SmugMug Films: Mastering Illusions with Joel Grimes
This week we’re debuting Joel Grimes as our next SmugMug Films subject. As commercial pro and Photoshop wizard, Joel has found great success following his creative dreams and leading workshops worldwide on how he plans, shoots, and polishes those incredible images. Watch the film now and don’t forget to subscribe to the channel to see each new episode as we post them.
When it comes to creating masterful illusions, Joel Grimes is happy to share what it takes to succeed in the art and photography world: hard work and passion. The bravery to be yourself at all times doesn’t hurt, either. Learn how he applied these truths to his own path into commercial photography.
Tell us a bit about how you got started with art and photography.
I’ve always had that side to me, even when I was a little kid. In grade school, we’d have art projects, and I would be in heaven. Then in seventh grade, I think it was, I had my first official art class. That was the ultimate. I was like, “Wow, every day I get to do art and actually receive a grade.”
When I got to high school, we had a program where you could do photography. I just thought, “This is really cool.” I ended up staying in the program my sophomore year, and then my junior and senior years. By the time I was a senior, I was the photo teacher’s assistant. But I still didn’t understand starting it as a career.
When I got out of high school, I ended up working for an outdoor store downtown. One day a man came in looking for a waterproof container. I asked what it was for, and he said it was for transporting film. I said, “I’m a photographer, too!” I had just spent every dime I had on this new black-body camera, which was the first: the Canon EF. At the time, I thought it was like buying a ferrari. It was just so amazing.
Turns out he was the head professor of photography at Pima Community College and asked if I’d thought about taking any photography classes. They had just started a new semester at the college, and he said if I really wanted to get in his class, he could pull some strings. I said yes!
What I didn’t know is he had a waiting list of 80 students for that class. His name was Lou Bernal, and he was the most inspiring educator I’ve ever been around. He really launched me into thinking about photography, not only as a possible career but as an art form. From that point on, photography really became an all-consuming passion.
But I still didn’t understand photography as a career. Like, do I do weddings? Do I do editorial? After college I ended up sharing a studio with a guy who was a natural at marketing. He really taught me a lot about selling myself. With his guidance, I ended up going after the commercial advertising arena. And I’ve been doing it ever since.
I look back and never thought I’d get to where I am. It’s just amazing. I feel very blessed.
What inspires you first when you go about creating an image? Do you see the full concept or does a background or subject inspire you first?
In songwriting, people ask, “What comes first: the melody or the lyrics?” It’s the same with photography. For some people the melody comes first. Some people get an idea and put it into lyrics. It’s really a mixture of both.
I think about an idea, but most of the time it’s kind of a discovery process—it’s found moments. Found ideas that aren’t too thought-out, meaning I don’t create a plan for what I want to end up with. I have an idea stylistically, but it’s not as scripted as people think.
I always tell people there’s two things I’m not and two things I believe I am. I’m not brilliant and I’m not a creative genius. I do have a passion for the creative process, and I work really hard at it. I put in the time.
You can be brilliant and a creative genius and produce nothing in your lifetime. But if you have a passion for the creative process and you work very hard, great things follow.
When we’re in school learning photography, many people think, “I’m not brilliant at it. I’m not as talented as my friend or my classmates.” That’s what I thought when I was in school. But in the end, having a passion for the creative process will out-trump or outwork and outperform the brilliant creative geniuses. Don’t worry about if you feel like you don’t quite get it. Just keep practicing. Keep working at it. Keep putting in the time. And then explore.
What gets you up at 4:30 in the morning to photograph the sunrise? Being brilliant? Being a creative genius? No. It’s passion. I can’t wait to see what this morning will bring. And those are the people who achieve great things.
Your process relies more on finding the right feel for the moment and less on the technical, but do you have go-to light setup—somewhere you start before tweaking?
You have to, especially when you do commercial shoots. You have to know the basics of achieving a soft light or a harsh light. How to light one person or ten people. It’s all about solving problems.
