The Portrait Print That Wouldn’t Burn

Sunset Photo eSatin Paper
Shelley Bigelow and her daughter, Blakely, with the print that survived the fire that destoyed the family’s home near Manton, Mich.

A high-school senior portrait of Shelley Bigelow’s daughter, Blakely, rose from the ashes to greet her as she surveyed the scene of her home just devastated by a raging five-alarm fire near Manton, Mich. It was just about the only item that survived the fire. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

The print of her daughter was the lone ray of light in a black mess of soot, water and ashes that marked the spot where her home once stood.

Sunset Photo Paper“The picture was hanging on my office wall on the second floor and it went down through everything to the basement, and there she was looking at me,” recalls Bigelow. “We never found traces of the frame or the glass; just the picture. With seven hours of burning and five departments, the picture still smiled at us after all we went through.”

Judy Gilde photographed Blakely’s senior portrait session about three years ago. The 16×20 wall portrait found in the fire was printed by Gilde on Sunset Photo eSatin Paper, mounted on a dense mount board, framed and placed behind glass. Gilde does just about every type of photography imaginable in this rural area of northern Michigan, and prints her own work with an Epson Stylus Pro 7900.

“Sunset eSatin is our standard paper. When people pick up their photos they think there are three prints stuck together, and it’s just one print; that’s how thick it is,” says Gilde. “I always try to use the best photo papers and products for my work, but I never expected this kind of performance. She does need to have it replaced because the bottom half of it has smoke damage.”

Bigelow plans to keep the print, however, as a memento of a difficult time made somewhat less difficult with the miracle of photography and the print that wouldn’t burn.

“We’ll keep it forever, and we’re happy it survived. Judy told us it would withstand so much, but I didn’t realize how much it would withstand. She stressed how much quality was in the work, and she was right; the color is still brilliant even through the soot,” says Bigelow.

Prints that Win: The Economic Recovery

The Economic Recovery by Nick Jones

In a print competition, the print itself should have some say in who wins the top award. At the Professional Photographers of Idaho competition, The Economic Recovery, created by Nick Jones, made it to the finish line for the coveted Sunset Print Award, but it was the print that took it over the top.

Jones, who co-owns Harmony and Nick Portrait Artists in Blackfoot, Idaho with his wife, Harmony (of course!), had his winning image, The Economic Recovery, printed on Sunset Photo Metallic Paper to help bring out the detail and give it an almost three-dimensional quality.

“When it came time for the Sunset Print Award there were a couple of rounds of judging and it kept getting split between mine and another print. The clincher was when one of the judges said that if any image is going to push the print and the printer it would be mine, and that put it over the edge,” says Jones. “We do a lot of printing on the Metallic; most of our client work is printed on it because it gives it that pop. I think it’s awesome. When it’s under the light it gives a new dimension to it; it’s almost 3D.”

Jones put a lot of himself into the image. In fact, Jones is actually in the image, standing next to the burning barrel on the far right side of the final composite. The main subject is his father, and you can see in the six panels below the main image all the pieces and parts Jones brought into a cohesive award-winning whole.

“I was planning on doing a different image with my father, because he has interesting features. It was a quick setup in house. I put it together with a background I like that has warm and cool tones. Then, I put it on Facebook and it got a lot of attention just as it was,” recalls Jones. “I looked for some additional elements to put in there to provide more storytelling. It grew from there. It built itself in a way. It was over several months that I added elements and tried some different ideas.”

Jones used Photoshop to create the composite from the six original images, painstakingly “hand-painting” the divergent images to create an accurate blend; a blend that makes the final image look like it was shot as-is, rather than composited. To bring out additional contrast and saturation, Jones applied nik Software filters.

“We do a lot of composite imaging with our sports teams and portraits. I first came into the studio doing Harmony’s retouching work. Along the way I starting seeing cool artwork, by Mark Bryant and others who are masters at composite work, and it intrigued me. So we started taking their courses and now use it in a lot of our photography, such as the pinup work we do in the summer,” explains Jones.

