storytelling photography

Jilted – Storytelling Through Photography

Without question, Joshua Hoffine and Gregory Crewdson changed the way I think about photography.  They introduced me to a way of shooting: painting scenes like pictures that truly capture a moment in time.

I came across Hoffine on a photography website a few years ago and immediately fell in love with his work.  For those of you not familiar, Hoffine creates horror photography in a way I’ve never seen before.  Instead of relying on makeup or creepy locations, he creates a scene: a horrific snapshot of fear.

Shortly thereafter, while looking for photographers like him, I came across Gregory Crewdson.  What Hoffine did for horror photography, Crewdson did for Americana.  His images are slices of life; snapshots of emotional moments.  His photography lives in both reality and imagination, a half – world between the two.

They do more than take pictures.  They tell stories.

Dangerous – My First Foray


I shot a set called “Dangerous” long before I came across this storytelling photography.  I had shot models before, but I wanted to do something heightened, more than just a person on a background.


So, on a dreary January morning, I set out to tell a story of heightened drama, using Elizabeth and some fake guns.  The result is exactly what I wanted: a model shoot, elevated by a larger scope of action.

Jilted – Photographing Frozen Drama

Sufficiently inspired, I created this image, which I affectionately call “Jilted”:

storytelling photography

I’ve always been fascinated by artist’s self portraits.  I think something gets brought to the surface when you capture your own image; you reveal things about yourself through your art.

I also really like the technical challenge of shooting myself, giving up the control of being behind the camera.  It takes a completely different skill set, because you’re not looking through the viewfinder.  It forces you to think about composition and to plan the layout of the shot long before you set up your equipment.

We were staying at Elizabeth’s family home; an old farmhouse where she grew up.  The bed in the guest bedroom faces a huge mirrored dressing table.  I noticed almost immediately that anyone standing at the dressing table could look in the mirror and see behind them, out the door and into the hallway, and my mind started working.

The remainder of the image came within twenty – four hours.  In an odd way, the dressing table created the moment – why would these two people be in these positions?  What is the life between them?

Details – The Coolest Part of the Image

I like shooting self portraits.  It forces me to give up an element of control, because I’m not looking through the viewfinder.  It makes me think very intently about the composition of the image and the placement of everything in the frame.

Elizabeth was kind enough to provide me with a lipstick kiss on my neck.  I do wish I had thought to change out the hallway light for a traditional bulb instead of the energy saving one, but that’s a pretty minor detail.

I processed in Lightroom, where I also added some saturation to some areas, to make up for the lack of artificial lighting.  If I had more options, I would have put a small keylight on details like the contents of the dressing table, to make sure they stood out.  But, being nearly three hundred miles from my equipment, I had to make do with what I had at my disposal.

It was a fun image to produce, and it definitely got me thinking about photography in a different way.

Photography as Storytelling

Every photo we shoot should tell a story.  Every moment we capture should be compelling and entertaining and it should spark the imagination of the viewer.  Even simple images should always be a moment of time, full of life, energy and whispers.


Color Theory for Filmmakers

or: The Quest for Warm and Cool

warm and cool colorRecently, I had conversations with two separate clients about color theory.  It reminded me why it’s so important for us, as working artists, to educate ourselves on the Why’s and How’s of our craft.

Speaking of education, I dropped out of art school back in 2005.  At the time, all I wanted to do was make movies, I didn’t want to understand why images were specifically constructed and how to scientifically dissect why a photograph was visually appealing.  I just wanted to shoot dammit!

Over the years, however, I’ve slowly returned to those principles I rejected.  I find myself discovering something that works and then learning WHY it works.  This should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me; I’m the type of guy that can’t be told how to do something.  I have to uncover things out on my own.  Like Neo but with less spoons.

Color theory is one of those beasts.  If you watch movies these days, you may notice an abundance of warm and cool colors, like yellow, oranges and blues, tossed around on screen.  Why do filmmakers choose these colors and why do they make everything look so damn cool?

warm and cool color

Not Spiderman

Color Temperature: Warm and Cool Colors

“Color temperature” is a phrase we use to classify the color values we’re shooting.  It is measured in Kelvin (K) and visible colors generally fall between 1000K and 10,000K.  Using this scale, we can chart warm and cool colors and classify them easily: color tempBasically, warmer colors are classified with lower Kelvin values (5500K and below), and cooler colors are classified with higher values (5600K and above).

If your camera has an onboard white balance meter, you’ll notice that the values are reversed.  That is, the higher (or cooler) you set that number (5600K and above) the warmer the shot gets.  That’s because the camera’s white balance is offsetting the color temperature of the light around you.  If you’re shooting inside under household light bulbs, you’ll set it at 3600K to get true white whites.  If you’re outside, you’ll set it around 5600K for the same result.

Take a moment and think about skin tones and where they fall on the chart.  Probably somewhere around 2000K, right?  Remember this; we’ll be coming back to it later.

Complimentary Colors, Contrast and Distance

Ok, now that we’ve got a basic understanding of the Kelvin scale and color temperature, let’s talk about how our brains understand color. You probably already know that complimentary colors, or colors that are opposite in hue, look awesome together.  That’s why Spiderman’s costume works; blue and red are complimentary and set each other off nicely.


So why do we find complimentary colors so visually pleasing?  The answer actually comes the way light works and how our brains interpret it. Light travels as a wave, much like sound.  And, like sound, different frequencies travel at different speeds.  You may know that bass travels slower than treble; it also travels further, which is why you can hear bass from passing cars.

Light is the same way.  Cooler light is more like bass – it travels further distances and moves slower.  Warmer light is like treble – quick and short.

As light waves travel through the atmosphere, some of that visible light gets scattered by the molecules of oxygen and nitrogen in the air.  Specifically, the longer wavelengths are scattered more than the shorter ones. What this means is that things in the far distance will look cooler (bluer) because they are further away.

Think about looking off at mountains in the distance.  Chances are, they are blue or purple, not red or orange. Our brains understand this difference.  So when we’re looking at a picture with warm and cool colors, our brains are interpreting this contrast as distance and separation.

You literally perceive cooler colors as being “further away” regardless of the actual distance they are from you.  Just one of the many ways your brain takes shortcuts when forming a view of the world around you.

How to Use It – Composition, Tint and Split Toning

We all know that images with high luminance contrast (bright highlights and dark shadows) are visually interesting.  You’re probably already creating this contrast by crushing the blacks and blowing the highlights (not nearly as dirty as it sounds).

Now it’s time to take it a step further and establish a similar contrast in the colors themselves. Remember our skin tone temperature?  It was pretty warm, right?  Let’s set that person against a cooler background.  In doing so, we’ve automatically created color contrast, just by manipulating our audiences’s brains.

Now, let’s push that color contrast even further.  Depending on what program you’re using, your method may be slightly different.  Most video editing programs have a Tint filter which allows you to change the tint of the highlights and shadows.  Lightroom has a super useful Split Toning, which does the same thing.

If your image is properly exposed, your skin tones should be somewhere in the upper mid range.  Go ahead and add some warmth into them, maybe yellow or red.  Now do the opposite to your darks; make them blue or dark green.   In doing so, you’ve actually created more contrast in your image than you originally had.  And made and damn good looking picture in the process.

 Conclusion – How Important Is It?

Only as important as your client wants it to be.  As visual artists, we tend toward bold visual choices, especially in color and framing.  Clients are often turned off by such distinct choices.

But it is up to us to educate ourselves and be able to explain to our clients why we shoot, correct and process the way we do.  “It just looks cool” will never fly with a stubborn client.  But “Complimentary colors create a greater sense of visual depth in the image” just might sway them. jamie color


Old Lenses

old 50 lens

My first SLR was a Canon AE-1, which I took on safari to Africa in 2005.  I got it and a large collection of lenses secondhand from Goodwill in Lebanon PA.  Among these were an outstanding off – brand 135 f/2.8 and the mandatory 50mm f/1.4.

old lens 1

When I upgraded to my 7D in 2009, I also bought a Bower lens adapter to use those old FD’s on the new 7D.  As many others have noted, this brings mixed success.  Sometimes the old lenses are as sharp as they were on my AE-1, other times they’re foggy and unusable.

old lens 2

I would never use them for a paid gig, because they are so unreliable.  But about once a month, I break them out just for the fun of it, to challenge myself and remember what an aperture ring feels like.

old lens 3

Most of these images were shot with the 50mm f/1.4 FD.  As I said, in the right conditions, it can produce incredible work.  If I could count on it to perform this well more frequently, it would live in my camera bag.  Unfortunately, it will have to live as a second – string lens, the one I turn to when I’m craving a little camera history.

old lens 4

Got a finicky lens you love to hate?  Drop me a comment and let us know how you deal with it.


