From Amateur to Award Winning in Less Than a Year | Interview With 18-Year-Old Eli Dreyfuss
Eli Dreyfuss is an award-winning young photographer from Florida. This self-taught, high school senior rapidly went from “spraying and praying” to exhibiting his signature style as the winner of various photography competitions around the world. Eli shoots with a consumer level DSLR and uses a black mattress for his backdrop, proving you don’t need years of training or expensive gear or even a lot of life experience to be a photographer with a powerful vision and voice. Eli first caught my attention when he posted the following statement on Facebook.
“One year ago I was a kid who had no vision, no focus, no drive to create. I had really no direction in life. But one year ago I had just bought my first DSLR, a Canon T4i, and immediately started shooting. Shooting everything I could think of. Macro, portraits, landscape, I was all over the place. I had no goal when taking photos; I would simply spray and pray. At the end of the day, I didn’t let my gear take over and strived to create art within every frame. From the second I realized that my gear wasn’t the thing holding me back, I put forward every waking hour and second I had to improve my craft. I spent everyday shooting, late nights editing, and scouring the web for tutorials. It all amounted to well over 1000 hours of photography and pushed me to succeed even more.
“In 2015, with a solid base under my belt, I was able to hone my skills in lighting, composition, editing, story-telling, and everything under the sun. I took on series, and photo-stories, I tried new techniques in lighting, and color, diversifying my knowledge of photography. It’s been one heck of a year! From numerous awards, exhibitions, recognition from thousands, the experience for me has truly been humbling.”
Over the last four years, Eli has received quite a long list of awards and recognition for his work, including a YoungArts 2015 Merit Photography Winner (selected out of 12,000 applicants),
2nd place (of 3000 applicants) in the Drexel High School Photography Competition, and a National Geographic Curated Exhibition in Barcelona, Spain. He has been accepted into every college he applied for including UCF, FAU, SCAD, Ringling College of Art and Design, Maine College of Art and Drexel University.
I reached out to Eli for an interview and he excitedly said “Yes!” This young man is persistent, takes action immediately and has impressed me with the initiative he has taken regarding his career as a photographer, especially for one so young. He has not let any excuses or reasons hold him back, as many of us often do.
How old were you when you started pursuing photography?
“When I took my first picture, and the passion stuck, it was back when I was 14, a freshman in high school. A copy of ‘The Photo Issue’ by National Geographic arrived at my doorstep, and I was immediately hooked without even turning the first page. The eyes pierced through the page and made me think deeper into the person I was looking at. It was all the eyes. Four years later, at 18, I find myself still taking pictures.”
What prompted you to learn more about photography?
“The instant I saw that cover of National Geographic, in the back of my mind, I yearned to find out how Steve McCurry could possibly capture so much soul in one portrait. From that moment on, I walked outside and saw the beauty this world has to offer, and started experimenting with any genre I could find. Landscapes, Portraits, Events. However after I took my first portrait of my sister on my back porch with a black mattress as my background, the realization hit me; I don’t need the best gear to capture captivating portraits, I need myself, my soul, and desire to bring out a true expression with each person I photograph.
“As I continued to take portraits, I found myself never happy with “The Shot” and that just pushed me to try harder and research what I could do to make it happen, and when I accomplished the look I was going for, it gave me the push to accomplish the next look I dreamed to capture. That attitude has lasted until today and has never faded. I soon realized my best shot is the last one I took, and that on each shoot I would have to out-do myself. Two years later I am creating work I could have only dreamed of when I first got started. I guess I’m living up to the saying, if you want something bad enough, you will do anything in your power to achieve it.”
Has anyone mentored you or influenced your work along the way? Who are those people and how have they influenced you and your work?
“From the very first day I took my first portrait, Steve McCurry was behind each one. He has greatly influenced the foundation for which I take portraits. The way he captures eyes, and the way he meticulously frames his subjects using the most basic of compositional rules. The simplicity of his work is something that I still strive to do today.
“To add to the never ending list of inspiring photographers, Richard Avedon places top on my list. When I saw his striking yet identifiable style, it made me go back and dig deeper into myself and find the real reason I shoot portraits. The most impactful stature of Richard Avedon was his ability to capture expression and emotion. The way you can look into his subjects eyes, and see something deeper. Every shoot I have ever done, his images and techniques are inscribed in the back of my mind. It’s allowed me to bring out the untold stories of my subjects’ souls.”
Who is your favorite photographer or artist (dead or alive)?
“Without a doubt I have been influenced by countless photographers and artists, and they all translate into my work. I take pieces of inspiration from different artists who are great in one thing. Like Richard Avedon for capturing expression, Steve Mccurry for compositional elements, Peter Hurley for business advice, and Lee Jefferies for editing techniques. The list goes on. Each artist is a favorite and I can’t narrow it down to just 1.”
How would you describe your photographic style and vision?
“My tagline is ‘It’s More Than Just A Portrait.’ I have this displayed on every business card and website I have ever made. That phrase encapsulates the message in my work. My style of work can be described as RAW. The expression is real. The stories are real. My heart and soul is in black and white photography because it eliminates the distraction of colors from the frame, and what’s left is the subject’s interesting face. When I am shooting, the shoot serves as a conversation between me and my subjects, and I simply capture the conversation we are having.”
What are your goals as an artist and for your education/career in the next few years?
“Being 18, and just being accepted into college, my goals are always evolving. I figure no matter what school I go to, art or local community college, my goal is to make the most of the situation I’m handed. I want to be involved in my community and give back to the organizations that have given me so much over the past few years. My ultimate career goal and aspiration is to travel the world and take portraits for National Geographic. Although some goals seem a bit out of reach at the moment, I will work my hardest and try to make those dreams a reality.”
What’s on your gear list?
“Early on I discovered that you don’t need the best gear to create amazing portraits, so it might surprise people, but the gear I use is very minimal. I only shoot with primes and wide open apertures.”
- Canon 6D
- Canon T4i (Backup)
- Rokinon 24mm 1.5 Cine
- Rokinon 50mm 1.4
- Rokinon 85mm 1.4
- Canon 100mm 2.8 Macro
- 3 continuous light softboxes
- A black mattress (backdrop)
What editing software do you use and do you have a favorite editing technique?
“The main software I use is Photoshop CS6 all the way. It minimizes my workflow and gives me ultimate control over what effect I am applying to the image. My favorite and most crucial editing technique I use is dodging and burning. It is the way to create dimension and depth in the images.
People can learn more about how I edit and all my techniques on my website.
Anything else you would like to share?
If there is one thing I always wanted to share is three pieces of advice that has gotten me to where I am today:
- It is easier said than done, but NEVER give up on your dream. Do whatever you can to accomplish your goals no matter what obstacles come your way.
- Be different. It is the one determining factor that will set your work apart from everyone else.
- Always be open to criticism and advice, and study the masters who have come before you. It will be humbling, and give you a strong foundation for your work.
I’m excited to see where Eli goes with his career and photography journey. If you’d like to follow along, too, connect with him on the following social media platforms:
Facebook: B&W Imagery by Eli Dreyfuss
Youtube: Eli Dreyfuss Photography