Learn how to do a family portrait with a magical twist! Join Bret Malley as he teaches you all the steps, from shooting to post processing, needed to create your own fantasy fine art composite. Bret takes you through the gear he uses, his process for pre-production, how to communicate and work with the subjects, his lighting setup, how to photograph each element of the composite, and then how to bring it all together in Photoshop. The first half of the class is a live shoot where Bret creates all the pieces, and in the second half he teaches you his tips and techniques for creating a seamless composite that brings your imagination to life.
I can still remember that day back in 2013 when I made one of the biggest decisions of my life. I was in my early 20’s working a job I didn’t like, living a lifestyle that didn’t suit me and feeling like I would never get to fulfill my dreams and ambitions. But it was out of that dark place in my life that I took probably the most important and somewhat reckless decision I had ever made – I threw up my hands and said: “The hell with it!”
Almost overnight, I started selling everything I had except for my camera gear and a few sets of clothes, and bought a one-way ticket to Asia. I wanted to set myself off on a unique journey, hoping to find a new path in life and follow my childhood dream of becoming a world-traveling cultural and documentary photographer.
While this might sound cool, or even fun for some of you, this decision was absolutely terrifying for me. I didn’t know what to expect, what might happen, or if this huge risk I took would even pay off in the end. But when I look back at it today, I know that this journey single-handedly started my current career as a full-time photographer. These days I’m working on my own book, have had my images featured in National Geographic, and have even had the privilege of sharing my experiences from the amazing stages of TEDx and Oxford University.
Now while I’m very proud of what I do, I’m not here to boast. What I am actually hoping to do in this blog post is to share with you my “Secret Weapon.” A secret which I use all the time in my own photographic work and, hopefully, you’ll be able to use it for yourself as well! It will help you feel more fulfilled from your photography, getting your images noticed, and, at the very core of things, help you take an extra step towards becoming a better photographer. So… Are you ready??
First, we need to understand that in our modern, and highly digitalized world, photography is literally everywhere. Every minute there are over 200,000 never before seen new images shared online – and those are only the numbers from Facebook! Meaning there are way more new images shared on Instagram, Flickr, and the seemingly endless photography websites and forums out there.
These are ridiculous amounts of photographers trying to get their work noticed, recognized and published. If you wish to give your photographs a chance to stand out in this overflowing ocean of images, you need to do more than just make “pretty images.” What you want to do is to start delving into the world of creating your own personal photography project – and that is the secret weapon I’m talking about.
Now, at this point, I know some of you are either super hyped and ready to take on this challenge, but, on the other side, many of you are thinking “This looks like way too much work and, even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t have the time or means to work on a photography project of my own.” All I ask of you is that before you make up your mind, please allow me to give you 3 reasons why I think you should set aside the habit of occasionally strolling around with a camera and start dedicating your time to working on a personal photography project.
Take Better Advantage Of Your Time And Efforts
For the majority of us, the most important resource in our photography is time. Those of us who are amateur or aspiring photographers can often only dedicate a few hours a week for their passion of photography, and those of us who are professional photographers end up clearing maybe a few weeks out of the year to invest in our own personal work and portfolio. This means that when we finally have free time to do whatever we like, we should use this opportunity for its maximum potential. Unfortunately, in my eyes, one of the best ways to waste that precious time is by aimlessly wandering around, randomly snapping images and hoping something special will come out of it.
When you are working on a photography project, you have a set goal. You are following a theme which is leading and shaping your work as a photographer. This means that, once you have chosen your project’s topic, it becomes much easier for you to recognize in what you should invest the time, energy, and budget that are available to you in a more potent way. This helps you focus mainly on getting the best images and story for the series. This is a highly effective way to make sure you don’t waste your time on fruitless endeavors.
I can easily speak from my own experience. This focus and mindset were extremely helpful for me while I was working on my very first photography project – The Eagle Huntress. Only after I decided what would be the topic of my photographic work in west Mongolia (which was the future generation of eagle hunters), did I manage to dedicate all of my resources to both learning more about the local culture and getting the best images for my photography project; the same images which ultimately ended up catching attention in the world media and helped jumpstart my career.
The Greats Have Always Done It
There is a saying from Bernard of Chartres which, in my opinion, is a great piece of advice for anyone who deals with a creative art such as photography. It goes like this:
“If I have seen further, it was by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
-Bernard of Chartres
When it comes to the topic of asking yourself “Should I start doing photography projects?” in order to find your answer, all you need to do is to look at the work of great photographers from the past and many of the industry leaders today.
