Michael Bilotta Photography Blog

A Compositer's Mantra


George Lucas, the film producer/director responsible for Star Wars, pretty much made me want to be in the visual arts single-handedly. It came out when I was still quite young, and the visual effects on the screen were nothing the world had seen before, with a realism that had never been attempted on that scale. I was always interested in the how of things - how did they shoot that, how did they make that effect happen? I got my hands on as many behind the scenes books as I could at the time, and tried to grasp the concept of blue screen compositing and mattes. Several years later,  I find that early childhood fascination with special effects very handy in creating my imagery in the world of photo manipulation. As a matter of fact, the first thing I did when i got Photoshop was learn how to make light sabers!

Below is one of my first Photoshop efforts, making my Star Wars inspired lightsaber effect using my first point and shoot (Canon Digital Elph, 2002).

Photoshop is a wonderful tool, but just like a hammer, you can either make something strong and secure or you can beat it to death and wreck it completely. Most people, myself included, go too far with it when they first start learning it. It's natural. Just like everything though, you gain more skill the longer you use it, and while you hopefully never stop learning, you become proficient with getting the job done as you gather more tried and true techniques into your wheelhouse.

Have you ever seen an older film with horrible matte lines or green fringe around an actor who was obviously shot on a green screen stage? Even the older Star Wars films have some issues with the compositing process, and while they were mainly due to the limitations of the pre digital age, the same issues can come up now if you don't take care to avoid potential problems while shooting.

I have a few "rules" when it comes to compositing, and I realize that not everyone has the means or ability to do the same things I do in the same way, but perhaps they can help just the same.

Rule 1: Shoot with a good camera!

In fourteen years since getting my first digital camera, I have used everything from a cheap point and shoots (my old Canon Digital Elph 2.1), a few entry level DSLRs (Rebel Xti and T2i) and now a full-frame sensor Canon 5d Mk II. I also went from kit zoom lenses to 3 prime lenses, no zoom, fixed length, 24mm, 50mm, 85mm. They serve me well, and in the time between my Rebel SLRs to my 5D mk II, I bought these lenses, and even on the Rebels, the lenses made a big difference in image quality. But everything took a big leap forward with the 5D - a full frame sensor means not only a larger image file, but also a higher quality image with more pixels, and pixels mean information, and information means getting better results with compositing images together. Starting off with a high quality photo makes a huge difference when compositing and creating layer masks.

Rule 2: Never cut someone out and stick them onto a background!

This is the thing I see most often, and most of the time it is noticeable. People have hair, mostly, and hairlines are the bane of the compositor's world. There is simply no good way to realistically cut someone out well, no matter how much time you spend, and have it hold up under close inspection. None of my backgrounds are below the subject - they are on top, with a model shaped hole cut into them. Same thing, right? No, big difference, which leads me to my next rule:

Rule 3: Be a photographer, but edit like a projectionist

If you project something over the model softly, the lines around the model-shaped hole are much more forgiving. What does this mean? Well, I shoot all models on a neutral gray backdrop. The backdrop is lit as evenly as possible, and is fairly brightly illuminated. This backdrop acts as a green screen in terms of keying out the model, but being gray means no color caste, no green or blue fringe around the model's edge's, and it essentially acts like a silver screen in the cinema. Because the background is illuminated and visible, the backgrounds can be "beamed" onto this gray backdrop gently. In other words, the blend mode of the background you want to drop in can be changed from Normal (the default) to something like Overlay or Hard Light. This is very similar to having a projector pointed at a screen with a model standing in front of it. The intensity of the image is greatly reduced as it travels to the screen, and the screen's reflective property assists in regaining the vibrancy of the image.

There are a number of things that can assist compositing from this point that are too lengthy to go into here, and frankly, too boring, but generally, that is what I employ: beaming my background elements over the model shot. I usually approach elements in the built up environments logically too: ground first, sky, if there is a sun or moon I put them behind the sky because, well, that is where they are in nature. Close objects are higher up the layer palette, distant ones closer to the bottom.

Rule 4: Try to always shoot with the same camera and lenses!

There are ways to overcome image quality and parallax distortion discrepancies, but they are a lot of extra steps, and all of them have the potential for blowing your illusion. I shoot all my material with the same camera, the same three lenses. This way, there is a basis of commonality - even if Shot 1 was done in January and Shot 2 was done in July - they are coming from the same source, the same sensor. I would not, at this point, even consider using say, an iPhone snap to blend in with my Canon photos - the quality is just going to wildly different.

Rule 5: Do Not Be Lazy!

There were some shots early on in my conceptual work that suffered from being lazy, or just not sweating the details. There is just no reason for it. Do you think your mask is perfect? Zoom in to 300% and look again. Can you make it better? If yes, but you don't want to, put it away for a day and come back when you are in the mood to really nail it. I have gone in and cleaned up masks using a 2 pixel brush just to make sure that if the image is ever scrutinized or zoomed in, no one will see anything sloppy. Is it always possible to be perfect? No, but try!

Rule 6: Stock Answers are Poor Answers

Is there a reason to use stock images? Sure. Did I used to use them? Yes. Do I now use them? No. Pride is one reason, quality is another. Pride in what you create - that's a big part of it. If my image is of a man on a horse with a killer sunset behind him, and the horse and the sunset is a stock image I pulled off the internet, how much of the end result is mine? Just the man. It's not truly yours. I used to use them, and besides the obvious issues: legality, credit, quality of the image, lighting of the stock image as it compares to yours, there is a sense of accomplishment in taking all the shots needed for a composite - that everything presented was a result of your effort and determination. I used to use them all the time. Then, I modified that to be a sort of unspoken rule: If the stock image is a minor feature in the final piece, then it is okay, but not if it is an important piece. Finally, I stopped using them altogether and now shoot everything myself. Another large part of this is quality. Most if not all images you pull off the internet are heavily compressed jpegs. This means that right away the stock image is going to be low quality compared to my model shot. I shoot in RAW mode only - no compression, and edit them that way too, up to a certain point. A pristine shot from a good camera is not going to blend well with a crappy jpeg from the internet. It just won't. Not under close inspection. If you are not interested in anyone seeing your work in large format or print, then perhaps this compromise is fine, but I want something that will hold up at high levels of magnification. This is a personal choice, and my rule for myself. It does not mean it is right for everyone.

