Staying Creative

When I spend a day or a week away from writing or editing photos or generally being creative, I tend to blame it on a heavy workload at my job. This is the case on some days when I work 10 hours to finsh a project. However, in most cases I lack creativity because I don't produce the right environment at home to do so.

It is easy to switch on a TV show and "zone out" for a bit. My day-job is intellectually taxing and mindlessly watching Mr. Bean can be just the thing I want. But watching TV is also easy and I tend to get anchored to the screen.

Auston Kleon gives ten tips in this talk. I have read these in his blog — one of my favorites — from time to time but it is nice to see these tips stacked together. Two tips resonated with me so much that I wrote them on large index cards with a fat sharpie and glued them to the wall above my computer.

8. When in doubt, tidy up
9. The demons hate fresh air
— Austin Kleon

I am normally a tidy person, and I like going outside. I like these quotes because I think these would work best to get me out of a rut and nudge the anchors off. It is so easy to just watch TV or browse the internet, so easy to just spin the wheel without actually going anywhere.


I did some heavy lifting at work in the the past two weeks. Busy work weeks leave little energy to pursue writing or photography. I managed to photograph two models in that time but I neglected writing completely and rarely edited photos.

With these two weeks safely behind me I am starting to reflect on how my photography has changed since I bought the medium format camera.

  1. I focus mostly on photographing people, models in particular. Landscapes don't catch my eye.
  2. I struggle holding the TLR camera level in my hand. So I shoot exclusively with a tripod, a first in my photography career.
  3. I rely heavily on editing with Photoshop. The Wacom pen-tablet is working out well. My post-processing has slowed down but I think I am doing better work.
  4. Even after a difficult day I find it enjoyable to edit one photo really well on photoshop
  5. I am getting more picky with the models I want to work with. I am desprarate to get some variety of age and ethnicity in my portfolio. I want to get a variety of genders too but no luck with non-female models so far.
  6. More models are willing to travel to Lakeland to work with me; even from an hour away. My work now must be improving from my previous portraits.

One more thing: I don't struggle to find things to write about. I do struggle to find the time and mindset to write. I am chalking it up to busy work days. It is important that I learn to appreciate the ebb-and-flow of my creativity.

Things I learned from Analog Portrait photoshoots

So far, I photographed four models with experience ranging from low to moderate. I had to pose them either deliberately or they posed with little direction. I only used film cameras.

Here are some things I learned after doing these photoshoots.

  1. I missed focus on only a few frames, and only by a few centimenters. I must be more careful with portraits. This is where shooting with a single lens reflex camera triumphs over my twin lens camera.
  2. I don’t need to bring my Canon full-frame DSLR to the shoot at all. Frankly, I brought it for "insurance" in case I mess up the workflow with the TLR film camera which I didn't. I will carry the little Fujifilm X100F on the shoot to expose a challenging scene. Back in the day photographers would expose a polaroid to do this very thing.
  3. I should start the session with the Nikon FE 35mm camera. I can waste some film while I learn how the model takes direction and while the model learns how I give direction. This will prepare me before I start shooting with the Mamiya C220 medium format camera. Shooting with the Nikon FE will give the model quick, repetitive shots to habituate body positions, angles and expressions. Shooting with the Mamiya is slow and calculated. And expensive.
  4. I must start shooting three hours before sunset. I only need two hours for the shoot but the light changes very quickly in the last 45 minutes. The rapidly warming color temperature does not give me much room to control the feel of the shoot. Moreover, the diminishing natural light makes it increasingly difficult to find focus in the ground glass of the camera. Blurry shots are no fun.
  5. I must specify outfit choices with more detail. My casting call said: “I prefer simple outfits for this project, nothing too tight or shiny”. I changed it to say: “I prefer simple outfits for this project; nothing too tight, shiny or structured; solid colors over prints, colors could contrast with your skin and hair. Loose buttoned shirts, tanks, cropped tops, and spaghetti tops will work.”
  6. On that note, I should be more specific about the exact kinds of tops and bottoms over texts and emails with the model.
  7. I run out of poses after shooting three to four rolls. Thats 48 frames. An experienced model could get into more poses, and much faster. With practice I could take quicker shots when I get more efficient at positioning my camera and tripod, and focusing quicker.
  8. I've averaged 3 to 4 presentable shots out of every 12 — not too shabby!
  9. I can be less picky about the location. I tried shooting in Mead Botanical Garden in Winter Park, FL. I thought the picturesque gardens and boardwalks would help set the scene. We ended up shooting in front of the trees next to the parking lot. So, all I need is some open space that is safe and quiet, some shade (trees, walls, small buildings) and good exposure to light.
  10. I must try to add some space in the photographic frame around the model.
  11. I am trying to but I still can't make the case to purchase a single-lens-reflex medium format camera. My twin-lens-reflex has proved very predictable so far and I should get more familiar with it.
  12. I haven't set my mind on this yet, but I am leaning towards working with one model at a time instead of two or more.