In addition to a Sunset Print Award, The Economic Recovery also won Photographer’s Choice at the Idaho print competition and went loan at the International Photographic Competition (IPC).

Prints that Win: Determined

Determined by Angela Blankenship

Psychology plays a big role in photography, especially portrait photography, as the psychology of the photographer, the subject and the viewer all come into play.

Nobody knows this better than our latest (and last for the 2014 competition season) Sunset Print Award Winner, Angela Blankenship, owner of AB Photography in Nashville, N.C.

Judges at the Professional Photographers of North Carolina competition liked Blankenship’s print so much, entitled Determined, that it was used at the convention to help teach the various aspects of a successful print competition image.

“They really loved the expression, the tones within the image, the lighting on the face that was smooth and gentle, and the simplicity,” says Blankenship, recalling the feedback she received.

Psychology comes into play with Blankenship’s images as she teaches developmental psychology, in addition to her portrait work. “I’ve been told that the expressions I’m able to capture with children is unique. Some of that may come from my understanding and formal study of psychology,” she says.

In this case, Blankenship knew that the girl in the photo has a serious, thoughtful personality, so Blankenship sought to capture that personality, both during the session and through the post-capture work. To do so, Blankenship took a minimalist approach and added a sepia tone.

The background is a chalkboard that’s been repeatedly erased. The scene was lit with a continuous light Wescott Spider Light.

“I like dramatic and simple black-and-white images. I like the focus to be on the face, the expression and the person, so I don’t tend to use any props,” explains Blankenship. “If you can guess what they’re feeling when you look at a portrait, it makes it more interesting and gives the viewer more reason to continue to look at the image.”

Prints that Win: Billy Wright

Billy Wright by Tim Kelly

Simple and clean is the philosophy that has been the cornerstone of award-winning veteran photographer Tim Kelly’s success. Kelly’s philosophy is perfectly illustrated with this Sunset Print Award-winner, a portrait of up and coming singer/songwriter musician Billy Wright.

Kelly won a Sunset Print Award for Billy Wright’s portrait at the recent Florida Professional Photographers competition. Billy Wright’s portrait is not flashy, but each technical element is spot-on, something the judges could not possibly overlook.

“At the state competition, it was one of about 40 prints entered out of a total of around 400 images. They judged the prints first, and I can tell you from competing for 30 years that you don’t want your prints judged in the first round, because the judges haven’t found their set point and they’re very conservative early on,” says Kelly. “Getting through the first round is a good thing, especially when you’re doing work that’s not high-impact or snazzy, but is just clean. It was ultimately selected as best print of the show.”

During the session, Kelly shot black-and-white film, 4×5 film and digital, selecting one of the 4×5 shots to add to his portfolio and enter in competition. It was a back-to-basics portrait session, but all of Kelly’s portrait photography is about the doing the basics well.

“I don’t make a habit of manipulating my images, even though I’ve been doing Photoshop since the first version came out. I make sure that my look doesn’t include any trendy, faddish elements. I try to go with a stock, clean, unaffected image,” explains Kelly. “I scanned the film, touched up his face a little bit and made my image for my portfolio and competition. Simplicity proves itself when you let it. When you have the fidelity the film can give, and then making the perfect print myself, it gives me quite an edge.”

Kelly also took great care to ensure that the overall presentation with the digital border elements he created would not distract from the subject matter. Again, clean and simple is what he strives for in his work.

“I try and make sure the tonal value of the border corresponds to and enhances the existing background. I never want to throw in new textures and densities when I want your eye to go to the subject. Where do you want me to look if I’m the viewer? Don’t distract me with other pinstripes and design elements,” says Kelly. “This is just a digital add of photo edges and a background tone pulled out of the image, which I printed with a sepia feel. I’ve been a fan of warmer black and white for portraits. I don’t sell, produce or enter cold-toned black-and-white photos. I photograph people, and people need some kind of warmth.”

Prints that Win: A Slow Decline

A Slow Decline by Cathleen Broderick

Award-winning prints are subject to any number of objective criteria, such as composition and color balance, but there is often a subtle and subjective emotional element that resonates with the judges, even if they can’t quite put their finger on the story behind that emotional element.