Rule 7: See The Light, But Not Too Much Of It!

When in doubt, always under expose. Always. If I am shooting and I see in my display that something is perfectly exposed according to the meter, nine times out of ten I will find that it is too bright when I go to edit it. There are a host of reasons for this - all technical ones involving camera settings a point selections for metering, but I always play it safe here and shoot under by 1 to 2 stops. When I edit these or prep them in Adobe Camera Raw prior to opening them in Photoshop, I can recover the exposure almost every time and selectively darken or lighten certain channels or aspects of the shot. Information that is not visible in the shot as is, hidden in the shadows, is there. If you overexpose your shot, and have some white-hot blown out highlights, the information is lost and is never going to be recovered. A lot of this depends on the quality of the camera and lenses, of course. I believe all rules are flexible and some don't work for everyone, but this one, in the world of digital photography, is the closest I have to a Golden Rule. Always under expose!

Rule 8: Don't be Afraid, It's Only Light

Too many times I see people describe themselves as "natural light" photographers. This usually means that they have no idea how to use lighting kits in a studio setting. Look, it IS daunting and frustrating when you begin, I agree. But in the end, it is light, and best of all, you can control it! If you only use natural light, in other words, shoot with available light whether outside or inside, you are limiting yourself to shooting at the golden hours: dawn and dusk, or on overcast days only, or ramping up your ISO to destructive levels. It's not that I don't believe you can't do those things and still get great pictures, but why limit yourself? Why wait for the settings to be ideal? You can get what you want indoors at any time. Obviously I have to shoot my environments in natural light - I am not made of money where I have a lighting crew to light up a giant field. But shooting models separately, indoors, means that you can schedule shoots regardless of the weather or light conditions, and get exactly what you want in terms of mood.

If you are interested in what I use for lighting, it is quite primitive:

2 580ex II Canon Speedlites
1 430ex II Canon Speedlite

I use the two 580s with big diffuser boxes: One is a 48" strip light box, and the other is a 60"" Octabox. The 430ex II is in a 24" beauty dish. Usually I use two, occasionally all three. They are all fired together using an ultra cheap set of Cowboy Studio transmitter/receivers. A transmitter sits on my camera's hot shoe, and the receivers are all on the light stands. I press the shutter, and all three fire at once. No wires to trip over, ultra lightweight and with the purchase of several sets of rechargeable AA batteries, fairly inexpensive. All my shoots have so far been in my home's little basement space. Three sets of batteries will last a good 3 hour session, and the gray seamless paper will last 1-5 shoots, depending on how messy things get.

Now, these rules work for me. I have been compositing images in Photoshop for 14 years, and these rules have evolved over trial and error, doing bad composites and good ones. But the thing about rules and Photoshop, there really are not rules - or one way to do something. Whatever works for you is a good way to do things. The preceding information and processes mentioned are the things that give me good results for now, but that could change in a few years!

Just for fun, here are some old composite pieces from several years ago - older cameras and older techniques, and yes, using some stock images! 

Michael Bilotta



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the cult of happiness

This blog entry is surely not going to be a very popular one, and will likely be taken as a defensive posture, but it's been something on my mind lately and since it's not going away, I decided I must say my piece and get it all out. That last phrase, "get it all out" will have some bearing on the words to come, and is at the heart of this blog. We all strive for happiness in life, most of us generally regard the pursuit of happiness to be a basic human right and desire we share in common. I would never say I was contrary to that sentiment or goal, but…

Lately there is a cult mentality forming in the obtuse world of social media which has largely replaced old-fashioned human interaction, and sadly passes for our friendships now. The Cult of Happiness, the Purveyors of Positivity, the Negaters of Negativity. In other words, those that have a zero tolerance policy for anything they perceive to be "negative" or pessimistic. I tend to fall into their radar often, and these are not just casual, online acquaintances, no, some are my friends, some are family members. They criticize anything you post that they perceive to be negative. They offer up advice in replies starting with "you should" or "why don't you…" Unsolicited advice, often.

I see many of my contemporaries doling out the refreshing Kool-Aid of positivity too, as if being a reservoir of good tidings will make people love what you create even more. Perhaps it does, but then, consider your audience, and why they need an idol of happy to warm themselves around. I see people creating art in my genre (for lack of a better term) focusing on their "message" of glad tidings more than their art, and I see their art suffer as a result. This is of course my opinion, and I will never name the names - it's an observation I have had for many months now. I see their desire to be thought of as positive outweigh their focus on their art, and I have to ask why, why is the attainment of "happy person" status more vital to you than your creative work? Who is that serving? Is it all just a marketing strategy? It may well be, and it may be working in the short term, but the more forced your outward appearance becomes, the more it becomes something to maintain, the more your focus is strained away from your art. You are not required to be an inspiration to anyone, and if you are indeed an inspiration to some, it should be as a result of your work, not your words or happy thoughts. Being inspiring should be a by-product, never the goal.

In our modern culture, we see these self-help gurus everywhere: on television, the insipid infomercials, and tome after tome of how to change your life and outlook and level of happiness. it is almost no longer allowed to express any dissension about anything, lest you be branded a malcontent. This puts me in the dubious light of defending negativity, and in a way I am, but only for the sake of rationality, honesty, and reality. But of course, it is also a defensive posture, as I have often been called a Negative Person. This category, this label, is something attached to people by the majority, otherwise known as the bully mentality, and it is no different than terms like happy, jock, ditz, brainiac, nerd, slut, or idiot. By calling someone negative, you are summarizing their entire being into a convenient category, one created by the majority for the convenience of you, the accuser, to organize your life and minimize the randomness.

In terms of art, the demands of the happy produce very little to sink your emotional teeth into. Maybe pretty pictures are okay for some, but I look to art as a reflection of the zeitgeist, the human experience creatively expressed through the changing times and resonating in a fundamental way. Shakespeare, for example, one the most profound writers of our history, produced sonnets, comedies, tragedies, and I am betting that the more popular or more often produced works of his are the tragedies. If you take the cultural phenomenon of "Star Wars" and ask any diehard fans of the first three films which was the best, it would be the second, "The Empire Strikes Back," the tragedy of the trilogy. There were no happy endings in that one, and all the heroes were suffering and darkness was winning. Why are we drawn to the antihero in the arts? Why was "Breaking Bad," "the Sopranos," "the Walking Dead" and even "the Dark Knight" so popular? Why do they endure? Why do they receive such accolades?

