What is your name and where are you from?
My name is Mike McGee and I was born and raised in Oakland, California.
How long have you been taking pictures?
I have been taking photos for over 25 years. (Yes, I’m old.)
When did you get into photography and why?
I got into photography after high school in the film era, and always thought that photography was the closest thing to time travel that we have. It’s a way to preserve a moment in time, and the older I get, the more these preserved moments have an impact on me.
What would you say your style is? Has it changed throughout the years?
I started out as a landscape photographer exclusively. I would travel to local destinations to photograph sunrises, sunsets, the beaches and mountains in California, you name it. Most of these images were captured in the f/8-f/16 range, going for crystal clear sharpness of everything around me. However, approximately three years ago, I did my first portrait photoshoot and I was instantly hooked. I now shoot portraiture exclusively. It changed my style dramatically, from wide angle scenic landscape views, to intimate portraits with a shallow depth of field. I enjoy focusing on the subject’s eyes now, with an extremely soft and shallow depth of field in the f/1.4-f/2.0 range to really bring the viewer into the model’s expression and mood.
How do you approach a shoot? Do you pre-plan or is it a click and run?
Coming from a landscape shooting perspective, I’ve always been able to find the ideal light in an outdoor setting. So, when I have an outdoor shoot, I like to have a location in mind, and focus on the model’s wardrobe to ensure it works with the colour palette and styling of the background/location. However, I don’t like things to be too structured. I like the ability to work with what the model, light, or surroundings are giving me, and then adapt on-the-fly. To use a music metaphor, I have always described myself as being more like a jam musician rather than someone who plays off of sheet music. For in-studio shots, it’s much more difficult to freestyle, because I need a more structured approach since I am controlling the light, background, and overall concept.
Is there an end goal you’re trying to achieve with your images, be it an aesthetic or story?
My goal is to draw one into the image and create a nice balance between artistic and commercial appeal. If it is an artistic project, then usually the series will tell a story, or have some unique properties that draw the viewer in. If the project is for a commercial client, then my goal is to achieve the look the client needs for each project. In these cases, I have less control over the vision, but I will add my own artistic elements to attempt to make it my own.
Do you have any influences you can share?
I am influenced most by unique light. Thus, I am drawn to photographers that use light in new and different ways, or use editing techniques that enhance light (or colour) in ways that were normally not possible in a film-based darkroom.
What inspires you?
Learning, the progression in my craft inspires me. I enjoy taking risks when shooting in the hopes of learning something new or other techniques that will enhance my photography. It doesn’t always work, and that’s ok! This could be simply seeing a photo on Instagram by another photographer and wondering “How did they do that?” or watching a YouTube tutorial and then having the burning desire to try that technique out the next time I shoot. I’m driven and inspired by constantly learning new things.
Is there such a thing as a bad photograph?
Yes, but that in-itself is not a bad thing. I think the politically-correct version of this answer is that all photos have merit and all photos have some positive element in one way or another. However, if I think this way, I will likely not improve or grow as a photographer. I look at some of my earlier work, and I can see what works, what doesn’t work, and what was just plain bad. That has helped me adapt and change to be a better photographer. In fact, some of my current photos are probably pretty bad and I just don’t know it yet, and hopefully five years from now I may look back and think, “What was I thinking?”. In fact, I actually long for this because then it means my work five years from now will be even better. So, a “bad” photo isn’t bad, it’s just an opportunity to get better.
Are you looking for a career in photography or are you just having fun?
I am currently a professional photographer, but I also shoot for fun. My goal is to never stop learning, and to never stop having fun shooting. The minute this becomes a job or something I dislike, then that’s the time I will look for another profession. Hopefully, this never happen.
Which social media platforms do you use and why?
I use Instagram as my main social medial platform. I enjoy the ease of uploading a photo and properly tagging models/brand for credit, and then having Instagram automatically post to Facebook, Twitter, etc. One and done.
Which photographers do you mainly follow on social media?
There are far too many to list them all, and some may not have a huge social media following. In no particular order, some photographers I follow and admire are Kai Böttcher (@kai.boet), who really shapes an image with digital artistry in editing. There’s a portrait photographer Dani Diamond (@danidiamondphotography), who shoots in a shallow depth of field portrait style that I admire. There’s a beauty photographer Jesca Cluff (@jescacluff), who uses colour and light brilliantly in beauty photography. There’s Mark Tiu (@marktiuphotography), who shoots primarily glamour photography, with clean work that is edited beautifully. Or Josué E (@meetjosue), who is a landscape photographer and his use of capturing light is phenomenal.
What are your thoughts on mobile photography versus DSLR / mirrorless?
I currently shoot with a DSLR, but love the idea of going mirrorless someday. I typically don’t get too caught up in brand wars or Film versus DSLR versus Mirrorless. I view them all as tools to meet your objective, if one tool is better for the job, I’ll use it.
What are your main go to cameras, lenses and how did you make that choice?
My main setup I use 99% of the time is a Nikon D750 paired with my Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G lens. To me, the camera body has less importance over the glass. This 85mm f/1.4 is the best investment I’ve ever made, it offers the perfect balance of sharpness when needed, along with the option for creamy bokeh when I’m going for that shallow depth of field in a portrait. In-studio, I typically shoot with my Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom lens, but outdoors that thing is a bazooka to hold, and is often intimidating for non-professional models to stare into. In my opinion, the Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G lens is the perfect lens for portrait photography.
What is your dream location to shoot at?
I used to live in Tokyo before I got into portrait photography, so I would love to go back and someday do a night series along the side streets of Shibuya or Shinjuku.
Describe your favourite picture and how you captured it?
One of my favourite photos is a photo I took early on, of model Meg Vega when I first started shooting portraits. This was the first photo I ever took with a homemade ring-light that I built from scratch with $40USD in parts (it’s literally an extension cord and some light sockets…that’s it.) Meg has brilliant blue eyes, platinum blonde hair, and was wearing a pearl necklace that gave her look a Marilyn Monroe type elegance. This wasn’t shot in an elaborate studio or with expensive equipment. It was shot in my living room against a simple white wall, and after I clicked the button, it was gold. I was hooked. I knew then that I could do this, and you didn’t need the most expensive equipment to create stunning images. I’ve been shooting with that same cheap homemade DIY ring-light to this day.
In three words, how would you describe your photography?
Naturally intimate portraiture
How do you feel about higher quality cameras being put into smart phones?
Again, I’m not about brand wars or being pretentious about equipment. I view everything as a tool, and I embrace higher quality cameras being put into smart phones, especially if that opens up the possibility of better tools being more and more accessible.
What are your thoughts on expensive cameras? Do you think they create better images?
I place the majority of my focus on the lens. Camera bodies will come and go as new features are added, but high-quality glass will be around forever. So, in some rare cases, especially if you want to shoot with an extremely shallow depth of field, one does need the right tool for the job to shoot at f/1.4 for example and that lens can be expensive. However, one can still create stunning images even with a kit lens and second-hand camera. Don’t let the tools (or lack thereof) be the excuse item that stops you. Play to the strengths of the tool you’re holding in your hand, and get out there and shoot and have fun. It’s more about the light, then the expense of the gear.
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