Let me start by saying, I don’t take photos professionally. But wait, don’t stop reading! Hear me out. My name is Mia McCormick and before I took a position at KelbyOne, I spent a decade telling stories and interviewing some of the most influential people in the world in the name of TV News. Now I’ve spent the last two years interviewing the very best photographers on the planet, for KelbyOne. I’ve grilled them about technique and business plans. I’ve asked them about gear and studio decisions. But some of the most important conversations, often get the least amount of attention, like the ones about inspiration. Having interviewed nearly three dozen industry leading photographers, about what inspires them to create compelling images, I’ve learned a bit about what drives the top creative minds in the business. What better place to share those thoughts than here on Scott Kelby’s blog.
First, let me just get this out of the way. There is one word that comes out of every professional photographers mouth when I ask about inspiration: LIGHT. So NEWSFLASH! The way your subject is illuminated matters, whether it be a landscape, child or delicious scoop of ice cream. And that illumination can drive imagination at every corner of this industry. Now that’s out of the way.
Photographers tend to fall into two categories, those who thrive on external inspiration and those who need internal connection. Before I explain what that means, let me say that I’ve interviewed many photographers who pull from both, but most of the time they gravitate towards one or the other. Those who are inspired by external stimuli generally look to color, texture, music, and locations to help them channel their very best work. For instance, Lindsay Adler makes an Inspiration Board before a shoot. On it you’ll find snippets of ideas, colors, textures and themes that speak to her about a certain project. One of my favorite wedding photographers and good friend Chip Litherland loves vibrant, in your face color. A bride in a red wedding dress is his “holy grail.”
Lots of photographers will look at the work of people they respect and identify with when they’re feeling stuck or “tapped out.” Somehow looking at work they admire kick starts an idea that leads to their next great image. Joel Grimes once told me that when he’s stuck in a shooting rut, he will flip through a magazine looking for images that speak to him. When he finds one, he’ll look at how it was created and see how he can apply similar techniques to his own work. A lot of people find inspiration this way. It’s one reason why the website 500px is so popular. I’ve heard many pros call it “an endless well of inspiration.”
If you just read the last two paragraphs and thought, that’s crazy, don’t you know that inspiration comes from within?! Then you fall into the second category, those who need an internal connection to their subject, to produce inspired work. Gregory Heisler says his “worst nightmare is to have his brain polluted by millions of other images” before he begins a photo session. He needs some time alone in his head with an assignment. Only then can he come up with a vision for the image he wants to produce. It’s not that he doesn’t admire the work of others, but to him there’s a difference between reverence, technique and vision.
Some photographers love a story. A model, with lights in a contrived environment just feels cold. They identify internally with capturing a frame that could replace three pages in a diary or a bio. They work like there is an invisible string dangling them inside someone else’s life. Knowing they have just one frame to tell a story, elevates their work. Jeremy Cowart is well known for his images of Hollywood “A listers,” but when I asked him about his humanitarian work, his eyes lit up and there was an awakening that happened mentally and physically. Doing good, he tells me, is what photography is supposed to be about.
Joe McNally is one of the best visual storytellers alive. He makes it a personal goal to capture images that tell stories in a way that no one has seen them before. And Joe loves a challenge. What better way to illustrate changing a light bulb, than to climb to the very top of the Empire State building… in the fog… attached to ropes for safety… and shoot the man who’s job it is to swap out the bulb at the apex.
Deanne Fitzmaurice is the perfect blend of curiosity and fearlessness, and that makes her an outstanding photojournalist. Assignments that tackle difficult issues, ones that are hard to convey visually can often frustrate even the most experienced shooters, but that’s where Deanne thrives.
Now if I can take a moment to share what inspires me. At heart I’m a journalist, with over 10 years of experience in TV News and television production. I love finding a story and sharing it, but more than that, I feel inspired when those stories have impact. When I come in contact with an image, story or idea that moves people to action, I start to get that anxious fluttery feeling in my stomach. Then I know, “this is going to be good.” Whether it’s an attitude adjustment, some kind of activism or even just to wipe a tear, I’m reverent over stories with the strength to generate action.
Researching women in this industry inspired me to start a new interview series here at KelbyOne called Trailblazers. I found ladies willing to step outside of their comfort zones, and into dangerous, extreme and sometimes downright hostile situations, to tell a photographic story. Their internal and external battles moved me, and many of them have never shared their experiences publicly before now. Their courage is inspirational, and it made me want to take a courageous leap in my own life. Look for the series to debut in the next few weeks on KelbyOne.com.
Whether it’s the strong precise movements of an athlete’s body that gets your adrenaline flowing or the story behind their rise from poverty to fame that sparks an idea for a frame, the goal is to leave the shoot a little breathless. If you’re moved, chances are others will be too.