An Emerging Artist’s Approach To Fantasy, Steampunk, And Victorian Portraits (NSFW)

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An Emerging Artist’s Approach To Fantasy, Steampunk, And Victorian Portraits (NSFW)

In this interview, I speak with Russ Turner, a photographer who is relatively new to shooting fantasy portraiture, but has already received awards and praise for the quality of his work. Russ talks about working with costumed models, how he incorporates Photoshop, and shares some of the places where an aspiring shooter can get started doing photography in this genre.

Most photographers shoot for their passion, not necessarily a paycheck, but that doesn’t mean their work can’t be equally as interesting, provocative or beautiful. I’ve known plenty of shooters who aren’t full time working professionals, or own their own studios, but rather have a fire inside that compels them to throw themselves at projects because they yearn feed their souls through a creative outlet. And I’ve found that the work of someone who is passionate and really understands their subject matter can often be much better than the worked produced by someone who can't relate to the content.

Russ Turner is a Michigan-born attorney who has long been interested in performing arts, music and everything renaissance. When Russ isn’t swinging swords while teaching fight choreography, he can often be found playing music or working on a stage show. His interests in theatrics have led him to work on video sets, which is where I initially met Russ several years ago. I came learn of his photography work, and when I heard that he won the Steampunk Chronicle Reader’s Choice Award for Best Steampunk Photographer in 2013, I decided I should find out more about his work. Apparently, Russ came into photography by happenstance, and considers himself to still be very new in this field.

“The irony comes in because I got my first DSLR, a Canon Rebel T2i, because I wanted a camera that shot better video. Previously I had done some video production work with various groups and also was using video in my fight choreography work. After getting the T2i I had the thought that I now owned a decent stills camera so it might not be a bad idea to learn to shoot still photos. Once I got into it I really fell in love with the art form and haven’t really looked back!”

Russ’s own interest in steampunk, medieval and other fantasy genres gives him the upper hand when doing this kind of work– he understands the concepts and motivations behind the models and styles that he works with. Sometimes this can be an interesting model/character, but it could also be more about the design or makeup that has gone into an outfit.

“One of the things I enjoy about shooting costumed subjects or alternate genres like fantasy or steampunk is that I think it gives people license to be bigger and more outgoing characters than they might be in their normal life. At the risk of sounding a bit cliché I think dressing in these styles is empowering for people.”

I asked Russ about his setup for some of his shoots, and he openly admitted to still being very much a student of this visual art. “I’m going to be the first to admit that I still feel like I have a lot to learn about lighting. I’m constantly looking through books or magazines looking for new ideas or subtle modifications on old ideas. I also try and regularly attend local workshops to make sure I’m always trying to learn new things.” Russ then went on to explain more of his approach, which was dependent on his subject matter. “If the shoot is to showcase the work of a designer or artist, then I tend to go for lighting schemes that show more of their work. If, however, showing the work isn’t high priority I might use more directional lighting or more contrast to create a darker, more mysterious feel.”

Working with costumed models and getting the right expressions and poses presents a challenge, but not too unlike traditional portraiture, as Russ described to me. “I tell my subjects that they understand how they move way better than I do so I like to let them find what works for them before I start making adjustments. For me the key is getting the model to relax and have a good time with the process. It’s a lot easier to get good photos and get more out of the experience if everyone is comfortable with how the shoot is progressing. I’ll demonstrate poses myself to show what I’m thinking or crack jokes during the shoot to lighten the mood.”

So all you need is a photographer’s direction, some good lighting, a beautiful model in an ornate costume and you’re done? Definitely not. Compositing in these fantasy portraits is like the rug that really ties the room together. Photoshop plays an important role in Russ’s work, and going into the shoot with a concept for a background in mind can be an important consideration. “When I do plan on using a digital background I’ll usually shoot models on a grey or unlit white seamless background to make separating them from the backdrop relatively easy when I get to that stage of the process. I prefer using a grey tone background rather than a green screen as, quite frankly, I’ve found them easier to light and I have to worry less about color cast on the model while I’m shooting. I’ll have the digital background in mind when I shoot so I can match lighting and color as much as possible while I’m in the studio. However, most of my composites are created after the shoot when inspiration strikes so the other advantage to shooting on a neutral background is that I generally have a little less work to do to match light and color.”

As much as Russ loves this as a creative outlet and enjoys working with the models and designers, photography can be an expensive hobby. Even when doing it on the side, marketing expenses and gear can become serious costs. That’s where Russ continues to use his creativity, so that he can keep those costs low whenever possible.

“I do pull in some income from it, mentally I need to be bringing in something to justify studio and equipment expenses. I rely a lot of social media to get my work out in front of people. I have accounts on Twitter, 500px, and Zenfolio but most of my efforts currently are directed to Facebook where I have the most followers at the time. I also try and talk to people at the events I attend and I pass out a lot of business cards from Moo.com. They have the ability to print card runs with different images on the backs of the cards so I basically carry a mini-portfolio in my pocket.”

I asked Russ whether or not he wanted to shoot full time, and while he is open to trying to take his business full time in the future, he really enjoys where things are now and continuing to learn more about his art and methods as a photographer.

“There are days when I really wish I could devote more time to it, and days when I’m glad I don’t need to. Right now I like the fact that I can use this as a creative outlet and really do the work because I love doing it. I think that when something becomes a career then the necessities of work; book-keeping, marketing, making sure the bills are covered, etc… can sometimes get in the way of experiencing the joy associated with an activity.” Lastly, I asked Russ for some insight into this line of photography, so that others who may have an interest would know where to look to get started. “If you want to shoot costume inspired work, get out to events where costumes are prevalent. If you like renaissance or medieval style costumes spend time at Renaissance Festivals and Pirate events. If you’re into Victorian or Steampunk, Steampunk conventions are fantastic sources for contacts (both models and designers) and inspiration. Talk to people at these events. The local costuming community can be one of the best resources for a photographer looking to shoot this type of work.”
 
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3 Comments

I like this work. Very much like painting, really.

I feel so honored to have my photo in this! thanks russ!

It's nice that this photographer is just starting out, but why is this featured?