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Shoot What It Feels Like, Not What It Looks Like

Lesson 11 from: Family Photography: Creating a Successful Business

Kirsten Lewis

Shoot What It Feels Like, Not What It Looks Like

Lesson 11 from: Family Photography: Creating a Successful Business

Kirsten Lewis

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Lesson Info

11. Shoot What It Feels Like, Not What It Looks Like

Next Lesson: Action Vs Moment


Class Trailer

Class Introduction


What Makes a Picture Successful?


Technical Tips: ISO


Technical Tips: Aperture


Technical Tips: Shutter Speed


Technical Tips: Focus


Using Light to Tell a Story


Using Composition to Tell a Story


Lesson Info

Shoot What It Feels Like, Not What It Looks Like

So I'm gonna share with you an epiphany that I've had. I've been feeling like for the last three years my work has become stale and stagnant. Not that I'm not making good photos, not that I don't love making pictures, but for the last three years I've been feeling like I'm becoming complacent, that, not that I'm phoning it in, but that the shoots were easy. And that it was time for me to go to another place with my work and with photography as a whole, and I have to always lead by example, always, I have lots of students, I teach on Creative Live, but I am always asking so much of my students to keep working hard, to keep going further, to dig deeper, but I wasn't doing that. And I hadn't taken a workshop in a really, really long time, like six or seven years. The biggest thing is that I felt like I had never made a picture that someone else would want on their walls, other than my clients. And I want you to think about that for a minute. The place I wanted to go was more of that of an...