Once again, this is my opinion, my take on things, and I say the answer is, well, because tragedy and darkness is the more common experience in the human condition, and happiness is the rarity. Dark art, or tragic art, speaks to our own struggles, our fears, our experiences more than the lighter side of things. We connect to it because it is a shared experience, and in seeing that connection in art - be it visual or song, we feel a deeper connection to the tragedies in our own lives. The Cult of Happiness is around of late because in this epoch of human history we have more free time to ponder, more time to waste, and more time to complain than ever before. It is a luxury, this pursuit of happiness, and many do not have that luxury. Again, I am not opposed to being happy, I just prefer to consider the source of this happiness, and seek the legitimacy of its claim.

Saying you are positive does not make you so. Saying you are happy does not mean you are. Shunning what you perceive to be negative will not eradicate it from your life. Mantras do not work, and cannot be wielded as a talisman against the sadness. I wish it were so, but I am a realist, a pragmatist. I am also an artist, and I think filtering your thoughts is exactly the worst thing you can do to your creative output. We are born into a hostile world. The birthing of a human is pain, the consciousness of the human able to perceive their own mortality is to be afraid, and the crimes both physical and emotional we commit are terrifying. Our history is bloody, our emotions are strong, and we all carry a large amount of stress with us in our lives. How we choose to deal with it is a personal decision, but the role of the artist is to hold a mirror up to society and reflect back creatively how we are.

I choose to examine the darkness in my concepts. I choose to speak of loneliness, the silence of God, the hopes betrayed, the depression I experience. I am a live wire with no insulation - have been since I was a child. It is who I am. But then the Cult looks at my work, my penchant for sarcasm, misinterprets my sense of humor as defeatist, and labels me "negative." What they choose to overlook, or what the strangers in his Cult do not know about me, is that I have a quiet life, have my basic needs met, have a loving partner and a devoted dog, and a fairly satisfying creative life. To say I am happy is not exactly true, but then, those labels of "happy" and "sad," "negative" and "positive" are too simplistic, and I think they are naive. There are things I wish were different, there are things about me I wish I could change. Who doesn't? But this label continues to follow me around, and I decided here to speak to it. You can take your limited information about a person, about me, and reduce it down to a label, or you can examine the whole picture and see what nuances lie beneath.

The truth of the matter is, our need to label someone always speaks more to the person assigning the label than the person they are describing. What you are really saying is "this person is not like me, and I do not like that." It's really that simple. And then you need to peel back another layer and ask yourself "why do you not like that?" What's behind your attractions or aversions? As tempting as it is to reduce things into convenient categories, it's just not very realistic, and batting back the randomness or unseemly in life is only an exercise in futility.

And so here we have social media, where we express our thoughts, share our witticisms, provide our points of view and share things we find funny or disturbing. It is a platform of celebrity wannabes, all of us included, and we have the stage and a potential audience for every post. If you continue this metaphor, you are alone on the stage, a microphone in front of you, and an audience in their seats. What do you say? What do comedians do? Do they express what makes them happy and keeps them satisfied? No, they do not. Comedy is derived from the darker stuff, the stuff we all find maddening, the fights we have, the miscommunications, the push and pull of life. You need to hook your audience, and most of all, you need to be real with them, and not a caricature. You cannot step up to the microphone and list things that make you smile, things that keep you nominal, and only say positive things. That is a different audience, that is an audience looking for answers out of their misery, the self-help flock - exactly the perfect audience for the Cult of Happiness to cater to.

So, for the record, I do not validate the dumb categories in this world, and I refuse to own "negative" or "positive" or any such artificial classifications. You need to term me so, I do not. You need to bat back the darkness, I do not. I am choosing to hold it, to get it out in another form, to hopefully transform it into my art. And you know, in those simplistic terms, I think that is the most "positive" thing you can do with it. As for my sarcasm, it is intended for the audience seeking to be entertained, and if you find my pessimism or "negativity" off-putting, I suggest you may be in the wrong auditorium - the Tony Robbins lecture is in another room. In this room, it's just the truth as I see it, and you might not want to hear it. You don't have to.

As a footnote to all this, recently I saw one of my images shared on another person's wall. The image was shared without the title or the explanatory notes that usually accompany my work, and the comments of the piece shared on another's wall were all decidedly optimistic. The piece I did, at the top of this blog, was about trying for an escape but everything is conspiring against it, and it was certainly a "dark" piece, and yet, depending on who is looking and their own personal outlook, the piece read as optimistic to some. I really loved that - it meant that it was open-ended enough to allow differing interpretations. It meant that for that one image, and therefore me as its creator, I was supplying something optimistic to some, and not only "negative."

Michael Bilotta


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Casualties of the Journey

I have, in the past, posted pieces I had completed that were not published, mainly due to questionable quality or a concept gone awry. This time, I am posting pieces that were not published but I actually like. They are casualties of the journey, the soldiers that brought the idea home by sacrificing themselves along the way! Take this one, for example, the final piece of a process that involved four completed images before settling into what you see here, in "Death In The Afternoon."

The idea was improvised during the shoot, with the model playing with some poses and red fabric. With what he was wearing, his features and hairstyle, these was definitely something Spanish and matador about him, though we did not have a real matador costume during the shoot. When I started editing, I started trying to hone in on this concept and what I could do with it. My first idea was the concept of a young man practicing, training to be a matador, and symbolically what that could mean. I built up two images from the best shots of this "series:"

Sadly, although I like the tonal qualities and poses of these images, they didn't sell the idea successfully. Why was he practicing in a field? Why indeed - I do not have shots of a bull ring, so that was not going to be possible. Gradually, the concept evolved into the bullfight as a metaphor - learning to fight, the fight as a dance, the fight as growing up. That idea gave me this piece, with the working title "Learning to Fight:"

Now, I really like this image - I like the colors, the overall flow of it, so why not post it? Well, despite the concept being there, the pose is fairly static, placid, and the knives do not seem much of a threat, so this warrior in training seems a little inept, a little too posed, where more motion and action would work better. I wish I had those shots to do over, but I don't, so this one was left on the sidelines.

At this point I had three images with none of them exactly working well enough to sell the idea. Once i merged elements of both, I pretty much got my intent completed, using the pose from "Learning To Fight" and the field and environment from the Matador pieces:

It takes a lot of restraint and discipline to hold something you work on for a long time. I used to post anything I completed, and over time, I started removing the clunkers from my online portfolios, to publish only ones that I was confident with and proud of. Nevertheless, when you spend days working on something to make it as good as it can be, it's hard to put them in the folder and tuck them away. Especially these, which I classify as "close calls." So at least they can appear here, on this blog, as a little evolution of an idea, and how it got from beginning to end.

Thanks for reading and watching!

Michael Bilotta
March 3, 2014



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Low Tide (on going silent)


It's been a few weeks since I posted anything, and about two weeks since any finished work has emerged, so I thought I would write something to fill in the blanks a bit. I tend to write these things in first draft mode - unplanned, unmapped, and extremely stream of consciousness, but I do try to structure at least a little bit, so it reads a little less like the meanderings of a diary. Always the context should be about the work, the art, so I will try to keep that mind, but most of the last few weeks have been devoid of art, and this is what I will focus on.

There is a party line in the world, in the arts, that you have to maintain a steely exterior, an iron clad confidence that makes you indifferent to criticism and negative reactions to your work, but I have never been much for parties. The point is, things get to me, even if they are temporary, even if I don't respect the person from which the reaction is emanating. It is always amazing to me how a run of misfortune seems to multiply, straining the resolve of a person to the breaking point. This month has been that for me. I am not made of steel, and I am not immune to negative feedback, even if the consensus of all creatives out there is that I should be.

To find the reason for this sensitivity would be arduous, and this is not meant to be a self-indulgent therapy session, but the sensitivity is there, and I don't understand how an artist can claim to be immune to negative feedback and still be an artist - the very nature of an artist should and does contradict this tough posturing. I suppose that confidence and self-worth play into this equation too, so perhaps there are others that find dismissing these "attacks" easier than I do, but regardless of where anyone else is on the scale, I feel them, and I react to them.

Contributing to my low tide this month, and leading up to the crest and the break, is a run of personal problems that I will not delve into deeply, but suffice to say, it's all "real world" stuff: money, family issues, seasonal depression, employment, and the bitter cold and weather that seems to keep me housebound more than I should be. Then a few other things, from the artistic side of life: good material is in short supply now: model shoots are needed, but no money to do them, environment/scenics are needed, but the weather and the locations seem to conspire against those things being obtained. Each piece gets harder and harder to complete because I am working with some pretty severe limitations of material at this point. There is nothing wrong with taking some time off - indeed, I should, given my prodigious output of recent months, but the problem with that is I like doing this, so not doing it is beyond frustrating to me, and it makes me feel empty not to have something to work on.

And then came some negative comments about my work. In the last few weeks, I have seen comments like "artless," "soulless," "depressing," "empty," and criticizing my choice of colors, my cropping, everything. One even likened one of my pieces to a moment in a rock video, meaning nothing, with no artistic merit. Of course these people were emboldened to rip me apart safely in the land of internet anonymity, and of course most of these people have nothing of their own work on display - I have been down this road before, and I know that those types are out there, lurking in the cyber shadows. But no matter the source, this kind of attack gets through, and plants a seed of self doubt in me, and I go into shutdown, into a period of self-assessment and analysis.

I am confident enough about my work - I like to think I am pretty good at looking at it objectively, and I spend an enormous amount of time avoiding laziness and trying to make things as well as I can. I want my pieces to mean something - I don't want simply a pretty picture, and I don't want to create nonsense. I know when I am finished something that regardless of how successfully conveyed the meaning is, there IS meaning in it, and I put it there deliberately. It is quite a lengthy process to gradually form an idea and visually represent that idea. Some come easier than others, and yes, some of them are not my best work - everyone is capable of creating duds, and I am no exception to that. But I know that there is some measure of integrity in all of them, some attempt at symbolic meaning and communication at their core, and so my integrity does not feel this attack, but my humanity does, my skin, my desire to be appreciated, which we all have no matter our bluster and noise to the contrary.

One of the pieces that came under particularly harsh attack was one of my personal favorites, and it was one that was days in the making, and also one that required me to do it twice, as the original file became corrupted and I had to start all over again from the beginning. That it was completed at all was a test of my patience, and my desire to see it through and make it work was a personal victory for me, since I am not known for my patience in life. It was stuffed with meaning, symbolically of course, and I thought it held together quite nicely. During a curation process, the piece was appraised without title, without my explanatory notes. And it was attacked.

I live in my own world artistically. In visual arts, as in music, when I was a songwriter, I don't really absorb a lot of work from others while I create - that can lead to copying ideas, so my development is measured internally, by me, and the body of work becomes a progression, a personal one, like raising a child and seeing all the iterations of that child throughout its development. It is a key motivator for me - this desire to see things through, to see where it could go and how good it could get along the way. There is never a destination really, it is a journey, it is developing a muscle, and your strength relies on perseverance. Since what I do is neither straight photography or painting, but somewhere in between, I have to post my work somewhere online, and most of the places it resides are photography sites.

Photography can indeed be an art form, but not all photographers are artists, or even artistically inclined. Some of them wouldn't know a work of art if they fell onto it from 20,000 feet and were impaled by it. With great disdain some of them view my work and call it over-processed, artificial, and they become almost hostile when they have no idea what it means or what it is trying to say. And so the scathing comments come. But after my initial reaction of being hurt, it occurs to me that these people are utterly incapable of looking at anything that isn't cut and dry, and they require, insist really, on being spoon fed. Naturally, something surreal would irritate them. Of course something symbolic would perplex their literal and narrow minds.

This amounts to a pep talk, and something I try to tell myself when I see these comments. But the initial attack has done its damage, and eventually my desire to create something will override their hateful words, and output will resume. It is just very unfortunate timing that it comes now, when everything else is low, everything else is hard, and for the one constant in my life, my creative output, to be harped on now is just too much. Even if it is momentary, even if it is unqualified, you start to view your work through their eyes, and suddenly you question your talent, your ability, and all seems rather pointless and futile. Even if this lasts a day, it is damaging. Even if you have lots of positive support outweighing the negative, the bully in your life will always cut the deepest. Why? Because bullies are the only one carrying the knives. Because the part of you that resides in all of us that doubts, that feels worthless, is awakened by these bullies, and that part temporarily takes the foreground when it should be left dormant and inert.

And so I am climbing out of the hole slowly, and trying to resume. I am often dismayed by being labeled so often as "negative." I would never say to anyone something so harsh as I have seen about my work directly, even if I felt it. I like to think I at least try to see something redeeming in people's artistic expression, but if I really don't like something, I would not set out to inform them of this. It astonishes me that there are people who feel compelled to do so, and further confirms my suspicions that most of humanity is savage, most should be kept at arm's length.

To the purist photographers out there who hate what I do, you should know that, besides being a complete hypocrite, what you do and what I do are worlds apart. What I display is not something I captured or documented, something approaching voyeurism often, but it is the result of willing something into existence, and I am not at all interested or aspire to capturing something real or as is. I am not a reporter, I am not a documentarian. I am an artist, and what you do is more akin to hunting, and I don't really care. It is why I prefer fiction over biography, films over documentaries, scripted shows over newscasts. There is nothing interesting in that realm for me. I don't need to spend any more time in the real world, I am forced to be in it daily. I want the surreal, the fantastical, the impossible and the dream-like. I want the message to be delivered allegorically, not plainly. And if you are perplexed by what I am trying to say, or feel I am saying nothing at all, then maybe the void that you experience is really your own inability and unwillingness to find meaning in something that isn't literal.

I realize not everything I do will be great, or good, and not everyone likes the same thing. My tolerance of those differences needs work, certainly, but clearly not as much as some of my contemporaries, given the misery they felt so free to unleash. Kicking while someone is down is probably the least attractive quality in the human condition, and one that makes me feel very apart from it, and alone. I am not a saint, certainly, and I have strong opinions, but not everyone needs to know your opinions.

The last time I got some form of artistic rejection, I created a piece as a reaction to it, letting my current and raw feelings seep into it, and certainly it was a piece created out of anger, out of self-defense. Perhaps it is bad form to do so, but then again, if I am being honest with myself and my work, then why not show that too? I have a feeling the experiences of this awful month will find their way into the next round of imagery, whenever they may come, and I think I will let it be, and give it voice, as I have here now. Why not? What good is an artist that tempers what he does, that restricts and edits the raw material, that worries about the party line and falls in line with the rhetoric most seem to value? I am not interested in that.

Perhaps my explanatory notes that accompany the images will cease in the future, given the revelations of this month, it seems that too many don't want to work hard or even a little to glean the meaning in something, and want it all laid out for them. Maybe I am doing myself a disservice by writing the notes, and should let the pieces speak for themselves, though I do enjoy writing them.

For those of you out there who may have read this, who may also create art, I hope this connected with you, and you should know that it's okay to be sensitive to the negative comments you may receive, and to desensitize yourself is unnatural if you want to be an artist. Artists need to be sensitive, perhaps hypersensitive. It's unfortunate though that the world at large is so overrun with the insensitive and cruel.

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Going Down the Path of Thorns

This piece began life, as ever, with a simple model shot and pose, and then, weeks later while editing, evolved into a meditation on the deaths in Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius covered the city and all its occupants in ash, preserving them seemingly frozen in time at the point of their death. Ash I could do, roman architecture and volcanoes, well, those items are in short supply in my area. This sat around for weeks until I decided to scrap Pompeii and see what else this pose, which I really liked, could become.

Two aborted trips to gain new environmental material and an old Sarah McLachlan song became the sources for what you see now.  Winter in New England is a damnable thing - you never know what you are getting with the weather from one day to the next. I went out twice in the hopes of getting some new places shot, only to come back empty handed. I got a corn field in winter, cut down to the quick, and on the second trip, almost nothing - a few shots of some branches and a bit of a barbed wire fence.

I have always been a big believer in great titles and try to come up with good ones. Growing up, there are more than a few songs, albums and books I bought solely on the title alone - if they were image-laden, if they were alluring, I was hooked. Once you start writing your own work (I am a songwriter as well), you begin to realize that a title is not enough - or, if you have a killer title, you damned well better deliver the promised goods. Case in point, this title, by Sarah McLachlan. I remember this song only in passing - I remember seeing the album in the store, "Solace," and reading the titles of the songs. "The Path of Thorns" - oooh that sounds rich!  Thorns make me think of Biblical things (Jesus and his crown of thorns) being an ex-Catholic, and you can see in your mind's eye wonderful imagery with a title like this. I never did buy the album for some reason, but I never forgot the title.

Who knows why things are dredged up from your psyche and what it all means, but now, almost twenty years since that album came out or more, the title came to me as something I should explore doing in my work. Thorns…hmmm. Well, I could go to a flower store and buy some roses, but who needs the expense? Besides, thorns are so literal a thing, and rose thorns would likely be too small for what I wanted. I had my barbed wire though, from the failed trip to shoot scenery. Certainly in the thorn family, albeit man-made. I added the wire into the model and built up a suggesting of a barrier in front of the model with it. I added the decimated cornfield right over my Pompeii ground layers and then things started clicking. The crucifixes were a no-brainer; thorns will forever be associated with the Bible in my mind, so an icon like the cross not only gave me some ominous cemetery subtext, but also pulled this into a commentary about my stance on religion in general - the depleted cornfield, the symbol of death that is the cross, and the barbed wire all created, in my mind, a symbolic path of thorns - a path to pain, restriction, emptiness and ruin. This led to me adding a bit of blood on the model to imply his attempts at navigating this barbed wire barrier, and also gave me a color scheme to aim for - for some reason, and again, who knows why, I associate purple with church.

I decided at this point to actually listen to the song I was using the title of, and check out the lyrics of it to see what tidbits of inspiration could be gleaned from it. I was pretty disappointed with what I found, and this goes back to my position on having a great title and backing it up with the goods. It turns out that this song, certainly a nice song, nice melody, well sung, is…a love song, or rather, a relationship song. What a huge disappointment. You have "the Path of Thorns" and all you can think of is a complicated relationship? The title is referencing only one line in the song, and is not the "real" title at all. It is, if you follow the pop song biology and let the music and structure dictate the central theme, "Terms of Endearment." I can see why she would choose to not use this, but in my head, I expected an epic, image-laden, almost mythical journey with a title like that, and not some disappointed lover moaning about the loser who let her down. You only get one "Path of Thorns" to use in your career, so you need to make it count! When you use iconic language like "path" and "thorns" those things need to be present, otherwise you are just false advertising, luring people in with promise of "the greatest show on earth" and delivering to them one single sad clown.

I don't mean to tear her down - I don't hate Sarah, I even have a couple of her albums, and regard her as a good songwriter generally. But you don't use an epic title like that and reduce it to a moan about disappointing paramours! Clearly, this song was not going to help or be connected to my image at all. What does one think of with a path of thorns as a concept? Well, certainly a dangerous path, a path of pain, strife, peril, but you also have to think about the starting point of the journey as well as the destination - where is this path going to? And this is what I spent wondering about in the three days this image took to complete. If religion is my path of thorns here, where is it leading to? Well, nowhere, actually - my model is stopped, wounded, naked and alone. All this fire and brimstone you get from the Bible can only lead you to cold comfort, which is really no comfort at all. It demands of us linear, practical, sensory dependent people to believe in the unsubstantiated, to believe in the scientifically impossible, and to trust that which has never been seen or heard. It demands abstraction and yet wants to be taken literally. It boasts peace, yet wages wars to get it. It divides more people than it unites.

I could go on, but this is all my point of view on the topic, and need not be yours. Therefore, my path of thorns is a personal one - a person at the point of losing his faith after getting stabbed a few times with these "thorns." He is entangled in them, will have scars from the experience, and hopefully will get off this path once he is strong enough to lift himself up, shake off his disillusionment, and find comfort elsewhere.

Ironically, or at least symbolically, this path of thorns became a bit of life imitating art for me. It's hard to convey all this in a blog, but you hit certain crossroads and roadblocks as you produce artwork. I just did some pretty strong pieces, personal high points for me, all in a row, and when they come out one after the other like that, you tend to build up anxiety about the inevitable brick wall you will face. this cycle of prolific output and then a crisis of dry spell has happened before and will again, but it is never easy getting to that point - the trudging through it, surviving it, is a miserable pain in the ass, and always will be. Over the course of two years, I have been developing my own techniques, my own way of achieving a look I like, and now that engine is humming along quite nicely - I could do this approach indefinitely. But that is not growth, and treading water like that eventually creates a mini crisis in your mind - will I ever do anything new or am I a one-trick pony?

I am speaking mainly, in terms of this image, about color. Being a colorist is a huge part of what I do - most of my raw shots of the models are devoid of strong color, being shot on gray paper and most of the models wearing dark clothing or nude. I have developed a way to apply color for my pieces and it is now almost a method, a process. After a while, you begin to ask, is there nothing more? Is it only just red, green blue, violet, orange and yellow? It was almost becoming, "well, I think I have done too many blues lately, let's go yellow!" I spent most of one day trying new ways to color this piece, and threw out the tried and true method. This piece will be stored in my memory now as the one that showed me a few new techniques to apply color and dynamics. Will I be able to use them again? Who knows, but the point is I learned something new to try, and my bag of tricks is a little more robust for the journey. Also, I feel the guilt of relying on my one approach has abated now, I can be reassured that I don't need to churn out carbon copies over and over, that there are other ways of doing things.

Did I deliver an image worthy of the delicious title? Well, that is a matter of opinion, but at least the flavor of it is there, and not some lamentation of love going wrong, and I would rather reach for the grand and mythical and be accused of missing the mark than downplay the intent with a throwaway title like "beware the barbed wire fence!"



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2013 - the year in review


I ended last year with a blog post called "a Year in Review" which was rather long and ponderous, covering nearly everything I did in the world of art photography as well as some biographical information. This year will be different - basically because more things happened, strange as that seems!

The list would be something like this:

I shot 11 model shoots this year (6 models, three of them more than once)
I was published in magazines for the first time
I had images stolen from me online
I won a Photography Competition
I gained a much larger audience online
I finally got a workflow together with a printer I liked
I sold an image as a book cover
I sold some images to a magazine
I self-published a photo collection book (in two formats)
I created my most popular images to date

Not bad right? Well, it's easy to list these things in hindsight in a bullet list and pat yourself on the back, but if anything useful is to be gained from a blog post like this, it is in the details and not in the broad strokes. So off we go…

Shooting models is essential to me as I don't enjoy doing self-portraits at all. This year I learned that quality is of course better than quantity and stopped fretting about getting a fresh face for every shoot. Mind you - I DO look for new models from time to time - I think it is healthy, but more and more I have come to really value the contributions of those that gave me their time and energy, and decided to not worry about using them more than once. Of course a large part of this is due to their talent in front of the camera, and I think I really do put my models to task - it cannot be easy - I give them almost no indication of what we are going for because most of the time I do not know myself. They must improvise, they must trust me, and above all, as most of them pose nude as well, they must be utterly comfortable with themselves. Comfort is a big factor for me as well - I am incredibly nervous going into a shoot - akin to stage fright, and working with a model more than once makes this so much easier. I have gained something useful and created some really strong images with everyone I have work with so far, and my hopes of creating a little stable of recurring models seems to be forming. If I have not done so publicly before, I would like to thank sincerely all the models for 2013: Ed, Gilberto, Mike, Edward, Felix, Zack, and Luis.