Broad St

8 Things Wedding Shooters Always Need and Never Carry

broad st wedding

Summer wedding season is upon us.  For many filmmakers and photographers, this is our Black Friday – this is when we make bank.  Want to get in on the action?  There are plenty of blogs that will help you buy the best lens and flash, but only this one will tell you what gear you’re liable to forget to pack.

1. Snacks

wedding snacks

Chances are, you’re only eating one meal today.  If you’re smart, you’ve had breakfast and you’re not hung over.  But lunch?  Forget about it.  Lunchtime generally falls around the time that the bride is getting ready, which pretty much rules that meal out.  You’ll have dinner later tonight, around 8:30 or 9pm, when everyone else is eating.  And you’ll probably grab some cheese and fruit from the corner table at cocktail hour.  But a granola bar, hastily devoured on the trip to the church, can mean the difference between a growling tummy or a quiet one.  And no one wants to hear your stomach during the groom’s vows.

2. Sunscreen

wedding sunscreen

For an outdoor wedding, anyway.  Think about it.  You’re going to be outside, away from shade for hours, probably standing in the same spot.  And, unless it’s a wedding with a specific theme, you probably have to leave your wide brimmed cowboy hat at home.  Bummer.  So protect your skin and make your Mom proud by wearing sunscreen.

3. Bug spray

wedding mosquito

Goes along with sunscreen.  Because those mosquitoes are definitely going to be biting during the first look, and they’re hungry!

4. Multiplug Outlet Adapters

wedding outlet

This is one especially for the video shooters.  Because you need to charge your camera battery, your mic battery, your sound recorder batteries and your phone simultaneously.  And the two free outlets in the reception hall are probably taken up by the DJ and his big honkin’ turntable.

5. Earplugs

wedding earplugs

Most people won’t wear earplugs to loud events, because they only attend three or four a year.  When you’re shooting that many a month, you definitely want to protect your hearing.  Buy the highest decibel reduction you can, unless you really want to hear the MOB belt out Rolling in the Deep after a couple glasses of champagne.

6. A Good Multitool

wedding grappler

Really, this should just live in your camera bag, alongside a roll of gaff tape.  Tighten tripod screws, open packaging, cut loose strings and fend off hungry wildlife.

7. Cash

wedding money

In small bills.  Pretend you’re a drug lord or a strip club patron.  Weddings frequently involve travel and travel frequently involves tolls.  And toll booths tend not to give change, especially for large bills.  Until you’ve rolled up to a $.75 toll booth with only twenties, you don’t know what true rage is.

8. The Number of a Reliable Cab Company

wedding mohawk

Because sometimes it’s hard to catch a cab after midnight.  You’re carrying thousands of dollars of equipment; now is not the time to wander the streets of the Bronx, waving at every yellowish car passing by.

What do you always need and never have?  Leave a message in the comments below.

Look Out


“You have to risk everything from time to time.  The death of creativity is getting stuck in your ways” – Hans Zimmer

artist look out

I’ve been thinking a lot about perspective and perception.  Particularly the way we view ourselves and the effect it has on our lives.  The way we view ourselves not only changes the way we deal with other people; it has the power to totally reshape our lives and alter our paths.


As artists, we have an awesome power to out – think ourselves.  It’s remarkable easy for us to do.  In fact, I don’t think I know a single successful artist who doesn’t second – guess their work and their worth on an almost weekly basis.

artist chair

I used to think it was luck that separated a successful artist from an unsuccessful one.  Right place, right time and all that.  But the truth is, as Harvey Dent so gracefully put it, “We make our own luck”.  The difference is that a successful artist knows when to listen to that nagging self doubt, and when to tell it to shut up.


It’s not an easy thing.  It takes practice.  And that secret, cynical voice will never really go away, just recede and get smaller and less powerful.  But that’s good enough.

artist flood

I don’t believe that you can really start creating and growing as an artist until you have confidence in your work.  Until you can let it stand on its own, and speak and breathe.  That’s when you start to push boundaries and change worlds.  But it all starts by saying, “My work is pretty awesome and people want to see it”.  Because it’s probably true.


So try it.  That side project you’re working on, that script you’ve been revising for the past two years, that painting you’ve been touching up all month – show them off.  You might be amazed at the reaction.


I have a habit of processing photos and walking away for a few days, only to return and push the images further.  This set really benefitted from it.  They have a creepy, horrific look that came very organically.  I like to believe that’s the location’s essence coming through.  That it followed me home like a rogue spirit and possessed the images, making them reflect it’s own inner demons.

