Phlearn Interviews Lee Howell
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Award-winning commercial photographer Lee Howell is based in Edinburgh UK, specializing in creative advertising and contemporary editorial portraiture. His work is distinctive and unique in style producing strong, vivid imagery. No stranger to success his talent has already won him numerous industry awards over the past few years in the categories of advertising, fashion and portraiture.
Earlier this year Lee received acclaim for winning the Gold award and certificate of merit in the National British Institute of Professional Photography (BIPP) Towergate Fine Art Awards, with his composite image ‘Twins of Red Riding’. More recently Lee’s image ‘False Advertising’ was awarded 3rd place in the Prestigious IPA Int’l Awards, in the category of Advertising – Other non pro, as well as receiving 3 honourable mentions for other pieces of work in the categories of Portraiture, Fashion and Beauty. The culmination of this success resulted in Lee being awarded his BIPP Associateship in Advertising and Editorial portraiture, as well as receiving seven BIPP single image awards, securing him ‘BIPP Best Student Portfolio 2013′,
Building on this success moving forward, with the attention that Lee’s work is now receiving, he has recently signed a key sponsorship deal with Bowens, one of the worlds leading professional photographic lighting companies. Bowens has played an integral part in the production of many of Lee’s award winning images to date and this exciting partnership along with becoming one of Bowens chosen advocate photographers will not only further help widen industry and public awareness to Lee’s work on a global basis but will also allow him to work the very best equipment, at the forefront of technology in the photographic industry.
“I try to approach all of my work with the same high amount of raw energy and enthusiasm which I’d like to think shows through in the work that I produce, portraying a distinctive, artistic style that delivers an originality that I am constantly in pursuit of. I take a personal pride in building friendly, productive and professional working relationships with all those that the industry brings me into contact with and enjoy being involved with the creative input at all levels, rising to the challenge of each new venture or project, it is this passion that drives me”.
So please join us, in this extended interview with Lee Howell. In this interview Lee shares with us many insightful before and after images, he talks openly about his process, how he works, and his lighting techniques, and just for cartoon week, Lee goes in depth with us about his recently completed “Caricature Project” where he had to create caricatures of human beings, but create it in a way where they still looked recognizable as a human adult. It’s a great project! And there’s a lot more greatness where that came from! Hope you like the interview, Thanks Lee!
How did you become interested in photography?
My father had been a keen photographer while I was growing up, as well as my sister, so I suppose it has always been in our genes. However it wasn’t until I was introduced to digital technology in the nineties that my general interest turned into a passion.It’s hard to imagine now, but I remember being on a safari in Africa in the mid nineties, sitting and having drinks at the lodge one evening after a long day out on a dusty game drive, when there was a commotion at the other end of the room. That’s when I was introduced to my first digital camera and I can’t describe how big of a revelation that was. Being able to view what we’d seen only hours earlier, unlike the rest of us who would have to wait for our film to be developed upon our return home.I purchased my first Fuji digital camera as soon as we got back to the UK and there was no looking back. The sales job I was in allowed me to travel and capture images of the places I had visited, the people, and the wildlife. Then I would edit them in Photoshop, back when it was just Adobe Photoshop 7, using the basic Levels and Curves adjustments to enhance my images.
Do you have any formal training in photography? How did you learn most of your editing skills? (Self taught, videos, books, internet?)
Initially, like most people I was a hobbyist, a keen amateur photographer, shooting just for sheer pleasure, purchasing the monthly photography periodicals and practicing the editing tutorials inside. I was also using my newfound retouching skills to put together timepiece brochures for the companies’ sales force. From there my abilities grew through self-teaching.Then with the birth of my youngest daughter (Amélie) five years ago, I began to realize that I’d become disenchanted with a career in sales and that I yearned for something that was more creative and fulfilling.Encouraged by my partner to follow my heart, I chose to take a year off to care for Amélie full time and to go back to college to study. Initially, it was just to improve my camera techniques, but soon I began to realize that the post-production editing of my work was playing just as big of a role in my image creating process as the photographic capture itself. I was encouraged by my lecturers to further my studies, and apply for the degree course in professional photography.The studies provided me with a better practical understanding of camera techniques, photographic theory, as well as lectures in postproduction editing. I also gained more of an understanding from an educational standpoint about the profession and its history. Researching previous influential photographers and understanding how all of this information would in turn influence our own work today.