A very good example can come from the work of, probably the greatest master of street photography, the legendary Henri Cartier-Bresson, who dedicated almost his entire career working on one project which was the city of Paris. Other great photographers, whose work is composed mostly of personal projects, would include photographers like Annie Leibovitz with her beautiful series, ‘Women Who Led,” or Sebastiao Salgado with his fine art book, “Genesis.” And if you wish to look at more modern photographers, who are working in the industry today, check out the work of Jimmy Nelson’s ongoing project “Before They Pass Away,” Brandon Stanton’s internet sensation “Humans of New York,” and the talented Von Wong, who has recently focused his unique talent of creating breathtaking visuals to work on photography projects revolving around waste and its effect on our environment.
Even Steve McCurry, who is one of my personal heroes, managed to photograph his iconic portrait “The Afghan Girl” only through his long term photography project on the Afghan rebels during the ’80s. While the general public might only care for the final famous portrait, we as photographers need to see beyond that. We must understand that it was the process of working on a photography project, a photographer focusing his full attention and working on a specific topic, that had led McCurry to capture probably one of the most well-known images in history.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that photography projects are the only way for making great photographs. But I am saying that it most definitely seems to be a great path to them. A path which many great photographers explore.
It’s One Of The Best Ways To Give You An Edge As A Photographer
As a rule of thumb, photography projects tend to flourish the more you work on them. Once you choose your topic of interest and start working on your project, your first series of images won’t necessarily be any better than anyone else’s. But as we said before, once you’ve decided to invest most of your time and efforts specifically into your project, you will find yourself returning to your subject matter again and again – digging deeper, exploring more unique photographic opportunities and pushing yourself beyond the edges of your comfort zone as a photographer and storyteller.
Many styles of photography can benefit from this! Landscape photographers would be encouraged to explore a more unique viewpoint. This would help them to stray away from the easy to get and well-known spots, exploring the horizon for unique angles of their own which many others have either missed or didn’t bother to look for. Documentary photographers, such as myself, could invest more time into building a deeper personal relationship with the people they photograph – resulting in a better understanding of the culture they meet and even gaining better access to the lives they document.
This mindset of coming back to the same topic, again and again, looking for better photographs, will push you to find unique visuals which have a better chance to stand out and catch attention wherever you may share them. This edge can be the difference between someone investing time out of their day to check out your work or simply stay in their daily routines until something unique comes along and grabs their attention.
As we arrive at the end of this blog post, if you do end up deciding to take on my challenge and start working on a photography project of your own, let me give you another word of advice… You don’t have to start big – you just need to start.
No one is asking you to fly halfway across the world to reach deep into the Amazon forests, or the high Himalayan mountains, integrate yourself with isolated communities and create one of the most unique photography projects ever seen. While you might decide to do something like that in the future, you can start slow and small. In order to start, all you need to do is to simply choose a subject that truly interests you. Something that you would like to learn more about and using your camera, go ahead and explore it. If you do, I can guarantee that by doing a photography project on something you like, you will improve significantly as a photographer and the process will be one of the most rewarding photographic experiences you’ve ever had.
And for those of you who still remain undecided, working on photography projects has allowed me to follow my childhood dreams and become a full time traveling photographer – What is the worst that can happen to you for trying it?
If you want to learn more about doing your own photography projects and starting to get your work published – you should check out my free Ebook “Making a Photo Story.”
Capturing The Natural Beauty Of Yosemite National Park with Moose Peterson Join Moose Petersonin the heart of Yosemite National Park! In this class you’ll see Moose’s approach to planning, the gear he uses, the logistics that need to be considered, and his philosophy for making the best of the situation you face when you arrive. As Moose travels through different locations in the park he draws on his extensive Yosemite experience to teach you what to look for when you arrive on scene, and how to notice the small details as much as the breath-taking grandeur of the landscape in front of you. Moose wraps up the class with a look at some of his post processing workflow, as well as his method of reviewing photos with the goal of making the next day of shooting even better than the last.
