I am a visual artist in constant search of new inspiration and new domains to try my vision. In recent years, I worked with collage, mask design, stop-motion animation, 3D graphics, and film production. But at the core of my identity is photography. I spent 16 years being a commercial and fine-art portrait photographer.
When Midjourney arrived, I was excited about what it could do for artists. And its application in photography interested me the most!
In this study, I will break down a commercial portrait photographer's workflow into large parts and turn to cases from my professional experience to illustrate how Midjourney can enhance a photographer's superpowers at each stage. I hope these experiments and observations help my fellow photographers grow as artists and improve their professional practice.
I will state the obvious: the results of the following exercises are not ready-made instructions. And if you don't perceive them as such, they don't "replace your vision." Instead, they provide options—pieces of a puzzle to work with. And only you can bring them together to real life.
Also: this study is made by a portrait photographer, and it shows. ╮ (. ❛ _ ❛.) ╭ However, I believe it can be extrapolated to any kind of photography that requires preproduction. And beyond that!
Before taking on a project, I often explored the vast ocean of Pinterest, Tumblr, Flickr, and many other sources. I researched what other artists had done before me and sought inspiration.
Today, this routine has changed almost entirely. Yes, I still go to Pinterest to find inspirational works from other artists. But when it comes to finding an idea for a whole photo shoot—I ask Midjourney!
You can refer to the style of your favorite photographer or—build the scene from scratch with no style modifiers.
Here is a picture that's been in my Inspiration folder forever. I admired how the mask was made and how the shot was framed and colored. This picture became the foundation for a completely new and unique mask design. After going through a Remix mode journey.
And the best part is—even with my humble set of tools, a piece of red cloth, a roll of copper wire, and a can of black spray paint—I can build it in real life myself!
With Midjourney, you can take a picture that inspires you of the artist you admire and guide MJ to rework it into your unique inspirational reference. Trust me, it will be very different from the initial artwork when it gets to real life, thus becoming your unique creation.
Remixing—isn't that what generations of artists did throughout the history of art?
I teach an online portrait photography course at Spéos International Photography School. Each of its 15 chapters is devoted to a specific aspect of small to large-scale photographic production. And one of these chapters is dedicated to Previsualization — a process of finding references, assembling mood boards, sketching out, collating, or rendering the final result of your future photo shoot—a crucial stage of every project that lets us better envision our ideas.
Here is a hypothetical situation that happened many times in real life. I'm being summoned to Provence for a cover shoot for a wine magazine. The talent is the renowned French winemaker Sacha Lichine. I have to photograph him outdoors for the cover and then make a horizontal shot indoors for the feature story.
To previsualize my options and get ideas about how to approach the brief, I used a portrait of Sacha from an actual photo shoot we did a few years back. If I hadn't had it, I would have googled him and picked any close-up picture for the Image Prompt.
Or, you can slap together a quick digital collage outlining your scene and ask Midjourney to rework it into something more realistic—and actionable. Here is another example—a sketch depicting an Istanbul Seagull Admiral for an upcoming personal project, then a five-minutes digital collage, and finally, Midjourney's result.
The first thing you do to respond to a client's brief—alongside budget estimates—is hunting for reference images and making a mood board.
Usually, I would scour the Internet to find the exact images you need to illustrate your idea and let your team and the client get into my vision. I would try to show how I see context, styling, poses, lighting, and makeup—as detailed and precise as possible.
Midjourney shines at this! With just one prompt, you can previsualize a shooting style, a location, a makeup concept, a scene's atmosphere, and so on—the possibilities are literally limitless!
You can even outline your moodboard pages by asking Midjourney directly.
Working in the genre of complex photographic portraits, you naturally strive to create a unique and memorable world for your model to inhabit inside your frame. Some of it comes from creative choices like framing, composition, lens character, special effects, etc. But set design rules them all. Before Midjourney, I sketched sets for my photo shoots on paper, Frankensteined Photoshopped them together from a dozen reference pictures, or even used 3D software.
But it's Midjourney time now! So let's put the visualization task on its shoulders.
I added --no people person man woman boy girl model to all prompts—we need only the set itself, and if not for that little trick, Midjourney will consistently generate humans. :)
Why stop there if we can ask the same thing from non-photographers? I did!
But even with my little "no people" trick, they would still sometimes infiltrate the sets. :) Nevertheless, the set designs were always impeccable.
Yes, sometimes those set designs are too intricate and too grandiose for our financial and creative resources. But again, they are mere combinations of ideas, and our job is to rethink and adapt them to a real-life situation.
While we're at it, let's also try Midjourney with props!
Styling and props are the salt and pepper of every portrait photo shoot. Will our hero wear a minimalist outfit simply framing the character, or would it be an elaborate costume that tells a story of its own? Do we add items to our frame to underline an important point or as storytelling devices? Or do they just inhabit the frame's space to give our talent something to do in it?
Oftentimes, you have to look for a needed prop or a piece of costume. Call movie or theatre productions, go to costume rentals, or get a stylist involved and delegate it to a professional. In that case, you just need the correct reference pictures. And Midjourney is outstanding for this!
Other times, you need to build a prop by yourself. And then, it once again comes to sketches and digital collages. Or to Midjourney.
Another part of envisioning your final photo shoot is to imagine as precisely as possible what the talent will look like in the frame. In some projects, you take part in casting models for the shoot. In others, you are commissioned to photograph a specific person. In both cases, Midjourney allows us to visualize their presence in our future picture.
It is crucial for an artist not to be locked inside their domain. To grow, we need to persistently look for creative possibilities, explore unfamiliar fields of art, learn from different artists, and experiment with new tools. Finally, we must constantly reassess and rethink our work in the context of new experiences. And Midjourney offers all of these opportunities in one Discord window.
To illustrate my point, here is a short stop-motion animation project that I've made with Midjourney Image Prompts using one of my old photographs.
Since Midjourney arrived, I've revisited my whole archive (16 years worth 280k+ photographs O____o), dug up old pictures, and fed them to MJ. It responded with new, unexpected, surprising artworks. That, in turn, gave me new ideas for future projects! A perfect cycle.
With this, I encourage you to go out there and try, test, experiment, fail, succeed, and take your artistic practice to the next level, whatever that might be for you.
For the final part of this study, here are some techniques familiar to photographers that can be applied to create art in Midjourney.
I used Francis D. portrait and set the same --seed parameter for all generations to keep them as consistent as possible.
Let's start with the most basic thing for a portrait photographer, and try to ask Midjourney for some of different kinds of portraits. Can we use them as prompt modfiers? The answer is yes!
In Midjourney, you can set the direction, the quality, and the color of your lighting.
For this test I used standard formula for the text part of the prompt: portrait shot with ...
To simply things, I will only mention the light type below the samples.
If you wonder why the Bottom lighting guy doesn’t look like Francis, well... Midjourney showed more control over certain aspects of photography in Text Prompts. For instance, it occurred to be slightly more difficult for MJ to change the lighting on an existing photograph than to generate a lighting situation from scratch. I couldn't make Francis to be lit from below (bottom light, floor lighting, lit from below), but managed to generate a bottom-lit portrait from a text prompt.
The same effect occurred when with aperture settings: Midjourney struggled to apply them to an Image Prompt, but, again, could generate something distinct from scratch. See below ↓
Specifying ISO numbers doesn't seem to affect the result. However, setting the film grain size has some effect. The coarse film grain modifier appears to make the picture sharper and more contrasty. However, the traditional film grain of high ISO effect is barely achievable in Midjourney V4. :(
This is the situation I mentioned: aperture didn't work with Francis. However, with a text prompt, it affected the outcome (marginally). Note how aperture 11 renders more details in the girls hair. Still, the difference can be easily disregarded as insignificant.
To test if Shutter Speed works with MJ, I used moving photograph as part of each prompt.
Neither shutter speed x/y nor shutter speed x/y of a second worked, but fast shutter speed, high shutter speed, and slow shutter speed modifiers affected the result!
In Midjourney, you can partially control the composition of your picture. While it proved to be hard to specify certain types of composition (asymmetrical, off-center, unconventional, golden ratio, etc.—all didn't seem to work), you can still successfully set the angle of shooting. And, to some extent, framing.
No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't overcome Midjourney's obsession with cropping portraits at the waistline. Full body height, full height, standing portrait, full body portrait... I only succeeded once, with full body height portrait with feet, and it was only one variant out of four, once in several re-rolls.
And, surely, Midjourney knows lenses!
There is quite a wide range of photographic film stock known to Midjourney. Obviously, they are not to be trusted as a perfect color reference. But as an imperfect one—these modifiers work just great.
The prompt: portrait shot in ... film colors. I will only list the title of the film below.
Ultimately, I use them not to refer to specific film stock but to find inspiration for my color grading choices. This circles back to the disclaimer at the beginning and neatly brings me to a...
It is very obvious how Mijdourney might be an invaluable help in a photographer's career. So instead of stating the obvious, I want to conclude this study with a broader point. Today, many artists are scared of the coming of AI and are opposed to it—because they think it will take their jobs by imitating their styles.
But it's not the style that makes an artist.
It's the stories that the artist tells with that style.
This can't be copied by any AI—because stories for humans are born from human experiences, emotions, and reflections. They form your vision. And AI is just another tool to help bring your vision to life.
P.S. There is an aspect of photography or a photographic technique that I missed in this study? You have something to add, or want to share your thoughts and experiences? Drop me a note via the form below or DM on Instagram →
P.P.S. This study is already too long, so I will devote a separate one to using Mijdounrey to enrich and enhance your own pictures!
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All samples are produced by Midlibrary team using Midjourney AI. Naturally, they are not representative of real artists' works/real-world prototypes.
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