Brian Kaldorf carefully crafts his complex photo illustrations from components that he photographs separately while sculpting highlights and shadows with lighting. Each concept is sketched out in advance and meticulously assembled into a composite to match his initial vision for the piece.
“I get a vision in my head and do my best to translate it into the photographic medium,” he explains. “I tend to find humor in the everyday, and I try to bring that into the picture-making process. I have a blast creating images, and I want that to come through to the viewer. Every day, I’m thinking about my next picture and how I can build it. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
ASMP: How long have you been in business?
Brian Kaldorf: Six years.
ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?
BK: A little more than seven years ago, I was fortunate to have instructors in school who stressed the importance of an organization like ASMP.
ASMP: What initially prompted you to join ASMP?
BK: A couple of things really, a few of my college instructors were members and the local chapter would often hold informal get-togethers to introduce new members and catch up with old friends. It was and continues to be a great community.
ASMP: What do you consider the most valuable aspect of your ASMP membership?
BK: The knowledge base. I know that I can turn to a fellow member if I have a question or an idea I want to bounce off someone, and not just at the local level. Over and over, the organization has proven itself as a valuable asset in my professional life.
ASMP: What has made you stay an ASMP member since 2007?
BK: The opportunity to help other photographers. I came to photography as a second career later in life and I was very fortunate in that the local chapter had some wonderful members who later became my mentors. I take great satisfaction in knowing that I can return the favor to someone in whose shoes I was standing just seven or so years ago.
ASMP: What is the most important relationship you’ve formed through your ASMP membership?
BK: I’d have to say it would be with one of my first mentors, Richard Kelly. I came to Richard as a pretty green photographer and assistant. I had so many questions and Richard was always there to answer them, and he still is to this day!
ASMP: Do you have a favorite ASMP-related story to share?
BK: I remember going to one of the Strictly Business programs while I was still a student. It was such an eye-opening experience, and it really changed the way I viewed the business side of what I was trying to do.
ASMP: Which ASMP education/advocacy tools do you find most helpful in your day-to-day business and why?
BK: Probably the pricing guides. It can be a difficult thing to determine value and it’s always great to have a resource to validate your thinking.
ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
BK: I specialize in photo illustration, portrait and product photography
ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?
BK: As hokey as it sounds, I’d say my imagination. It’s how this whole thing started. I get an idea or vision in my head, and then I do my best to translate that to a photographic medium. Beyond that, I’d say my camera setups — Phase One digital backs for the studio and some location work.
ASMP: What is unique about your approach, or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?
BK: I think the way I look at things is unique. I tend to find humor in the everyday and I try to bring that into the picture-making process. My postprocessing also lends itself to this approach. When you combine the concept with the style, it works pretty well nine times out of ten.
ASMP: You started your career in architecture, drawing floor plans, elevations and such. What inspired you to transition into photography?
BK: It wasn’t so much inspiration as it was necessity. I was working a nine-to-five desk job in an architecture office and, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, I was quickly dying a creative death. I was into photography and kept doing it more and more, to the point that I was considering going back to school for it. One day I came into the office and the architect I was working for said there just wasn’t any more work. Two weeks later I had enrolled in art school and never looked back.
ASMP: Are you self-taught as a photographer or did you go back to school to formally study photography when changing careers?
BK: I studied photography at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. I got my bachelor of science in photography in 2008.
ASMP: Please talk about the process of changing careers. How long did it take to get your photography career off the ground? How many years has it been since you made the transition?
BK: It took a while. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy and I was determined to do whatever was needed to become successful. I started off assisting other photographers and did that for a few years, which proved to be an invaluable learning ground. One photographer in particular told me it would take a solid three years of doing work I didn’t necessarily want to do before the type of work I was after would start taking hold. His statement proved to be pretty on-the-nose. All in all, I’d say it took the better part of four years before I could comfortably say I was a professional photographer full-time.
ASMP: When creating an image, you first make a sketch to use as a guide for the photography. Does this sketching process come from your architectural career and drawing for a living?
BK: I think so. More often than not, it was just a way for me to get my idea across to whoever was working with me. The drawing aspect of architecture just allowed me to articulate a little better what I was trying to say. These sketches are most definitely not artwork! Most of the time they equate to stick figures, but it gets the conversation going about what I’m trying to accomplish.
ASMP: You say you are passionate about “making” pictures rather than “taking” pictures. What do you consider the major differences between these two activities? Do you ever find yourself inspired to “take” a photographic snapshot rather than making a sketch?
BK: When I first got started, I was taking pictures. The camera would come up to eye level, everything looked good, exposure was correct and the picture was taken. Once I got beyond the mechanics of all that is when I started making pictures. Thought goes into it, concepts are fleshed out and compositions are aligned to enhance the overall feel or mood of the finished image. This is how I have worked for the past five or six years. Recently, however, I’m finding this is changing a little bit. I bought a small mirrorless camera and I’m falling back in love with the simple act of taking a picture. I have two little girls and, right now, there is nothing better in the world for me than running around taking their picture. When I’m photographing them, there’s no real, preconceived concept involved, it’s simply just capturing whatever moment presents itself, which is great.
ASMP: You mention that your passion for building models as a child is still evident in your image-making process today. Are there other activities, skills or behaviors from your childhood that you’ve tapped in your professional career?
BK: The model-making is a big thing. I build my images up the way I used to build a model. Every detail is scrutinized. I’m also a big movie fan so I’m sure that plays into a lot of my style and conceptualization.
ASMP: Most of your images are composites. How long have you been making these types of composite images and what is your primary intent in creating this type of imagery?
BK: I’ve been doing composites since I was in school, so about 2006? That workflow was really born out of necessity. When I first got started, it was difficult to create my ideas given my budget (or lack thereof). Therefore, I had to come up with a way to create on the cheap, so to speak. Learning how to composite allowed me to bring a lot of these ideas to life without breaking the bank.
ASMP: Please pick one of your signature images and describe which element came first, as well as what inspired you to photograph the elements individually and then combine them, rather than creating a single image in-camera?
BK: One of my favorite images (Knife Throwing For Dummies) was a composite. That image in particular would have been expensive to create in-camera, so I composited the majority of it. I started with the main subject, the knife thrower, and then moved on to the girl, and then the target board. The schedules for both of those models were difficult to match up, so they were photographed separately. After that, it was a matter of creating the target, lights and curtains. The target was simple foam core and the curtains I bought at a department store. The floor was from my living room, which I had photographed the day before, and the lights were assembled from a single light bulb photographed in a variety of positions. The other reason for doing things this way was because, at the time, I only had one or two strobes, therefore each image component needed to be lit separately. Now I have the ability to light everything all at once, so the procedure has changed a tiny bit.
ASMP: What cameras and related gear do you use for your composites? Do you have a favorite lens or piece of equipment that you depend on the most?
BK: Right now I’m shooting with the Phase One IQ140 series digital back. It produces a gorgeous file that allows me to push the edge in my postprocessing.
ASMP: What is the most integral part of your process in making your composites? What’s the average time it takes you to complete an image?
BK: It really depends on the images. The most integral part is always staying true to the original concept — without that the images tend to fall apart. On average, a composite can take anywhere from an hour to a day. There have been instances where I’m learning a new technique and in those cases a single image can take a month or more.
ASMP: What is your workflow in making these composite images, to ensure that details such as lighting, contrast and perspectives match up between images?
BK: It’s all by feel. I try to match all of my lighting to the feel or mood of the concept. The sketching certainly helps with all of this. If I draw it out, I can pinpoint perspective and lighting and all the important aspects of the concept.
ASMP: You describe your lighting techniques as painting and sculpting the highlights and shadows. What kind of lighting implements do you use to get these effects?
BK: I use Profoto gear, mainly because of its dependability and all of the lighting modifiers available with that system. I try to be precise with my lighting, so that usually means a lot of gridded lights and a lot of egg crates on softboxes. Because I’m building up the highlights and I like everything tightly controlled, a usual setup for a single portrait can consist of six or seven lights.
ASMP: Your style of photography conveys a narrative story in one image. The images are colorful and fun, but some of your images are monochromatic or black and white. How do you decide when to use a particular color palette?
