Guest Blog: Life and Inspiration of an Incarcerated Photographer – Fernando Santos

Fernando Santos (aka Chicky Nando) – Photo by Pedro Jorge

March 12, 2020. Thursday. Lunch time. It could have been just a regular day at the office, but it wasn’t…

The rising number of Covid-19 infections in Portugal forced me to send home everyone on my team. I grabbed a pen and wrote on our whiteboard “we will be back soon,” then turned off all the lights, and slowly closed the door while looking at the empty office that was being left behind.

On that day, I had absolutely no idea how our life was going to be impacted. I was able to anticipate a few things – and no, that did not include the rush for toilet paper – but it took me a while to realize how my photography was going to be impacted.

One of my goals for 2020 was to become a better portrait photographer. After being a landscape and travel photographer for many years, I was feeling the need for a change. I still love landscapes and I really enjoy traveling, but I was getting tired, and I needed a change and a challenge. Perfect timing, right?! A change? A challenge? Could I have asked for more?

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic we were not allowed to travel anymore. I couldn’t (and still can’t) travel freely, not even within my country! Forget landscape and travel photography! I guess my new-year’s resolution of becoming a better portrait photographer had the perfect timing! Except for one reason: I had no one to create a portrait of. Now what?

During the first few weeks I didn’t even reach for my camera. Just like everyone else, I had to adapt to stay home and work from home full time. Suddenly zooming was not a thing I could do with my lens; it was something I would do on my computer.

Part of my work involves some public speaking in front of an audience, and now I had to do it from my home office. “- How am I going to do my job?!”… Enter the wonderful world of live streaming: “- I need lights! I need a chromakey green background! I need a better microphone! A video mixer! I need to learn a lot of new things! Noooo!!!” It was a bit overwhelming, but at the same time, everyone likes to get some new gear, right? Is it just me, or do you also love the smell of new recently unwrapped electronics? 

While all this was happening, I was also nagging Erik Kuna so that we could an online meeting with the KelbyOne Community members. What better excuse than a pandemic?! So, on Friday, May 1, 2020, we had our first CommunityLIVE meeting: Erik Kuna, Ross Chevalier, and me as co-hosts, plus a group of around 30 members including some famous names like Scott Kelby himself, as well as Rob Sylvan, who were both kind enough to stop by. Participants liked it, so we decided to do it again (and again, and again…).

CommunityLIVE 001 – some of the participants

CommunityLIVE meetings are private meetings for the KelbyOne Community members. You know the KelbyOne Community, right?! If you are a KelbyOne member – and I hope you are! – and you have never visited the KelbyOne Community, you are missing a big part of your membership. If you are not a KelbyOne member, stop reading now. Open a new tab on your browser and do yourself a favor: become a member today! Now, back to where we were…

While the pandemic was sweeping all countries around the world, and everyone was being seriously affected, our weekly meetings were keeping us motivated discussing new gear, new techniques, finding solutions to problems, or simply having a good time with our peers. We were keeping our focus. But time was going by, it was late 2020 and I still had not created a single photograph that I was happy with. But something was about to hit me again: entering the KelbyOne Community Challenge #41 Portraits. “This is it!” – I said to myself.

I lost my father on New Year’s Day 2014. One thing that I will never forgive myself is the fact that I did not took the time to create a good portrait of my father. I do have many snapshots – some even good ones – but not a real portrait, not a single photograph that shows the man who he was. My goal of becoming a better portrait photographer was still up, and this Portraits challenge was the kick-in-the-butt I needed to finally grab my camera and make a good portrait of my mom. “So, where do I start?”

I had to think what I wanted to create. I wanted it to be a good portrait. The Challenge was my assignment because now I had a “client”, I had a deadline, and I had a model. I had to create something. My goal was not winning the challenge – glad it wasn’t because I failed (congrats Eileen Kotak!). I would be happy with a good portrait of my mom. But there was more coming my way, that I really couldn’t imagine.

I was preparing my lights and my background, setting up everything to create my mom’s portrait and I got this shot:

The portrait I didn’t take

In front of me was the portrait I didn’t take. My biggest fail ever! My dad’s chair… empty! And it was now too late to have a portrait of my dad. Later I wrote a post on the KelbyOne Community and Scott Kelby and Erik Kuna invited me to be on The Grid and talk about it (Episode 456). But let’s go back to my mom. 

