Sunday, April 10, 2011

finding your personal photographic style

Every photographer reaches a point in their career that they eventually find themselves. If you are just beginning to take photos you may not understand what the hell I'm talking about. I, as a beginner didn't know what this meant. It took a few years to find my niche. Growing as a photographer can take months for some and possible decades for others. I will tell you this, just because one photographer found their style in a matter of months does not make them a better photographer than the one it took 20 years and vice versa.

Walking Before Crawling

When I first started to get serious about photography, a few years back, I wanted to know anything and everything possible about a photo shoot, from the time the lens cap came off until saving the final image in Photoshop. I scoured the internet, looking for new and interesting photos. I reverse engineered these photographs to see what was going on. I read and read and read about how to achieve certain styles of photography.

As a beginner, I was looking to make the most wild photographs. The more off the wall they were, the more I wanted to emulate that photographer's style. Light painting and overly post processed photos along with HDR were the ones that caught my eye. I was quickly hooked on those styles and wanted to get out and make some of my own right away.

Take a look at the photo I posted above. This was taken a few years ago at Niagara Falls, the Canadian side. I was super excited to make this shot. The room we (wife and I) had was at the Crowne Plaza, a beautiful hotel overlooking the falls. The gigantic suite's walls were plastered with windows, spectacular. We were on the seventh floor, one floor below the penthouse. I took a few shots during the day but was not satisfied. I then took notice that night of how this view had changed. There were lights everywhere. Cars, falls, lamps, you name it and the place was sparkling with color. I knew immediately that I would wait until it was dark to create some "crazy" photographs. 

Time came and with wife fast asleep, I started unpacking. I quietly locked the tripod in place and clamped the gear accordingly. To avoid any light from the room, I placed the camera and myself behind the heavy drapery. It was like hiding behind a large format camera. I knew I wanted to catch some light trails and turn the horseshoe falls into a mystical vision. To do so, I closed down the aperture to f/11 and slowed the shutter way down to 30 seconds or so. Success.

Upon arriving back in the states, I was in a hurry to get to the digital darkroom. I opened the file directly to Photoshop. Not RAW?!?! This was beginner mistake number one. I had shot the files in Jpeg (dumb) format. I had some faint ideas about RAW files but not enough to shoot that way. Actually the trip was a turning point for that fact. I believe sometime, about half way through the trip, I decided to shoot in RAW. I don't recall the reasons that particular week. I haven't shot in Jpeg ever since. 

Next, I wanted to throw the whole proverbial ball of wax at this photo. I knew how to color correct and do some basic edits but that was hardly enough. Photographer's mistake number two. Over time I had learned how to do add some different effects to photos. Not that this even called for such processing but the urge to do so caused me to go at this one like a butcher to a piece of meat. I put on some heavy saturation and on top of that I added what is called the Dragan plugin. The plugin was created by someone online that was trying to imitate the portraiture of Andrzej Dragan, an excellent photographer that many, as well as myself, thought that to create an image like his had to be done entirely in post. I liked his photos, got the plugin and yielded results nowhere near his work. I thought to myself, why not use the tool on a landscape? I'm the artist and there artistic rules can be broken. 

You get the point. I could go on and on for more that I did to the Niagara photo but I would start to bore you. Looking back, I still like the photo very much but think that I would have done things much differently today. Always have your bag of tricks but be careful how you use them. We are all guilty of some post processing trickery, just remember, less is more. 

One huge fault of beginners is that they will take any photo, no matter how awful it is and believe they can simply fix it in post. Quite the opposite is the actual reality. Take bad photo and throw any and all of your tricks at it will usually just make it worse, although you may not see it that way.

Baby Steps

It wasn't long after the Niagara trip that Dave Hill became all the rage. Everyone and their mother were trying to jump on the bandwagon. One small problem, no one knew how on earth he was pulling it off, this insane technique. Many have hypothesized and few have succeeded.

I had somewhat started to find my niche. I began to realize that I liked portrait work and I was getting good at it. I was finding my style. Don't get me wrong, a photographer shouldn't find one specialty and ignore all others. To hone your skills as a portrait photographer, go out and shoot landscapes. If you are a landscape photographer, practice shooting products. It will ultimately make you a better and well rounded photographer with minimal limits.

Where were we? Ah, Dave Hill. Open a new window, Google Dave Hill technique and what do you find? You will find thousands and thousands of results, each with their own theory of how he creates the surreal and almost cartoonish images that he has become famous for. 