Being published in a magazine is a big deal and I won't downplay it (too much) but I find as I get older, these benchmarks are less exciting but nevertheless satisfying. It meant that this year I could finally say I was a published photographer. First it was an online magazine called JC&Art Elite, which does print copies as well, and then I had two pieces published in the UK magazine Practical Photoshop - one being a breakdown of one of my images layer by layer. It was great to see that on the printed page, and even a thumbnail of the article on the cover! I will cover the next magazine in more detail in the a section dedicated to competitions, but I was also published in a biannual literary journal called Camera Obscura Journal, having one one part of the competition and receiving Honorable Mention in another. That was pretty gratifying too. On the site 1x.com, a curated site that chooses what they publish, I had many pieces granted publication and they even contacted me to tell me that one of my pieces was going to be published in the annual yearbook! It's a beautiful collection, and one I am proud to be a part of. They also produce a how-to tutorial book once a year and I will have an image/write up in that as well, though it seems like it will be available in 2014 at this point. Finally, in November and December, I was published by way of selling three images to Healthy Living Magazine - one image in the November issue and two in the December issue. A nice way to end my first year being a published photographer! 

Being stolen is certainly a horrible thing to experience, but on the bright side, it must mean you are doing something right too. Early in the year I found a few of my images on Tumblr, and while I was credited, the images were altered to black and white. I am not a huge fan of black and white, and I think it is beyond shitty to alter someone's intended presentation without consent. Since then I have been vigilant, and had to reduce the size of my posted photos online and insist on watermarking them everywhere they go. If is not enough though - this past summer, I discovered a site was using two of my images on their Facebook page - one heavily altered as their logo! The other was being used for some contest promo. I got pretty heated, but managed to get them to take them down, and they responded in kind and with respect, so all was well. Still, I do now make periodic sweeps of the online universe to see where my babies are going, and who is doing what. This has nothing to do with sharing - those that share images from my site and credit accordingly are beyond kind - this sort of thing helps me by growing an audience and I am over the top appreciative of those that like my work enough to share it!

Two competitions were payoffs for me - or so I thought. Late last year I won a slot with Canon's Project Imagination and this year the press started for that. I got a few mentions in local papers, and I suppose wherever the press releases from Canon wound up my name was mentioned but…it didn't really make much of an impact. Sure it's nice bragging rights, sure it's cool and there was a little prize money in the form of Canon Online dollars (new lens, thanks very much). By the time the competition culminated in October in a film festival with the films that were inspired by the winning photos, I was pretty unphased by it - after all, it was nearly one year since entering the thing - and then, when I finally saw the film my image was supposedly incorporated into, I was…annoyed. The film was not inspired by anything - it was a vanity project of the celebrity director/star. I saw not even the slightest hint of my image used, or even some of the others, and I was kind of disgusted with the whole thing. I will likely not enter it again unless the direction and concept of the competition changes in the future. The other win was the Camera Obscura Journal's annual photo competition. I won 1st place in the Amateur category, and Honorable Mention in the Professional category. I was happy to receive this news, but upon seeing the magazine in print, a tad disappointed that the photos were interspersed with nary a mention about the photographers - no write up, no bio, nothing. The focus of the publication is short stories, so the Photography section is really just an aside. Still, bragging rights in a quality publication - I am pleased! 

Last November I had about 100 followers on Facebook. Flickr, my mainstay for publishing photos, was my largest audience, but it would sometimes take one week before a new image was viewed 100 times. By the end of this year I should be at 20,000 Facebook followers and now my photos on Flickr reach 100 views in the first hour or so of release. Progress indeed. This was not divine intervention though - it was work and planning, and even some money. I made sure to release new images at least once a week - a grind at times - they do take me a long time to create - and I made sure my blog was updated at least once a month - that can be hard to keep up too. I even did some paid ads on Facebook to get the word out - and it worked really well. Now I can ease off that and let the rest happen by word of mouth hopefully. Paid ads are nothing to be ashamed of - it means you believe in yourself and you want an audience for your work. Any artist that claims they don't is lying. Getting likes on Facebook is do-able by paid ads - keeping them and growing them is up to you and your work. As draining as it can be, I am on Facebook daily trying to find ways to grow my audience. I share on various pages, I make contacts and virtual friends with fellow photographers, and all that plus keeping fresh material coming has really paid off this year. Is it catapulting me to photographer stardom? No, not yet - but you never know - a year ago I had no followers and had never been published.

Turning my work into fine art prints proved to be quite a saga his year, and none of it was resolved or working until the middle of the year. I won't bore you with the blow by blow, but my goal was to find a relatively small printing house that I could work with to get my prints to look like I intended and using the finest paper and archival inks. I must have tried five printers in 2013 until I finally have it going in the right direction now - and they look great. The goal for next year though is to find buyers for them - these prints are expensive to produce and I cannot sell them at cost - so I need to attract an art buying audience - for now, these prints are ready to go, but priced as art, so, ummm, they are not exactly going! 

Designing book covers and record sleeves was a childhood dream of mine, and in 2013, I got both! Sort of. I started being a contributor to ArcAngel Images last year - they are an image house that markets primarily to book publishers, and this year I finally got one sold - a Polish novel used it. And with all the handsome and attractive models I work with and have in my portfolio, who did they go with? Me! There are very few conceptual pieces using my face, but one of these apparently fit the bill, so my face is apparently on racks across Krakow now! I was also contacted by a composer who wanted to use one of my images for his original music project, so now I have, albeit virtual and electronic,  my second childhood dream come true - an album cover. Thank you to ArcAngel Images and to Richard Ames Music for making these events happen this year!

Late in the year, as I have already mentioned, I sold three images to Healthy Living Magazine. Sold, as in, I was paid. I cannot begin to tell you that these checks, while small and not something I can quit the dreaded day job over, meant more to me than anything I have been paid for before. They were purchased as is, not by decree, and apparently worth using to them. This is significant to me - I do not want an assignment-based portfolio - I want my work to be what it wants to be - and if someone finds value in what I do, well, how can I be anything but happy about that?

Doing my own book was not exactly a priority this year, it was maybe something relegated to the future wish list, but given that there are ways to self-publish books now with printing done as needed, and not in bulk, I decided to get a collection done and take a chance. I was really pleased with the results - I chose a good grade of paper and did a nice, large collection of 55 images with their accompanying notes, all in an image-wrapped hardcover presentation. Of course, being rather verbose, these write-ups and editing them proved to be the hardest part - I had to self-edit, and often cut down the original texts to a more manageable size. This meant cutting out a lot of the technical background information on the images, but that was fine - I would rather present them as conceptual works and not focus on the technical when it comes to doing an art/photography book. Of course, given the materials used and the size of the book and the page count, this tome is rather expensive to even produce and at a very modest percentage for profit, it is not exactly priced to fly off the shelf! I decided to do a smaller, softcover version with no notes, and added 20 additional images to it. So, now i have two books to display my wares. I am proud to have it in my home, and even more proud that some actually purchased it and have it in theirs now!

