Creative Portrait Photography with Emily Machan: Getting Started + Helpful Tips

Creative Portrait Photography with Emily Machan: Getting Started + Helpful Tips

Photo by Michaela Tang (@kaelsphotos)

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If you've looked at the Kite Jewels website or Instagram lately, you probably have seen Emily Machan's work.  Emily is a Calgary based creative portraits photographer and we have worked on a few shoots together and needless to say, I am a big fan.  Her creative portraits convey a sense of emotion and depth due to the way she captures her subject and utilizes light and composition.  When I see Emily work it seems as though it comes intuitively to her, something that I think is a rare talent.

I had the chance to sit down with Emily recently to discuss her photography journey and ask for her top tips when it comes to getting started in portrait photography.

How did you get into photography?

I'll start off by saying, growing up, my entire family has been extremely creative. The arts were always encouraged: my dad wanted to be an architect, my mom has always loved painting and drawing, my sister is a graphic designer, and my brother is an animator. What really made me fall in love with photography was when I was in the seventh grade, my dad thought it would be fun for me, my sister and my friends to create music videos.  

From there, I really fell in love with the idea of being able to tell a story through a camera. At the same time, I was growing up, I was experiencing new things and I needed an outlet. I love the idea that with a camera, you could create a story in an instant, and still have it be beautiful and very artistic. 

Emily Self PortraitSelf portrait

I did IB Art in high school and at the end of your senior year, you had to do an exhibition and mine were all photographs. My high school art teacher really pushed me to figure out why I wanted to take photos, and helped me understand the process of the intention behind photos. 

Emily Machan High School Art Exhibit Emily's senior year art exhibit 

Would you say that you have a particular style of photography or taking photos? Or do you feel it's always evolving?

I feel like it's always evolving but when I ask other people, they say there is a style. What has remained consistent throughout all my photos, is my intention behind them. I always want it to show a story and emotions.  I've always been terrible with words so I like to use my photographs to describe things and feelings that you can't necessarily explain. My photos can be quite dreamy, I like it when they have that nostalgic feeling to it and sometimes they can be quite moody, as well.

When you're first starting out and trying to figure out what you like, I don't think it's good to just stick to one style. It's good to try out a lot of new things.  But the advice I've gotten from working professionals in the fashion industry is that if you want to make it professionally, you need to have a style that will make you stand out from others. So it all depends on where you want to take your photography. For me right now, I'm fine with having different styles because I'm still learning all the time but probably in a couple of years, I'm going to want to establish who I am as a photographer.

Speaking about photography styles, what's your take on trends? (ex. film photos)

I think trends are good and bad. They can be a bad thing because it can pigeonhole photographers into a certain style.  But at the same time, if a trend is really popular, the people who view your photos at the time will like them. I also think trends can teach you new techniques that you wouldn't have thought of or teach you a different way to do something that you might end up loving, but not use completely.  When I first started posting on my old Instagram account with the silly name Blue Wave Ocean (it had no meaning!). The trend then was heavy Photoshop use, creating very surreal images.

Emily's old instagram account
Emily's old IG account 

How do we make sure that our photos whether we're a hobbyist, professional or just a casual social media user don't end up feeling dated?  Like those over exposed, bright, white photos from 5-6 years ago that were all over Instagram?

Do what feels right to you because if there's a trend that you absolutely love, and you're like, “this is who I am”, then to you, the photos will feel timeless. Because that's who you are. I don't think there ever is like, a terrible photo per se, it's all very subjective.

Could you describe your creative process?

Whenever I think of doing a shoot, it always starts with a feeling.  I like to envision the photographs in my mind beforehand how they will look. Then I usually send the person that I'm working with reference images that best suits what I'm picturing in my head. Sometimes I like to draw it out but usually I just reference images online that match what I'm feeling and envisioning in my head.  I also get insanely inspired by the energy and movement of music videos, so when I am envisioning these things in my head it feels like it's a music video.

Lana Collins by Emily Machan

During your process, is there something you’re constantly working on or your biggest obstacle?

Well, I guess there's two things. One of them is something I'll probably always be working on is bringing the vision to life. Sometimes you envision it in your head but it doesn't necessarily work and that can cause some frustration.  I'm really working on going with the flow and adapting to different situations. Just kind of letting things go with the flow and seeing where that takes me. And so far, the results are amazing.  For example, with the Lunar New Year's shoot I did with Michaela (@kaelsphotos), we started off with a basic idea. Then throughout it, both of us were like, "oh, what if we do this? what if we do that?" and it just worked out perfectly.

I saw the photos from that shoot and immediately sent Michaela a message and was like "you look like a goddess!" and she's like "literally, that's what we were going for!"

Yeah, I think that's one of the best feelings, is when you don't know where you're going with it and you're working collaboratively with another person, and it just creates magic.

Lunar New Year ft. Michaela Tang

I don't know if you are this way, but sometimes I'm afraid to let people into my process because I know what I want, but are these people gonna help me in that? Or are they just gonna make it harder for me?

Exactly, and this ties into my second challenge which is being confident in voicing how I want something to be.  For example, the way you view a shot in real life versus how you view it through the camera is very different.  So being confident enough to explain and ask the person I’m shooting to go with my idea, especially if I haven't met this person before is another challenge for me.  

What are your thoughts on models- do you necessarily need a "good model" to produce a good photograph? 