artist making universal images that would be considered like fine art making statements about childhood, about parenthood, that other people would want on their walls that weren't my clients, and that's a really hard place to get to. So, I decided to take, it was time, I'd been friends with David for awhile, or good acquaintances, I've known him because he lives in the Outer Banks and I was based in the Outer Banks for eight years, I have a really funny story about, (laughs) do you guys know who David is? Are you famiiar with him? He's really well-known photojournalist, incredibly talented. And the first time I met him was at our mutual friend's birthday party, I was so stupid, and I was, I was at the party, we were outside, we were talking, I had not met David before. I knew who he was but I didn't know what he looked like. I'd only know his work. This was before social media got really big, and I just didn't know what he looked like. And so I sit down next to this older guy and I'm like hey how's it going? And we start talking and he's like what do you do? And I'm like oh I'm a photographer with Kris, and- I can't believe I'm telling this on air, this was not my intention. This is really embarrassing. Why do I do this to myself? It's good though, it's a good story. So, he's like oh so you're a photographer down here, and I was like yeah. He goes Who do you thinks the best photographer down here, that lives down here? And I was like oh, Kris. This is when I shot weddings, and I was starting out with the family stuff, and he goes who do you think is the second best photographer? And I was like oh, me. (Audience laughter) And I'm saying this to David Alan Harvey. I don't have a clue who I'm talking to. Right, so we like talk all night about photography and I, it never- it does not register. I've had a few glasses of wine, and I was talking about how I had to go to New York, And he was like well I have a flat in New York, if you need it, you can totally borrow it and I'll be down here. And he just gives me his business card, I didn't look at it, I put it in my pocket, I had a few more drinks, and went home. I woke up the next day with a raging headache. And this gut feeling like, did I read that name right on that card? Please do not tell me that is who is on that card. And I looked at the card and I was like oh dear God. So that's how I met David. And then he's really great about networking and he really wants to encourage the photo-community, he's a huge educator so I've gone to a few of his events. And so, I'd been telling him for years I wanna take a workshop with you, but I wasn't really ready, like, I wasn't sure. And then, he- so years has gone by. He's like you don't need a workshop or whatever. So he announced a book making workshop. And for those of you who don't know I've been working on this book unsupervised and I thought it was ready to go to print, and then, I decided it wasn't. And I stopped print. I felt like there wasn't enough diversity represented in my book, and I felt it was really important if I'm gonna make a statement about family life, that all different types of families need to be represented. All different cultures, all different, you know, economical confines. I just felt like it was all the same. And so I just put the book on hold, and I've started to photograph people of different religions, of cultures, of races, like I just want, I want a book that represents a larger community. So, he announced his workshop and I was like this is perfect. This is what I need to help push my book. And, he, the first portfolio review he looks at me and he goes you are not a photographer. And I told my husband, and he was like are you going back tomorrow? And I was like yeah I'm going back tomorrow. He pushed me the way that I needed to be pushed. And what he told me, he looked at all- cause we put our photos on the wall and he was like your work is too perfect. Like, it's all the same. Like, it's great moments, it's perfect composition, it's perfect light, but it's all the same. And I didn't see it until I put it on the walls and I was like you are totally right. It doesn't mean it's not good photos. It doesn't mean they're not amazing for my clients. But the place where I wanted to go is a place beyond where I'm at now. And so I spent a week doing this. And the first thing he said was you have to loosen up. And the thing that I realized is I knew that before I ever walked into that workshop. I'm telling you right now, it's so much harder to loosen up than it is to tighten up. So good luck to all of you when that happens. This is a photo for me that has changed the trajectory of where I'm going as an artist. This is the one photo right now I'm proud of. Like, really proud of. And the pet balloon. The pet balloon has come since then too. And now they have names, like I'm starting to title my photos. This, I feel like could go on someone else's wall. Because this I feel says something about what childhood feels like. Here's the amazing thing. Then he made me start going back to my archives of photos I had made years ago. And I was like wait a minute, I was doing that before there were rules, right? Like, that feels like childhood to me. It's not perfect, but it feels like childhood. And so I'm sharing this with you not saying you can say screw all the rules, I'm not saying that. But, there's a direction you can go with your work that's beyond your clients. And of me it's been really freeing, to start making pictures that feel like childhood. This was what- this was what I think is funny. One of David's favorite photos is this next one. And it's Greg and Birdie. Part of me was like, this is really making me concerned. You might land on the baby. And the other part of me was like, we'll I'm just gonna photograph it. The one photo that I felt like from my past that kind of hits the mark and is one that he pulled for the consideration from the book was this one. And I still really love it. And I think it's because, when I was looking at it happening, and when I made the picture, I immediately was transported to this one time when I watched my dad shave. Now here's the interesting thing. He used an electric razor, he didn't use a real razor, but I was still fascinated, I was like, you have hair that grows on your face that you have to take off? Is that gonna happen to me? And that's kind of like she's like, oh dear god, please don't let that happen to me, in her face. But that's the one from my past where I feel like maybe it's universal maybe not. So now I'm re-looking at photos, at what goes in the book, this one I think is gonna go in, And this is a newer one that I made with twins. Less perfect, but feels something different. So, this is what he said. "Your pictures are all the same." For me, I here that and I go wait, I've been trying to make my pictures all the same for branding right? So that's what everybody says in the photography world is what is your style, what is your brand? So, can you differentiate between brand and being the same? Of course, yes. I think, what should be the same is your point of view. What you're trying to say about your work or about your subjects should be the same. I think there is something to be said for when we looked at all my stuff- and not that these are the only photos that I made, I always am getting close, getting far, going high, going low, the ones I've pulled as my favorites that I thought should go in the book, were all pretty much from the same vantage point, the same distance from my subject, with chaotic good moments. There was no variation or variables within that. And I didn't notice that until I looked at them on the wall. And I'll tell you, we had 200 on the wall, and they got it down to nineteen pictures ready for the book. So I have a lot more work to do, I feel. But that's good, like I feel like I'm in a good direction. And anyone who's interested in doing books well the biggest thing to take away from me was a book, is not a portfolio. And sometimes you have to let go of really good photos so that you have a really good story. And that's interesting. So in terms of branding, I think your processing should be consistent, I think that your toning with your colors should be consistent, I personally feel like your ratio should be