Once in a while you just meet those people who have “it”. You know what I am talking about. Those people who are down to earth, honest and who don’t seem to have a harsh bone in their bodies. I like people like that. They tell you how it is rather than trying to present a false image of themselves. I was spending some time on twitter the other day and somebody suggested that I check this guy out. I took a look at his images and they were really great. Then I read some of his blog posts and I was hooked. Nathan Elson is one of those down to earth people. That is why I wanted to interview him. So I did. Here you go!

I go by Nate and I’m based out of Calgary, AB. I specialize in environmental portraiture, but more bluntly, I’m known for combining edgy/awesome locations with a mix of natural and artificial light to create photos with a lot of snap to them. From a photographic perspective, I’m obsessed with light and how you can use it to create shape and texture. Photographically that’s what I live for. From a personal perspective I’ve never been big on trying to describe on a website who I am as a person (or been very good at it for that matter), so if you’d like to get to know a little more about me, drop me a line using the contact form and we can chat.

CC: You have some really great environmental portraits. What kind of conditions or places are your favorite?

I can’t say so much that I have a favorite kind of place to shoot, but what I do love is when I take a client somewhere and they look at me like I’ve lost my mind, then they freak out with excitement when they see the result of my mix of lighting and composition. The usual comment is, “oh my god…that doesn’t look anything like it does in real life!”. I thrive on showing people what I see vs what’s just there.

CC: Sometimes we as photographers go through creative ruts. How do you get out of those ruts?

It’s actually crazy timing that you asked this question because I recently found myself in a rut where I didn’t even take my camera out of its bag for 3 weeks. I find my creative ruts come when I spend too much time shooting for everyone else, and not enough shooting for just me. I love my job, and I love the kind of photos I get to take for my clients, but it’s similar to something like owning a shop building custom cars, you love doing it, but working on your own car is what brings you the most enjoyment / inspiration, and I’m the same way with photography. My personal work is what most clients tend to be drawn too, and that’s because that’s where I can take more risks and make more care free mistakes, which of course is what we learn the most from. Anytime I don’t feel like taking out the camera, it’s because I haven’t shot enough for myself, and of course there is a quick fix for that.

CC: I noticed that you teach workshops in Calgary. What is your favorite part about teaching workshops?

I’ll actually be teaching my first full blown workshop On Feb 12, 2011 here in Calgary, AB, which is the result of being asked to speak at the 2010 Digital Photo Expo about my use of on-location lighting. The Expo was basically me showing my work, and explaining the process of how I took my photos to roughly between 75 – 100 photographers in a large room. My knees were literally shaking as I did it, but I also had a blast, and the coordinators of the Expo got a lot of requests from the attendees to have me do something a little more extensive, which turned into me with 50 photographers in a studio talking about lighting for a few hours. After that there was more requests for a full on workshop, and voila, on Feb 12th I’ll be spending an afternoon in a studio doing some lighting demos with 15 other photographer folk.

As far as the teaching aspect goes, its just really awesome when I can help someone to understand something they’ve been struggling with for a period of time, and when they get excited its really rewarding. I’m definitely not a ‘trade secret’ kind of guy and there really isn’t anything I won’t answer about photography or lighting if someone asks and I think I know the answer. I was fortunate in the fact that I could call on other photographers (and still do) when I had questions about one thing or another, and to not pay that forward would just be bad karma.

CC: The photography market is rapidly changing. What marketing technique do you find works for you?

There are really two things that seem to work well for me, and they weren’t so much techniques I thought about and implemented as much as just who I am as a person.

1) I make myself available to anyone and everyone. As I said before I’m really open about what I do and enjoy answering other photographer’s questions when they have them. Its gone as far as getting phone calls from people I have never met or talked to in my life that had questions about something they couldn’t figure out and figured by the way I write on my blog I’d be nice enough to just call. I ended up talking for an hour an a half on the phone each time with these people, which was actually kind of hilarious as my wife kept looking at me like I was bat shit crazy. Even though I don’t market myself directly to photographers, the fact that I’ve made myself available has resulted in a lot of friends in the photo world and as a result of that, when those photographers come across a job they can’t do for one reason or another, they tend to fire my name into the mix which usually ends up in work for me. It wasn’t the intention when I decided to make myself available, just sort of a win that came as a result.

2) Secondly, I’m myself. It sounds like a no-brainer, but I’ve seen on many occasions that people dress themselves up as someone their not in order to attract people to their business, but in the end they end up attracting the wrong people and are never really happy with where their business is heading. I don’t blame the photographers doing it, it’s been hammered into us from the ‘regular’ working society that there are certain ways to conduct business, and that’s fine if you’re working for someone else and they require that as part of your pay cheque, but I didn’t start my own company to become someone I’m not. I tend to talk about business over a pint of Stella Artois, I meet with potential clients wearing my favorite jeans and t-shirt, and I talk to potential clients as if they were my friends for years, because that’s the most comfortable way for me to talk to them. My target market is anyone who enjoys photographs that are a little edgy and thinks all of my jokes are funny. When those people find me, we become friends, and I can guarantee anytime they know someone who wants photos done, it’s my name that is going to be suggested.

Basically my ‘technique’ isn’t so much a technique as just drawing in clients that I can relate with on more than just a photographic level, because their recommendation carries 1000x the weight in terms of advertising than any facebook ad ever could.

CC: You seem to have some pretty great work and some really great lighting. What drew you to that style?

The first time I fired a shot using off-camera lighting was a few years ago and I was hooked. At the time I was using a hot-shoe flash with a small light stand and a bounce umbrella, which really gave me no control over my lighting in terms of light spill, but it looked cooler than anything else I had shot so I decided to experiment more with it. Since then I’ve moved more into shooting Alien Bee strobes with a variety of lighting modifiers. The idea of being able to control light, and create awesome light in any shape or direction I wanted was the major draw. It’s allowed me to create photos with a lot of contrast when the natural light is flat and boring, as well as opened up doors in terms of the kind of jobs I can take on when clients need a photo that natural light simply won’t work for. I do still shoot a lot of natural light when I feel the photo benefits more from it, but knowing how to light when it doesn’t has been a huge feather in my cap.

CC: I noticed your portraiture ranges from kids to weddings. What is your favorite thing to shoot?

I love shooting creatives. Getting together a model, hair and makeup, styling, assistants, and my camera, then heading out as a crew to create some photos is easily one of the funnest parts of what I do. Working together as a team for no other benefit other than to create some great photos is pure awesome, and quite frankly if I ever become incredibly wealthy and no longer have to hustle for my money, that’s the only kind of photos I’ll be doing from that point on.

CC: What other photographer inspires you the most?

Dan Winters has always been a favorite of mine, and I plan to do more portrait style work like his in 2011.

Chris Crisman is someone I just learned about recently, and his use of environments in his photos makes me want to sell all of my equipment.

For photographers local to Calgary, there are my friends Noah Fallis who I assisted for a year and easily experiments more with lighting than anyone else I know, his mind is always cooking up something, and Phil Crozier who is easily one of the best guys I know and has an amazing vision when executing his photographs.

CC: I noticed you have a post up on your blog about your friend Kaz. What can Capture Cafe readers do to help out?

There is a donation link at the bottom of the post where all the proceeds are going towards helping his family financially so that they can spend whatever time they have left together as a family, as well as help to create an education fund for his 18 month old daughter Sloan. As of writing this there has been $2000 in donations made, and the outpouring of support from those who know Kaz and those who have never heard of him before my blog post has been truly amazing. There is also a fund raiser being held in Saskatoon at the Sutherland Bar on Jan 22, 2011 if anyone is in the area and wanted to bid on some prizes, it’s going to be a good time.

Aside from that without sounding cheesy, just take things like this as a warning to how little time we have here, and try to spend the time you have doing things you love and hanging out with the people in your life that matter.

CC: What is your favorite piece of equipment?

I’d have to say that its a toss up between my 70-200 f/2.8 and my newly purchased 47″ octabox w/ grid, as a combination they are incredible.

One thing that I’d like to touch on in regards to this question is that we photographers are a very funny bunch when it comes to gear, and a lot of time we convince ourselves that our photos would be so much better if we just had that (insert piece of equipment here) like somehow new gear is going to solve your photographic frustrations. The reality is if you feel your photo sucks with a $100 50mm f/1.8, buying a $1500 50mm f/1.2 isn’t going to change anything except the amount of money in your bank account. Better gear doesn’t magically produce better photos, and what someone else uses won’t necessarily match what you need. What most people should be doing in my opinion is buying one lens, use it for a few months, shoot it like crazy, and figure out where your holes are, then purchase more gear if needed based on your own input. The same goes for lighting, buy one light with one modifier, use it in every way possibly you can think of for a few months, and add on from there. You’d be amazed what you can achieve with one light.

CC: Is there anything that you would like to say to Capture Cafe readers?

If you’ve made it this far I am extremely flattered. If you ever meet me in real life, tell me about this interview and we’ll do a thunderous Top Gun High-5.

Thanks a ton Nathan!
You can check out Nathan’s world in the following places

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