Interview with Michelle Monique
by Christian Argueta
In my quest for knowledge, I often come across some great "behind the scenes" videos from photographers that are generous enough to share their know-how and expertise with the rest of the world. Such was the case when I came across Michelle Monique's fantasy work. What I had found was the wonderful BTS (behind the scenes) video from her TEKKEN.
I was so impressed and inspired by how Michelle shows how she designed and created the outfit, set up and lit up her living room and photographed her models in ways where they literally leap off the page in the final image.
What I was also struck by was how Michelle came across as a very unassuming and down to earth girl who simply loves what she does, enjoys it immensely and thus puts in as much time and effort as is needed to accomplish that image that she has formed in her mind. She seems to have a lot of fun doing what she does and IT IS WHY she does what she does. And who wouldn't enjoy watching that?
Michelle was kind enough to take time off of her busy schedule to share some of her story with us at 1X.com.
Why photography and how did you get into it?
I actually got into photography by accident. I was always very visual and artistic growing up, but I never actually thought to myself “I want to be a photographer.” Back when I was 14, I wanted to take some cool “my space” photos of myself and my friends. Our first “photo shoot” was in my bathroom because I was too shy to let my parents know I was dressing up and taking pictures. It was a ton of fun and for about a year we kept doing these mini shoots. I then discovered Deviantart, where I was blown away by all the amazing photos there and it became my obsession to get as good my favorite artists. I spent all of my free time messing around in photoshop and playing with lights. It basically got to the point where I didn’t socialize outside of school so that I could keep learning more about photography and photoshop.
Tell us a bit about yourself. How old you are, where you're from...
I’m 23, and I’ve lived in California my whole life. I’m located near San Francisco. I’m currently working on my marketing degree, and I will finally be graduating this December!
On your website, your gallery is comprised of "creative," "beauty," and "commercial" works. Is the broad range of work out of necessity, or simply because you enjoy all styles of photography?
I think I’ve been cursed with having totally unrelated interests. I’ve always loved makeup and beauty, but I also play lots of video games and am into lots of geeky things. Commercial is just the section I have to show off work that I’ve done for clients. It’s actually more beneficial for photographers to stick to one style and find their “niche”. It’s been hard for me to find that “niche” since I can’t make myself choose one genre and give up the others. I would feel like I’m missing out on aspect of doing something that I love so much. Hopefully, I will be able to get a broad range of commercial work this way!
What type of person are you and how has this affected your photography?
Looking at my interests I would probably fit into the “geek” culture. When I have time, I indulge in video and board games. Some of my favorites are World of Warcraft, Skyrim, Tekken, and Settlers of Catan. I’m also hopelessly obsessed with Game of Thrones (the show, the books, and the board game), Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, science, philosophy, and economic documentaries, and much more. This has had a huge influence on my art, because I’ve been able to draw inspiration from all of them which includes anything from costume styles, environments, stories, to straight up cosplays. One of my favorite images is of Arachne in a cave. I got the initial idea from the Greek mythology of a half-woman half-spider creature. The rest of the inspiration is drawn mostly from World of Warcraft. There are these spider caves in game that have a really dark, but saturated coloring to them and I wanted my photo to have that same atmosphere. I also wanted it to have a creepy feel to it similar to Ghostlands. Lastly, I got the chain idea from Mistress of Pain in Diablo III.
I couldn't help but notice that you shoot a lot of your concepts in what appears to be your house. What are the pros and cons of this and if you could, would you rather have a studio?
I do indeed shoot in my house. I think the pros definitely outweigh the cons, so I hope I can continue doing this for as long as possible. I don’t have to pay to rent a studio, I can practice the lighting for concepts before the actual shoot, and I can set up shoots on a whim because all my equipment is ready to go. There have been a lot of times where a small detail like something on the outfit or a model’s hand or foot looks wrong to me. I can just put on the outfit myself, photograph it, and composite it onto the model all within an hour. Having to drive to a studio to do this every time would be a real pain! Shooting in an actual studio won’t change the quality of the images, but shooting in a house may come off as unprofessional to clients. My ideal situation for the future would be to have a separate house and studio structure on the same lot, but separate from each other.
You obviously enjoy creating these wonderful images. Is this how you earn your living? If so, how long did it take, from the time you started in photography, to when you began getting clients?
Yep this how I earn my living. I started at 14, got my first major client (Random House) at 18, and now I’m 23 and still shooting mostly book covers probably because of that first gig!
What's in your toolbox now? What have you used before? (camera, lens, filters, lights, software, etc)
I’m still using the same DSLR that I got when I was 16 – the Canon EOS 40D. I’d really like to upgrade to a 5D soon. I have 3 lenses: the 28 – 135mm f/3.5, 50mm f/1.8, and the 18 – 55mm. I have 3 aikiphoto flash heads and for modifiers I have a photek softlighter 60”, 22” Kacey beauty dish, 2 softboxes, and an umbrella. I have a polarizing filter and neutral density filters (ND2, ND4, ND8). I use a wacom tablet intuos4 and I edit with Photoshop CS3. For video work I use After Effects CS6.
What advice would you give a newbie on hardware and software? Should you start off with an affordable point and shoot or a DSLR?
With the internet at our fingertips, learning how to use a camera, lens, and lighting equipment has never been easier. I would go back and forth between reading tips online and practicing what they taught me with my actual lights and camera. It just takes some time and patience. There are lots of youtubers and websites that can explain almost any question one may have about hardware or software ranging from beginner to expert. Fstoppers has really good tutorials about technical photography, and desigh.tutsplus.com and Phlearn.com are great for Photoshop help. I was also able to learn a lot by reading and talking in photography forums. The fastest way to learn the lingo and equipment is to just jump in.
