Jim LaSala is a fine art and documentary photographer with some of his most notable and recent work coming from the streets of Haiti and Cuba.
With the ability to capture the human condition in its most natural form, LaSala’s strong communication skills with strangers is an essential quality for any photojournalist or aspiring street photographer to strive for.
LaSala is also a fine art photographer, merging this artistic style into his documentary photography through post processing.
Tell me a bit about yourself. How did you get your start in photography?
My professional career started later in life. Although I have always been interested in photography, it wasn’t till after an early retirement I decided to look into it as a way to make a living. I moved to Flemington, NJ back in 1988 from Brooklyn, NY and joined a few photography organizations, to include a local camera club.
I met a professional wedding photographer there who asked if I would like to assist him, and that’s where it all began. I worked two years for him before moving on to open my own business in 1990. As the years past and the economy started to decline and the digital era started, I decided to give up weddings and move on to other types of photography.
Your work seems to be divided between documentary and fine art. What do you think draws the line between these two genres and is there an instance where a photograph can be classified as both?
I learned at an early age to be able to communicate with people since I grew up with parents who were deaf. It was something that was very difficult as a young growing boy, but I believe it was a blessing in disguise as it made me more sensitive on my approach to people.
My documentary style of work has certainly changed my approach to the way I see live, people and places, as well as photography. I have made six trips to Haiti to document their plight and I’m hoping that I continue to keep the story alive through my images. I have also been quite involved with senior citizens as well as the homeless.
Trying to impart the story they have to tell through their eyes and faces. The beauty and dignity of people can easily be passed by in everyday life and taken for granted. That’s when I try to take the time to stop, talk, listen and share. Fine Art photography is another way to share my passion. I guess the word Fine Art Photography could have many meanings. To me it can be anything from photographing abstracts to people. I feel it is just the vision that has been created by the photographer to make his statement. Some might use the word impressionistic versus reality. So for me, I’m always looking for a way to give my imagery a unique look. Some might say they have a painted effect. Although I do not use any painting software programs, I’m very aware on how to turn a two-dimensional capture into one that has structure and dimension in my post processing. So I do believe you can certainly mix these types of effects both in you documentary work as well as what you might define as fine art photography. What gear (e.g. camera, lens, etc.) do you recommend for street photography and portraiture?
Here’s where the boy comes out in me (the toys!!). With the way technology has changed and is continuing to move quickly, there are many cameras out there that have their claim to fame.
For me, it is really about understanding its capabilities. What can you afford? What type of photography, etc. For me and the type of photography that I do, I’m looking for a system that allows me to shoot quickly and at a very high ISO without worrying about noise issues since 99.9% of my photography is captured using natural light. I travel with:
- Nikon D3s
- Nikon D4s
- Nikon 70-200mm 2.8 VR (my go to lens for people photography)
- Nikon 85mm 1.4 (Incredibly sharp and super fast)
- Nikon 14-24mm 2.8
- Nikon 28-70mm 2.8
- Nikon 16mm 2.8 Fisheye
- Nikon SB 800 (just in case) but it has dust on it.
- MacBook Pro
- LaCie External Drive
All this equipment fits in a Kata Backpack which then will fit under a plane seat. Spider Holster (a very important piece of equipment for me). It allows me to carry 2 cameras on my hips at all time.
In your photo series “Eyes on Haiti” you’ve successfully documented the human condition. What advice do you have for taking natural (as compared to posed) pictures of strangers in a foreign country?
Camera ready to shoot? Things move quickly on location so if you snooze, you lose. What do I do: I normally will photograph my subject(s) before they are aware it has been done. (Photojournalism/Street Photography at its best). I would also share my passion with my subjects as well. Get them involved. Show them your excitement. Don’t be embarrassed or timid. Not only does this reflect with the people you are trying to capture, it will also show in your photography. For me, eye to eye contact generates very powerful images. Long Lenses to be inconspicuous. Available Light (another way to stay low key). Keep It Simple (I use Aperture Setting/Auto Focus/Auto Exposure/Auto Everything).
There are exceptions to the rules. It’s a digital world so, shoot, shoot, shoot. (Higher percentage of getting that once in a lifetime image). Think Ahead Have A Plan. Background information on what you plan to shoot. This will give you a better idea on your equipment choice. Understand your equipment and capabilities and always be prepared. Much of your work has been converted to black and white. What processing tools do you use for black and white conversion?
I have tried (experimented) with many different post processing methods to convert my images to into B&W. Photoshop has a few different ways for converting as well as so many third party plugins. The Topaz B&W Effects plugin has given me many options for me to realize what I had pre-visualize in my mind on how I wanted the final image to look.
There are many Preset/Effects from traditional B&W to Toned and Stylized Effects. Converting to B&W is only the beginning. B&W Effects also give you the ability for Local Adjustments (Dodge/Burn), Exposure Adjustments and what I find to be most important, Color Filters. Vignettes and Borders round out this wonderful application. When using Topaz B&W Effects, is there a particular setting or collection of presets you stray towards?
Is there one formula that works for all my images? The answer would have to be no. Trying to pre-visualize what I want my image to look like starts way before my post processing. It starts in the camera. With that being said there a few things I believe you should be doing before moving into Topaz B&W Effects, here are a few: Some of the basic rules we learn about capturing our images is “to get it in the camera.”
Well, here is an exception to that rule.
DO NOT shoot using your camera’s black and white mode. Compare that to shooting Jpeg vs Raw. You will be throwing away very important data. Contrast for me is one of the most important elements in B&W imagery.
Here is where we need to look for the best tonal range we can capture. From the deepest blacks to the whitest whites will bring us detail that a flat images lacks. What’s great about B&W Effects, if we fail to capture all the tones in the camera (there can be limitations on what our cameras can capture), we can then use our post processing to help us achieve what we had in mind. I try to keep it simple. With the help of the many, many preview that are available to you using B&W Effects, it gives you a very quick and accurate interpretation of what you image will look like. I will usually start with a traditional b&w. Then it’s time to go to the color filter menus.
Here’s where you can create lots of magic. These filters are akin to the color filters we used to put on our lens when we were shooting film cameras. With these filters you can lighten and darken areas of you image. Here is where you would be separating different tones which would otherwise blend into each other. You can choose to dodge and burn here and control contrast. I will not rule out bringing back my converted images back into B&W Effects for a second time. Here you can perhaps find another preset (low key) for instance to add on top of the first image. Here I can apply a layer mask and start painting in and out areas that I want to make darker etc.
This is a great way to get a burn effect and then go back in again and repeat with a high key preset. There are no right or wrong ways to get to where you need to be. Don’t be afraid to experiment. All it takes is to delete the layer and try again. Which Topaz plugins do you find most essential in your post-processing workflow? Any tips or tricks you’d be willing to share?
One of my favorite Topaz plugins would have to be Adjust 5. I find this to be of great value to my post processing. Since it is a visual process, each image will stand on its own merit, but for the most part I will go into Adaptive Exposure and raise the Exposure as well as the Regions to taste. Contrast is another area I will address. Lastly, I will go into the Detail menu and raise the Strength along with the Detail Boost sliders. I adjust the image to a point where it look perhaps a bit too much. I then apply those setting to a separate layer on top of the original.
At that point its back to adding an inverted (filled with black) layer mask, which means I’m looking at the image without any filter adjustments. I will then paint in the areas that I feel would be improved with the adjustments. What I am seeing much to often are filters being overused or just in areas that may not need 100% of the process. So don’t forget we can use layer masks to our advantage to control just where and how much we want the effect to be. The use of grain in your work is really nice. Is this grain a natural result of the camera you use, or is it added later on in the digital darkroom?
