With over fifty years in professional photography, Tim is known as one of America’s top portrait photographers, a teacher and mentor to portrait photographers, whose work remains relevant, demands top dollar, and is widely published. Well established as an exceptional instructor, in 2015 Kelly received PPA’s Helen K Yancy achievement award for far reaching impact on professional photography.

The portrait lighting style he introduced to the industry changed the photographic portrait industry and influenced many of America’s top photographers. Tim’s style has become iconic. His background designs, famous.

Tell me about your studio.

After over 40 years in Florida operating a portrait studio, two years ago I built a new home studio which I hope is my last. I have the essentials; a sales room, a camera room, a dressing room and the production room. I have everything I need. Over the years I have learned how to consolidate just what I want. We do 95% in our small camera room. It’s about 15×25 kind of open space that we use. Our focus is fine art studio portraits, mainly black and white, film and specialty product. That doesn’t mean we don’t do the occasional family in color, but the real flag ship is black and white art portraits

What got you into black and white?

I started in black and white when I was a young teenager hobbyist. I liked shooting black and white because I could process it myself. I fell in love with it. Everything that I like as far as art styles happens to be monochrome; pencil art, ink art, scratch-board art, and lithography. All monochrome.

Over the course of many years in 1988 I opened a studio in downtown Winter Park in the high rent district. I realized, at the last moment, that I didn’t have anything in my windows for my opening. I quickly made some portraits of children and the next day I had 20 inch and 30 inch black and white portraits in my store window. It was fast, natural, and it changed everything in Florida as far as portraits go. Suddenly the black and white, very loose children’s portrait with super high fidelity, became all the rage. I kind of fell right back into black and white as my main affair in the late 80’s and I stayed there.

What do you mean when you use the word “loose”?

It’s composition. I do my work with a lot of negative space. I like a lot of room and that’s why I shoot on large backgrounds; I never know what my final composition is going to end up like. I may put someone in the bottom right corner. The rest of the space has to mean something and has to render well.That’s why the backgrounds I choose are important.
That which made me famous, if you will, were kids, just standing in my camera room, small, with a lot of space around them and above them. That became a thing, and people were buying it. Here’s an image representing what I mean. It has always been part of my style. There are definitive examples. There was one that was in my store window that changed everything. It was of my son who is now 33 and was three at the time. I simply dropped him into the scene. He happened to have a teddy bear in his arm, and had an untied shoe lace. I shot four sheets of 4×5 inch film. That image is still famous. When it was put in my store window, I couldn’t give away color portraits anymore.

What have your speaking engagements been the last year?

I’ve been doing a lot of personal mentoring and small workshops. I did just get back from a week teaching from New England from the MARS school. I spent a week up there with a big class. I do platform presentations every couple years in PPA. Now people find me doing private workshops and personal mentoring and maybe a couple of conventions a year. I’ve decided to educate through YouTube, that’s my new thing. I have a studio workshop I do every year. This will be be the 32nd year in a row. I’m not doing any other online training, but I’m offering tutorials for free on my YouTube channel. I do have some pro products on my website for purchase as well.

When you speak what is the subject matter?

I speak on fidelity, on quality of lighting, posing, and creating fine art. I haven’t considered myself a photographer for many years. I’m a portrait artist. People come and sit for me. Since 1995 I haven’t been seen with a camera in my hand. I’ve never since been in public with a camera. I’m not a photographer; I don’t take pictures. I make portraits and people must sit for me. That’s the difference and it’s a big difference. I decided way back then, I’m a portrait artist. I don’t do weddings, I don’t do parties, I don’t do anything like that. I only have people come sit for me. That made me an artist. All of these things add up to make me who I am. Because I’m an artist, I operate a little differently than most. I have to be happy with every portrait session I do, and every print I make. And if I’m happy I know my clients will be.

What was your greatest resource as a developing photographer?

Personal inspiration and drive that allowed me to pursue my dream and my art. For me it wasn’t seeing someone else’s success or saying, “Oh I want to do that for a living.” I was more or less compelled to create art and portraits are my favorite art. So it was all a personal decision. That’s what I’m driven to do, that’s what I like the best. I really wish that for everyone, that they could be doing the type of assignment that they most enjoy. It could be underwater stuff, it could be pictorial, it could be mother/babies, whatever they really love. For me I love creating portraits of people in my studio. That’s a huge part of it is. I’m doing exactly what I want so I can’t really fail. I won’t give up until I get the job done.
I studied photography like everybody else. I studied cameras, techniques, darkrooms and everything. When I realized that I could be an artist first that was a life changing moment. That’s the thing; I was born an artist. I was a child award winning artist doing drawing and painting. When I fell in love with photography I became technical and I had spent five to ten years ignoring art and learning photography.
When I finally mastered photography I thought, “Well, now that I know how to do it all, I can interpret artistically, and not be just a photographer anymore.” So that was my conscious decision. I want to do art, and I want to do it with the medium of photography.

What is one tip that will help someone in their photography?

Show less when you’re showing your images. I’ve been doing it that way since the beginning of digital. When I’m doing a senior shoot and shoot 300 frames, I show less than 30. Period. That’s all they see. When they do a regular non-senior portrait I show an average of ten or twelve. That’s all I show. I show only my very best, they’re already selected by the artist, they’re already pre-retouched, and presented. People will have more than enough to buy from the selection I’ve already pulled for them. My clients never have to look at any two that are nearly the same. Purge, purge, purge. Show less, sell more. When you show too many you wear people out.
People are often times apprehensive or scared of seeing the results of the shoot. But if you only show them gorgeous images their very first impression is, “Wow!” It’s not a fantasy or fake, it’s just optimized images. As I click through my 10 or 12 images that I got out of two hundred, they’re only seeing the most beautiful ones. The over arching attitude will be that this was a successful shoot. You want the client’s first thing thought to be, “This is awesome.” Period.
When a young photographer says, “Let me show you everything I shot,” they lose. When you see two or three images that are almost the same, it taxes the mind so much to see the difference, that you’re actually burning calories. You wear them out. Only show unique images, so that they are only buying and putting on their walls the images, you the photographer, want them to buy.
So many times photographers tell me, “The client always buys the wrong one,  always buying the smiling pose for grandma. Customers don’t often understand the soft mood and the artsy one.” What you have got to do is not show what you don’t want to sell and only show what you do want to sell while still offering them variety.
I have always believed that in my heart as an artist that, if the client would just get the one that I think is the winner, I’m happy and I know that they will be happy. Under promise over deliver, that’s what I operate under. When people come to me for a portrait session, I only promise them one great image (and I really do only promise one) and then I show them ten. That way we both leave feeling satisfied.

Tim Kelly is a Master of Photography, Photographic Craftsman, ASP-Fellow, recipient of the Imaging Excellence Award, a former Affiliate Juror, International Master of Photog; Inducted: Cameracraftsmen of America, Inducted: International Society of Portrait Artists; a recipient of Florida’s Degree of Photographic Excellence, Service and Educational Awards,  More than 25 yrs. as a Kodak Mentor. Tim has three times received the Kodak Gallery Elite Award, 30+ Gallery Awards, Multiple Epcot Awards, countless print and imaging awards. His 2nd book. “ Portrait Mastery in Black & White” has been a best seller in it’s category.

For more information about Tim Kelly's studio and online resources