How I Met My First Pixel

I remember that cold day in spring, back in 1991, when I visited a photography fair in the Javits Center in Manhattan. At that time, I worked for Neil Molinaro as a first assistant in Clark, New Jersey. Neil is an unbelievebly creative advertising photographer and an blooming nice guy. Not only has he created his own lighting system, he also managed to bring scenes on film that were almost impossible to even think! And because that’s not enough, he hired a German guy named Uli Staiger as his assistant.

Slowly, stop. Uli Staiger, that’s me. I am a photographer, Photoshop addict and 3D artist based in Berlin, Germany. After an apprenticeship of three years I figured I could need some international experience and boom: After a few weeks working at a New Jersey gas station I found myself as Neil’s assistant. Crazy world! So we visited the mentioned fair in NYC. Fresh design for Hasselblad’s 500 CL. Nice. New film emulsion for Fuji slide films. Woohoo. But then it happened: I met my first pixel! I hate big words, but anyway: Imagine you meet the love of your livetime, maybe at rush hour in a crowded supermarket. You wouldn’t even realize it! That’s what happened to me in a way! I clearly remember seeing this television screen (monitor), where some guy zoomed into the middle of a sun flower (pan tool). Then all of a sudden, the film grain became square: PIXELS!! And I had no idea that the scene I just whitnessed would power up my live more than anything else did before.

Back in Germany, I started my own business. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were not even in anybody’s mind (Mark Zuckerberg was nine years old), so marketing was a complete unknown planet for me. I worked analogue, photographing with an KODAK EPS, Tmax and Highspeed Infrared.
I also went to photography school in Potsdam near Berlin. One of my classmates had this software called Photoshop. Brand new version 3.05, and of course I was curious as hell, so he showed it to me. And believe me or not: Staring at the monitor I could FEEL my life was changing in the first ten seconds I sat there! This was the most amazing gadget I could think of and I needed it. Now. Somehow I rediscovered the girl in the supermarket…

Photoshop was the missing link I needed for my work without even knowing I missed it! Sure enough it took no longer than a couple of days and I had organized a PC with incredible 16 MB RAM, a scanner and a Photoshop instruction book (at this time, there was almost nothing you could buy concerning Photoshop, so I was happy to get a PS 2.5 book). I scanned my landscape photographs and combined them with new studio stills, focusing on kitchen tools. The results were mindblowing, at least for me they were. Photoshop still was a pretty new thing to Germany’s photography scene, so anything that was somehow composed was cool and modern. I sent a few works to a contest and for the first time I won! That encouraged me a lot and I sent more stuff to more contests, even to a few magazines, hoping for a story about me and my new buddy Photoshop.

Slowly, a new kind of creativity grew in Germany and the rest of the world, and I was a part of it! The internet no longer exclusively belonged to the Pentagon, and my busines partner and I started our first website and a complete new studio. I wrote several books about Photoshop and up to this day I write articles about my work for German and international magazines. I’ve done a bunch of training videos, stage workshops in several coutries and try to improve both my skills and my style.

One of the limits I realized after a few years was the fact that my ideas grew faster then my skills. That meant I had to learn Photoshop more profoundly, not only knowing how the tools work, but also what strategies can do for me. Let me give you an example: It is nice to see what blending methods can do to an image. Good to know that “multiply” is a great way to correct overexposure, while “negative multiply” works the other way round. But masking a hairy portrait, just by using a grey background and a layer mask, thats a strategy.

In CS3, Adobe implemented a brand new feature that I always wanted to work with: The possibility to use 3D objects. That was when I started to combine 3D with classic retouching. They took it further, brought in a powerful material system and a real raytrace renderer. Today, you can import just about any 3D object you want into Photoshop, texture it, light it, render it. I combine my Photoshop work with self built 3D models. I use Maxon’s Cinema 4D, a powerful tool that works perfectly with Photoshop. Some of my design studies are pure fantasy, others are inspired like the “Racer A” by Dough Chang or the “Detonator motorcycle” by great designer Daniel Simon:

Maybe you want to earn money with your creative work, maybe you are lucky and just work for your own pleasure. Anyway I have a few tips that would have helped me when I started out (but probably I would not have believed them in my early days, so be smarter then me and at least read it!):

Show your work!
Send your images to one or more platforms on the net! Discuss with others and don’t be sad if someone gives you a mean comment. Be happy about honest compliments, think about critique and forget insults (and let me know how you do that please).

Compare your work!
Look for contests. Some of them are just for the honour of taking part, others have great prizes to win. If you do not win anything, try to find out what the difference is between your work and the winner’s.

No secrets.
In a time of omnipresent internet you can be pretty sure that you are not the first person on the planet who found out about this or that Photoshop secret. So if anybody asks you how you did it: Tell it to them! We all get better by working together, not against each other.

New learning.
When I was a kid, learning meant going to school. But the possibilities of how we can learn changed dramatically: There are fantastic blogs like the one you are reading in this very moment. You can pick tips and tricks for free from the internet, follow a webinar or get a video training. Online, offline, wherever, whenever, your choice. Just do it. Learning means sharpening your mind.

Practice!
That’s the most important of all tips. Only by practicing you join your knowledge and your creativity. It may take some time until the result comes close to your imagination, but once you achieve your aim you’ll realize it was more than worth it!

Personal Style
Don’t think about it, it’s like falling in love: You will KNOW when it happens, as you will know when you develop your own style. To achieve it: See the point above!

Find your topic!
You are interested in everything? Love portraits, street photography and little birds? That’s good. Don’t make a decision, which of these themes might be more important then the other. But be aware of the fact that probably just one of them will be “your” topic in the future. Or maybe you haven’t even discovered it yet?

Make a scribble!
I could never ever start any work by opening Photoshop at first. I start with an idea. It stays in my mind until I can feel the image. Then I draw a scribble (oh yes, everybody can do that). After the idea is scribbled on a piece of paper, I start collecting the images I need, and then, but only then, I put them together in Photoshop.

Take your own pictures!
Stock images are not really expensive. But they are compromises! You decide, whether it is smart to buy an image (snow covered mountains are hard to photograph in July when you live in Texas) or if you can take it yourself. Perfect lens, perfect lighting, perfect subject. Right? Right.

Take. Your. Time.
I know people who complain that nobody likes one of the 500 composed images they produce every year. Probably it would be better to produce just 5 great ones than 500 middle class ones. And never forget: Always go on full speed, but be aware of harbour walls:

Okay. Now you have a rough impression what I do and how I do it. Want to take a look at the studio? Paul Lundahl and Glen Janssens from emotionstudios in San Francisco did this videoportrait about me and my work:

http://tv.adobe.com/watch/customer-stories-photography/uli-staiger/

You can see more of Uli’s work at DieLichtGestalten.de, keep up with him on his blog, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook