Color and Shape

I kept it simple and fun for this shoot with model Rachel Luree: crisp shadows, complementary colors, playful poses.

Surrender

I am a fan of light (honestly what photographer isn’t?). Hard light; reflected light; dappled light; low-key light; colored light— I love it all. Light makes or breaks not only my images, but my mood. I’d venture to say that light is sandwiched between “belonging” and “safety” on my hierarchical pyramid of needs.

As a photographer, I have spent years exploring different ways to shape and capture light. These past few years I was fortunate to experience an extended period of hyper-productivity once I had a dedicated studio space of my own (no more basements!). Because I was sitting in a studio everyday with nothing but time on my hands, it felt like a sin to let it go to waste. I began shooting almost daily— sometimes even two or three times a day— just photographing friends (or flowers if scheduling prohibited a portrait), all the while exploring light. It was glorious.

As of late, however, my need to explore studio lighting has waned. I still have the drive to create, but I find myself at a place where I am uncertain how to proceed. Light exploration no longer alone satiates my creative needs. There’s no more mystery in the discovery for me. It’s time to push my limits again. I need to get outside my head and my go-to techniques. But how does one simply pull themselves up by their artistic bootstraps? I need something to force my creative hand.

After a great deal of thinking I decided that randomizing my shoots would be a fantastic way to surrender control and get into some new creative territories. My thinking is that the more constraints I am forced to work within, the more creative I will need to be. It’ll force me to work in new ways (meaning innovation, hopefully) to pull of an image that I’m happy with.

The solution that I came up with is a short, randomized list of letters that I offer to my subject when they arrive at my studio. What they select will determine the specifics of how I must execute the shoot, thus turning them into an accidental art director of sorts. Here’s what my subjects a presented with at a shoot:

Circle one

  1. A/B/C

  2. A/B

  3. A/B/C

  4. A/B/C/D/E

    Only applies if you answered B-E on number four:

  5. A/B/C/D

  6. A/B/C/D/E/F/G/H

They have no idea what the letters represent, but this is what the letters determine for me:

  1. The location of the shoot: (A) shoot in studio; (B) shoot at an indoor location (not studio); (C) shoot at an outdoor location

  2. The color grading that I can use in post: (A) images will remain in color; (B) final images will be converted to black & white

  3. Lens choice: (A) 16-35mm f/2.8; (B) 85mm f/1.2; (C) 100mm f/2.8 macro

  4. Lighting: (A) natural light; (B) one strobe; (C) two strobes; (D) three strobes; (E) four strobes

  5. Lighting modifiers: (A) bare flash; (B) soft box; (C) snoot with barn doors; (D) spot grid

  6. Colored gels: (A) no gels; (B) red; (C) orange; (D) yellow; (E) green; (F) cyan; (G) blue; (H) magenta

For the trial run of this forced I brought in Pilar, a frequent collaborator and friend. We shot three looks. For the first look, Pilar selected the options B, A, B, C, B, D. This determined that I needed to shoot at an indoor location (luckily my studio resides in a huge warehouse with plenty of great indoor locations), with my 85mm lens and two lights. The lights were to be used with softboxes, and I need to incorporate yellow gels (a color I rarely use by itself). Fortunately for me, the color grading choice fell in favor of retaining the color, allowing the soft yellow light to remain in the final images. In post I decided to add some subtle blue notes in the tone curves in order to complement the yellow light.

For the second look, the randomized creative direction dictated that we were to shoot in my studio with a 100mm macro lens, using one light with softbox, and no gel, with the final images again remaining in color. I decided to carry over the blue color grading from the first look to the second, creating a bit of unity between the two scenarios.

Side note: I can’t remember the last time I lit something so simply that wasn’t shot for a client. My default is to over-complicate and never replicate, which is an impossible standard to live up-to. This exercise could prove to be really helpful for my brain as well as my image-making process.

For the third look, fate decided that I was to adhere to the following parameters: studio shoot; wide angle lens; must use four lights; cyan gels; spot grid; final files are to remain in color. Four lights?? I typically use two, or maybe three at the max. After a bit of brainstorming I decided to use two cyan-gelled lights to create a cyan background to mimic a clear sky (a rare thing in Columbus these days). I added a cyan-gelled light with softbox on my subject (two-stops underexposed), and a spot grid on her face, mimicking bright sunlight.

I was happy with the trial run but wanted to keep pushing. A week later I brought in Emily, another frequent collaborator of mine. This time, between each scenario I changed the order of the questions to prevent her from figuring out what each choice represented.

