Inspire your photography using modern pictorialism instead of high-tech!

We say gear or new tools don’t matter, but sometimes they kick our inspiration into high gear and that does matter. I bet you’ve felt this too. Photos being too perfect was the topic of today’s Pro Photo Podcast so go listen in the background.

A blur like in these birds gives a natural emotion but the photo is still natural after my edit in BlackRoom.

A new camera is exciting and gets us shooting. But sometimes simple things do that better.

There’s a lot to be learned from history that we usually ignore. And the deep shadows drawn by pictorialist photographers are no exception.

In those days low detail drawm was more natural to the limited cameras and films. But it was still international. Today we have digital, clean details and sharp lenses but we can create that mood using modern tools and techniques in camera and in post.

I’ve bought expensive new lenses and stood with an empty wallet and a little excitement. Yes, they made my vivid landscape photography perfect and shape and I took good photos. But often it’s the imperfect that helps me discover shadow.

This frame was off. It was blurred but it had feeling. So I edited in more of a Stieglitz style and tone. You may love or hate it, but it gave me a fresh perspective on the session.

When I started buying old vintage lenses for a few dollars they had beautiful often soft details. Each one was like getting new gear even though it did not cost me that much. I pushed myself with them and realized that shadows not light and drama not sharpness were secrets to great photos.

The bridge into this neighborhood was flooded and the dark blurred photo of the cyclist leads the eyes out of the shadows and into the other side. A light platinum edit from Emulsion was used here.

Have you thought about why are rustic lamps and 19th-century lights so popular in 2024 and how that relates to photography? I love coffee and art.

On the side, I’m in charge of ambiance and design in a large cafe in Mexico. Some of the most popular things are table games, worn-out photo books, and handmade rustic lamps with Edison lights and burned wood tables creating an atmosphere. It is the Cafe of Light, it’s warm and relaxed and in Mexico, a very unique experience.

These details are planned, but imperfect and they make people feel at home!

THE SETUP: In a recent session, I had a lovely model and a single small strobe. I wanted a photo that was sensual but classy. Natural light, a dry river bed. One light let me create deep shadows and drop the background tones.
I got some beautiful results and edited with Filmist2 using Fuji 400H. Filmist2 is amazing but my edit was still sterile. I wanted more atmosphere like I’ve been exploring in my new project.
I took the FIlmist edit to Photoshop and used a process of layers and mixing inspired by the legendary David Hamtol’s work. It’s the same Filmic photo but gentler, more imperfect, and more magical. It’s not sterile. This is why I’ll use actions like Alchemist or this new pack I’m creating because they give me complex edits that I can adjust to the vision in my head today.

You can still have sharp detail. It’s not all blurs and abstracts. It’s about the atmosphere.

If you go back to the era of Alfred Stieglitz and the early pictorialist photographers or forward or forward to the 80’s era of partial fashion like David Hamilton you see a pattern. I’m going to share photos and their notes today to make this point.

Being a photographer who stands out is hard in the 21st century. Perfect photos are so easy and often automated. But are they perfect or boring? As someone who teaches and prints wall portraits, I value detail and high quality. Sometimes you need megapixels. But it’s not that simple.

Alfred Stieglitz used the camera imperfections of the day to create more dramatic images., I’ve been studying his use of shadows and tonality as I create new tools and projects.
I’ve always loved this 1940’s Kodachrome on the streets of London by Chalmers Butterfield. It’s a little soft, but it’s on the move and it feels like real life.

You see this especially when shooting film. It’s organic and feels like life in an Ain world.

Over the past few months, I’ve been working on a new editing pack to go along with Alchemist, backroom, and Emulsion. But this time I’ve been digging into iconic analog methods and getting inspired by implementing these techniques in my session and editing.

I edit a RAW photo. Say I use LR and C1 with Filmist or Silver. I get this edit and it’s good. But I’ve always said if I take the best photo and go to Photoshop, use layers, use Lumist or Blackroom or manually burn and dodge. I’ll also add something more.

I’m no stranger to high-detail razor-sharp photos so I can print large. But even in my landscapes, I’ve learned that deep shadows, nature clearing of clouds or trees, and mixing high detail with the atmosphere, lets us feel more about the place without faking it using Ai or pasted skies.
This is Mexico City, taken on my fuji and edited with Ektar 100 from Filmist 2. It looks good and it[‘s true to the film. But let’s look at the film reference.
My own scan of the shot made on Ektar 100 film. There’s an organic lack of perfection in the film. The preset does great and I love it. But sometimes less perfect shots will give us a more real feel.
Another un-retouched film scan was taken on Kodak Ultra 400. Film in itself is almost pictorialist in nature compared to clean digital files. There are flaws, imperfections scratches that make it feel like a different medium entirely.

If you saw my important video on the power of TONE in photography or have been to a Shadow Hackers live class you have the foundation for this.

But if we stop shooting safe and sterile and go all in with shadows and trying things. Not every photo will work but we will get inspired and new direction.

If you go on a trip to a beautiful place, I find a vibrant street or make a session with a beautiful person you can get inspired and create something fresh.

But I also get that when I am trying old techniques, trying to create new effects, and just going out with my camera trying extremes and not being afraid of detail but focusing on emotion and atmosphere.

Also a bit flawed. But this blut was natural and I let it ride to create a mood that worked with this dark shadowy pictorialist style edit. These may be extremes but they help me think.

Using new software or atmospheric editing effects will inspire not only your edits. It will make you think more about what you create on camera like it has done for some of my recent sessions.

Maybe you should wedding, or school photos. I know from experience it’s easy to get it a rut. So little things like an old lens that flares, making your glass dirty like David Hamilton or keeping some of the blurry photos and editing them in a more haunting way can change how you see the world.

Some of these photos may speak to me and not you. Some may be great and some not. But each photo I shared today affects how I feel and then the emotion of tone when I create the next session. It pushed that inspection we always need as artists.

I hope you found some inspiration and will share your comments below – Gavin Seim

If you’ve been to shadow hackers you’ve seen this example. The darkness along with with a platinum and cyan edit from Emulsion 4 is the opposite of how we normally light a portrait. Yet the subject is still dominant. I’m doing a video soon on why we need to stop lighting everything the same.

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About the Author

Glad you're here.

I'm from WA State USA and started studying photography in 97. I started work as a pro (using that word loosely because I sucked) using film at age 16. I learned fast but was not as easy to find training then. Sometimes I beat my head against the wall until I figured stuff out.

As digital dawned I went all in and got to study with masters like Ken Whitmire. In 09 I founded the Pro Photo Show podcast. I started promoting tone-focused editing. When Lightroom arrived, I started developing tools to make editing and workflow better.

20 years of study and photography around the country earned me a Master of Photography (M.Photog) from PPA. I got to see my workshops and tools featured in publications across the industry. Once I even won the prestigious HotOne award for my "EXposed" light and tone workshop.

Wanting something calmer, I moved to Mexico in 2017. It's a land of magical light. I'm here now exploring light and trying to master my weak areas. I make videos of that for my Youtube channel, sharing what I learn. I hope you'll stick around and be part of Light Hunters Tribe... Gavin

Gavin Seim