Ben Calhoun Photography
Your photography seems to equally feature both cityscapes and nature shots. How does your approach differ when capturing these two types of photographs? Is there something in particular you look for when shooting an urban setting or a natural scene?
I like to think my approach to shooting cityscapes and nature is similar, if not the same. When I go out into nature to see new places and take photos, I usually like to stop and be still for a moment before even setting up my camera or thinking about how I would photograph the landscape. Taking a moment to listen and experience a place; to create a memory in my head that I can take with me before capturing images to remember it by as well. It helps me to think about what I photograph. I want to create a feeling. What it felt like to stand there and take in a place. In my opinion that translates better into an image I’m happy with. I’m not trying to take the next Google images photo of a place, but rather a memory that is true to what happened.
When I photograph urban settings, I am drawn toward modern architecture and clean lines. I usually like to find a way to turn buildings or lines and designs into more of an abstract image. There are times that I photograph skylines or more than one building, but I like to find ways to capture texts and colors of an urban or city setting. It’s a little more random than the nature approach is. Depends on the day, or reason I am there. Most of the times when I go out to the mountains its approached like an event because of the time it takes to get there, where city stuff can be done in passing or in an afternoon…at least in Seattle.
So many of your photos are brightly lit, with an ethereal glow glimmering across the image. How important is lighting in your work? Is there something about a setting being drenched in sunlight that speaks directly to you? And in other ways, what do you like and/or dislike about taking photographs with dimmer/darker settings?
I am all about dramatic lighting! I love being out in the middle of the day when the sun begins to cast harsh light and dark shadows. I honestly enjoy shooting in a variety of lighting situations. I think there is an assumed love for diffused light when people think about what photographers want. I’ve had people mention things like “oh there’s a lot of clouds! That must be great for taking pictures” and they’re not necessarily wrong. I think working with diffused light is great for taking more even and well-balanced portraits. But when it comes to the style of work that I am aiming for, I prefer to use harsh or direct light for most of the work I do. Again, that doesn’t mean that is the only light I like; I just lean more toward the drastic contrasts and dramatic lighting sources to create more depth.
When taking a photograph with subject matter that contains vivid pops of color, how do you find yourself working to capture an image that is well-balanced? Do you prefer taking images with natural/earthy tones, or images with brighter shades?
I think the colors I lean toward are a lot of vibrant greens and desaturated blues. I have developed a love for highlighting more the colors I see around me. If you would have asked that question a year of two ago, I would have answered the other way. I was living in the Midwest and surrounded by muted earth tones and structures and loved more desaturated images. Now that I live here in Seattle and have done some soul-searching and work to figure out my style, I have found that I have changed quite a bit. My approach to taking photos really comes down to photographing life around me in whatever expression that is. That sounds confusing when I type it out. I aim to highlight how I see the world and the things around me accurately and there is a lot of color and life in that.
How do environmental portraiture and lifestyle imagery differ? What is special about capturing a nature scene versus capturing an image of a person in action?
I guess I see environmental portraiture as portraying a person first and foremost in whatever space or context they are in, or that I choose to photograph them in. If I am being paid to photograph that person, I want to highlight the person first in the composition and framing. But I also want the second part of that story to be the space. I choose locations based on the person. It doesn’t make sense in my mind to photograph a painter of fine art out in the woods or on a mountain. However, if I was photographing someone who loves to hike or explore, I would do that in their context.
Lifestyle imagery can vary depending on the point of the shoot. If I am shooting for a brand or specific product, I want the context to be correct. Another example, because I feel like making another example: I wouldn’t shoot photos for an outdoorsy leather backpack brand inside a clean, plant filled home or apartment. Lifestyle imagery doesn’t always have to be portraits. When it is, I defer to the story I am trying to tell to make sure the context is consistent. I think that’s what it all comes down to. Environmental portraiture - person in their space/contexts. Lifestyle imagery - product or person highlighting the space or product before the person(s). I’m sure other artists would have differing opinions or better explanations.
What made you want to be a photographer? What about the act of taking photos do you love the most?
I started taking photos on my 4th gen. iPod touch with the only purpose being to post on Instagram. I saw images of people doing awesome things like jumping in front of walls and hiking mountains and participating in InstaMeets. It all looked amazing. I wanted an exciting life like they had. And if I’m being completely honest, I wanted to be “famous.” I bought my first camera in 2013 and started teaching myself how to use it. I took so many shitty images. But out of those images, I would find a few that I thought were really cool. So I started trying to just take really cool images. Over time I started to really love all the different things I could create with my camera. I took photos of the stars, long exposures of cars on the highway, friends of mine doing random - artsy things, people on the sidewalk, portraits of people. It all kind of just started happening and I developed a huge passion for using my camera and testing out new ideas. At this point, I don’t do what I do to make people follow me or in an attempt to seek fame. I honestly just love what I do and am blessed to be supported by whomever chooses to follow along.
It feels like such a blur. But here I am, figuring out what I enjoy shooting and going after it. My parents still don’t quite understand that there is a viable career in photography and art, but I’m aiming to prove to them, and other people, that there is. Not there yet, ha!
If you had to describe your photography aesthetic to a stranger who had never seen your images, what would you tell them?
The term story-telling is overused and somewhat cliché…but I guess that’s what I do at the core of my photography. I would probably tell them that I take photos of people in their spaces, and products, and use a lot of contrast. Also, borders, because I’m sightly OCD. I think the borders create a false sense of consistency. They allow me to get away with posting experiments images and styles while keeping my Instagram feed looking clean.
And finally, who are some of your favorite photographers?
I have mad respect for a variety of photographers and artists. People that fully invest and create images that reflect that passion.
Benjamin Heath (@benjaminheath): The guy is a freaking magician. His portraits are impeccable and the stories he shares through images and his Instagram feed are amazing. I’ve taken his Skillshare classes. (If you don’t know what Skillshare is, go look it up. I’ve learned so much through classes in there.) He’s a huge inspiration. If someone who knows him is reading this, tell him to give me a call.
Joel Bear (@joelbear): Okay, so Joel has had a huge impact on how I approach photography. Not only does he create some incredible environmental portraits, but the way he thinks about his career and projects he wants to do has had such an impact on how I think. The ideas he has don’t stay ideas. He tests, and experiments, and makes those ideas come to life through set design, lighting, and movement. Super great dude!
Alex Tan (@jalexandertan): I’ve only hung out with Alex once, but I have so much respect for him. It probably has to do with the fact that he is another young guy from the Midwest (like myself) who pursued what he loves doing. That guy hustles. He just moved to LA and is killing the game right now. Super bright colors and harsh light. The way he poses and directs the subject is so good.
I’m sure there are more. Like hundreds, but these people are high on the list.
Ben Calhoun is a portrait and commercial photographer and visual artist. He lives in Seattle, WA, more specifically the neighborhood of White Center. If it involves good conversations and smaller group settings, he’s usually down to hang out and meet new people.