Photography trends come and go, but stories last forever. Here’s how one photographer turned his back on trending and started telling stories that matter. (Featuring MANTAS KUBILINSKAS)
Dim forests, snow-capped mountains, sparkling lakes, arid deserts: nothing evokes mystery and magic quite like nature’s untouched beauty. These scenes are so powerful, in fact, that mediocre photography can easily masquerade as high-end image-making – solely because of the beautiful background.
So what do you do when nature isn’t nearby and you’re surrounded by skyscrapers?
This is the story of one Lithuanian-born, U.S. photographer who was determined to make impactful photographs without the benefit of nature’s bounty.
Urban Beauty, Urban Photography
“I live in Washington D.C., and there are no mountains.” Mantas Kubilinskas’ smooth Balto-Slavic accent glides through his wry laughter. “I needed to create my own photography trends,” he says, “so I combined composition, buildings, and the emotion of everything – just not in the mountains; in urban areas.”
Though the prevalence of nature-driven photographs seems to suggest a largely rural-based photography market, approximately 82% of the U.S. population live in urban centers. Clients may adore photos in awe-inspiring natural settings, but in reality, most outdoor photography trends are trickery, not truth.
In the city, photographers get crafty with slices of nature. They photograph beneath overgrown bridges and at the edges of parking lots, making the most of a tree in bloom or an ivy-covered wall.
But Mantas didn’t want to hide his city, or shove his clients into awkward embraces behind the local grocery store. Instead, he set out to highlight urban beauty, and to tell the stories that happen there.
Tell a Stranger’s Story
The average portrait session lasts no more than an hour. Some are only 30 minutes long. This places a heavy burden on photographers who want to craft images that feel real, raw, and honest – especially if you’re just meeting your client for the first time at their session.
“I’m a stranger to them. Nobody knows me, and I don’t know them,” Mantas explains. “So you need to be a really good communicator and get to know each other really fast.” And while some clients are energized and eager to show off in front of the camera, most people are shy, nervous, and convinced that they aren’t at all photogenic.
Mantas doesn’t let this deter him.
“I leave them alone for a few minutes – like five minutes – and I take my 85mm lens, and I walk away. I try to capture them from far away, to get them used to seeing me, used to somebody being around. That’s when they start to feel more comfortable. Then I can start shooting close-up.”
As the minutes tick by, Mantas stays focused on his goal: to tell a strong story with good light, clever composition, and expressive subjects. “Once I find what I’m looking for,” he describes, “I try to leave my clients in the same spot. Then I’m like a grasshopper flying around, trying to capture their interactions.”
Hurry Up and Wait
Putting your client in a spot of gorgeous light in a scenic urban setting is a brilliant first step toward making great photographs. But what’s next?
“You just need to wait,” says Mantas. “Photography is the power of waiting.”
“And if you have a lot of patience, you’re going to get everything you want. But if you don’t have patience, and you’re directing your clients like, ‘Oh! Do this! Do that!,’ at the end, what are you going to get? You’re going to get exactly the same pictures that you got before. So just wait until they are relaxed and being themselves. That’s when you’re going to be rewarded.”
In the hustle and bustle of a city, patience is more than virtuous; it’s downright challenging. But the effort pays off in big ways.
Mantas’ photographs feel like real life. They look like stills from a movie. Each image has its own voice, a voice that echoes off of the concrete buildings and thrums through alleyways. The story stands strong, and the latest photography trends are nowhere to be found.
The Invisible Experience
In addition to portraits, Mantas photographs weddings – a genre which plays especially nicely with his photojournalistic approach.
“I remember when I started as a photographer, and my friends, they were like, ‘Oh, you don’t like to photograph shoes and rings and detail shots? How will you get clients?’ ” Mantas recounts. “And I said, ‘I’d rather be doing what I love to do and go to work at Starbucks than to photograph just shoes-shoes-dress, surroundings, couple shot, details-details-details, and an exit shot. Because that’s not the whole story of the day.”
Mantas’ clients hire him for just that: the story of their day. He equates this to what he calls “the invisible experience” – all the things that happen when a bride isn’t looking, when a groom isn’t in the room. These stories are moments within moments, tiny narratives within the larger purpose of the day’s photographs.
One of Mantas’ clients selected a particular image to enlarge for their wall, saying, “Every time I look at that image, I find something else, something new, that I have never seen before.”
“That’s why clients love those moments,” says Mantas, ” – because they were invisible to them.”
The Whole Experience
“Don’t get me wrong,” Mantas clarifies. “On a wedding day, I document everything. I do dress shots, I do ring shots, I document tables… I just don’t show those photography trends in my portfolio.”
Instead, Mantas curates a selection of photographs that he loves most.
“I know I have a really specific niche,” he admits. “It’s like music. Ninety percent of people like pop music, and then 10% of people listen to everything else. It’s the same with my photography style, except I’m only looking for the 1% – the 1% who like what I do.”
Black and White and Straight to the Point
A big part of what Mantas does is create black and white photographs. Though he delivers 70 – 80% of his final images in color, the black and white photos hold his heart and attract his most loyal clients.
“Black and white allows you to see what I want you to see,” Mantas explains.
“In many many cases, colors suck out all of the emotion of a photo. That’s why I love black and white, because then you can see, you can go straight to the point, to the emotion of the image.”
The Best of the Best of the Best
For all his artistry, Mantas isn’t oblivious to the logistics of his chosen field. Like the lowliest among us, Mantas still overshoots (“I had 2,200 photos from an engagement session!”), culls his own photographs, (“I usually deliver about 100 from an engagement.”), and does his own editing.
“To cull 2,000 images…? That takes me, like, 20 minutes,” Mantas shares, “because I do my culling in Photo Mechanic. I cull twice in Photo Mechanic, then a third time in Lightroom as I’m editing; if there are four similar shots, I’ll choose only one.”
I asked if he was overwhelmed, doing all of his post-production himself, but he seemed nonplussed. “It’s not that hard once you focus,” he tells me. “First you have a goal, then you have techniques. For example, the day after a wedding, I sit down and I cull the images. Then I answer my emails. And then the next day I sit down and I edit. If I’m really focused, I can finish a whole wedding in five, six hours.”
Focus On What Matters Most
“Focus” seems to be another of Mantas’ power words. From focus on his urban surroundings, to focus on his clients’ stories, to focus on a strongly consistent post-production style. But he doesn’t see these as separate pieces, as individual slices of a pie. For Mantas, every step is part of the larger journey: equally critical, and equally beautiful.
“I’m focused on everything,” Mantas says. “Yes. The whole story.”
How are you bucking photography trends? Have you solidified your own unique style?