Imitating Jan Scholz

Photoshoot with Sandy, 2012
Nikkormat, 135mm lens

Photography has taken me down several paths, one of which is portraiture with models. In 2012 I accompanied my friend Katie to her shoot with Sandy. This was my first shoot with a model. I had a five dollar Nikkormat with a color roll from Walgreens. Kirk gave me a 135mm lens. Katie helped pose Sandy and I got a decent photo or two out of the deal.

I upgraded to a DSLR the next year and booked a few models to photograph. Katie recommended I create a “mood board” so I did. I collected other peoples portraits that I liked on Tumblr and referenced it during the shoot. I even opened a casting call titled “Moody Portraits”. I had decent luck shooting this way for some time.

Over the years I added and added to this “mood board” and, well, there was no cohesive mood left. My photos became disconnected from any central idea. All my portraits in 2016 and 2017 reflected nothing more than an average mash of the mood board. Any photographer with a DSLR would get these shots. My “Moody Portraits” project was effectively dead.

I started photographing medium format in early 2018 and decided to dust off the old profile on Model Mayhem. I wanted to come up with a new project. This is when I discovered Jan Scholz’s work. He is based out of Belgium and like me holds a non-photography full-time job. His portraits are breathtaking. I later realized that he shoots only film in small, medium and large format.

Jan’s work gave me the idea for a project of my own. I built a new “mood board” with photos only from Jan.

My current mood board; all photos by Jan Scholz

My current mood board; all photos by Jan Scholz

I made a list of the type of poses I liked the best, a list of angles of the head, placement of hair, line of sight and bends of joints, etc.. I wrote these down in index cards and I take them with me to a photo shoot. When we are stuck during a shoot, I pull out the index cards for a quick reference.

To be clear, I am not trying to copy Jan’s photos. I am only trying to imitate the feeling in his portraits while using my slow, deliberate style. Further, my choice of models, venue, camera/lens, and film choices all color my particular interpretation of this project.

Austin Kleon said it best: Steal like an artist

Aunt Carol's Portraits

I am reasonably satisfied by the trajectory my portraits are tracing so far. On one hand I am working with models who I have never met before. On another hand I am working with people with whom I have some kinship. As I follow this trajectory it becomes clearer that I must say something real and genuine through these portraits, and this real and genuine “thing” must come from me and I must project it into the portrait.

Aunt Carol on the side of the house
F4, 1/30 sec
Face: EV 10 1/3 placed in zone 7

I spent a Saturday afternoon taking Aunt Carol’s portraits. We photographed outside the house in which she and many many members of her family were brought up. For generations this house was a concrete waypoint as children and grandchildren grew up through countless Christmas, Thanksgiving, and graduation ceremonies. This is Granny’s house and Granny is gone. This house will be gone too someday.

Aunt Carol in the front lawn in direct sun
F5.6, 1/500 sec
Face: EV 15 placed in zone 7

I live nowhere close to the home in India where I grew up. I have fond memories of my time living in Jacksonville in a cave of an apartment. Over time I have left these homes to build a renewed sense of home somewhere else. I have lost something in the trade but also gained something new. This was on my mind when I asked Aunt Carol for portraits. I wanted to capture this sliver of time in Aunt Carol’s life that will become a memory once she transitions into a new place of her own.

Aunt Carol on the side porch
F4, 1/30 sec
Face: EV 10 1/3 placed in zone 7

Now, on to some technical details. I shot this with Portra 160 on my Mamiya C220 medium format camera. I like the colors of this film over its 400 speed version. Choice of venue is an ingredient to which I must pay more attention. I find it is easier to establish my idea in the portrait when people are in their own familiar space. I will have to test this hypothesis before I draw any firm conclusions.

I will eventually settle down with black and white film — my new home — but I am enjoying this journey with color film while I get there.