Dean Bradshaw: The Digital Ninja

Southern California-based photographer Dean Bradshaw began his career as a field biologist in the Australian outback where he spent most of his time finding snakes and lizards. Following a natural career trajectory forward into commercial photography, the Perth transplant moved to the U.S. only a short time ago, and yet the photographer’s impeccable post skills, energetic disposition and irreverent sense of humor are making him highly sought after under the sunny skies of California. The self-pronounced "digital ninja" has always been interested in the visual arts, exploring oil painting in his teens when he would build layer upon layer of paint only to become disenchanted by the weeks-long process. On his 18th birthday, he was hooked by the instantaneous rush of a digital image when he received a digital compact camera as a gift. As a young wildlife photographer, Bradshaw started his love affair with imagery by exploring the macro world, which spurred him to maximize the lighting possibilities of very basic hot-shoe flashes in order to pull out the form and textures of his woodland friends. He credits much of this experience as the early bedrock for the keen talent he has shown with lighting people and products.

"I see myself as an image-maker," he explains, "a visual communicator. My style and approach is based on sculpting with light and shadow to build mood and tell a story. Lighting is a huge part of what I do. At one stage in my career, I spent about 18 months working as a full-time retoucher, so I have a very strong grasp of industry-level retouching and advanced compositing. That’s a handy skill as it allows me to embrace the digital workflow all the way from concept to delivery. This makes it very useful working with art directors and ad agencies—I can handle all the post work that they often do themselves, or outsource. More importantly, my brain thinks of photography as a step in the image-making process. When building composite images, for example, photography is, in a way, just a gathering of assets. In the digital age, image-making goes beyond just photography."

Take, for example, an editorial for San Diego Magazine‘s "50 People To Watch 2011" article, particularly indicative of Bradshaw’s strengths as a photographer. The concept was simple: to photograph each subject with a single prop relevant to their profession, which not only implied character, but also gave the inexperienced models something to do with their hands. Bradshaw shot them all under the same lighting conditions so he could concentrate on "coaxing expression and gesture without focusing on the technical details," he says. Bradshaw had a very short amount of time to shoot a large group of people, approximately 20 individuals scheduled throughout a single day. Many of the subjects had never been in front of a professional lens before, but the final images are seamless in style, informative in content and amusingly engaging—the trifecta of elements that make a Bradshaw signature image.

"I know my subjects only have so much energy," he explains, "especially when working with celebrities and people who haven’t been photographed before, so I try to keep a high-energy set, and I think my own energy helps people get in the zone. I let people know it’s okay to be excited and animated because I, myself, am that way, and the environment often is. I think people change their persona depending on whom they’re engaging with and the environment they’re in. I often do silly things on set to let people know it’s okay. I like to make people laugh."

"That said, I have certain consistencies on the technical side of things, which means my images have some sort of cohesiveness when viewed as a body of work. Setting up—what I call prelighting—is a big part of most of my work, whether it be for 15 minutes or 15 hours. For most of my work, I like to light environments myself rather than relying on natural conditions so I can create my own mood and atmosphere. Because lighting is so technical, I like to have the opportunity to establish it before engaging with the subject so my subject gets my full attention. I have assistants to make sure my lighting is arranged and a digital tech to establish tethered capture and make sure the digital workflow runs smoothly. Working with a great team makes the entire experience seamless and enjoyable. When I’m photographing important people with busy schedules, we might have as little as 10 minutes with the subject. Provided the set is prelit, this is enough time for me to focus entirely on my subject rather than worrying about the technical aspects.


Bradshaw is a master of retouching, a talent that made the young Australian photographer highly sought after as a commercial and editorial photographer within a few short months of moving to the United States. "The U.S. is the pinnacle of the creative world to me," he explains about the move. "It has the biggest markets commercially and attracts creative talent from all over the world. One can make it here with a very specific style, something that can be impossible in a market like Australia where creative budgets are much smaller. In the U.S., photographers can afford to specialize."

"Developing rapport with people is an art in itself," he continues. "Many of the talent and subjects I work with are often not professional models—many have never been professionally photographed before. I like to create a positive, energetic atmosphere, where people can feel at ease and enjoy themselves. At the end of the day, we’re making pictures, and although we’re doing it commercially, making the experience fun for our subjects and the client is one of the best ways I know how to make successful images. Having a great team and running a tight set where the technical issues are attended to smoothly is also very important—it means I can focus more on people than on technique. Finally, I really enjoy people—it’s a big part of why I do what I do."

Bradshaw’s work may be heavily processed, but the images themselves are firmly grounded in the real world, a careful juxtaposition of fantastical effects in semirealistic scenarios and over-the-top character-driven portraiture that belies his unique sense of visual humor. Bradshaw’s human subjects often find themselves comped into dynamic backgrounds of nature or cityscapes, as well, and though he uses elaborate lighting to build these scenes, his stunning abilities with a computer seem to glue it all together effortlessly. Bradshaw is quite proud of his sense of humor and rightly so. Just as with comedy filmmaking, producing a commercial image that’s able to capture spontaneity and levity is no easy trick. He prefers to act as director on set, infusing a shoot with energy and fun while carefully guiding his talent into the character that he’s looking for. He says that a really strong idea of the final image is tantamount to his methods prior to shooting, for character direction and also technically to be able to accomplish the complex postproduction that his composites can require.

