Feb 19, 2015

Phlearn Interviews Robert Cornelius

About Robert Cornelius


The Tree of Life; Self-Portrait by Robert Cornelius | Phlearn Interviews Robert Cornelius

We are absolutely ecstatic to introduce and welcome Robert Cornelius to for an interview. 🙂

Robert Cornelius is a Photographer and digital artist based in Lebanon, PA.
Before working in the field of photography, Cornelius explored many different types of art including; painting, drawing, sculpting, singing, acting, dancing, you name it! With so much experience with art already, it’s no wonder every photograph looks like a masterpiece.

A profesional photographer since 2008, a Photoshop user since 2003, Cornelius explains his work by saying, “I don’t “capture moments” or “save memories” – I prefer to CREATE them instead. I’m a photographer, but I am nothing without my magical photoshopping powers.”

Please join us for this fantastically informative interview with Robert Cornelius. He tells us about some technical disasters, his favourite artists, he gives us a good look into his creative process with before/after photos and videos, and seriously so much more!
You definitely don’t want to miss this one.

“For an intense Composite it could take 40 to 50 hours or more…I have a problem. “Hi, my name is Robert and I’m a Photoshop addict.””
– Robert Cornelius | Phlearn Interviews Robert Cornelius


Photography by Robert Cornelius | Phlearn Interviews Robert Cornelius

First, please tell us how did this begin? How did you become interested in photography?

Even as a small child I loved to borrow my Mom’s first dinosaur of a digital camera and go on “photo adventures.” I’d just wander off somewhere and take pictures of whatever I found interesting.  When I was ten my parents got me a digital movie creator camera kit for Christmas that would shape the rest of my life. It was called the “Digital Blue” and it recorded 2 minutes of TERRIBLE quality footage before you had to dump it onto the computer, and it came with a rudimentary editing system. I was in love. Suddenly movie-making took up ALL of my free time. So I’ve been telling stories and capturing images for most of my life, really. I’ve always loved creating characters and unraveling fantastical tales for my audience. I still love making movies and will probably dip my toe back into that pool again some day, but ever since I bought my first DSLR just after college, my brain has revolved around still images.

Do you have any formal training in photography or are you self-taught? If you are self-taught what methods did you find worked best for your style of learning? 

I’d like to select “(D) All of the above.”  My high school did have a small darkroom, so I was able to spend a little time in there. Unfortunately, being a relatively tiny high school, supplies were majorly limited; we only really learned the basic steps of taking and developing pictures. I still loved every minute of it…I just wanted more minutes. As I mentioned above, my digital movie kit did shape the rest of my life because I eventually ended up going to college at Full Sail University to study filmmaking.  I only had one photography class, but it was AMAZING!!! Full Sail has the largest darkroom in America and I definitely put it to good use. I was in there as often as I was allowed to be, and I guess it showed because at graduation I received the Course Director’s Award for Photography. I should have known then that filmmaking would take a back seat. Even though I did have some training, most of my current techniques were formed by just trying things.


Before photography did you participate in creating any other types of art? (music, writing, painting, drawing etc)

When I was growing up my parents owned and operated a pizza restaurant centrally located in the middle-of-nowhere-Amish-country Ohio, so I spent most of my days in the corner booth, drawing on the backs of waitress pads. Since then I never really stopped drawing, creating, and imagining. I’ve always thrived when given the opportunity to tap into my artistic side. Painting, drawing, sculpting, singing, acting, playing piano, making movies – you name it, I did it, but it wasn’t until I discovered photography (and probably more importantly Photoshop) that I was really able to start showing the world the images in my head EXACTLY as I had imagined them

As you said in your biography on your website: “I’m a photographer but I am nothing without my magical Photoshop powers.” So I take it Photoshop is important to your works? 😛 😉

Nope, all of my images are straight out of the camera…..Bahahahahaha. Uhhhm yeah, my portfolio simply would not exist if it wasn’t for the glorious and powerful program that is Adobe Photoshop. The way it allows me to cut, paste, paint, and meld images together in such a precise way unlocks a whole lot of potential images that I just couldn’t make happen without it.

I always say that I like to create work that dances somewhere along the line between a photograph and a digital painting, and I must say I do a heck of lot of “painting” in Photoshop to achieve that.

Tell us about your creative process. When conceptualizing ideas for photo shoots do you like to sketch, write, etc? (If so could we see a sketch?!)

Most of my creative process begins in the “notes” app on my phone. I’ll randomly have an image pop into my head and immediately jot down some details, usually while I’m doing something like running when my mind is free to wander – that’s where most of my hardcore imagining takes place. Later, when I want to shoot and need an idea I’ll read through my notes and pick one to flesh out and bring to life. Some of the images come out almost exactly as I had imagined them originally, while others change drastically. For example I have a note that says, “Guy in hazmat suit floating in darkness. Feet a bit higher than head. Reaching for molecular ball of green Light nucleus sorta thing. Light is pouring between Spread fingers.” That note turned into my piece called “The Collector.”

The Collector by Robert Cornelius | Phlearn Interviews Robert Cornelius

The Collector by Robert Cornelius | Phlearn Interviews Robert Cornelius

My image “Fight or Flight” definitely wasn’t as much of an exact translation, but you can see where it started. The original note reads, “Profile shot of guy jumping out of wall of smoke. Ninja-like. Perhaps with a weapon. Wearing some sort of black cloak.”

The closest thing I have to a pre-sketch that I could show you is actually a digital painting I started, but quit because I decided I wanted to shoot it as a photo instead.

I ended up straying quite far from my original idea, but the building blocks are there. That image became “Create Your Own Luck.” Perhaps one day I’ll create a Composite that’s more true to the initial “sketch.”

Create Your Own Luck Sketch Vs Photograph | Phlearn Interviews Robert Cornelius

Create Your Own Luck Sketch Vs Photograph | Phlearn Interviews Robert Cornelius


On average how long does your creative process take? (Conceptualizing, shooting, editing, etc)

This is a tough question because I create in some very different ways. Many images (like the three I just mentioned above) are planned out before I start shooting. However, often times I have a major craving to do a shoot and no idea what I’m going for, so I just shoot some portraits and figure out what to do with them in post.  My image “Temptress Of The Tides” was one of those blind shoots.

Temptress of The Tides by Robert Cornelius | Phlearn Interviews Robert Cornelius

The planning was nonexistent and the shooting was quick, but the editing took FOREVER because I had to just keep trying things until I liked it. (You can read more about that here…)

So on average, conceptualizing and shooting could take anywhere from 20 minutes to a couple of hours, while editing is usually somewhere around 10 hours for an easier image. For an intense Composite it could take 40 to 50 hours or more…I have a problem. “Hi, my name is Robert and I’m a Photoshop addict.”


What’s the craziest thing you’ve done for the sake of photography and art?

I feel like I don’t really do anything too crazy… or when I do I’m alone in the studio so there’s no one there to make me feel odd about it. I think the only time I had someone walk in and thought, “Hmm well this must look odd,” was for my image “The Thread of Life.”

I had all these ropes tied and clamped to ladders, light stands and chairs around the studio, and the other ends of the ropes all gathered in the middle of the room. I was trying different ways of wrapping myself up in them while also balancing precariously on a stool…with no shirt on. Totally normal Saturday activity. This is when my boss popped into the studio… Thankfully she knows what a nut I am and didn’t actually find this all that strange. It turned out to be a handy thing that she did come along, because she helped out by being my “human remote.”
(You can read more about that experience here…)


What has been your worst “technical disaster” you’ve had so far as a digital artist/ photographer? For example Photoshop crashes, hard drive issues, etc. How did you recover?

I’ve had a few terrible moments in my day. Like the time I spent 3 hours creating a dress….and never saving…and naturally Photoshop suddenly crashed. That was awesome. I did end up starting all over eventually and it turned out better than the first time, but it’s never a fun experience to lose hard work.  Also, when I was in the “finishing touches” stage of editing my image “Escape,” it somehow got flattened and saved that way. I still have no idea how this happened because I never flattened it, to my knowledge. Next time I opened it and wanted to keep tweaking, all of my layers were gone. Not the best feeling. Thankfully I was able to finish it as a flat file, it was just much more difficult since I no longer had easy access to all my selections of different parts. For example, you can’t really turn down the Opacity of a Texture layer when it’s part of the image.

Escape by Robert Cornelius | Phlearn Interviews Robert Cornelius

Escape by Robert Cornelius | Phlearn Interviews Robert Cornelius

In the end I still had a finished picture that I’m proud of, so worse things could definitely happen. Although now there will never be one of my “layers GIFS” of this image…sorry, internet.

What’s on your gear list?

This is where I give everyone full permission to hate my stinkin’ guts. You see, I work at this amazing commercial photography studio, Simone Associates Inc., and therefore have access to every piece of equipment you’ve ever dreamed of. All kinds of cameras, Lights, and modifiers that I used to drool over images of on the internet, but never thought I would be able to afford…well I still can’t afford them, but I get to use them! I usually shoot with one of our Hasselblads, or on occasion if I’m trudging off into the woods somewhere, I’ll shoot with one of our 5D MarkIII’s. I could start listing the flash equipment I use in the studio, but then we would be here all day. Oh I DO own a Wacom tablet that I simply could not live without…ok so I could live, but it would be a sad existence. 😉

Who are some of your favorite artists and photographers?

Well this could be the longest list ever. I love SO MANY different artists. Just to name a few, I always look forward to new work form Spanish photographer (and friend of mine) Marina Gondra. The way she uses Colors and light is just gorgeous and every one of her images tells a story. I can spot one of her pieces from a mile away and tell you who made it. French photographer Cal Redback is incredible. His blending and editing Style is so SEAMLESS!  Oh and Adrian Sommeling blows my mind on a daily basis. I definitely keep my eye on up-and-coming artist Katelin Kinney. She is about 1/3 of the way through a 365 project and is absolutely killing it. I love her work. Also (and I’m seriously not just saying this because I’m being interviewed on Phlearn), I’ve always been a HUGE fan of Aaron Nace. You might have heard of him? His work is exactly the kind of art I strive to create.

The Elemental Line by Robert Cornelius | Phlearn Interviews Robert Cornelius

The Elemental Line by Robert Cornelius | Phlearn Interviews Robert Cornelius


Tell us about a challenge you’ve had to overcome to get to where you are today? (artistically and as a person)

Well when I got my first DSLR I was shooting your typical head shots, family portraits, the occasional wedding and that sort of work. At first it was all really fun and exciting to be figuring out lighting and shooting techniques, but after a bit I was comfortable with all of it. I realized I wasn’t really enjoying it all that much.  What I really wanted to be doing was creating crazily fantastical Photoshopped works of art. At the time I felt like my editing work needed to go unnoticed. These were people who just wanted a pretty picture of them looking…well, pretty.  So I couldn’t get too innovative and mess with people’s Faces or have them facing another direction and flinging themselves in odd directions or anything like that. These clients didn’t want to get a picture of themselves that looked nothing like them. Finally something clicked and I realized there was no reason not to be shooting exactly the kind of work I wanted be shooting, even if people KNEW it was Photoshopped. Heck, now I practically shove the fact that my work is Photoshopped right in everyone’s Face and I couldn’t be happier. 🙂


Your series Strangers in the Park is beautiful. Can you tell us about your process when creating a piece for the series?

Thanks!!! This project brings me so much joy and exhilaration.
Every single person in the series is in fact a complete and total stranger. You see I started this series to force myself to be more confident about approaching people, in photography and just in life in general. Not that I’m not an outgoing person or anything, I just thought it would be a good exercise to walk up to strangers and ask them if I could photograph them. Let me tell you, it is quite fulfilling whether they say yes or no.

Strangers by Robert Cornelius | Phlearn Interviews Robert Cornelius

Strangers by Robert Cornelius | Phlearn Interviews Robert Cornelius

Here’s how it goes down: I frequent Philadelphia and on a sunny beautiful day I’ll visit Rittenhouse Square Park where the benches full of characters are plentiful. I’ll wander aimlessly until someone catches my eye. For whatever reason some people just pop out to me and I know I have to ask them. I usually walk right by them the first time just to scope them out/I’m too nervous and have to work myself up to it. Then I’ll wind back around and stop close-ish to them and pretend to take pictures of a flower or something to get my camera settings correct for the lighting they are in. Meanwhile, my heart starts to race while I form a little script in my head of how I’m going to approach them. Eventually I’ll walk over and see if they are interested, explain who I am, what I’m doing, why, and usually show them one of the finished images on my phone. So far I’ve only had 2 people turn me down, surprisingly! Then, as with all of my pictures, I bring it into Photoshop and proceed to beat the pixels into submission. I’ll reshape heads, accentuate certain features and cut them off from their Background. Then I’ll start my favorite part – I spend hours digitally painting on top of them with my Wacom tablet.


What is (currently) your favorite portrait from your Strangers in the Park series? Also, is this an ongoing series?