For the Sunset Print Award winner at the Professional Photographers Association of Massachusetts (PPAM) convention, Cathy Broderick, her award-winning print, entitled A Slow Decline, had great emotional significance.

Broderick, who owns Cathleen Broderick Photography in Whitman, Mass., captured this wilting flower in her studio while her mother was in the hospital with a terminal illness.

“I had been fooling around with flowers in the studio before my mother went into the hospital, trying to come up with something apart from my usual portraiture. When she got sick I left the studio and forgot about them,” recalls Broderick. “A few days later I came back to the studio to take care of some details in the evening after I had been to the hospital. The flowers were very wilted and for some reason I felt the need lose myself for a few minutes in photographing them. As I was thinking about the image I shot I noticed the flower was leaning and dying and that’s where the title A Slow Decline came to me. My mother had been ill for a long time, so it was appropriate; it was this strange thing that happened. I don’t normally photograph flowers in the studio; it just seemed like a therapeutic thing to do.”

Broderick’s mother passed away shortly before the PPAM competition, and though the judges didn’t know the story behind the image, it scored a 91 (highest print score at the competition) and won several awards, including the Sunset Print Award.

While the judges may have connected on an emotional level, they recognized it for its objective qualities, particularly the texture, tonality and lighting.

“It was lit by a Larson 4×6 very close to it with a silver reflector in front. I was moving it around and experimenting, because it’s not something I normally photograph. I’ve photographed flowers outdoors in natural lighting, but not in the studio,” says Broderick. “I did some processing with Nik filters and decided to enter it. I didn’t know if it was good, and I didn’t really care if it was good. It’s who I am and what was going on in my life at that time, so it was kind of emotional.”

Prints that Win: I Could Be Great!

Dog Photography by Kenny King

Kenny and Debra King help rescue dogs. That’s not all they do with their stellar portrait photography, but they’ve honed their process for animal photography to the big benefit of a local animal shelter, and particularly the animals themselves.

“We are big dog people and we rescue. One of our cocker spaniels passed away about five years ago. We started looking around at the rescue sites and noticing that all the photography was not just poorly taken, but it made all the animals look like you didn’t really want to take them home with you,” explains Kenny King, who with his wife, Debra, owns Dream Copy Photo in downtown Owensboro, Ky. “My wife and I decided that we would look for a local shelter and take more happy pictures, not behind a cage or a screen, or on a leash. Since that time, about four or five years ago, we’ve been photographing about 100-150 animals per year for them.”

Though it’s easy to say they have the process down, Kenny says, “It’s really like we’re doing it for the first time every time; it’s just unpredictable with an animal. They’re not able to adopt animals out until they’re fixed, and once they are they’re immediately able to put them on the website, so sometimes the day of their surgery is when they’ll bring them into the studio. So they’re a little groggy and easier to hold still for a few minutes, but on the bad side they don’t look as playful.”

The dog that garnered a Sunset Print Award, and a perfect 100 score to boot, at the recent PhotoPro Network competition in Owensboro was a little different. In this case, the dog was a little wild and King took about 50 shots until someone came into the room and dog stood at perfect attention for the perfect capture.

“I was on the print crew at the competition, so I was setting the print on the turntable spinning it around and I can hear the judges saying, ‘This has to be a show dog. The pose is just amazing; I don’t know how they got the dog to pose like that,'” Kenny recalls. “You get what you get most of the time, and that’s exactly what happened. I think the judges liked the lighting and how the rim light came down the side of the dog and the back of the legs to create separation from the backdrop. It’s just a two-light setup, but keeping it off the trunk is always a major deal because it has a shiny surface.”

Kenny adds that Debra does a lot of the color schemes for backgrounds and props, and this particular setting was the perfect complement to the dogs coloring. “The white in the dog is cream enough so it works well; it toned just perfect.”

Congratulations to the Kings, who are now automatically entered into the Sunset Print Award national competition. To find out more about a regional or state competition where a Sunset Print Award is being presented go to Remember, only winners of each of those competitions are entered into the national competition. Good luck!