Dean Bradshaw: Putting the Pieces Together

Photos © Dean Bradshaw

"Photography has taken me to some amazing places and allowed me to meet people I would never have had the opportunity to otherwise meet," says Aussie transplant Dean Bradshaw, who now works in Southern California. "For me it has been a lifestyle and a way of interacting with the world more than just something I do to pay the bills."

Bradshaw said that he likes to think of photography as the intersection between art and real life. But that intersection doesn't always happen spontaneously. Usually it takes perseverance, serendipity, bootstrapping and an ability to pre-visualize the pieces of a photo before they ever comes together.

Case in point, the process of creating the image of a San Diego breakdancer, above.

Having decided he wanted to shoot breakdancers as a personal project, Bradshaw injected himself into the San Diego dance scene. He hung out at a local competition, hoping to "street cast" some of the dancers for photography.

After the competition, the conversation got a little heated outside between two dancers and guy on the corner who was petitioning nearby. Before long, (and as Bradshaw notes, "just like in the movies,") they settled into a dance-off. Also just like in the movies, the petitioner on the corner turned out to be a kick-ass breakdancer, and was the one Bradshaw approached to photograph.

To pull back for a second, there is a lot to pick up here. If you want to shoot certain types of people, go to where they hang out. Seems obvious enough, but this one simple step is usually the difference between shooting only the type of stuff other people want you to shoot, and getting to choose your own subjects.

Do this often enough, and your portfolio starts to be filled with exactly the types of images you want to shoot. Then, you are more likely to get called upon by other people to produce those types of photos. It's a positive feedback loop.

Or, you can sit around and bitch about the types of jobs that come your way and swear that you will never stoop to shooting something for free. That's a feedback loop, too. Just a different kind.

Shoot personal work. Make things happen. Luck is when preparation meets opportunity. It seems to be working for Bradshaw:

So Bradshaw approached the guy and offered to shoot some photos. As it happened, the dancer was leaving the area in just a few days. So the shoot would have to be put on hold for several months, if it was to ever happen at all.

Only it didn't really happen that way. But that's how it would have happened for a less opportunistic photographer. With his hand forced by the clock, Bradshaw set up a quick shoot in the garage studio of a friend in Oceanside.

Full disclosure, this is the hurdle probably would have bested me. I would have settled for my second choice of a subject so I could have devoted more time to choosing a location and concept for a shoot.

Not Bradshaw, who frequently shoots his images in stages and then composites the final result into a single photo. And while ideally compositors would prefer to shoot the background plate first, the dancer's schedule dictated that there would be no such luxury this time.

As an experienced compositor, Bradshaw knows that the key to marrying the elements is lighting continuity. But in this case he would have to build the continuity based on a "best guess" of the background plate to come later. Even so, he decided to inject some color.

"Most natural scenes have multiple color temperatures – especially at night," Bradshaw said. "I’m a big fan of environmentally driven lighting on the subject when compositing so I knew I’d have to use a background that included multiple colored lights. Green and gold were just on-the-fly choices – I didn’t think too much of it."

So Bradshaw photographed the dancer in a garage with Canon 5d Mk II a set of Paul Buff Einstein flashes, which he choose for their super-fast flash durations. In fact the project had originated partly as a speed test for the Einsteins.

For the modifiers on the rims he used Paul Buff PLMs, which are both highly efficient and directional -- like a gridded soft box. The space constraints of the garage meant that the large green and gold rims were in the frame, so he flagged them near the camera to avoid flare. He used a silver beauty dish for a frontal key.

The image above is a relatively static portrait of the dancer. Even so, Bradshaw had him whip his head from side to side to capture movement in his hair. Bradshaw felt that in this image, the movement goes unnoticed because the movement is so serene.

Main subject in the can, the search for the background was now on. Bradshaw came across the scene above a couple of months later, while searching for a background image for another project.

The background shot, also made on a Canon 5DMkII, was flopped to marry the colors to the foreground plate. The sodium and mercury vapor lighting was close to the right color, but the greens shifted to blue during the required time exposure. So Bradshaw tweaked the colors toward green to get the continuity he needed.

The continuity of color and direction between foreground and background helps to suspend the viewers disbelief. This is important, because what the composite does not have is time continuity. The foreground is an action-stopping shutter speed (governed by the Einsteins) while the background is a time exposure. But the attention to light helps to bring it all together.

A quick look at some of Bradshaw's other work reveals a continuity of presentation that comes from being proactive about his subject matter. And others are starting to take notice, too. He is currently en route back from Uganda, where he shot for Invisible Children, an organization which seeks to end the use of child soldiers in central African conflicts.

Back in SoCal, he will be back to shooting regularly and building up his work in the hopes of shooting for visually conscious magazines such as Outside and Esquire. So if you are reading this from one of those offices, expect to hear from Dean one day. Or better yet, email him yourself.

And if you know someone who might be particularly interesting and appropriate subject matter for Dean in SoCal, he is always looking to expand the pool of "real people" subjects for both commercial and personal work. Send images and contact information to


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