I began to come up with my own theories. I studied his work intensely. If there were 5000 posts about how he does his post processing, I've probably read about half. He denies using HDR or Lucis. My idea was that through that specific statement that maybe he isn't using either or but both. Crazy? Maybe, but I wanted to give it a shot. 

I already knew that some of my older photographs had too much post processing, so I was beginning to stray away from that practice. I told myself that if I wanted to achieve the popular Dave Hill style, that I would have to get a little crazy in the digital darkroom. I was trying to fight my way out of this sickness but zeroing in on his technique allowed me to fall back into some bad old habits. Still, I didn't want to overdo things. I wanted to imitate his technique but do so in a very subtle manner. The result was about as subtle as Joan River's face.

The quick down and dirty of what I did. First, it was a composite, much like Dave Hill does. The toys were shot separately from the rest of the image. They were put together in post. Next, I created five different exposures in RAW and then created an HDR image in Photomatix Pro. I then took the original file and made another layer with the HDR file. Then I would lightly paint in areas with a layer mask, of the sections that I wanted to have this effect. I adjusted the opacity according to my particular taste. I then made another layer and added the Lucis plugin filter. Again, I painted in very lightly, where I wanted this effect to be seen. Finally, I did some skin softening and a little dodge and burn. 

I was very pleased with the results, at that time, but was still trying to find and refine my style. I knew I wasn't going to try to recreate every photo in the Dave Hill manner but it was quite the lesson in post. I now had some more tools to add to my bag of tricks. 

Although I was still butchering photos, I knew that I liked to capture the human expression and that I needed to back off the mouse a bit. 

The Finish Line in Sight

Fast forward some more time. I've finally grown out of my baby shoes. Got the post processing itch, out of my system, per say. Yes, there was a time that no matter how awesome a photograph would have been, I would have had to add tons of whatever, just to make it cool and trendy. I'll tell you this and I'm not exaggerating when I say it. There was a time when I would open a photo in Adobe Camera RAW, tweak the hell out of those adjustments, such as dragging the Clarity up to +100, along with the Sharpening to +150 and Detail to +100. Then I would bump the Contrast to +75 and the Fill Light to +50. Then I would open in Photoshop and add tons of High Pass Filter, Lucis and then make that file into multiple exposures and turn those into one HDR file. Disaster? You bet but I do have to say, only because it was done in excess. I can defend that statement and say that I've gone just that nuts and done similar things, just at a very very low ouput with awesome results. It's as I said earlier, less is more. That opacity slider is sometimes your best friend. 

Let's take a look at DJ David Wess. A couple of weeks ago we did a shoot for his church. My approach is very different today than it was a couple of years ago. In the past, I'd take a bunch of shots and worry about the actual outcome later, knowing that what I was seeing on the LCD would be much different than what the final product would be. I didn't really care about the RAW file, as long as the exposure was close, I knew I could hack it apart into something I thought was cool and edgy. 

These days as I mature as a photographer, I am most concerned with light (go figure). I've said it time and time again, without light there would be no photo. Most of my work is done before I actually remove the lens cap. My time is spent thinking of backgrounds, lighting scenarios, modifiers, et. al. 

Before shooting David Wess, I spent about an hour preparing the room, positioning lights, reflectors and adjusting the ambient. Once I the camera was hot and the exposure was set, we completed the shoot in under an hour with about 100 usable frames. In post, this specific shot took, with my steady workflow, literally minutes to complete. 

What I Have Learned

Thinking back to the Niagara shot, I may have seconds in preparing, minutes of shooting and hours of post processing. Today, I work completely opposite and the results have increased exponentially. 

How to get to that level? Time will tell depending on each person. Words of advice, don't spend the rest of your life trying to find out the secrets of Dave Hill. You'll just be wasting your time. Find your own style, he's already cornered the market with the Dave Hill look. 

I used to spend hours, studying other photographers' work, trying to figure out how I can do the same thing. All the while, I could have been out making great photographs. Don't get me wrong, reverse engineering a photo is great practice but don't try to do so in hopes of finding your style. Look at others' work for inspiration and motivation. Hell, I still do it everyday. I love looking at awesome photography, it lights the fire under my butt to keep firing away. Be patient and your time will come, your style will become your own. Sure it may resemble another's but as long as you know, deep down, that you created the photo with nothing else in mind but making a beautiful picture, you will know that you've found your style. You will have grown into a professional. 

I'm not sure of the exact day that I found my style but one day, I just knew it. 

Now, if I could only figure out how McNally lit that naked couple on the couch. . . Ha Ha!!!