I'm about to get pretty vulnerable, but first, here's a photo I took:
This is probably my favorite photo I've ever taken, and it's relevant to my story below.
Honesty time. Vulnerability time. Shit's about to get uncomfortable for me, but this is important. Ready?
I don't think I'm a particularly good photographer. In fact, I think I'm pretty average at best. I have a couple of skills that compliment my average-ness that allow me to do a decent job at taking photos. Let's talk about those:
1) I've been exposed to so many of those "special moments" that people want, that I've learned to anticipate when they're coming, and I can have my camera against my eye with my finger on the shutter in preparation for those moments. It's now a skill I possess, and one that is definitely valuable, but also one that anyone can pick up with enough shooting. It's a skill, not a talent. Skills can be acquired by everyone, talents are unique.
2) I can light stuff half decently. This, again, is only because I've been obsessive about learning how to light stuff. I still don't know the majority of what there is to know, but I'm learning, every day. My lighting ability is, again, a skill, not a talent.
Pair those two things up with average photographic skills, and my work is the result. That's how I feel at the moment, at least. I'm probably beating myself up a bit, but this is where I am at the moment.
Now, none of this is a pity party. I don't want "Dude, you're a great photographer" from you after reading this. This is the journey I'm on.
Now, with that being said - I've been exposed to so many weddings, that I've been able to massage those two skills into something that seems to really appeal to my wedding clients. I can muster up documentary style images that don't compromise in the lighting department, and that don't look like "wedding photos". I'm stoked that I can do that, because that's what allows me to keep doing this full-time. And I'm fortunate to sit with client after client, watching them really appreciate the photos I hand them.
My issue with all of this is that weddings aren't the only thing I want to shoot. I lie in bed at night thinking about portraits I want to make, and I approach strangers I see and ask them if I can photograph them (more about that in my TEDx talk). But I just don't have the guts to execute on those shoots. And here's why:
It's not difficult to make a great photo when you get a pretty girl, like Tanya above, get her hair and makeup done by a great makeup artist, give her a nice sweater, and place her on a beautiful stool, in front of a beautiful backdrop, and light her nicely. At that point, you've set yourself up for a nice photo. In those conditions, you're likely to struggle NOT to make a great photo. Where I get struck with fear is that whenever I do that, none of it makes the photo remarkable to me. It makes a great photo, yes, but "great" just doesn't feel good enough to me.
I don't want to make great photos.
I want to make remarkable photos.
I don't care how nice her hair looks or how nicely I lit it. None of that stuff makes it a remarkable photo. What makes it a remarkable photo to me is how it feels. There's a feeling to the photo, and that feeling comes from Tanya's pose, Tanya's expression. Tanya created a feeling in this photo, and the feeling is the star of the show.
That's everything for me, and I have no idea how to add that feeling to a photo. Tanya does, but I don't. Sure - a simple answer would be to always work with fancy professional models like Tanya, but then what the hell am I needed for? Then I'm just a mechanism that can light a photo and press the shutter on the camera.
It's this thought that's stopping me from making more photos like that. That photo of Tanya, while being my favorite photo of mine, feel like it's FAR beyond the scope of my skill set, almost like I didn't take it, because I did the easy stuff that really doesn't matter, but Tanya added the one thing that gives the photo the power it has - she added the feeling.
All that being said - you don't learn how to create feeling in a photo by running away from taking photos. You learn how by trying to do it, not succeeding, and trying again.
Bottom line - The thing I'm scared of is ME. While it's nice for people to tell me my photos are nice, it's not something I need in anyway. Heck, this photo of Tanya hasn't ever been published, because just looking at it myself was all I needed. But while I don't care much for the approval of other people, I'm petrified of what I will think of my work.
That's just something I wanted to share with you about this journey I've been on. I'm working on it though. A month ago, I did my first personal work since this shoot with Tanya, but I'll share that work another time.
With regards to this photo - here's how I did it:
I contacted Tanya, a model I know who I actually approached randomly one day a couple of years ago to ask if I could photograph her. I pulled Courtney Chadwick in to do Tanya's hair and makeup, and my buddy Bernard Brand assisted on the shoot and helped me conceptualize.
I used a hand-paint a canvas backdrop for the shot as well. Best thing I ever did, and I want 100 of these.
I did some testing with Bernard to see if I could create what I wanted. I wanted something dramatic, and I really needed her eyes to feature. I started off with a single sped light in a 4' Photek Softlighter on Camera Right. Things started off boring and uninteresting. Dramatic, but boring:
With some tweaking, I got here:
Not too bad. I wanted more of a fill, though, and I wanted the backdrop to feature more than that. So I set up my Profoto B1 in a 7' Parabolic umbrella, and boomed it out on top. The Softlighter was off at this point. First shot was crap:
After some tweaking:
Now it was a matter of mashing those two together in a way that works.
All I wanted from the shoot was one image, and this is it:
That's it. This photo has been such an instrumental part of me wrapping my head around my own shit. It revealed lots about myself to me, and while it held me back photographically for a year, it forced me to push myself personally for that year. It's been good for me.