Shot on 7D and Canon 28mm f/1.8.  Processed in Lightroom.


Screen shot 2012-03-24 at 8.30.14 PM

Faking HDR Timelapses

I spent a weekend in upstate New York last fall, shooting almost exclusively time lapses.

Upon editing the footage, I found myself struggling with contrast corrections.  Many of the shots had to have shadows brightened, which blew out the sky.  I could have shot HDR, but that opens a whole new realm of workflow problems, not to mention triples my images.

As usual, After Effects provides the solution.

I precomposed the layer, then duplicated the precomp.  Each precomp got its own individual color grading, one focusing on shadows, the other on highlights.  Then, in the main composition, I simply masked out the appropriate places, such as the sky.  The result is a fairly convincing portrayal of HDR in an easy to digest workflow.

While this process isn’t a replacement for true HDR, it is a useful workaround for those times when you can’t handle the image load or the workflow.  It’s fast, easy, and work great.


Self Portrait with Corpse

Self Portrait with Corpse

I was introduced to horror at an early age.  My mother was a voracious reader, who fancied Stephen King, Peter Straub and Edgar Allen Poe.  I first encountered horror in The Green Ribbon, a story that is more of an urban legend at this point.  Look it up if you don’t know it, it’s well worth a read.  

I remember that was the first story that made me afraid to venture into the woods alone.  Not because I thought the woman with the green ribbon was looking for me, but because I had such a sense of unease just thinking about what that ribbon meant.  It stuck with me.  It haunted me.  

It did exactly what horror should.  

Recently, I discovered Joshua Hoffine, a remarkable talented photographer who makes his art with images of fear.  If you have a phobia, he’s probably shot it.  He opened a new world to me, something between generic model shots and full blown filmmaking.  He creates finely tailored images that convey a mood, a story and a place and he does it so well that it’s chilling.  

I wanted to do something similar.  Self Portrait with Corpse was shot in my downstairs bathroom.  The room was brightened with two small scoop lights, one shooting from high left of the frame and one shooting upwards on the shower door.  The ever – patient Elizabeth played the part of the dead body.  The hammer from Old Apartment makes a reappearance here too.

I processed until I recognized a Chris Nolan influence and called it a day.  I did have to dodge some of the shower door to make the handprints and streaks show up a a little better.  It’s a bit of a cooler image than I usually produce, but that seems to fit the mood.  

It’s safe to say this won’t be my last venture into the world of horror photography.  It’s a world that I find strangely comforting.  

See the larger version at flickr.  

Just remember, there are things lurking in the shadows, they are whispering your name, and it’s not going to be okay.  

Lightroom Holga

Recently, I found myself flipping through some of the stunning images from uer taken at Hashima Island.  One of my secret passions is urban exploration, but I’m way too cowardly to actually do any infiltration.  I love reading stories about people chartering local fishing boats to take them to remote islands, but I don’t have the balls to attempt it myself.  
Hashima is a derelict island off the coast of Nagasaki.  Once a coal mining facility, it was abandoned in 1974 when coal went out of fashion in Japan.  For the past 30 odd years, it’s been left to rot; a ghost town in the middle of the ocean.  
The explorer who snuck onto the island took a Holga and shot everything he could see.  I found myself entranced by the pictures.  There’s something so appropriate about shooting abandoned locations with a camera like a Holga.  It’s an atmospheric device, to say the least.  
Originally sold as a toy camera in the 80’s, Holga has developed a cult – like following.  Known for its light leaks, blurry photos and all around random imaging problems, it has a kind of supernatural built – in eeriness that is just damn cool.  
I took a lazy Saturday afternoon and tried to create my own Holga lookalikes, using only Lightroom.  

I shot RAW, with presets as close to neutral as I could.  I varied my shutter speed from 1/60 to 1/30.  Since I tend to have a shaky hand, 1/60 is just slightly out of focus while 1/30 has defined blur.  Apertures hung right around f/2.8; way too open for Holga (which was either f/8 or f/11) but more visually interesting for me.  I wasn’t trying to create an exact Holga replica, just my interpretation of it.  
Once in Lightroom, I kicked around temp and tint until it looked interesting.  I pulled clarity down and punched vibrance without touching saturation or lightness at all.  I also threw on the vignette that Holgas are know for.
After an unsuccessful attempt to render light leaks in Photoshop, I moved back to LR and began playing with the gradient tool.  I found that applying a bright gradient (high exposure) followed by a darker one would give exactly what I was looking for.  

