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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.

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