What We Learn from Studying Master Photographers



I am just about full on my newest portrait class (starting November) and we have been discussing a lot of things in the current portrait class that has me thinking. Yeah, that can be sorta dangerous, but in this case I think I want to share a few things.

In today’s wacky, fast-paced, ‘just-show-me-how-it’s-done’ world there are those who want to skip the hard bits. Just jump on over the challenging and get right to the ‘good stuff’. And yeah, we have bemoaned this before.

But today, more than ever, it seems like what is missed is becoming the heart of what should be found. It isn’t difficult to learn about master photographers, and it doesn’t negate anyones talent to study and learn from them. On the contrary, the study of the masters, or even contemporary shooters who you enjoy, can open your eyes to your own work.

We don’t study in order to copy the masters, nor is there any desire on our part to become small clones of their style. At least there shouldn’t be. What we are looking for are the commonalities of making images, and the unique solutions others have found to make them.

Look – we can teach someone how to light fairly quickly, it isn’t hard. We can teach the ‘rules’ of composition, and how to color balance and all that stuff. It is pretty damned easy to teach and to learn.

But no one can teach someone how to see, how to make a photograph that transcends the snap and becomes something more. No one can teach vision, and style, and how to dig down deep to make something all their own.

We teachers can only lead the way, show them the direction and help them find it within themselves. Understanding what other artists do and achieve with the very same tools they use can open flood gates of creativity, and the always valuable introspection.

Simple, really. We study the art of others to help understand our own.

The students in the 8 Week Portrait Classes I have run this year have said things to me like;

“I never knew I could make photographs like this. Studying the work of Peter Limburgh opened me to a whole new way of approaching light.”

“Sarah Moon made me see photographs in a totally different way.”

“I have found a new love of portraiture after being immersed in the work of David Eustace, and I love it.”

It is so true… the photographers all saw major breakthroughs in their own work after studying these wide ranging master portraitists. This was probably the most exciting thing for me as a teacher.

Here are a few things we can learn from studying other photographers.

How to meet a challenge head on.
So many times shooting is just a set of challenges that seem to stack up against you at every turn. Understanding that other photographers have had those same challenges, and then learning how they dealt with them can give us fresh perspective on ways we can deal as well.

How to approach a subject in different ways.
The portraiture work of David Bailey is worlds apart from the portraits of Dan Winters, and yet there is something to be gleaned from both. Whether you like one or the other more, studying the way they use light to shape and present the subject is fascinating. You may choose another path altogether, but you do it knowing what you are doing, and how to do it your way.

You get to step into the mind of another shooter… and that helps you grow.
When you study, or immerse yourself in the work of another photographer, you can start to see how that photographers sees, how they approach a visual challenge, how they choose to use – or not use – context. This can help you make decisions when you face the same challenges. Decisions that are uniquely yours, but derived from the visual legacy of a master.

The more you THINK about making a photograph, the better your photography can become.
In the workshops we strive to immerse ourselves in the work of master photographers. Some of the students decide they want to create a lighting scheme that is as complex as a master they are studying, while others try to find the essence of the work and then integrate some of it into their own style pallets. Both are excellent tools. And both help the photographer hone their craft faster because as you raise the camera up to your eye, you start to question the process based on the photographer you are studying. And that exercise is so very valuable. It creates patterns that will stay with you for the rest of your photographic career. THINKING about the photograph.

Freedom from sameness.
Yes… freedom. We get in a rut sometimes. We begin to think that Facebook and Flickr and G+ are arbiters of our own style and aesthetic and nothing could be further from the truth. Studying the work of photographers who are creating masterful images can lead to the discovery that you can make any kind of images you want to make… as long as they are authentically yours. And the freedom to make YOUR image can many times come after studying someone else who claimed their freedom, and then took it to levels unimagined for most of us.

I love teaching these classes, and we will resume in January. Currently we have three portrait classes; two are general approaches to stylized portraits, and one is focused on the environmental portraitist. I may add a studio section, but probably not. I am thinking that I could switch out a few photographers in the other classes and add a few new ones to the mix.

For more information on the last class of the year, go to this page.

Here are a few of the portraits to come out of the current 8 Week Portrat Class:

P52 Member Adi Talwar Shooting for the NYT

P52 Member Adi Talwar Shooting for the NYT

Adi Talwar is one of my Project 52 alumni. He just got featured in the NYT online magazine and the P52 family could not be more proud.

NYT article.

Adi is a go-getter. He always focused on getting the shot he saw in his head, and found the possibilities in the medium to make that happen.

Looking for a photographer who puts everything into his work, check out Adi Talwar for your next assignment.

Adi Talwar Photography   People

Some Amazing Portraits from The Current Class

Some Amazing Portraits from The Current Class

The goal of the portrait classes I teach is to look at a prominent portrait photographers work, and find those aspects of the work that resonate with our work. The goal is NOT to copy those we study, but to be inspired by their work.

