Seattle-based portrait/lifestyle photographer Mike Monaghan regrets nothing about going all in for photography. Instead, he is seeing his hard work and training pay off. Influenced by both national and local Seattle photographers, Mike’s work captures the beauty unique to Seattle.
He started fashion/portrait photography 4 years ago and has been expanding ever since. His work has been featured on FStoppers and has April 6th exhibition at Seattle’s Art/Not Terminal Gallery.
In this interview, Mike talks about how he approaches every photograph he takes, his post-processing workflow, and how being positive and genuine works no matter what.
To start, how did you get into lifestyle and fashion photography?
I have been taking photos for around 7 years, but around 4 years ago is when I really started finding my style. I used to be mainly into graphic design, illustration, and a little bit of photography. I became more active in online communities such as Flickr and Facebook, and I was beginning to see more exposure from many other photographers that I truly admired. I was becoming inspired by lifestyle and fashion photographers such as Jordan Voth, Shannon Miller, Raj Sandhu, Derren Versoza & Sara Kiesling, just to name a few.
I wanted to take photographs like them, so I studied their style and work and started experimenting with taking photos of people, which I never used to do. I learned very quickly and also was studying Photography at the Art Institute, so I learned the technical skills to go along with it. So, I turned to strictly being a Lifestyle Photographer and moved away from graphics. I loved taking photos more than anything else I had been doing, and it has lead me to where I am today. It’s brought a lot of amazing opportunities and friendships into my life, so I look back and regret nothing about the decisions I made.
How do you approach every photograph you take?
I usually go in with a general idea or concept. Nothing too elaborate or specific. I have found that if I go in looking for something specific, I don’t get the result I had desired, and then I disappoint myself. If I go in with a general vision or idea, I usually end up getting a product that was even better than I had expected, which is an amazing feeling. And being an outdoor, mainly natural light, photographer in Seattle, it’s very hard to plan specifics sometimes. Depending on the weather, you might not get the light you want. It may say sunny on the weather forecast, but then during the shoot it may be cloudy or even raining, which could mess up the styling and overall feel of the photo shoot. So I usually just go in and do the best I can with what I have at the time. I try to be resourceful.
Your website makes a distinction between natural light and designed lighting. Which do you prefer? And why?
I love natural light. I love being outside (hopefully) in the sunshine taking photos. I love the different types of natural light that you can get from shooting outdoors or with windows. It’s fun for me to find ways to control the natural light with just my camera. I don’t usually use reflectors or tools to help me with the light. While I can do designed or controlled lighting, it’s just not as exciting to me unless I come across something that I don’t usually see too often style-wise.
You have a great eye for landscapes that compliment your subjects. How do you go about choosing a location?
Seattle is rich with interesting locations. I usually pick locations off of the look of the model, if he or she will compliment it well. Or off the styling. Seattle has every type of location you could ask for, except for something tropical, I think. You can drive 30 minutes from the city to get to the beach, forest, hills, mountains, urban or rural areas, so I have a lot I can play with.
Your Facebook says you’re Seattle-based. How do you think the city has influenced your photography?
I have had to learn how to work with different seasons. We don’t have very consistent weather in Seattle. I’ve always envied photographers who live in locations where the weather is sunny and warm all year around. But I think learning to adapt to what I have in Seattle has made me a better Lifestyle Photographer. And because of this weather, we have very interesting fashion senses, so I can be inspired by something just by walking down the street.
But I also think it’s my fellow photographers that live here as well that help influence my work. I mentioned Jordan Voth earlier, but we also have Bethany Olson, Wendy Liu, Veronica Alba, Emily Ryder and many more whose work inspires me, and I’ve become good friends with them. So I am constantly learning from them, and a few of us team up every once and a while to collaborate on projects which helps.
Also, some of your natural light photos, especially those in black and white, have the feel of street photography. Have ever you considered street photography? If not, why?
I am actually working on trying more street photography. It’s something I’m toying with lately! I noticed that I had many locations that were very much in natural settings and not in the cities or streets, so I’m playing around a little more in the city. It’s a fun new challenge!
Your lighting for the collection of Carolyn (top) is great. How do you achieve it?
Ah! Thank you! That shoot was purely experimental. I had seen images on Tumblr of people with images projected on them, so I wanted to take a swing at it. I rented a projector and found a bunch of random imagery from the internet, some in forms of photos and videos. I didn’t know if it would work, but it came out better than I had expected. I wasn’t sure what people were going to think of it either, but I am pretty sure it is one of my most popular set of photos to date.
Your images have great tone and texture. Could you give us a quick break down of your post-processing workflow?
It usually starts off with getting the right exposure in camera first. Which means everything looks good when you take the photo. I make a point to keep the face as well exposed as I can. I don’t worry about the environment as much. I can over-blow the exposure there, and I won’t lose anything important. I usually only work with a curves and selective color adjustment layer. I edit the curves with “S curves”, which brings a good contrast between the lights and darks in the photo. And I do a small adjustment to the neutral colors in the selective color layer, which brings a little extra pump on all the tones.
What would you consider the most crucial advice to any photographer trying set a name for themselves?
Be genuine, be positive, and be a good person. Share your knowledge with others. I know far too many photographers who are so negative to others, which can make them incredibly unlikeable. I truly believe that the people who strive for greatness and are genuine, positive and good towards others will make it far. Everyone has their ups and downs, but all you can do is learn from the failures and become an even better person from them. Surround yourself with other positive, good people as well. Making amazing connections helped me get to where I am now.