With varied assignments, and being in a study/school environment that allowed me to experiment strengthened my self-belief, and I was encouraged by my peers to enter contests, and upon doing so I won various industry awards, finally settling into a style that I now feel is my own.
It was a huge milestone in my life, four years of hard work, looking after my daughter while studying to graduate for my degree… but with the help and understanding of my family, friends, colleagues and tutors, they all helped make this not only possible but hugely rewarding also. It is never too late to study; I am a prime example of that.
What’s on your gear list? (camera gear + software)
Camera wise I shoot with a Canon 7D & 5D, although I also shoot with a Hasselblad when the project requires. I use various lenses for specific jobs but the Canon 24-70mm f2.8 is still a firm favorite and for my compositing work, it’s a real workhorse. For lighting I personally use Bowens, who have taken a particular interest in my career, their lighting has been instrumental in helping me create many of my award winning images. When it comes to post production, I almost solely work with Adobe, from shooting tethered in Adobe Lightroom, importing images in Adobe Bridge, initial balancing changes in Adobe Raw, on to image manipulation in Adobe Photoshop CC and finally sharing the final images on Bēhance. For black and white conversions I am a big fan of Nik Software, Silver Efex Pro as a plug in with Adobe Photoshop and sometimes I use Colour Efex also.
How important is Photoshop to your work?
Adobe Photoshop has always played a very big role in the imagery I produce, it is in effect the perfect digital replacement for the dark room, with all the same processes now being done at the click of a button rather than in a darkened red-lit room. However as my photographic style has developed over the years, Photoshop now plays a pivotal role in my creative process, sometimes I now question whether I am a photographer or more of an image-maker? Photoshop is the tool that allows me to create the imaginable. It’s true, I use photographic equipment to capture the individual elements that go into making a final composite image, but these elements are most often photographed separately, often on different occasions and in different locations. They are photographed with a clear idea of how I want the final composite image to look, shooting with the same directional light sources in each case, using both photographic technique and post production skills to marry up all the different components in the final image, however I am under no illusion that these are as much works of fiction that I am creating, as they are actual photographs. I use real world objects, places and people to create something new, something that is not real and usually something that plays to our preconceived idea of what we think something is like, rather than photographing the thing itself.
What is your proudest moment as a photographer?
The answer to that question seems to change on almost a monthly or weekly basis at the moment; especially in light of all the industry attention my photography has been receiving recently. However winning the BIPP (British Institute of Professional Photography) Towergate Camerasure Fine Art Award for my image ‘Twins of Red Riding’ last year was certainly a milestone, followed by picking up numerous single image BIPP awards and finally being awarded BIPP Best Student Portfolio 2013 was a great way to end my studies, graduating in a BA in Professional Photography, as well as being awarded an Associateship into the BIPP (British Institute of Professional Photography). More recently winning 3rd place in the International Photography Awards in the Advertising Category – non pro, for my image ‘False Advertising’, along with three other honorable mentions in the categories of Fashion, Beauty and Portrait has certainly helped launch my work to a wider audience on the international stage. Which brings us up to date this month, not only has Adobe chosen to have me as their featured artist in their Adobe Inspire Magazine but you lovely people here at Phlearn, one of the worlds most high profile and influential photography and image editing websites, have chosen to feature me and my work… it really doesn’t get better than that right now and this really is a hugely exciting way to start 2014.
What inspires you?
The desire to create… beautiful natural light, warm summer light, cool winter light, subtle colour tones, soft palette’s, classic movies, lens flares, old oil paintings, music, digital art, mother nature, people, the human spirit, the urge to question, the urge to create something new, to engage with the viewer, to express opinion, an emotion, to be or express who you want to be…There is such an abundance of amazing work out there, in books, in art, on the internet, all to take influence from, all at the touch of a button, yet sometimes it can be the things closest to home that become the strongest influence in ones work.During my studies I had to be particularly efficient with my time, juggling childcare with my photography was at times trying to say the least, so I suppose it was inevitable that one would influence the other.For my image Twins of Red Riding, I was heavily influenced by the stories I was reading to my daughter. We had bought some modern illustrated books of the fairytale classics and although the stories were engaging to my daughter, the modern cartoon drawings that accompanied them were definitely not, so we headed down to the dusty old second hand bookshops in the old quarter of the city.
The books I showed her from my youth, which she loved, were beautifully illustrated and suitably fitting to the fantastical stories, so for my BIPP Towergate Fine Art Award submission, I chose to place my daughter in her very own dark fairy tale, where she played the role of both mischievous twins, faces hidden by fox masks, sheering an innocent sheep in their cottage… a modern day fairytale or a comment on childhood innocence?
“Twins Of Red Riding”
Do you ever sketch your work before shooting?
I really should but I tend to put together a mood board of images to present to the team, this gives everybody a visual idea of the type of aesthetic I’m after. One image might just be of a sky or another just of a specific colour tone, a snap shot from a film, a hairstyle out of a magazine, you get the idea, but collectively they give a rough overview of the styling involved and how I imagine the final image to look like.
Can we see some before/after(s) of some of your most edited photos?
What’s your favorite assignment that you were ever tasked to do?
The caricature project I think (featured below, scroll down look for heading ‘Caricature Project’), simply because to be asked by ones peers and to be trusted with digitally manipulating their portraits for the public to see, shows a great deal of confidence and trusting in you as a photographer, it meant a lot.
Can you tell us about the process that you generally go through when creating a photo? (Conceptualizing, sketching, location scouting, editing etc)
For personal work the process usually involves taking initial ideas and discussing them with members of the team, knocking those ideas around for a few hours to help shape them into a more focused concept. Then we start researching where to shoot the backdrops, choose whether to shoot the model/main subject out on location or in the studio and composite them into the scene, depending on desired effect, practicalities, and timeframe. A suitable garment stylist is brought on board if not already involved from the start, makeup artists, and hair stylists, though more often than not these will be individual creative’s that will have worked with me on previous projects already. For a new project like the recent TRIBE – Project, much will center on the designer and what her requirements are.
Tribe was a collaboration project between Stacy Jansen, and myself, Stacy is a costume designer for theatre, film and television, I had seen a collection of her designs in a recent fashion catwalk show, and was very interested in the way much of her work is heavily influenced by that of indigenous tribal people from around the world, in particular Africa in the styling and production.
Her experience having spent time out in Africa has given her a real insight into the people, their traditional dress and how it’s put together and worn, so when time came to photograph these garments it seemed illogical to simply picture them in a sterile white studio, completely out of context with everything these garments were about.
As Stacy’s designs are so heavily influenced by her time in Africa it seemed only fitting that we should try and portray them in context with which they are associated, and with my particular expertise in image manipulation and compositing, we were able to make this possible on a very small budget, without leaving the UK.
So once we had found our ideal models, of which Kevin Mdanga our male model is actually from Maasai descent, then it was down to me to make a grey, overcast, rainy couple days of shooting in Scotland look like the sun dried savannah of the Serengeti.
I already had all of the back plate imagery already captured from a previous trip to Africa and the ‘Mongolian’ backdrops are all shot here in Scotland. I knew which scenes I was intending to use, so had to try to match a Scottish foreground location to that of the already captured backdrop, we ended up supplementing African bush for a piece of scrub land at the base of the Pentland Hills on the outskirts of Edinburgh perfectly.
Due to freezing cold temperatures and persistent rain, we started our shoot in the studio, capturing much of the models imagery indoors, that way they could really get into their roles without teeth chattering and turning blue from the severe cold.
What do you do in your free time when you’re not working on your photography?
Spending time with family and friends is important to me, I try to ensure that my daughter and I still manage to get real quality time together, our bond is so strong, however I have to admit that I am a bit of a slave to the digital age, so you can often find me attached to the iPad or gaming on the Xbox. I’ve been a ‘gamer’ since the early eighties, we’ve grown up together and have spent many a memorable time together over the years, it’s my escapism and it’s just amazing to see how mainstream they’ve now become, from million dollar budget blockbusters, addictive cell phone time wasters, to social meeting places where you spend quality time playing with friends that live at the other end of the country.Photography is still the mainstay of my free time though, coming from a sales career where photography was first a hobby I still don’t see it in the same light as a nine to five job, if you love doing something so much then it’s hard to switch that something off, to a point it almost becomes a way of life.
Tell me, why conceptual photography?
Some time back my photography was more beauty and fashion based, there was always a sense of romanticism and escapism engrained within the imagery but as my photography has moved further away from the male gaze, the image making process has become more centered around telling the story. Still trying to create aesthetically beautiful imagery with the digital tools available to me, while still producing imagery that appeals to a wider audience, which in turn has lead to a huge increase in interest in what I do and the work I create from people all around the world.
The Caricature Project by Lee Howell
Can you please tell us about your awesome project titled “The Caricature Project”? What inspired the project? Was it an assignment?
The caricature project started from me wanting to develop my digital manipulation skills, much of my work up to this point had involved retouching and creating composite images and I wanted to see how I could actually manipulate a simple portrait.
Caricature interpretations have entertained us for years, from the traditional pencil and paper street artists, to modern computer artworks, Pixar and Disney movie characters often portray similar cute over embellished, large eyed, big headed characteristics, as do computer game/social network avatars.
I wanted to see if I could achieve a similar look using an actual photograph manipulated in Adobe Photoshop CC to get the same result. Once I started researching the subject, I came across Cristian Girotto’s brilliant L’Enfant Exteriuer project which was produced along similar lines, though I needed mine to look less like actual children and more like comical digital cartoon caricatures of the originals.
The first test involved dragging thirty strangers off the street, sitting them down and getting them to pull faces of over exaggerated emotions to the camera, happy, sad, surprised, shocked, alarmed, etc. We allowed each sitter just five frames to show how they felt at that point in time, to be asked to do such an unusual thing out of the blue without any prior warning.
To be honest it was a really fun afternoon because though most of us inherently hate having our photograph taken, sitting down and pulling silly faces to the camera is kind of ok, especially when your friends are stood behind the photographer making fun of the sitter, there were a lot of laughs, which made the whole thing a very uplifting experience.
Once my fellow graduates saw the results of the first test, it was suggested that the same idea would make a fitting farewell, after studying together for the past four years, before we all went our separate ways.
We used the same lighting set up as before, key light off to the front right, diffused with a large beauty dish to give a punchy but not too harsh result, two back lights evenly lighting the white backdrop and a gridded spot rear left, to give those nice catch lights filling the shadows and help give definition to the face.
We booked the studio for an hour and we were finished and packed away with plenty of time to spare, photographers hate having their photograph taken at the best of times, more than most people, so they were glad to have it over as quick as possible.
In total, how long did it take you to complete this assignment?
Once the RAW images were captured I started retouching them that evening and pretty much flew through them that very same night, working late into the night/early morning but again it was so much fun to do, I had to keep stopping myself from cracking up laughing.There is a fine line to tread when digitally manipulating a portrait of a friend compared to a stranger. You have to over exaggerate certain elements to produce the desired effect but at the same time you are aware to not be disrespectful or hurt the feelings of those involved.Uploading them the next day was a tense time but I was not to worry, they were plastered all over social media by lunchtime, everyone had chosen to use their individual avatars as profile pics on the likes of Facebook etc.Such was the response the decision was made to use the caricatures in a poster and invitation for our then forthcoming Free Range Graduate Exhibition, at the Old Truman Brewery, London, E1. Promoting the fact that we were the premier Scottish College, the poster took its influence from the iconic Trainspotting movie posters from the nineties, which took me another evening to put together, converting the caricatures into black and white, then recreating the Trainspotting poster layout.
