Name Your Je Ne Sais Quoi

September 8, 2015


Je Ne Sais Quoi is a german term meaning “the chosen one”

Ok, now that I have that out of my system we can move on.

When I started in photography I would just stare blankly at my inspiration and then use all of my energy to simply not quit. I let inspiration inspire me in an abstract and amorphous way. I think there is a place for that, but if you consider yourself an artist, it would behoove you to step up your game in this area, you should also strive to use the word behoove more often, we all should. The more I spend time with artists and specifically at this photo workshop last week in Joshua Tree it reinforces the value of stepping up our game on this.

Je Ne Sais Quoi is a substitute for when we look at something, hear something, watch something that is impressive, or different, or unique but we can’t quite find what it is., it’s the intangible qualities that make something attractive. We might not have words to put to the inspiration yet, but that might just be that your creative vocabulary is in need of growth. And this is where I think formal training would come quite in handy (which I have none of). If you’re able to talk about a piece of art using words like composition, vanishing point, leading lines, balance, tone, elements, thirds, scale, texture, color, golden ratio, style, minimalism, negative space, framing, and story then we can take the next steps in looking at that art that inspires us in powerful ways and have words crafted for those inspirations.

Whether it’s the negative space of Max Wanger, or the the texture of Lee Jeffries, or the tone of Ben Sasso, or the composition of Paul Octavious, or the scale of Chris Burkard, or the color of Ravi Vora, or the pointillism of Chuck Close, or the political weight of Banksy, we ought to endlessly let the elements in work we love torture us until we can put words to it. We can always say that aside from all of those elements we still love this or that art without the need to explain, but we should have the capacity to speak intelligently about others art and our own.

I walked away from this most recent Camp Workshop (lead by Ben Sasso and Katch Silva) with a lot of work that I was proud about and I wanted to sit down with you and talk through some of the things I look for in my own work that I can reflect on what was happening and why that particular shot stood out from the others. And believe me, I know that having a model, attractive couple, amazing weather, and sights of Joshua Tree make it a LOT easier to shoot, but moments don’t always just happen and when you catch them find out how and lock it away in your creative muscle memory.

Ben Sasso Photo Workshop

Our model was Brianna Olenslager and she is amazing with variety. I was really surprised how with such nuance she could entirely change her look. I loved how in these first 2 her body shape resemble the boulder behind her. She is curved, calm, and stable. The contrast of the wind with the formidability of the giant boulders offered a rad and unexpected contrast of solidarity and wild, wind-swept whimsy (I had no intention on writing whimsy, but I had to, I just had to)

Ben Sasso Photo Workshop Ben Sasso Photo Workshop

Her look is both soft and fierce and I wanted to mimic that when I posed her, asking her to keep soft lips and hands but stern in the eyes. Models know how to do this kind of stuff and it’s a lot of fun practicing these kinds of directions, since this isn’t something I do very often. I love the way that the light wraps and reflects off the rocks and then gives her hair the golden highlight.

Ben Sasso Photo Workshop

This shot I had to kind of create. There were 12 other people shooting her at each moment and so I wanted to get a closer and bit more intense shot. In any situation you really should be looking to set the tone, whether that is on set, or during an on-location lifestyle shoot. If you want it fun and light, make it fun and light. If you want it serious, make it that way. I needed to wait till the group was walking away and just quietly asked her to look down and away and then slowly bring eyes up to me. The wind was actually blowing her hair all over and I asked her to just leave it and focus right in the lens. There are a few keepers from those couple seconds.

Ben Sasso Photo Workshop

Ben Sasso Photo Workshop

I also wanted her to kick up some dust, but I also learned my lesson that models typically don’t walk around in shoes that are suited to kick around in dirt. She was a trooper and went for it anyways.

Ben Sasso Photo Workshop

I’ve been working on my black and whites lately. I want to move towards the contrast and moody style I’m drawn to in color but in with the deep blacks and silver tones of some of my favorite black and white images. Ryan Flynn once talked about not shying away from the 16X9 cinematic cropping in your images from time to time, and since then I’m finding myself really being drawn to certain images that feel like they could be set in cinema and cropping it that way.

Ben Sasso Photo Workshop Ben Sasso Photo Workshop

Katch Silva’s shots that aren’t afraid of shadows were what inspired this. She is awesome at allowing light to tell just enough about the frame without worrying about the rest of it being either super deep tones or totally dark.

Ben Sasso Photo Workshop Ben Sasso Photo Workshop

I also just loved watching people get in there and try things out, that’s really where a lot gets learned.

Ben Sasso Photo Workshop Ben Sasso Photo Workshop

I can’t imagine this blanket was an accident. The colors of the blanket perfectly matched the muted blues, greens, yellows, and browns of everything around us. I’m sure there is a better way this could have been used but it is such a rad thing to watch elements of color and texture from skin to rocks to blankets all work together.

Ben Sasso Photo Workshop

I’m drawn the the boldness of fashion photography. It stands as art and makes no apologies. I wanted to try something a little more fashion with this pose and spot. Since I don’t pose fashion a lot I literally just practiced a few poses myself before I showed her what I had in mind. Don’t forget I’m 6’3” and big and bearded… so I shouldn’t really be standing like that ever.

Ben Sasso Photo Workshop Ben Sasso Photo Workshop

These next two really solidify the point of this post. I like them a lot and am proud of them, but it took me some time to find out why.

For starters I toned them differently which might seem obvious but, I used a more cinematic rgb curve that brings more blues and creams into the shot. But even before that it is the shots as a set that draw me in. I sometimes get intimidated when shooting other people because they have either experience, or expectation, or anxiety about what’s going on, so truthfully if they aren’t looking at me and just posing or having fun or being more lifestyle stuff, it’s like I can hide behind the camera. But when someone looks right at me through my camera I wish I could say I soak up that moment, but sometimes I really do freeze. I want to get the shot, but even more than that I want to NOT miss the shot. It would and does kill me when I know there was a great and powerful moment of eyes being right on the camera that I just fumbled, and those are way harder to get to genuinely in a shoot than the rest of it. People who are good at getting the eyes have been challenging me to anticipate and be patient and bold in my shooting. I don’t know if I was patient or bold, but I did anticipate this moment as she was facing me, posing very softly and I asked her to turn away, keep her hand just like it was and then bring only her eyes toward me (little tip: if you ask someone to just bring their eyes toward you, most of the time the head will come a little too) and she gave the subtlety exactly as I was hoping. And the raddest thing is that these might not be your favorites, hey you might not like any of them (in which case you do you playa’), but if there is any preference to anything in this post it’s because there’s something about it that is drawing your creativity towards it and learning how to name it will give you another tool to use in your creative expression.

Ben Sasso Photo Workshop Ben Sasso Photo Workshop

One last thing, Ben and Katch had me teach a little about night photography. More than anything I said, I loved being able to just get the settings right for my new friends and hear them squeal like little animals in the night all around our campsite as they came in with some amazing shots of their own, because I remember my first time getting stars right in my hometown and it was really addicting and a lot of fun, especially since no one at this workshop was there for that at all and it has nothing to do with their professional art, they were just enjoying it as it should be.

long exposure photography joshua tree night joshua tree

This was our cove being painted by red the campfire and led blue from the lantern. Home for a night.

joshua tree night

Oh and this is Ben, after he climed a rock in the dark, with sand in his pocket… and the sand didn’t work at all. Having adventurous friends is where it’s at.

Ben Sasso Photo Workshop

Ok so please let me know if you have any questions in the comments below, I’d love to know who inspires you and if you spent some more time thinking why, then the ‘why’ also. If you think someone is at the top of the game in any of those categories  (line, shape, tone, etc…) that I mentioned above please please let me know who. I love seeing people who do great work. So raise your mugs to good times and distant music.

Processed with VSCOcam with c8 preset

Processed with VSCOcam with m5 preset



I think it was my sigma 35! Thanks for the compliment!

Obsessed! These are amazing! What lens did you use on the last portrait of the model (before you wrote “one last thing…”)? This one: