Prior to becoming a photographer, Shawn was an architect and teacher. After a series of life events, he decided to pursue his passion for photography. Check him out below.
Say hello to Shawn:
Where are you from? Where have you been?
I am from the tiny town of Granger, Washington. It is in the lower Yakima Valley among orchards, hop fields, and vineyards.
I really have not had the opportunity to travel much. I have been all up and down the West Coast and to Hawaii, but that is it so far. I hope to do much more and that my camera will take me there.
What’s your favorite place in the world?
My favorite place in the world is anywhere my family is. I love to be with my kids, my fiance, and just enjoy life. In a more physical sense, I love to be in the mountains. You will most likely find me hiking alone if I have a day where I am free or just need to get away.
What’s on your “bucket list” of ideas to create?
I would like to do a high fashion shoot with a lot of vibrant color, elegant dresses, headdresses, styling and suits among Aztec ruins and castles. Anytime I look at travel images, I picture a model in the scene and how I would light them to create the look I would like. I have always wanted to do the ruin idea.
How would you describe your visual style?
My visual style is clean and thoughtful. Much of this comes from my design background as an architect. A quality piece of art, a building elevation, or space is multi-layered and as simple as possible, but not too simple. I try to do that in my photography. I want an image to be appealing and engage the viewer as they begin to discover various layers within the image. I don’t want them distracted by blown highlights, dark eyes, or unbalanced lighting. I want the image to tell a story and give just enough to invoke a story within the viewer.
Before photography, you were an architect and subsequently a teacher. Can you tell us about those life experiences and how they have influenced your photography?
I also have a Social Psychology certification and two certifications in personal training. HAHA, I love to learn. Really, a huge key to my success is my passion for learning and constantly improving. Architecture gave me a solid foundation of being able to think artistically and technically very quickly and to shift between the two nearly simultaneously. It provided me with art history, composition, how to build a strong image from a simple idea, color theory, and all the “rules” of art, so I am able to use and break them effectively.
Teaching, Social Psychology, personal training – those all taught me how to talk to people, engage them, read body language, and put myself into the future audience of my images to see what they will see. Understanding who your photography is for is important because then you start to shape the reasons you are doing what you are doing. What is the feel you want in this image? Is it a commercial or an editorial piece? Even if it is just an image for you, what do you want that image to convey to the people that see it later without you there to explain anything? All of my education, I use every day, in more ways that I fully understand to be honest. That is what great education is though, right?
Can you share the significance behind the name of your firm, 2Fore Pictures?
When I started my firm, I was doing only video, but my vision was to do video and photography, like I do now. I didn’t want to be another company that is “My Name Photography and Video.” I also didn’t want to limit where the company might go because of it being my name, so I landed on the fact that video is shot at 24 frames a second. I played with that a bit and since I want my company to be at the forefront of all others doing video and photography I hit 2Fore Pictures. It sounded right and I ran with it. Two mediums, one shot at 24 frames a second, and both pictures – one moving and the other still. My photography is multi-layered. I am seeing a theme here. HAHAHA!
Tell us about your career. How did you get into it?
I have always been interested in art and story in any form. As a kid, I collected comics and graphic novels, was always drawing, and I would tell stories to anyone who would listen. I loved the limited times I was able to get to a museum or large library where there were books of art and antiquities.
I had a few cheap, second hand, film cameras when I was in my mid-twenties so I started learning the exposure triangle by writing my setting in a notebook, the frame number, roll number and then wait until I got the prints back and see what happened. It was a slow way to learn but it worked. I then started developed my own film and printing it in my bathroom. One for more control and another for faster turnaround on my images. That is where I learned the basics of post-processing with dodging and burning. I learned that the image you capture doesn’t have to be the final image and you can build an image with post-processing in mind. I saw it as a hobby though since I was already an architect and had a mortgage, starting a family, etc.
I found architecture wasn’t fulfilling my need to create art and the little bit I was able to do on the side wasn’t enough. I went on a personal journey for a decade or so, going to school, changing careers, getting divorced, and doing a lot of soul searching. Then I was finally honest with myself. I was divorced, unemployed, homeless essentially since I had moved back in with my parents, and I was tired of working for someone else not doing what brought me joy. I asked myself that age old question, “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail and money wasn’t an issue?” It was video and photography for me. So I said I would give it three months and I just put myself out there.
