Interviews / Stories
Sean Archer (Russia)
How did your journey in portraiture begin? Did you try other subjects before you settle on people?
I always admired great photography, but never tried it seriously myself. In 2012 I bought mirrorless camera Lumix G3, for travel and family shots. I knew nothing about photography, absolutely nothing. So, I choose simple automatic mode (Portrait mode) and began shooting everything, just for fun. My first model was my mom's dog)
Then my friend asked me to make portrait for her. It wasn't my first portrait (I love to draw from school and graduated Academy of Architecture and Arts), but first as a photographer. To my big surprise, result was better than her photo from some professional guy before. And I realized that I like process a lot, from shooting to postprocessing. It's like drawing, but much faster. I never had patience to be serious artist, but just enough to be a photographer)
What do you enjoy about working with people?
It's fun. I never try to be dead serious or something like that. I don't do preparations. It's always improvisation, just "let's start and we'll see what we got". I shoot a lot of people I've never seen before and it's always comfortable.
How has your style and approach to portraits evolved as you’ve done it more?
As I said, in the beginning I knew nothing about photography. And all I know now is from my own experienñe. Thousands of shots, learning the light, camera modes, processing methods. Important, I worked in broadcast design and good with graphic software, it helps a lot.
What, for you are the advantages of working indoors? In what ways is it better than working outside?
You know, I live in Yekaterinburg, Russia, and it's not the sunniest place on Earth) I started shooting in winter and it's pretty cold out there. So, indoors was a natural choice for me. I Just use what I got - light from the window, wall as a background. When you shoot people, it's people what's important in the end.
How do you pick subjects? do you prefer working with amateurs or professional models and why?
In the beginning it was just my friends. Some time later friends of my friends discovered my photos, thanks to social networks. For more than a year I shooting practically everyone who wanted. They're all amateurs. Some of them have model experience, but don't do it for living.
How do you deal with your subjects – are there tricks to getting the result you want?
I like to show good shots in process, on camera screen. When I see a really good one, I always show it. It helps. Everyone loves it, people see that they're already look great and handsome on photo. And don't forget, those screenshots are small and bright, so it's not a problem to find some.
How do you stay excited by portraiture?
I always wanted to do something like this. From early childhood I love to draw, usually it was comics and action heroes. Then some real artwork in academy, graphics and broadcast design. And photography, it comes naturally, as next step in my creative way. I think of myself as not only photographer, and as an artist too.
If you’re not working to a client’s brief, how do you come up with themes?
It's pretty easy. It's a model and her clothes you work with. I don't like special themes and heavy make up (for example, "let's do vampires" or something). I like natural beauty and natural light.
What’s your favourite style of lighting to work with? Do you prefer natural light or flash?
Natural light only. It's warm and soft. Maybe it's not the best choice for advertising and fashion, but great for portraits. And it's free)
How do you modify your lighting to suit the subject and get the results you want?
It's good when shooting day is sunny and you can get all light you need. It's no problem to reduce it (jalousie, curtains). It depends on the place. Just don't let direct sunlight, it should be diffused.
How extensive is your post-processing?
Mostly, it's light and experiments with color. It depends, sometimes conditions ara far from perfect, so it needs more work. I never knew what to expect, it's total improvisation too. Will it be in warm colors, in cold? Or maybe black and white.
What’s your typical workflow for retouching a shot? How much retouching do you do?
Of course, I do retouching, removing spots and problem skin zones. It's very important to keep skin texture, make it clear, bright, but natural. I don't like "fashion" style, that makes skin lifeless, like it was processed by sandblasting machine. Sometimes it's ok to highlight the freckles, for example. But, the most important, I create perfect light. Yes, it's hand-made)
What’s your approach to adding creative effects in post-production, such as texture, lighting effects and toning?
You know, a significant part of my pictures was made at my place, so I'm always trying to make it something different from each other. Textures are good to use, sometimes I draw some light accents and experimenting with cross-processing. I don't believe in "true photography" (no pp, shots straight from the camera), it's good for reportage filming, but in portraits you have to be an artist too.
What’s your favourite camera and lens setup for indoor work?
My first camera was Lumix G3 and it really shines with Olympus Zuiko 45mm. If you have good light condition it's very good. My second camera was Canon 6D with three Canon lenses, 50mm 1.4, 135mm L 2.0 and 85mm L 1.2. And later I started to work with Olympus, so I have the best gear from them. My favorite camera is Olympus E-M5 Mark II with Olympus prime lenses 75mm and 45mm. For travel I use 12-40 mm and 7-12 mm Pro lenses.
Aside from photo gear, what do you like to keep around to make your shooting easier?
The fan) Sometimes it's not just gives more volume to hair, but adding some interesting new look. I'm trying new angles, speed and height and results could be surprising. And, of course, some background music is always good.
Why did you choose to use an alias?
When I decided to upload some of my first shots to big photosites, I wasn't sure at my skills at all. I wasn't sure it was good enough to be among great photographers with expensive gear and many years of experience. So, I choose to use my nickname from videogames, "Archer". And when it was neccesary to enter full name, I used "Sean Archer", as an agent from the movie "Face Off". I think, it's lucky alias)
What are your core photographic portrait techniques?