How did you find the process of deciding how to edit these photos? Did you ever find it difficult to not go overboard on certain features etc?
Maybe the fact that these were my friends that I was retouching for the Caricature shoot made it easier, not wanting to take it too far or hurt anyone’s feelings probably produced a better set of images, I mean there are no huge noses or gigantic ears, the results are a set of caricatures that certainly resemble the originals in a cheeky way that everyone was completely happy with.The actual process of retouching them all was a bit of a learning process, especially when it came to the eyes, I was not prepared for how much the eyes would have to be enlarged to get the right look, resulting in me having to work on smaller size files then those natively shot.
And while we’re talking about your caricature work, please tell us about your “Goldilocks” photo? It is so fantastic!!!
The idea behind the Goldilocks image was just a natural progression really, to take a single portrait shot against a white backdrop in the studio and then introduce it into a scene, to add a little backstory and see where we could take it, the girl that looked like Goldilocks seemed a given and fitted this idea perfectly.It’s a cool little one off image but there are definitely now plans to let the concept evolve further, moving away from the children’s story idea but maintaining the comedy element, to create a new series of images which we will start on soon.
Lastly, Do you plan on creating more caricature styled series in the future? Or anything more or less cartoon-y?
As well as more caricature styled imagery being planned, I am currently in the middle of a small personal project centered on gravity and capturing people in the act of falling, which has been extremely fun to shoot, and definitely has some comedy element to the imagery. I’m a huge fan of the work of fellow conceptual photographer and digital artist Roman Laurent, it is a just short series of images that plays with the idea of perspective and gravity.There is also a project in development behind the scenes which plays with the idea of celebrity which I am extremely excited about but it is still in the very early stages, I will be sure to give you guys at Phlearn a heads up once we’ve finished production, as I’m sure it will gain much attention.
What’s your favorite photo that you’ve ever taken?
I think the project you are currently working on is always the favorite, however I think it would still have to be the Twins Of Red Riding image (seen above in interview), mainly due to the fact that it just works so well, it really came together nicely, it has a lot of personal depth to it, when and how it was put together, Amélie’s involvement, the lighting, tone and of course the fact that it went on to do so well for me.
Who are some of your favorite photographers and/or artists?
So many, far too many to warble on about here, in all different areas of photography, I am a bit of an obsessive but the main ones whose work I aspire to… Erwin Olaf and Fisk imaging, a great combination of deep, dark thought provoking photography and beautifully artistic retouching. Erik Almas can do no wrong, I am a huge fan, Vincent Dixon, Annie Leibovitz, Florian Schneider, Jan Rambousek, Tim Walker, Kirsty Mitchell, Nick Knight, George Logan, Gary Salter, the guys at Happy Finish, I could go on and on and on…
Where would you like to see yourself and your photography in about 5 years time?
Hopefully producing work that’s deemed worthy enough to be mentioned in the same breath as any of the above, I have a long way to go on this exciting journey and I know that I am just at the very beginning but I am enjoying every minute.
Do you have any advice to offer to us fellow photographers?
As of yet I don’t think I feel quite worthy enough to be advising other photographers as such, all I can say is enjoy what you do, be passionate about your work.Always try something new and don’t be afraid to fail, a bit of a cliché I know but we all learn from our mistakes, practice does make perfect, we are not all instantly experts in everything we do however much we want to be, you’re certainly never too old to learn and where’s better place to do that than here on Phlearn…?
Interviewed by Angela Butler, thanks for reading!