Industrial Setting – Family Portraits in Holland, Michigan (Central Illinois Photographer)

A couple weeks ago, my family and I spent a glorious weekend in one of my favorite places in the US: Holland, Michigan, which is one of many cute beach towns in along the west side of Lake Michigan. (If you aren’t familiar with the area, add it to your bucket list and cross it off next time you are near Chicago!)

One of my best friends from college, Kate, lives in Holland with her gorgeous family.


Kate has had a huge influence on my life. She helped me cultivate an appreciation for art(ists) and writing; she is a gifted hostess, full of grace, and a patient and devoted mother. Kate and I have so many memories beyond college including traveling Great Britain and the Nederlands together and being in each other’s weddings. Kate was at my bedside along with other mutual friends during my bedrest with Rawley. I could go on. She means the world to me and it’s so fun to be closer now and watch our kids grow together.

I was happy to make some family portraits for them while we were there, in between lots of yummy food, playtime for the kids, a trip to the beach, and some good local brews.

We wandered down the street from their historic home to nearby Washington Elementary School. The brick school ceased operations in 2005, and is soon to be redeveloped (possibly as condos). The setting provided lots of industrial elements and interesting architectural lines as a backdrop for their portraits.

Meet Jack, Vivian, and Willem:

20150731_BlogPost_BoltPortraits-1As you can imagine, this was a rather kinetic shoot, and some of the outtakes were too good to destroy:

20150731_BlogPost_BoltPortraits-2The kids all delightfully different from one another and each uniquely entertaining. Jack looks just like his dad and is already a talented violinist; Willem has his mom’s brown eyes and is a California soul; Vivian is a blonde Kate, and tough in the way you’d expect a girl to be with two older brothers. (She effortlessly hauled a SUP paddle, barefoot, from the beach parking lot to the beach, about a 1/4 mile and long flight of stairs away.)

20150731_BlogPost_BoltPortraits-4Kate and Dan are such good parents and friends. So thankful for them, and for such a great weekend! And, thanks for the opportunity to make these portraits for you! xoxo


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Selling Stock Photography: DIY versus Stock House (Central Illinois Photographer)

Debate continues among photographers about whether to contribute to stock houses like iStockPhoto, Getty, Shutterstock (etc.). I do not contribute to any stock houses. But, I’ve considered doing so; I have mixed feelings.

I’ve talked a lot on this blog about how important it is to blog effectively, and to make key-wording part of your workflow from the outset. As a result of those practices, I generally enjoy a decent amount of direct sales from old work every year. I like being in control of who licenses my images, and for how much. I enjoy the relatively passive income (who wouldn’t?), and it helps carry me through the slow winter months when I don’t get many new commercial assignments.

Maybe I’d make more sales – in terms of quantity – via a stock house, but I am doubtful that I’d gross more money, especially when most are non-rights managed and typically pay only a few dollars (or cents!) per sale.

Case in point: so far this year, it’s been a good year for me in terms of licensing old images, with 40% of my gross income to date coming from stock sales that I managed.

Oklahoma City / Devon Energy Tower Aerial Photography

In 2011, I shot a series of aerials of OKC when we lived there, and Nathan was helping to manage the Devon Tower construction. Those images have been licensed many times over. So far this year, I’ve sold the two files below a total of three times: 1) a printable digital file for individual use and 2) for commercial use, and 3) shipped a 24×36 canvas to a local businessman.

Downtown Oklahoma City and the Devon Energy Headquarters (under Construction), 2011

Downtown Oklahoma City and the Devon Energy Headquarters (under Construction), 2011

Downtown Oklahoma City and Devon Energy Headquarters (with I-40 relocation project underway, top left), 2011

Downtown Oklahoma City and Devon Energy Headquarters (with I-40 relocation project underway, top left), 2011

Dana Kennedy Portraits 

In 2010, Dana Kennedy hired me to make portraits for her to use in her Phoenix City Council Campaign. Now, Dana is currently working as the State Director for AARP of Arizona. Recently, the Business Journal used one of those portraits for an article in which Dana was quoted, and AARP itself licensed two of them for use in their own PR and marketing materials.

Dana Kennedy, 2010

Dana Kennedy, 2010

Camelback Mountain / Praying Monk, Phoenix, AZ

I was privately commissioned to make artistic images of this Phoenix landmark in 2010 by an old colleague. Recently, Oregon Catholic Press licensed one of the images for use on the cover of an upcoming CD release.