We shot four looks. Her selections ranged broadly in location (studio, indoor location, and outside), lighting (everything from window light to four lights), and lens choice (literally every single lens I own). Somehow she managed to select black and white for the color grading in all four scenarios.

This time my task was figure out how to unify such a broad range of locations and lighting setups. These restrictions led me to look for textures and patterns to unify the four looks.

My first look was with four lights, one of which needed to be gelled green, though it would be later converted to black and white. I knew that if I used the green light was a soft fill, I could later decide to raise or lower the luminance of the green channel in post to brighten or darken portions of the image.

We returned to the studio to regroup and figure out the next scenario. The second look was to be shot with natural light outside. How would I unify images that were harshly-lit in an industrial environment with those shot in soft outdoor sunlight? The sun was going in and out of the clouds, meaning I couldn’t rely on shadows to carry the shot. I put Emily in front of a fence covered in vines in order to get some nice contrast shapes. Lucky for me, on our way back inside the sun popped out for a moment, so I had her stand under a fire escape to incorporate some hard shadows.

The third look was to be shot in studio with available light anda wide angle lens. Now that I had a hard light/shadow theme going, I really needed to get innovative to tie this look in with the first two. I have a 4x8’ v-flat that I painted black on one side and left white on the other. I started by having her stand in front of the edge of the black side, with the white backdrop on the left side of my frame. Then I had the idea to close the v-flat around her, sandwiching her in the black part, with the white side facing the camera. The contrast of black and white with her garment really brought the images together. Since I had to shooting with my wide angle lens, I needed to stay far enough away from her that her features didn’t distort.

For the fourth look, I needed to incorporate cyan (not so different from the green), a spot grid, and shoot in studio. For the sake of cohesion I decided to use the v-flat once again, this time placing her in the middle. By showing the top of the v-flat in the shot, it mimicked the shape of an open book, which I kind of liked. I lit the whole the model and v-flat with a cyan-gelled softbox (a stop underexposed). I lit her with a spot grid. I lit the backdrop behind the v-flat with a third, unmodified flash.

At the least, these tests have been fun. I love a good challenge and it’s exciting to see what randomness will ensue. On a more macro level, these tests are pushing me into new creative territories and out of stagnation, and I am here for it.

Aimé Leon Dore SS19

I began shooting flat-lay product photography for the Queens-based menswear boutique Aimé Leon Dore, this past December. The brand is known for their impeccable taste and attention to detail (meaning I really had to nail it). It was largest and most technically challenging shoot I’ve undertaken. Though it’s not the most creative work I’ve produced, it pushed me further than I’ve ever been pushed, and I am super proud of what I (and my stylist and retoucher) pulled off.

Ghosted

Hey guys. This morning I woke up and deleted all my social media. My Instagram, Twitter, and personal Facebook accounts (I deleted my Facebook business page a year earlier), all gone. I ghosted from the party. As a small business, it’s a bold move (if not insane) to walk away from such successful pages (I had over 60,000 followers between the three platforms). But I had had enough, and here’s why.

If you’re unaware, I started a podcast last year, wherein I interview photographers throughout the industry. In one of the interviews I interviewed Italian photographer Sara Lando. In our chat we discussed what it’s like to create art in the age of social media. She raised a fantastic point about how social media trains creatives to be inauthentic. At the least, social media trains us to stay within the lane of our “brand”. An ill-curated feed results in disorder and unfollows galore. At its worst, social media changes the way we create, fundamentally.

In our conversation, Sara makes a point that over time, social media trains us to create and post in a manner that pleases the apps’ algorithm. If a post does really well and followers respond well to a certain kind of image or technique, we begin to form a Pavlovian drive to replicate that response. For example, when I post an image with a lot of red, or shutter drag, those images would outperform my other posts by two or three times. Over time this began to motivate me to not only post more images with movement or red, but I would also shoot more in that manner. My art was becoming a meme.

Aside from the social media affecting the type of work that I create, there is also the human element to consider. Personally, I am someone who gleans much of my information through external data points. I overthink everything. This makes social media a minefield for someone like me. I would analyze likes and follows and unfollows and draw conclusions based off what were likely benign engagements, and I would arrive at concrete and final conclusions that negatively impacted real life relationships. It sucked, to put it mildly.