When you’re in a commercial scenario, you can’t just play and hope it will all come together. I’ve walked into a room with a client standing over me, and I’ll say we’re going to shoot from this angle with lights here and our subject here. Within 4 minutes I have it figured out. And they ask, “Are you sure? Can we try over here?” And I say that won’t work because there’s cross light and you have a big pipe in the background. That comes from just having walked into a room a thousand times. Time and practice.
I can teach everything I know about lighting in 30 minutes, but it takes 20 years of practice to understand how to apply that lighting. Unless you practice it over and over again, you’ll never be able to walk into a situation and build the shot.
I try to create light that could be a real-life scenario. So I use cross-light, like Rembrandt did, which is a simulation of what could be a true environment. I can simulate sunlight with one big light source. I can do a three-light approach with two edge lights and one overhead light, like if I had two windows to each side of me and a little bit of fill in the middle. That’s a pretty rare scenario, but it’s true. It can happen. I actually like to do that three-light approach because it builds depth and it looks a bit gritty.
I use my light to create a certain feel. It is a representation of what could be real and true, but it’s really about creating the mood.
How do you coax your subject to deliver the shot you’re looking for?
Personality plays a role in how I approach my subjects. Some photographers are animated, coaxing their subject to crack up and smile and do all sorts of crazy things. Others will walk over and move the subject’s arm, their chin, their hand. My personality is to watch the subject as I ask them to try different things. Suddenly they’ll do something and I’ll say, “Oh! Can you do that again?”
I’ll give an example. There’s a shot I took of the rapper Mustafa. He’s got his shirt off underneath a leather coat, he’s in a tunnel, and he’s right in your face. The light’s perfect on his face and his hands and he’s coming right at you. He was actually a bit reserved when he came in. As we started to work, he was standing there, and it wasn’t really working. As I watched him, he started pulling on the jacket. I said, “That’s cool, what if you spun and held your jacket out like that?” He did, and that’s our shot. I had no idea that’s where we were going to end up. But because I saw him tugging on the jacket while I was moving lights, I thought it might be a cool shot.
That’s how the process works for me. I don’t overscript or overthink it. I let everything take its course.
Within this commercial realm, do you have a favorite type of shoot you like to do?
Sports figures make unbelievable subjects because they’re superheroes. They make great subjects. But I also like photographing real people. I love faces. I love personalities. I love characters.
For example, I met a guy named Steve Stevens in New Orleans. He’s got these really cool sunglasses on and he’s kind of looking off to the side with New Orleans in the background. He was my ride from the airport to the college where I was speaking. While he was driving, I was thinking, “This guy is perfect!” So I asked if I could bring him in to do a portrait during my demo. I end up getting this great shot and everyone thinks I cast this guy from hundreds of people. But it’s an everyday person. I just make them look larger than life.
Could you tell us a bit about a shoot that’s most memorable to you to date?
Before digital, I was doing commercial ad work and some corporate work and shooting with a large-format, 4×5 camera and sheet film. Very slow and very meticulous. A large power utilities company was doing an annual report and I was called in to the creative pow-wow meeting with the CEO, art director, and everybody. They wanted to do something different that year, so I pitched the idea of doing a series of portraits of the customers—the end users of electricity—in black-and-white large format. I knew I was really pushing it, but they let me put some samples together and come back. And they ended up going for it. I went to 24 countries with that 4×5 camera. China, Brazil, Argentina, Kazakhstan. It was just heaven.
We can really hear the joy and passion in your voice, and you obviously have a lot of fun doing this. Do you have any challenges?
Generally, as human beings, we tend to want to follow, not lead. If someone paves the way for us, we’ll follow that path. The hardest thing for me, and I think for most people, is that we get inspired by others’ work and we think we want to be someone else. We want to be that photographer, we want to follow their lead. The problem is if you follow others, you always blend with the masses. But if you follow your uniqueness and stick with what you do best, you’ll stand out.
