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In this Canon Explorers of Light Q&A series, we interview several professional photographers who are a part of Canon’s Explorers of Light program.
The Explorers of Light Program, running since 1995, boasts some incredibly talented photographers. These photographers have spent years honing their craft, and influence and educate other photographers of all levels – something, we at dPS, can respect and relate to.
In this Canon Explorers of Light Q&A series, we interview photographer Roberto Valenzuela. He shares his experiences and gives tips to upcoming photographers.
My full-time career as a photographer began in March 2006. I had been married for a little over a year, and I decided to take some time off from teaching high school to attend the annual Wedding and Portrait Photographers International (WPPI) convention held in Las Vegas, Nevada.
This convention was the yearly gathering of more than 15,000 wedding and portrait photographers from every corner of the world.
The most exciting part was that some of the world’s top wedding photographers would be there, including the famous Canon Explorer of Light photographers, who are a group of elite photographers carefully chosen by Canon USA as the best photographers in the world in their respective fields. I was in heaven!
During WPPI, I realized that my passion for photography was just too strong to ignore. I felt an inexplicable calling to photography.
A very scary thought went through my head for the first time. The thought that I may want to follow my heart and perhaps leave my high school teaching career that I loved and worked so hard to get to dedicate myself to photography full time. Oh boy! I was in trouble.
How do I tell my wife? The woman I had just married and who relied on my humble income as a teacher to live and provide health insurance.
The thought of leaving a job I adored, and that provided me with a steady paycheck, scared the heck out of me.
The trip to WPPI changed my life. It was just an overload of brain stimuli.
I loved everything about photography – the cameras, lenses, lighting, software, the technical side, the artistic side, and – my favorite – the business side. It had it all!
I knew my wife Kim would be receiving her Master’s degree in Engineering in May, and she had landed a great engineering job upon graduation. Kim having her own income, definitely helped to solidify my decision to leave teaching and pursue a career as a full-time professional photographer.
That was probably the hardest decision I have ever made. It felt as if I was jumping into a dark hole without knowing how deep the fall would be.
That following week, I made an appointment with the principal of the school to tell her that I would not be continuing after that school year. I hugged her and thanked her for the amazing opportunity she had given me. But I had to pursue this new profession, or I would regret it for the rest of my life.
Before I left her office, she asked me if I was sure, and with a heavy heart, I said, “Yes, yes, I am.”
After that school year was over, my full-time photography journey began.
The first camera I bought was the Canon 20D, and the 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 IS in 2006.
I didn’t have much money, so I put it all on one lens. I had to learn to work with this lens on every portrait and every wedding I shot.
It was especially difficult working with a floating aperture like this indoors, but that’s the only lens I had, so I figured it out.
Actually, it was that experience to only work with one lens that taught me a very valuable lesson – mastering the gear you have is something most people don’t really do.
For example, we all know what a 50mm f/1.2 lens is, but we don’t really know the ins and outs of that lens. How does it behave in the middle, or in the corners of the frame? What apertures provide the best sharpness for that lens? How does taking a portrait with a 50mm lens look at close proximity? Also, how does it differ from photographing a portrait with that lens at further distances?
I actually quite enjoyed knowing everything there is to know about one lens. Then I used that same mentality with all of my other lenses, cameras, and flashes I purchased in the future.
But as soon as Canon launched their mirrorless line with the introduction of the Canon EOS R, I embraced the technology.
Although it is different than shooting with a regular dSLR, this camera opens opportunities that are simply impossible with a dSLR. For example, with the face-detection AF, I can take the camera away from my face and engage with clients face-to-face, and while the camera is tracking their face, I’m actually taking photos without the clients knowing.
Also, the ability to use a 1-stop to 9-stop variable neutral density (ND) filter that sits inside the lens adapter is one of my favorite features. This saves me from having to buy multiple ND filters for all of my lenses.
The ND variable filter also allows me to achieve a beautiful cinematic look outdoors by keeping my apertures wide open, such as f/2.0. Then I’m able to illuminate my subjects with the full capabilities of my flashes, and I can stay within the camera’s flash sync speed. This is amazing to me!
Regardless of how bright the light outdoors may be, I can drop the light as far as I want in seconds. Then add flash to my subjects with a color gel filter to do in-camera color grading.
How cool is that?
I am also quite excited about the new R EF lenses, especially the 28-70 f/2.0. These lenses are incredibly sharp and offer a great wide aperture.
However, my favorite feature of these lenses is the ability to program the control ring to whatever you want to fit the kind of shoot you are doing. For example, I programmed my control ring to quickly change my ISO in rapidly changing lighting conditions.
My photography career began in Tucson, AZ.
In Tucson, there is not much of a fashion or beauty industry, but it is a very popular place to get married because of the beauty of the Sonoran Desert and Tucson’s famous sunsets.
On top of that, I was getting married myself during that time.
All of these factors led me to the world of wedding photography. And what a world it is!
I learned quickly that most important is what sets you apart from the hundreds of thousands of wedding photographers out there.
If I had to choose one aspect of my life that sets me apart from other wedding and portrait photographers, it would have to be my background as a classical guitarist. Being a classical guitarist forces you to develop a culture of great dedication to practice.
In fact, in my 14 years as a photographer now, I have not missed a single month that I haven’t practiced something. Regardless of how busy I am, I always make time to practice 30 to 60 minutes a month.
This practice has come in very handy in the most difficult of times to create something truly special for my clients.
For example, the photo I took in Sarasota, Florida, during a hurricane. This photograph was taken late in the evening as the wedding came to an end at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida. This photo has to be one of my all-time favorite wedding photographs in my career.
It had been raining all day and all night due to a hurricane passing by the area. To take advantage of the rain, I asked the Rolls Royce driver if he could park the car in front of the tree. I then asked my assistant to stand in front of the grid of the car with two Canon 600EXRT flash units.
One flash unit was used to backlight the couple, and the second was pointed towards the car’s headlights.
Illuminating the headlights would give the viewer the perception that this photograph was lit by the car’s lights. However, the car was not even on. When everything was set, I then asked the bride and groom to run out quickly. It took us a couple of tries to get it right, and maybe we got a little wet, but the photograph is magical, and it will last forever!
Without my relentless practice sessions with my flashes, I would have never been able to visualize this beautiful photo in the midst of a hurricane passing through the location of the wedding.
I have a full production studio in Beverly Hills now. Although I still shoot a few weddings a year, my focus has switched to commercial fashion photography.
I am incredibly passionate about the benefits I have received from really taking the time to master all aspects of lighting and posing. The more you know about lighting and posing, the more fun you have as a photographer.
The art of photography just opens up to you in ways you never thought imaginable. The type of work you can produce with more knowledge is just incredible and addictive!
Because of this, I dreamed of creating the ultimate education platform for eager photographers wanting a concentrated level of the highest quality education in pure lighting knowledge.
So, I’m in the process of designing a conference. More details to come.
I would say that photography has opened doors in my life that I have never thought possible. But it has come because of my training.
My tip would be to never think you know something so well, that you don’t have to learn anymore. Keep your curiosity as big as that of a child. Learn how to pose so that people don’t look posed.
Also, learn how to light, so that the light communicates something to the viewer instead of using light simply to illuminate and create an exposure.
Embrace education, learning, and the new technologies available to help you expand your capabilities and become an even better visual storyteller.
See more of Roberto Valenzuela’s work here: