Shedding Light on John Mireles
by Peter Zack
For this month’s Shedding Light series, we’re fortunate to have John Mireles, founder of John Mireles Photography. He’s an accomplished wedding, portrait, fashion and advertising photographer with a studio in San Diego, a staff of 4 and 20 years experience in photography. John’s shot everything from big-budget advertising jobs to high-end weddings to family portraits along with countless personal projects. He also lectures and writes on creative and business topics pertaining to photography.
Thanks for agreeing to chat with us, John! We really appreciate you taking some time from a busy and hectic schedule. Why don’t we start off finding out how you started your path to photography as a career? What drew you in this direction?
There’s many ways for me to tell this story. I sort of like this version of it though. I found my first camera while climbing in Joshua Tree. Just a little point and shoot. A couple of years later, I was hiking up near Mt. Baker in Washington. Gorgeous mountain with big glaciers all over. I walked into a hiker’s cabin mid way up the trail and sitting on the table was an SLR camera.
I’d never owned one – way too much money for this broke college student who put all his money into climbing trips. This SLR was just sitting on the table all by itself. I decided not to take it thinking that the owner would probably come back for it. Later, I realized I was an idiot. I should have taken the camera and turned it in or something. I vowed that if I ever found another camera, I’d take it.
About two years later, I turned the corner to approach a climb on a climbing trip to in San Diego (I was going to school in Santa Barbara at the time). Sitting on a rock at the base of the climb – all by itself – was a Canon AE1 SLR camera. Remembering my pledge, I kept this camera. I used it to document my climbing adventures and later used it in my first camera class. It got me started down the road I still follow.
I’m not a big believer in “meant to be” but I often wonder whether some larger force was at work pointing me the way. By the way, I never found another camera again.
How would you describe your style of shooting? Looking through your images, it’s wide ranging. Some series seem to focus on the emotions of the subject, others are almost devoid of people. If you were to pick any place and any subject for a day, where would you go and what would you shoot?
My style? I dunno. I really try to create work that reflects who I am as a person. I’m not an uncomplicated individual so I guess my work reflects my own ever-changing moods and persona.
I’d like to think that my style is honest. Authentic. I don’t like gimmicks. I don’t like the contrived or the trite.
Picking a specific subject and place would be hard for me. There’s so much I love to do. I love big advertising projects with models, sets and a big crew. Lots of money on the line. There’s a lot of pressure and no room for error, but I freakin’ revel in it. Doing some big-ass production out in the desert is cool. Something with beautiful women doing something subversive is always fine with me.
You abandoned the old blog for a number of reasons. How has the new blog been easier to manage and keep going? I think a lot of photographers have grand plans for an inspired blog and soon after a few posts, it withers and fades away. How has the new blog been easier and how has it evolved since you started the first one?
My old blog was a blogger one. It was just a hassle to keep updated due to the clunkiness of the interface. I now use a custom WordPress site that’s a lot easier to update. Just the little things of taking extra motions or time to upload a photo makes the whole process almost undoable. My current site definitely works better than the old – though it’s not perfect.
I don’t blog as much as I used to. I used to try to blog every wedding and every shoot. I just don’t care that much any more.
What inspires you to pick up a camera and shoot for personal or non-paid work? What keeps your work photography fresh and new?
My inspiration comes from deep within. I have this need to express myself through my work. If I go too long without shooting something that I’m passionate about, I start to go through withdrawals.
Beyond that, I love telling stories. Whether it’s through a longer term project like my Italy photos or just one shot as I’ve done with some of my conceptual work, I think you’ll see some sort of story-telling element in what I do. Right now, I’m starting work on photographing outrigger canoeing in southern California. I have a whole book worked out in my head. I’m capturing the action right now, but I’ll also be shooting a lot of portraits. I want to share the experience from both an in-your-face action standpoint and from that of a more contemplative, still portrait.
As much as I like doing client work, it’s the personal work that gets me going. I don’t understand how so many photographers can just shoot weddings all the time and never do personal work. Actually, I understand it – but think it’s a terrible idea.
Too many photographers forget why they started shooting and get sucked into paying the bills. They just get burned out and then struggle to make a living because what they’re shooting is crap. When there’s no passion behind the work, the results eventually become stale and the business goes down hill. Personal work is essential to maintaining a successful business (and happy life) over the long term.
For my month long stay in Florence, Italy I created different assignments for myself every day. Street photos, landscapes, negative space, night time streetscapes, art, environmental portraits, color, were all different themes that I followed with my work.
You are quoted as saying: “I’m passionate about creating work that I love. The thing I hate most is work that’s boring. I’d rather you hate my work than be bored by it. At least if you hate the work, you’re somehow moved by it emotionally. That’s the key to the deal for me – getting an emotional response from you the viewer.” So do you shoot for yourself or the viewer? I feel some photographers shoot for what they think will look good to the prospective viewer. Does that matter to you?
