I write this with a little trepidation, as I am by no means an expert on this subject, and you should not take my word as anything but my opinion and method that works for me. Now that I have issued that disclaimer, I want to talk about this subject - which I consider fascinating, and if there is any value in it for you I am delighted, but if there is not, well, writing it is an exercise in focusing myself and providing clarity on the subject at hand, so it is not a complete waste. I want to discuss some of the things that go through my head as I put together my pieces, not just to tell you how I think, but the why of it, and the where to put things is constantly changing and evolving, and, as ever, subject to change with the whims and needs of the artist and the particular needs of the piece in question.
 
Squares And More Squares
 
One of the things you may have noticed about my work is the fact that they are all squares. I came to that decision about a year ago, and they motivation for it was two-fold. One: the work of Brooke Shaden, who also works in squares. Her rationale behind it was she wanted to take it away from the familiar aspect ratio of a rectangular photograph, and make it more like an art piece or painting. This made a lot of sense to me, as I too wish my work to not be considered just photography, and usually push my imagery to a painterly aesthetic. So, good to go - square it is. But also, and this is closer to home, is I am a symmetry junkie. I love things all in a row, in order, in logical dispersion. It is true of my home and how I lay out objects and furniture, and also true of my art. I like that the squares will always be presented online with uniformity, and with a linear quality to them. I like the fact that a gallery presentation of my work - something I hope will happen soon, will also be presented with the same ease and consistency.
 
But there is more to consider than idiosyncrasy and uniformity when working with square format. A LOT more.
 
This is where composition needs to be considered, before and after the shutter is released. Unless you have a square format camera, you are not going to come about these squares naturally, as almost every modern camera shoots rectangular in both portrait and landscape. So you have two choices: You can crop your rectangle into a square or you can shoot additional material to make your rectangle a giant square, stitching the pieces together. The first one is certainly easier with a few caveats: you will get a smaller raw image, which may limit the size potential of your prints, and therefore the price you can fetch for it, and you have to consider in your viewfinder how you might have to crop what you see. You are therefore going to have to shoot wider to get a whole person into your eventual square, or know where they will be cut off eventually when you crop your subject. This takes some practice, and a lot of learning by doing. If you recall, I shoot always against a solid gray background, a blank canvas, and my subject is usually the only thing in the shot. However many years you may have under your belt in learning how to frame your shots by what you see through the viewfinder, you now will have the added task of composing in theory, supposing your crop area in what you are seeing live, and making a good guess as to what you need to capture. This feels like double the work sometimes. For me, I have to consider the remaining negative space around my subject in this future square crop, and know how much I am leaving myself, as this space is often left for me to fill in the "missing pieces" - the icons or symbolism or objects that complete my concept or metaphor. I often don't know what will be in the shots or what the idea will evolve into, so that leaves even more guesswork to be done before and after the image is captured in the camera.  
 
If you choose to expand your rectangle into a larger square, you are likely always going to need a tripod for your shoot. Nothing wrong with that, but there is a loss of randomness in that, as you have to take care to set it up and lock it down, and try not to shake or shift it when you hit the shutter. Let's say you are shooting in landscape mode, and you are shooting a person on the beach. You capture that person and the scenery behind them, but now you have to either tilt the camera up or down to grab more sky or foreground to add to your rectangle and turn it into a square. Okay, so you do that - now you have a lot of "negative" space above or below there subject. What are you going to do with it? It seems Brooke Shaden employs this approach a lot, or almost all the time, and therefore she has a lot of "free" space above her subjects. This is where the "story" elements go, or can go, unless there is a compelling reason to have a giant swatch of sky above your subject. This is why Ms. Shaden often depicts things happening in the sky above - because there needs to be SOMETHING going on there, to make that choice deliberate and mean something. It's not always enough of a reason to shoot a great expanse of sky above the subject just because the sky looks great and breathtaking. If your subject is a person, as it is in the example I am using here, then that much of the image being just sky starts to compete with the person for attention, and the dominant element in the image is decreased and devalued by these combatting percentages. I won't get into rule of thirds here - there are people and information available out there that know more about it than I do, but, if in my example of the person on the beach, the bottom third of the image is foreground and model, and the upper two thirds of the composition is vast cloudy sky, then what is more important? What is taking up more real estate? Why is it given such priority? Now, if you use the same image, and you have birds circling the subject above her head, or smoke emanating from her head out into the sky, then you have a story, you have a supported reason and justification for all that space, and it becomes germain to the image. With these expanded rectangles, with these two rectangles becoming one giant square, you are given a much larger file, larger print size potential, but you also have to be less spontaneous in your shooting, are beholden to a tripod, and you best have a fast computer stuffed to the hilt with RAM to deal with editing a file that size! There is another thing to consider too, and I would be narrow minded to consider this invalid or irrelevant…sometimes, a large negative space is the exact right choice for your composition! if you have that model in the shot, alone on a beach, depending on the tone and the mood, if you are trying to convey a sense of being overwhelmed by nature, or isolation or loneliness, then a vast vista and a puny human is the exact right choice, or can be, based on what and who you are shooting. There are NO right answers or definitive rules in composition, only truisms that can sometimes be turned on their ear, depending on the composition and the skill and thought process of the artist.
 
For me, the former approach works best. I leave a lot of room for improvisation with my models, and I don't have a completed vision in my head when I shoot, and enjoy darting to and fro composing as I see things. This means I have to crop my rectangles into squares (on some occasions I get lucky and have so much blank space on the top I am able to push my rectangle's negative space into a large rectangle) and that means a smaller file and raw image. I have accepted that limitation because working in square is, for now, worth it to me. I also have seen my work in 16 x 16 and 24 x 24 and it seems big enough for me. Larger than that starts to go into EPIC scale, and I don't know if I want that experience for the viewer. I much prefer my images, again, for now, to be more intimate and personal, and I think 24 x 24 is just right for that effect. I am sure I could push them to 32 x 32 or more, given my camera pixels and quality, but I have not tried to yet, so I cannot attest to the quality and how it holds up.
 
Lastly, I want to leave you some things I have learned in this year of square imagery, just some things I have noted and learned, and if this is of interest to you in any way, maybe will give you some tidbits to consider.
 
Humans are rectangular….most of us are taller than we are wide, so that means, in order to work in square format and capture a full head to toe human being, you will have a lot of negative space to the left and right to consider. Do you always want them dead center of the square? Do you need the whole body to convey your idea? If you choose to shoot them laying down, body relaxed, and shoot them profile, you will have a TON of space above or below them to consider. What will be there? Are you losing intimacy with the face of the model in favor of capturing their whole anatomy? Why is this important? Will you have enough to say in the space given to fill it adequately?
 
Landscapes like a lot of room!  - so, if you shoot beautiful scenic vistas, if that's your thing, then square may be a bad choice for this. If you come across a thicket of tress that naturally frame something, then perhaps a square is bang on the right choice for you. It really depends on your compositional needs.
 
YOU MEAN I HAVE TO MOVE???

Prime Lenses, or Fixed lenses work better for cropping and expanding than zooms. They create less distortion, less curvature, than their zoom-capable cousins, and therefore stitching two images together at the common points will be a lot easier than if you have two fish eyed images to try to make sense of. I tend to shoot with two lenses in particular: a 50mm and an 85mm, though the 85mm is usually reserved for closeups and portraiture. The 50mm offers minimal distortion of your subject and a lot less chromatic aberration around the edges. But these fixed lenses mean you WILL have to back up and move forward on your own, and until you get used to it, you may yearn for your zooms!
 
I will say this about square format, in closing: It's brought on a new set of challenges, a lot of new things to consider when shooting, and I really enjoy the challenge of it. It's not as common as rectangular imagery, and I enjoy presenting things in this format for now, and of course love that the end result gives me the symmetry that I love so much. I find, in many things, and in every creative medium I have tried my hand at, that working with a set of limitations really makes you work harder, and in turn makes your work stronger. If you have every crayola in the box at your disposal, you may want to use a ton of color. But limit yourself to 5 or 6, and those colors and where you use them and how much you use of them become more important and vital. I like the idea of limitless creative tools in theory, but in practice, limiting your palette has more rewards than obstacles, ultimately!
 
 
"the WorkForce"
 
Just a little background on this image and the compositional challenges involved in it....
 
Aside from my central character in the foreground and the throng of worker drones behind them, I wanted a clock to be dominant in the scene, to drive home the time-centric workday - a sense of being dominated by the 9 to 5 world. Originally I wanted to put these workers in an industrial setting; pipes, steel, girders and rivets - a sort of Metropolis aesthetic. It would have worked that way, but all the detail in the background was competing with my already busy foreground, and the background was not the point. Adding to that, I wanted to add a waxing and waning moon, a nod to Rene Magritte, and once you talk moons, you kind of need sky. Then the issue became how does a clock work in the sky, and it bothered me, the logistics of that. But in the end, the moons and the clock settled into their positions and they just became icons of the sky, and the symbolism, I feel, carried and overrode the logic issues of how the clock is just "there." But, even though that was all worked out, I still didn't like the sky and the implication of this workforce working in the outside air, so I backed off the clouds towards the workers and created a gradient of no sky/sky as you go upward. It was sort of a conceptual compromise to make all the elements I wanted in the shot work together. Finally, the eyes of the drones were turned into slightly ethereal white glows to give them less personality so my main character, dressed as all the others, would be more unique.
 
 
 
 
 
January 28, 2013
 
 
 

Time for a rant…
 
There are photographers, peers I guess, out there that I consider purists - those that believe that a photograph should start and end in-camera, with no enhancements or treatments whatsoever. Most of them gravitate towards the following genres: Macro, Landscape, Street Photography.
 
We all have opinions, I realize that, and I am no different. My opinion is: photography without enhancement is boring. It's just what I enjoy. I associate purist photographers with documentary filmmakers, There is a place for documentaries, and I like some of them, but I am not at all interested in being a journalist or a documentary lenser. I am interested in the cinematic, in heightened reality, fantasy, surrealism and conceptualism.
 
But the one thing I have noticed is this snobbery coming at me from the purists, sometimes politely, sometimes not, about what I do. In fact, I just got a comment that prompted me writing this in the first place. The comment was about this image:
 

and the comment was: "Maybe it's more graphic, than photography!?"
 
Well no, it's not. So not only is your comment unwelcome, it is inaccurate. This image is 100% photographic; the field, the model, the crucifixes, the sky, all shot by me. Even the debris coming off his hat in the foreground, was a high speed shot of soil being sifted from my hand. So let's take stock here, if you want to challenge "what is photography" shall we? If this person focuses on landscapes, for example, he is likely walking fields and mountains, hill and dale with a camera bag, a camera, and a few lenses. He is likely using natural light, and adjusting his camera settings accordingly. So, he gets a great landscape, courtesy of nature, light, and all things random and wild. Great! Congratulations on being there and twisting your knob. My opinion is coming out here, but it's partly from a place of defense, so please bear with me…
 
Now let's talk about what I did to get the pieces that comprise my shot:
 
I booked a model. I shot the model with studio lighting. I went out to a field and shot the field in natural light. I shot the soil being sifted from my hand using high speed strobes. I shot a close-up of the crucifix prop. The rest was made using borrowed and altered photographs - the light, for example, was a shot of the sun I took in the sky with my aperture stopped all the way down, and then heavily manipulated. So…natural light photography, studio/high-speed lighting photography…hmmm, mine seems to demonstrate a little more in the way of techniques, and so far, all of them photography-based. In short, mine took more effort than yours did.
 
Now before I offend anyone…that previous statement does NOT mean that mine is better. At all. It simply means that I choose to use photography as a medium for art compositing and collage, and you choose to only focus on the photography in and of itself. I consider what i do "Deliberate Composing" for lack of a better term. It is the same approach to painting or sketching.
 
And guess what: there is room for both.
 
But do NOT come at me with your purist snobbery about mine being somehow "less than" photography, when in fact, sir, it is MORE photographic in spirit than yours. At least that is the way I see it. Do not assume I do what I do because I lack some skills behind the camera and am hiding behind trickery. I choose to do this because it is what makes me happy. It is a form of artistic expression, and shooting a homeless person on a gritty city street is not art TO ME. To others it might be, and that is fine, but to me it is journalism, or a documentary, and well, slightly invasive.
 
This purism snobbery has always been there, in all mediums against another. Painters felt threatened and therefore lashed out against photography when it emerged. Black and white film purists felt color film was sacrilege. Theater took a dim view of movies. Filmmakers had a low opinion of television. And on and on…
 
I do not consider what I do groundbreaking or remotely new. Jerry Uelsmann has been doing photo collages since before Photoshop was even around to help! His wife Maggie Taylor is a pioneer and visionary in that field as well. The list is long.
 
I have no illusions about what I do, and as some background, in my defense against these ignorant opinions, I have been shooting cameras for 12 years, and started with portraiture. I have done macro photography, product photography, occasional landscapes (not my thing at all), a couple live events, dogs in the wild at play, and have shot twelve live performance videos and several other music videos. I can edit in Final Cut, and Premiere Pro, have extensive experience using Photoshop and After Effects, and have been teaching myself studio lighting for six years. I shoot a Canon 5d mk II and have three prime lenses that I use because they cause less chromatic aberration than the zooms, and the clarity and quality is so much better. I own a tripod, I own radio transmitters, and have a basement full of light diffusers and gear.
 
So, Mr. Purist, who doubts my bid for photographic credibility, I have done my time, I have learned my lessons, and I can shoot a picture. i just choose to look at it now as a starting point, and not the end point. I choose to compose my shots deliberately, not to be a slave to random occurrences and luck of just being there at the right place and time. I choose to control light, not be controlled by it. I choose to express something in my art, not just capture something.
 
This is not the first comment I got like this. Recently someone insisted calling what i do "graphic design" and that really got under my skin. I have been pretty vocal about the purist mentality on 1x.com as well (see my blog post "the Sublime and the Snobbery.").
 
So you go be Michael Moore, or whatever documentarian you appreciate, and I will be Spielberg, Lucas, and Del Toro. That's who I want to be, and I am busy now looking at scripts and dreaming up surreal environments, so take your close-minded opinions and long lens and take a walk in the woods - I am sure something amazing will present itself.
 
Or maybe it won't.
 
Michael Bilotta, January 13, 2013
 
 

Greetings!
 
I started this image at midnight on January 1, 2013, and finished, with only a couple breaks, at 4 pm or so. I tried to leave it and get some sleep, but I like getting things in order before leaving it, and it was not settled in enough for me to leave it. I went to bed, and a half hour later, I gave up on that idea and went back to it. Starting with the raw shot, I knew more or less what I wanted this to be called, and what mood and concept was to be added to it. Getting there is never logical or easy, with many things started then deleted, and things moved around here and there. But those things are impossible to stop and document, so this step by step is partly edited - it did not go this smoothly or orderly, but for the purposes of this blog, here is the layer by layer process:
 
 
This is the raw photo as shot, no editing, no tweaking...
 
 
Next comes "pre-treating" in Adobe Camera Raw:"
 
 
My first task was to blind him! I used the clone tool to partially close up Ed's left eye:
 
 
It's not a perfect clone, but it doesn't matter, since I will be adding textures and damage layers over it. I just wanted to obscure the eye detail. The damage layers are added and masked into logical shapes. I used cracked paint textures, grayscaled, and overlaid:
 
 
Here is a closeup of the eye area with damage added:
 
 
Next, the sky is added. This sky mask was particularly hard, firstly because I was using a transfer mode of hard light, which made the sky more robust, more "there," which meant the mask was quite hard to make acceptable, and at least an hour was spent finessing the mask around the model shot:
 
 
Using a few shots of potting soil sifted in a column and captured at high speed, I added some "debris" to the lower half of my model. I wanted to imply a structural breakdown, a weakening of the motion of the man:
 
 
The color of the potting soil was very easy to blend with the suit color. Here is a closeup:
 
 
 
next, the "eleven" of the shot were added. Eleven umbrellas, but really, just one shot of my umbrella cloned 9 times (there were 10 floating umbrellas, plus the one held by the model, making eleven). This step, seemingly easy, took a LONG time, because it's not just a matter of plunking them in the scene, it's about compositional balance, and finding where they will best fit, in terms of scale, dispersion, etc. I think I moved these around a dozen times until I settled for their final positions...
 
 
Next I added wires or strings. I wanted to give it a sense of entaglement, of being trapped or hindered. I didn't think on this too much, it felt right for the tone, and for an in-joke, I made seven of them (7 11, get it!?). You will see eight here, but I deleted one at the last minute!
 
 
Now that all the elements of the shot were in place (they moved around a bit, but you get the idea), I spent a long time adding light enhancements. Light effects are one of my favorite things to do, and they do take some time to make look organic, but these lights gave some definition to the umbrellas, added more depth and drama to the sky, and gave my model a weird, backlight ethereal glow:
 
 
The next step was adding some grungy texture. Lately I have been easing off the texture overlays a bit, but this one needed it, not only to marry all the images together, but to add some "moody noise" to the scene. There were a total of three different textures used, including a scratchy grunge, a textured paper with some gradient, and a rusty metal texture used lightly to add some punch of color to the somewhat muted palette:
 
 
On top of all this, I add a color solid, lightly applied to push the image to a soft blue (blue is a lonely color after all!):
 
 
Once all this is done, two adjsutment layers are added: Curves and Levels. I cannot stress how great these two items are in terms of punching up the image, adding depth and drama, and pushing the contrast to the "epic" scale. The highlights are brought as close to overexposed as possible, and the midtones are tamped down to the point where the items in the shot are visible, but just so...
 
 
After all this is done, the PSD is saved, and then a flattened, TIF version is made. This TIF version is further edited, punching up detail and some other techniques that add a "painterly" quality to the image. Here is a final closeup detail of the final shot:
 
 
 
And that's it. Here is a shot of the layers palette, and while it looks simple, these layers are mostly groups. There were:
 
2 shots of the model used
2 layers of sky
7 layers for wires
10 layers of umbrellas
3 layers for "damage"
4 layers of "debris"
3 layers of textures
32 layers of "lights"
2 adjustment layers
2 color layers
 
 
67 layers in all! It took 15 hours total from beginning to end, and my computer was NOT happy dealing with this file. Should have asked Santa for some RAM this Christmas. Oh well!
 
I hope you liked the before and after, and if you have any questions, shoot me a message here or on my FB page at www.facebook.com/MichaelBilottaPhotography
 

Thanks for looking and reading, and Happy New Year!
 
Michael, January 1, 2013