Dave Brosha is an award-winning commercial, personal, adventure photographer and workshop leader specializing in environmental portraits and landscapes. He successfully transformed his photography passion into a career by learning all he could about the craft and making it a habit to practice making photographs every day. His work has been published CNN, Canadian Geographic, National Geographic, Dark Beauty, Outdoor Photography Canada, the National Post, Reader’s Digest, Macleans, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, and The Huffington Post, and he has been featured by Flickr, 500px, Petapixel, and is listed in Phlearn.com's "Inspirational Photographers: A Curated Guide To The Best Photographers On The Internet." Dave, his wife Erin, and their three children live in Long Creek, Prince Edward Island. You can see more of Dave’s work at davebrosha.com.
How long have you been behind the camera and what made you first pick one up?
I've always loved the creative fulfillment of photography but I never really caught "the bug" (strongly) until about 2002. A series of life changes meant that my wife Erin and I found ourselves in a place that few people get to travel to, let alone live in: Resolute Bay, Nunavut in the high Canadian Arctic.
We were plunked into a landscape of beauty that included polar bears, icebergs, vast tundra, and incredible culture. I felt this need to document what I was able and fortunate enough to witness, a need that I never felt before moving to Resolute. The desire to document inspired me to learn everything I could about photography and set me on my way to not only a new career path, but a life-long passion that I am so glad to have found.
Your photographs have such serenity; even your landscapes have a sense of humanness to them. Can you describe your creative process—what you’re looking for when scouting a scene?
Photographers create in many different ways, and I used to think that you couldn't be a true photographer if you didn't pre-visualize, or know exactly what you wanted to create when you headed into a scene. Over time, however, I've learned that the best images come out of what's truest to you. My preferred way of creating, whether it's a landscape image or a character portrait, is to head out into an environment (I get my greatest inspiration in nature) and then simply staying present and "in the moment." I react to what I see. I head in numerous directions over the course of a shoot, depending on the light, the mood, the moments. I often never know what I'm going to create until I've pressed the shutter and it feels right. Sometimes it takes only a few presses of the shutter to find that feeling. Other times, it takes hundreds of images before I lock onto a creative direction that I'm excited about. Other times, still (and thankfully, rarely), the inspiration doesn't hit and the feeling doesn't come. But I'm also okay with that, too. Art is a process, and one that you have to give space for. Some of my favourite creations have taken struggle to create. I just trust the process.
What makes a good portrait?
For me, a strong portrait is simply one that you remember. There are billions of people out there and even more portraits. But how many do we truly remember? A great portrait photographer, in my mind, is one who can make images of humanity that you can recall a day, a week, or years later. They're compelling. Memorable. They make you pause, reflect, and, hopefully, feel.
On an average environmental portrait session, what’s your equipment set up?
It used to be that I would approach portrait sessions from an equipment perspective. That is to say that I would know I was photographing so-and-so, and immediately my thoughts would go, "Well, I should photograph them with two lights: one in front, and one in back," and so on. Over the course of my career, however, I've veered strongly away from this. For me, now, the right light, the right "set up", is the one that makes sense in the moment considering the environment, the light, the face, and the mood you're trying to capture. Coming in with a hardline approach takes away some of your freedom to react to what you see. That's not to say I don't prepare. I think of what I might need from an equipment perspective, and try to have the right gear with me, but I try to set up around what I'm seeing and what I'm feeling more than what lighting technique I think the "coolest" of the moment. Sometimes—often, actually—that brings me on a natural light route rather than portraits made with introduced light . . . if it feels right.
Some photographers struggle to evoke genuine emotion from the people they are photographing. How do you coach your clients to get that at-home-in-front-of-the-camera look? What’s going on behind the camera?
I think talking to your subjects is one of the most important things you can do as a portrait photographer. If you're lost in your settings, your gear, and you're hidden behind the camera, you can lose someone really quick. But if you stay communicative with people, even if you're just figuring all that other stuff out, they stay connected with you and will give you a range of emotions depending on where you bring them through conversation. And if they stay connected, they're much more likely, in my opinion, to give you something—anything—from an emotional perspective when you indicate you're looking for something specific.
Related, I'm a big fan of just using specific words if there's a feeling I'm looking for. "Proud", "confident", "dreamy", "faraway", "lonely", "stoic" . . . words like these. When people hear words like this, they respond to them. They change their demeanour, they think about something different. Real expression often comes from thought or from a genuine reaction. I try to evoke both, when and where I can.
Your environmental portraits are rich both with story and technical excellence, a combination many photographers strive for but don’t often get. How do you photograph those great moments?
For me, the first moments of a portrait session are all about establishing the mood I'm after. Seeking out the sliver of light that catches my eye, determining the magic mix of settings, ambient light, and introduced lighting (if I'm using it). I often need to have the mood established that feels right before I can really get into a portrait session. But once I have my lighting—my mood—established, I think that's where many photographers stop. They feel like they have great light, snap a few shots, and it's over. But for me, when I feel like I have my elusive mood established, that's only the beginning. From there, it's play time. And I tend to be meticulous in trying to evoke an expression, or find that something beautiful and unique within my subject after I've simply established mood. If that takes me dozens (if not hundreds) of frames, so be it. I'd sooner have a portrait I'm really intrigued by than try to aim for bragging rights that I've captured a portrait in only one or two frames. Playing has lead to some of my all-time favourite images.
If you like this article, learn more about how Dave makes his creative portraits in his eBook, Illuminated.