portraits

Photo Improv

Ashley at Marshall Motors

During Artists In Jackson, my portrait strategy for each artist was a mix of planning and spontaneity.

Take Ashley here. My thinking going into our sessions was: pick a cool spot, a good time of day, and see what we make.

Others, like Andrew, I didn’t know the location at all, but as we explored the building we found a room with just my kind of light.

My trick is to find a location that has what Brooks Jensen calls a “density of opportunity.” Namely, head to a place I know reasonably well, with cool surroundings, that we can use to make photos. And typically, I try to find a time of day where light comes in at an angle, and I can have fun with shadows or golden hour.

Otherwise, I’m making it up as I go along. And that’s part of the fun, and the learning. Those variables feel comfortable.

That may be why I’m having such a hard time getting started on my next portrait project. This time, my thinking is to have everyone come to one location, with a structured light source, and shoot on a simple backdrop with simple surroundings. There’s no improv involved with the settings, lighting, etc. The only variable is the subject of the portrait – that’s where the chaos comes in.

With such a rigid structure, I feel like everything—the place, the time, the light—has to be perfect before I even get started making photographs. So I haven’t started.

Given enough time, that Not Starting turns into guilt (for not making) and worry (about never starting), and that’s where I sit right now.


Until It’s Gone

Until It's Gone

When I scope out an abandoned building, I always run the risk of it being gone by the time I’m ready to photograph it.

It’s happened plenty of times. Luckily, this past winter, I had a chance to document an abandoned building before it was leveled just weeks later. Other times, I have not been so lucky. There are plenty of places that disappeared before I had a chance to photograph them.

So it is with people, too.

If you love someone, or are fond of someone, take the time to get a good photo in before they’re gone. Even if it’s uncomfortable or awkward.

A few recent passings are good reminders that I need to grab portraits of people I care about. You should do the same. You’ll be glad you did.


Some Project Ideas

A Few Projects

I’m just going to leave this here, as a kind of in-public to-do list.

  1. Musicians In Jackson: This is my ongoing, maybe-soon next project, featuring musicians in my community. Still stewing on this one, but getting closer to getting started.
  2. Artists In Jackson – part two!
  3. Some smaller, more personal portrait shoots with friends and family. Go somewhere interesting, and just make photographs. I have a few offers out there.
  4. Something here on the University of Michigan campus. I thought about setting up a tripod and asking people on the Diag to stop and get their photo, and see what I can get. There’s so many people here – there has to be something fun I could do.
  5. I’d like to get out and explore more small communities around Michigan. How to pick which ones?
  6. A documentary project highlighting something going on in Jackson. Maybe longer form, maybe one-off, but the idea would be to follow a story from beginning to end.
  7. A zombie/horror movie conceptual photo shoot, with costumes and locations and makeup and all that. I’ve had this one in mind, totally for fun, for a long time. I bet I have some friends who would totally be up for it.

On Discomfort

On Discomfort

Will I ever get over the awkwardness of asking people to take portraits, or for their help in starting a documentary project?

Probably not, which is why I try to do it often.

It’s kind of weird, to go up to someone, or send someone a note, and ask to make their portrait. How well do they know you? How well do they know your work? Do they know you at all?

I like to think it’s flattering to ask someone to take their portrait. It kind of says that I think the person is interesting enough to inquire. It also says that I want to spend a bit of time with the person – to get to know them better.

But I’m also a guy, and sometimes it feels like the bad guy stereotypes come through when I ask someone to join me in making photos.

For documentaries, it’s really weird, because here’s someone who does a cool thing but doesn’t know who I am, or what I’ve done. That was the case with my Albion Anagama documentary. I learned after the project was done that Ken and Anne had no idea what to expect. Thankfully, they were pleasantly surprised with the outcome.

But what if they weren’t?

That’s the risk of making something: you don’t know what the participant will think. You only hope that they’ll be pleased enough to continue a relationship and work with you again.

Getting over the hump of asking in the first place? I have no idea how to solve it. I’m going to keep trying, though, no matter how much discomfort it causes me.


Model Trains in Jackson

Model Trains in Jackson

I’ve been on an eBook kick lately. This one is a product of my 2014 portrait project with the guys from the Central Michigan Model Railroad Club that first appeared on this blog.