I don't do preparations. It's always improvisation, just "let's start and we'll see what we got". I shoot a lot of people I've never seen before and it's always comfortable. I use only natural light and nothing else.
You originally shot in Auto mode – what settings do you like to use now?
It was easy to shot with the Lumix, but this camera has it's limits. So, after year and a half I switched to DSLR (Canon 6D). And at first I found it more sophisticated than I thought. No Auto mode, of course, Now I shot in Manual mode only. It's not a problem if you take portraits in one place, as I usually do. Then, again, I returned to mirrorless cameras and I found theme very advanced. Olympus EM-5 Mark II is my first choice.
When you started you photographed friends in your attic, do you still do that or now do you photograph professional models and where?
You know, it started as a hobby. I never thought it could become something more. In the beginning all my models were just my friends. Some time later friends of my friends discovered my photos, thanks to social networks.
For more than a year I shoot practically everyone who wanted, for free. They're all amateurs. Some of them have model experience, but don't do it for living. I'm still working at my home, because that's all I need. Of course, I do some shots outdoors and other places. Sometimes I work for magazines, and they choose the place.
For girls next door, all your models are very attractive and willing to pose provocatively for you – how have you made that possible?
Before photoshoot I always ask model to show what photos she likes, what's comfortable for her, what she wants. So, before I take the camera I already know what we wanna get. It works perfect, I never had any problems or misunderstanding. Of course, my portfolio helps a lot. Models know what to expect, and ready to cooperate.
And what's important. Really, it was never my goal, to be provocative. I believe I don't cross border between beauty and vulgarity. As an artist, I think, you can find beauty not just in the eyes, hair and lips, but in the waistline, hips, etc. It's study of form and light that attracts me.
What do you look for when selecting your subject?
In the beginning I shoot anyone who wanted to, there was no selection) Now most of my work is paid, so people choose me, as a portrait photographer. But, there's always time to photography as a hobby, and now I can chose models to work with. I look at model and wonder how she's gonna look on my pictures.
What do you look for when lighting your subject?
I usually work with one source of light, window. And it's important to place model right. That's all.
Who inspires you? Who have you tried to learn from while developing your style?
As I said before, I love photography for a long time, as spectator. When I saw good shot, I saved it to special folder on my PC. There was, maybe thousand pictures there from various authors. So, it was nobody at particular, but a lot of great photographers. I admire the art of photography itself.
Has the exposure on 500px led to any paid photographic work?
It didn't. But it gave me more, confidence. I can't take money for work if I'm not sure of myself. And when my shots became popular, I thought, "It's not bad what you're doing. A lot of people thinks so, it's inspiring. Don't stop". And two years ago I realized many people around me ready to pay for my work. It's word of mouth, that's led to paid work.
Do you plan to pursue photography professionally?
I already do. I take portraits and work with magazines. It's great to be paid for what you love.
The styling of your images is almost flawless, do you use a make-up artist? If not, how do you go about styling and making your models’ faces look flawless?
Usually, no make-up artist. I don't like special themes and heavy make up (for example, "let's do vampires" or something). I like natural beauty. If there are usual skin problems, you can cover it with post-processing.
Why do you choose to use only natural light?
I started shooting in winter and it's pretty cold outdoors (frankly speaking, it's cold for half a year). So, indoors was a natural choice for me. I just used what I had - light from the window, wall as a background. When you shoot people, it's people what's important in the end. And it's free, all you need is a camera. Perfect for a beginner who doesn't want to spend a lot of money on a hobby.
Do you use any modifiers or accessories to help you capture your images?
No. I have reflector, but use it rarely. It's good when shooting day is sunny and you can get all light you need. It's no problem to reduce it (jalousie, curtains). It depends on the place. Just don't let direct sunlight, it should be diffused.
How often did you practice your portrait photography before you reached a style and standard you were happy with?
At first, there were, maybe, just two or three photoshoots in a month. After three or four months I found my way, what makes my picture recognizable. I think, yes, that's my style. It made my shots popular and I decided it's good, it has a lot to be improved, but it's my thing. Simple portraits, natural light, that's it.
Talk me through your post-production please – specifically techniques for retouching skin.
Of course, I do retouching, removing spots and problem skin zones. It's very important to keep skin texture, make it clear, bright, but natural. I'm not fond of "fashion" style, that makes skin lifeless. Sometimes it's ok to highlight the freckles, for example.
And significant part of my pictures was made at my place, so I'm always trying to make it different from each other. Textures are good to use, sometimes I draw some light accents and experimenting with cross-processing. I don't believe in "true photography" (no pp, shots straight from the camera), it's good for reportage filming, but in portraits you have to be an artist too.
Some people believe that "true photography" is unedited shots from the camera. I don't agree. Real life is MUCH better, brighter, detailed and deeper than any photo from any camera. So, it's not a reality. It's pale copy of reality. And what you do
with editing is not "enhancing of reality".
I believe it's possibility to make it closer to life, closer to breathtaking beauty of real people.
You learned through experimentation but what resources helped you develop your post production skills and photographic style?
In the beginning I knew nothing about working with camera. And all I know now is from my own experienñe. Thousands of shots, learning the light, camera modes, processing methods. Work in broadcast design helped a lot, I knew graphic software. And I work with photo like I used to. I know what I want (to highlight some part, for example) and I know how to do it.