BK: It depends on the mood of the image and its intent. Certain images just make more sense to me as super-saturated, while others read better as black-and-white.
ASMP: What types of software or digital manipulations do you use to create your composite images? How much postproduction time is required to address details and ensure that images appear seamless?
BK: I mainly use Photoshop for the compositing. Over the years, that software has gotten so good in terms of being able to remove subjects from backgrounds that I really haven’t had a need for anything else. The most time-consuming part is to ensure that everything appears really seamless. That seems to take forever, as I will leave an image alone for a while and then go back to it with fresh eyes days later.
ASMP: Is the post-production work as creative for you as the photographic process?
BK: Absolutely. My signature look doesn’t work for every image. It has to service the concept first and foremost. I can’t shoehorn my style into an image that just isn’t working for it. With that mindset, it can be challenging to come up with something in post that really enhances both the concept and the image. In that regard, everyday is a struggle — which I like. It helps to keep things fresh and always evolving.
ASMP: In 2013 you launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a series of images based on your childhood fears. How much time did you put into promoting this venture in order to not only exceed your original request but your stretch goal? What methods did you use to spread the word?
BK: I planned out the campaign a month before actually launching it via Kickstarter. Once it went live, it was a matter of constantly talking about it over all my social media channels. I wanted people to feel engaged and a part of what I was trying to accomplish. I wanted them to feel like it was a collaboration. When things started to stall out, I would come up with some new goal, which would keep the momentum going. It worked — we raised 25 percent more than our original goal.
ASMP: What is the status of that image series today?
BK: The series is still in production. As of right now I have four of nine images completed. To be honest, when I launched the campaign I wasn’t planning on being as busy photographically as I’ve been. It’s been difficult, but we are slowly getting there. In the end, I’m hoping to have an exhibit of the finished work.
ASMP: How do you market your images — via social media, traditional avenues or both?
BK: I used to do e-mail blasts and postcards, but I never really saw a whole lot of return from that. What’s been effective for me is services such as Wonderful Machine and Production Paradise, as well as having an up-to-date and SEO-friendly Web site. These tools have really helped promote me to clients outside of Pittsburgh.
ASMP: Have you worked much with image series rather than a stand-alone image idea in the past?
BK: A few years back, I created a series based on Alice in Wonderland. It was great fun and also very challenging because I wasn’t sure how to go about doing it. There was a lot of learning on the job to get that series created, both on set and in postproduction, but it was a great body of work in the end.
ASMP: Does the fun and energetic feel of your images reflect your personality as well as your studio environment?
BK: Yes! I have a blast making images and I want that to come through to the viewer. Every day I wake up, I’m thinking about the next picture and how I can build it. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
ASMP: How long have you lived in Pittsburgh? How would you describe the local creative community? Do you find this to be a lucrative place for a commercial photographer to be based?
BK: I have been in Pittsburgh for 14 years now and the local creative community is amazing! There are always gallery shows or informal get-togethers — it’s really inspiring. From a photographic standpoint, I don’t know if it’s necessarily a lucrative place for commercial photography. Put it this way — you could do better, you could do worse.
ASMP: When you photograph on assignment, do you ever create image versions that appeal to you personally but might be outside the shoot parameters? If so, do you include those images in the client’s edit? What kind of responses have you received?
BK: Sure, I’ve run into situations where the original idea just wasn’t working for whatever reason. In those cases, I always try to have a back up concept or idea, something that I can say to my client “Hey, we went for the original plan, it may or may not have worked the way we wanted it to, but I also have this to look at.” When this has happened, my clients have been very appreciative. It shows that I’m bringing something more to the table.
ASMP: What is the most important advice that you’d give a young photographer starting out now?
BK: Just keep shooting. Shoot, shoot and then shoot some more. Shoot through all the mental roadblocks, all the technical stumbles and all the insecurities. It’s the only way you can get proficient at your craft.
ASMP: What projects are you currently planning? Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
BK: Beyond finishing the Kickstarter project, I’m planning on incorporating light painting into a project. I recently backed a very interesting programmable LED wand on Kickstarter (pixelstick by bitbanger labs) that should allow me to come up with some really creative stuff!