Well, there’s a little bit of both. Sometimes, you’re shooting for the client. Doing the safe stuff. Other times, I swing for the fences and do the work that I love. Usually, when I’m doing work that I love, the client will love it too.
It’s a challenge though with portrait and wedding work. With commercial work, I’m photographing a model or a subject who is not involved with making decisions about the final image. With portrait and wedding clients, you’ve got to make them look good, otherwise, they’re not going to be happy.
Still, I shoot what I want. Sometimes I don’t even show the results to the client because I know they’re not going to like it. Sometimes, the work is just too extreme. Or it’s unflattering.
For example, my favorite newborn shots are those with the mom and the baby. Mom already thinks she looks terrible since she just put her body through hell giving birth. Then there’s that moment where she’s visibly tired. Beat. Not flattering at all, but such a real, powerful moment. No way a mom will go for that shot (maybe years later), but I love getting it.
I’m not stupid though. I make sure to get what the client needs. Usually, it’s the same as what I’m doing. But if what I have in mind is too unconventional, I start out safe and then push it. (Push it real good.) Ultimately, I shoot for me and figure that if I like it, the client will too.
This question comes from personal curiosity and what ‘look’ you are trying to present. I’m a real fan of your unique processing style. The slight sepia B&W’s, the heavy contrast versions and so on. Looking through your recent Anacapa Challenge Outrigger Canoe Race series and many of the Italy photos, I notice some fairly heavy vignetting added. How do you feel that adds to an image?
My processing style has actually changed quite a bit lately. I started using Lightroom for my Italy trip and what a huge difference that’s made in my ability to work efficiently with large numbers of images. Plus, I’m getting better results (usually) than I ever got in Photoshop. (Not that PS isn’t great. For my complex compositing and such, there’s no substitute for PS.) If you’re not using Lightroom to process your images, you’re spending way too much time on them.
For my outrigger canoe images, I’ve gone with a sort of toy camera look because I think that’s what works for them. There’s a number of photographers shooting the sport – all their images are bright colors. I want something different and a little unexpected. I think the treatment creates a certain moodiness that communicates a feeling that the viewer may not have expected. Besides, this summer has been very overcast down at the ocean so there’s not a lot of color to work with anyhow.
For anyone interested, the effect I’m using for the canoe shots is my Toy Camera preset available in the Toolkit Preset Kit on the Photographer’s Toolkit website.
With my Italy shots, I went with a very heavy contrast black and white look. It just seemed to work. I love punchy black and white. You mentioned my heavy vignetting, but I actually don’t like a heavy vignette much of the time. Too often it’s just a gimmick.
Your primary income and photographic work is Weddings and Portraits. How do you feel the other things you shoot influence that work? Do you find ‘recreational shooting’ has a big impact on your paid work? I notice you play the guitar. Any other interests that influence your photography?
Guitar playing has had a huge influence in how I approach photography. I was just talking to photographer Jay Reilly about this today. Most photographers think that the way to improve is to buy more and better gear. “Ooh! If I just had that 85 1.2 lens, I’d get great shots.” “My stuff would be so much better if I had that new D3x camera with a 24mm 1.4!”
That’s just bullshit. The only way to become a better photographer is to shoot and shoot and shoot. If I pick up some $5,000 Martin steel string guitar [Martin is the Leica of acoustic guitars —Ed. note], I’m going to suck just as badly as I do playing my cheapo guitar. Practicing for guitar really has helped me to appreciate just how important practice is. The only way for me to improve as a guitar player is practice. Same with photography.
In general, I think the more new experiences I have, the more experience I have to draw from and use in my work. I try to run about an hour a day through various neighborhoods. I see so much cool stuff on my runs that I can use in my photography. I’ll see something that would either work as a cool location or it sparks an idea in my head. Traveling is great for the same reasons.
Nowadays, photographers spend so much time behind their computers that they never get out. They spend their time looking at blogs and seeing what everyone else is doing. If they’d get off their asses and actually participate in the world, who knows? Perhaps more photographers would see the world in unique ways and not be reduced to just copying whatever the latest supposed rock star photographer is doing.
Could you pick one favourite photo from your personal photography and one from your work. Once chosen, can you tell us why these are favourites. What do they say to you?
This shot of twenty-somethings celebrating the 4th of July is one of my favorites. I love the composition. The decisive moment. The mid-century suburban architecture. The crowd. It’s quintessentially American and So Cal beach culture. In thirty years, people can look at this image and marvel at life in the 2000’s.
I shot this portrait of a cowboy while on assignment for an ad client. I arrived on location a couple of days early because I knew that there was the potential for some great shots. The location was a working cattle ranch in the front range of Colorado. The ranch hand was a great guy and I knew I wanted a portrait of him. I set this shot up by myself since my assistants hadn’t yet arrived with all the gear – there’s three lights here: the sun, a Profoto Giant Reflector and a head with a grid.
