Creative Composites

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How Jason Ulsrud Rediscovered Photography
by Bill Hedrick

Jason Ulsrud took his first photography class in college over 25 years ago and, like most photographers, fell in love with the craft. It was a way for him to express himself and the way he saw the world. So, when the opportunity came for an internship with a premiere family portrait studio, Strauss Peyton in Kansas City, he jumped at the chance.

During his senior year in college, he entered four images in Missouri PPA competition and earned the honor of being a “Top Ten Missouri Photographer of the Year” as well as several other awards. “This was definitely the peak of my early photography career,” says Jason. Shortly after, he packed up and moved to Dallas, Texas, where he took a job as a photographer’s assistant doing commercial photography. Before long, he began landing editorial and commercial jobs of his own. But he wasn’t happy or satisfied.

“With the photography industry changing with the inception of digital in the late 1990’s, I sensed a big disruption coming and knew many photographers would be put out of business, which is exactly what happened,” he explains. Rather than struggle through the transition from film to digital, Jason decided to get out of photography and enrolled in chiropractic school.

After 15 years, he found himself in his early 40’s and hating everything he was doing in chiropractic and hating himself for giving up on photography years earlier. It was time for a change.

“I hadn’t touched a professional camera in over 15 years and knew nothing about digital cameras.” At that point, he began to ask himself if he could really give up chiropractic and go back to what truly made him happy… photography.

In December of 2014, inspired by a commercial photographer named Dave Hill, Jason picked up the digital camera he got in a trade and “borrowed some really crappy video lights” and made his first family portrait composite. Admittedly, he knew nothing about layers, non-destructive editing, how to dodge or burn, or anything else relating to Photoshop. But, when he saw his first composite, he knew without a doubt that this was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

His next step was to teach himself everything he could about digital and composite photography. He was determined to pick up where he had left off and to become a commercial photographer. The problem was that he had no idea how to go about that. In the meantime, however, Jason decided to use what knowledge he had and to create some “fun family portraits.”

After getting back into photography and after seeing the massive talent throughout the profession, Jason realized he had “something different.” He noticed that most of today’s portraits “portray” an individual or family within a specific space and time. His goal was to tell a story while, at the same time, capturing the unique personalities and interests of those within the story. But, throughout the process, Jason was suffering from an identity crisis.

“Because the foundation of my work all starts with potography and my style is a consequence of digital artwork, I didn’t know whether to call myself a photographer or an illustrator. While having lunch with a friend one day and telling him I don’t know whether I should call myself a photographer or an illustrator, he came up with the perfect solution. He said, ‘You’re a Photillustrator!’ From that day on, I’ve been endlessly practicing to get better at my craft, tell better stories through my composites, and to build a sustainable business in a uniquely different way,” says Jason.

According to Jason, the attraction for his clients is having something they can brag about and that nobody else has is what drives his clients to Photillustrator. “So, from the uniquely different family portrait my client will receive, to the creation of their portrait, to the delivery of their portrait, my number one goal is to deliver a uniquely different experience.”

Walking through the entire process, Jason explains that every portrait begins with a Discovery Session where he meets with the family in their home where they are most relaxed. He begins by showing samples of his work to start the creative process. “It’s super important that they have a full understanding that these aren’t just sit and smile portraits that will be done in a couple of weeks.”

Once they’ve built a rapport, they move on to brainstorming ideas. This brainstorming session also includes going through the family members’ personalities, interests, hobbies, careers, etc. Once that is done, Jason creates a concept sketch of their portrait before meeting with them a second time for their Approval Session where clients can make changes and then give their approval to move forward.

“Following the Approval Session, we begin with two to three photo sessions that begin with the photographing the scene I’m creating. Whether that scene is in their back yard or a fully fabricated scene that doesn’t exist, I dedicate an entire session to setting the scene.” The next photo session includes family members, their pets, and any fun details he discovers. If necessary, a third photo session will include any retakes, small detail items, or any items the family wants for their “Hidden Touches” feature.

Once the photography process is complete, the art work is done using Lightroom and Photoshop, taking anywhere from 20 to 40 hours for a typical assignment. “With the artwork finished, I hand deliver the digital copy of the portrait to Anthony at BWC where I’ve developed a fantastic relationship. They have the printing down to a science. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have a printer who understands your eccentric wants and needs in printing,” says Jason.

Jason believes that art is created to be enjoyed and not just looked at. Up to this point, the family hasn’t seen their amazing family portrait. That’s because the final step of the Photillustrator Process is the “BIG REVEAL” where he actually delivers and installs the portrait before covering it for the “Reveal Party.”

“This is their time in the spotlight. With their friends and family around, we make a big deal out of their portrait before counting down the reveal for all to see. It truly is magical for them, their guests, and for us at Photillustrator,” he explains.
Each new portrait is a “learning experience” for Jason Ulsrud. “Each one gives me the opportunity to solve problems and to grow as a composite photographer as well as a digital artist, making each one my favorite. Whether it be calculating angles and perspectives, embracing unique personalities, dealing with unruly pets, or spending the weekend in a multi-million dollar mansion, each portrait brings me a new experience.”

Since Jason’s early tinkering with his “really crappy” video lights and a digital camera he acquired on a trade, he has moved to much more reliable equipment. “I’m not a gear junkie, but I do want good and reliable equipment, which means I’m always looking for something better and willing to try new things.” Right now, his arsenal is comprised of a Canon 6D with a 24-105mm lens, two Paul C. Buff strobes, a Gitzo tripod he’s had for over 20 years, his iMac computer and a used Wacom Tablet, and a bunch of other miscellaneous gear.

But, even with his background in commercial photography, Jason has confined his photography to family composites. “In the beginning, I dabbled in wanting to do some editorial and commercial work and put a great deal of energy and money into that. I quickly realized, however, that if I wanted Photillustrator to be taken seriously, I had to take it seriously myself. So, I dropped everything else and made this my entire focus.”

At the Texas School of Professional Photography in April 2019, attendees will have a unique opportunity to learn from Jason in person. In his class, “Composite Photography Made Easy,” you will discover how to use composition and how to create more compelling and dynamic composites. The presentation will take you through the planning stages and into the photography and Photoshop stages that will transform your photography into works of art. “It’s amazing what can happen when you give something 100% of your attention and focus,” says Jason.

Obviously, Jason loves what he does and has a lot of fun doing it. But he admits that his job and his focus is to deliver a unique and interesting experience for the client and to make that experience different from whatever they’ve encountered before. “If I can accomplish that,” he says, “I’ve done my job.”

Jason Ulsrud helps photographers bring their visions to life through the magic of Composite Photography and wants to help photographers discover their own unique style, bring it to life in an awesome picture, and make money doing what they love. He will be one of the program speakers at the iHeart Photo Conference and will also be an instructor at the 2019 Texas School of Professional Photography. You can connect with Jason at www.photiversity.com or email him at hitmeup@photiversity.com.