Praying Monk, Camelback Mountain, Phoenix, 2010

Praying Monk, Camelback Mountain, Phoenix, 2010

All of the above sales were possible because of my careful workflow, including a good archive system, and an understanding of the importance of protecting my copyrights and maintaining ownership of all of my work, key wording and watermarking every image before it goes online in any capacity, blogging every shoot, and putting all of my work out there, even when it was originally for a limited purpose. You just never know when you will make residual income down the road when you put forth these efforts.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on stock sales and stock houses, and any tips you have about how to generate residual income from your work.


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Generational Portraits (Phoenix Family / Portrait Photography)

On my most recent trip to Phoenix, I had the honor of, for the second time, making generational portraits for long-time friends and clients, Ben and Sarah.

In Sarah’s family, they’ve maintained a meaningful tradition through five generations of women: each female family member is photographed around age 2 wearing the same dress and standing on a chair.

Here is Sarah’s portrait from over 3 years ago (photographer unknown). Sarah has similar portraits of her mom, grandma, and great-grandmother.


Sarah, circa 1980 (Photographer unknown), wearing the traditional family dress and standing on the same chair as her three daughters, below.

In 2010, Sarah asked me to make the official portrait of her eldest daughter (and her baby, not yet the “right” age or wearing “the” dress,  jumped in just for fun. Later, when the curly haired cutie turned 2 herself, I was living in OKC, and couldn’t make her official portrait, so another Phoenix photographer did hers). Now the baby from 2010 is the middle sister, and I just added the new baby sister’s official portrait to the lineup.

Indulge yourself in the nostalgia and cuteness:

Big, middle (in 2010), and little (in 2015) sisters: On left and right, wearing the same dress; all standing on the same chair.

Big, middle (in 2010), and little (in 2015) sisters. On left and right, wearing the same dress; all standing on the same chair.

Middle sister looked up to her big sister in 2010, and now in 2015, looks out for her baby sister:

Middle sister, looking up to big sister in 2010 and looking out for baby sister in 2015.

Middle sister, looking up to big sister in 2010 and looking out for baby sister in 2015.

Look how much big and little sisters look alike at age 2 (above, far left and far right)!

Here’s one more shot I love of the youngest during the most recent shoot:

Baby sister, 2015

Baby sister, 2015

I feel sentimental, knowing this will be my last generational portrait session for this family! The dress is literally starting to fall apart, so the family is planning to preserve it in a box frame for safekeeping.

As a photographer, it is really an honor to be invited to participate in, and be trusted with, these kinds of valued family traditions. Portrait collections like these will be cherished for generations, and being trusted with making them is a gift. If you’ve ever considered beginning or continuing this type of tradition in your family, do it! You will never regret contributing such a meaningful heirloom to your family.


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20 Years.

Thinking of loved ones and our life in Oklahoma City today on the 20th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, and praying for peace. (See more images of the Oklahoma City National Memorial in my original post.)






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Family Portraits at Camelback Bridge in Normal, IL (Bloomington – Normal Photographer)

Last week I had the honor of making family portraits for this gorgeous group, whom I met through our mutual friend (and client) Katie. We met on one of our first warm, sunny, spring days, where the Camelback Bridge on Virginia Ave. crosses my favorite wooded stretch of the Constitution Trail.

20150408_BlogPost_RatcliffFamilyPortraits-3 Although they live in Bloomington, the Camelback Bridge has sentimental value to this family; the kids have always loved zooming over it in their dad’s old Beetle and getting that butterfly-feeling in their stomachs. (I still love that feeing, don’t you?.) 🙂


This was a full session, so we did portraits of all the kids individually. How cute are they?

20150408_BlogPost_RatcliffFamilyPortraits-5 20150408_BlogPost_RatcliffFamilyPortraits-6 20150408_BlogPost_RatcliffFamilyPortraits-7I used my SB900 to balance many of these shots (especially the backlit ones). We were moving around frequently on foot, and I was working without an assistant. So, rather than hauling a light stand, I just laid the light right on the ground (camera right, triggering with my Pocket Wizard transceivers), with it bent up towards their faces – no soft box, just the diffuser. This is a good on-the-fly method, but it did create some hard shadows from certain angles. But, those are the kind of technical problems I can fix for print orders.

