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Interview with Bill Wadman of 365 Portraits


Bill Wadman is the New York-based portrait photographer behind the 365 Portraits project. You can also visit his blog and online portfolio.


PetaPixel: Could you tell me a little about yourself and what you do?

Bill Wadman: My name is Bill Wadman and I’m a portrait photographer in New York City. I shoot a fair amount of editorial portraits for magazines like TIME and BusinessWeek with some advertising thrown in for good measure. In 2007 I completed a project at 365portraits.com which got me some attention. That said, I really only picked up a camera about 5 years ago, my education is in music of all things.

PP: How did you first get into photography?

BW: I’m one of those people who gets bored fairly easily, and I can’t draw, so I figured photography was a good visual art for me to dabble in. When I was a kid, I used to play with my dad’s Canon AE-1, but he yelled at me for it most of the time, so I had to wait until I was older before I rediscovered the fun.

PP: How did you go from only picking up a camera five years ago to have your work published in TIME and BusinessWeek?

BW: So I picked up a Digital Rebel 5 years ago and started shooting more as a hobby. Then I did a couple art projects where I was shooting more and more, so when I wanted a new one at the beginning of 2007 I decided to only do photography and thus began 365 portraits. It took off and I had tens of thousands of people a day watching the progress, which was nice because then I had an audience which made me feel the need to top yesterday’s shot each time.

When I finished I started putting my work up on paid portfolio sites like photoserve and such.. and people started calling me. My first big job was for The Improper Bostonian early last year where i shot author Jhumpa Lahiri. They liked the photos and apparently so did her PR people because they had TIME call me when they needed portraits, and so I started doing work for TIME. Other people seemingly cold call me, for example I’ve got no idea how BusinessWeek got a hold of me, but I’ve ended up shooting for them once or twice a month too.

By the way, that one call from The Improper was the one time that those paid sites help me. Otherwise I think they’re a rip-off.


PP: What was your first camera?

BW: When I was really little I had one of those 110 instamatics, but I’m sure you mean my first REAL camera, which was a Pentax K1000 that I bought at Adorama for $199 used in 2000.

PP: What equipment do you use for your work now?

BW: Right now I do most of my work with a canon 5DII. 28/1.8, 35/1.4, 50/1.2, and 85/1.2 lenses. I sold all my L zooms last year in deference to primes, but kept the 24-70L just in case.

Besides the digital Canon, I’ve got a Leica M4, Hasselblad 500c/m, and a Cambo 4×5, but those are relagated to special circumstances nowadays. Film is too expensive and time consuming for me.

As far as lights go, I’ve got a couple of speedlights and a few alien bees, and a Profoto AcuteB for on-site shoots when a Speedlight just won’t do.

Most of the time though, if I have my 5D with the 28 and 50mm lenses (love that 28mm), and a diffuser/reflector, I’m happy. I like to use available light or incredibly simple light setups whenever I can. Also, people often yell at me for using wide-angle lenses for portraits, but it works for me. I like having some of their environment in there as well.


PP: What’s on your wishlist in terms of gear?

BW: I wouldn’t mind getting a nice medium format back if someone wanted to buy me a P65. I think I’ll wait until they’re full frame 6×6 though. But honestly, at this point, I’ve got or have used all the toys I wanted to try and decided that if my photographs don’t look the way I want, it’s my fault not my gear’s.

PP: How did the 365 Portraits project come about, and what was shooting the project like?

BW: 365 Portraits came about because I wanted to do a year long project that forced me to shoot all the time. As I was looking to become a full-time portrait photographer, I figured I might as well take portraits. So on January 1st, I just started, with my sister.

In the beginning is was friends and family but then a couple weeks into it I started to get volunteers. This became something of an avalanche, because by the end I was getting 6-8 people a day volunteering. This of course gave me a lot of choice in the people I wanted as time went by. I was also able to snag some people who I asked to participate. Musicians, and authors, and scientists and the like who I respected.

I would make plans with each of them via email to meet at a specific time and place. Usually it was just me and the subject and minimal or no extra lighting unless we were working on a studio shot. Mostly it was about finding an interesting setting and workable light and practicing my skills.

PP: What are some interesting things you learned through the project?

BW: Well, of course my photography skills improved a lot. Shooting that much, I’m not sure how they couldn’t have… I came upon different techniques and things as I went along, many of which are still in my mental bag of tricks. But probably the most useful thing I learned is knowing when I’ve got the shot, and being able to cull 200 photos down to that one in just a few minutes.


PP: What were the biggest challenges you faced in completing it?

BW: There were daily challenges… scheduling screw-ups, travel, sickness, etc. But mostly it was a mental thing of just getting the motivation to keep going. Very much a marathon. I spent anywhere from 4-8 hours or more each day on the pictures. It was a full time job.

PP: Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

BW: Not really. I may have started after some more of my wishlist earlier in the year as it took some time to track and wear a few of them down. And there are pictures in there that I cringe at now, but that’s all part of the process.

PP: What advice would you give an aspiring photographer who wants to get where you currently are?

BW: Turn and run in the other direction as fast as possible. Well, no that’s not fair. But I will say that even in the past few years that I’ve been active, things have changed a lot. EVERYONE is a photographer now and many magazines are going out of business and most projects pay less. So you’ve got more people fighting for less work that pays less.

Now, if that little rant didn’t discourage you, I’d say go and shoot. Shoot a lot, shoot all the time. There is no substitute for good images in your portfolio and competence at what you do. Some people would argue that you’ve got to network and blog and such (yes I know I’ve got a blog, but it’s not really about getting me work), but having the images ready to show when you meet the right people and get the big break is the right idea.


PP: Can you briefly describe your workflow?

