but lights a Maglite with a gel on it, or even a colored cell phone screen, and moves it around, that’s called light painting.

2. Changing the light that comes through your lens

The most common way to alter the light as it passes into a lens is via filters, those little glass circles that everyone is supposed to have on their camera. Common filters reduce haze, UV, glare, etc. but there are specialty filters that more radically alter the light coming in.

Lacheln shot in RAW Textiles, Dec 2011 Seattle
Lacheln shot in RAW Textiles, Dec 2011 Seattle

A star filter creates starry lighting effects that you might associate with cheesy 1980s Christmas TV specials, but they were popular in their heyday for a reason–people like shiny, sparkly things. Lens flares may be anathema in stock photography but interesting flaring is common enough in fashion; besides sparkles, the crosshatching on the filter glass causes unusual flares when light hits from oblique angles. The hatching shape determines the number of points on the stars in the photo.

Sierra McKenzie shot with my prism filter (promptly lost after this shot).  The hologram in her glasses is a Wal Mart display board reflection.
Sierra McKenzie shot with my prism filter (promptly lost after this shot). The hologram in her glasses is a Wal Mart display board reflection.

Prism filters are somewhat costly and less versatile. They break up a single image into multiple images similar to a kaleidoscope. Instant psychedelia. It’s a thick chunk of glass that reduces edge fidelity, and is someone what difficult to use. Suddenly, instead of composing one image, it’s composing three images across the frame, and composition rules like “rule of thirds” and “leading lines” can no longer apply.

There are many other specialty filters, more than I have the space to list. Bokeh filters give specific shape to the points of light that bleed through your images–so if for whatever reason, you wanted all those lights in the background to be hearts instead of lights, there’s a way to do it. A neutral density filter acts as sunglasses for your camera–allowing you to slow the shutter speed in the brightest of daylight. See the section on “controlling time” for reminders on how that is a useful effect.

Basically, anything you place in front of your lens is going to shape the light for the good, the bad or the interesting. Saran wrap, drier sheets, a glass block from Home Depot, a glass of water…

3. Bending the lens

A less common way of altering the light is to bend it in relation to the camera body. The simplest way of accomplishing this is removing your lens and holding it close to the lens mount as you take a photo. Not all cameras allow a photo to be taken without the lens actually attached, and it could get dirt on your sensor to work this way, so a more precise version of this technique is a Lensbaby. There are various models but they all function with a “sweet spot” of central focus, with the rest of the image rapidly blurring. It’s a fun lens that helps dissolve distracting elements, like a vending machine or people walking behind your scene.

Sierra McKenzie shot with my lensbaby Sept 2012
Sierra McKenzie shot with my lensbaby Sept 2012

If you’re very serious about perspective control, a costly tilt/shift lens may need to be on the Christmas list. For SLR cameras, the tilt/shift lens has knobs that separate the front end of the lens barrel from the rear. If the front glass remains parallel to the sensor, you can correct the way buildings appear to recede when photographing them. If the front glass is at an oblique angle to the sensor, you can get a similar effect to the Lensbaby. Large format cameras have tilt/shift built into their design–it’s that fancy accordion bellows that everyone remembers.

4. Merging within the camera

Double exposure is always a classic. It’s two (possibly more) shots on one frame, accessible through the camera menu. If you utilize a Lomography-type camera, some allow overlapping of film frames, leading to pseudo-double exposures or jagged panoramic. Some digital cameras have panoramic features to them as well.

Smartphone’s have blurred the line between what is “in camera” and what is considered post-work, but for the traditional SLR/DSLR user, these tools are a means of creatively widening a personal vision.