Now, it’s a free eBook, available as a PDF download or an Apple iBook.

This is the project that kickstarted my community-focused portrait projects, like Artists In Jackson. It was fun to revisit this project and see the guys again.

Enjoy, and let me know what you think!


Photographer Interview: Sandra Ivaz

Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Sandra Ivaz, I’m a 21 year old university student studying political science. Photography is a hobby of mine, for now at least… I’d definitely love to make it a career in the future. I’m always the happiest when I’m shooting.

How did you get started in photography?

I’ve actually been taking photos since I was a child, but I never really understood why I was doing it until about two years ago when it all clicked into place.

When I was a kid, my family would go on vacations in Southern Europe, and while they’d be taking family photos I’d be snapping pics of mountains, beaches, city alleys, etc. I’d come home with hundreds of photos from my travels but I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with those photos. Fast forward to 2014, I downloaded Instagram and I began posting landscape photos shot with my phone, I quickly grew a following on Instagram, and my photography progressed from cityscapes and landscapes, to portraiture.

What do you like about your photography?

I have a strange relationship with my photos. I think most photographers feel this way at some point. 95% of the time I’m entirely unsatisfied with my work and the remainder of the time I’m like, “Wow, I love this.” I look at my photos more than anyone else, so I start to notice things that other people don’t. It’s kind of like, if you say a word 100 times you start to forget the meaning of the word or how to pronounce it.

But if I had to choose one thing, it would be that my photos – mainly the portraits – are full of emotion. While I’m not in the photos myself, I can remember exactly how I felt and what I was thinking whenever I look at any photo I’ve taken, regardless of how long ago the photo was shot.

Your work is very sensual and personal, and not just the portraits. Where do you get inspiration for your style/ideas?

I really enjoy shooting in black and white. I feel that the subject matter I shoot is desexualized when shot in black and white. Some of the photos I’ve taken, if left in colour, would be too sexually charged (in my opinion). I think converting photos to black and white removes the human element and makes the photo have a deeper meaning than just what’s seen at face value.

My moods influence my style and ideas a lot. I think the best ideas come to me when I’m feeling extreme emotions, be it positive or negative. I also find inspiration in unusual places (or at least unrelated to my subject matter) like free skiing documentaries, lol.

What kinds of themes do you explore with your work?

Femininity and the female form. While I know  that it has been done before, I want my photos to tell a story and for my work to be distinguishable from other artists.

Any upcoming projects or shoots you’re working on?

Not that I’m aware of, haha. I rarely plan ahead, most of my shoots have been spontaneous. I’m very impulsive so whenever an idea comes to mind, I need to do it as soon as possible.

Find more of Sandra’s work at @kninvu, and on her Instagram account


Photographer Interview: Tiffany Cornwell

This one is personal – Tiffany Cornwell has shot my family, engagement, wedding, and maternity photos (and my current profile pic)! She’s a family and wedding portrait photographer, local to Jackson, Michigan, who is super fun to work with.

Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Tiffany Cornwell and I’m the owner and sole photographer of Tiffany Marie Photography LLC. I received a bachelor’s degree in photography from Saginaw Valley State University in December 2011.

How did you get started in photography?

I was about eight or so when my grandpa would come visit from Arizona. On his week-long trips, he would buy me a couple of disposable cameras and tell me to go to town and document whatever I wanted while he was there. Before he left, we would get them developed and we’d check out my photo treasures together. Ever since, I had been known to always have a camera of some sorts all through middle school and high school!

What do you like about your photography?

My own photography excites me. I love that I can capture a moment that turns to a memory. Of course then, through post processing, I’m able to put my own artistic spin on the image to make to my own piece of art.

My favorite pieces have lots of color or emotion in them. I get a sense of joy and pride when I look at images where I shot exactly what I was looking for. I’m also a huge advocate of getting work printed! To see the hours poured into an image, then having it printed seems to bring the moment back to life!

Where do you get inspiration for your style/ideas?

I’m 95% a happy person, so I tend to lean towards images I can produce that emit that same feeling. That could be why I love shooting weddings…the love and happiness in someone’s big day brightly shows in their images.