What types of photography do you do?
This is a tough one because I just love photography. If I am shooting or editing images, I am in my happy place. My absolute favorite though is portrait with a more fashion and art element to it. Like this image. I enjoy creating a story and capturing a little of who that person is.
What was the moment you decided to become a photographer?
It was when I was honest with myself on what really brought me joy. Setting aside money or education or immediate opportunity, what it is I like to do. It was telling stories – be it in still or moving picture form. Really, I decided to be a videographer first because I did not feel my skills as a photographer were at a level anyone would pay me for. I was determined though and continued to learn and improve my craft.
What is the strangest situation you’ve ever faced as a photographer?
Well, I have been run out of many places or heavily questioned as to my intent by the police, so that isn’t strange anymore. I have had a few, but one situation comes to mind from a recent shoot I had for a client and it has a beautiful ending.
I shoot a lot in the city of Seattle and I am a friendly, approachable guy, so when I spend some time in one spot, I tend to start talking to the transient and homeless population. They are interesting people. Having been homeless myself, I get the struggle. So I am looking for a great sunset/night shot from the south of the city. It is not an easy shot to get and most shots are taken from a particular bridge. I get there and the bridge is packed with 10 or 15 tripods already. As I look around, I realize the best shot isn’t even from this vantage point, it’s just the easiest. The best shot is lower – I just don’t know how to get there. So I start wandering around and in my search, I run into a homeless guy and explain my dilemma. “Oh,” he says, “I know the best spot!” He leads me through bushes and trees, we jump two fences, scare a few rats who were curious, then BAM – the city comes into view and I ended up with great video footage for my client and this shot for me.
What has been your biggest setback as a photographer?
I don’t feel I have had any setbacks as a photographer. I see every failure or mistake or missed opportunity as a way to learn and grow. Sure, I will probably be upset at myself for a time, but I will calm down, analyze the situation and learn.
What are your three favorite photos you’ve taken?
My favorite shot is always my next shot. I am always improving, growing, and challenging myself, but here are three shots that are very dear to me.
Photography is competitive. How do you stand out?
Knowledge and shooting in my style. Having the knowledge gives me that confidence to say, “Yup, I can do that” to any client, in any situation, even if at the time I have no idea how I am going to pull it off. HAHAHA! However, through my knowledge of lighting, my gear, my post-processing skills, and willingness to to make it happen, I know it will get done and be awesome.
For example, like this shot. I had no idea how I was going to make it happen when the idea occurred to me, but I was determined to get it done. So shooting alone, I put all my gear on my back one day and went on a hike.
The other is shooting in my own style. I have a style, you have a style, everyone has a style and we must embrace it. It is our uniqueness. The more we hold it and understand it, the more it shows through your work. I want someone to look at my work and without seeing a tagline say, “That looks like a 2Fore Pictures image” or “Shawn Ross shot that.”
What’s the best advice you can think of for someone just starting in photography?
Learn to think for yourself, do not let the camera think for you. An example is blown highlights. There are people who picked up a camera, pointed it at a subject, let the camera think for them and click! It’s become so prevalent on social media – the average consumer is beginning to think that is what a good photograph is comprised of! Figure out how the camera thinks so you can use that knowledge to your advantage to create well exposed images. We do not live in a world with pure white skies. There is so much more – but really, my advice is, learn to see as the camera sees so you can use it to your creative advantage.
Second is, get a flash and get it off your camera. A “natural light” or “available light” photographer is a slave, not a creator. They are a slave to the light quality and direction. Being able to control light allows you to shoot any type of lighting in any situation. It’s a rainy, overcast, dark day at a wedding? Not a problem when you have lights and know how to use them. You can create beautiful blue skies and wonderful skin tones on even the ugliest of grey days with lights.
Knowledge and being able to think with your equipment is critical so you are not a slave to what is available or what the camera says.
What is the best thing a model can do to make the most of a photoshoot?
See the process as a collaboration and be patient. I like to work with the model, hearing their ideas and then incorporating them into mine. It gets the model more involved and invested in the images, and that shows in the shots.
The flip side of that is patience. If a shot is suggested during a shoot, I have to figure out all the stuff it takes to make that shot happen. I have to think about lighting, background, camera position, lens choice, posing, etc. It isn’t just, “Yeah, sounds great! Go stand there click, click, click” HAHAHA!
What’s the funniest story you have from being a photographer?
In one of my first shoots with a model, we are shooting away in the woods. I am directing her, setting my lights, and shooting, when all of a sudden she says, “You know, I am much more comfortable without my clothes on.” HAHAHAHA! Probably would’ve been fine if I were a nude art photographer or we had discussed nudity beforehand, but I am not, so it was a bit awkward. We got through it though.
If you could photograph anything in the world, what would it be?
There isn’t anything or person or place specifically. What I am working toward is becoming the photography and/or video team working with a major brand such as Nike, Redbull, or National Geographic – teaming with them to create an amazing, visually engaging campaign that tells a story. I’d like to be part of the creative process and allow the vision of many to manifest through my lens all over the world.
Who was the most unforgettable model you’ve ever met?
My fiance and my kids. They are and will always be my favorite models. I love how all of my kids react differently when I point the camera at them. They make for some great images to show the future girlfriends too. HAHA!
What’s your philosophy when it comes to being a great photographer?
Show up early and carry your camera.
Showing up early could mean physically showing up early. Just the other day I had a meeting along the beach and decided to beat traffic and go over a few hours early. Unbeknownst to me, there was a Native Longboat Voyage that was launching that morning. The beach was filled with nearly 100 longboats from all up and down the coast. I ended up with some great shots. It all was because I showed up early.
The other, and more important, type of showing up early is education. Educate yourself in art history, exposure, lighting, posing, etc. because what you are doing is showing up early to every photoshoot you will ever do by knowing what to do when you get there. Education will give you the skills to capture the motion of a dancer in flowing lines or freeze her in mid-stride. It will give you the confidence to take on that job or work with that model in any situation.
The other philosophy is to always have your camera. I am actually pretty bad at this most of the time, but getting better. The more time you spend with your camera in your hands, the more it feels like a part of you and you’re able to shoot, adjust, and shoot quickly. Not having to guess at settings or try to remember, “Now how did I do that before?” is crucial at any time. Time is money – learn your gear on your own time so you can spend time creating during an actual shoot and make more money for you and your clients. Having your camera with you, as part of you, will allow you to work seamlessly without the camera becoming a distraction.
What’s a deal breaker for you when deciding to do a shoot?
Really, the only thing I can think of is payment or image rights. It’s a contractual thing. My image rights need to be where I want them, or the payment for those rights need to be met. Otherwise, I just won’t do the shoot. At the end of the day, I need to support my family, make money, and grow my business. It’s art, but I need to get paid. Don’t be afraid to talk about image rights and money early. I was scared to approach the topic when I was starting out until I heard the quote, “Those that talk about money, make the money.” Now it is brought up early and often.
How do you bring out your model’s personality in a shoot?
I just like to talk to people and learn about them – I am always asking questions and chit chatting as I am setting up lights or as we are walking to the location. I also shoot tethered – that way, my models can see what I am shooting on my laptop. It is much better for them to see the image large to get a better sense of what I am doing. Sure you can show them on your camera back, but that is so small and even I don’t use it for image quality. I use the back only for histogram levels, and if I have a good DNG.
Seeing the image on a laptop screen allows the model to see themselves and think “Okay, this guy knows what he is doing and is not making me look stupid.” That puts them at ease and it also allows me to discuss with them how we can improve the image. I do a lot of coaching with my models because unless you are a really good, professional model, you don’t know what you are doing with your face or how your hand looks in certain positions. Seeing it on screen, getting feedback, changing it, and doing it all again really helps me and my model calm down and have a great time making great images.
What do you think is the biggest thing holding you back in your photography?
Myself is the largest thing holding be back at this point. My lack of confidence. I am improving and becoming more confident in my photography but I still see how timid I am in my shots. Also marketing. I am still learning how to market and become relevant in this market in the area I want to be shooting. I have heard it said many times, “It is not the best photographer that gets the job, it is the one that is known.”Now the challenge is getting known.
What are 3 tips you have for aspiring photographers?
- Learn to understand what your camera is thinking when it meters and adjusts white balance. Know that a “proper” exposure to your camera is 18% grey. Once you understand that, you can tweak the exposure to get the picture you actually want.
- Learn the exposure triangle (ISO-Shutter Speed-Aperture) inside and out and backwards. Learn how to keep one constant and change the other two to get the same exposed image. It can be a lifesaver and makes you look more professional instead of turning dials, changing settings, and wasting time on a shoot as you try to get a correct reading from your camera.
- Get a flash and get it off your camera. Your photography will improve a thousand times over just by getting a flash off your camera. You also will feel so much more free because no longer do you need huge reflectors or to be a slave to the light that is available. You can now alter, position, and control the light.
What are 3 tips you have for aspiring models?
- Be reliable. This begins with your first interactions with a photographer. I have had many models respond to my inquiry to work with them through a modeling website who sound excited about meeting and shooting, only to start planning times and they just disappear. They don’t respond to email, texts, or calls. They just go away. Then a few weeks or so later, they contact me asking about the shoot. I’m sorry, but if you aren’t reliable, I am not going to work with you.
- Be realistic as to where you are in your career. Do not have in your modeling profile and portfolio a few bad iPhone pictures, some horribly lit shots of you from a flash on top of the camera, then demand I pay you or ask where the pictures we might take will be published. Be realistic that if you need images to build your portfolio, be willing to work TFP with a photographer.
- Just be nice and friendly. We photographers are many times looking for a wonderful person to develop long term relationships with so we can shoot many times with. That is what I am looking for in a model. I want someone that works well with me and I with them, so we can help each other build our careers. Who knows, one day, a job with a model budget may come along and if I know you, then I am calling you first.
What kind of gear do you have?
Canon 70mm-200mm f/4
Canon 50mm f/1.4
Canon 28mm f/1.8
Two Canon 480 EX speedlights
Phottix Odin radio flash trigger system
Two Westcott Orb Octobanks
Wescott 43” white umbrella
Gary Fong Lightsphere collapsible fashion kit
My go-to setup was always the t5i with the 50mm, but since I recently upgraded, I find myself grabbing the 6D with the 50mm and having the 70mm-200mm handy. I tend to switch between the two lenses regularly, so I haven’t landed on my go-to gear with the 6D yet. My next lens purchase will be a prime 85mm, and I am sure that will become my lens of choice. I also always have a flash with a radio trigger in hand with the Fong lightsphere mounted. It is a great way to fill in the shadows and open up a person’s face really quickly with great light.
What’s one lighting tip you’d like to share with other photographers?
I’ve said this many times before but it demands repeating – get a flash and get it off your camera. Period. When you get to control the light, you are no longer a slave to The Weather Channel app or limited to shooting at certain times a day. Learning how to shape the light will give your images so much more depth and dimension, happier clients, and you, more freedom in shooting and creativity.
Do you have any projects you’d like to show off?
Nothing to show yet, but I am working on a project titled “Over and Under.” It is a fashion style shoot done on rooftops and in underground parking garages.
What is your most life-changing event?
My divorce was the most life-changing event in my life thus far. It led me to discover who I truly am, what I really enjoy doing, and what I want to do with the remainder of my life – it allowed me to find the love of my life.
What has photography done for you as a person? How has it changed you?
Photography has given me focus, freedom, and brought me so much happiness in life so I can really enjoy it. Before, I was just existing. Now, I feel I am living. I enjoy life on so many more levels because of the freedom photography and video has given me. It has also given me access to places many people will never see, certain parties, and back-of-house locations. It is awesome!
Who’s your biggest hero in your life?
My parents and where I grew up (can a place be a hero?) because they taught me the work ethic I maintain today. Growing up on a small farm/ranch and working in agriculture from the time I was able to push in a clutch – I learned that stuff just has to get done. There is no such time on a clock called quitting time. You are done when the job is done and it is done right. I still hold that true in my life today. A shoot is not complete until I get the shots I am looking for plus a few more, and an edit isn’t done until it is done well and correctly. Do something all the way or just don’t do it at all.
What’s one of your biggest fears?
My biggest fear is to have lived and not made an impact on this world. It doesn’t have to reach millions or earth-shattering, but I want to encourage and inspire others. My fear is I will die having not done that. It is part of what drives me to continue to improve.
What will you be doing five years from now?
I will be shooting video and photography for some of the biggest companies on the planet. Be it internal projects, international campaigns, and/or covering events they are having – I will be found, camera in-hand and having the time of my life!
For anyone that wants to get in touch with Shawn, here’s some contact information:
Shawn, thanks so much for candidly sharing your artistic journey with us!
If any artists out there want to collaborate with FStop, don’t hesitate to reach out to us.