Story Telling

Someone recently asked if I found the transition from stills to video a difficult one. I told her that I don’t really consider myself transitioning to motion, but rather expanding my services through its inclusion. The expansion was a natural one for me because theme shooting and storytelling have been an integral part of my still photography for what seems like forever. Her next question was “Well, how do you tell a story in stills?” Now I admit I was a bit taken aback by the question, but then it hit me like a ton of bricks, that there are lots of photographers whose work never calls on them to tie multiple frames together in a way that tells a story. Storytelling requires a different discipline because you literally must plan out your frames to convey the action. Additionally, if you are working on a magazine editorial, you know that you have a limited number of pages (six is a good number) from start to finish. It might mean multiple models and clothing changes, and props.
One of my favorite projects that I often cite as an example of storytelling in stills is a project I undertook called “Twisted Classic Children’s Tales.” I created multipage fashion editorials based on three classic children’s stories. The images below are from one of my favorites.





The images were shot at 10 am on a sunny day.  The location was a traffic triangle near La Guardia Airport in New York City.  A single Profoto head was mounted in a five-foot giant umbrella, and powered by a Profoto B2.  The model – Peter Chen for Q Models.

The images in this entry and which appear elsewhere in this blog are copyrighted by Byron Atkinson.


Stills and Motion: The Model Dilemma

Just when I thought I got the “hiring a model for a still shoot” process down, along comes motion and throws a royal monkey wrench in my casting gears.  For still shoots, I stopped looking at the model’s portfolio first and instead go straight to the Polaroids.  Why the Polaroids?  Because they are an unedited record of how the model actually looks without make-up, styling, and someone else’s vision. With the Polaroids I am able to see the model from all angles, not just his or her best angles, without color enhancement or retouching.  I then look at the portfolio to understand their range, to determine if they will be able to give me I will be asking of them for my shoot.  With still work, since I work with a small group of agencies when I need to cast, and the agents understand the concept behind the shoots, and know how I work, I will often bypass the “go see” and cast on the basis of the stills.

But with motion, things have changed.  The personality of the model, the way the model moves and sometimes even the model’s voice become considerations. You now have to be concerned with whether the model will be comfortable taking direction and taking directions with motion is different than having someone bark directions at you during a still shoot.  In fact, I find myself looking for the newly emerging category I call “model/actor” more and more, because story- and theme-based motion work involves assuming a role, as opposed to posing or the “frontin’” that you do will stills. It gives that expression “you have to own it!” that you hear so often on modeling reality shows when the judges are looking at the film, a whole new meaning.  I find myself looking at model reels when they are available, and requiring a face-to-face if at all possible before casting.   

From where I sit, one of the most important things I can do is to describe, in as much detail as possible, what the shoot is about and what the role the model will be playing is. This means I am up-front about not only the story but the apparel as well.  With the video shoot entitled the “Pink Slip” (which you can view by clicking here) the models were told up-front that they would be portraying people walking the streets looking to “hook-up.”  The male models were told they would be rearing underwear underneath their coats.  Our female lead was told that she would be wearing a short pink slip under her coat.  I provide this level of information because I want to work with people who are genuinely excited by what they are getting involved in, who understand what I am going to ask of them, and can commit to it.  I don’t need or want the drama of someone getting to a shoot only to find that they have an issue with what I need them to do.  It was 36 degrees and windy the night of the shoot, and I had three models who we absolute joys to work with.


Some Reflections on the Word “USE”

"use and use"

I want each of you to say the following word:  USE.  I want you to remember what you said because sometimes what you see and what others may see, may not be what you get.

“Use” is one of the most misunderstood and abused words in the imaging related world here in the United States.  In fact, where the word “USE” is concerned, context and understanding context is of paramount importance.  A commercial photographer often employs the word as a noun; as such, “USE” is the word that is often called upon to define what can or cannot be done with the photographer’s images.  “Use” is also a word that often determines how commercial photographers price services as well as how they are compensated.  Modeling and advertising agencies, newspapers and magazines, are intimately familiar with “USE” as the purpose for which images are shot is fundamental in determining a significant amount of the dollars that flow between the parties as well as the contractual obligations. 


As a verb, “USE” (′yǖz) becomes an action, and sometimes the nuance of “USE” (′yǖs) the noun, gets lost.  Recently two incidents gave me reason to pause.  A potential client who asked for a proposal for images for a specific “USE”, balked at my retention of copyright and the language in my agreement that allowed him to “USE” the images for the stated purpose, but did not give him the ability to do anything he wanted to do with them.  In clarifying my position it became very clear that this start-up entrepreneur felt that he should be able to use (the verb) the images for any purpose he wanted, even though the project had not been priced that way and he did not ask for it to be priced for multiple purposes.  To his credit, after giving him some references, he came back and indicated that there was much that he wasn’t aware of with respect to images and rights and “USE”.  He is not alone.  Often people who aspire to enter modeling, photography and/or the representation fields are not aware of these concepts.  As we have become a more camera- and video-enabled society, manufacturers who incorporate cameras in their products have done little to educate or make people aware that there is more to imaging than just point, click, and distribute.


In another case, a friend, told me he was going to e-mail me an image by another photographer that he had downloaded and wanted me to see.  I asked him not to do send it, explaining to him that as a working photographer downloading and distributing someone else’s copyrighted work is something I do not do, as I would not want people doing that with my work.  The operative word here is work:  People sometimes tend to forget that the images they may be enjoying are actually work and not recreation for a significant number of us.  It was during that conversation that I realized that software companies are the greatest enablers of people being able to freely download images without regard to copyright or use.  In the absence of any kind of warnings, it is has become routine for people to click on many Web viewed images and instantly have the ability to save or send them.  Is it any wonder that significant numbers of people to feel that they have the right to “USE” images as they see fit?


I want you to recall how you pronounced “USE” at the beginning of this entry:  Was it as the noun?  Or the verb?  Or did you recognize it could go either way?  Since the Web audience is world wide, it is important to point out that laws and business practices often vary by locale, so you should become familiar with the laws and practices which govern you.


The Signs of the Times


This project, “The Signs of the Times” is a real departure for me.  There are no professional models involved, no make-up artist or stylist, and no fancy lights:  Just me, my cameras, and a monopod.  Over the past few months, as I have traveled around the New York City, the signs of  economic woes have grown more and more visible.  As a visual artist, I get a very different sense walking the streets with respect to the economy than from listening to the news or reading the paper. 

As I shot this work, each set of images took me to a different place.  I feel like I have been on a rollercoaster:  I have laughed, nearly cried, felt depressed, and then uplifted.  Those who view the work may or may not feel the same, but in the end all I hope is that it will make people reflect a little more.


You can view the full project at www.theimagician.com  scroll on portfolio and click on the featured project “the signs of the times.”




A Fitness Shoot: Working It Out In Black and White

A short time ago I contracted to undertake a fitness shoot.  The images were for use online and for print collateral.  The proposed facility for the shoot was a state-of-the-art spacious fitness club with neutral color walls and lit by daylight balanced fluorescent tubes and the shoot involved two to three people exercising.  While the facility had mirrors, they were well-placed, and the sheer volume of the space would allow great flexibility in photographing different exercises from various angles.  Needless to say, I was stoked. 


Fast forward to a week and a half before the scheduled shoot.  The space the client originally proposed for the shoot was unavailable, and they were looking to me for help.  Rather than rescheduling the shoot, I made a few phone calls and worked out access to another facility.  There were, however, constraints:  1) the shoot had to take place either before they opened or after they closed; 2) the facility was small in comparison to original and filled to the brim with equipment; 3) the walls were various colors and hardly neutral and; 4) there was a hodgepodge of lighting types in various areas with little of it placed optimally relative to the equipment.  What’s a photographer to do?  I explained the conditions to the client, and they still wanted to go forward. 


The shoot was set up for Sunday morning at 6:45 am.  We would have approximately an hour to work.  In thinking about the lighting, I decided to take the minimalist approach, and took a  Canon Ex 580II flash as a non firing master, a 430 II flash(slave) mounted in a Lastolite 15″ Ezy Box Hotshoe unit for fill.  I didn’t want an obvious flash look.  Given the color issues-equipment, mirrors, wall and light temperature, grey card not withstanding, I knew that I would be converting most of the images to black and white.