Click for larger version
I’m quite satisfied with my results.  I don’t normally shoot or process this way, but it’s good to know that the option is available to me if I’m ever so inclined.  
You can see the whole album of my Holga images at flickr.

Firecracker says “Go there!”

After the Storm

There’s this magical time.  I’ve only experienced it in Philadelphia, although that might just be the only place I noticed it.  It happens after a strong, humidity – breaking storm; the kind of storm that you wait days for.  

At sunset on those days, just around 8pm, the sun begins to set.  It must be some trick of the clouds, the way the light of the setting sun refracts through them.  But it turns the world amber.  It turns the sky yellow.  

It’s magic to me.  It’s one of those events that a camera can’t truly show.  

More pictures on my flickr.

Art with an Invisible Hand

“If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”
– The Dark Knight, 2009
Jamie Melendez and Swan Vacula
I think I just lost a potential client because I charged for my services.  It doesn’t bother me that much, but it does highlight a topic I’ve been thinking about for some time, and it seemed to be a good first blog post.  
A bit of background: while I’m mostly a filmmaker, I do some photography work on the side.  I prefer to do model work rather than “documentary” style (weddings, events etc).  This is probably because model photography is as close to filmmaking as I can get.  Most of the work I’ve done has been free, but I have done some commissioned work too.  Recently, I put my portfolio up on and offered to work with interested models and photographers.  
I was contacted by a young actor to shoot some headshots.  She seemed nice and was very excited to work with me.  We emailed back and forth, determining what she wanted and how quickly she need the shots.  
In the last piece of correspondence she sent, she asked how much I’d charge.  Now, I know a few photographers who do this kind of thing, and I have a a pretty good idea of what the going rates are.  I named a price that was reasonable and in keeping with the industry.  I never heard from her again.  
At the heart of this conundrum is the debate of professional vs amateur work, something that I’ll get into in a future post.  But, in a nutshell, it’s the obligation of the amateur to assess the market’s climate and charge accordingly.  It’s unfair for someone with less experience to make significantly less while still delivering a similar product.  This seems like a dilemma that is confined to our industry.  Well, that and performing arts. 
This harkens me back to another pricing debate I had.  About ten years ago, when I was just starting out, I was hired to make a series of instructional videos for a local karate studio.  The videos, totaling twenty – four in all, were shot, cut and burned to dvd for duplication and distribution.  I even went so far as to create interactive dvd menus and a special effects laden intro.  
I learned a lot throughout the process, particularly what the work was worth.  I undercharged for my services, over – delivered the final product, and left the project with something of a bad taste in my mouth.  
Two years later, the client came to me again and asked me to make another series.  I had gained some experience and suggested a price more in keeping with what the work was worth.  The client balked, but acquiesced and I got my fee.  And he never hired me again.  I found out that he now works with a shooter/editor who does the work “as a hobby”.  
The worst part of this whole situation is that I’ve soured that client on professionals.  I delivered professional grade work for an amateur price and now he’ll expect the same no matter who he hires.  And he’ll always be able to say, “Well, the last guy did it for half of what you’re charging.”  

photo credit: Swan Vacula
The ultimate question here is; what is our work worth?  It’s not an easy one to answer.  In these days of budget cuts and inflated unemployment, it can be difficult to outline a project and demand a hefty price tag from a client with plenty of other options.
I work in a retail store, and it’s easy for us to determine what we charge for our products.  We simply look at what we paid for the item, what the going rate is, and charge so we make a little money and don’t exceed the market value of the product.  But it’s much harder with art because there is no standard “market value”.   Every product is different and requires different things from the artist.  
The truth is, our work’s price is determined by the industry, and we’re obligated to maintain that price.  If the filmmaker across the street charges half of what I’m charging, I’ll have to lower my prices to maintain my clients.  If he then chooses to lower his, we end up in a Adam Smith nightmare, where the client wins but the businesses go bankrupt in a matter of months.
There’s nothing wrong with charging fair prices or making exceptions for clients on a case by case basis; that’s what economics is all about.  But it’s our responsibility to familiarize ourselves with industry rates and make fair and honest quotes about the worth of our work.  If we do this as a community, we make the invisible hand work for us, instead of getting pushed around by it.  

Or, as my good friend Sam Hall puts it:

[vimeo w=400&h=225]