Through the Eye behind the Lens: An Interview with Steve Walter

Laura Kemmerer

Between the rise of the smartphone as a household item and the popularity of apps like Instagram, the world of photography is undergoing some radical changes. Professional photographers must bring a near-constant stream of fresh perspectives and ideas to set themselves above the rest.

Nvate Steve Walter photographer, photography, DSLR and HDR cameras, cartoon portraits camera phones

Photographer Steve Walter takes photos and “cartoons” them.
Credit: Steve Walter

Such a one is creative visionary Steve Walter. A resident of Connecticut, Walter brings a mixture of traditional and innovative ideas to the world of still imagery. As can be seen in his newly launched cartoon portrait site, Walter brings an added flair of personality to his work that is unique and unparalleled. I got to sit down and speak with him about what it means to be a professional photographer in the age of social media, and how much his creative world has changed.

LCK: Was there a single event that got you into photography? If so, what was it? If not, what made you pick up photography as a profession?

Walter: I can’t really say there was a single event. I guess there were probably a few things that lead me to start doing this professionally. The main thing that lead me to start doing it just for fun was my father. He’s always been an avid amateur photographer. Ever since I’ve grown up a camera has been in my face, and I would sit and pose for at least two or three photos throughout my whole childhood, and he still does it. He’s sort of passed along the baton—when we go to family events he says, “You got that? OK, cool. I can relax.”

But to move me into being a professional, I think it was a combination of two things—one, this unhappiness I had working for someone else. And by that I mean having another boss that controls what I do, and feeling limited with my creativity. Two, wanting to take another hobby of mine and earn a living off of it.

LCK: I’ve heard it said that the eye behind the camera is what matters; not so much the camera itself. Have you found this to be true in your own work?

Walter: Without a doubt; I completely agree with that. You know it’s been said so many times by other photographers, whether they’re professional or not, anyone that’s given a $10,000 camera or a $50,000 camera that has the best lens, and they’re given a whole bunch of lighting equipment, and all of this beautiful scenery, a gorgeous model, whatever the case may be—if you don’t have a creative eye, it’s going to be really difficult to get a really good image.

At least for me specifically, I like to combine the technical side with the creative side. So the ability to frame up an image, whether it’s with an iPhone or a digital single-lens reflex camera, or DSLR, combining that with either anything I can do to enhance the image before it’s captured, and anything I can do to enhance the image after it’s captured—on the technical side that’s where I like to blend everything.

The way I see it is this, it’s easy to train someone on how to do the technical side, in my opinion. It’s easy to train someone how to use Photoshop, how to use color correction—stuff like that. It’s difficult to teach them the creativity: seeing leading lines, knowing what good light looks like, things like that—knowing how to compose an image. Composition and creativity are hard things to teach.

LCK: It’s almost something you’re born with.

Walter: I think it’s the same for any type of creative or any type of artist. I was having a conversation the other day with a friend of mine—it’s either in your blood or it isn’t. If there’s even a trace of it in your blood and you try really hard, you can become whatever type of creative you want to be. Same thing, in my opinion, of what athletics would be. If there are athletes in your family or athleticism in your blood, if you try really hard, you can be a pretty good athlete. If there’s a lot of it in your blood, those are the people that don’t need to try as hard.

Nvate Steve Walter photographer, photography, DSLR and HDR cameras, cartoon portraits camera phones

Credit: Steve Walter

Or even guitar players. That’s the one thing—I play guitar and I look at all of these other guitar players and go, “How are you that good?!” John Petrucci of Dream Theater, technically and creatively, he’s fantastic. It’s all throughout his blood, and he has to try a good amount to practice, and he’s a master.

You made the point earlier of giving someone a $50,000 camera and favorite subject matter to work with. Do you have a favorite subject matter to work with yourself? Is there something that’s easiest for you, or do you prefer challenges?

My favorite subject matter to work with is probably the most challenging. I think people are my most favorite because no one’s the same, so you’re always going to have different personalities you need to work with. It’s challenging for me because many years ago I was a completely introverted person. I was a wallflower; I did not socialize—at least not that much. I very much kept to myself.

And I went through a series of events in my life and decided to turn that around, and now that I’m more outgoing I’ve found that with my photography I’m able to reach out to new people saying, “Hey can I take your picture?” or, “Can we set up a photo shoot?” or, “I know we’ve never met before, but let’s hang out for two hours while I have you stare at my lens.”

It can be very awkward, or I can make an attempt to make it a bit more comfortable for the both of us. That to me is challenging in [getting] them to trust me, and [getting] good images that I want. And that’s something that you work with that when you work with different people it’s always going to be a challenge. That’s probably my favorite thing: people. I like photographing people.

I always enjoy working with landscapes a lot. But I do want to work with more composite work—taking a picture of someone, cutting them out and putting them on a different background. So the combination of taking a photo of someone in the studio then taking a picture of a landscape and putting those two things together and making them work. There’s something really cool and interesting about nature, and then there’s something really cool and interesting about people.

After working on something like that I just want to do more. I’ll admit it, my early work looks like garbage now that I look back on it. I’m always trying to update my portfolio—I’m always trying to refresh what I do creatively. The one thing I really like doing is that composite work. So when I see how I’ve progressed and how in my mind it makes sense to do things a certain way, I like being able to refine that and improve upon that.

While technology continues to evolve to new heights and what it can accomplish, how has this impacted what you’ve been able to achieve with your work?

I was fortunate enough to be able to really open up my photography career using just digital. I never really shot in any kind of serious way with film. So starting off with a digital point-and-shoot that just shot JPEGs but had manual control, I quickly learned there that I’m limited in what I can do with this camera. So let me move up to an entry-level DSLR. And then I very quickly got to a point where I realized I’m limited here because I can’t do what I want to do creatively—low-light photography, things like that. So then the progression of cameras got me to the point where I can get a nicer camera and do better low light, but then I realized I want a full-frame camera that can do awesome low light and landscapes and so much detail, so that way when I can do my post production work I have more information that I can retouch, or that I can crop it differently.

Nvate Steve Walter photographer, photography, DSLR and HDR cameras, cartoon portraits camera phones

Here is another example of Steve Walter’s cartoon portraits. This one is with Mike Falzone.
Credit: Steve Walter

The progression of technology? I love it. I am so addicted to it that when I can I try to adopt as much of the latest technology as possible, as much as my budget will allow. For example, Paul C. Buff is a company that makes digital strobes—digital flashes. And they have the ability to shoot at a very low power, so that means I can shoot with really shallow depth-of-field and low power and I can really push creativity without having to limit myself with more manual, more primitive ways of doing certain things. So the technology has greatly helped me, and I think it’s awesome.

Even the ability to shoot tethered, wirelessly. A Wi-Fi camera [allows] you [to] take a picture with your camera and it sends the digital file to your computer where you can view the full screen, [and] check it out 100 percent so you can see if you got the detail you wanted. That, to me, is awesome. To think that people had to wait a week to develop film, ugh. That’s just such a bummer. I’m fortunate that I grew up when I did and got into photography when I did that I was able to take advantage of the technology.

I know this is something of a controversial point in photography, but do you think easy access to photography via cameras, phones, what have you, has hindered or helped photography as a whole—and putting it on social media?

I think it’s kind of done both. On the side of being a professional, and if I want to focus on my ego, then it’s affected it negatively. In my mind I think of myself as a photographer. I think of myself as a creative person. That’s why I’m here on this Earth—it’s to be creative. One of my outlets is photography, and it’s my profession. It’s what I do to pay my rent, put food on my table, that whole deal.

So when I approach someone and tell them I’m a photographer, and they say, “Sure you are and so is everyone else,” it’s almost like I have to show them. “No, no, no, I’ve invested tens of thousands of dollars in this and that’s why I’m a photographer.”

“Sure, yeah, so did my cousin. He spent eight grand on a camera and he kind of sucks.” And I’ve encountered that from people like that—where they spent a lot of money on all of this great gear but then I have to say, “No, no, no, go to my website and look at my stuff.” And then eventually they go, “Oh wow, you actually are a photographer, cool.”

So then on the flipside it’s cool in my mind that I get to share this craft that I love with more people. I almost feel like there can be a greater appreciation when talking about photography and taking a picture and posting it online, that it is clearly different from just a standard snapshot you would see. I think it’s great that we’re able to share all of the photos we take on such an hourly basis.

Nvate Steve Walter photographer, photography, DSLR and HDR cameras, cartoon portraits camera phones

Credit: Steve Walter

Instagram is awesome to me. But then there does come a point where, and the term gets thrown around a lot with photos and it’s something of a pet peeve of mine, is amazing. When I see the comment, “Oh my god, that’s amazing!” or anything like that when it’s just a standard snapshot picture, that part of it kind of irks me a bit because in my mind I sit and question them, “Were you genuinely amazed when you saw that image?”

And I understand that it’s just a term, but you could have said cool or awesome or sweet or really nice picture. To say amazing to me is like wow, you were actually amazed at the image you saw. And some images are. Some people might think a picture of a double rainbow is amazing—and that kind of is. I mean, it’s nature, it’s freaking cool and you don’t see it all the time. So wow, it’s cool that you caught that.

It’s good and it’s bad. I think, as a professional, in some cases it is bad. But what I think has happened is the people that are trying to make a couple of bucks doing it will eventually stop doing that because they’ll get to a point where they’re bored doing it or they realize it’s something they don’t want to pursue. I feel that as long as I continue to pursue and improve and press on with my craft that that will get recognized, or at least respected and appreciated.

What do you think will change in the field of photography in the next 5 to 10 years?

I think a lot of gimmicks are going to come out, and they sort of already have. Like adding filters onto images. It doesn’t make you a better photographer. Filters and apps—I think more of that is what’s going to happen. There’s a couple of answers to that question.

Things like filters and apps—for example, Samsung is making a DSLR camera now that uses something like a smartphone on the back of it. Which I think is an awesome idea – it’s touch-screen, and lets you choose presets and control your camera’s menu settings through what we’re very used to using already, like an Android device or a smartphone. So combining those two things I think is a big part of the progression.