In Case You Missed It Learn how to harness your software to process your landscape photos the way you felt in your heart when you took the photo. Join Moose Peterson as he shares his favorite techniques, tips, and ways of thinking, to help you get the most out of your post processing workflow. Using primarily Photoshop and Camera Raw, with the occasional trip through Nik plug-ins, Moose helps you understand the connection between your camera, your software, and light, so that you are in control from the moment the shutter clicks to when you move software sliders later on. From bringing out the best in dramatic skies to making black and white photos with impact, Moose focuses on both the technical and the inspirational components you need to address to not only make your photos look great, but to infuse them with passion and romance. By the end of the class you’ll be thinking more about how you capture photos with your post processing workflow in mind.
I’ve been working as a Professional Creative in a variety of roles for over twenty years now. I’ve run the press/printers, worked at an internal creative group supporting marketing, then to being at an agency, to now running our studio/agency with my wife. One thing I get asked on a regular basis is, “What would make me a better (insert title here).” In this current era of our industry, the situation has flipped from when I was starting out. The hardest part back then was getting good enough gear to execute your ideas. You could have all the ideas in the world, but you couldn’t execute something that looked professional. That was why we all wanted to work at big agencies, magazines, corporations, etc. They had the resources to make great things, and we all wanted to be a part of something at that quality.
Today, that’s simply not the case… The challenge is no longer the gear. Yes, there are gear-heads out there, I’m sure a few of you are clutching your XQD cards right now ready to tell me all about how it’s amazing and made you a better image maker. Maybe you have the latest HSS strobe and want to tell me about how it helps you stop hair at 1/2500th of a second while flicking it in a shot. Let’s not even get started on 4k-5k displays, or mirrorless cameras, or megapixels.
All of that is impressive, but it’s not making you better at your career. It’s making you capable of executing a particular feature or solution. But I see people starting out today executing very technical, and impressive, projects in part thanks to the quality of consumer grade technology.
I thought for this post I would offer a few of my favorite tips on what creatives can do to give themselves a boost. That power up that I know can’t be bought, and yet is necessary to be a leader and succeed in your services.
How do you generate ideas? For some people it comes very naturally, and for others it’s a real struggle. Do you stare at a blank canvas when someone says “go” and it just stresses you out?
Bringing a concept to your projects can really help show your ability to execute a visual narrative. If you have a strong community, collaborate with them. I often ping my friends, and colleagues, to get their ideas and thoughts. I don’t speak only to other photographers or designers. Quite the contrary; if I’m doing a project for a new restaurant, I’ll call my friends that work in the food industry and get their thoughts. “What do you wish you could see done for your field?” If I don’t have those resources, I’ll go out to lunch and introduce myself to people in the restaurant that is well designed. I’ll offer to buy the manager a drink if they chat with me for a few minutes.
If I don’t have those resources, then I use a bubble map. This is almost secondary for me now and it happens on every scrap piece of paper on my desk. It’s almost a way of taking notes during a call.
Start with the detail you know the most at the center. Then ideate bubbles outward with secondary and tertiary details. Then as you move farther out you get into more abstract ideas that might help paint a picture in your mind. That picture can influence color choices, shapes, composition, and more.
Steve Jobs (RIP), and now almost every leader in the modern corporate world, believe that “design thinking” is a pivotal skill for success. Understanding how to solve problems creatively isn’t just some “artist” mindset, it’s a process. One that is taught, and practiced, by some of the biggest firms in the world today. For some, in this modern era, it’s a natural occurrence that is second nature to them. Firms like IDEO and others, really pushed this process into the design of everything and anything. From shopping carts to lamps to logos. Rapidly prototyping their ideas with a fail fast mentality so that as something breaks, they learn from it quickly and course correct. How would you apply this to your own services and value proposition? Even if it’s not a process you put your clients through, it’s something you can put your own ideas through to see if they can stand on their own merit. Evaluate them with peers and see if they have the same outcomes.
The key of Design Thinking is considering the impact, or experience, of the user versus the creator. What will it mean to those who receive the experience versus the experience of the person solving the problem. This alone offers a shift towards empathy of the audience, our brand’s audience.
Empathize: Define and understand the audience.
Define: Make clear exactly the problem to be solved.
Ideate: Brainstorm and aggregate all the ideas you can around the needs.
Prototype: Build a proof of concept from your ideas.
Test: Try it on the media, or with a specific audience, refine and improve.
Ok this is a biggie! I mentioned it briefly in my first guest blog post about becoming a professional creative. Most clients/customers don’t hire you because of your talent or creativity. In fact, those are an expectation of your service. But, what clinches a lot of work for some creatives over others is their ability to communicate effectively. Here’s just a few things to consider.
Being accessible. Create as many access points as possible for a client to reach you, and make sure you set it up in a way that it’s easy for you to manage. I personally have 5 email addresses that I manage, however they all route to the same single inbox. A flag in Gmail tells me which address they came from. When I choose to respond, Gmail sends it back as if it was from the originating email. You can do this with other mail providers also.
Social Media. I also have contact notifications setup for all my social media streams I care about (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram). Yes, I have given up some of my personal life to always being accessible. But it’s important if I’m going to get work. So, I don’t have to respond immediately, but noticing when a lead contacts me is extremely important. I have contact/message buttons on my social media business pages also.
Old school. Lastly the classic. A contact-form. Some people don’t want to chat verbally, and they might not be into the millennial preferences of social media. So on my page people can use a contact form to send in their requests for info. Just make sure your form requires a return email address, phone number, or some other point of contact info. Include a direct Call-to-action. If you’re not a web designer, a lot of good web template services now have a contact form template they will provide you for free.
A great professional creative who acts as their own Producer understands how to facilitate meetings, or other engagements, so that the client feels confident in you. This could be a whole course unto itself. But, let’s cover some basics that are really important for when you meet with a client or are setting up a meeting.
Have a clear agenda, establish your rules of engagement, share it before the event
Focus on the topic of your service or the project details
Stay impartial and open to everyone’s thoughts/feedback (no client wants to feel excluded)
Set proper expectations for everyone involved, such as Roles/Responsibilities.
Be prepared! Always go to a meeting with more information than you’ll probably need. Consider the variables.
Know your value, what you’re offering, and what else could be an upsell
It’s essential today to have soft skills that provide a next level quality of service and engagement with your audiences, clients, and more. Having the latest and greatest piece of gear is a tactical way of finding efficiency improvements in executing a project, but it’s not going to be the reason people come back to you.
I remember working once for a studio that bought two RED cameras when they first came out. The price tag was ginormous and they were stunned to discover that during our pitch meetings no one cared about the bullet point stating we used RED cameras. No doubt, the gear was impressive, to us. But to a client, all they heard was “so you like gear.” Later we spoke to how that equipment enables us to execute at a quality of our ideas which only we could deliver. What became clear is the client wanted to hear/see the quality of the idea most and they left the gear up to us.
My advice is always remember to invest in developing yourself as much as possible. That is where the true value comes from as a Professional Creative. Then build your equipment to the scale of your ideas.
Good luck, and please comment below with some of your favorite Boost ideas.
A little more than six years ago I wrote my first guest blog post here on Scott’s website, and it’s incredible to see both how much has changed, and also how much has stayed the same. Since my last post here I got married, moved five times, adopted two dogs, traveled to eight new countries, checked off a few items on my bucket list, and I’ve also grown my photography education business into a full-time job. While my life looks a little different than it did in 2012, my excitement and passion to grow as a photographer is the same.
One of the things I love best about my job as a photographer is that I get to call all of the shots. I have gone in a solo direction with my work and get to photograph what I want and make books and tutorials that are of my own creation. It’s fulfilling, but it also takes a lot of self-determination and a good work ethic, and I’m constantly forced to stay at my own very high level of expectations. Here I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learned during my time as a photographer.
Forge Your Own Path When I was in high school, I can remember wanting to be a sports photographer. I had just taken my first class in photography and joined the yearbook committee as a staff photographer. I found my “thing” and knew that photography was something I wanted to do long term. Then, when I joined the military, I chose a path other than photography. I was worried if photography was my full-time job that I would fall out of love with it.
Now, a few decades later, I realize that I had nothing to worry about. Because of the Internet and digital photography, I was able to find a way to make photography my career. A path that began as with stock photography has evolved into a career in photography education. I wasn’t following someone else’s path or anything out of a book. I discovered the way on my own.
Whether or not you make photography a business, you’ll likely still go down a certain path with your work. Maybe you enjoy landscapes, architecture, portraits, or flowers. Whatever it is, make sure it’s something you enjoy, and don’t be afraid to experiment with new types of photography that may be vastly different than your current photographic interests.
Should you stick to one genre? Maybe. It depends on your goals and what you want to achieve as a photographer. This is a very personal decision and is entirely up to you. Personally, I enjoy photographing almost everything. Many people know me for my food photography, but I also do a lot of landscape, nature, and travel, as well as macro and water-drop photography. I’ve even done some underwater photography as well. And thankfully, with the job I chose, having a diverse set of photographic interests can be beneficial. With a wide genre of photographs in my portfolio I am able to write books and create video training that appeals to a larger audience. And I also love the challenge of learning something new, and sometimes that involves going down a creative path that is completely different from the photography I’ve made in the past.
You will probably hear a lot of strong opinions on whether or not you should stick to one niche, along with many other topics relating to photography and business. Maybe they come from an anonymous voice in an online comment, or from a trusted photographer friend. I know I’ve heard my fair share of opinions from photographers who think they know what is best for me and my business. But in the end only you know what’s best for you and your photography. Listen to your gut and don’t let someone else steer you in the wrong direction.
Find The Best Social Network For YOU With social media so prevalent in our digital lives it’s sometimes difficult to keep up. Staying fully engaged on social media can be a full-time job, and very few are able to have a team of people working this job for us. Personally, I’m pretty awful at keeping up with it, so now I’m doing my best to determine which of the current platforms to spend more of my time and energy on.
I also have my own social network, so to speak. One of the best forms of communication I have is my newsletter. While social media is good for sharing photos and other information, so much of it gets swept away only moments after it is posted. With email, however, my messages are going directly into the inboxes of my subscribers. It’s understood that each message I send is about me and my work, which is why people signed up in the first place. And while I offer a lot of free downloads and tutorials to my subscribers, I don’t hesitate to ask for a purchase. In fact, I make nearly all of my income from what I offer my members through the newsletter. It’s my most personal—and profitable—form of communication. It also allows someone to get directly in touch with me, just by replying to one of my emails! That gives me the chance to chat one-on-one with someone, and their message doesn’t end up getting buried by the endless flood of social media streams.
Challenge Yourself Many of the photographic skills I have are from trying to learn and master something new. In fact, I quite enjoy the challenge of seeing whether or not I could really learn how to photograph something on my own, only using books and the Internet as my guide. And I’ve discovered some very enjoyable genres of photography that I will continue to pursue into the foreseeable future.
Food photography is one example. In my early stock photography days, I decided to give it a try, even though I knew nothing about how to properly photograph food. My initial images were awful, but as time progressed and I learned more about lighting and food styling, my images improved. Eventually I would write two books on food photography—Food Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots—as well as a video course on the KelbyOne website.
Another good example is with waterdrop photography. In fact, I came across this just by random interest. There is a device I was purchasing—the Pluto Trigger—to use for photographing lightning, and while researching it I saw that they also sell a water drop valve as an accessory. The valve was not too expensive, and I thought it might be fun to try my hand at photographing water drops. After getting the valve and doing some research online, I was able to create some beautiful photos on my first try! It’s now become one of my favorite things to photograph.
Practice, Practice, Practice Whether or not your goal is to become the best photographer you can be, we tend to enjoy something more when we’re good at it. The best way to become good at something is to practice as much as possible. Not only will you help create muscle memory with your camera, you will solidify your technical knowledge about your gear, settings, and even your surroundings and subject matter. And this also applies to processing your photos and using software. I’ve been an avid Photoshop user for a very long time, but even those skills can get rusty! I make sure to create my own personal projects on the side to keep my “Photoshop muscles” fit.
Even I have had my moments where my camera sat around collecting dust for a little too long, and I remember feeling rusty when I finally picked it up again. If you enjoy photographing landscapes but live somewhere that is lacking in natural beauty, maybe you can experiment with a different type of photography that is not dependent on the environment. Or maybe you could sign up for a 365 challenge, where you create a new photograph each day for an entire year. I attempted this one (and didn’t make it all the way), but it did encourage me to create a handful of good photos that otherwise would not have been created.
There are a lot of other opportunities to encourage you to pick up the camera. If you’re on Flickr, you may find groups that motivate you to get out and use your camera. I even have my own “Nicolesy” group where I run monthly photo challenges (click here to check it out on Flickr). Or maybe you’ve joined a local photo club, a photowalk, or an online forum. Find something that works for you and inspires you to get out and create something.
Whatever route you end up following, if photography is important to you, the best thing you can do for yourself is to create. While photography is my main focus, I am a fan of creating so many other things and have quite a few hobbies. I love to knit, I’m a big pottery enthusiast, and I also enjoy the process of working on my website and creating books and video training for my business. When I’m creating, I’m happy.