20150408_BlogPost_RatcliffFamilyPortraits-8 20150408_BlogPost_RatcliffFamilyPortraits-9

Monica (mom) brought along a fun prop:

20150408_BlogPost_RatcliffFamilyPortraits-11 20150408_BlogPost_RatcliffFamilyPortraits-12

While there wasn’t much color in the landscape yet, I’d scouted the previous weekend, and I found views with pops of green grass and warm leaves. Mother Nature cooperated and provided us with a lovely warm sunset, and their coordinated yellow-and-blue wardrobe added color and contrast. Even so, a couple views were still relatively monotone, so I thought they worked well in B&W, such as this one:


The shot below was the last shot of the evening – and one of the hardest to pose, but they were such troopers! We may have gotten photobombed by a car at the top of the bridge, but that’s nothing the Photoshop gods can’t fix.


All, thank you for the honor of making these images for you! I hope you treasure them. You all made my job so easy! Such a beautiful, fun family!


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Post-Production Before-and-After, Part 2: Smoothing Pavement / Removing Object (Central Illinois Architectural Photographer)

As I mentioned in my prior post about correcting color and eliminating distracting background elements, I try to whatever extent possible to make images that don’t require major work in Photoshop, especially in portraiture. However, in certain situations, using Photoshop is necessary (and even lucrative), such as in major photo restoration.

Similarly, impactful architectural photography often requires major editing. For example, clients often specifically request that blue sky or landscaping be visible through windows (instead of blown out white nothing-ness), such as with the Land of Lincoln Bank interiors I shot for the Redmond Company and BLDD Architects. Because today’s cameras still cannot capture as much dynamic range as the human eye, in general, if an interior is properly exposed, the window scenes will be overexposed. Balancing interior and exterior exposures requires either extensive lighting, HDR (yuck), or layering multiple images with bracketed exposures in post-production. Many of my fellow ASMP Architectural Photographers are absolute geniuses at both lighting and Photoshop. The results are beautiful, when done well, and showcase the designers’ work magnificently.

I am a relative novice at lighting and Photoshop, but I try to take advantage of every opportunity to improve my skills and rise to the challenge when a client requests something I’ve never or rarely done before. Last fall, when OKW Architects commissioned interiors and exteriors of Bloomington Country Club in Bloomington, IL, I also licensed the exterior image below to the Club itself as a thank you to the Club Manager, who was extremely helpful on location. (I do this often to thank my local contacts.)


Bloomington Country Club: Before Pavement Smoothing & Sign Removal


Like many designers today, OKW handles major editing internally and didn’t request any advanced processing (for which I charge an additional fee) on this shoot. But, the Club needed my help with three changes:

1)  Removing the “Bag Drop” sign,

2)  Filling in the dead grass, and

2) Smoothing the distracting pavement cracks.

Cloning the grass and removing the sign was simple enough, but I had to spend more time researching and trying new things to get the pavement area right. (I also called upon Kendra for some pointers. Thanks, Kendra!).

After lassoing the paved area, I used the smoother/un-cracked pavement area in the lower right corner as my staring point, cloning it (with a lower level of opacity, to allow some texture to still show through).

Here is the final result, which the Club published in their 2015 calendar:

Bloomington Country Club: After Pavement Smoothing

Bloomington Country Club: After Pavement Smoothing & Sign Removal

The major area of improvement for me is understanding how to retain the reflections on the pavement after getting rid of the cracks. How would you have done that? I’d love to hear your comments and critiques on this image!



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Post-Production Before-and-After, Part 1: Color Correction / Removing Background Distractions (Normal, IL Photographer)

I’ve used Photoshop relatively rarely in the history of my career as a photographer. I feel strongly that it is more important to be a good photographer than it is to be a good Photoshopper. Additionally, when it comes to portraiture, I have a philosophical objection to heavy retouching: I wouldn’t want someone else deciding which of my facial or body features need to be “improved,” and I wouldn’t presume to do the same for any of my clients.

Although I do use Photoshop periodically, I rely on good camera skills and Lightroom 95% of the time.  Most of the images that you see on this blog and on my website have very minor improvements: color correction, some cropping, sharpening, clarifying, straightened verticals, etc.

