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


So you want to be a Working Model… Part 2

PBP? Prep before photos!! Sometimes it seems that models,  particularly aspiring ones, who are not working with an agency on an exclusive basis, are obsessed with having to have images. I am not downplaying the need for or the importance of images.  But often times what happens in preparation for the shoot is as big  a determinant (or a bigger one) of how successful the shoot will be in terms of opening the door for work opportunities, as  who the photographer is.  None of those commercial shots that people salivate over in print, were accomplished without varying degrees of preparation before the photos were taken.  Taking pictures for your portfolio, is about more than throwing some clothing into a duffel bag, showing up for the shoot, and assuming that the photographer will use Photoshop  to address any issues.  I maintain that:  I am a photographer, not a miracle worker!   Don’t ask me to use the Photoshop  liquify tool to remove wrinkles from your clothing because you elected not to iron them the night before. 

The  working model’s approach to developing his or her portfolio requires a lot of thought. Does this mean that you have to have an entourage including hair stylists, clothing stylist, and make-up artist involved in your shoot? No, but it does mean that you need to think about how these  aspects of the shoot will be handled. Some of you will do fine with minimal assistance from others, while others will need more help either because you have no sense of style, or the number or nature of the wardrobe changes during the shoot, requires oversight and management. In any event, these are things which you should discuss with the photographer when exploring working together. I tend to recommend keeping things simple for those just starting out.

The images shot for your portfolio are about you first and foremost:  They should show your range, limits and/or versatility.  Your portfolio is not about  my  lighting and Photoshop skills in the sense that they should enhance, but never eclipse you.  Your portfolio images are not opportunities for me to create sweeping photographic vistas in which you are just one of several elements that make an image work.  Your portfolio isn’t about copying or recreating images that look like the hot ad campaign of the moment.  No casting director is going to think you have more work experience under your belt as a result of those photos.  Your portfolio images are about showing you at your best!  Yet sometimes  images that aspiring models place in their portfolios,  say less about them, and more about the person who took the shot.  These images may look great , but you need to remember one thing:  The purpose of every image in your  portfolio is to get you work.  If the images do not showcase enough of you or convey enough of a sense about you for a casting person to form a positive  opinion, you are probably going to get passed over.  The more experienced photographers usually understand this.  If you choose to work with newer photographers or are working with a photographer on a service exchange basis, make sure that each of you understands  the respective goals for your collaboration.

When I cast models, the most important images in a models portfolio for me, are the Polaroids. Why the Polaroids? Because those images best reflect what the model actually looks like with all his or her assets and flaws unadorned by the magic of heavy image editing and creative lighting. I then look at the other images to see if the model can carry off a suit, or a cocktail dress, or underwear, or whatever apparel I know that we will be shooting.  Because I am sometimes casting for lifestyle and stock image work, I look at the  other images in a portfolio  to ascertain whether the face has ample character, and whether the smile and overall demeanor fits my needs and demographic. I look for variety in expression among the portfolio images. I will also look for shots showing motion and look at video footage if available.

There are a few things I want to leave you with:

Keep things simple!  A good shot in basic apparel with proper fit and neutral color along with simple hair styling and make-up/grooming is preferable to one with more complex wardrobe, hair and makeup where any one element may be poorly executed and therefore ruin the shot.  Four  great photographs are better than twenty mediocre ones!!

If you think a thong and Uggs are an appropriate fashion statement for your portfolio, seek professional helpfrom a stylist that is.

Work on perfecting “expressions on demand.” At some point every photographer will ask you to: “Look happy, or sexy, or naughty or nice.”  Make sure you have some appropriate frames of reference to draw on – either a person or an event, that will allow you to access the emotions or expressions  needed to make the image work.


blogger boy

From a test shoot: An agency pick for the models’ portfolio.
From the same test shoot: My pick for my portfolio.  Notice the difference in the focus of the two images.  You get a sense of the models personality in the shot above.  In the image to the right, the model is more of an element in the scene, and the focus is more on the composition.

So you want to be a Working model….Part 1

a-working-model-theirry-jean-bartLate last year I was approached by several people about getting involved with new model portfolio building projects. I usually ask prospective clients what they are looking for, as I find that sometimes people are expecting more out of the photographer than just images. I am not an agent, and have no interest in being one, so if a potential client is looking for someone who is going to provide them with job leads or casting access, I am not the guy. There are also some projects which I just don’t feel are appropriate for me or grab my interest.
I use the word working model in the title of this entry because in my opinion, the day of the supermodel is over. The degree to which one ascended to “supermodel-dom” used to be measured by the numbers of covers a model had under his or her belt and/or endorsements. If you go to a newsstand today and look at the covers of most fashion publications, you find that they feature entertainers or athletes or some other person who is either famous or infamous. Fewer and fewer magazine feature models on their covers. And more times than not, an entertainers appearance on a magazine cover is either tied to a release of a new movie or record, but that’s another discussion. Those same entertainers and athletes endorse watches, cosmetics, clothing and scents heavily advertised inside the magazine pages.
For aspiring models I tell them that before they can get to be a “supermodel,” to borrow a phrase from RuPaul “you better work!!”
And working means developing good habits, not believing your own hype, and being open to learning and criticism: It is understanding that modeling is more than having a great face and a hot body. I have seen striking beautiful women and handsome men, get on a set and become the equivalent of a human clothes hanger with no expression on their face and what my assistant Cynthia calls “dead eyes.” More times than not when this happens, the model fails to understand that the session is not about him or her, but is about the clothing, the product and/or the lifestyle that they are wearing, holding, or promoting. Models are in fact improvisational actors who use body language, facial expression and attitude, in the place of dialogue to convey a message and sell, sell, sell!
If you understand this, you have a head start in becoming a working model. if you do not, you really need to. I urge people to think about this before they spend any time and money hiring photographers and building a portfolio. It’s part of what i call “pbp.”
And in the next installment, I will tell you exactly what “pbp” stands for.
blogger boy


My Favorite Images of 2008!

September 2022

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



RSS Unknown Feed

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.