When you’re starting out in photography, everyone always tells you to “find your style.” That’s weird to me, because I don’t ever remember finding my style. For years, I was actually trying to not have a style because I didn’t want people to think I could only do one thing or create one type of look. Over time, though, I realized that certain sessions were more fun, and I posted more of those to social media, and by sharing what I loved—dramatically lit portrait composites—clients with similar tastes found me.
I feel I have the skills to create whatever look the client wants, whether it’s natural lighting with just reflectors for a soft, classic look, or using lots of lights in-studio for dramatic action shots. But if someone were specifically referring to my composite work, the best descriptive term I can come up with would be “commercialized graphic composites,” which means I’m combining properly lit subjects with unique backgrounds and elements that express their personality and their story. Whether it’s an athlete covered in mud composited into a rainy football field, or a book lover composited into a fantastical world of literature, that’s what I enjoy creating.
I think an important part of my business, and what keeps clients happy, is that I have an extensive client education system set up with a series of guides, emails and forms that ensure my clients know everything about my process. Being open and honest about my methods ensures that they come to the studio educated and leave with lots of great images.
Here’s a breakdown of how I approach a senior graphic composite session.
Concept generation begins when I talk with the client, find out more about their interests and get a feel for their personality. I have a phone script that begins the process, and then I use a client reservation form that asks a series of questions and allows the client to describe their ideal images. From that form we also find their social media accounts so we can see their style, goals and tag them in posts, and it also contains our model release, copyright information and important policies.
After I’ve collected the necessary information about the client, I create a variety of idea folders and use them as inspiration. Unlike in my personal projects, I want the images I create to reflect my subject’s personality. While I may start out with a concept in mind, different ideas develop over the course of the session as I get to know the client better.
I recently had a football player drive up from Alabama for a senior session. As we were getting ready, I asked him about his favorite football memory, and he described having practiced in the rain. After hearing that, I had him switch to his old worn-out practice jersey and we went and found a big mud puddle for him to roll around in—it made for some very dramatic images back in my studio.
I run a low-volume, high-end studio, so I get to spend as much time as I want creating cool ideas with my subjects, both during the shoot and in post. Many of my clients have a variety of interests they want to show off, so we usually have at least six outfit changes. I have fun with that, and my subjects have a blast too—in fact, I find that when it comes to shooting more serious photos, I often have to remind even the toughest senior guys to stop smiling.
I try a lot of different things during a session and I am always changing things around. For a typical senior session, I do half on location and half in studio.
On location, I use whatever lighting technique is necessary to create beautiful images—from multiple-light setups with gels to simple reflectors. Often I’ll use a beauty dish in front and a 6-inch can in back.
For the green screen in my studio, I use anywhere from two to five lights depending on what’s required to match up to the scene—usually a SweetLight softbox, two 36-inch striplights with grids and a 60-inch parabolic for fill.
I normally only shoot with the green screen with athletes or clients that have some sort of activity that they’re involved in. From those, I can composite anything from a Rocky Mountain landscape for a boy scout to an abandoned warehouse in Kansas for a dancer.
I don’t create the composite until the client orders it. The client will come to the studio for their order session to look at the unedited images (many of which are still on green screen). Once they pick out their favorite poses, I then begin the editing process. Sometimes their favorite images are not what I had in mind—they are something that just happened as we played around.
If you know what the background of a composite will look like before you photograph your subject, you will find that it is much easier to make it look believable because you can more accurately account for all the variables in the scene.
I recently had a 14-year-old soccer player come in, and his parents told me a story about how he had been working so hard and putting in a lot of time to make the high school soccer team. During the shoot, we made a lot of cool action shots, but I wanted to capture one portrait that would evoke some of the deeper emotion that he felt about his goals.
I had him simply sit down and think about what his ambitions were. In explaining my vision to his mother, she loved it, so after placing her order, I spent some time photographing lots of soccer balls. I then uploaded them into Photoshop and arranged them into a big pile, shading and toning each correctly so that the subject was sitting on what appears to be a huge mountain of soccer balls (opposite page). This represented his hard work and all of the time that he had invested to get to that point.
This is to say that, because the subject and their personality often inspire me as we interact, I usually have to create a background after the photo shoot—it’s harder, but it does help ensure that I have created something that captures their individuality.
The time it takes to finish a client order and deliver it is typically six weeks. It can take anywhere from 10 minutes to a full day to complete a single composite, depending on the size, complexity and if the elements I am using are something I have stored in my personal stock images or if there is something I need to go out and photograph.
Delivery of the final products also depends on how far the clients have traveled. It’s not uncommon for a client to fly or drive from out of state for a portrait session.
I have custom boxes and bags for many of my products with the Shirk Photography logo. A client does not necessarily buy the product because of the packaging, but it does help to add value to our brand. Just like when you purchase an iPhone, the packaging is part of the experience and value.
I offer build-your-own portrait collections, which allows clients to pick out what they want, and they can keep adding things to their order without feeling like they have to meet a certain minimum requirement. A typical client is selecting a few canvas, metal or framed wall portraits with a more classic senior look, and then a few wall portraits of composites or blended montages featuring their activities.
My clients also have a lot of other favorite images, so my custom albums are a popular option. Most of my clients are also picking out some desk art (usually 8 x 10, 5 x 7 and 4 x 6-inch sizes) for their friends and family.
Ben Shirk is a portrait photographer based in Wilton, Iowa, who runs his studio, Shirk Photography. He’s earned multiple awards for his creative composites, including at WPPI in Las Vegas.