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Light in Dark Places: Creative Process

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Light in Dark Places: Creative Process

sean mcclelland

[14]  It took me a while to find photography. I've always been interested in the arts, though (when I was little, I drew robots, lots of robots). I didn't go to school for fine arts, and up until 6 years ago never owned anything more than a point-and-shoot camera. For my first few semesters in college, I actually thought I wanted to be a computer scientist (oops). There are moments, especially when I see some young, hot-shot photographer tearing it up in a magazine, that I wish I had known about photography sooner. After some hard work and failed attempts, I feel comfortable saying that I'm finally developing my own style.

The Translator in Photoshop
The Translator in Photoshop

In this post, I'd like to share the creative process steps that I follow when I create images like those show above:

Step 0 - Acquire the skills. I list this as step "zero" because most artists skip it, or even deny its role in their work. If I had a nickel for every time I heard a seasoned photographer tell a beginner that all they need to do is "get out there shoot," I'd be retired and traveling the world like this jerk (of whom I'm infinitely jealous). You have to read the manual, watch the tutorials, take the classes, and practice. Never stop learning. Photoshop was the most important tool that I used to create this collection, and even though I've been using it for many years, I still buy training books, watch DVDs, and ask others for help on a weekly basis. This idea that you can just "learn by doing" is a fantasy. You have to put in the time to learn, because the last thing you want is to lost any creative moment because of a lack of technical knowledge.

Step 1 - Capture a spark. Project ideas come to me in droves, and I immediately right them down, sketch them out, plan every step ahead of time, execute that plan under a disciplined schedule, and make one masterpiece after another. Except… no. That's not at all how it happens, except in my fantasy world (which also includes transporter beams, an ability to talk to animals, and unlimited Xbox time). The ideas that I get are more like fragments of ideas, or sparks in my mind, than visions of completed works of art. I do my best to capture these sparks when they happen in by sketching them out on a notepad, or taking notes with Evernote and Google docs. And these sparks often come after seeing another artist's work, after which, I will immediately attempt to duplicate their style. This attempt usually ends in total failure, but it doesn't bother me because I always learn something along the way. I may even, accidentally, create something unexpected and new. My Light in Dark Places collection began exactly like that. I was experimenting with light painting and smoke photography techniques, and then BAM, the Versus image came out of nowhere.

Clip from the LJ Moore interview, as I'm explaining my creative thought process: 

Step 2 - Experimentation. After I have some inspiration at my back, I start fleshing out the idea on a Google Doc, in Evernote, on a white board or a sketch pad, and I write/draw whatever comes to my mind. I stay in this brainstorming stage for as long as I can, but it's usually over quick, and before I can count to 20, I'm reaching for my camera. This is where the fun begins, because I just let my ideas flow, trashing my apartment along the way. When experimenting with light painting, for example, I do have a general idea of how the technique works ahead of time, but I don't constrain myself to what I've seen or read about others doing. This phase usually ends with one main accomplishment – knowing what DOES NOT work!

Step 3 - Execution. By now, I've got a good idea of what I'm trying to accomplish, I've spent time scrounging for props, and I may have ordered some tools from the web to get me over the hump. My patience for DIY work only goes so far, because I don't like getting distracted from the creative process, and believe in using the right tool for the job. For example, I will pay the extra $20 for the high-quality laser pointers, because I know I'll put them to good use. Once I have a few nights blocked off, I begin the serious shooting. And even though I planned it out, the shoot will take on a life of its own. After the shooting, and a few days of rest, I start cranking away in the digital dark room… which for me consists mostly of Lightroom and Photoshop. This part of the process, can take days, weeks, or even months. I duplicate layers, copy, paste, re-color, rotate, blend, mask, and add filters. I step away and come back. I draw out new ideas, and start over. I just work the clay, so to speak, until it turns into a pot.

Step 4 - Refinement. My image is formed now, and I feel pretty good. But just like a portrait needs retouching, my images needs refinement. This includes tasks like selective sharpening, blurring of background elements, boosting of colors, removing unwanted spots, and basically just going over the entire image zoomed waaaaay in to make sure I haven't missed anything. I'm getting the image ready for print, and if there's anything I've learned as a photographer, it's that the printed page is NOT forgiving. I would love to make my own prints, but I have to send everything out because I hardly ever print on standard paper at standard sizes.

Step 5 - Sharing. This is both my favorite, and least favorite part. I absolutely love getting feedback from others, online or in person, but I hate marketing myself. I may seem like an extrovert, but I'm really not. Social media, even though I'm a member of all the biggies, is a struggle for me. But alas, it's part of the gig, if you want to get noticed! Twitter, G+, Facebook, this blog, and the Wix Lounge group show are all parts of my new-found respect for sharing. It's important. Really important. Along the way, though, you have to remember to just be yourself, and remember why you're doing it all in the first place.

How does your creative process differ from mine?


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