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Invigorating Your Photography Portfolio: A Q&A with Lindsay Adler

Lindsay Adler talks about her new book, Creative 52: Weekly Projects to Invigorate Your Photography Portfolio, which provides 52 weekly challenges that push photographers to experiment with new concepts, techniques, and post-processing tools, culminating in a unique and eye-catching portfolio.
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Peachpit: Your new book, Creative 52: Weekly Projects to Invigorate Your Photography Portfolio, provides 52 weekly challenges that push photographers to experiment with new concepts, techniques, and post-processing tools, culminating in a unique and eye-catching portfolio. Can you share the story of how you came up with the idea for the book?

Lindsay Adler: At one point in my career I came to an impasse, where either I could challenge myself to create a more visually arresting portfolio or simply fade into the crowd. I talk about this experience in detail in the book.

I had moved to London to pursue fashion photography, and I finally got a meeting with an editor of a magazine I had admired for some time. I excitedly gathered my print portfolio and traveled across London, eager for an opportunity to work with this publication. To me, this had to mean my ”big break,” the real start of my career and success.

I remember sitting in his office as he quietly flipped through the pages of the portfolio I had poured my heart and soul into. When he finished he quietly shut the book, turned it over, and pushed it back on the table toward me.

“I would start again,” he said with a blank look on his face. I stared at him, searching for meaning in his words. He wanted to look at the portfolio again? He wanted to start the meeting again? Then it hit me.

I looked back at him puzzled and he continued. I should start my PORTFOLIO again. Start from scratch. My love and passion in life wasn’t good enough. In the book I talk more about his words and how I processed them.

I decided to move forward with determination. I set myself on a mission to create images that stopped viewers in their tracks and stood out from the crowd. Each Sunday for the next year I shot a personal project aimed to help me grow my portfolio and push me both conceptually and technically. The result completely reinvented my work as an artist. I was so fulfilled by the results and how much I grew, that I wanted to share this same process with others. I wanted to provide the motivation and challenges to help other photographers push themselves creativity and be even more fulfilled by this beautiful passion we share—photography !

Peachpit: In your book, you mention that in college you fell in love with photographers such as Irving Penn, Albert Watson, Herb Ritts, and Helmut Newton. At the time, who was your favorite photographer and why?

Lindsay: In college my favorite photographer was Albert Watson because of his mastery of lighting. I felt that if I could learn his control and creative expression through lighting, I would be equipping myself with the tools and techniques necessary to carry me through my career. Each week (multiple times a week in fact) I would print out my favorites images I had discovered online and then challenge myself to recreate the lighting or technique. Along with the work of Penn and Avedon, I really came to understand lighting not from reading books or listening to lectures, but instead from emulating the light of the masters.

Peachpit: You spent every Sunday for a year shooting “for yourself” to try new techniques, stretch yourself, and build a new portfolio.  Which technique or process changed your work the most?

Lindsay: I believe that my experimentations in Photoshop really helped my work to grow the most. The more I learned about the capabilities and possibilities of post-processing, the more I began to approach my shoots in a different way. The way I saw and conceptualized changed because I knew that I could make the impossible possible through Photoshop. I began learning to better manipulate tones and colors, and by learning the ins-and-outs of Photoshop I changed as an artist. The art no longer stopped with the click of a button. Photoshop was the next realm of my creative expression.

Peachpit: Do you still do shoots for yourself on a regular basis to try new things?

Lindsay: I create personal projects at least four times a month, where my vision and expression are the only “clients”. Yes, these images may appear in magazines, but fundamentally I am shooting to challenge myself both technically and conceptually. I am constantly absorbing the visuals around me—movies, advertisements, sculpture—and these visual influences are able to manifest themselves in my personal work. Fashion editorials are my favorite projects, where I can gather a creative team to express a common visual goal. Often I start with a single word (a magazine theme) as a spring board to develop entire concepts. When shooting, I always try to challenge myself by trying a new technique, embracing a new concept, integrating post-processing in an unusual way, or something new that stimulates my creativity. It’s a blessing and a curse that I am quickly bored by the images in my portfolio, and am always driven to improve and replace them with even more memorable imagery!