consistent, in terms of your portfolio so that your your subjects, your clients, know what to expect when they hire you. Right? But I think that you can give yourself permission to be more playful with the moments that you're shooting and how you're eliciting this feel of what childhood feels like. And this is my journey, right? It might not be your journey. I've been a professional photographer for nineteen years. I did my first day in the life session eight years ago. So, it's time for me to move on. Right? Like it's really time- and I'm gonna talk about, I have an example with Picasso but we'll get there in a second. So, with emotion, with showing how it feels, I'm trying to be more playful with my compositions. Less literal. I'm still making literal photos, but I'm also playing with experimenting with my compositions, and what I'm including. So I thin it's better to have a good balance between literal, and not so literal. Does that make sense? Is that helping? This feels more. Right? To me it's not- it's cut off because it's not the right ratio. I didn't cut off the feet but- remember the other photo where- the pursed lips? The pursed lips is my go to photo. I always make those, they're funny, they're true. But this photo feels more. And so I'm trying to balance these with all the funny stuff. It's kind of like my journey with teaching and speaking, in the beginning if you guys know how I started speaking, I ended up doing a five minute talk at WPPI in front of like 8,000 people about online dating. And then I became the- basically the comedian photographer. I was being hired everywhere to speak because I was funny. But then I was like hey no one knows I actually make pictures. So maybe I should tone it down a little? And then I learned how to balance being motivational, being technical, and providing applicable advice, and also being funny. I feel like it's kind of like my journey, I have never made this connection before in my life, I'm having this epiphany right now, but I think that, that is my journey with photography. It's the same thing. My go to is humor, it's always been humor, because I've had some pretty crappy things happen in my life, I've dealt with some crappy things, and to emotionally survive those things I have relied on humor, since I was very little, my mother in the audience, she can tell you. Like I've always wanted to make people laugh, it is a survival mechanism. And it's a good thing, but it's also good to cry sometimes. Right? And feel, sometimes. And so maybe, right now, we're all discovering this at the same time, that's what I've done with my photography. I started with lots of humor, because it's safe, and easy for me. And now, I'm tapping into, since I've had a daughter, the more emotional stuff. Yes? Wow. So thank you therapist Kenna. You know, this is funny, right? So this is what I relate to with Picasso, my Picasso example. Picasso, and Salvador Dali are my two favorite artists in the whole world. But I love them for their journey as artists, rather than their work in particular. Especially Dali, because Dali wasn't afraid to evolve as an artist. And there were very few back then that wanted to. But he was always embracing change, right? He was embracing as the industrial age came up, as technology became more available. He let his work evolve with the times, and that was really progressive. And I have always appreciated that about him. He also really was exploratory with different types of sculptures, and paintings and drawing and you know, like, crazy stuff beyond what other artists were making at the time. I loved his process. I loved his journey. With Picasso, if you guys do not know, and only think of him in terms of cubism, his work when he was like seventeen years old, he didn't wanna be an artist, his father made him go to school, art school. 'Cause his dad was an artist. But he was brilliant. And he was an incredible master of the body, like he- the form, like the body, he could proportionally could draw with his eyes closed, head to toe. And that is where all those artists had to be, they had to build that foundation before they could really push the boundaries, right? I feel that way about photography. The best thing to do is build a really strong foundation. To understand how to make the perfect photo, right? How to use the perfect light, and the perfect composition, and perfect moment, and then, once you have a really strong grasp and understanding of that, then you can start to push the boundaries. Does that make sense? That's what I've been thinking about a lot lately with Picasso in particular. Because I love his early work, there's been a couple of shows that have gone through over the years, where you can see like all sketchings, and his books and stuff, and it's just amazing and brilliant. And then to see how he pushed the boundaries much later in life. Okay, so here. These are my two goals now for me personally. I wanna make pictures that elicit and emotional response from the viewer. I've talked about it over and over again, I've talked about it with now all three classes. But, here is my second goal, now moving forward. I wanna make pictures that illustrate how it feels, or how it felt during the moment. How I felt, and how my subjects feel during that moment. And it's not easy, and I'm struggling, and right after the workshop I like had like three shoots in a row- I walked in and was like I have no idea what to do. Like I don't even know how to shoot right now. I had such a mind explosion, and then I was like aw crap, this is how I make all my students feel. I send them home and they're like Ah, I don't know. And just like all my students that are like I don't understand, I'm a worse photographer now than I was when I worked with you, like before I worked with you. How am I getting worse? And so I know other people felt that way, you're not getting worse. You're getting better. Your brain is becoming a better photographer, but your skills are not at that place yet. And so it's very frustrating. Right? So that's where I'm at right now. I know where I want to take my pictures, but I'm having a really hard time getting there, and the process sucks, but it's important for growth. Anything worth doing is difficult. If it's easy it's not worth it. And usually you'll give up. The harder it is, then the success is even more rewarding. Right? How it feels. She's sticking a Q-tip in her daughters ear. Like, I'm getting so much closer now with my clients. This one, is my go to. But the other one how it feels. Like I wanna show how it feels with mom and dad. How happy she is when she's on the swing. Did that help you guys at all? That little- yes, Marci? Hi, I think also what is important when you were saying that in that regard is also trust. That you trusted that mentor. Somebody that had encouraged me to do back button focus. I don't like it, I still don't like it, I'm still trying to get used to it. But I trust him in that aspect and stuff so. Yeah, I think it's also important for everyone to try and find some sort of mentor. Or, some sort of good supportive group, that's gonna be honest with you. 'Cause you know whose not gonna honest with you? Your friends and family that aren't photographers. They're just gonna love every single thing you do because they love you, right? But they're not gonna be honest with you. So you have to trust the opinions of people that are going through this process with you. So now I'm sharing my work, which is scary, my new work, with people I trust the most, to get that feedback. Am I really capturing this emotion? Are you really feeling what I'm making? You guys, are like the most incredible group of women. You already have a Facebook group, you should rely on each other moving forward. We're going through this journey together, I will be there with you, and now you can trust each other, to be honest with each other, without being hurtful, to help you all grow as photographers right? Because the other thing is, the best feedback you can get is not from yourself, because you're in there, in the moment, when you're shooting, so you know what's happening, you know how you felt, it's more important to find out if the outside world is reading that, right? And so that's why it's important to get outside feedback all the time.

