Take a look at these inspirational photographs from Justin Bettman's Dark series. I have been following Justin for awhile now and love the work he produces. What i really admire about his images are the stories they tell. It seems a lot of photographers go for similar styles and the photography starts to blend together and become homogeneous, Justin definitely breaks that mold. I was able to talk to Justin about about his Dark series and what all goes into producing some of these astounding photos. Go to Justin's website to view more of his work.
What first got you interested in photography?
JB: I had a clothing company when I was in high school that sponsored bands so I had to take pictures of the bands wearing my clothes. Soon I realized I liked shooting bands (and getting into concerts for free) more than running a clothing company so I started pursuing photography more seriously.
Where did you get the inspiration/idea to start the dark series?
JB: For a while I was shooting really bright, composited commercial work and I wanted to try doing the exact opposite. It didn't start as a series, originally it was just one concept I had for a photograph, and then slowly my style evolved and I had a cohesive body of dark work. I think the subject matter in most of the photos comes from how I grew up in the suburbs of San Francisco and my cynical view on the American Dream.
Your scenes provoke a lot of emotion throughout the image yet can be left up for interpretation, what do you want your viewers to get out of your images?
JB: When going into a shoot, I have a clear idea of what I am trying to achieve. However, I intentionally leave the shots open ended so each viewer can take out of it what they want. I think there is a fine balance of subtly leading the viewer to the story you've created without being too overt.
You have a very theatrical/ cinematic feel to your images that makes your style unique, what gives you inspiration for each image and how do you turn that into a finished product?
JB: I typically get concepts for photographs when I run. I feel that it's the perfect time to think about shoots because that's when I often run passed new locations that inspire me. It's also a great time because I am seeing stories all around me as I pass by people and get a two second snapshot of their lives. I try to always run different routes in different neighborhoods to constantly change the setting.
Once you have an idea/concept, how much planning does it usually take for you to complete the images, do you usually scout locations and think of props before hand, do you use models or just find people wanting to participate.
JB: I’d say that I am as much a producer as a photographer; every shoot I do, I produce on my own. Getting permission to shoot, props, wardrobe, assistants, the proper gear, and casting are definitely time consuming but it’s all part of the process. For instance, had the red house shot been done in a new mansion, the feeling of the photo would be drastically different and I don’t think I would’ve evoked the same emotion. But to tie back to the question, I'd say I spend much more time on execution than I do on planning shoot ideas. I tend to use actors instead of models since I generally try to create stories and actors tend to be better for that.
They all seem to be around that twilight time, that must leave you roughly 30 minutes to execute your vision. What all goes into the day of the shoot? How long does it take to compose your sets, set up lighting, and convey your vision to your subjects? Do you have assistants?
JB: Most of these shots are shot during twilight or when its nighttime. As you can tell with the cinematic feel, I use lots of lighting. I will often spend the majority of the day lighting, anywhere from 4-8 hours for one photograph. And as you've pointed out, there's only a short time period to get the shot I want, so I have to be all set with the lighting well before that time period to actually take the shot. I use assistants or else I don’t think I would be able to shoot on such a large scale. Sometimes I’ll have up to 20 people on set.
Your attention to detail with how you light your subjects is awesome, can you talk a little bit about your lighting process and how you use it to set your moods?
JB: I think lighting is the reason my photographs look the way they do. People often ask how I photoshop my photos to look the way they do but in all honesty, it’s all in the lighting. On a shoot, I’ll use anywhere from 3-10 strobes. When I'm lighting a shoot, I start out by lighting one subject at a time until everyone is lit how I want and then I’ll add lights to illuminate the rest of the set. When using so much external lighting, its really important to make sure the light looks like they’re coming from justified light sources or the photo will just look tacky. This means its important to use gels to "sell" the light source. For instance, if you're going to use a light to emulate a street light, you'll want to put a CTO gel on the light head since street lights on generally orange. I usually try shooting at around 70 mm so there isn’t any lens distortion and the image is more compressed. Also, recently I've started using my hazer more often and I'm going to continue incorporating it into my shots. I like the soft and filled in look it gives to the shots.