The shot was not on the shot list for the actual shoot, but the client ended up paying me extra to use it because they loved it. I like it because it tells a story. Plus, there’s an American flag. There’s a certain Americana that underlies much of my work.
This image of a child and baby in a food line is part of a series of images for the San Diego Food Bank. I decided to veer away from my traditional, more photojournalistic available light/black and white style and add some production value to the shots. I used a Profoto 7B portable power pack with a beauty dish to light my subjects.
I love the contrast between the trash cans and the baby. The look of the little girl. There’s something wrong with this moment, this shot. There’s also a certain poignancy to the child’s look that draws in the viewer.
Moments after I captured this moment, I turned to my wife who was assisting on this wedding in Puerto Vallarta, and mumbled, “I just took the best shot of my wedding photography career.” Whether that was true or not, I like this shot because of the different elements that I pulled together here. Getting the peak of action of the girl jumping. The bride and groom in their first dance. The old Spanish style hacienda. It’s a great story and a wonderful document of the day.
I saw the kid jumping from the other side of the fountain. I ran over to this side and got the camera as low as I could to emphasize the height of the kid. It took me a few tries, but I got the shot I wanted.
A lot of your wedding photographs have the look as if you were the second shooter. Getting angles on the people when they are looking away from the camera. How do you get so many great images and why do you think these work better than a ‘standard portrait’?
First, thanks for the compliment. I’m blushing. How do I get great images? Hard work. I’m constantly trying to break out of the obvious and surprise people with something they didn’t expect to see. I love combining elements that are in plain sight, but that nobody else thinks to connect.
Again, this goes back to practice. I have this theory that the more you practice, the more time slows down. Where the beginner can barely focus the shot when a moment occurs, I can adjust my exposure, compose, focus, recompose, and so on to really nail the shot. Time is moving so fast for the beginner – where for me it moves slower. I have more time to think about all the elements in the shot because I’m so fluent with the medium.
Also, I tell my clients that no matter how great I think I am, none of that matters if I’m not willing to do the hard work that it takes to get the shot. I bust my ass and I’m always thinking ahead. I know my gear and the process so well that I don’t screw up either.
Someone asked about my postprocessing after seeing some of my work. For that particular batch of images, I only used Adobe camera raw and that was it. It’s just that I know how to expose my stupid camera and work with the light at hand. While other folks are guessing and praying they’ll get the results they want, I just nail it. Nailing it just looks good.
You’re a big fan of Lightroom for your paid work. You’ve even developed a set of Presets for the program. Would you take a moment to tell us a bit about these and why they are a bit different?
Finally, a softball question! I’ve never used anyone else’s presets or actions. Doug Boutwell (a friend and former occasional second shooter for me) offered to give me his Totally Rad actions, but I never wanted my work to look like everyone else’s so I passed. I did load up Parker Pfister’s (another friend – we give each other hell in between singing the theme from Smokey and the Bandit together) and got an idea of what I liked and didn’t like.
I don’t have a preset for everything under the sun. The more time I spend searching for a preset is time lost. When dealing with hundreds of images, seconds add up. Having presets to adjust exposure or simple contrast is pretty much a waste. It’s easier and more accurate to just adjust that on your own instead of having a bunch of exposure adjustment presets which then forces you to scroll more for the ones you do want. More scrolling equals more time.
I also wanted to create meaningful effects that work in the real world. For example, my Overcast Pop preset brightens the subject up, gets the colors to pop a little but then brings down the sky so it doesn’t blow out. Or my Getting Ready B&W that is designed for the lousy lighting and challenging skin tones you find when the bride is getting ready in some closet sized room in the back of a church. Basically, I created presets that I would use. Pretty much everything I’m doing now utilizes the same presets that I sell.
I invite anyone who’s finds what I have to say interesting or informative to sign up for my Photographer’s Business Coach newsletter on the The Photographer’s Toolkit website. I also have archived issues on the site as well as my Lookbook posing guides and contracts for use in your photography business.
John, thanks for giving us some of your valuable time. It’s certainly been an education for me and I hope our readers. We appreciate you sharing some insights into your work and inspirations.
Thanks. it’s been fun!
Please take a moment to visit John’s sites: John Mireles Photography, John’s blog, Ventana, and last but not least, some great presets for Lightroom and other great resources on his other site The Photographer’s Toolkit
Cheers and good shooting!
All Photos: ©John Mireles.
|If you enjoyed this article and found it useful, please consider buying us a beverage. Better still, support EtL by making your online purchases through our affiliate stores—it costs you nothing extra and we get a small commission from every item.|
Note: Links in this article might be to one of our affiliate stores. Purchases made from our affiliates through these links will benefit Enticing the Light at no extra cost to you.
- Shedding Light on Kerrick James
- Shedding Light on Gordon Lewis
- Shedding Light on Haje Jan Kamps
- Shedding Light on Gianni Galassi
- Shedding Light on Marc Langille
Tags: Interview, John Mireles, Lightroom Presets, Photographers, Photography, San Diego, Wedding Photography