Jan 27, 2020 · 8 min read


Fashioning fantasies with Bella Kotak: 10 tips for getting started with creative portraiture.

Bella Kotak’s fascination for capturing moments began while she was young. Influenced by her father who brought a camera with him everywhere, she inherited the habit and became known for it among her friends. This obsession for capturing moments eventually led to creating her own — and she found herself shaping worlds, stories, and characters around the moments to help evoke the moods she wanted her images to convey.

SmugMug had a chance to peek behind the veil of Bella’s fantasy worlds and learn a bit about the magic she creates in front of the lens. Discover more of what captures her imagination in our latest SmugMug Film, and read on for a few of her tips about creating a little magic of your own.

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Tip #1: Try everything once to learn what you like — and what you don’t.

Whenever you’re starting out with something, give everything about it a shot. That was my own approach with photography. I was vaguely interested in it, so I tried photographing families, portraits, pets, weddings, and a bunch of other things. Unless you try it, you won’t know if you like it or not. The more I tried, the more I could rule out what didn’t bring me joy or the sense of fulfillment I was chasing. Eventually, my interest narrowed to storytelling and escapism. But I got there by first trying many things and narrowing them down to my core interests — and then seeing what I could do in that world.

Photo by Bella Kotak - 2Photo by Bella Kotak

Tip #2: When you find a focus, begin with what’s familiar.

If you want to get started with photographing portraits but don’t want to start with photographing your family or friends, start with yourself. I started taking self-portraits to build up my confidence to begin shooting with friends. And I used Flickr to share those images, which helped me connect with like-minded people and get feedback to improve my work and continue building my confidence. Then I started to shoot with my friends and the people I would meet through Flickr. Just start building your portfolio from there and see where it goes.

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Tip #3: Be crafty; be thrifty; and be social.

I recommend to anybody who’s starting out with this type of photography to place a lot of their effort into creating their portfolio. By that I mean whatever you can do on your own, do it. For example, I didn’t have access to stylists or designers when I first started out, so I would visit thrift shops for clothes and I would reach out to designers online on the off chance they might lend something to me. Initially, I placed my effort into capturing images I knew I could execute beautifully; once I had a decent portfolio, I used that to reach out to designers and other creatives within the industry. This approach gives them a chance to see what you’re capable of.

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I’d also recommend participating in online social groups. I created a Facebook group called Fairytales and Fantasies Photography with Bella Kotak. It’s a bunch of us who are interested in this type of photography and share images, but it also includes people who design things. It gives us a way to collaborate and help each other. Don’t be afraid to reach out to creators you find inspiring on platforms such as Instagram and Facebook. That way you start to create a relationship that can then, in the future, lead to working together.

If you like making things at all, don’t be afraid to craft things on your own, either. I make props whenever intuition strikes. For one of the shoots we did for the SmugMug Film, I had loads of newspapers and the brown packing paper that you get from Amazon, and I thought, “Let me see what happens if I make something from this.” I started rolling the papers up and using masking tape to hold them together, and suddenly a butterfly emerged. I decided to use that butterfly as a headpiece, and it became the starting place for the whole look of that shoot. That image didn’t exist until I created something from scratch.

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Tip #4: Fashion helps tell the story.

Fashion is just as important as every other story element in your image. It sets the scene for the character we are playing with for that shoot. For example, one of my favorite shoots is a girl wearing a simple linen dress, because that evokes a sense of freedom and child-like innocence, and then we set her up in an elaborate scene. There’s a really nice juxtaposition of the stories and elements. Then there are other shoots I’ve done where the background is plain and I use fashion as a way to create a dominant character. Perhaps she’d wear something akin to armor and have an elaborate headpiece, and then we’ll style her wig so it’s fierce. Suddenly, a very soft-looking model can turn into quite a dominant character. And all that can be achieved through fashion choices.

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Tip #5: Don’t get stuck chasing the vision.

When creating fairytales, you can have these fantastic visions in your head of what the final image should be. Sometimes you can get a bit overwhelmed by what you want to create and then feel underwhelmed by what you end up actually creating. It can feel like you didn’t do the vision justice, or you didn’t have the right skill set or the right tools. That’s something I know I struggle with.