I love a lighter feel in images. The grungy, dark, mysterious images tend to make me feel anxious, so I shy away from styles that could evoke that within someone else.

For ideas within a session, it usually stems from the person or couple I’m photographing. Seniors tend to have their own sense of style and their own passions, so we try to collaborate for at least a few quirky and unique poses that really shows their personality. One senior played drums for marching band, so we thought it would be cool to put glitter on them so that as she was playing, there would be clouds of glitter flying up. It was captured pretty nicely!

Your work focuses on families and couples, with some portraits in there. How do you get comfortable working with people on these intimate photos?

Meeting with them first beforehand has helped tremendously! Having in-depth discussions about their desires for the session, wardrobe choices, their likes and hobbies, and what they wish to accomplish from their session is key. It breaks the ice for seniors and couples alike to know I’m interested and invested in them. They tend to open up more during their session because they also invested the time to have their session be great and they know what the end goal is.

I’m also a bit quirky, so if they’re still a bit jittery during their session, it doesn’t take long for them to laugh at my clumsiness! Little kids are a bit more work…I tend to get a workout in from jumping around getting them to look my direction and maybe unlock a smile!

What kinds of themes do you explore with your work?

Love, closeness, growth, future. All things that tend to strengthen a family or a person. As I stated above, I love capturing special moments! I love helping seniors find confidence and strength in themselves through having their portraits done with me. The excitement and relief in a mother’s eyes when she sees I got not one but many great images of her three amazingly independent children make me beam with pride. I adore my brides when they’re crying tears of joy seeing the love between her and her new husband in their photos. I feel like I accomplished what I set out to do for them knowing I did my job to the best of my abilities so they can have memories to cherish forever.

Any upcoming projects or shoots you’re working on?

I would love to set up a fun bridal shoot with multiple women in bridal gowns and accents of a wedding day to showcase what I love, and perhaps it even becoming a promotional piece for those involved. But it has barely been put to paper so plans are still in brainstorming mode.

I would also love to continue my ferris wheel series throughout 2016. I have three or four favorite images I’ve taken and would love to create a series of fine art images focusing on the ferris wheel that people can purchase as a collection or separate pieces.

You can view more of Tiffany’s work at her Tiffany Marie Photography Facebook page, and her Instagram profile


Artists In Jackson: Cassandra Spicer

Cassandra Spicer

“I realized very quickly that being a studio art major would be a lot of fun for the artistic side of me, but I still had practical parts of me that needed to know things about business and finance.”

Read Cassandra’s profile at Artists In Jackson.


It’s Here: Artists In Jackson

Today I’m releasing my portrait project Artists In Jackson to the world. Since June, I’ve interviewed and photographed 15 Jackson-based artists about their talent, their challenges, and their hometown. The final product is a beautiful, 100+ page book featuring stories and portraits from the artists.

You can learn about the project at artistsinjackson.com. And the book makes a great holiday gift!

Thank you so much to the artists who participated. Through painting, or photography, or metalworking, or tattoos, they’re making my hometown of Jackson, Michigan, a more beautiful place. Support them!

And thanks to all of you who have supported and shared this project.


Artists In Jackson

Since June, I’ve been working away on a portrait project featuring artists from my hometown of Jackson, Michigan.

For one, it’s the second part in what I hope will be an annual project of highlighting interesting people in my community. And two, I love talking to people with interesting talents and hobbies. It was great to meet the 15 artists profiled and chat about artsy stuff with them, the artistic community in Jackson, and what their successes and roadblocks look like.

The project is now just about ready for primetime. You can see the particulars at artistsinjackson.com.

There’s lots more to do. I’m working on a printed book, the flagship end product of this project. Once that’s done and ready to print, I’ll publish the artist profiles on the website, and release an eBook version of the print book.

And from there, I hope to have a show of some sort in the Jackson community, and invite the community to meet the artists and see some of their work.

It’s been a lot of work, and a lot of fun. Artistically, it’s very different from the kind of photography I’ve focused on in the past. I feel different, too. It’s like all the portraits and images I’ve worked on before this have been overly amateurish.

With this project, I’m actually making photographs that matter.

I hope you join me for the ride in the next few weeks.