That depends on the shoot. When I started out, no one that I shot was a professional model. If you're trying to create a certain type of image that's, say, just artistic, you don’t need a professional model. However, if you are shooting for a brand, like a clothing brand or jewellery brand, I will say you do need a professional model just because they have had practice and they understand exactly how to show off the product because the shoot really isn't about them anymore, it's about the brand that you're photographing.

When you're shooting a regular portrait, then it's about the person and it's all about their ability to be confident in front of the camera and not being afraid to look stupid or try awkward angles.

Yohanna by Emily

What sort of equipment would someone need to get started in portrait photography? Can they start with a phone camera, and then work themselves up to a DSLR?

You can definitely start with a phone camera, especially with today's phones. As we were talking about trends before, the trend now is old 2000 - 2010 cameras and you can definitely start out with those (relatively inexpensive) and people are gonna love it. Once you want to start taking photos more seriously, having good basic gear is a must.  This includes a DSLR, one that has the ability to interchange the lenses.  Personally I don't think the brand or body of the camera matters too much, but having different lenses can change everything about a photo.

What about light set ups?

It depends on the situation but I don't think they're necessary.  With my indoor studio, it's a lot easier with a light setup.  But let's say you're just shooting in your living room or your bedroom, you can get really creative with the lighting that you already have like lamps and overhead lighting. It's just all about being creative and being able to adapt to your situation. There's so many talented people out there who are able to use what they have around them.

How important is the editing side of photography?  When I look at a professional's photograph, I know that they've done some editing, but I'm not sure what the extent is and I'm guessing that's part of the skill as well, but can you speak to that?

Editing is very important and I use it for all my photos. I don't think I've ever posted a photo unedited and I don't send unedited photos to people either. Editing can change everything about your photo and it's not just skin editing. I don't do a lot of skin editing (to perfect a model's skin) but what makes the most difference to me is the colour grading.  I personally love editing because you have this vision and colour grading is so important to achieving that vision, especially if you don't have the right light equipment. So you need to use the editing in order to make it the image that you want.

Daniela by Emily

What is your go-to editing software?

When I started, I had no training when it came to photography. So a lot of it was trial and error and I used to primarily use Photoshop. Then my art teacher was like ,"what are you doing? Use Lightroom!"  I was like, "ok, if I must." It was a game changer. The way I view it, Lightroom allows you to change the surface of the image- the colouring and lighting.  Whereas Photoshop, it's manipulation and you can do amazing things. There are specific tasks you just can't do in Lightroom.  But if you're just editing the colouring and exposure, then I would say go to Lightroom because that's what it's suited for. It's also free to use on your phone as an app.

If someone wants to improve their portrait photography whether they're taking serious portraits or just a selfie on their phone, what's your top tip?

Practice, practice, practise! Different angles, locations, light settings- if you're used to shooting in broad daylight, try shooting in the dark with a higher ISO.  It'll push you creatively.  When I took a break from photography when I started university, I was so bad at it when I started again.  Just constantly shooting and meeting new people is what got me back to where I am now.

A tip for when you're taking a casual photo with friends or a selfie on your phone is find the best lighting.  You do this by holding up and looking at the palm of your hand. Move until there are no more shadows on your palm and that is the direction you should be facing to take the best photos.  Good natural lighting is always the best way to go but the small ring lights you can attach to your phone can create even lighting around your face and make your eyes look extra reflective and shiny!

Where do you draw your inspiration from? Are they people and social media accounts that you love to follow?

I love music videos.  For the longest time I was inspired by the artist Troy Sivan.  In 2017 he created a series, "Blue Neighbourhood" and it blew my mind. I thought it was amazing.  On Instagram, Kitty Lou (@kittylouu) is a photographer that I love. She creates beautiful purpley hued photos that are so dreamy and lovely. I also like the creative studio work of Alexsey Reyes (@alexseyreyes). He uses photo manipulation to take his photos to the next level.

Another photographer that uses photo manipulation is Megan Clark (@digitalsmeg) who does amazing digital renderings on top of her photos.  She’ll create a digital sticker on top of her photos and it looks realistic.

Pinterest can also be helpful to get ideas but I currently use VSCO alot.  I edit many of my camera photos there and there’s a lot less pressure in terms of the number of followers or like counts.  You can only add one photo at a time and other users can repost your photo to their feeds. VSCO itself can repost your photo and when they do it’s like an amazing feeling because many more people will see your photo.  I personally feel it's more artistic and genuine because people are just posting what they want to post.


What is one thing in your camera kit that you can’t live without?

My 24-70mm lens as an all rounder lens

What is one photography trick everyone should know regardless of the equipment they have?

Always shoot with the light behind you

What would you prefer, best gear + terrible lighting or best lighting + terrible gear?

Best lighting, terrible gear

Which famous person, dead or alive would you want to photograph?

Troy Sivan 

We should @ him! 

Oh god!

Do photographers secretly judge everyone else’s photos?


I think I could have guessed that answer! 

On a related note, can photographers tell immediately if a photo has been edited?

I think so.

(So stop and think about whether you have some hawkeyed photographer friends before you post “#nofilter”!)

What is your go to posing tip?

Movement - ask your model to move because most people are a little nervous anyway.  Either a little walk or swing side to side.

What is one thing that has surprised you on your photography journey so far?

How easy it can be!

If you want to check out Emily’s work (and you should!), head over to her Instagram @emmeiling or her website

Emily by Michaela Tang

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