That’s going to do two things for the pro-sumer and the professional. [The camera] might be able to make things a bit quicker, a little bit more accessible and make life a little bit easier because you can use certain effects and ideas that you want in an easier manner. But on the flipside I think it’s going to enable the consumer to think that they’re better at photography than they actually are.

There are certain photographers, like amateurs who do a lot of HDR photography, the term HDR has gotten such a bad name amongst photographers and artists. If you say the term HDR they’ll think of this specific style of over-saturated, super-constrasty image but it really stands for high dynamic range meaning the most tonality in your image—from your brightest brights to your darkest darks, everything is nice and evenly exposed and there’s detail everywhere.

I think a lot more gimmicks are going to keep coming out, and there’s another company that’s releasing something else where you can post-select depth-of-field and stuff that I think is gimmicky.

Nvate Steve Walter photographer, photography, DSLR and HDR cameras, cartoon portraits camera phones

Credit: Steve Walter

The one thing I’m excited for in the world of film and photography is more capable digital sensors and more capable processors. I think lenses are pretty much already perfected, and I think that digital cameras’ sensors—once they start improving more and more, they’ll be able to capture a higher dynamic range. That’s what I’m looking forward to, and I think that will continue to separate the consumers from the professionals. The professionals are going to invest money in recognizing that it’s worth the investment because the technology has proven that it’s better.

There’s a phone that just came out by Nokia, and it has a camera on it, and Nokia has done this for a while—they feature their phones with really good cameras. It uses a Carl Zeiss lens which is a name known for making good lenses. And it has a 41-megapixel sensor on a smartphone, which to me is ridiculous. It’s implying to people that the more megapixels you have, the better your image is going to be, which doesn’t make any sense to me why they would do that. I haven’t shot with it yet, and I’m sure if I did I would really dig it, but it kind of shows where things are being marketed to consumers or at least that’s what I’ve seen. “Hey, you can take incredible images now because you have 41 megapixels on this tiny, tiny sensor.” The only other example of a 41-megapixel sensor are medium format cameras that range anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 for just the camera itself.

For anyone with any kind of confusion, if I were to walk up to someone and they asked me, “Oh, how many megapixels is that?” and I’d say, “It’s 20.”

“Well I have this Nokia phone and it has 41, I must be better than you.” I think it’s just silly that a consumer as a photographer thinks that the equipment they have is what’s going to make them a better photographer or make them more creative. Which at the end, it’s just not.

I feel like I can take really good pictures with an iPhone. I don’t need a DSLR. I actually use an iPhone 4S; that is my go-to camera. [Photographer] Chase Jarvis said a while ago that the best camera is the one you have with you, and it’s so true. I always have my iPhone with me. That’s my go-to.

Do you have any parting words of wisdom for people who would like to become professional photographers?

Take a lot of pictures, and definitely do some studying. Take a workshop or purchase an online seminar. Research—learn the rules of photography, and then learn when you can break them. Most of the rules of photography are very basic. Learn the rules and mechanics of photography first, then expand upon your creativity. If your creativity comes naturally, and it will when you’re learning those technical aspects.

The reason why I say to learn those technical things is that when it comes time to create that image that’s in your brain, you’ll know how to do it because you’ll know how to control your tool. You won’t be depending upon it to give you a creative image because cameras are dumb; they’re stupid. You need to be able to give it that intelligence it needs to create the image that’s stuck in your brain.

Nvate Steve Walter photographer, photography, DSLR and HDR cameras, cartoon portraits camera phones

Credit: Steve Walter

Take a lot of pictures. Even if you just take pictures, load them onto your computer and look at them briefly, and then ignore them for the next five years. You can go back and review them and go, “Oh, what was I doing back then?!” I do that all the time now. I have pictures I took and I saved; I have tens of thousands of pictures on my computer that I haven’t looked at in five years. I’m going to go back and reflect on them and see how much I’ve progressed. Knowing that, I just keep taking pictures.

The other thing I would say for photographers is shoot what you’re passionate about. If you’re into sports, shoot sports. If you’re into music, shoot concerts. Or if you’re into videography shoot your friend’s music video—all things like that. If you’re into nature, do that. Do landscapes. Get a macro lens, take pictures of bugs and little creatures. Take pictures of things you’re interested in. Don’t take pictures of models because you want to make money. Don’t necessarily start shooting something because you feel like you can market yourself that way. Shoot what you’re really into and make the art you really want to make, and just keep doing that, first and foremost.

Secondly, you got to pay some bills, sure, shoot some other stuff. But shoot the stuff you’re really into because you’ll never get bored with it. Living off of it, that’s awesome. That’s what I’m trying to do. I don’t want to work. I want to create.

For anyone trying to get into photography, recognize that photography is like any other professional career. It’s not valued the same way a mechanic is, or the same way an electrician is. It’s a trade. If you know how to do certain things with a camera, that’s valuable. And that should be valuable.

Visit Walter’s website to see more of his work, and his newly launched cartoon portrait website.

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