Grain can be very effective in giving your images a very desirable effect. For me, it would be a mixture of in camera and post processing. Let me be more clear. Since most of my image are shot using available light, there are many times I will increase my ISO to 6000, 8,000 and even 10,000 ISO. I would rather capture an image that has grain then miss the shot. Now, with that being said, there are something we all need to be aware of. Grain introduced from perhaps a high ISO is acceptable. Grain from a underexposed image is not. Here is where I believe some photographers may not understand. Most of the camera’s capture information is in the highlight areas. When we underexposure our images and then rely on post processing to help save us from those dark deep shadows, we begin to introduce false colors which are represented by the red, green and blue artifacts.
So, the best way to get around that is to get it in the camera and not feel that you can always fix it later. Sometimes I will add grain through post processing. One of my favorite ways would be by using different texture overlays and blending them into the image by using different blending modes. You recently returned from a photography trip to Cuba. Tell me a bit about that experience and what it was like to photograph the culture and people there.
The experience (SIMPLY AMAZING!!!!!). I led a photography workshop where I taught Street Photography as well as mentoring the group. This was my first trip there and will be planning one for next year. I have always found that countries culture to be incredibly fascinating, and this trip was more then I expected. The people were extremely friendly and very receptive to having their pictures taken. From classic cars to the finest rum and cigars (not that I’m a smoker) but when in Rome (lol), I was in a place that afforded me all a photographer I could handle. Cuba is a very safe place to travel. Photographing the people and the architectural scenes in around Old Havana was an unforgettable event. The last stop was Trinidad, Cuba which was celebrating their 500 year birthday. Cobblestoned street lined with colorful buildings. Street vendors, old churches and buildings. The use of borders on your images is quite nice. Are you willing to share with us any sources you use?
The treatments of borders or edges can compliment the way you display you images. I like to put some type of border when I uploading my images to my website. I feel it separates the image from the background as well as giving it a finished looked. When selling my artwork I will make the use of edges on images that I feel will only enhance the look. With that being said, not all my images will go out with that treatment. The most important element about the artwork is obviously the story I am trying to tell. So everything else would be secondary. There are many ways to achieve this effect. There are many plugins that offer you many choices from Simple to Film Edge Borders. The Topaz plugins have a nice assortment of borders. White, Black, Grunge, Thin etc. You can make your own custom borders as well as downloading them from the Internet. Another application that I have used for many years and find to be very flexible is OnOne’s PhotoFrame. Finally, here are some quotes that inspire me:
The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without the camera.
The photograph itself doesn’t interest me. I want only to capture a minute part of reality.
– Henri Cartier-Bresson
The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.
– Helen Keller
How ironic that I would end with this quote. I must also share, why this quote has guided my life as a person and photographer to a special place. With both parents being deaf, and then towards the last fews years, my dad started losing his eye sight. Life continues and we find a way to survive.
Never lose “sight” of your goals and dreams. – Jim LaSala
Visit Jim’s website
Jim LaSala was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY and currently resides in Flemington, NJ. He opened “Strike A Pose Photography Studio” in 1990 specializing in Fine Art Photography, Portraiture and Electronic Imaging.
Jim is presently managing partner for “Xact Studios” in Hillsborough, NJ. Moad/Legion Master Photographer Moab Master photographers area select group of artists connected by their unique visions and their love of reproducing their images on Moab fine art part. Please visit this link: http://moabpaper.com/moab-masters/jim-lasala/
Degrees and Awards:
- Professional Photographers of America
- Master of Photographer, Master Artist. Craftsman
- Numerous State, National and International Awards
- Front Cover of Professional Photographers Magazine
- On going works of Haiti hanging for Spirited Actor
- Professional Photographers of America, Atlantic City, NJ
- J. Adams Gallery, New Hope, PA
- Kodak Gallery – Epcot Center, Florida
- PPA Print Publications: Loan Collection (14)
Photographer for “The Spirited Actor” TV reality show