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Ratings and Reviews


I own Kirsten's 3 classes. And they are ALL amazing, inspiring and refreshing. She is not only a super talented photographer but an amazing teacher and person as well. I have learned so much from each one of her classes. I have never met a photographer so willing to share and see their students succeed. I highly recommend people not only to buy this class, but all 3! I would not be the photographer I am today if it wasn’t for her. After following her advise for the last 3 years I am finally engaging with the audience I want and I feel true to myself in the way I shoot. This makes a huge difference in my everyday. I am am truly grateful to this photo wizard lady. ps: warning, make sure you are on birth control. These classes might make you want to have children, just to get amazing images like the ones she takes LOL (joking) #not

Carrie Littauer

This workshop was by far the best photography workshop I have ever been a part of. Kirsten's work, her humor, her authenticity, her expertise and perspective will forever change the way I work with families and go about documentary photography. I am so motivated and inspired to dig deeper into my role as a photographer, and as a person, to make a real difference in the lives of those that I photograph and with my art. I'm thrilled to have been in the LIVE studio and am so grateful for Creative Live for giving phenomenal artists like Kirsten this exposure and opportunity to teach other creatives like myself! Thank you.

Johanne Lila

In the very minutes Kirsten Lewis' first class (first of three) for cL aired, I realized I needed in on this awesomeness. I became a 1 Year Mentorship student with her right away, and now I have been so incredibly fortunate to be in the studio audience for the live taping of her final class (or the third of the three, who knows what the future might hold!). For me as a 'Kirsten Lewis alumni' taking this class was perfect. I was reminded of things I knew, but had forgotten. I learned a ton of new stuff. But most of all, I remembered why we do this work in the first place: The love that is right there in the reality of life. How much this work matters to real families out there. And how much it matters to keep getting better at this, to give our families better work. I will be forever greatful that I chose the best mentor, Kirsten is such a gift to all of us. And if you're still in doubt: This class is AMAZING! If you're new, if you've at it for a while, if you're alumni: Gold is HERE!

Student Work