I love all of them for their own reasons; they each come with a story. I just love the way people’s Faces light up when you tell them that you think they are beautiful and would love to take their picture. I can say for a fact I’ve made a few people’s day, and that made my day a million times over. If I had to pick a favorite I’d go with the very first one I did, “The Spectacles.”

I actually took the photo that I ended up using before I asked her if I could take her picture. I was taking photos from a short Distance away…no big deal, not creepy… She just looked so deep in thought and a little sad; I didn’t want to disturb her. Then she looked over into my lens and seemingly straight into my soul with her pensive gaze…I snapped a picture. I was caught. So I gave a, “Can I take your picture?” nod to my camera, she nodded back and smiled for a few pictures. I was only humoring her at that point because I knew I already had my shot. That first Frame had so much emotion in it, I wonder what she was thinking about.

Strangers, Spectacles by Robert Cornelius, Phlearn Interviews Robert Cornelius

Strangers, Spectacles by Robert Cornelius, Phlearn Interviews Robert Cornelius

I just realized she is the only one in the series that I never actually talked to, and the one I probably altered the most.  Also, YES this is most definitely an ongoing series. I’m not sure if it will ever be done – why put an end to something that brings me so much joy while giving some random strangers an interesting story and a hop in their step?

Please tell us about your dust to dust series. It’s phenomenal!! How did this project come to fruition?

This project was sort of an accident. I guess you could say it happened by popular demand. I put out the first image called “Dust to Dust” and it got so much more traffic than any of my other pieces ever had. I was blown away by all the positive feedback that was flowing my way. I had such a fun time creating it, so it seemed silly not to just do another…and another and well BAM a series was born.

Beggars Dog and Widows Cat by Robert Cornelius | Phlearn Interviews Robert Cornelius

Beggars Dog and Widows Cat by Robert Cornelius | Phlearn Interviews Robert Cornelius

On average how much work goes into creating a piece for dust to dust?

Well the first one took some time because I was figuring out how I was going to achieve the effect I wanted, but now I’ve got it down pat.  Honestly I work on one of these whenever I need a break from intense editing. Usually after I’ve just finished a super complicated composite I’ll think, “time for a Dust to Dust image!” The shooting is super easy because the lighting is very simple and almost exactly the same setup every time. I just have people jump up and down for a couple minutes until I feel I have enough to work with, and then I dive into Photoshop. On average I can get the editing done in less than six hours; they always come together more quickly than I expect them to.


What is currently your favorite piece from your series dust to dust?

Well I guess I’m going to be a bit of a broken record and say that, much like my “Stranger in The Park” series, my favorite is the first one – the one that started the whole series. But I’m rather partial to the one I put up a year later called “Man Was Made For Joy and Woe.”

It was fun editing an outtake from the same shoot that turned out to be so very different from the original.

Man was made for joy and woe by Robert Cornelius | Phlearn Interviews Robert Cornelius

Man was made for joy and woe by Robert Cornelius | Phlearn Interviews Robert Cornelius


What’s your favorite photo that you’ve ever taken? (why?) (perhaps the most meaningful photo to you?)

Gaahhhhh you with your questions – you’re killing me! I’ve always done my best to try not to pick favorites when I can, because why not just love everything!? Usually I try to dodge this question by saying, “the next one,” which is mostly true because usually my favorite piece is the one I’m currently working on. For the sake of this interview though, I will say that ONE of my favorites that means a lot to me is “Fight or Flight.” It’s really the image that jumpstarted my photography career.  I was looking at all these amazing photographers who already had huge followings and zillions of stunning works of art under their belts, and I just wanted to be like them. I realized there was no reason I couldn’t be, so I said, “screw it – I’m going to make this happen! If I want this, I’m going to have to work for it.” I went down to the studio and created my very first self portrait. That was January 1st of 2014 and I still use this image as my profile picture for everything, so I guess that’s saying it must be a favorite!

How do you like to spend your time when you’re not behind a camera or computer? 🙂

Well I’m married to Sara, my best friend and one of the most amazing girls in the world. The majority of my time is spent with her, probably talking about our respective blogs and what project we are working on next. She has an illustrated food blog so we do a LOT of cooking together. Not to toot our own horn, but we are a force to be reckoned with in the kitchen. (So…Toot toot!) I must get it from my chef of a father, William Cornelius.
When I’m not in the kitchen or at my computer, I love to go to the gym and/or run. I run almost every day if I can find the time. Other than that I can be found playing video games, reading nerdy fantasy novels, watching a bazillion movies, and playing with my dog Gilmour…but who are we kidding – almost all of my free time goes to shooting and editing my next masterpiece! 🙂

What’s the greatest advice that you’ve ever received in regards to photography, art, and/or life in general?

My parents always raised me with the notion that you can do WHATEVER YOU WANT in life as long as you work hard enough for it. I feel like that knowledge and encouragement has landed me in the wonderful situation that is my current life. This definitely applies to photography as well. You’re never going to get anywhere complaining about how awesome everyone else has it; YOU CAN DO IT TOO! You just have to put in the time and effort to make it happen and believe that you can…because you can. You’re awesome…all of you are awesome.

A Momentary Pause by Robert Cornelius | Phlearn Interviews Robert Cornelius

A Momentary Pause by Robert Cornelius | Phlearn Interviews Robert Cornelius

What do you hope to improve within your works?

Like I hope all artist strive to do, I’m constantly trying to outdo myself – to make my next creation even better than the last. If there’s one thing I could improve, it would probably be my preplanning and the actual shooting stages. Sometimes I’m a bit too confident in my Photoshopping prowess so I slack a little during the shoot, knowing I can fix it later. I usually can, but it takes a heck of a lot longer than if I just fixed it during the shoot. I feel no matter how advanced your skills are, the better the image you start from is, the better your final piece will be.

What’s your proudest moment so far as an artist?

I feel like I have a series of tiny little proudest moments. Every time someone says I inspire them, I feel like a million bucks and as if I’ve done something for the world. However, one LARGE proud moment took place in 2013 when I attended Photoshop World. It’s a huge photography and Photoshop convention held in Vegas. They have a photography competition to which you could enter three pieces. By the time the conference starts and the keynote speech begins, the thousands and thousands of entries are whittled  down to 23 finalists…All three of my entries were finalists. The moment I found that out was SO EXCITING and could have been my proudest moment. However, I ended up winning Best Photo Montage!! Almost as soon as I was off stage and back in the audience taking my seat… I WON BEST IN SHOW!!! I was floored, to say the least. Getting back up on stage to receive my second award was just surreal. Then as if I couldn’t be any more ecstatic, a little later I was walking around the expo floor and was hug-attacked by Brooke Shaden, who wanted to tell me how excited she was that I’d won two awards! She is just the sweetest.

The River Ran Scarlet by Robert Cornelius | Phlearn Interviews Robert Cornelius

The River Ran Scarlet by Robert Cornelius | Phlearn Interviews Robert Cornelius

What advice would you like to give all of us fellow aspiring/ amateur/ professional photographers?

Shoot, shoot, shoot, keep shooting, and then shoot some more..oh and when you’re finished…set up another photo shoot. No matter what sort of work you enjoy creating, the only way you are going to get better and find your “voice” is to shoot. A LOT. Make mistakes and be grateful for the lessons learned. I find that if I just stay positive, things will find a way of working themselves out. Like my parents always told me, you can do whatever you want as long as you’re willing to work for it!

Anything exciting coming up in the near to far future that you’d like to share with Phlearn? 🙂

Well it’s only currently in the baby stages of pre-planning, but myself, my wife, and a friend of ours are going to attempt to create a self-published children’s book. So in the far future (if all goes to plan), you can look forward to a series of some of my more illustrative works featuring a whimsical imaginary friend. 😉

In The Palm of Your Hand by Robert Cornelius | Phlearn Interviews Robert Cornelius

In The Palm of Your Hand by Robert Cornelius | Phlearn Interviews Robert Cornelius

Thank you for reading! Interviewed by Angela Butler

To keep up with Robert Cornelius and his work you can do so on his Website, Blog, Flickr, Facebook Page, Twitter and Instagram.


user image You
(will not be published)

  • user image

    Really inspiring.
    I loved the photos and everything. Interviews are one of my favorite thing about Phlearn so Thanks.

  • user image

    Robert is not only a wonderful human being but one of my favorite artists!! I’m so glad Phlearn interviewed him, this is one of my favorite interviews you’ve done! Great info behind some truly astonishing images!

  • user image

    Straight out of camera… – Nice! I’d believe that for all but one photo. I won’t say which one though. LoL This is a great interview with an artistic genius. Robert, your work is absolutely gorgeous and you are – like everyone else in the industry I’ve seen so far – very encouraging. Thank you!!