Of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes, important images have major problems due to (ahem) photographer error. For example, the family portrait from Sharon’s 60th birthday party looked terrible SOOC:


At this once-in-a-lifetime event, Sharon not only wanted me to document the party, but also, make a portrait of her with her children and first grandchild. Sharon’s family isn’t often in the same place state, and so this was a rare opportunity that wouldn’t allow for re-shooting if I messed up.

Knowing this, I arrived early, planning to scope out a clean wall in the event venue, set up a light, and get the portraits done before the guests arrived. I knew that once people began to arrive, the birthday girl and all of her kids would be focused on entertaining their guests, so we had to get the portrait done first.

But, as they say. **The best laid plans.**

When I arrived, I gulped: the venue, which I’d never seen (2+ hours from my home in Normal), was basically one big room with a kitchen. Decorations went up the day before; it had terrible ambient lighting, and lots of people were already running around finishing the party prep by the time I arrived. It was raining and cold outside, eliminating the option of doing the portrait outside.

But, I just got to work. While Sharon gathered her family, I shot party details with my 50mm f/1.4 using ambient light. Once everyone was gathered, I switched back to my portrait lens (24-70mm) and set up my light and softbox. Of course, Murphy’s Law reared its ugly head: my Pocket Wizard transceivers failed, and my off-camera flash didn’t fire. So, I moved the light onto my hot shoe, and bounced it off the white-tiled ceiling. However, in my haste, I failed to adjust the white balance back to flash after shooting with my 50mm. I didn’t notice my error until we were done, and everyone dispersed. The result was what you see above: a whole series of family shots with horrible color, set against a distracting scene. Not at all what we’d aimed to create in terms of a family portrait. I felt awful.

At home, I culled the shots for ones that would allow me to crop out the windows. Since I shot at ISO 400, I was able to crop way in, adjust the color, brighten, and make other improvements without creating noise or losing details.

After making these basic changes, the result wasn’t that bad. I breathed a sigh of relief, and this is the version I showed Sharon:


When she was ready to order prints, I removed the distracting background elements. Since the wall color was uniform and evenly lit by my flash, it was relatively simple to hide the streamers and window visible on the upper corners by using the clone tool.

The more challenging areas were those around Sharon and Cassie’s hair, and the small areas in between the two couples’ torsos on either side. It took some patience to select those areas and get it right, but it worked.


The end result, despite my initial fears, is actually a lovely family portrait, and Sharon was pleased with the result.

In the end, although I botched the off-camera light and white balance, the the image was salvageable because it was properly exposed, evenly lit, and set against a mostly-clean background. But, I still had to use Photoshop rather extensively in order to meet the Sharon’s most important personal goal.

The moral of the story: I’ve learned to value Photoshop in my work today, and want to continue learning new skills to improve results for my clients. I just don’t ever want to get too comfortable, and rely on it too much. It is still important to pay attention to every detail on-location while shooting.

In Part 2 of this series, I will show a before-and-after exterior image for an architectural client that required Photoshop, and further explain why Photoshop skills are so important for architectural photographers.

Come back soon!


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Winter Family Portraits (Normal Bloomington Photographer)

Recently, I made family portraits for my lifelong friend Julie and her family in the snow. During my recent visit to their home in Anderson, IN, we snuck out on a snowy, cloudy, wintery morning for a family mini session. I just adore all of them, and love the dreamy results!

20150226_BlogPost_Short_SnowPortraits-1Making this kind of shoot (i.e. the kind where people might quickly dissolve into red-nosed, shivering, fussy messes) successful requires a some forethought.

Here are a few tips for shooting portraits in the snow:

