Interview with Ty Downing

Interview with Ty Downing


Ty Downing

Ty Downing Photoworks

Position: Documentary Portrait Photographer
School or Professional Training: Photojournalism, Oregon State University
Location: Lake Oswego, OR

I've been lucky enough to work with Ty on a shoot and see his amazing skill first hand. Here he shares with us some of the COLOURphoto information.

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CL: hey Ty, maybe we can start by hearing a bit about your history and some of the clients you've worked with.

Ty Downing: I am a documentary portrait photographer. My studio specializes in on-location, in-the-moment photography of families and friends.

My background is commercial photography: shooting for magazines, record companies, and national advertising clients. A few names I've worked with: Virgin Records; Outside, National Geographic Adventure, and Rolling Stone magazines; KSwiss, Club Sport, Discovery Channel, and others. I've had a diverse background, as far as photo subjects go!

CL: so, are you a digital or film guy?

Ty Downing: I made the switch to digital cameras three years ago, and haven't looked back. There are many advantages over shooting film -- and ease of controlling & matching color is a large part of that.

CL: i'm curious about how lighting affects the colors in photos... i'm guessing that light is the #1 issue in photos and depending on levels of light it can affect the whole shot.

Ty Downing: No matter what I'm photographing, light is the absolute crux of the matter -- and close behind that is the color of the light. Shooting on location is much different than shooting in a controlled studio, in large part due to the influence of ambient light and color on my subjects. Sometimes, especially indoors, I'm confronted with two or more light sources, with far different color temperatures, and each must be taken into account if the goal is to get a uniform hue from all light sources. This is usually done by placing gel sheet filters over my supplemental lighting, to match the prominent existing light sources (again, this applies mostly to jobs involving shooting INDOORS, with the lights on).

For example, if I'm shooting in a gym with fluorescent fixtures, I'll put the correct green filters over my strobes to get them to match the existing lighting. Then all light sources match, and I can custom tune my camera white balance to the scene.

CL: are there certain colors that are harder to shoot then others?

Ty Downing: Overall, digital cameras are much more forgiving with mixed light sources than is film. I HAVE photographed jobs before where filtering/balancing all light was not possible, and it's amazing how great the results will be, compared to how film would record the same scene. When shooting RAW file format, there is an additional layer of control one can utilize upon opening the image in Photoshop, so even with a complex mix of light sources, is is possible to find an 'acceptable' compromise in temperature adjustment, where the extreme differences in light sources may not be as noticeable.

True color purists -- and architectural photographers -- may cringe when they hear talk of color 'compromise'. I understand this, but my clients hire me for my devotion to directing and capturing 'the moment' -- that often fleeting time where the subject is radiating unbridled emotion, and clearly projecting their personality. This is more important to my work by far than precision color concerns, which would take valuable time and spontaneity away from the shoot. In my work, color is a supporting element of light, and is one of several ingredients that creates mood to fit my client's 'vibe' -- and my photographic concept -- best.

There is one color issue I've been noticing more lately: the influence of grass/foliage on light skin tones. This has always been an issue (even on film) when photographing people on grass, but it seems much more pronounced and evident when recorded by a digital camera. It most often manifests itself in the mid- to shadow-tones as a greenish cast -- definitely not appealing on skin tones! So I'm taking care to flag off my subjects, to block the green light trying to attach itself to their faces.

CL: a while back we were talking about the differences between b&w vs. color when creating a certain mood... can you talk about that?

Ty Downing: I will often convert color images to rich black and white (usually a very slightly warm tone b&w) if the image warrants it. Good candidates for b&w treatment usually are more 'classic' -- often close-ups, with honest/real facial expressions, 'timeless' wardrobe (sweaters & suits are typical candidates), and little background detail.


Another method to focus attention on personality in a portrait is to de-saturate the color somewhat, to somewhere between color and bamp;w. It has a stalling effect on the viewer because it is not immediately apparent just how the photo has been treated, and it seems to invite study of the image. Like any color conversion, I try to use this sparingly, and very few images in a shoot (if any) will get this treatment.

CL: are you noticing any trends in color use for photographers...

Ty Downing: It's a rather exciting time in the visual arts -- or at least photography -- in that the doors of style seem to be blown wide open, and there are few constraints or guidelines that artists follow when dealing with color. I find myself drawn to natural color palettes, and to those that fall on the desaturated side. This is probably a reaction to the 90's craze of 'cross processing' color film to achieve hyper contrast and super-saturation. That was fun while it lasted, and yes, I did it too for some clients...but it had the overall effect of making me appreciate the subtleties and nuance of many colors working together, rather than smacking viewers with a few blown-up colors.

I remain a student of light and color, and learn more everyday about how this wonderful phenomenon constantly impacts my world as it strikes, bounces, scatters, absorbs and surrounds me.

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