When brands with rich histories are searching for ways to refresh their look, they turn to photographer Mike Lewis. With a background in film production, Mike says he always thinks of his work as, “in development.” For companies like the Hudson’s Bay Co., MAC Cosmetics, eBay Canada, and most recently, Fairweather, this “in development” style translates into captivating fashion spreads, iconic portraits and an evolving body of work that pushes the boundaries of traditional fashion photography.
Case in point, Mike is one of the first photographers in Canada to master fashion Cinemagraphs (moving photographs). He says this type of medium opens up new possibilities for imagery that have yet to be fully explored.
Now, Mike is sharing a few insights into his extraordinary body of work from the other side of the lens.
1. First off, can you tell us about yourself and how you got started in photography? What drew you to fashion photography over other types of photography?
I started in photography relatively late. I got my first SLR (Pentax ME-Super 35mm camera) when I was 21 and in Film school at Simon Fraser University. I thought learning about photography would help my eye as a cinematographer and back then it was a lot cheaper to take pictures than shoot motion film. A couple of my friends in school also had 35mm cameras so we would hang out and take pictures around Vancouver. It was a really fun and creative time.
Cut to a few years later, after graduating and working in various roles and on various film projects, I was beginning to realize the film industry wasn’t for me. Too many cooks, so to speak. I had just bought my first digital SLR (a 6MP Canon digital rebel) when a friend (someone I used to shoot with in university) called me up and asked if I would shoot this quick thing for a Hydro client. He had become an art director at an ad agency and needed something shot that day. I said sure. I went down to a rental house to rent some photography gear. The rental guy gave me a quick lesson on strobes and how they worked (I had never even seen a strobe or softbox in person before) and then went straight to the location. I’m sure I barely uttered two words to the client, I was so nervous. I fumbled my way through it, got paid, and was hooked.
I had always looked at fashion photography as visual inspiration for my film projects. It seemed to me to be the closest thing to cinema. It was fiction – stories, characters, emotions, and I loved that. I decided to give it a try. That was ten years ago and I haven’t looked back once.
2. How would you describe your work? What sets you apart from other photographers?
I always just think of my work as “in development.” Sometimes I look back through my portfolio and just think, this is all garbage. Other times I think, well, some of it is okay. I think what I have in common with any photographer worth mentioning is a constant dissatisfaction with my work. What sets me apart? I really don’t know. But I’m working on it.
3. What are the biggest challenges you face as a fashion photographer?
Aside from the obvious challenges of standing out in a massively oversaturated market and continuing to make a living at this, the real challenge is in figuring who I am as an artist and what I want to say with my work. It has taken me ten years to build a decent skill set. I would call that the “how.” Now I’m really focused on turning my attention more inward to ask the harder question, “why.” Hopefully the “what” will come out of that.
4. What kind of camera do you own and what type of camera would you recommend to a photography hobbyist that’s just starting out?
I have six or seven cameras that I use for different things. I don’t believe in brand loyalty or even preference. It’s all about the right tool for the job. Every camera seems to have its thing that it does well, whether it’s low noise at high ISO’s or number of frames in a rapid burst, whatever. Find the thing that is important to you or your style and use that camera. In terms of picture quality, they are all good. Nobody can tell one from another without incredibly unpractical measurements. I don’t even use great lenses because frankly, I don’t need to for the work I do.
For a hobbyist just starting out, I would recommend buying an old 35mm SLR for $50 on kijiji and use that. You’ll learn way more about photography, enjoy it more, and create better photos. There is nothing like shooting a roll of black and white film for the first time. I recommend it to anyone. If you’re really adventurous, develop the film at home. It’s way easier than you think and you don’t need a dark room.
5. Aside from your camera, what gear do you typically bring to a shoot?
Every shoot is different. I bring the least amount of gear as possible. If shooting outdoors, I bring a couple reflectors. Otherwise, lights, stands, etc. Really, I pack for the job. Obviously, extra memory cards, batteries, etc. I shoot 90% of my work with an 85mm lens. I have two of those.
6. In your opinion, what makes a good photo?
In fashion photography, it really is a combination of all of the elements: model, wardrobe, styling, hair, makeup, lighting, location, angle, composition, timing. It’s hard. A fashion photographer has to be a director. You have to look at all the elements and try to make sense of it all. You also have to listen and collaborate with your team. A good photo can only happen if everyone is focused and at their best. That’s why it is so rare.
7. When doing a professional shoot, how much work is done on-set versus digital touchups? How do your photos develop from camera to print?
The better I get (and the people I work with get), the less retouching I have to do. I like to get everything in camera. One thing you will never hear me say is “we’ll fix it in post”. That’s not taking away from people who build and create amazing things in post. There is a huge art and skill to that. But for my work, there’s no reason for it. If I’m doing a lot of post work, it’s usually because I messed up on set and didn’t see something that was out of place. Sometimes clients ask for things I couldn’t anticipate like changing the background colour or something. In those cases, it’s good to have the ability to do that but it’s not that common (for me, anyway). I do the majority of the work in Lightroom (image selection, organizing, basic colour-correction) then do detail work in Photoshop. That’s basically it.
8. Speaking of digital touchups, when creating “living images” with Cinemagraph, what happens behind the scenes? How does this differ from a more traditional photo or video shoot?
Cinemagraphs are a much more painful process. It’s much more restricted especially for the model. Movements have to be precise and calculated so it can be hard to capture something genuine. It’s also a lot more work in post. I have a love/hate relationship with Cinemagraphs. On the one hand, they can be a really cool and effective way of telling a story, on the other, well, like I said they are a lot of work and quite restrictive. It’s really just a new way of working that I am still getting used to.
9. Why should brands care about Cinemagraphs?
I think brands are and should be interested in this new medium for the simple reason of standing out amongst the barrage of great imagery on the web. It opens up new possibilities for imagery that have yet to be fully explored. There also seems to be new platforms and apps popping up making them more user friendly to make and view which is cool. I think we will see a lot more of these in the next little while. The Gif file format really is clumsy and hard to work with. But new systems claim to eliminate the need for that format. I look forward to exploring that more.
10. What’s the most memorable photo shoot that you’ve ever worked on?
The most meaningful shoot I have ever worked on was shooting my wife while she was pregnant with our son. I shot on polaroid in natural light. When the first image came out, we both felt a huge emotional rush. She got teary. It was so real and amazing and beautiful. I have to say, I don’t think the experience (or images) would have been the same had I shot on digital. This is what I mean by the right tool for the job. It matters.
11. What advice would you give someone just starting out in the photography industry?
Be patient and keep working hard. It takes a lot of time and practice to get anything even resembling decent. After the initial learning curve (which can be quite steep), it is about constantly refining and fine-tuning your work. It really can take your whole life. But honestly, what I wish someone had told me early on is to really ask yourself what it is that you want to say. Try to find what is unique and genuine to you, and work on developing that. The technical skills come over time.
To see more of Mike Lewis’ work, visit his web site: Mike Lewis Photographer