intimate observations

entering the creative space

emma byrnes melbourne photographer
emma byrnes photographer melbourne
Weavings by Melbourne textile artist David Pearce. Photographs by  Emma Byrnes

Weavings by Melbourne textile artist David Pearce. Photographs by Emma Byrnes

Exploration is often the necessary first step when photographing creative people in their working spaces and over time I have learnt that it’s OK to go in blind and stumble around for a while to get my bearings and soak up their environment. In fact it is the most magical way to undertake the brief. Maintaining my child-like curiosity and appreciating the small moments can help to formulate the story. Slowing down and having a chat by taking coffee/tea with them in their workspace or just sitting and observing them at work can be very valuable time spent.
Because my approach as a photographer stems from a place of observation and interest in human behaviour - I am sensitive to emotions. I am also very happy to be the one on the camera-side and profess I am particularly sensitive to what people go through on the other side. But whilst I like to be on my side of the camera I am certainly not a stealthy, detached observer.  A big part of my job is connecting with people, reaching out across the borders and boundaries of what may be perceived to exist.

One of the first things I read is how comfortable this person might be with a lens in their face.  This is something that may have been flagged beforehand but I generally also judge on the day.  I don’t like being an imposition on people’s intimate spaces and so I often choose to tread slowly yet quietly confident that the trust will build over time.

If the person is more reserved I will often employ techniques like long exposures (blurring the subject), unconventional framing and letting their work and tools speak on their behalf whilst they can ebb and flow around the edges. This approach can tend to result in more ethereal or suggestive imagery.

But If I sense that they are instantly relaxed then we can begin with gusto and the images will often reflect that more robust, sharp and bold approach.

Often their personal grooming/attire can be a good indicator of their general approach/working method and hence how they would be best represented.
For example my friend David Pearce whose work is featured in the photographs above is a very meticulous textile artist (it can take up to 4 years for him to make a garment from scratch ie hand spinning, hand dyeing, knitting) His clothes are always well-pressed and he is very well-groomed. His work is painstaking in it’s detail and therefore when he asked me to photograph him with weavings in his studio I almost unconsciously ensured that the images were stripped back and minimal - much like him. 
Another visual creative friend Anna of Sweet Polka asked me to document her folio. There is apparently a tried and true formula for documenting folio’s - flat lay, point/shoot done. This is all well and good but I couldn’t help but bring her into the process. Her personal aesthetic reflects the work she does. She wrote a blog post about that day we spent together.

Paintings lined up at Sarah Tomasetti’s studio. Photograph by  Emma Byrnes

Paintings lined up at Sarah Tomasetti’s studio. Photograph by Emma Byrnes

Another thing I will observe when entering the space of a creative is the colour palette of their work and how it may be reflected in their belongings/clothing/studio environment.  
For example my client Sarah Tomasetti has very pared back colour palettes in her oil paintings. And her studio reflects this unfussy quality featuring deep timbers and plastered white walls with very few bright colours, even on the book shelves (pictured above).  Having been trained initially as a photojournalist I generally don’t like to interfere with what is in front of me. I take environments more or less as they come and use the surrounds to inform the work. But for some of Sarah’s photo sessions I have removed just one or two items (such as bright plastic buckets or a flouro highlighter from her desk) as they have distracted from what is otherwise a very unconsciously nuanced scenario that ties in so wonderfully with her paintings and their palette.  

I will also look at the equipment and materials the artist uses. How they are stored? Are they messy? Tidy? Does this reflect on their personal style/artworks/design? Physical features can also play a big part - wild hair/dirty hands/bare feet? 
For example my friend Joanna Fowles is a textile dying creative . Her indigo-stained hands and mottled drop sheets are a big indicator of her work life and practice. Images capturing these details would certainly be key photographs in a story about her creative practice. In fact next time I visit Sydney I am compelled to enter her studio and put aside some time to capture her at work :-)

Sometimes time pressure can take me into the SHOOT FIRST/ TALK LATER work mode.  Or the artist may be already engaged in their work when I step into the space. Rather than interrupting what is obvious flow I will stand back and observe - ascertaining the mood, environment, personality through subtle cues and markers. Are they happy for me to be there? I try to make eye contact and if they respond then I will nod and gain their trust. Other times they may feel uncomfortable with me interrupting and I slow down to let them know that I am not a threat to the pace of the environment and will warm them up slowly.

Other questions that I will ask myself during a shoot are:
Do I need to change my point of view or my lens? Do I need to guide the artist into a different part of the workspace? Do I wait for more suitable light? Should I get less literal and use slower shutter speeds or multiple exposures?

So many variables go into creating the right circumstances for these shoots to succeed but when I find myself in these situations I am like a pig in mud.

Get in touch if you would like to book a photography session in your creative space.

And view other blog posts in the “intimate observations” series here.

creative frameworks

emma byrnes photographer melbourne
Melbourne artist  Lee Mullen  captured at  Claire Scorpo  studio in Fitzroy where her artworks hang.  Photography by  Emma Byrnes.

Melbourne artist Lee Mullen captured at Claire Scorpo studio in Fitzroy where her artworks hang.
Photography by Emma Byrnes.

When I am working with creatives the style of photography tends to sit within one of the following frameworks:

  • BEHIND-THE-SCENES of everyday practice - showing the process of the artist.
    A good example of this is a series I photographed for Spacecraft.

  • DOCUMENTATION of a design/ art event or an art installation.
    See a blog post I have written about documentation here.

  • Work hanging in a GALLERY ENVIRONMENT.
    An example of this type of work can be found here.

  • PORTRAIT - a picture of the artist/creative in their studio.
    See an example here. 