I get around it by giving myself a break. It’s okay if I don’t realize the full vision; it’s important to have a rough idea. And I treat that as a starting point. If I’m chasing the initial vision while I’m shooting, and I’m not getting the right feeling when I look at the back of the camera, I switch it up. I know when I feel a particular way on a shoot that whatever comes from it is going to be a good thing, so I always end up chasing that feeling instead of the original vision. It’s okay if it doesn’t match, because ultimately that feeling leads me to a better idea.

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Tip #6: Make the goal to please yourself — no one else.

Many of my favorite shots have happened on days where the initial vision had to be scrapped because conditions didn’t allow for it. For example, our goal was a dark, moody shot and the weather was bright and sunny that day. However, all that meant is I had to look elsewhere and figure something out. Then something beautiful resulted that wasn’t planned, but it’s more special because of that. Because what I’m always looking for is mood — an emotion. Something that speaks to me as I work on it. If I love a particular shot I captured, then I know it’s probably going to move somebody else viewing it. Sometimes images say more about us as a photographer than they do about the subject itself. Trust in yourself, and you can surprise yourself. I look to be moved by my own images, and that’s why they’re all so special to me. Because I cannot control what other people think of them, but I can control what I think of them.

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Tip #7: Don’t fix it in post.

I originally started my career in architecture, so I was comfortable using computer-graphics software. When I first started shooting artistically, because I was so used to Photoshop, I was really relaxed with lighting, hair, and makeup, thinking, “Oh, I’ll fix it in post.” Then I learned more about what I could and couldn’t do in Photoshop, and I began to demand more control from myself when it came to planning and working through issues during the shoot.

For example, if there are any distractions in the background, I’ll clean them up during the pre-shoot because that’s one less thing to do in Photoshop. And if the hair doesn’t look quite right, I’ll make sure it’s corrected on set instead of taking it into Photoshop. Knowing my limitations in post-production has helped me tighten my creative eye when I’m shooting.

"I look to be moved by my own images, and that's why they're all so special to me. Because I cannot control what other people think of them, but I can control what I think of them." - Bella Kotak

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Tip #8: Be vocal.

This relates to trying to do less in post. In order to evoke the right mood, I have to communicate with the model. I try to be really direct — I think it’s just part of my personality. And if I’m looking for something in particular, I will say it as clearly as possible: “Can you look that way? Can you gaze this way? What about if you close your eyes and tilt your head back?” Whenever I’m on a shoot, I’m consciously looking at what the body’s doing, what the head is doing, the facial expressions, are the hands right. I’m looking at all the pieces and how they flow together. The model cannot see what I see, so my voice and my words are the only guide. We are working together to capture something.

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Tip #9: The right mind-set matters after the shoot, too.

When it comes to editing on the go, I struggle. Usually when I’m traveling, I’m very present at that moment in time. And I find that when I’m editing, I need to be at a desk, sitting properly, with my things around me: a cup of tea, a candle, some music. The stage needs to be set for the magic to happen. It’s important.

Post-processing takes me around an hour — hour and a half — per image. Lately I’ve been placing pressure on myself to have it take less time. One of the things that really has helped me is creating actions of my color-toning processes. A lot of the time I spend looking at the computer wondering which color direction the image should go because there’s 500 options, and color is just as important as everything else in that image. If you come into it with cool blues and greens, it’ll give you a totally different atmosphere than if you color-graded with warm yellows and soft oranges. By using my actions I can cut down the time I spend editing by 70%.

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That also helps when I’m traveling. I have a main hard drive I work from, a second hard drive as my backup, and then all my final images go onto SmugMug so there’s a safe place online all the finished images live. That also helps whenever I’m on the go doing interviews, or if I need to send a client an image, because I don’t need to grab my hard drive for images. I just go to my SmugMug account, locate my image, and send a link to it.

Tip #10: Never be afraid to play.

Move around, shoot from the side, shoot with things in front of you. Get some props and make little challenges for yourself. Shoot through things like a jar, a prism, or a bush. I find that when I’m working with a client, they will often have a strict idea of what they’re looking for. But usually the best images are created when they give me 15 minutes to play and I change it up: change the poses, change the location, change the angle I’m shooting at. I had a shoot recently where I set up people on these steps and it was great, but it wasn’t until I moved behind a bush and shot through a gap in the bush that we got the shot. That was really fun. Be playful when you’re shooting because you never know what you’re going to capture. Sometimes the camera sees very differently to the human eye.

Find Bella online: Portfolio | Flickr | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram


Jan 27, 2020 · 8 min read