This week we looked at the work of Lee Crum and Matt Barnes, two amazing portrait photographers. The members were inspired by their work and created some wonderful images. I am sharing them with you here.

For information on the next 8 Week Portrait Class, see this page.


I live where Monsoons create havoc a few months out of the year. Mike Olbinski, a photographer here in Phoenix is an amazing storm shooter, and this video he did of this past monsoon season is a killer. His video will keep you riveted to the screen.

Here’s Mike:

“I’ve been chasing the monsoon in Arizona for about 6-7 years now. This summer was different though. Back in late July, I was wondering why it felt like I was out chasing more than ever before. And then I remembered. I had a job last summer. This year I didn’t. I went full-time photography in November of 2014 and haven’t looked back.

I was free to roam and had virtually no limitations. I even had multiple chases where I never actually wend to bed, but instead chased all night. I took the kids to New Mexico at one point early in the season.

Last year I counted roughly 31 total days that I chased a storm during the monsoon. This summer: 48. Yikes.”

Head over to VIMEO for the rest of the story.

And check out his work on his website.

What Riding a Motorcycle Taught Me About Life (and Photography)

What Riding a Motorcycle Taught Me About Life (and Photography)

'You go where you look' and other tips of the two wheel set

I started riding motorcycles when I was 14. Back in the day a kid could own a ‘scooter’ at that age and get a permit to drive it. A scooter was considered anything under 5 horsepower. 

There was no possible way I was going to ride a 5HP ‘motorcycle’. My friends and I all had Triumphs and BSA‘s and Nortons – some of the biggest and fastest bikes around that time – and we put 5HP decals on them for those times when the cops decided to chat with us. (We were once caught doing 70 MPH in a residential neighborhood under construction. How we ended up with only a warning is still a mystery to me.)

My first bike was a Harley Davidson “Hummer”. A 125 CC bike that needed jump starting every four or five hours. I quickly moved to a BSA 650 and rode it for a couple of years. A few years into my motorcycling is when I discovered a love for the hobby of photography. And a love for the Honda CB 750 Chopper I cruised around on. (Not my bike, but pretty close to what my bike looked like back then.)

I gave up motorcycling 40 years ago when I developed a passion for fast sports cars. And they could carry more photography gear.

And now, forty years later, I have acquired a new bike (new to me) and realized that I needed to take some lessons to reaffirm what I knew I still knew, and to become more acquainted with the newer machines and riding protocols. Like taking workshops for the soul, this was two days of immersive motorcycling.

The lessons were great. I still remembered shifting and braking pretty well, but so much of the maneuvering – especially at slower speeds – was a bit cumbersome. And my “school bike” was a 250CC Yamaha Dirt Bike. My current bike is a 1600CC Bagger that weighs four times the weight of the Yamaha. Sheesh.

It was during the lessons that I started to think about how riding a motorcycle relates to living a life. Especially a creative life.

Riding a bike leaves us vulnerable to all the elements nature can throw . Wind, rain, hail, heat… all of it is right there all around you as you move through it. Life isn’t “out there” it is right here. We must make decisions based on the world around us as we move through it. In a car, we are immunized from the elements and the car does what it can to keep us dry, cool, warm, and entertained with lovely music.

Making art is more like the bike ride than the car trip. Art whips you and pulls you, warms you and cools you, blasts you in the face with the elements all around us. And if you make a wrong decision, at the wrong time, the consequences can range from mild to severe. Being an artist is one of the most vulnerable positions we can put ourselves in. Always fodder for criticism, and always in someone’s sights somewhere.

Riding a motorcycle is a constant interaction with balance. Lean one way, the bike goes there. Lean the other way and it goes there. Grooves in the road hardly have any affect on my Sonata, but I can feel everyone of them on the bike. And I am always looking for the best track on the asphalt. 

Much like making art. We feel every bump, every critique, every failure. We are hypersensitive to the work we do and are constantly trying to find that ‘groove’ that will keep us upright for a bit longer. Making art can be a constant struggle with balance – and the compromises that balance demands. 

You go where you focus on. This was a new concept for me, at least I didn’t remember it from the days I wrangled my Honda chopper around the west side. When making a turn, you look at where you want to end up, keep your chin high and focus on the outcome. Almost surprisingly the turns are made for you by the motorcycle. Take your eyes off that goal and the turns become a bit more erratic, and less controllable.

Making art for a living demands us knowing where we want to go. We must have a clear vision of who we are, what we do, and why others should care. Simply making things with no plan or vision for where we want to go is a mere hobby, a past time. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all. However, if we want to go beyond the mere dabbling, we need to know where we are going and LOOK at it. Sharply and with head up, eyes on the prize.

Learn to weave with confidence. Stuff on the roadway may be an uncomfortable bump for me and my Sonata, but that bump can be a significant problem on a bike. Learning to weave quickly and keep control of the motorcycle is something I am practicing for the the next several Sunday mornings. This bike is huge and the law of inertia means it wants to continue to go in a straight line. I am learning how to subtly get it to maneuver much quicker, in tighter weave patterns, and with more control.

