Dan Rowe of Rowe Portrait Studios is a multiple award winning portrait photographer in Oakland City, IN. Rowe Portrait Studios has offered just about every single type of photography for clients. Dan is an accomplished photographer most known for creative lighting and posing used in his senior work. Twice a winner of WPPI’s former IPC bi-annual senior image competition and a Cr. Photog. degree holder as recognized by the Professional Photographers of America and recently multiple winner of awards at the SYNC convention in Destin FL earned him the title of Photographer of the Year at the convention. In the years it was an active conference, Dan was an integral team member of After Dark Education an event still to this day, truly unparalleled in it’s ongoing influence of the industry.
Can you tell me a little about your studio?
We photograph the whole gamut; weddings, volume schools and sports, boudoir, families, and babies. Right now the focus is on seniors and families. I’m speaking at SYNC this coming year, and Florida school. I’ve been photographing for 13 years. I did it part for about 6 years, but it got to the point that my 6-figure job at Verizon was costing me more money than it was making me. Needless to say I left that and starting doing this full time.
When you speak what is the subject matter?
It’s usually about lighting and about my creative approach to problem solving. When you’re shooting seniors you don’t always have the luxuries of picking location, outfits or the time of day. Obviously you would want do those things but its not always a reality.
My strength is making the most with what I’ve got and using those limitations to put me into a spot creatively that I otherwise wouldn’t be. Just yesterday I booked a client who asked, “What do you do if it ends up raining on the day we’re planning to shoot?” My answer was nothing.
You come in and we try to shoot your session and if we get rained out, we get rained out. But some of the most beautiful skies I’ve ever seen are during, before, or after it rains. We don’t want to miss out on that. Not being afraid to approach limitations is a theme that runs throughout all my speaking and educational events.
What would you say the greatest resource to you as a developing photographer?
The internet. Information that sort of shortens that learning curve. There were several forums like a digital wedding forum where I honed a lot of my skill. I would like to say I was self taught but I don’t think that was true. I went out, sought the information, learned little bits, applied myself and developed my own style. I certainly had major influences, Cliff Mautner changed the way I looked at light. Dave Junion is an all around kind of shooter like I am. He’s been in the business as long as there’s been a business. I could name other people who influenced my photography and then this interview would be nothing but names.
I’ve been very gifted by circumstances where I could learn the basics. Turns out what I had what was a pretty strong natural ability to see things a certain way, and to solve problems creatively. I was put in front of some good people that pushed me. I would say those three things put me where I am today.
There’s so much info on the internet and a lot of it seems to be contradicting. How did you determine what was legitimate?
In order to sort through all that good and bad information you need to be certain of your own goals. From there it’s easy to figure out what will help you get to your goals. I don’t think there’s any bad info. I know that’s not completely true but that’s the way I try to approach it. Somebody might say something that I disagree with, but then I think about it. Usually there is something in what they said that I can apply to something I’m doing that to make it a little better.
I’m going to isolate this just to photography but I think its true in life. People live their own lives. To take someone’s cookie cutter solution and drop it into your own set of unique variables is short sighted. What you need to do is look at what others are doing; find some positive and negatives, then try to create your best reality out of that.
My friend Tanja Melone is moving away from seniors. Not totally, but she has a really good program she’s introduced photographing teens and tweens. And that’s something I see in the industry that is a possible change for me. I’m going to have a conversation with her to see what she’s doing that’s working for her and I have some questions I want to ask her about things that that might work for me.
But after that conversation I’m not going to walk away with a set of notes with all the stuff she’s doing and just drop it into my studio. That’s not going to work. She’s in Denver Colorado. I’m in the middle of the country in Indiana. She’s got access to charities and trendy stores and I don’t. Her approach wouldn’t work where I’m at, but there are a lot of things that she’s thought about that I wouldn’t think about on my own but could affect in a positive way what I’m trying to do here.
How did you figure out and develop your style?
