With over 3 million Instagram followers, and a client base that includes Apple and Nikon, Brandon Woelfel is doing something right. Now, in his new Skillshare Original online class, the photographer is sharing not only the secrets behind his shooting and editing techniques, but how he achieved his successes.
Based out of Long Island, NY, Woelfel never intended to be a photographer. Starting out in college, he was studying computer graphics. In the years since, he has carved out a thriving career, cementing himself as one of the most widely-known photographers in the industry, due largely to his recognizable signature style. Openly shooting with both his digital camera and iPhone, he has paid attention to what his followers do and don’t respond to, and attributes much of his success to opening conversations with his audience, and actively engaging with their opinions.
Woelfel says that consistency is key to furthering your social media presence. Regardless of whether your shooting style is niche or more generalized, he says that being thorough in the work you’re putting out is essential. As for his own work, he prefers having a notable aesthetic. It stems from his time at school, where he was urged to pick a niche and stick with it. Woelfel almost exclusively shoots either at golden hour, or at night time. Conveniently, the two “fall into each other,” but give completely different effects. A standard shoot for Woelfel would involve himself and his model taking several outfits, first shooting during golden hour before changing it up and shooting in the dark. He tells Fstoppers: “It’s all about getting as much as you can out of a shoot and having variety. [The photos] look so different, but were shot within the same hour."
Having a certain aesthetic can get you recognized, instead of blending into the crowd.
Amongst the millions whose eye Woelfel’s work has caught is Skillshare. An online learning community for creators with more than 8 million members around the globe, the company has been collaborating with him for the past 18 months. As someone who used to search online for tutorials as a way to learn, Woelfel aims for his class to be a resource that his followers – many of whom are beginners who would benefit from being able to learn from home – can gain insight from. Utilising the Instagram Stories’ ‘Swipe Up’ feature to plug their previous collaborations, Woelfel says many of his followers eventually signed up to the site, and wanted to see lessons from him. Now, the inevitable has occurred, and the two have partnered on his first Skillshare Original. “We finally came together and did a whole process start to finish of what I do.”
As a photographer myself that has spent the best part of a decade crafting (and constantly changing) his own post-processing workflow, I was keen to know if Woelfel felt apprehensive, even vulnerable, about sharing his editing secrets. After all, posting before and after shots is a bold move that opens oneself up to public criticism. Making public the intricate processes used to transform a photo from its original state leaves any photographer in a vulnerable position. Although he admits the idea of revealing his Photoshop workflow was definitely weird at first, Woelfel is no stranger to speaking openly on how we does what he does. A keen YouTuber, it’s not unusual to find him offering insight to the behind-the-scenes goings on of his shoots, and he often provides links for his followers to purchase the same lighting or props that he himself uses. However, by his own admission, YouTube didn’t feel like the right platform to share editing workflows. Thus, his Skillshare class was born.
I’ve always wanted people to get an insight into how I edit, but I wanted to do it the right way.
I asked him straight up: What would be your response to someone who said you rely too much on editing, or that it’s “wrong” to purposely underexpose your images, even if you’re doing so tactically? Woelfel says it all comes back to how he learnt his craft. In school, the approach was to shoot one certain thing “with the intention to later composite that into a final image,” a process he says is now engrained into him. He makes the valid point that he is always open about the fact his images have been edited, and his willingness to post before and after sets is proof of that. He makes the comparison of how a movie is perceived differently by each member of its audience, and can be enjoyed despite the use of CGI or green screen. After all, it’s still enjoyable even if it isn’t true to real life. And the same stands for photography.
Everyone’s not the same as you so you can’t attack someone for, you know, going about [editing a photo] in a way that you wouldn’t have.
As well as shooting and editing tips, viewers of the Skillshare class will also learn how to build their following. An imperative part of appealing to your audience falls on writing an engaging caption. So just how important is it to establish an identity, and a personality that your viewers can relate to? As a photographer, should our work speak for itself, or should those that take the time to follow our photos also know what we look like, and a bit about ourselves? It’s crucial, if you ask Woelfel. Makes sense, given that such a huge part of his brand is the open forum that his Instagram has become. He says that in a world saturated with photography and social media, where your nearest competitor is “just a scroll away,” it’s imperative to have a face.
Many of his posts invite his audience to share their opinion. “Which edit do you prefer!?” reads one caption; “If you were to edit this image, would you leave the light fixtures in?” says another. Woelfel is no stranger to posting different edits of the same picture, too – a move some photographers would consider terrifying. These different edits often showcase one of his most utilized tools: selective color.
Captions are a great way of getting people engaged. Of course I was apprehensive [to invite opinion] at first, as you don’t want someone to not like your edit, but I’ve gotten used to comments like ‘I preferred the before.’ It’s a way of opening up a conversation.
Similarly, one aspect of his feed that Woelfel’s followers have grown accustomed to is his willingness to share behind-the-scenes content. With the world of BTS stills and footage very much a phenomenon in its own right, Woelfel quite frequently has someone with him on set to capture everything going on. He prefers to keep the crew numbers down, favoring just himself, the subject, and the behind-the-scenes shooter present. “People enjoy seeing the behind-the-scenes content just as much as the final picture itself,” he laughs. Sharing such an insight also helps with audience engagement. After all, many of his followers are surprised to learn that a number of his best-received images on Instagram were shot in either his or the model’s bedroom.
Through a camera you only see one frame, and you never know what was put into creating that image. [Behind-the-scenes content] gets people inspired and shows them that anyone can go about doing this.
So, how exactly does acquiring three million followers change the way you shoot, and what you choose to share? Naturally, it makes you more conscious of what you produce, and Woelfel openly admits that, to some extent, the comments people leave on his Instagram have inspired him to go down certain routes. “I want to shoot for myself, but I also think about what people like and how they might perceive it. It’s a battle between the two,” he explains. Scrolling through his feed, he says he can spot his development, but that his work has always stayed within his own style guidelines.
Brandon Woelfel’s Skillshare class covers everything from shoot prep and the best equipment and settings to use, to demonstrations on his own post-processing techniques, and how best to share content to Instagram in order to boost your following. He joins other photography influencers on the platform including Justin Bridges, Marte Marie Forsberg, and Chris Burkard. Watch it here.
The first 100 Fstoppers readers who sign up to Skillshare using this link will get two months free membership.