  • Scout and Plan Shots. This shoot was at Julie and Colin’s home, which provided an easy way to keep them warm while I set up. I knew exactly where I wanted them to stand (about 20 feet in front and to the left of the huge tree) before they went outside, so we didn’t waste any time finding the perfect spot. I framed the shots in camera while they waited indoors, then they walked right to that spot when I was ready.
  • Expose Carefully. I exposed the shots for the snow, not the people, to avoid washed out highlights (which is very easy to do in the snow). The snow serves as a natural reflector in every direction, so I was unlikely to lose much shadow detail, if any.
  • Practice the Pose Indoors. Self-explanatory. I made sure everyone knew exactly where they would sit/stand before going outside. It helps to have an adult positioned in such a way that they can prevent the smallest child from running away (i.e. held on a lap, like above). Once outside, we started with the whole family (the most important shot), then removed mom and for the shots of the kids, then did individual-kid shots, then did mom and dad once the kids were getting cold and tuckered. This order worked well and kept everyone happy.
  • Choose Camera Angles Carefully. For the family shots, I was sitting on the ground to minimize the visibility of their footprints. Obvious footprints would have detracted from the pristine feeling I wanted in these images. However, for the image below, I stood up to shoot from a higher angle, so that the children would be framed entirely by the white snow. This creates more drama and made them seem smaller, more fragile, in the landscape. If I was shooting from a lower angle, they would have appeared larger and/or their heads would have been above the horizon line, creating an entirely different effect.


  • Consider the Weather. While it is definitely possible to create successful sunny-day snow images, there is far less squinting on a cloudy day. You’ll also get more “pop” from colorful subjects when they are juxtaposed against an evenly lit white background. When everything is covered with snow, on clear days you’ll have harsh, potentially distracting contrast between sun and shade. Similarly, a bright blue sky would have totally changed the way these portraits feel.
  • Choose Wardrobe Carefully. Julie already had most of the elements in these outfits planned, and while I offered a couple of suggestions, I knew her choices would work well, because the bright/dark colors contrast sharply with the snow. The exception, of course, is Julie’s white shirt. However, it works for her, because her darker jeans, skin and hair, combined with the clothing worn by other family members, create definition around the shirt. (In other words, a pale blonde family may want to avoid all wearing white shirts in the snow. 🙂 )


  • Create Interest With Lines. Paradoxically to the point above, cloudy days can lead to boring, flat images, if you don’t pay attention to other details. The family’s position in the frame below is very deliberate. The root structure of the large points back to the family; the line of the large branch overhead mirrors the line created by the arrangement of the family; the branches in the left background point back down to the family; the family members’ positions relative to each other create a series of triangles, and so on. All of those details draw your eye back to the main subject, despite the fact that the photo itself is composed primarily of that enormous tree. If I’d posed the family directly in front or at the foot of the tree, or all on the same level, etc. they’d have been lost, and it would have been a boring image.


Similarly, in the image below, their bodies form a triangle with the left branch. Julie’s hands, visible on the right holding her daughter’s and on the left on her shoulder, ensure that her arms and torso didn’t disappear.


  • Let Kids Be Kids. Because I carefully thought through the elements above, it didn’t take long to get all of the posed images I needed. No snow shoot would be complete without capturing the kids playing in the snow, so once you are done with formal images, there’s no concern about messing up hair, or getting wet. That’s when you get sweet childhood moments like these for the parents to cherish.



  • Choose the Right Gear.  In this type of setting with so much highlight area, a full frame camera will capture a broader range of detail for you to work with in post. I used my Nikon D700 with my 70-200 f/2.8 at varying focal lengths. The long lens compressed the background and made that enormous tree seem less dominating, which contributes to the dreamy feel of the images, and ensured that this sweet family remained the focus of these photos. A wide lens would have forced me closer, and changed the relationships/perspectives between foreground, subject, and background.

These images are probably some of my favorite portraits ever! It helps that they are of people I love so much, but in a shoot like this, it feels good to know how quickly I can make assessments and decisions on location now after more years of experience. But I still have a lot to learn, so what did I miss? What would you have done differently?

Many people today (not Julie) question photographers’ pricing. But, hopefully the above points illustrate that there is a lot of thinking and experience that goes into shoots like this. If you are tempted to take your photographer for granted, remember this post, and know that “quick” shoots that result in images you absolutely love are the result of skill and experience – especially when the photographer makes it look and feel “easy.” There’s a lot of value in that. (And that’s all from my soapbox for today!)

Thanks for stopping by. I’d love to hear your additional snow-photo tips in the comments below!


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Another Group Portrait of Howard and Howard for “SuperLawyers” (Peoria, IL Photographer)

Last fall, I was invited back to the offices of Howard & Howard law firm in Peoria, IL, to capture a group portrait for publication in the January 2015 Illinois issue of Thompson Reuter’s SuperLawyers. Like last time, there was another photographer doing the same thing at the same time at their Chicago office. Although there were a couple of familiar faces, and it was a familiar space, I still arrived very early to set up, stage the set, and test lighting. Once they rolled in, we got the job done quickly and well.