And we learn to weave through the maze that is the creative’s journey. Finding ways to shift gears, move from side to side and escape possible perils are all a part of our day-to-day work. Whether the obstacles are too many family commitments to a full time job to a super busy time in our lives, they all seemingly appear out of nowhere and want to knock us from our ride. When we find that we can indeed weave through these obstacles by keeping our focus on where we want to be, we simply lean in a bit and find a way around them.

Take only what you need. GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) from which we all suffer from time to time is quickly abated when planning a motorcycle trip. There is no huge trunk for carrying an extra C-Stand or two. No place for a huge camera bag full of lenses that rarely get used. My bagger has a couple of storage places but after putting all the things one needs to survive on a road trip, it comes down to “do I need this” for the final pack up.

I am planning a very long road trip on my bike next summer – Phoenix, AZ to Fairbanks, AK. It will be a couple of weeks on the road each way and packing any more than I need will be a huge problem. There will have to be a very careful balance between what I absolutely need to make the photographs I want, and what I can live without. Even an extra 10 pounds can be an issue.

In art, we sometimes over do the gear and forget that we can pare down for any situation. Choose the gear wisely, and make sure it is the best gear for making the shots we want to make. And if we don’t yet know what images we want to make, perhaps a careful edit of the gear will help them be revealed to us. We don’t need every gizmo and ‘shiny new’ that comes down the pike, but we do need the tools we need. It is as simple – and as hard – as that.

Lean into the turns and apply some acceleration for more traction. It sounds counter-intuitive to lean INTO the turn since our most basic instinct is to try to counter balance the angle of the machine. When we do that, the machine will begin to right itself and go off course. Physics… no way to change or adapt our own ‘special technique’ to the turning of a motorcycle in motion (over 12 MPH).

We add a bit of throttle to the turn because we have slowed before we get there, and then we power through and out of the curve which gives the motorcycle more traction and it wants to right itself when you get to your goal (out of the turn).

When we get to a tough situation while making art, there will be curves and changes of direction at many turns. Before we go careening off the edge of the road (common motorcycle crash) we learn that when we see a curve coming, we begin to prepare for it. Maybe that means slowing down, maybe it means altering our processes, or possibly it may mean that the direction we are going is not going to remain, so we best prepare for a change.

And when the change comes, we lean into, apply a little more go-juice and power toward our new directions with momentum, purpose and speed. Life can be a long straight-away with a sharp turn hidden right over the hill, or it can be a winding, twisting two-laner creeping from valley to crest. Not a single mile of straight road in sight. We make art – we have seen both kinds of challenges.

The artist who loses it all through a catastrophe, or personal challenge may have never seen it coming, yet he powered through the corner with seemingly little effort. The artist who is constantly weaving and twisting through this work and that and is in a constant pattern of activity suddenly finds that patch of straight road and hits the throttle. All of us are on their own bike, taking the challenges, and curves one by one and adjusting through them with a sense of purpose and a goal in their eye.


There are artists who never prepare for a turn. They are so inwardly focused, or so insulated that they don’t see the turn coming. Some are so confused by the process of the turn, and don’t know where to look out ahead so they have no control of the machine and off the road they go. And there are the artists who timidly fail to accelerate, lose traction, and find themselves spinning out of control. Then there are those who for various reasons never hit the throttle, but simply roll to a coasting stop, drop the kickstand and walk away.

Those are similar to the tragic tales of woe are heard on every photography forum out there.

“No one can make a living in this.”

“Too much competition.”

“Back in the day we never had to do this.”

“I can’t adapt to this new way of working.”

“It’s too hard.”

Well, yeah. It IS hard. Too hard?

Perhaps it is too hard for the person making that claim, but I suggest that it may have had more to do with how they rode into – and out of – those curves than the curves themselves.

If you have a motorcycle;

  • Maintain balance.
  • Prepare for the turn by making sure your speed will handle it.
  • Look at where you want to go and focus on it.
  • Lean into the curve and accelerate for traction.
  • Keep your head high, and your vision fixed on where you want to be.
  • Let the motorcycle to the spot you are fixated on.
  • Enjoy the experience.

Turning through a series of curves is one of the most fun things to do on a motorcycle.

And if you make art;

Do the same damn thing.

Shooting to Layout: A Point of Purchase Display

Shooting to Layout: A Point of Purchase Display

One of the most difficult parts of commercial photography is shooting to layout. A designer or art director has an approved layout, and your shot must work within the elements on the page. We see it a lot in catalog, advertising, collateral, and web oriented assignments.

For this particular assignment, the image had to be crafted to fit in the pre-approved design of the point of purchase (POP) display. Designed to go in hundreds of mom ‘n pop hardware stores and nurseries the goal of the shot is grab some attention and get the viewer to take a brochure. There would be three brochure racks hanging below the lower band and hide most of the image.