Peachpit: Which exercise is your favorite in the book, and why?

Lindsay: There are many challenges that have helped me grow. The two more challenging chapters were (23) Channel Another Artist and (38) Make Blend Modes Your Best Friend.  It was incredibly important for my growth as an artist to be able to analyze the work of other artists and be able to determine what draws me to their work. I can then challenge myself to channel these strengths into my own style and imagery, and watch myself grow! Also, blend modes have pushed my creativity in Photoshop endlessly. Blend modes changed the entire way I understand and utilize Photoshop!

Peachpit: If you could give a photographer one piece of advice for breaking out of his or her comfort zone, what would it be?

Lindsay: To “fail” is to learn, to learn is to grow, and growth leads to success. Not every image you shoot will be worthy of your portfolio. There really isn’t even such a thing as failure when experimenting in Photoshop.  You will always learn from mistakes, whether it’s discovering how NOT to do a technique, or perhaps having to challenge yourself to “save the image.” When you are pushing yourself for creative growth, you succeed as long as you are breaking away from what you are comfortable with. There will be many times you don’t feel the image is worthy of your portfolio—and that’s a good thing! When you get that great success, you will know all the trials were worth it.

Peachpit: What is the biggest mistake that professional photographers make?

Lindsay: Some professional photographers fall out of love with photography because they become too comfortable. They find their solutions and stick to them; the same lighting, the same poses, the same approaches to imagery. Often they stop challenging themselves, and creativity becomes a small part of the process. You must constantly be learning, constantly testing new techniques and technology, and pushing beyond what is comfortable. You never know what will reinvigorate your passion or what techniques you may discover that will become the reinvention of your business.

Peachpit: Which hackneyed or overused pose or technique do you hope you never see again?

Lindsay: Posing a subject against a brick wall or in the middle of train tracks has been done 8 billion trillion times. Have I done it before? As a portrait photographer, I did it at least 1 billion of those times, but now I’ve taken it out of my repertoire. It’s even in my second book. Now it’s time to do something new and different. It’s hard to stand out with these images since everyone’s done this before. 

Peachpit: Do you have a single favorite image from a fellow photographer—something that inspires you anew every time you look at it?

Lindsay: I have favorite photographers that I look at, but I quickly get bored of a single image. Collections of works and styles intrigue me endlessly.

Peachpit: You advise photographers to try to emulate techniques from their favorite artists as a way to experiment and learn new things. Is there a particular element from a photographer’s work that you have tried to replicate, but couldn’t?

Lindsay: I never try to replicate something from someone else’s work, but definitely study why I am attracted to that person’s imagery. Is it the model, the styling, the locations, the Photoshop? Why do I love their work? I then take these elements and try to infuse them into my own style and images. I am quite certain if I tried to replicate certain things that I would fall short of making it exactly the same. For example, one of my favorite lighting techniques is one that I deconstructed from a French fashion photographer, and it took me five different experimentations until I go it “right”. Is it exactly like the original? No, but it fits the effect I was going for!

Peachpit: What or who are your current inspirations?

Lindsay: Kristian Schuller, Paolo Roversi, Thierry Le Goues, Holly Suan Gray, and dozens more.

Peachpit: Can you tell us about a favorite shoot you recently did and what you liked about it?

Lindsay: I recently created a shoot with my team where we painted a model’s face with liquid black paint and adorned her accessories with gems. I loved the shoot because it perfectly fit my style: clean, bold and graphic. The images pop from the page. The shoot is about texture, contrast, tone and color. Everything in the shoot was carefully planned to give her the appearance of liquid smooth skin, with the other elements of the scene popping off the page, including her nails, gem-covered eyewear and more. I was able to pull my entire team together to make an eye-catching image that is uniquely mine!

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