Into a Dream: Conceptual Photography with Jenna Martin

"When in doubt, risk it."

As a conceptual and fashion photographer, these are words Jenna Martin lives by. Through the use of basic textures and elements, Jenna takes us into surreal alternate realities, which can be very risky as the smallest details can make or break these dreamlike photos. Jenna gathers most of her photography inspiration from cinema stories and the art of storytelling. As a Montana native, Jenna feels most at home in the middle of the mountains somewhere, believes any problem can be solved by dancing, and has never met a No Trespassing sign that she didn’t ignore. She loves traveling, food, and generally anything involving heights. When she’s not dreaming up beautiful alternate realities, she’s watching movies with her fiancé and six pets, OR talking to us about her amazing conceptual photography work. Here’s what this "odd girl and her camera" had to say.

Tell us a little about yourself and how you got started with photography.

Getting into photography was a huge risk for me. In high school I was obsessed with anything art and music related and dabbled a bit in photography, but was very sternly told those subjects were "hobbies" and not "careers." In college, I jumped around with various majors, never quite feeling satisfied. After completing my Master of Psychiatric Rehabilitation, I started my first counseling job and immediately knew I was in the wrong field. I didn’t do well behind a desk with a routine and a boss. I barely lasted three weeks before coming home and declaring I was going to be a photographer.

I picked up work as a writer and I emailed every photographer in town (63 of them to be exact). I said I’d work for free. I’d hold an umbrella over their camera in the rain, I didn’t care; I just wanted to learn. Five photographers agreed to meet with me and each one sat me down and very bluntly explained that this was a dying field, there was no room for another photographer in this town and that I was a complete idiot for wanted to do this. Then Jill Nauman called (she does gorgeous newborn photography) and said she’d love the extra help.

Underwater- Jenna Martin , Conceptual Photography Underwater - Jenna Martin

Why conceptual photography?

My mind always seemed to run a little wild, so I’d been doing a lot of experimenting with different photo techniques; I was just looking for a way to apply it. I was using light painting techniques in engagement sessions and had built my own underwater camera housing to take underwater photos. But, everything really changed when I learned how to composite.

During my internship, I was mostly working with newborns. Many of the newborn photos you see - the baby’s head resting on her hands, for example - are actually composites. It’s unsafe to put the baby in that position by themselves, so you hold their head in place and take a photo of the hands, then hold their hands in place and take a photo of the top of their head. Then you composite the two photos together in Photoshop.

The first time Jill showed me how to composite, it was like this whole new world opened up. Suddenly all the crazy ideas I had in my head were very, very possible. Everything took off from there.

Cabin Fever - Jenna Martin, Conceptual Photography Cabin Fever - Jenna Martin

 (See below for a composite how-to video for this image.) 

How do you get the ideas for these photos? Where does your inspiration come from?

Inspiration can come from anywhere, but I’d say my biggest source is movies. I love watching the behind the scenes information that talks about the special effects, the development of characters, stunts, deleted scenes (and why they were deleted); everything! The more I learn about the art of storytelling, the better photos I’m able to make.

Insomniac - Jenna Martin , Conceptual Photography Insomniac - Jenna Martin

What gear do you use for your amazing shots?

I mostly use nothing more than a tripod and remote shutter release. The lenses change depending on the look I’m going for, but I probably use my 50mm the most. I try to keep things as simple as possible, but I’m always up for experimenting with new gear or technology if I can get my hands on it. For the most part, if I have a specific shot in mind I might bring a certain prop, but if I have my camera, tripod, and shutter release I’m good to go!

Resurrection - Jenna Martin , Conceptual Photography Resurrection - Jenna Martin

What is the biggest challenge with conceptual photography?

For me, the biggest challenge is the planning stage. I don’t like to plan shoots. I like to grab things and just go. The reality though, it leaves a lot of room for error. The planning process tends to become even more important in my style of conceptual photography because I use a number of photos to create a single picture, sometimes upwards of 20 photos. If only one of them is off (like the angle is slightly wrong or I forgot to get a shot of the clean background), I have to shoot the entire thing over again.