This was one of those rare, no make that very rare instances that I actually ran late, as one of my dogs was sick that morning.  So instead of starting shooting at 6:45, I was just arriving at 7:00, which meant that we had lost 15 minutes of shooting time.  The good news was that by 7:35 we had completed shots of exercises for all the major body parts plus cardio.  By 7:45 my cameras and lights were bagged and we were walking out of the gym.  Had I not made a “pre” trip to the facility and walked it, the 35-minute photo shoot would have been impossible. 


The most difficult aspect of the shoot was making sure that there was adequate line of sight between the master and slave flashes.


And here are some of the images from the shoot:


the wish list! (alternative title-the people i’d like to shoot)

I have been thinking for a while about people I would like to shoot – with my camera that is!!  So here is my list and the reasons why.  They are not listed in any particular order:


From the world of entertainment:


  • Viola Davis – No “Doubt” about it!  Some of you may be asking “Viola who?  This is the woman for whom the “A” in actress should also stand for “A-List.” And an actress if you are not familiar with, you should be.
  • Patrick Swayze – The reasons:  “Black Dog,” “The Outsiders,” “Road House,” “The Beast,” and “Ghost.”.  And because of the strength he has shown as he continues to deal with ongoing health issues.
  • Guy Pearce – One of my favorite actors because he strives to give the characters he plays great dimension, and refuses to allow himself to be placed in a box.
  • Whoopie Goldberg – Because every time “Ghost” comes on, I stop what I’m doing and watch it; and any woman who names her production company “One HO”….
  • Angela Bassett – Because her journey from Florida to Hollywood by way of New Haven has been amazing to watch.
  • Anderson Cooper – Simply because “AC-360” is one of the best shows of its kind.


From the world of sports:

  • The Williams Sisters – Because few photographers and stylists have done these remarkable women justice!
  • Fernando Verdasco – Because he is an amazing tennis player, with model looks.
  • Dara Torres and Stacy Dragila, – Because they both demonstrate that where great athletic performance is concerned, age is just a number.


From the non entertainment world:

  • Henry Louis Gates – Because “Skip” Gates is one of the foremost keepers of African American culture and history.  It is vital to remember where you have come from to understand where you can go.



Now I don’t want to offend anyone that didn’t make the list.  I do want to say that Oprah you almost made the cut.  Your honesty about your weight gain gave me newfound respect and admiration for you!  The reason you weren’t on the list was that there are about a zillion photographers waiting to capture you and I’m just not in the mood to mix it up with them. 

I was also about to acknowledge that I would love to shoot a campaign for John Varvatos, but then realized that I wouldn’t mind shooting for Marc Jacobs, Kenneth Cole  and a few others too..

So perhaps I best stop the list here.

OMG! I just realized there are no pictures in this post! Please forgive me.


Blogger Boy


january 20, 2009 – Reflection

While it is an historic day here in the United States, in that the first President of African American decent will be sworn in, my first thought this morning was wishing my Mother happy birthday! It is truly a remarkable day for her and her surviving siblings, Easter, Edythe, Maddie and Jack, all of whom were born and raised in a very segregated North Carolina. They are not just witnessing history, but living history, because they have each done their part to bring change about.

This morning my sister gave Mom an Obama Commemorative Plaque as part of her birthday presents. The look on Moms face was just priceless! In speaking with her a few minutes later she remarked how she never imagined as a child that the election of a Black man as President of the United States would ever be possible. Her eyes had a sparkle in them: It was the sparkle of hope and the sparkle of optimism realized! In that moment, what my mother had given to me, on this her birthday, was the reminder that we live in a dynamic environment, and that we must be players rather than  observers of  life. Mom, thanks for the gift! And now it is time for me to get back to imaging!!

mom-living history

January 2020
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current ipod playlist includes:

Eva Cassidy - Over the Rainbow, Rascal Flatts - Unstoppable, Renee Olsstead - A Love That Will Last, Train - Hey Soul Sister, Trisha Yearwood - How Do I Live, Jason DeRulo - Whatcha Say, Byron Kelsey Atkinson - The Love That Heals, Luther Vandross - Love Forgot, Patti Austin - True Love, Phyllis Hyman - No One Could Love You More, Keisha Cole with Monica - Trust, Shontelle - Impossible, Nickelback - This Afternoon, JayZ with Ms. Keyes - Empire State of Mind



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