It’s scary to hang your hat on something that’s just you. It opens the door to criticism, and nobody likes to be criticized. So we avoid criticism at all costs, and we follow others. The hardest thing for me is to stay true to who I am. Yes, we need to be inspired by others, but every day I have to wake up and be Joel Grimes, not somebody else. When I teach, I always tell people, “Be yourself.” You’re unique. One of a kind. There’s no one on the planet just like you. And when you work from your uniqueness, you’ll rock the world.
What do you love most about being an illusionist?
Taking something that is everyday and adding excitement. For the most part we tend to go to work, get a coffee, go to our desk, do our task, go home. We want to experience something that’s outside the everyday mundane. My job as a photographer—as an artist—is to create things that take people out of the everyday and submerge them in something that’s a bit of a fantasy.
Being an illusionist is really being an artist and honing that craft to a point where people believe it. They believe that girl is that beautiful. That guy is that strong. They look amazing. Larger than life. Lighting and Photoshop play into that formula. Some people say that’s not right, but every photograph is a manipulation because you choose the lens, you choose when to take the picture—when to create that moment. Everything’s a representation of reality. It’s my job as an artist to take that representation and make it even more fantastic. That’s fun. To me, that’s part of being an artist.
Could you talk about how you refine the illusion in post-process?
It’s part of the creative process. You take the picture and then you have to finish creating it. Some people think Photoshop is cheating. But as an artist, it doesn’t matter how much I create in camera or in Photoshop. In the end, when I present that image, does it work? Is it a reflection of my artistic vision? That’s what’s most important.
So I blend the two together. I solve some problems in Photoshop that I couldn’t do in camera, using blending modes, working on multiple layers, masking, all that. When I’m teaching, some people say, you know, if you lift your left leg and put your finger on the Alt key, there’s a shortcut. And I say, okay, but right now that’s not important. What’s important is I’m getting to where I need to to be.
Over time I’ll learn that working with smart objects is a better way to work than not. And adjustment layers are less destructive. I learn all those little things as I go. There are people who can run circles around me in Photoshop, but in the end, people really like the end result I achieve.
Any favorite tools in Photoshop?
One of the things I teach a lot is to work from a RAW image, bring it into the RAW converter, manipulate it there, and then open it as a smart object in Photoshop. This way, when the image comes over, it’s still tied to RAW. That gives me very little destruction.
The problem most people face when they start in Photoshop is they destroy their image. There’s a thousand ways to destroy your image, lose bit depth, lose pixels, lose tones, detail, all that. The number-one rule: minimize destruction. Smart objects and adjustment layers are the single two most important things to have in your workflow to minimize destruction.
Any advice for those looking to get into creative photography?
To be an artist, you have to put your neck on a chopping block. It’s impossible to survive as an artist in this industry if you can’t overcome rejection. The biggest thing that keeps us from moving forward is fear of rejection. You may get lots of praises, but you’re not always going to get a good critique. And a negative critique is like a knife stabbing you in the back, with an added twist. It hits right in your heart.
As human beings, we don’t like to be criticized. It hurts. And it keeps us from moving forward and taking risks. But you can’t let one person steal your dream. That person may not have any authority whatsoever in truly understanding what you’re doing, but it still derails you as an artist.
It’s like country western versus rap. If you’re a country western singer and you present your demo to a rap record-label company, they’re going to wonder what the heck you’re doing there. They’re going to boot you out the back door as quickly as they can, right? And you feel rejected.
But were you really rejected? No, because you gave them something they don’t have any interest in. As artists, we present our work to people who sometimes have no interest in what we’re doing. And when they say they aren’t interested, we take it personally. It’s like selling country western to a rap label.
Criticism will come. It’s guaranteed! Don’t take it personally.
Anything we didn’t ask that you’d like us to know?
Hard work will outperform talent any day of the week. Put in more hours than the person you’re competing against. Practice, practice, practice, and great things will follow.
Find Joel online: