Interview with Joe Lekas, Photographer & Imaging Specialist

How did you become a photographer?

I started out intending to become an illustrator, actually. I would practice drawing by tracing over snapshots. Eventually, I began trying to actively increase the detail and contrast in those snapshots so that I would be able to draw over them better. In the end, I wound up taking more of an interest in the photographic process and how to bring out the most of reality.

How did you develop the skills you have today? Did you have a formal education or were you self-taught?

I went to school and studied graphic design, where I had a few photography classes. Ultimately though, it developed through studying books and magazines; learning how digital cameras operate; experimenting with ways to blend exposures together in order to bring out that detail; and lots and lots of trial and error.

How did you break into the industry?

I got into doing this for profit rather than simply as a hobby after a number of people began approaching me with photo requests or people simply saying, “you should sell these.” After trying various approaches to showing art or figuring out ways to have work seen, it started working out nicely. I had a lot of help and a lot of advice from other friendly artists. There’s a large learning curve involved in this industry, and it takes time to feel comfortable in it.

Describe your creative process. Is there a formula or standard approach that you follow?

To give a description of what and how I produce my images is difficult. It literally varies every single time. I wish I could say there is a magic formula that would simplify this process, but there is not. I experimented for years on how to best approach a photograph the way I envisioned it. Generally, all my work incorporates several differently timed exposures blended in various combinations. One piece may be made up of seven exposures while another may be made of 70. I try to get as much tonal range as I can. I’ll make sure to underexpose enough to get the most stubborn highlights and expose again long enough to bring out the deepest shadows.

To give a description of what and how I produce my images is difficult. It literally varies every single time. I wish I could say there is a magic formula that would simplify this process, but there is not.

Once I have all those images, I start combining them in many different ways. A combination may work for certain parts of a scene — but movement or lights going on or off in others would require a different combination. Sometimes I’ll go into a scene full of skyscrapers window-by-window and put just the right piece of an exposure that I want for each window. I don’t use strictly “HDR” software, but I do use it to make initial blends of exposures. Finishing images by hand is the only way I can get them just the way I’d like to. I think the longest I ever spent on an image is just about one year. It was a large panorama of Chicago at night made of somewhere around 75 exposures.

What influences have impacted your artistic style?

Inspiration came from a variety of sources. The strongest one I can recall was just part of my daily routine. I would walk across the Chicago River every evening and marvel at the complexity of the city scene before me. I thought, “someone should really capture that in a way that shows more than what we normally see.” I had read about different ways some photographers combined exposures to bring out more tone, and one day I just decided I’d give it a try. The early ones were loaded with failures and results I wasn’t happy with. It takes a long time to figure out what a particular scene might require.

What is your favorite thing about your job?

I’d say my favorite things about being a photographer are reflected in being able to capture a scene that really resonates with people. I absolutely love it when people go up to my shots and start pointing out all the buildings they know, or where they used to work, live, and so on. They seem excited, and so I am. Having people see something they may have walked by a thousand times in a new light is quite satisfying.

If you had to do it all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

If I had to do it all over again, I’m not really sure what I’d have changed. Like I said, it’s a really long learning process and I’m nowhere near done yet – so I don’t think I’d change much. Oh, I would advise myself to use some better lenses than I started out with, that makes a huge difference. And I’d advise myself to be a bit more forward with showing my work.

What advice do you have for aspiring artists who want to become a photographer?

Keep doing what you love to do, study from the photographs taken by others. Never be afraid to ask questions or experiment, and stay true to whatever aspect of photography you enjoy!
  • Tammi Edwards
    Tammi Edwards

    Author, Journalist & Art Enthusiast | Tammi Edwards is a graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) where she earned two Bachelor's Degrees, and later a Juris Doctor (JD). Her interest in an artistic career took root while an undergraduate at UCSB when the LaBelle Modeling Agency contracted her as a model & voiceover talent.