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Environmental Portraits with Thomas Fowler

Author: Libby - Printique by Adorama

Making our clients feel at ease in front of the lens, is just as important as taking the picture. It’s not something you can force or fake. It’s something you learn on the job. It is finding that thread that connects your subject to you and your camera.
We noticed a special connection between one photographer and his subjects on location. Photographer and Printique Ambassador, Thomas Fowler, sits down with us and shares his secret to getting his clients to shine in front of his lens.
1. Tell us a little about yourself. 
My name is Tom Fowler and I am a portrait photographer in Southern California.  I grew up in San Luis Obispo and worked as a projectionist and became interested in photography while working there. As a teenager in a small town, I explored abandoned buildings with a camera in hand. Eventually, I was asked by a coworker to photograph his wedding, and then I naturally progressed to shooting more weddings. Ultimately I moved to Los Angeles and got an internship at a wedding photography studio and learned a ton. After two years I ventured out on my own. With more creative control, I began experimenting more at my weddings. I began to shift towards more portraiture with complicated setups and really challenged myself. Currently that’s what I am focusing on.

2. Your photography shows a real depth to your subjects – how are you able to connect so well to your clients?
Being photographed is a nerve-racking process for the subject; I try to be a respectful as possible. It is in my nature to be curious about a perfect stranger. You never know what they’ve been through. Also, I try to allot an hour or two with my subject, to allow them to become relaxed and establish trust. Building that trust is essential to capturing the depth. It isn’t easy, I can’t tell you how many times I have failed or just don’t connect with a subject in one way or another.
3.How does location work make for better images/more comfortable clients?
When you bring someone into an environment that they are already familiar with it automatically makes them more comfortable than say a sterile unfamiliar studio space. It is a safe environment for the subject so you the photographer can get better images out of your subject right off the bat. Also if it is an environment that they work or a place that is special to them I find myself making a connection with them much faster. I usually look for something interesting place in the room to photograph them but I also ask about certain objects in the room. For example my barbershop image I thought the chairs looked really cool and he said that they were really old and the owner had them restored. The chairs were super heavy but we managed to move them around to make a better photograph. I also really liked one of his co-workers aprons and he told me it was real leather and it is very rare to find those anymore. By being in a unique kind of environment and being generally curious its hard not to make a good photograph because you are just naturally making a connection with your subject with the things around. My little trick is I ask subjects questions about things while I am setting up so I already have a connection with them and they don’t get bored. So when I am ready to photograph that I am one step closer to making a better photograph. By asking questions you are showing them you are generally interested in them and in turn they trust you more because you are trying to understand them. 

4. You recently made an Printique photo book of your work – why was it important to you to print your work?
I made a book for myself so I can have something tangible to view my progress and to show other people. Printing is probably one of the most important things to do with your pictures especially in this digital age. Down the road, your hard drives will fail and you won’t have anything physical of those images. I try and print every couple of months of the pictures of my daughter I take so she can have something to look back on.
5. What’s in your camera bag for portraits? 
My camera bag is fairly standard and simple. I own a 5d mark iii and 90% of the time I use my 50mm 1.2. I have other lenses but that is definitely go-to. My one little secret for outside work especially if it is in bright sun is to use a variable ND filter just to pull the sky down. I can kind of mimic what a leaf shutter would do with the ND filter. Then light with my elinchrom ranger because it has enough juice to light my subject. Actually on my Joker shoot I used the ND filter to make everything look very dark because I was shooting in a garage that had so much stuff in it and I didn’t have money to pay for velvet. So the ND filter has saved my butt a few times.
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I have a bunch of other cameras (polaroids, medium format film cameras, graflex super d) I will take if I have film in them at the time just to break up the shoot. People get excited when you hold a different camera in front of them and sometimes when I shoot digital all the time I feel like I am beating a dead horse. As for lighting like I said, I have an old elinchrom ranger that I bought off of craigslist that is my go too light because it is 1100 watts and I just use either a beauty dish or a softliter.  I have also made my own kino flo lighting rigs from Home Depot sometimes I use those. Also I use the small strip lights from home depot that go in kitchens and those are fun to play with.

To see more of Tom’s amazing work, you can visit his website HERE.