As a creative and full-time wedding photographer, I spend a significant amount of time creating. It’s not always in the real world, but nonetheless, my mind is always looking for inspiration and resources for the next image or “thing” I want to build.
With my day to day often consisting of emails, phone calls, and other distractions, I seem to “feed the artist” less than I would like. So when I’m part of a photography group (IEPPV) and am tasked with helping organize a “Post Apocalyptic” model shoot in the desert, you can bet my inner creative gets very excited.
My job was to find the best location to make this shoot fun for both the models and attending photographers. The Salton Sea is a little over two hours away from me, and a place I try to visit often. It really is the most beautiful and desolate place I know. I love the starkness of it. When first-timers come to the Salton Sea, they are usually greeted with a wonderful stench and a lot of dirt and dust. Despite the day’s rain, mud, and only mild odor, it was a perfect location!
In addition to getting to revisit the Salton Sea, I was looking forward to photographing a set of humans I don’t regularly get to put in front of my camera—Post Apocalyptic models! On top of being fantastic performers, the models we had were such cool humans. It’s not an easy job to be thrown at a group of image-hungry photographers and remain so enthusiastic. I want to thank all our models and the groups to which they belong for coming out and playing with us.
The reason a shoot like this matters to me as much as it does is that I get to play. I get to experiment and test new ideas. I get to step outside of the world that I know so well, and in turn, force myself to see differently and work with different tools. It’s absolutely wonderful, and I find it essential for me to maintain my creativity.
Pushing your creativity
I’ve had many conversations with other photographs about “why should they want to shoot models when they are landscape photographers”, or “what’s the point of learning macro and focus stacking if they only shoot sports”. In short, I believe studying all disciplines of photography will give us skills that can be used in any other photographic discipline.
For example, focus stacking works great for macro, landscape, and commercial. Also, as a portrait photographer, I never saw the need to better my landscape photography until someone helped me see—All my landscapes at the time were focused 1/3rd of the way into the scene and shot with a very shallow depth of field as if there was a person in my plane of focus. It sounds silly now that I write it out, but that’s all I knew. Once I learned to capture the entire scene, I realized I could place a person into the landscape, and as a result, have a more unique image featuring the scenery and the added subject. It’s a Win-Win. So in the end, learning to shoot landscapes helped me be a better wedding and portrait photographer.
Turning the tables
Brides wear dresses, veils, and don’t tend to move fast, while post-apocalyptic models have swords, clubs, and other cool toys that shoot fire while riding around on a 2-wheeled machine driven by a snowmobile in the desert—Two very different creative opportunities. The challenge of being presented with something totally different is that the methods of posing and lighting that you’re used to won’t always work. This forced me to take a step back and think about my surroundings more, looking for the direction of light and how it enhances or detracts from the costumes. Also, I had to consider what lens would tell the best story. Anyone that shoots regularly usually has a tendency to fall into a routine and risk becoming mundane. Shooting something completely different from our norm helps promote the thought process that leads to new ideas. I’m pretty solid at posing a bride with a bouquet and managing a veil, but when I have a model sporting a shotgun, bullet belts, a sword, and hair that would make any 80’s hair band jealous, it’s a whole new challenge and I love it.
I try to really embrace the challenges that force me to stop and solve a new lighting situation or pose someone on a pile of concrete. The new and unfamiliar environment is just familiar enough that my set of skills can get me the shot I want, yet I’m still required to think out each step rather than rely on muscle memory. This is when the magic happens: Initially, my brain doesn’t know what to do with the new scenario, but after a moment or two I begin to go through my toolbox of what I know. Suddenly an idea comes, so I pre-visualize the shot and begin to calculate the route needed to make the image. This is when I push my regular skill set and require myself to work off intention rather than instinct.
Light is light
Ultimately, I see this experience as an exercise for my creative muscles. If we don’t push and challenge ourselves, we can’t grow in the same way. Whether I am photographing a landscape, fire, brides, or models in the desert, I will always have an opportunity to learn and add to my photographic bag of tricks.
Regardless of what we are photographing, light is light. Light scraping across a mountain range at sunset revealing the texture and depth of the canyons behaves the same as an off-camera strobe positioned to scrape light across chainmail or the subtle beading of a wedding dress—Quality light matters regardless of the subject. You can use a handheld reflector in the studio or position your subject outdoors to benefit for light striking the side of a light colored building. Shadows from trees or building are just gobos in nature.
At the end of the day
Regardless of your skill level or what type of photographer you identify as, saturate yourself in other disciplines of photography. As a portrait artist, you may not think there is anything to learn from landscapes, but I would suggest that you’re missing out on a valuable set of skills. Having the ability to read a vast area of light, shapes, and lines and knowing where to place a subject can be a game changer. The same goes for you landscape shooters—Learning to shoot in a studio with 100% control over your lighting and the opportunity to experiment with lighting types/direction could offer an edge when planning a location.
Understanding how light falls on an object, whether it’s a person, a mountain or even the moon, could be the difference between a simple image or an extraordinary one. Take a leap and learn a different skill, and at the same time, teach someone yours.