don’t say cheese

Here’s a question that’s been bugging me for years:

A camera can capture moments that are measured in hundredths if not thousandths of a second. So why does so much studio photography look like it’s been posed to display all the energy and vitality of the Mona Lisa? Or a bowl of fruit in a still life in oils?

I do get some of it, of course. The poses are part of an artistic (Western) tradition that goes back over five hundred years and not only do they work but they’re kind of hard to break from. I mean, not without pulling out your mad PhotoShop skills to turn a photo into something truly surreal, which isn’t to my taste. Lacking those skills, I do what I can to break from the mold as best I can, but it’s not long before I’m back to “leaning on couch” or whatever. And, yeah, damn me if they’re not good pictures too.

I guess I’ve gotten spoiled shooting moments. Between the fire spinners, my time in burlesque and working in street photography, I live for that hundredth of a second. The sense that an image captures the energy of a continuum: the poi will be caught, the feather fan will swoop, the conversation at the bar will continue into the night but this moment… this moment was caught.

And studio photography feels so posed and composed, the images lack that sense of continuity. This woman is leaning on a wall because she is leaning on the wall. The smile, the fence, the chair, the whatever is not a moment to me. There’s not much emotion either, just… model. It wasn’t caught, it was prepared. It just is.

Say cheese.

I think I’m going to have to try harder. Some of that is going to be just remembering this idea, some of it will be being more proactive.

And the rest… I’ll make up as I go.

Jesse Belle-Jones


shooting fire

Spinurn 05/24/17

Ah fire. If there’s anything that comes close to the fun of playing with fire, it’s photographing it. But it’s not that close. I mean, close, sure, but… c’mon! There’s pushing a button and there’s commanding the elements. Tough call?

I didn’t think so.

And now that I’ve been going there for about a year and a half, I get questions about it, whether about the bare bone basics or the relative esoterica of apertures and noise reduction. So with that in mind, here are my notes for shooting fire spinners. These are basics pointers that should be fairly universal regardless of camera make. You’re on your own when it comes to which buttons to push.

1) Think for yourself
As I wrote before, your camera is stupid and it is particularly stupid in the dark. In bright sunlight, it can suss out the situation with speed and grace. Put it in a dark room with a light source that is inconstant and/or moving and it will turn into the equivalent of a thousand dollar moth, albeit a moth with none of the natural instincts inherent to the little beasties. Or the ability of flight, now that I think about it.

In my experience, the autofocus tends to try to hunt for likely points of focus in the dark, often deciding that the brightest part of the frame is the most important, whether that’s your point of interest or not. As a result, I limit the autofocus to one point of focus usually at the center of the frame, dialing out as I feel the need to change the composition. No more hunting, the camera is (ideally!) locked in on the center and you’re left to fiddle with, oh, say, everything else.

Spinurn 03/22/17

2) Start high and wide (and fast)
Shooting at Spinurn, I’m out to stop the motion and capture the moment as much as possible. I’m still figuring out the finesse of that, but as a starting point, shoot with a high ISO, a wide aperture and a fast shutter speed and go from there. I’ll shoot an ISO of 3200 (the highest my camera manages and it works fine) with my f/2.8 lens with a shutter speed around 1/100th of a second.

This is my starting point, you’re going to have to find your own by mixing and matching, but start high and wide and fast and figure out the finesse you need. You’ll do that by fiddling. A lot.

Spinurn 08/24

3) Fiddle while poi burn (sorry!)
Fire is an awful light source, especially in this setting. Not only is the fire being thrown around (tricky as it is), but it’s burning down from the moment the wick is first lit. This light starts as an inferno and ends in embers, which requires finesse. That wide open aperture I recommended works great with a fast or dim light source, but that same setting leaves me with grossly overexposed images when someone burns the excess fuel from their poi on the ground or pulls off an impressive light show with a staff.

So you fiddle. You’ll have to. I had to when I shot burlesque and I’m doing it again down at Gas Works, opening the aperture as the fires burn out and resetting a bit when someone new takes the performance area.

Also, I’ve figured out when to not try for a shot. Some performers simply spin too fast to bother. They’re amazing to watch, this isn’t personal, it’s just that the flames are so dim and so fast that even shooting with some high speed burst mode, I’m lucky to catch anything. Or the flame isn’t in a position to provide good or dramatic lighting so I don’t bother trying to shoot a dark figure in a dark space only to have to delete the photos when I get home.

Spinurn 03/08/17

I definitely have some preferences as far as props go. Fire fans and poi are pretty easy to shoot. Staff isn’t too bad until the performer starts spinning really fast. Leviwand is challenging as it tends to move quickly and be in less than advantageous places as far as lighting is concerned and long string leviwand is currently making me up my game. Hoops vary from performer to performer, depending on their speed. The two props I tend to disregard are nunchucks (too close and too fast) and fire swords (the light is too dim while in motion) but once in a while I surprise myself and catch something when I least expected it. Everything else you’ll figure out on your own, just as I am. I’m thinking I can step down the ISO a bit, especially early in the burn, but I won’t know until I get to the next spin session, which is also the next time I get to play with fire. Which I am totally patient for. Absolutely. Are we there yet?

Spinurn 03/22/17

hard at play…


“So,” she asked as the shoot was winding down, “what’s the deal with the Lego?”

When I’m not playing with fire, pouring paint on models and shooting candids on the streets and cafes of Seattle, you can probably find me stooped on the edge of someone’s front yard taking pictures of Lego. I have a bunch of minifigures that I carry with me, creating tableaus and telling silly stories with them, sometimes simple, sometimes complex, usually silly.

It all started because I was bored. And frustrated.

I love collaborating on studio shoots. It’s such a thrill to bring different creative sensibilities in to one project and seeing what the hell happens. It’s great, I’ve had amazing times running that. But then there’s the matter of scheduling and, worse than that, when you have to reschedule after a cancellation. The reasons are invariably understandable and I’d have to be a complete asshole to not be sympathetic, but it doesn’t mute the frustration of trying to make the social calculus work because I’m free on Fridays, the model works Thursday nights, the make-up artist is busy every day but Tuesday and then there’s Jupiter in the seventh house and… and…



After a steady series of these scheduling tangos, I just wanted a project I could do on my own. Something I could pick up at a moment’s notice, that didn’t require the right weather or the right crowds to finish.

And one day someone left a toy dinosaur on a table at a coffee shop I frequented and, suddenly, I had an idea. I had my iPhone, I could put the camera at a super low angle and… well…

ganging up...

It was so simple, so satisfying and so utterly self-contained. Throw a couple toys in my bag and head uphill to a park and suddenly I’m shooting in Jurassic Park. Eventually I started making a webcomic in my phone called Adrift, which I eventually printed as an actual book.

Last year I rediscovered Lego and, well, this silly thread has continued with different properties, different stories and a lot more freedom than simply staging the same contests between predator and prey that I felt limited to with dinosaurs. There were faces and moods and buildings and you could have Batman interact with the Doctor and robots and… well it was practically a gimme since I love using toys to tell stories and capture moments.

“Houston, we have a franchise…”

It’s my fun. It’s my “stupid” (in the appropriate Doug Stanhope sense of the word (not even close to being safe for work, but hilarious). It’s my area of unfettered creativity where I can throw characters together and see what happens. Or follow a moment of whimsy and be stared at by the homeowner…

Oh yeah, that happens on a fairly regular basis. Nothing bad has happened, but I’ve had a few moments of incredulous stares as I explain what I’m up to: “Really? You do this?” Although the last time, the guy remembered that I’d shown my work in a local cafe a couple months before, so I’ll call that a win and be happy with it.

That’s the thing with the Lego. And it will probably be my thing with the Lego for a good long while to come and I’m really looking forward to the next thing.

thanks that was fun…

Brolly Shoot

I had four shoots in four days last week. I can’t speak for anyone else out there but it’s a record for me, anyway. Not only am I pleased with the results, not only am I pleased that nothing went especially wrong but I was paid a huge compliment by a new-to-me makeup artist who thanked me for “making photo shoots fun again.”

I’ll take that. Though I can’t imagine what the hell their previous experiences had been. I can imagine creepy, sadly enough. Cliched, sure. Possibly flat out incompetent or workmanlike. Beyond that… ew.

Shoots should be fun. Even if they’re serious or creepy or somber or whatever emotion I’m working towards, I like having a soundtrack of laughter. It’s real and it shows if we are working towards genuine emotion and pleasure. Not because I said “cheese” but because I just told the world’s worst knock knock joke ever and it just dawned on the model that… yeah, I just asked her what was brown and sticky*. Or started talking like the most stereotypical photographer this side of an Austin Powers movie.

Potentially immature? Damn straight. Work with what you’ve got.

But this should be fun, full stop. If you’re not, I think you’re doing it wrong.

And I made it fun. More than that, I have some repeat collaborators on other odd ideas I have and they have and who knows what else we dream up. I can’t wait.

This was a big shoot for me not only because it was more involved than anything I’ve done in a long time (burlesque performers tend to be so self-contained, I’m spoiled) but because it got an idea that I’ve had for the past three or four years out of my head. Finally! No, it’s not exactly what I imagined. No, it’s not precisely right. Yes, I can see room for improvement and finesse.

Like, you know, the next time I work with this model and makeup artist again, which may be… next week?

I’ll take that too.

*- A Stick!

rules for photography (or, a simple preposition)

The Party

I credit grammar with saving my bacon as a photographer. And if not my bacon, at least my energy and sanity at times. It’s a simple trick so I’m going to share it with you. When considering large social events (i.e. your local pride parade, folk festivals, etc etc), are you

A) Going to take pictures, or
B) Going in addition to taking pictures.

And that has made all the difference.

During my last year in burlesque, when the burn out was building, I found myself going to shows that I absolutely did not give a fuck about. Whether it was lackluster performers or… no, actually that was about it, really.  When the thrill of nudity is gone, you’re left with the talent brought to the stage and a lot of those burlesquers didn’t bring much more than enthusiasm and a willingness to get (mostly) naked on stage.

But I went! I made myself go because I felt I had a reputation or an obligation. Because I wanted the ego stroke of “Oh my god, thank you SOOOO much” and I didn’t want anyone else to get that rush I needed. Insecure much? Oh yeah.

When I was done and caught my breath again, I felt such a relief from that lack of responsibility that I started to apply it elsewhere in my photographic sphere. Did I want to go just to go and also have my camera? Or was I going specifically to have my camera with me? Was I going to Pride to celebrate and eat crappy festival food and party or to take pictures of the colorful people like I was on safari? Was Folklife for me or my camera?

Burning Man is the most extreme example of this for me. Every couple of years, someone I’ve met recently will pitch the idea of going to Burning Man as an amazing experience and, oh, “could you imagine the pictures you could take?!” And yeah, I can. I’ve seen a lot of them and at their best, they’re amazing and inspiring. But I don’t want to go to Burning Man, ever. The desert, absolutely, but the idea of camping out for a week with a crowd I’ve never wanted to be a part of? No thanks. I’d be on safari, play acting, never actually playing.

Life’s too short. Don’t get me wrong, you should definitely try new things and you should definitely push your comfort zone on a regular basis. But if you’re staring at your camera with a sense of dread because you’re going to the Albanian Headcheese Festival only because, hey, you might get a good picture? Give yourself a break, get a coffee and read a book. You’ve earned it.

not my club


–Groucho Marx, Groucho and Me

The internet is a powerful tool for bringing people together. Sometimes I think it may be too powerful. Let me explain.

I had two shoots yesterday (pictures forthcoming) that were absolutely amazing. One of them was a collaboration with a flow friend that was probably half improvisation, the other was a collaboration with a make-up artist and a model to shoot an idea that I’ve had for years out of my head. They were great fun, we laughed all the way through, the pictures I’ve worked on have been impressive and I would work with all these people again in a heartbeat.

But to be honest, the best part was the conversation. Not just laughing with a friend and making new ones, but snarking about a Facebook group we’re all in eccentric orbits around. That on top of everything else was worth a fortune and was a tremendous relief.

I like groups mostly. I like meeting people and sharing interests and discovering some new thing or another. Hell, that’s how I’ve fallen in to so many different scenes and hobbies since I moved to Seattle: samba, burlesque, fire spinning, toy photography, gaming… the list goes on. I like that there’s a social structure I can take part in when I want and can (usually) take time off when and if I need it without it becoming A Thing. And online the conversation ebbs and flows and you jump on and off as you’re interested. They’re great!

But I get frustrated when the group feels limiting. Especially in creative groups where the dominant conversation seems to be how everything is swell and golly where did people get their ideas. Creative groups where styles seem static. Now, I don’t want to be a jerk, I don’t want to make it personal, but I do want to say we can do better. More than this. More than the same. That we can flip the tropes and twist the cliches and maybe try to do more and better, right? Maybe?

It reminds me of some of my first encounters with deep geek culture online in the early days of the Internet. Where the thrill of finding others like you was quickly tempered by the schisms of disagreement and, in the name of civility, we will all agree that we like everything. EVERYTHING!

I tend to leave because I can’t shake the feeling that I’m the only one raising even a tiny fuss. Or, more recently, asked to leave because I rocked the boat and challenged some really silly ideas (a photo of a Lego cat is not animal photography! Ahem).

So this group we’re all in is devoted to open shoots and TFP (Trade For Print) exchanges so people can build their portfolios. We’re all in it for similar reasons at different parts of the process.

But the group feels monotonous. It’s filled with the same calls for boudoir shoots. Lots of pictures of women on beaches looking out at the water with bored expressions. A couple of weeks ago when someone posted a picture of a “milk bath” shoot (bath tub filled with milk or cloudy liquid, usually with flower petals or glitter for contrast), there was a run on that style and it seemed like every other day another photographer posted their take on the subject, which never seemed too different from the previous picture.

Was it me?

So to have three conversations, all of them at one point or another filled with laughter at the expense of the tedium of the group was so god damned reaffirming. What, another picture of a girl in a bikini on a motorcycle? Wait, it was a milk bath but with glitter! Goddammit, why was I not sitting down?! No wait, it’s a milk bath on a beach with a motorcycle… perfect!

I’m not keen to join online groups anymore. I don’t like that feeling of isolation in the face of unyielding and unchanging enthusiasm. I want to find the other malcontents and the weirdos and people with darker ideas and work with them in the face of homogeny.

So those shoots? Well I’ll be a little less involved in the day to day “activity” of the group, but I found a few more freaks and a few more oddballs, so I’ll chalk it up as a win.

Sometimes the best thing isn’t changing a group from the inside or reinventing the wheel. It’s just finding out you’re not alone with your opinions. That’s how you find real collaborators.


blazing trails

Open Flow June '17

Guess who got to play with fire again this weekend?

Truth be told, I’ve been wanting to shoot pictures like this for years.

Shortly after I started doing studio work on my own, I read up on the technique and then, lacking the contacts, I didn’t know quite how to ask or who to ask if they’d be game to play with me. I managed it once with a friend who moved to California a couple months later, and then… nothing.

Nothing until Spinurn last year and now I get to do this on a semi-regular basis for people who are blown away by the results. Blown away to the point that I feel somewhat awkward explaining the technique (long exposures with a flash as punctuation) to an enthusiastic and occasionally wide-eyed audience because, well, it’s not that difficult.

Does it make sense that even as I feel confident in my photographic skills, I’m flummoxed when people react so strongly to my work? Or even the ideas behind them?

On the one hand, this isn’t a picture you take with some preset on your camera. And I’m still finessing it and still figuring out ways to do a better job to get better pictures. But it’s almost standard for me now. It’s almost second or third nature to me. So the response and the enthusiasm is adjacent to an emotional space I don’t quite recognize. And it’s heartening and cool and a tad overwhelming.

I can understand likes on Instagram. Wide eyed wonder? Not so much.

But it’s cool nonetheless. And I’ll keep taking the pictures.

Open Flow June '17