In my universe this is about as big as it gets. For the past couple of years I have been working towards mastering my craft and earning accreditation through the Portrait Masters awards program, started by my mentor Sue Bryce. Her education platform is second to none, and I’ve grown so much – technically as a photographer, and personally through embracing self-love, confidence and courage to face my self-perceived faults and embrace my creativity. To rise above my physical and mental challenges and not only become my best self but to inspire and empower others through my craft.
During the most recent accreditation and awards I have received numerous bronze, a silver and that one thing I never dreamed I could achieve at this point in my career…a gold merit. Not only did I win the pet portrait category, but my image of Gus the Goldfish was awarded one of the only 6 gold merits ever awarded from the panel of international judges in the history of this accreditation and awards program. Being a category winner is rewarding in itself, but meriting gold with this image is so special for a few reasons.
Gus wins Gold at the Portrait Masters Accreditation and Awards
This is an image I set out to create after returning from the 2018 Portrait Masters conference. During the event I was inspired to master my craft. To create from my heart without worry or concern for how my images would be received by the general public. To be courageous. Tell stories. To use my gift to bring joy to others. When I lamented to my lighting mentor, Felix Kunze, that I NEEDED to somehow figure out how I could use strobes so that I could create more types of images (in particular to have enough power to freeze action) he reminded me that beautiful images could also be created using the continuous light I already had and that blur can add to the mood and movement in a photograph…not all images need to be crisp and sharp in all places.
During the conference attendees were given the gift of a Stella 2000 continuous light. The more I thought about it, the more I realized it would be the perfect compliment to the Stella 5000 LED light I already owned. I also met the amazing photographer Pratik Naik who has a gift of being able to break down complex retouching techniques in a simple and understandable way. I resolved to watch his tutorial that I had previously purchased but never made the time to watch, and when I began to practice his techniques I developed a more refined and efficient workflow that elevated my images to a whole new level. I also set forth to understand color theory and apply it to my images. I learned how color could be used to enhance an image, tell a story and create a mood in a photograph. By exploring color grading tools like the Infinite Color Panel and photography color toning actions from Fine Art Actions I began to break down the layers…to drill down into the various layers and study how each adjustment affected an image, and then selectively modify the layers to help achieve a unique color grade.
I also learned to use what I had. So often photographers get caught up in the belief that in order to create an award winning image you needed to have a professional model, an expensive wardrobe, and the very best and latest of technological gadgets and lighting gear. I have to constantly remind myself that this is not true.
So this is where Gus comes in. Upon returning from the conference I wanted to create an image just for me. To start the process of putting all that I had learned into creating an image that would challenge me and my creative self. I wanted it to be simple and to tell a story. Who hasn’t made fish lips? Had a special pet that is always there to listen…who is excited to see you and brings a smile to your face not matter how bad of a day you may be having. My daughter and I first met Gus at our local pet shop. He was in the “surrender tank”…a motley collection of wayward fish that had been dropped off at the store when their owners no longer wished to care for them. Gus was different from all the other fish. He came to the front of the tank and immediately engaged with my daughter, following her little finger along the glass and blowing little fish kisses her way. Gus ended up coming home with us that day and I thought to myself…this would be a lovely story to tell. I enlisted the help of a neighbor (because any photographer knows that your own children soon become less enthusiastic in indulging mom’s creative photography sessions after endless “let’s try this” and “can you pose for just one more image”).
I had learned from Felix that beautiful light could be created from a very simple setup using one light feathered across a subject from the side, with another slightly less powerful light used as a fill light to brighten up the shadows. My Stella lights were perfect for this. I set the Stella 5000 inside a simple umbrella modifier up as my main light, with the Stella 2000 bounced off of a white vflat to fill in the shadows. This is all gear I already had on hand, and I was determined to see if I could make it work. I did some test shots. Great! But Gus moved about so quickly and I wasn’t able to freeze the action. Did I need to? NO! I noticed that the blur created from his fast little fins melded with the reflections in his fishbowl is such a beautiful way. My little model was immediately taken to Gus, and as I asked her to sit down at the end of the table they quickly became friends. I don’t even think she really noticed I had started shooting. Gus was happy to swim about and blow fish kisses to her, and I invited her to blow a kiss back. Magic. One authentic moment in time captured to tell the story I had hoped to tell. During the editing process I took the time to carefully plan out how I would retouch my image and using the techniques I learned from Pratik I cleaned, cloned, dodged and burned with confidence. I added a texture to the background to give it some more interest – I think it is some rough stucco from an interesting wall I photographed when I was out for a walk one day downtown Port Hope. I knew that I wanted my image to have a warm and nostalgic feeling. I used the “Nostalgia” action from Fine Art Actions to establish the warm vintage tone, and then explored a few possibilities within the Infinite Color Panel to tweak a few areas, bringing a blue green into the dress and water to compliment the warm orange tones in the skin and goldfish.
Gus passed away about two weeks prior to the awards and accreditation announcement. He’ll never know how much he has touched our lives, but I’ll honor him by printing his portrait and displaying it with pride on the wall in my studio. When I look at it I will be reminded to appreciate and be grateful for the simple things in life, and that no matter where we are on our journey amazing things can happen if we have courage and look within our heart. We all have a gift to share – how will you use yours?