Christopher M. Stillians, a portrait photographer in Palos Verdes Estates, made the transition from film to digital 12 years ago. While the switch breathed new creativity into his career, allowed him to solve many problems inherent in film, digital did present one drawback.
“The biggest problem is that people now they think they should have access to all the digital images,” Stillians, 62, said. Clients routinely ask, “Can you email me those pictures?”
“In the old days, with negatives, they wouldn’t even think to ask that,” he said. “They wouldn’t know where to take (a negative) to get a print made. In those days you had to use a professional lab.”
But in today’s world, with a phone camera or iPad and computer in everyone’s possession, snapping digital pictures and posting them on Facebook or Instagram or emailing them to friends is a daily event.
“People say, ‘Why should I pay this guy good money to do what I can do real easy?’” the photographer said during an interview at his CMS Design Portraiture studio, a staple in Malaga Cove Plaza for the last 32 years. “They fail to understand that what they are paying for is a photographer’s ability to create art.”
Stillians, a Manhattan Beach resident who studied at El Camino College and Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, has taken digital photography to a new level with his digital image paintings.
“Years ago, I called them watercolors," he said. "You could run a filter (via Adobe Photoshop software) that would convert the whole image into what looked sort of like a watercolor.”
Now, by painting with a digital stylus (pen) on a Wacom tablet beside his keyboard, he can reinvent backgrounds, change colors and add elements to any digital image on his computer.
“I literally have to go over every pixel in an image by hand and paint it,” he said. “It takes a couple of days to do it, but it ends up looking like a painting. (Pictures) just really turn out cool.”
To say Stillians is happy in his work is an understatement. Unlike some, he doesn’t mind spending hours at his computer. He learned his craft via film and the darkroom; he got his first job in 1974 at a studio in Louisiana, where everything was sent to a lab. After opening his studio in Palos Verdes Estates in 1981, he continued the process.
“When digital came along, I realized I could bring all that power and creativity back into my control,” he said. “A lot (of photographers) don’t like it. I do—I love it. I love sitting in front of that computer, even though it takes hours to do it.”
The great thing about digital, Stillians said, “is the amount of problems it has enabled us to solve and the amount of creative things that we can do.”
For a photograph of two ballerinas, for example, he wanted to change the background—a ballet bar and studio walls—but he couldn’t get motivated. Aided by Mozart, he was inspired to back the dancers with abstract swirls of vibrant purple.
The tall, attractive father of three grown daughters—his wife, Nancy, is a special needs assistant at Mira Costa High School—has had “an infatuation with photography” ever since the fourth grade when he started taking pictures with a Brownie Hawkeye camera. But while majoring in photo illustration at Brooks Institute, he was reluctant to take the required portrait classes.
“I felt more comfortable shooting a product than having to deal with people,” said the photographer, who graduated with a double major: illustration and portrait. “I knew to be successful I had to interact with people. I ended up finding I enjoyed it.”
He has learned all kinds of tricks to get pleople to relax. "I try to bring myself up to or down to the level they are at," he said. "I mean literally, if it’s a child, I get down on my hands and knees. Or if it’s an adult, I relate to that person on their level as much as I can. To put them at ease."
Since dogs or horses often find their way into family shoots, communication with animals is also important. Where horses are "sight sensitive" and Stillians can toss some grass in the air to get their attention, dogs are "sound sensitive," he said. "I’ll literally bark and the dog looks at me, and everyone else starts to laugh and I get this great picture.
'Film is timeless'
Victoria O’Leary loves “the grainy softness and true richness of color” that shooting with film brings to her portraits. “It allows me to be thoughtfully present in the moment, waiting for that perfect in-between second to … click the shutter to freeze time,” she said.
Born in Palos Verdes Estates, O’Leary, 36, grew up around film. “My mom’s a photographer, although not professional, so I learned along the way. But we have a good darkroom in our basement.”
Although she graduaged with a degree in business and psychology, she studied photography as well at Menlo College in Northern California. But it wasn't until after she had children that she decided to start her own business, Photography by Victoria, in 2007.
"I had babies and decided to stay home and find some way to help my family out," she said.
Ensconsed in Riviera Village with husband Sean, who runs a surfboard repair department in Marina del Rey, and their two children, 7-year-old Pierce and 4-year-old Leighton, O'Leary found her true calling. "That dream I had before I graduated from college came into reality.”
At one point, she transitioned to digital, “because that’s what everybody else was doing. But I learned on film. As I got deeper into (digital), I realized it was more of a desk job, because I found myself stuck behind a computer all the time,” she said.
The ability to shoot endless digital pictures "because you can" often left her with 150 to 200 images from one session. “And then I'd have to whittle them away. And then have to try to make them look right. And I kept trying to make them look like film, and they just didn’t,” she explained.
A four-day film workshop, "Film is Not Dead" taught by Jonathan Canlas, reminded her that “if you shoot film correctly,” the image pretty much stands as is. “So I took photoshop out of the picture. If there’s like a blemish or something, I do have the ability to go in and edit that,” she said.
Three years ago she returned to her roots. “I literally sold all my digital equipment,” O’Leary said happily. “I have a lab I work with in Irvine. They’re amazing. We have a great relationship. They know exactly what color I like; they know whether to make the file warmer or cooler or whatever.”
Film also allows her to take on more clients “because I don’t have the back end of the computer time,” she said. “It was always looming, even in my personal life, with my kids. I would rarely take my camera to an event because of all the work I would have to do later.”
O’Leary, who shoots with a Nikon F100 and a 645 Mamiya, also likes the way film makes her slow down on a photo shoot. “I don’t take 100 shots,” she said. “There are only 35 shots on a roll of 35 mm and only 16 shots on a roll of 120."
Instead of “firing off a zillion shots and hoping I get something,” she waits for precise moments. She also shoots a Polaroid 600SE so each of her clients has "a little polaroid as a keepsake. It's my film version of instant gratification and the kids usually love it."
Although O’Leary specializes in family portraits, newborns are what she shoots the most, she said. “And then, during the holidays, a lot of families.”
Like Stillians, she likes to begin a photo session at a client’s home and then go on location: “Maybe a special spot that is special to them; someplace where kids are comfortable.”
'I’m old school'
When it comes to photography, Lauren Pressey tries to attain the best of both the film and digital worlds. Although a digital photographer, she makes an effort to do “as little post-processing work as possible.”
A visual effects artist for TV commercials and music videos before launching her own portrait business, Lauren Pressey Photography, in 2006, Pressey, 29, studied fine arts photography at Arizona State.
“I always wanted to be a photographer, ever since my dad handed me a little point-and-shoot camera," she said. "I shot film in college. I loved being in the darkroom and that artistic element of it.”
Born in Illinois, she moved around a lot growing up, she said, moving in the midst of high school in New York to Newport Beach. “One of the reasons I became a photographer was because I was more of an outsider, and I had to make sense of it all,” she said.
Then she moved to the South Bay, where she now lives with husband Scott and two children, Jack, 5, and Samantha, 4. “I discovered this area and fell in love,” she said. The focus of her portrait business grew out of teaching children's art classes through college, so she decided to start by photographing children and families.
“I’ve always connected really well with kids,” Pressey said. “I just got right into it, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I’m not a wedding photographer—it’s the last thing I want to do. I am really focused on families. I love it.”
Trained in film and darkroom work, as were Stillians and O'Leary, she does all of her digital post-processing work, but tries to limit it. “I don’t like that to be a huge element,” said the Hermosa Beach photographer, who uses a Nikon D800. “Really what my job is about is connecting with (clients) and getting it right as far as exposure and all of that while I’m there.”
Although she loves film, she believes digital “made more sense for me” when she started her business.
“I would never want to say anything bad about film because I love it; it has a great quality to it,” she said.
She has even considered returning to film, she said. “But when you are so far into your business it’s hard to make a switch." She nevertheless tries to achieve "more of a film look because digital can be so crisp and clear that it’s almost unreal.”
Even with digital, Pressey wants her work to resemble that of the artists she grew up loving and studying in college—film photographers like Robert Frank, Mary Ellen Mark, Annie Lebovitz and Sally Mann.
Sally Mann is like “my god,” said Pressey, who admires Mann’s unconventional photos of children.
“So it’s a fine line to walk (between digital and film). But as far as output is concerned, digital just makes more sense for me,” Pressey said.
Once you have the technical aspects of photography down, she said, most of the rest “is about your connection with the family. That is 95 percent of it. If you don’t connect with them, and if you don’t connect with their kids, it’s going to show through on the images."
All three photographers stressed the importance of the photographer/client relationship. "I’m not afraid to be crazy and goofy with kids," Pressey said. "And they always respond to that.”
Pressey, also known for her beach portraits, is a devotee of interior design and thinks “a big aspect of being a professional family photographer is the product. I’m always thinking of where the image is going to be on (a client’s) wall. That’s so important to me, how (images) are going to be presented. So the session doesn’t stop once we are done taking the picture.”
Since she wants clients to preserve family and child portraits "in the most beautiful way possible," she offers custom framing. “I’m always pushing for people to put their images on the wall. It’s so easy nowadays to buy negatives and then store them away.”
But Pressey admits that photography is also a fiercely competitive profession nowadays. "I’ve seen people pick up a camera and start a business in a year," she said. "And to be honest, it freaks me out a little, because I really pride myself on experience and technical knowhow."
In the end, she said, "I think people see the work and know the difference and they’ll go from there and make their decision.”