To answer your question about a first camera, I think it depends on a couple of factors: 1) How quickly do you want to move up in your photography career? 2) How serious are you about photography? I can give myself as an example. I was 14 when I started, and I was definitely not serious about it. I think if you are very young, with limited funds, the best option is to borrow a relative’s or friend’s point and shoot camera. A lot of photographers I’ve seen started out using a point and shoot when they were kids before moving up. I used my dad’s Olympus point and shoot until I was 16 and then bought my DSLR. By starting with the Olympus, I was able to explore photography and learn about composition and lighting with no cost. On the flip side, if you want to enter the photography business within 5 years or so, then definitely invest in a DSLR. You won’t be able to learn fast enough with a point and shoot, since you will have no practical experience about lenses or manual features.
How do you find people for projects and how do you approach them and get them to agree to work with you?
In regards to clients, I haven’t actually reached out before. All the work that I’ve gotten has been from a referral or just by finding my work online. Once I graduate college, I plan on finding an agent and doing some heavy duty marketing. For models, I either find them on model mayhem, Instagram, or from a local model agency. On websites, I just message the model to see if she’s interested – it’s pretty simple. If I go through an agency for personal work, I ask to see if any models are willing to test and I set up a shoot with one of those girls. For paid work, pretty much any model in an agency will be up to shoot. Most agencies have the same rates, so I know what to expect. I work with the best makeup artist (Shiree Collier) on all my shoots because we compliment each other really well. I was lucky enough to find her on model mayhem about a year ago!
Your latest work seems to be heavily composited and digitally enhanced. How did you start doing such cool work and what would you advice someone new wanting to start creating images such as yours?
I’ve always really enjoyed enhancing photos in photoshop. I think it gives them that special something that makes people want to stay and look at more of my work. It started out with awful looking filters in the beginning, to mostly just color adjustments, to full on compositing. As my ideas got more complex, I realized I just wouldn’t be able to execute them without knowing how to remove backgrounds and match the lighting of all elements. Fantasy worlds don’t exist for us, so they have to be creating by blending multiple elements.
The most important thing to remember when compositing is to make sure the lighting of everything in the picture is the same. This used to be impossible for me since I’d blend my photo of a model with a stock image but lately I’ve been photographing the backgrounds too. My earlier work looks a little cut and paste-y and it’s quite obvious it’s been photoshopped. I think my newer work looks a lot smoother. I plan out the lighting for each final image before I even photograph the model that way there is no guess work involved. For example, in my babydoll cosplay image, I knew I wanted her in a train with two parallel sets of lights on either side of her. So when I lit her, I had the sides of her lit and had very little fill on the front. I did the same thing for the robots, and the pieces of flying metal. I also had to add color adjustments to each individual piece of metal, the lights, the vents, the train – everything, to make sure it looks consistent.
Are there other photographers that influence you? If so, who are they and how do they?
Some of my favorites are Erik Almas, Annie Leibovitz, Dave Hill, Alexia Sinclair, and Jill Greenberg. I’m really inspired by Hill’s extreme compositions. He takes the photos separately and combines them in post. There is an insane amount of detail in each picture, with so many models, and really unique lighting. I hope I can one day create composites like him! I love how much emotion is in Leibovitz’s work. You can really feel the story just by looking at the photo. She really is a master of posing and composition. I aspire to capture the level of feeling you get from her photos in my own.
What's the best way for people to keep up with what you're doing? (website, twitter, youtube, facebook, etc)
I am active on the following platforms:
Model Mayhem: http://www.modelmayhem.com/756829
Official Website: http://www.michellemoniquephoto.com/
Finally, and this is mostly an open question, for anyone interested in photography, young or old, what words of advice, tips, or just general wisdom would you share with them (us)?
If you are just starting out, then the best way to learn about photography is to just get out there and shoot as much as possible! In the beginning, I would try to mimic some of my favorite photographers. I can’t say that I ever succeeded, but I think this was key to learning quickly. I would compare my pictures to theirs and obsess for days on end why mine didn’t look as good. Then I would try something different for the next shoot, and repeat the process over and over until I learned what I wanted to know. I then took this knowledge and applied it to my own unique style.
Of course, as you are learning, it is also important to find your own voice in the photography world because having work that looks just like someone else’s isn’t going to get you anywhere. You need to spend some time thinking about what are your passions and interests outside of photography. This may end up becoming the subject and theme of your photographs (it certainly did for me!). I suggest working on something that you are passionate about because this will keep you motivated and pull you through hard times. The other aspect of finding your voice is the type of emotion and message that you want to convey. It’s best to specialize in a certain area, instead of being average at everything. The adage “Jack of all trades, master of none” definitely applies here. Do you like pastels, dark colors, saturated colors, dramatic emotions, genuine emotions, etc. I’ve always been drawn to saturated, monochromatic, tertiary colors. Each photo SCREAMS blue, pink, teal, etc. In terms of lighting, I love backlit photos because they feel cinematic, fantastical, and moody. Lastly, for subject matter, I enjoy photographing women warriors, femme fatales, and mythological women because they feel inspirational to me. This is probably why I love RPG video games! It’s so much fun to kick ass!
Michelle, thank you so much for taking the time to share with us a bit about yourself. Your unique way of conceiving your fantasy and non-fantasy imagery and the way you go about making them a reality is really inspiring (and so much fun to watch!). You make it look easy and the same time they're incredible works of art. We can't wait to see what you have in store for us in the future.