Bradshaw says that "light is light," and it will only be as good or as bad as you direct it to be, so he’s comfortable working with a number of systems and light-modification tools. For smaller commercial work and shoots that involve a lot of travel, Bradshaw will rely on Paul C. Buff Einsteins as his principal lighting source, and he’ll supplement his
arsenal with Profoto power packs for larger projects and studio work.

"Using big modifiers like octabanks consumes a lot of light," he says. "Couple that with a medium-format back shooting at ISO 50, ƒ/16—I need every watt-second I can get."

For a project in Africa involving the infamous Kony and the group Invisible Children, on the other hand, Bradshaw relied on three Einsteins and three miniature lithium battery packs that gave him about 400 full-power flashes each, "the best option I had available to keep weight down," he says. "It’s not what lights you have; it’s how you use them."

Bradshaw’s very first step to any of his workflows is to start with the most sculpted image that he can produce in-camera "with highlights and shadows falling where I want them and microcontrast maximized through careful attention to lighting ratios," he continues. "Starting with a great file is crucial, it makes my adjustments in post fewer and not as heavy-handed so that the file maintains maximum pixel quality. I like to shape contrast by selectively using curves adjustment layers and shifting colors where needed by using curves or the hue/saturation command and then sharpening to enhance detail and depth." Bradshaw says that bringing along a workstation will give him a continuous workflow as he can perform edits and make needed adjustments during the shoot. "Seeing your images on a 27-inch screen makes it far easier to make adjustments on the fly," he explains. "When I’m compositing, I like to use environmentally driven lighting. I like to start with my background images, or at least an idea of what they will be, and look to see what the sources of light are in the scene. To create believable composites, I want to mimic those sources as best I can—often enhancing them beyond what might be natural. For example, if the subject is set against a city at night as the background, I’ll use hard light sources to act as rim lights."

Because lighting is so technical, I like to have the opportunity to establish it before engaging with the subject so my subject gets my full attention.

After that, he says it’s simply a matter of reduction—removing any obstacles to his imagined final image while allowing a certain degree of spontaneity to work its way into the shooting process. "The three most important things to keep in mind when shooting for composites are to maintain correct perspective, consistent lighting and realistic shadows," Bradshaw explains, "so that the elements that you combine fit together cohesively. Consistent color and contrast between elements is important, but that’s addressed more in postproduction as long as the lighting is consistent. I feel like a composite is effective when most viewers don’t realize that it’s a composite. I can’t afford to be fixing things in post. It takes up too much time, especially in a commercial workflow, so I start with a great file and then enhance the contrast in Photoshop.

"I like rich, detailed images with strong contrast while at the same time maximizing depth and dynamic range," he continues. "Achieving this look means throwing lots of light around in a very controlled manner. There’s an art to using almost every light modifier around, so I’ve come up with a particular style to using most of them. Only by breaking the classical rules with lighting can you make something interesting—something different. As I mentioned before, I then enhance this contrast in postproduction, so the results are part analog, part digital."

Adds Bradshaw, "It all depends on the project and what we’re trying to achieve. For example, I just finished shooting a campaign for an athletic brand where we were shooting high-performance athletes. They wanted a very hyperrealistic look so I used about eight lights per scene, each light sculpting the scene in a different way. We used the Einsteins at low power for their superfast flash durations. When I’m shooting a portrait, however—where the image is more about the subject than the lighting—then I may use only one or two lights. I’m really passionate about story-driven lighting—lighting for the particular mood that you’re trying to create, as well as using lights to sculpt the scene to make it as three-dimensional as possible. I like to use a lot of rim and backlights to shape and build depth. As far as light modifiers go, I’m relatively partial to parabolic light modifiers and beauty dishes due to their sculptural quality and versatility. That said, it all depends on the goal."

"I think more than anything it’s my vision, from lighting to postproduction, that sets me apart. There are so many amazing photographers out there, but in the commercial world, many of them work with dedicated retouchers who you often never hear about, they’re the guys behind the curtain, and they often have a huge role in the ‘look’ or visual style of an image. I suppose the difference is that I like to control the pixels all the way from intake and lighting to the final postproduction and delivery. My lighting and postproduction techniques are important, but more important is my sense of taste, how I like my images to look. Without vision, my techniques are just a bag of tricks. Even if someone knows the techniques, there are so many micro-decisions in the image-making process that no two photographers will ever create the same image. I think this means that my images will always stand apart as my own—at least I hope. That’s not to say that my way of doing things is any better—it’s just different, it’s just me. Everyone’s vision is unique."

You can see more of Dean Bradshaw’s high-impact, narrative imagery at www.deanbradshaw.com.au.

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