I think my development of style has happened within the last four years. It happened because I was forced to kind of get into a rhythm with the way I did sessions because of how high a volume we had. Once you get a rhythm that style is going to come out. I don’t know if I’ve found my own style; but I do know that I have a style. My work has a feel to it. There is some style there but it is always changing as with any real artists. Artists are infants who never fully grow up. You change and grow. I even have a hard time describing myself as a photographer. As a photographer who takes portraits…some are more artistic than others. Me? I’m just a guy with a camera.
If you’re producing a product, everything that’s coming out of your camera is something that people are asking for it will be harder for people to see your style.
I think there’s a big misconception right now in this industry between style and styling. There are Instagram pages for photographers where you hash-tag with their hash-tag or send them a private message and they may feature your photo on their page. Which is a great thing! It’s kind of cool and people get excited when they’re featured and it’s great. But If I showed you one of these pages and you scrolled through it you would a lot of time, think that one photographer shot all the pictures. They’re cohesive. They all look the same, but there may be 4 or 5 hundred photographers who shot the images on that page.
So what they’re doing is copying an aesthetic. Whether its with the styling clothes, lighting, posing… any of those things which we use to determine what makes a picture they’re all cohesive in that field. A lot of people, mostly new people who haven’t shot enough to find their own style that think they have. But that’s only because they’re copying a style they’ve seen somewhere else.
I don’t think that’s the same thing. A style isn’t necessarily something you like, but it’s something that’s unique to you, however subtle. A lot of people starting out have grasped that concept yet. I don’t think they even will until it happens. When it happens they’ll understand what I’m saying.
Do you think there might be some merit in a fledgling photographer trying on different styles?
Absolutely! I’ve copied stuff before. I wouldn’t completely claim it as my own, but if I see something cool I’ll try it and I’ll give credit to where I saw it. That’s an essential part of learning and I don’t fault that at all.
Imitation is an essential part of learning anything, not just photography. I encourage that. In my workshops if people want to shoot, I’ll have them shoot exactly what I shoot. But then I’ll tell them to change something. I’ll move a light around or turn a light off. Then I’ll tell them to fix it the way you want it. I’ll guide them through to the steps to achieve their vision.
The problem is that I don’t think a lot of these people even realize that they’re copying. You could argue there is some element of that in every picture every one of us creates. I’ve heard it said many times that every picture has been made. I don’t completely agree with that but I agree with the idea. So when does it matter if you’re copying and when does it not? It matters when there are masses of people who think have found their style when all they’re doing is making a picture like the person before them made. That’s duplication. Replication. I don’t think that’s style.
What is one tip that will help people with their photography?
I use a Larson 4×6 a lot as my main light. When I’m in the studio 90% of what I shoot is with a 4×6 as at least a main or sometimes an accent light. What a lot of people don’t realize is that when you’re dealing with something that big, it doesn’t have to be a light. It can be the backdrop.
If I have a kid with a bizarrely colored outfit or a color that I don’t have a backdrop for. Most of my backdrops are subdued, natural,earthy type backdrops. I don’t have a lot of wild colored back drops. You don’t see a lot of that. If my subject has an outfit like that one of my favorite things to do is to take a 4×6 and take the diffusion panel off of the front, and use that with a light in it as the backdrop. I turn the power on that light way way down so its pushing down a little bit of light. I still light my subject like I would any other time, I’m still going to put light on their face like normal. What happens is that the light bounces off their back and the color of the their outfit, it goes right back into the softbox. And the box is shiny.
The softbox becomes a very diffused mirror that now has silver as well as some white and lots of the color from whatever color they’re wearing. So I can make a backdrop that matches them, even though its kind of wild and its not something that you’d see quite often.
I turn that 4×6 into a backdrop that will work with whatever outfit they’ve got on. It can be really cool and it only takes seconds to do. And the problem that I had in front of me, that I didn’t have a back drop for is done!