When I first started taking photos, I knew the importance of finding what “good” really looked like. I knew that there were a million people out there that claimed to be more successful than they were, and that my taste wasn’t refined enough and that I wasn’t experienced enough to know the difference between them and those that were truly great.
I found people at the top of the industry and read every article they wrote and watched every video or interview ever made about them. Then, when they mentioned someone they admired, I studied them too. Like a butterfly effect, I would break down and understand new artists and the most intricate shooting styles.
I committed it all to memory, taking what made sense to me and leaving behind the rest. After 7 years, I slowly started to gain an understanding of my own style — mashed up and molded from some of the most well-respected photographers, painters, and artists in the world.
In this article I would like to share some of those gold nuggets of information that resonated with me and that changed and continued to push my art forward in new and exciting ways. Some of these ideas you will have heard of and I will reiterate their importance, others might pique your interest enough to give them a try.
Lets dive in.
It’s the oldest saying in the book; “Location, Location, Location!’
This is for good reason. Simply by making it a point to place yourself somewhere unique, you are bound to get better shots. I remember the first time I went to Iceland. You could pretty much point your camera in any direction and press the shutter and get 90% better photos than most anywhere else. It was ridiculous.
Not only does the location help you in terms of visual interest in the photo itself, but when you are seeing somewhere beautiful for the first time it tends to inspire you and thus get you into a more open-minded and creative mood. This will always be good news for the work you are about to create. Remember: it doesn’t have to be crazy expensive — just find somewhere that makes you excited the second you see it.
2. Learning to Use Strobes
It took me the majority of my photography career to learn this superpower. When I did, it changed everything. Imagine: the ability to use only the most beautiful quality of light to manipulate any way you see fit. The higher-end strobes can literally overpower the sun. The creative control this gives you is immense. You can now decide whether you want something more dramatic or more dreamy. You can manipulate the light in order to convey any feeling or emotion you want.
In the most simplistic terms, your camera is just a light capturing box. So feed it the best light and those photos will grow up big and strong.
Most of us have been there before. We’ve had a great idea and made the effort to put it together and then we get there and realize that the subject is just the wrong fit. For the type of photography I like to shoot, it’s not all about getting the most beautiful person. It’s about finding someone who fits the emotion I want to convey.
I believe it’s impossible to be a great photographer without incredible emotional intelligence and self-awareness. When you meet someone for the first time, you have to be able to gauge how they make you feel. What emotion do they draw out of you?
Sometimes it makes sense to work with a seasoned model like my friend Crystal below. It certainly can make your life easier if you have someone who fits the bill and has a variety of unique poses and looks in their arsenal.
Other times it makes more sense to take the time to work with someone who isn’t a pro. It can go a long way in creating something that feels a bit more relatable to the viewer.
Regardless of who it is, try your best to get as much time with your subjects/potential subjects as you can. The more comfortable and familiar you are with that person, the more connection that you have, the better your images will turn out.
4. The Haze Machine
For the longest time I couldn’t figure out what created that atmospheric and moody look in people’s images. Was it dry ice? Lots of candles? A fog machine?
In this photo, I even tried spraying Fabreze in front of the lens and inevitably onto my good buddy, Donard. (Stay fresh, buddy, stay fresh!)
Eventually I figured out that it was a Hazer making this magic look! These machines can go a long way in completely changing the way the light falls on your subject and ensure that your space doesn’t feel too stiff and manicured. It can convey mystery and drama and is fairly simple to use.
A haze machine is different from a fog machine in that it’s not as thick and white. This makes it much easier to shine lights through and gives the added benefit of being able to actually see your subject instead of making it look like something’s on fire (which the fog machine is great for).
5. Building a Set
As I became more interested in strobes, I started to dabble and understand the value of a good set. This could be as simple as getting a couple of plants and a backdrop, or as complicated as a full-on build in which you create walls, windows, and bring in furniture to mimic the idea you have in mind. Regardless, the ability to be able to control your surroundings can be a huge advantage in creating a balanced and consistent look in your image. In the industry, we call this “production value”.
“Gavin, where them tones at, bruh?”
My friends love to rag on me about my obsession with tonal equity in an image.
However, this obsession is for good reason and was such a key element to making my images have the style and feel that I had always wanted. In fact, just by using similar tonal values within your images, you are going a very long way in creating a consistent look.
But what are tones? In photography, tones can be referred to as either:
1. The overall lightness or darkness of an area of an image-similar to luminosity, or
2. The color of all or part of an image, usually in relation to its warmth or coolness
One of the best ways to start understanding what you like is to pay attention to films you love. It might be a movie set in a snowy area in which they use blue tones to really help you feel the cold, or it might be a beach day in which red and orange tones are used to warm up the scene.
Spend some time figuring out a combination that makes sense to you.
7. Understanding Your Audience
The truth is that at the end of the day, “interesting” is subjective. All of this is simply my opinion because it has been firstly what’s resonated with me and secondly, my audience. I’m not going to be the guy who sits here and tells you to create work only for other people, because I’m a strong believer in the importance of listening to your gut and making something that you are proud of.
On the other end of the coin, I’m also not going to sit here and pretend that other people’s opinions of your work are irrelevant, at least as a professional. That being said, if your goal is to also make something interesting to other people, then it would make sense to understand those people, yet the amount of photographers that do not is significant.
Where do you want to go with respect to your career? If you want to be a fashion photographer, what do people interested in fashion care about? What are some other interests that are typical of this subset of people? What is lacking in the marketplace? What kind of statement can you make with your imagery that would resonate?
As you move forward with your photography, reflect on some of these things and how they might be able to benefit you. Take the ones that make sense and ignore the rest. If you can cultivate the ability to continually audit yourself and be aware of where you want to go and the gaps that still exist, that will be half the battle won. As I said earlier, this process took place over 7 years, so be patient with yourself and your abilities, yet stay determined and you will come out on top.
About the author: Gavin Doran is a Brooklyn-based photographer best known for his cinematic portraiture and dynamic lifestyle imagery. You can find more of his work on his website or by following him on Facebook and Instagram. This post was also published here.