As some of you know, I recently completed a couple of workshops this summer / fall to help me meet other photographers and work on my craft. I think getting out of your head and challenging yourself are critical to photographic improvement. Not just scrolling for inspiration on Instagram, but meeting people in real life and crafting images together, at the same time and in the same place to see what others see and in turn to understand what you see more clearly. There is something fundamental in watching other photographers craft something from the exact same light, scene, and actors that helps you challenge the way you see and inspires you to look at something differently.
The two workshops were seemingly opposites, one was street, and the other was dramatic studio portraits, but they led me back to the same place creatively. This is Part II (Part I here) of a two-part reflection on these two workshop experiences and how they influenced me over the last few months. Follow me on Medium or sign up for my newsletter / photo journal on my website to get notified of more articles or other tidbits about life and photography.
Using Layers & Your Own Lens with Chris Knight — Portrait
The portrait workshop I attended was Chris Knight’s, Dramatic Portrait and Finding Rembrandt classes. Portraits are very different than street photography, and Chris is a very different artist than Olaf. Chris is very methodical and technically oriented and he focuses a lot on the pre-conception and interpretation of an idea, versus finding inspiration in the moment. It was a fascinating realization having just come from a street photography workshop where you have to let go of your expectations and embrace what comes your way and create within those parameters. Versus, bringing in models and props to recreate a scene you have already thought through with a particular lighting strategy in mind.
I learned so much technically, but I won’t bore you with the details other than, I learned how to layer light and to shape it down to every detail. There were simple, thoughtful techniques that made me understand low key lighting so much better and reaffirmed some ideas I had been exploring on my own, like mixing hard and soft light and exploring ways to avoid a dedicated kicker light for fill. Where I once thought dramatic portraiture was cumbersome, a little too cerebral and wasn’t right for me, I actually discovered the opposite, that I enjoy it and find it inspiring!
Perhaps, the most important thing I took away from Chris’s workshop was using your tools of light and editing to shape what’s in front of you into something pulled from your imagination. Chris took a lot of freedom in editing and even chose his lighting for his edits. Watching him helped me realize, you don’t have to have a perfect histogram and minimal edits for great portraits…in fact, those can get boring quickly, and they don’t always resonate with the client either. One of the quotes he reminded us about was:
“The negative is the score, and the print is the performance.” — Ansel Adams.
I realized I was holding on to fear of criticism if my portrait wasn’t a technically perfect, lifelike image and by clinging to the fear of criticism, my images were coming across conventional and boring, never quite satisfying that part in me that wanted to create something personal and meaningful for both me and my clients. I felt inspired by the ability to explore editing and reshaping light for something different and more emotional rather than “correct.”
Both workshops showed me a way back into my own creativity, by encouraging me to use everything available to craft an image. I was spending much time and energy trying to get the “best” exposure and rendering things perfectly or as people would expect them to be, feeling the expectation to get it “right.” Not only did I feel the pressure, but once I got to “right” it didn’t feel like the images I wanted to create, so I felt frustrated and a little empty about the end result.
Now, every craft requires that you come to grips with standard practices and understanding of the rules and guidelines. You can’t creatively overexpose if you cannot correctly expose in the first place. Being sloppy during the shoot and not doing the correct work in camera is its own form of torture and relying on editing software to process an image too far impedes creativity. To be clear, editing for tricks or major corrections is not what I consider creative and it’s not at all what Chris teaches.
Upon returning home, I scoured my old notes and books from art history and made a trip to the museum to reconsider what I was seeing and how painters have used their medium to see portraits differently over time. I saw the art of painting in an entirely new light, pun intended. Looking back, the hundreds of years of portraits show artists using lighting texture, shape, and technique to render the same human beings, but time and changing sensibilities gave us vastly different reflections of those human beings in Rubens, Degas, Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Picasso. The beauty is in the interpretation and re-imagination, not divining some unassailably correct formula.
As I looked at what inspired me, I realized that all of my favorite art and artists are beloved because of the risks they took and trusted that their boredom with tradition would lead them on a greater creative journey than becoming a technical master at reproduction of the exact reality they saw. They are considered masters because they did the work until convention felt restricting, and brought their own imagination to play in the painting they created. They weren’t masters from the start, which is how we can sometimes come to see the “masters.”
These two workshops worked together to brush away my fear and insecurity of being a relatively new professional and the feeling that I have to prove I can do it right.
They drove home my understanding that proper color and exposure are necessary starting points, not the end. They encouraged me to look more closely and to follow different creative paths more quickly rather than chasing perfection.
It sounds silly to say aloud because I’ve known this intellectually, but to come upon it again on an instinctual level was a welcome realization in the journey. I feel freer to create and to move outside of what will get likes or keep me from getting negative feedback and instead listen to my instincts about where my interests lead.
Is my expectation that I am on the Rembrandt career track, no, and far from it. Frankly at this point, while I have some intellectual clarity, I’m still in a place where my sensibilities and taste are beyond my current abilities to create an image in a way that feels authentic. I simply expect to keep expressing myself and more importantly cultivate my intuition in seeing people the way I do and trying to render what I feel and see with a camera and light. And to continue, not because I have something to prove, but because I enjoy it and I can’t think of anything else I would rather do. Only now, I have a deeper well of techniques, creative possibilities and confidence that leave me feeling curious and eager to plunge deeper and continue to look for the light.
Following the light, one day at a time.