I liked the shot below: it feels balanced, and everyone looks friendly but professional…until I realized I didn’t catch the unbuttoned jacket in front! Details matter. That kind of mistake drives me nuts when reviewing the images later. But, fortunately, it’s always my practice to provide the client with choices, even when they’ve only paid to license one image. I provided 6 proofs from this shoot, in different sit/stand combinations, with the attorneys positioned in various places in each shot.


The client selected this shot for licensure, which coordinated better with the Chicago office shot:


For publication, the firm decided to depart from the norm and print the images in B&W. I knew this in advance, but provided the images in color, so they would still have the option to reconsider.

Click here to view the final result (only the top image is mine).

Thank you for the opportunity to work together again! It’s always an honor to be invited back by a former client.


P.S. Here is a selfie from when I was testing lighting. Hi, there. 🙂


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New Client Mailers (Marketing Ideas for Photographers)

It’s been a long time since my last major photography marketing push, and now that we’ve settled in one place for a while, it was time to invest in another big outreach effort. Here was my process:

  • Throughout this summer and fall, I started compiling a list of local and regional businesses. I wanted to target 4 types of potential clients: first and foremost, architects, followed by corporate portrait clients, event planners, and finally, editors.
  • I selected my best work in each category, some new, some old. When making selections, I considered the best compositions, my best work in Photoshop, best lighting, interiors, exteriors, people, tear sheets, and impactful-ness. I also selected images with enough space around the main subject to allow for text and design flexibility.
  • I used the same designer, Kendra, that did our great Christmas cards.
  • I combined the client mailers below with my 2014 Christmas Card, both to add a personal touch and also to conserve resources.
  • I didn’t send all of the designs to everyone on my list; I targeted the mailing according to the type of work I’d like to do for each recipient.

See below for more details and ideas!

Architecture Portfolio

Mailed To: Architects, PR Firms, Ad Agencies, Local Venues, Historical Organizations

Kendra completed two designs for me with the architecture theme, and I couldn’t decide which I liked better, so I printed both of them. I ordered more of these than any other design below, because architecture is the main focus of my work, and my preferred subject matter. Here are the fronts of the two designs:


Design Credit: Kendra Bull / Pretty Little Notes


Design Credit: Kendra Bull / Pretty Little Notes

On the back of each, I added a full bleed photo with no design or text. On the first, I used an exterior image from the custom home in Bloomington I shot for Steve Kibler, and on the latter, an interior from my shoot for OKW Architects at Land of Lincoln Credit Union.

Event Photography

Mailed To: Local Venues, Non-profits, Restaurant Groups, PR Firms

Although my main revenue source is from shooting architecture and some commercial portraiture, shooting events (corporate / non-profit events, not weddings) is a nice secondary revenue stream. Events are relatively straightforward to shoot, usually requiring relatively few hours both on-location and in post, and therefore, low-maintenance and low-stress in comparison to other types of commercial photography. However, landing major event jobs requires versatile skills, plus creditability based on prior experience (i.e. the client has to trust you, because they only get one shot at getting good photos of their event).

Given those considerations, I selected images that featured 1) both action and stills; 2) recognizable local brands, and 3) large events.


Design Credit: Kendra Bull / Pretty Little Notes


Design Credit: Kendra Bull / Pretty Little Notes

Corporate Portraiture

Mailed To:  Ad Agencies, Local Businesses, PR Firms

For this mailer, I wanted to show that I can make portraits with off camera light, and that my portrait work has been published.


Design Credit: Kendra Bull / Pretty Little Notes


Design Credit: Kendra Bull / Pretty Little Notes

Product Photography

Mailed To: Editors, Architects

This mailer was designed specifically with the goal of getting a story about the design and construction of our table published in an industry magazine. However, it will also be generally useful with local designers, because this region has so much Arts and Crafts architecture.

Design Credit: Kendra Bull / Pretty Little Notes

Design Credit: Kendra Bull / Pretty Little Notes

Design Credit: Kendra Bull / Pretty Little Notes

Design Credit: Kendra Bull / Pretty Little Notes

Thoughts? Critiques? What tips can you share?


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