There are a few ways you can get some big numbers on some of these web sites like Flickr and 500px.com: Editor's Pick, for example, or being "explored" on Flickr. This means you get thousands and thousands of views. I have never gotten either of those, and at times it bugs me. I drove a lot of traffic to Flickr this year - over half a million views, and yet none of mine have ever been picked up on Explore. On 500px, I get most of my images up to "Popular" status, usually topping out at the mid 90s percentage-wise, and still no Editor's Pick. In theory those boons would get me a much larger audience, but for whatever reason, it has not yet happened. Still, some of my images from this year have gotten some impressive numbers, all things considered. My top five images on Flickr were all created this year. I will show the top five below. One image really got a helping hand from the band Duran Duran. I created an image using one of their song titles, "Is There Something I Should Know?" This song's video had some connectivity to the idea I was trying to convey, and on a hunch, I sent it to them via Facebook. They posted it on their page and I had one really great evening of thousands and thousands of views. So, thank you Duran Duran!

It's been a good year; as much as I can complain about some things, I really can't or shouldn't. Things are growing, and moving in the right direction. Most important to me though is the work itself, and I am happy that this growth coincides with my personal growth and satisfaction of the images i create. I won't say that there have not been some clunkers this year - there have been - but much less so than the prior year. I created over 100 new pieces this year, and most of them are in what I consider my portfolio, which would represent my personal best work. There have been creative slumps, frustrations, sure, but the highs this year greatly outweighed the lows.

And on that note, a good one, I will say goodnight and thank you to all who read this, to all who encourage me, and to all who helped me make 2013 my best year so far.

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Building the Top of the City (layer by layer)

This layer by layer tour is done from the ground up. That means every layer shown is from the bottom layer upwards.

As always, this image was built with no preconceived ideas when it was shot. For the past few model sessions, I have been playing with this bench. It's simple in design, and I thought adding some architecture for the model to interact with could yield some ideas. This is how the raw shot looked:

Once I decided to remove the legs of the bench, it was just a matter of painting out the legs with a color similar to the background gray. It doesn't need to be perfect, because the gray area is going to serve as the layer mask selection:

Since i know that my process will deepen the saturation of colors, I add an adjustment layer of Hue/Saturation and reduce the red and yellow channels, bleaching out the body of the model:

I add the sky over these layers, and use a blending mode of Hard Light. Once I select the gray around the model layer completely using the Magic Wand, I switch to the sky layer and click "Add Layer Mask." The mask is still rough around the edges though, so I paint edit the hair line with a very soft brush, blending the layer mask into the hair. I also paint out the area where my cityscape will go:

I duplicate the sky layer and change the blend mode to "Screen" and reduce the opacity to about 20%. This gives the sky a little more light and airy quality:

I create a second copy and move the position of it around to fill in a few more clouds on the upper part of the frame. You can do this without affecting the mask position by unlinking the mask before moving the sky itself:

Next I add a sun spot. This is a 3-layer white elipse I have created a while ago and use repeatedly because it works well enough:

As you can see above, the sun is pretty much over the model's face, so to tuck it in a bit, I copy the sky layers mask and paste that mask onto the sun layer. I feather the mask significantly so some of the light naturally falls over the hair line:

Next comes the cityscape. This is an older shot from five years ago of San Francisco that I took with an older camera of lesser quality, but since I am going to be blurring it anyway, the resolution variance won't be much of an issue. I switch it to black and white and lay down the layer with a blend mode of Multiply. This is a darkening of the original shot, but since it was very washed out in noontime light, I want it to be a little deeper. I paint out the sky of the city shot so my sky shows through:


Another copy is made of the city layer, and this one is changed to a blend mode of Hard Light. This gives more detail and definition to the city:

Lastly, another copy of the city is made overlaid with a blend mode of Screen with the opacity turned way down. This gives a suggestion of haze:

Speaking of haze, since I wanted my image to be high up in the clouds, I add a layer of haze over the model too. This is done by another cloud layer (a diferent one) which is blurred significantly and overlaid with a blend mode of Screen. The opacity is turned way down, and the lower half is painted out. I also add in a system of zeppelins drifting by. I say a system because It is a combination of a shot of a miniature model, a layer mask, and several little lights painted over it. This is saved as a group, and the group is multiplied as many times as needed:

Next comes color. I wanted this to be a warm, sunset color, so I started with an orange/yellow solid overlaid with a blend mode of Color with an opacity of about 10%:

The color is a little greenish, so to offset it I add another solid, this time purple, with the same blend mode and opacity. This gives it a washed out sepia tone:

Since the last few steps of my workflow deepen the saturations overall, I add an adjustment layer of Vibrance and reduce the saturation and vibrance a bit:

Next, I wanted to close in the composition a bit and give more focus to the model. To do this, I add an elliptical vignette. To do this, I add a black solid layer and punch out a circle centralized circle. The remaning black is blurred greatly, the opacity is reduced, and the blend mode is set to Multiply. It's subtle, but the last two steps will deepen it a bit:

The last two steps are adjustment layers of Levels and Curves. First, Levels are used to punch up the mid tones and the highlights. This really intensifies the sun:

The last step is curves, giving a heavy amount of contrast. I used a preset of Heavy Contrast on this layer. This is the final look:

A note about hairlines: By shooting my models with interior lighting against a gray background, I never have to suffer the agony of cutting out hair lines, or models for that matter. The model is not cut out of his backgound - instead, everything is laid over the model shot, and the blend modes simulate a projected image on a silver screen (the gray background). This means that all I have to clean up is the hair line and I can paint loosely over the hair with the sky layer. It means every strand of hair is accounted for and nothing is jagged:

The neutral gray background makes selections for layer masking much easier. With a few clicks of the magic wand, I get an almost perfect layer mask that stands up even under closeup scrutiny:

I hope you enjoyed the little layer tour. If you have any specific questions, please feel free to write me a message!

Michael Bilotta
November 26, 2013



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