Editor’s Note: This was originally published in 2016, and I thought it would be great to share it again with Frank’s latest KelbyOne course!
Some time ago I posted this online: When you look at carpenters, you won’t see them mocking each other because of the brand of hammer they use. They know that everything depends on the work they create, on the end result.
Also in almost every workshop I teach, I will have participants who think they can’t do something because of the camera (or even brand) they are using. Basically it all depends on the work you are doing, it is just a tool.
To my surprise, some carpenters responded and told me that was not true and that there are indeed (just like with photography) people who disparage carpenters using a certain type of hammer. To say that my dream was destroyed is a bit of a stretch, but… Actually, I was a little surprised.
Of course, there are areas where gear is incredibly important like biking, running, etc. which are highly equipment dependent. A little finer tuning of the car can mean the difference between getting pole position and all the way to the back. The pilot is also vital, but sometimes I wonder what the combination is; I think it’s mostly the machine “helped” by the human driving it.
Now, with photography, I won’t tell you that the material isn’t important at all. I wish that were the case because it would make our passion much cheaper! But what I want to tell you is that the human factor is extremely important.
When my wife Annewiek and I were still living in our caves and I came home from hunting with my dinosaur and could relax while Annewiek prepared our meat on the BBQ, I couldn’t watch TV so I started to draw on the walls of the caves. I did not draw beautiful women in tiger skin (be aware that women at the time also carried weapons). What I drew were literally stories about my heroic adventures and how I discovered fire and later the wheel. Fast forward to our pyramids and we also used drawing/imagery to tell stories.
For me, photography is not just about storytelling, but I like most (if not all) of my images to have an element of storytelling.
What is storytelling?
When you talk about storytelling, for a lot of people it means letting the role model/babysitter do something. Add a REAL element of a story and it’s 100% true. I’d say it’s more of a concept shoot, which means you’re really telling a story.
For me, telling a story is more about adding elements to a shot that make the viewer say: “Mmmm, I wonder what he/she is thinking?” or, “What’s going on?” This can be done with a simple item like a camera, but it can also be done with something like an expression.
Sometimes people ask me why most of my models look away from the camera. I think that’s part of that storytelling element. If a model is looking straight into the camera, it can be incredibly powerful (don’t get me wrong). However, it can be even more powerful when the model is not. So the immediate question becomes, “Where is she looking, what’s going on there?” Hence your storytelling element.
You don’t need to write a book with your image (or more), just try to give your model something to work with. You can give her a camera in her hand, but you can also make her work that camera like she’s taking selfies, etc.
Narration can also be with your backgrounds. We all know about seamless backgrounds, right?
For me, they were awesome when I started with my model photography. Then slowly (but surely) they lost a lot of their appeal for the simple reason… Nothing was happening. BUT…. You can use your backgrounds in a whole new way and combine some ideas, and you get a whole different picture.
Whenever I teach a workshop where I “must” use seamless, I always ask them if the seamless can be destroyed after shooting, and luckily they always say yes. I see it as my “trash the dress” shoot. You can actually get started very easily.
Combining different options really creates something cool in my opinion. For example, combine this with the camera.
Or let the model do something more….
In the end, it all depends on your creativity and your mind.
I don’t always work on concept shots because most of the work you see me posting online or finding in my portfolio is shot at workshops or fairs where I often don’t have the opportunity to do elaborate shoots with great decorations. I literally have to work with what I get.
But even then, just working with a little style and good framing of your models goes a LONG way.
As you can see in this example, it’s a plan that’s not hard to create, it’s just in our studio. But I added smoke to mix it all up and mixed light sources to create a more surreal look. The very idea of them looking somewhere and the male model holding a “device” makes it a bit more mysterious (telling a story). Your mind will fill in the blanks, and the fun thing is… Everyone will do it differently. This is also why I almost never name my images or add stories to them. I think it’s more powerful when the viewer does that. Because your imagination is much stronger than what I can write.
As you see in the example above, although it was taken during a workshop with the concept of mixing light sources, a BIG part of the image is that you as the photographer determine the result. I could have just mixed the light sources and explained the effect and the technique. But by also pushing me for a cool photo, I also inspire the group to start doing it at home, because they see how “easily” it can be done. Don’t get me wrong…creativity is NOT easy, but it can be done.
And sometimes you’re incredibly lucky and it all comes together.
As you can see in the photo above, I was very lucky. I photographed it just before Photoshop World in Vegas on a trip to Nelson. We brought in a model to film a scene for an instructional video. I asked her to bring a red dress, but by chance she also brought these corner wings. Luckily there was a plane, so my mind immediately created… well fill in your own story there (see how easy it is? :D)
Do you plan?
This is probably the most asked question… And my answer is… Well, yes and no.
Sometimes we plan a shoot and we plan it from A to Z (and during the shoot it will be different). But we will have an idea for clothes, location, etc. and sometimes… it happens. Do you remember that shot we started with, Nadine sitting on a pumpkin with the sign pointing down? Believe it or not, NOTHING in this plan was planned. It was shot at a workshop I taught in the UK last year and we stumbled upon this cute little shop making props for children’s attractions. We asked if we could use it for a shoot and they said, “Of course, but what do you see in this bric-a-brac?” We just said, “Trust us. Nadine combined the clothes and literally built the set herself in minutes. The only thing I had to do was to “mix” everything, in terms of posing and lighting. You don’t want to know how many people ask us how much preparation this shoot took and I think half of them don’t believe the story I just told you, but it’s 100% true.
At some point, you develop a sense of telling stories.
During the workshops at Photoshop World you will see the same thing, I ALWAYS go white, I have a theme and things I want to teach, but everything else is 100% white. This is also why my workshops and demos are always different, even if I teach two or three in a row.
During the workshop/demo I walk my group exactly through my thought process and show them what I see/think/feel about a setup and what would and would not work. What’s fun and interesting to see is how everything is built and how often we change things during filming.
Now it’s during the workshops/free work where it’s all about the learning process. If we work for clients, it’s often too “risky” and I’ll actually create a moodboard for the team and the client and try to stick to that moodboard. What I always include are options to change things. If you promise to smoke to a customer and the smoke machines aren’t working or aren’t allowed, you’re…. good…. you see what i mean 😀 If however you promise the smoke idea/suggestion, you can still fix it by e.g. using the lensflare, breathing on the lens, etc. So, never fix yourself too much.
The human mind is a crazy thing. It’s incredibly flexible and creative if triggered, so learn to play with it. But don’t go like a blind horse, make 100% sure that you also have the knowledge to succeed. Although I’m a very creative shooter, I know all my techniques, I know how to dose, how to make sure my color and exposures are correct, I know how to create the effects I need. I hate relying on “pffff we succeeded but I don’t know how”.
During workshops, I always tell people to bring everything when they ask me what to bring. It often happens that I only film with a 24-70 for the entire studio and a single light source. But it also often happens that I use a 12-24 and several lamps. With creative people you never know. Look at the scenery and let your imagination run wild, but most importantly… If you know something works, use it as a backup and start with something new, something exciting. You can also switch back to safe mode, but if you only shoot what you know will work, you’ll always end up with the same images.
You can see more of Frank’s work at FrankDoorhof.com and follow him on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Check out his latest KelbyOne course, Portrait Photography: One Prop, Unlimited Possibilities for more inspiration!