I personally believe that humans aren’t built to have relationships with thousands of people. We can care for a core group of friends and family, and beyond that our interactions will be short and shallow, and relationships will inevitably fall between the cracks. This was a conversation that I had in a different episode, with Jay Gullion. Yet I continued to push myself to try and make social media work, to have no enemies, to love everyone I interacted with. In the end, it proved to be an impossible task.

For years I viewed social media as a necessary evil. I invested thousands of hours and even more dollars to promote and position my brand (self?). Running a small business is work enough, without factoring in how to leverage work and art in the ever-changing social media game. I went back and forth, debating whether my business could survive without a social media presence.

I launched my LLC in January of 2007, meaning that my business never existed in a time without social media. At the time I used Myspace and Flickr. Then it became Tumblr and Facebook. Then Twitter and Instagram were the obvious choices. All the while I held the thought that if I pushed my social media accounts hard enough, my work would be seen by the right people and the big clients would start rolling in. So I kept pushing.

The main reason I had selected Jay to interview for my podcast is that he maintains a posture that stands in opposition to current society. Though Jay is a photographer (and designer and director, etc, etc), he has no website, his Instagram posts are vague and infrequent, and yet his business is thriving. He creates campaigns for a number of luxury brands (Land Rover, Hermès, Bottega Veneta), and yet he rarely posts about it and almost no one knows who he is. This echoed what I had been long told by industry elders: it’s about your network— who you know. No social media account or agent or client is going to be your savior. Word of mouth is always the key to success in a small business, which comes from doing right by your clients and creating work as often as you can. Jay’s curious case study gave me just the data (and permission) that I needed to take the leap.

One other idea we discussed in our conversation was the philosophical idea of “if a tree falls in a forest”, but in terms of art-making. If I create something beautiful— something I am immensely proud of— do I need to share it on social media? Do I need others to affirm it? Can the act of creation be enough? Can I keep the beauty for myself? Though I didn’t have an answer at the time, I have decided to try and find out for myself.

XOXO

Nick

Images from GPP Photo Week 2019

This was my third time teaching at Gulf Photo Plus and my second Photo Week (since February 2018!). It’s always a whirlwind of a week, teaching five workshops in seven days, but super rewarding. Here are a few images that I took throughout the week. I can’t wait until next time.

Al Madam, Sharjah, UAE

On my last day in Dubai, I made a trip out to Al Madam, a ghost town that has long been overtaken by drifting sand. Though it is a local photographic cliché, it’s one that I was excited to experience. Instead of relying on strobes, which are my go-to, I decided to light everything with reflected sunlight from a piece of broken mirror that I found outside one of the homes (thanks to my assistant Seth for wielding the shard). It made the shoot feel more organic and immersive for me.

Abby

I have been teaching at Photo Week in Dubai all week. Yesterday I got a day off and attended a workshop led by Italian portrait photographer Paolo Verzone. It was not only great to see how someone else leads a workshop, I really enjoyed being a student again. Paolo knows his light. My largest takeaway was how he uses mirrors to reflect sunlight. He taught me that you can bounce sunlight a thousand feet and it’s still as bright as a strobe. He was bouncing sunlight through windows and lighting a subject inside a building, often diffusing the light with a crumpled trash bag (talk about Studio Anywhere). If he’s traveling to a shoot in another city, his first stop after leaving the airport is a grocery store to pick up a cheap mirror.

On my next day off from teaching, I went out to shoot with Abby (a model from one of my workshops), with a newly purchase mirror in-tow. I left my lights back at the hotel, opting to hunt for light. Whenever I found a spot that lacked the light I needed, my assistant Seth was there, mirror in hand, to fill it in with sunlight.

Shelby

Shelby is one of my favorite people to photograph. She always brings so much emotion to shoots. Going in to a session, I never know what we are going to make. She brought a few black and white garments with her, as well as the idea of making a tear shape on her face. I experimented with projecting a few different images of water drops on her face, but didn’t like the result. I decided to change it up, making simple shapes like circles and lines, which I projected on to her face.

The image of the dot pattern was a bit of a happy accident. During the shoot, my laptop was tethered to a projector, with my image files open in Photoshop. For that shot I decided to black out a portion of the file, leaving her nose and mouth unlit by the projector. The fact that her pupil lined up with the dot pattern was serendipitous. When I looked at the back of the camera, I gasped.

When it came to post-processing, I unified that four outfits/looks with how I color-graded the images. I wanted to give the feel of Ming Dynasty porcelain (white and blue patterns). Ultimately I decided to push the whites to more of a peach color.