BW: First comes the shooting. I’m not that anal about getting the exposure perfect in camera, though I probably should be. Then again, with the small dynamic range of these sensors, I don’t know that there is such a thing as perfect exposure, you’re always losing something the highlights or the shadows. In any case, I shoot RAW and if I’m within half of a stop from where I should be, I’m usually ok.

In my mind, my shoot is like raw footage for further editing, so I tend to worry more about the subject than the camera. Then when I get home I copy everything over to a raid 1 array. A folder for each shoot inside a folder for each subject, just to keep it straight. Then I import them from the disk into lightroom, convert to DNG, rename and sort.

I go through a multiple-step process. The ones worth anything get 1 star, then I go through those and the best get two stars, then I go through those until I end up with the 5 or 6 I want to retouch. WB and exposure and fill light etc are done in lightroom, then I export a 16bit PSD into Photoshop and add lots of masked curves to make the image look like something. When I’m done I backup the project to an external drive and export a full-res jpg which I upload to jungle disk as a last ditch backup in case my house gets fire bombed in an election fraud riot.


PP: How do you go about doing portraiture?

BW: Usually what goes through my mind is, “How the hell am I going to pull THIS one off?” by which I mean, I look at the setting and the light and the subject and I try to think of ways they could intersect well. That said, I’m very much the kind of photographer who will start shooting and ask questions later. I’d rather naturally flow into something good instead of standing back and piecing it together in my mind for 15 minutes before I pick up my camera. I’m much more worried about the subject. This might be indicative of some deep psychological problem I undoubtedly have, but I’m always concerned with keeping the subjects attention and chatting with them. Hopefully it gets to the point where they open up and forget that they’re getting their picture taken. Usually that’s when the good stuff happens.

I shoot anywhere from 2 to 500 pictures in a sitting. On average though I can get what I need in 125 or so, that’s usually where the numbers come out. I had two shoots the other day though that couldn’t have been more different. First shoot I shot 450 images and got about 2 pics I was at all happy with. That night I did a studio shoot where I ended up with 200 images, 40 of which were better than the best of the afternoon shoot. There are a lot of variables.

The difficult thing is knowing what you’re looking for, and for me it’s an emotional thing more than anything. I’ll take a picture and I’ll chimp it on the screen and I’ll get all giddy and say “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes” like I’ve just cracked the vault in a bank heist. It’s a combination of things, but my ideal portrait is one where the the subject looks right and that can be anywhere from vulnerable to invulnerable depending on my goals. I’m also looking for good light, something I can work with later in post production. But then there’s that pictorial quality that’s hard to put your finger on with words. I want my pictures to look like paintings if I can. Like something more than just a snapshot.

The scariest moments are where none of this is clicking and you’ve tried the experimental stuff which didn’t pan out, and so you go back to your bag of tricks and setups you’ve used the the past and THAT doesn’t work.. that’s where I panic. You can’t guarantee that you’re going to get good pictures out of a shoot. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen. I shot Physicist Brian Greene a couple years ago and said that it must be like working on a theory for 3 hours at the blackboard and in the end coming up with 1=2. Game over, try again. But that’s ok, it happens to everybody. You go but an Annie Leibovitz book and there are 50 pictures in there from 20 years of shooting. You don’t think there were a ton of shoots that she’d rather forget about? Imagine if you could take only the best 3-4 images per year. I’m guessing yours would look pretty good too. Don’t forget that or get discouraged.


PP: Is there anything you wish you had known when you first started out on your photographic journey?

BW: Hmm… I’m having a hard time with this one… There are things that I knew would be tough, but I went anyway. Everything in life is messy, so it’s no surprise. Looking back at earlier photos of mine, I wish I had done things differently, but then that’s always the case.

PP: Can you remember any specific things you learned that caused the largest leaps in the quality of your photography?

BW: I think the biggest leaps in my work have come in post-production. I can remember the day I started playing with curves to really bring out the contrast in different areas of my images and make them into something more than they were in camera. I like my images best when they look like paintings, and this is a big ingredient in that.

PP: Would you advise a new photographer to start out in film or digital? Why?

BW: Definitely digital. For a number of reasons. The main reason is the instant feedback. You can shoot and see what you’ve done. That plus the fact that you can shoot as much as you like without it costing you money are huge advantages. On top of all that, digital keeps getting better while film has peaked. I wouldn’t bet that you’ll even be able to get film in 5 years. Maybe there will be botique companies selling b/w 35mm film for rich guys who own an antique Leica, but that’s about it.


PP: Say a friend comes to you asking for advice on how to improve their portraiture. What are some things you would tell him?

BW: I think that a lot of people lately spend too much time on really fancy lighting setups so that their pictures look like comic books. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very cool look and makes for very some interesting pictures, hell I’ve experimented with it myself, but I don’t think it makes for true portraits most of the time.

For me, the trick to portraits is to engage the subject and get them involved. You can’t take a good portrait unless someone lets you. You can’t ‘steal’ it without their permission. So you’ve got to get through to them and make them comfortable enough to let you in. So, I guess my advice is to talk to your subject and get the technical stuff down so that you’re not thinking lighting ratios and f/stops while you’re shooting.

PP: Who are some photographers whose work you follow online?

BW: This changes constantly. Lately Eric Ogden, Brigitte Lacombe, Stephane Lavoue, Joey Lawrence, Chase Jarvis, and Dan Winters are making me ill. And that’s the highest form of compliment from me. It means that I feel like I’ll never do stuff as cool as them.

PP: If you could see one person interviewed by PetaPixel, who would you choose?

BW: I’d love to hear from Stephane Lavoue, is use of light just kills me. His images look like paintings and it would be great to figure out how he does it.

PP: Any final thoughts you would like to share with PetaPixel readers?

BW: Just that there’s no substitute for shooting and shooting and more shooting. Push yourself and good things will come.