Sometimes I will know the artist and other times they come to me through a recommendation.
Either way I will often take the following steps via email or over a phone call:

  • WHAT IS THEIR ONLINE/SOCIAL MEDIA PRESENCE?
    I will usually look up the artist and see how they have chosen to represent themselves already. Some people are fully engaged in a web presence/social media conversation and others are not. Even their absence from the online world can reveal a lot to me.

  • PERSONAL VISION
    I will also ascertain whether or not they have a personal vision for the photographs. From my personal experience I find that most creatives who come my way understand the creative process and are therefore happy to give in to a more intuitive journey - not needing to fully control the outcome. But there are some personalities for whom control is crucial and it is important to establish this beforehand to avoid a clash of intentions. I like working with both types of clients and am not afraid of a more prescriptive approach. Whatever the case may be if the creative has certain requirements (ie needs a portrait taken for a certain publication; needs the orientation of the images to be in landscape format for a website, needs to have a series of images or just one hero image) this all needs to be planned/discussed beforehand.

  • LOCATION /LIGHTING INFORMATION
    I always talk about their location/studio beforehand so I can think about the light and the parameters beforehand. Sometimes I will visit a location in advance to get a feel for the kinds of shots I will aim for and notice details that might help on the day, such as vantage points, window placement. Or I might just look up the studio/workplace on Google and note where north is in relation to the location and also open shade possibilities in case we need it.

  • NATURAL LIGHT
    My preferred style of photography is to shoot in natural light. I have mastered the art of manipulating my camera on manual at all times so that I can avoid setting up added lighting or distract my subjects with flashes. I feel if I can remain unnoticed and shoot pictures unobtrusively, I’ll capture more natural scenes. Sometimes if the light is low this will lend the images a grainy texture and if I know that this may be one of the possible outcomes I will flag it to the client so we can troubleshoot if need be.

  • A SERIES OF IMAGES
    When talking about visual storytelling through photographs it more often that not refers to a series of images that work together to reveal a narrative. In a way you could look at each image as being a chapter in the story, unfolding towards the climax. A series of images emphasises several ideas, whereas a single image usually emphasises just one idea. One image may be able to say everything you are trying to communicate but most often you will also need a series including close-up details of tools, attire and environment to flesh out the tale.
    Portraits don’t always need to be traditional head and shoulders and I usually find that the most successful portraits of creatives are of the artist/creative lost in their work. However some people suit a more staged approach. Unless this has been outlined beforehand I tend to make this judgement on the day.

  • STRONG EDITING SKILLS
    It is also worth noting that capturing a good image takes time. It is more than likely after a long photoshoot we will only bear a handful of images. That is because if you are trying to tell a strong story you need to show strong editing skills and only use the strongest images. However If I am documenting an event there will often be many more images as the aim is to tell the story of the event from as many angles as possible.

  • HOW MUCH TIME DO WE HAVE?
    I always ascertain before the shoot how much time a subject has and if on the day I sense they are in a hurry I will make a series of photographs within the time constraints but if there is no rush I love to slow down, observe and enjoy watching the scene unfold to be able to tune into the nuances.

Click here if you would like to read more blog posts in the INTIMATE OBSERVATIONS series.

And get in touch if you would like to book in a photography session.

philosophy and output

Melbourne artist,  Sarah Tomasetti,  in her home studio. Photography by  Emma Byrnes.

Melbourne artist, Sarah Tomasetti, in her home studio. Photography by Emma Byrnes.

I do not think of my work-life as being part of a rat race. Instead I have made a conscious effort to carve out my own pace by working with people whose philosophy and output matches my own ideals.

And I see my photography involving much more than being just a tool that produces pictures. This craft allows me to make genuine human connections and intimate observations. When working with creative people, photography can be a way of connecting with their practice and observing the incidentals. If all goes well the results are pictures that evoke a moment in time or an environment that otherwise couldn’t be understood so easily. 


I think in pictures. I am constantly squinting at scenes before me, subconsciously applying the rule of thirds.

I have been taking photographs since I was 10. I was given a Kodak brownie camera for xmas and immediately fell in love with the satisfying click and the sound as I manually advanced the film. 

As time passed I realised that taking photos allowed me as a shy person to be right up close to the action without having to play a central part. Participating but slightly removed, hiding behind the lens. I was always quite shy as a child but have always been a keen observer…I watch and notice things. I pick up on nuances and energy. Photography enabled me to exercise these muscles.

In high school I maintained an interest in photography but also loved culture and media, leading me to study Broadcast Journalism (with a sub-major in Photojournalism). Studying Photojournalism gave me a certain slant on photography ie the photographer needs to have more than just the eye for the photo. They must accurately portray an event or scene while still maintaining a fascinating composition. In addition, the photographer needs to be fast and fearless and be willing to push boundaries in order to get just the right shot. They also do not manipulate or enhance the photo in any way in post-production (or at least they shouldn’t?!)
During the course of this program I realised that I wasn’t ruthless/hungry enough to be a journalist (I was too sensitive at the end of the day) but I definitely took away from that experience a fascination in documentation and strong foundations for storytelling (especially with images.)

Over time I went on to do all sorts of interesting things (film-maker, web designer, barista, screen printer, fruit and vegetable vendor!) including a design and animation degree. One of the things I enjoyed most about this period was learning about the Principles of Design. I also became adept at software editing tools such as Photoshop and Lightroom and really enjoyed the process of making images the best they could possibly be by cleaning things up a little bit in post-production (against the Photojournalism principles - yikes!)
These new skills combined to further inform my photography work - merging my intuitive, child-like curiosity and my reportage, photojournalistic approach with a more designerly, edited approach. 


And this is how it culminates in the way I think of myself as a photographer now - working intuitively with people to document their environments whilst maintaining a very strong interest in the composition, and aesthetics.

See my photography website here.

Read further blog posts in the “intimate observations” series here.