Michael Afonso: How a Portrait Photographer Went Pro

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All images by Michael Afonso. Used with permission.

I found photographer Michael Afonso years ago on Flickr and other photo forums when he was still cutting his teeth as a portrait shooter. He would often ask for advice on how to make his images better in the same ways that others do. Today, he’s a Graphic Designer, Photographer and Videographer. “Currently living in Florida, my true home is surrounded by trees and nature without the tropical appeal. For the past several years i’ve been doing what I love most.” says Michael.

Michael’s edge is that he is always constantly trying new things even while being a busy creative. It’s often easy for a busy creative to become so busy with jobs that they can’t get other things done to keep expanding their own creativity.

Today, his work is the best that it’s been.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

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Michael: I took a trip to my hometown in Connecticut and had brought a digital camera with me because one thing I missed a lot when moving away was the aesthetics and beauty in the northeast. I took pictures of everything and it made me happy knowing I had a catalog of that trip.

Phoblographer: What got you into portraiture?

Michael: Portraiture felt like a rushed venture at first. I was happy and perfectly fine with taking strange photographs of random things, mainly focusing on color and composition. My friend Walter started to get into photography around the same time and we would go on trips and take photographs of of the areas we got lost in. Eventually that changed over to shooting live shows that happened in our area and then portraiture of friends. He really pushed what we were photographing into a new area. Even if it was rushed it was definitely still fun and exciting.

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Phoblographer: Your work has evolved quite a bit since you started, what influenced your portraits and the look that you have over the years?

Michael: Right away I’d say most of my portraits were just trial and error with nothing I was really comparing myself to. I was just having fun with my camera and learning what lenses would work with certain situations. It was fun but I wasn’t learning that much. Eventually I started browsing flickr and other photography sources. I ended up finding a lot of individual artists who inspired me.

Joey L was definitely an important one. Watching someone who was around my age handling such a large clientele. His color and lighting are what interested me the most though. I watched his behind the scenes videos and learned more and more about off camera lighting. I started saving immediately and eventually had my own strobist setup. The possibilities for shoots opened up. I could shoot portraiture at night, and it would be high quality, sharp with soft lighting. I think adding off camera lighting into my photography really engaged me and kept me interested in photography through the period most would find a lull or wall.

Phoblographer: How did you become a better photographer? We know that you used to post a lot in Flickr groups, but how did you get through the trolls out there and get to the actual criticism?

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Michael: Flickr was more of an ego boost. Shooting for a long time and having artists you look up to that far surpass your work definitely takes a toll on how you feel about your own work. I hated everything I shot for a long time. Flickr helped me get past that because I had a response to my work that made me optimistic. I would get 10s of thousands of views a day and could see people responding to my photographs. Sadly over time I realized that what the majority was drawn to was actually not a stylization I wanted to pursue further. Pretty girls and sun flares can only go so far. Flickr is now a thing of the past for me.

I think becoming a better photographer just came with time. Make mistakes and learn and you grow faster with the more mistakes you make. I believe I would’ve grown as a photographer and designer much faster if I didn’t play it safe as much as I did. Making mistakes and being risky is the best possibly learning process.

Phoblographer: How would you describe your style?

Michael: It’s mostly conceptual portraiture, some is just basic beauty. No matter what i’m working on i’d like it to have depth. Sometimes that depth never comes and i’m just left with a pretty photography, that’s the worse feeling I have with my work now.

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Phoblographer: You now do photography for a living, how did you go about growing your network and gaining an income from your work?

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Michael: Most of my work comes from the graphic design and cinematography portion of my work. I do get work from my photography as well but not nearly as much. Network growing really just comes down to talking to people you admire and posting good work on social accounts you connect with.

Phoblographer: What social media and photo community platforms do you like the most? Why?

Michael: Instagram is a great way to curate your photography. I use quite a few for graphic design and videography though.

Dribbble
Vimeo
Behance (Great for photographers as well)
YunoJuno
D&D

Phoblographer: Talk to us about the gear that you use.

Michael:  Canon 5d mark II
85mm f1.8
50mm f1.4
AB-800
Large Softbox

Phoblographer: What are some of the biggest lessons that you’ve learned about portraiture that have stuck with you over the years?

Michael: Composition is key, don’t cut off primary points of someones face or body without reason. Don’t shoot on super open aperture, stop it a few up so you’ll be happier with your focus and sharpness. Switch between strobe work and natural light often.

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