I was able to create what I consider to be a good portrait of her. Again, I did not win the challenge, but I was happily surprised when Chris Main, Photoshop User magazine Managing Editor told me they wanted to use my mom’s portrait for the cover of the January 2021 issue.

Photoshop User Magazine – January 2021

All those hours watching KelbyOne classes, all the hours practicing my craft, either behind the camera or editing on my computer, finally came together and here I am looking at my mom’s portrait on the cover of Photoshop User magazine. I was still enjoying my “5 minutes of fame”, but life really is a rollercoaster and exactly on the anniversary of my dad passing away, I had another really rough day. Here I go again: angry, sad, disappointed… and Photography came to my rescue once more.

I grabbed my camera and had to create something to express what I was feeling. And my goal of better portraits was still up – one year later – and still no models available. What if I do a self-portrait? And I did…

Creation only happens in Hell

I did! And for those who know me, many were surprised, when they saw that photograph. I was surprised myself how the camera could capture all I was feeling. And that pushed me into a new direction: for 2021 I needed a self-assignment, but for that to work, I had to tell others about my intent, or it would be postponed. I’m very reliable to everyone except to myself, so back to the KelbyOne Community, I posted about my goal for 2021: become a better portrait photographer and using myself as the subject for the lack of a better one.

So here we are, 4 months into 2021. Still working from home full time. Still not traveling. Still no one to photograph except me. Still doing CommunityLIVE meetings every week. Still keeping in focus thanks to daily visits to the Community, still watching classes, and still on my self-assignment. It has been over a year since I had a haircut, so for my March self-portrait I decided to take advantage of my long hair and wanted to recreate the ambience of a rock concert in my home studio.

“I’m going to use my new strobes and I want some colors and some smoke. I’m not sure I can pull this one just by myself, with no one to help me… but I will never know until I try”. So, I tried. What do you think?


Some people didn’t recognize me. Some believed I went and photographed a live show. I wish it was a live show …  but nope… it’s me, home(studio) alone! And with this, we are finally where I wanted to bring you to.

This has been a hell of a year. Many lost their loved ones. Many lost their business. Many lost their lives! As photographers, we lost customers, we lost jobs, we lost many opportunities, and many of those things were not within our control. The virus took it away from us. But as long as we can keep ourselves healthy, no virus can take our focus or our will. And if there is a will, there is a way, right?!

While I was looking at my “rocker portrait”, I noticed I could try to improve my Photoshop and my design skills and create an album cover, which may take me now to a series of “album covers”. And really, what I’ve been doing is just a very small and insignificant example of what can be done. Try to stay creative. One idea leads you to another and some may end up being good ones.

CommunityLIVE Album Cover

Just take a look at one of my favorite KelbyOne instructors, an amazing portrait photographer, author, and educator: Glyn Dewis. You certainly know Glyn from his amazing “39-45 Project.” Glyn went on a different direction during the pandemic, and he is doing landscapes (and doing it beautifully). He is an inspiration to many of us out there, and Glyn didn’t let the pandemic stop him.

So, my message to you today is this: stay focused! Listen to photography podcasts. Watch KelbyOne classes. Visit the KelbyOne Community. Read Photography books. Meet your friends online, discuss gear, discuss techniques, share ideas… and please, keep your shutter active. You don’t need to travel to wild and remote locations to make a good image. You don’t need to hire models and makeup artists and expensive wardrobe to make a good image. Use your imagination. Make something different. If you are like me, most images will be not worth to share, but those “rejects” are needed to keep our creative muscle active (as Glyn says). And if you arrive to Dec 31, 2021 with 6 good images from 2021, you should be proud of yourself. Now, go charge those batteries. Format those memory cards. And go get something done!

Love from Lisbon, Portugal! Yours truly,
Chicky Nando (aka Fernando Santos)

Fernando Santos is a photographer based in Lisbon, Portugal, where he was born back in the 1960s. He is an Adobe ACE in Lightroom, as well as a Lightroom part-time trainer and aficionado. He started to photograph seriously when cameras became digital, merging his photography passion from his teen years with his IT career as a software engineer. Initially with no particular focus, Fernando became devoted to landscape and travel photography, but he is now focusing on portraits.

You can find him online daily at the KelbyOne Community where he is also very active. To learn more about Fernando, you can visit his website at, or follow him on his two Instagram accounts: @fernandoferreirasantos and @chickynando.

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