Bill Gekas is a portrait photographer residing in Melbourne, Australia. His Old Masters-style portraiture featuring his daughter are skillfully crafted and captivating. Here, we talk about his tools and methodology, and how he developed his unique style.
How did your style come about? Was it something you envisioned and decided to try to create, or something that developed over time, and not so much planned?
From the start this stylistic approach that I’m now known for was envisioned and practiced a bit before starting the body of work. Originally it was only meant to be for a small handful of creative style portraits of my daughter but as a little time went on, and due to the public appeal of the work, it then took a life of its own which is still ongoing. Having said that though, it’s still being constantly refined and slowly evolving. Where it ends up in a few years is something I’m not sure about myself but I can see a more contemporary minimalistic style fused with the classical aesthetic; time will tell but there’s still a lot to explore where I’m at.
Children are predominately featured in your online gallery. Do you specialize in child photography, or is this simply an artistic choice of subject?
The creative work I do and am known for, which is publicly displayed, is primarily of my daughter who is a metaphor in a storytelling scene. Although the project first started with the primary intent of creating some classically influenced portraits of my daughter, it then took a turn and became a universal portrait of a child. Although I also on occasion, and by requested commission, photograph adults, the more creative work featuring the young child is the work that I shoot for awards, exhibition and my own sanity. I’ve always believed photographers should have a personal long-term project which they can commit to. In this creative competitive field we all should have an insanity to stay sane.
Do you stick with one camera and lens combination for most of your work? Can you describe that?
Over time I’ve come to the end conclusion that the camera and all it’s accessories is the obstacle to the creation process. They’re just tools which we need to use due to the medium of the craft. Although I have a large inventory of cameras and lenses, my main set and go-to camera currently is the Pentax K5II DSLR and a medium zoom being the DA 16-45mm f/4 which is equivalent to about a 24-70mm lens on a full frame sensor. Using “Strobist” lighting techniques and being able to work around f/4-5.6 puts me in a good working range in terms of versatility and image quality. Earlier this year I shot a handful of portraits using the Pentax medium format digital 645D with a 55mm lens and I can see the appeal of using a larger sensor for this style of work.
What type of lighting do you use?
I use “Strobist” lighting techniques, mainly using off camera [radio] triggered Speedlights. Although I also have an Einstein studio strobe which can deliver a healthy 640w/s of power for blasting down full sun, I always favor the smaller AA battery-powered Speedlights [in Manual mode] for their versatility and portability. If power is an issue I’ll usually gang two together to get that extra stop of light when outdoors, but for indoor studio work I can easily get away with setting the Speedlight power to 1/4 to 1/2 power which is enough to put me in the sweet spot.
Over the years I’ve also acquired quite a collection of light modifiers from different sized softboxes, octaboxes, strip lights, beauty dishes, umbrellas, grids, snoots, kill spills etc. It’s a comfort thing knowing that if I need to try something I have it on hand to do so; a lot of the equipment rarely gets used on my main shoots.
Can you describe your lighting methodology/technique (especially where it has to do with the “Old Masters” style)?
To get to where I am with the lighting at this stage I really had to study the Old Masters painting works and try to re-create the atmosphere their works were known for. I discovered that it’s actually quite a large subject area of study where it’s not just about the light but the parts that make up the overall sum. The softness/hardness of light, the angle of light, the color of light, the effect the light has when hitting certain colors and objects in a scene etc. Then we have the shadow areas, which with this style of work are just as important as the light, softness/hardness, shadow transitions etc.
It’s a huge subject which fortunately can be a lifelong study. But as a starting off point the simplest way of achieving the look is by using a single light source in a typical Rembrandt-type lighting technique. A controlled light modifier with little spill, like a medium-sized softbox at a 45 degree angle to the subject with a large white reflector on the opposite side to bring some shadow detail back, is always the starting point. Having a backdrop behind the subject and by varying the distance of the subject to the backdrop gives us some control of separation as well. From this point on it’s then about experimentation and adding an extra light source for more fill or in a larger scene adding other lights to highlight certain areas etc.
Can you talk about your post-processing techniques for these images? Not to give away any secrets, but is there something you do with basic PS settings that help bring about the look?
With this type of considered approach I’ll shoot digital raw files straight onto SD card. Once the shoot is over I’ll transfer the files to hard disk and into Adobe Lightroom . Although Lightroom is a very powerful tool, I basically only use it for any exposure and white balance adjustments, pre-sharpening, cropping and as a general cataloging system. This is where I’ll start culling shots from the shoot in order to get to the final frame we’ll be working with.
Once the final frame is selected we export it into Adobe Photoshop where the rest of the post work is done. My usual Photoshop procedure starts with cleaning the image from any sensor dust or spots, slight eye and skin enhancements, if needed, followed by selective hue/saturation adjustments to certain parts of the image. Depending on the mood and look I want I’ll warm or cool the whole image but I never work an image by numbers or a set formula of any type, I sort of work like a chef where I season to taste. The important thing is to be aware of what the tools actually do so that you’re editing with a direction to eventually meet your previsualization.
What advice would you offer to someone who is trying to create their own look, as you have done with your distinctive style?
I see many photographers trying to create a style through experimentation and although experimentation is always necessary, the key to creating or practicing a style lies in previsualization. It’s important to first know what style you want to create and then experiment with the tools to create it, rather than experiment and by chance hope you come across something you like. The previsualization and knowing exactly what you wish to achieve is the biggest obstacle, once this is achieved then learning the tools to create it is a simpler task. In a day and age where we have the internet as a huge resource available with many online tutorials and inspiration from other photographers, there really isn’t an excuse for not being able to learn the tools of our chosen craft. Most importantly it’s about enjoying the whole process. Mastering the technicals of photography can be achieved, mastering the art of photography is a lifelong journey!
Visit www.billgekas.com to see more of Bill’s work. All images in this post are copyright Bill Gekas.