American Beauty - Jenna Martin, Conceptual Photography American Beauty - Jenna Martin

What is the most important thing to remember when shooting conceptual?

You still have to know what you’re doing as a photographer and the images you’re using to create the final product still need to be high quality images. Photoshop shouldn’t be used as a crutch, but as a tool. I don’t use it to try and "fix" a bad photo. I use it to seamlessly combine elements of many photos.

The Decision - Jenna Martin , Conceptual Photography The Decision - Jenna Martin

Let's talk about editing. You do A LOT of that. What are some of your top editing tips?

1.) Don’t be afraid to experiment. In my first composite photos, I replaced alcoholic beverages with pictures of cats so my friends could post "non-alcoholic" versions of themselves on Facebook. They’re nothing to write home about, but everyone has to start somewhere!

2.) Have lots of patience…oh dear God, have patience. My photos never look good in the beginning stages. They always look like some kind of 4th grade collage that I’m making for my parents. It takes a lot of time to make everything look like it realistically fits into place. I usually spend at least 20 hours on each photo, and many of them take 80-100 hours.

3.) Third, definitely pay attention to even the smallest details. Even if you think no one will notice, they probably will on some level. People might not be able to point out exactly what’s wrong in a photo, but they will know when something is off. Tiny details, like adding subtle shadows or smoothing a pixelated line will make all the difference in making a believable photo.

Lost In Thought - Jenna Martin , Conceptual Photography Lost In Thought - Jenna Martin

Any words of advice for aspiring photographers (both conceptual and other disciplines)?

Don’t pin yourself down too soon. People think they know what kind of photographer they are, but even the most well-known photographers are constantly evolving. You can market yourself as a wedding photographer, but that doesn’t mean you should stop doing personal projects or shooting commercial work if that’s what you’re really passionate about…at the moment. What you’re passionate about will change and you need to grant yourself the freedom to change with it.

The Keeper Of Spring -  Jenna Martin , Conceptual Photography The Keeper Of Spring - Jenna Martin

Do you shoot anything else besides conceptual?

Though I specialize in conceptual, lately I’ve been finding myself shooting more fashion photography with a conceptual or a surreal flair. My current project fits into that category. I love the challenge of coming up with unique ideas and it’s a welcome change to shoot professional models instead of myself.

Runaway Bride -  Jenna Martin , Conceptual Photography Runaway Bride - Jenna Martin

You mention that you love your pets, cooking, and travel. Do you specialize or have pet, food, or travel photography as a hobby? Is that on the horizon?

I think pet and travel photography will always be a part of my life. Not professionally, but those are two things that I love so much I can’t imagine not taking pictures of cute critters and new destinations.

Muggle Apparition -  Jenna Martin , Conceptual Photography Muggle Apparition - Jenna Martin

You got an upcoming two-day workshop at the SLC Photo Collective. What can we expect from your workshops?

The entire workshop is designed to be as in depth and hands on as possible. Since my master’s degree is in psychology, I like to spend a lot of time going through the psychological aspects that determine a viewer’s perception of a photograph. How posing, composition, color usage, lighting and many other aspects can be used to tell the exact story you’re going for. I also go through a number of tricks and tips for finding inspiration and getting the creative juices flowing.

During the second half of the Day One, I demonstrate the basics of how to take many of these photos, all using myself as a model to show you how to do everything on your own. Then each student practices the setup. Each student is asked to practice these techniques that evening and come to class with a handful of photos they can practice putting together.

On the second day, we discuss editing and I go through a live demonstration of a few techniques, then the students edit their own photos from the day before with one-on-one assistance. The last part of Day Two is dedicating to marketing yourself as a photographer and applying conceptual photography to your current business.

Jenna will be hosting her conceptual photography workshop at the SLC Photo Collective Saturday, January 18th and Sunday, January 19th. You can learn more by getting in touch with the Collective.

Serenade for the Lost -  Jenna Martin , Conceptual Photography Serenade for the Lost - Jenna Martin

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