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Today’s post comes from Jimmy Bui a professional wedding and conceptual portrait photographer based in the Riverside area of Southern California. This image is from his Music to Life series. Check out his previous post, “Fear,” in this post. If you’re curious about checking it out, visit his website at and lookout for him on Facebook and Instagram!
This is the very first picture I shot for my series, and it’s also the most meaningful for me. Before I became a photographer, I was an elementary school teacher (I taught 6th, 5th, and 1st grade) and have worked in public education for 10 years. I was extremely passionate about my career, and not once did I think of teaching as a job, but more as a calling. During my last year of teaching 6th grade, I worked as hard as anyone could, and that effort helped me win Teacher of the Year. But despite winning the award, I received a pink slip a couple months later and was let go. This happened during the recession where a lot of other teachers were laid off too.
The next couple of years were extremely difficult for me. I tried incredibly hard to get some kind of teaching position, but for some reason it didn’t happen. Besides my wife, there wasn’t anything that I loved more than being a 6th grade teacher. I was heartbroken, depressed, angry, and confused. After two years of struggling, I decided to move on and find a new career. I thought teaching was my only passion as far as careers go, but I was fortunate to find my second calling.
This picture is based on the song “Long Nights” by Eddie Vedder, and it can be found off the “Into the Wild” soundtrack. One of the things that helped me cope with losing my teaching career was music, particularly the music from “Into the Wild.” The lyrics from “Long Nights” says it all:
I’ll take this soul
That’s inside me now
Like a brand new friend
I’ll forever know
I’ve got this life
And the will to show
I will always be
Better than before
How I Shot It
To start my Music to Life series, I thought it would be fitting to begin with a self portrait and base the image on “Long Nights.” After I received my pink slip letter, I stayed long into the night after school, trying to figure out ways to save my job. I knew it was futile, and there were many nights where I just wanted to escape to the mountains. So, for the picture, I thought it would be perfect to incorporate these elements and shoot the picture in the mountains. My in-laws have a cabin up by Lake Arrowhead, so my wife and I headed up and stayed for the night. I woke up early the following morning, grabbed my gear and props, and left to the woods by myself. I knew that if I pulled this off by myself, my series would be off to a great start.
The picture itself is pretty simple technically. I wanted a shallow depth of field with as little distortion as possible, so I shot with a long lens (Canon 70-200mm) at an aperture of f4.0. The morning ambient light was perfect for the trees, and as for me, the subject, I placed two speed lights with umbrellas to the left and right of me to kind of simulate classroom lighting. Once I got my settings the way I wanted them, I put the camera on a 10 second delay, and I quickly jumped into the shot. It was quite the workout since I had to do this a bunch of times to get my expression just right, plus the camera was set up pretty far away.
How I Processed It
During this time last year, I was fairly new to using Lightroom to process my images, and for my “Long Nights” picture, this was the first time I used the SLR Lounge Preset System. Once I imported the image into light room, I tinkered with the different mixologies and curve presets until I finally settled into something I liked.
Mixology -> 44 VF Bronzed Fade
Cool Curves -> 31 Teal Neutral Punch
I then made some minor adjustments in the sliders for the exposure, contrast, shadows, etc. plus I used the brush tool to get it a little more fine tuned.
Next came the hard part.
I love compositing, but it’s a long and laborious effort. Originally, I wanted to bring a large blackboard to the shoot, but this seemed very impractical since I was going to shoot it by myself. So I shot the black board separately at home using just about the same settings, imported it into Lightroom to process it, then brought it into Photoshop with the base image.
First thing I did was use a texture overlay to give the blackboard a “broken” effect. Then I used the polygonal lasso tool to cut up pieces from the blackboard and moved those pieces to make them look like they were falling. Once all that was done, I used the brush tool to mask the part of the blackboard where I should be showing, and voilà, my first picture of the series was finished.
Gear and Settings Used
Camera: 5D Mark II
Lens: Canon 70-200 f2.8 IS I (focal length 70mm)
Light Source: (2) Canon 580 EX II’s mounted on two lights stands
Trigger: Yongnuo Yn-622
Light Modifier: (2) 36″ white umbrellas
Camera Settings: f4.0; 1/160 sec; iso 640
I’m a big fan of self portraits, and I recommend every photographer try it at least once. Although I have taken self portraits before, this one was particularly special. This shoot still remains to this day as one of the most memorable and impactful shoots that I’ve had so far. This was the defining moment where I officially said goodbye to one career, and said hello to a new one. This is the picture that helped define me as a photographer, and helped pave the way to all the new creative opportunities that I had during the past year.
I do apologize if this article wasn’t as technical as one would like, but it wasn’t meant to be. I wanted to convey how much I invested myself emotionally to this project and also the history that helped make it come to life. Passion was what guided this shoot and it was what I used to help me make the shot.
To get more insight on my teaching career, check out this article by a local newspaper.
About the “How to Shoot It” Series
This educational series highlights amazing images from our writers as well as our community. The goal is to not only feature inspirational work but to provide valuable education for our photography community. If you would like to submit your work, please click here for more info on writing for SLR Lounge.