Imaging USA Day Three: Compositing and Storytelling Class with Ben Shirk | Mac Sources

7 min readJan 22, 2020


Unique, realistic images, unlike anything you would expect.

This morning marked day 3 of Imaging USA in Nashville, Tennessee. If you have not read any of our prior coverage of the event, each day followed a similar pattern. Attendees were able to choose one of several classes for the 8–9:30 session (Post Production VFX for Video, Everyday Photoshop Basics, Compositing and Storytelling, Fuel Your Business with Sports Revenue, Overcoming Sales Objections Without Fear or Anxiety, Making Men Look Great in the Studio), and for the 10–11:30 session (Fine Art: Gallery Relations 101, Increase Your Photoshop Productive with Tip and Tricks from A to Z, Niche Marketing: Building a Unique Brand Without Selling Your Soul, Real Estate Photography- The Side Hustle, Sifting Through the Noise, Faces on the Wall, Not in the Clouds: A guide to a Profitable and Stylish Family Portrait Business). With the morning sessions completed, the Trade Show floor opened for all Badge Holders from 11:30–3:30. This afternoon from 3:30–4:45 PM attendees could choose from Don’t Throw it ALL Away, Luxury by Necessity, Huge Print Sales in Your Underwear (without IPS), Start-Up: A step-by-Step approach to corporate and Charitable Events and On-Site Printing, Reimagine, Recharge, Refresh -Technology Relationship Tools for Photographers, Wedding Day Essentials).

For the 8:00 a.m. session, we chose to attend the Compositing and Storytelling course led by Ben Shirk. Dave with McKenna introduced the guest speaker, a family man and well-known photographer/compositor from small rural town Iowa. Mr. Shirk specializes in action photos and has an eye for art. He provided an amazing introductory slideshow of several of his senior/athletic composites. More than simply capturing a standard portrait, Mr. Shirk somehow captured the drama, the life, and the motivation of the subject. He noted several times throughout the presentation that he loved his craft and he wanted to push his abilities ever farther. Using water, light, random images, items, props, sports gear, and a playground-esque studio, he produced an artwork experience, unlike anything I had ever seen before. After viewing several of his images, it was clearly evident that Mr. Shirk was a master craftsman, an expert compositor, and a photographer.

Mr. Shirk noted that anyone could create similar art pieces, with the right motivation, time, direction, and effort. Like many of us, he started at the beginning, simply a dad with a camera. He did not know how to white balance, nor did he know how to control aperture, shutter speed, or ISO. He noted that his main strength was his creativity, stemming from his upbringing. He grew up living in a log cabin, with minimal exposure to cell phones, television, and mind-numbing technology. Instead, he spent his time building hay forts, treehouses, fishing, exploring, and imaging. He noted that he was the nerdy kid, the one who was always reading. Each night he honed his creativity through books, sculpting, painting, and other sources of artistic expression. He does not believe that creativity is innately acquired, rather he believes that creativity is a skill that can be enhanced. You can sharpen this, you can modify this, and you can heighten your abilities. He cautioned against the couch potato lifestyle and encouraged you to actively enhance you.

He recommended six steps to cultivate your creativity. First, you need to step out of your comfort zone, embrace unique places/experiences, and to do new things. Use nature, use people, use textures, use everything around you to gather your material. You never know when you may use a particular pattern, image, or background. The second step involved stretching your thought process with books. By reading, you actively engage your imagination, you build thoughts, ideas, concepts, and inspirations. Think of steps one and two as the work-out stage and then step three requires relaxing the mind. When you allow yourself time to relax, your subconscious will continue to work through the problem and may allow you to see new avenues to explore. While you are driving, exercising, or showering, allow your mind to open up to new ideas. For the fourth step, Mr. Shirk recommended keeping a notebook available to collect your ideas. If paper is not your preferred medium, you could pin to Pinterest, keep verbal journals or use a note-taking option on your smartphone. For step five 5, it was recommended that you allow time to play. If you are not taking time for yourself to enjoy your life, it will be difficult to remain creative. Mr. Shirk specifically set up his studio to allow for play all of the time. Lastly, step 6 encourages you to take risks. Since creativity is an adventure, without risks there are no rewards.

Once you have accessed your creative juices, the hardest step is to make something with them. Disney Imagineers referred to this as the Blue Sky process. He noted that this was too vague and provided too much freedom. He needed a way to limit the possibilities and to learn the limitations of the box so that he could then think outside of that box. The initial step toward building his composite images was to think of a story that he wanted to tell and then working to create that story. He then discussed the secrets of storytelling through his Disney Challenge. He watched the movie “Alice in Wonderland,’ with his children, and fell in love with the characters, the elements, and the artwork. He got onto the website found their poster and noted the depth/elements and wanted to continue looking at it to figure out how they did it. He felt that Disney Imagineers had an amazing job, but felt that he did not have what it took to work for Disney. He thought to himself “I need to create a poster like theirs.” He started out with desktop folders of mushrooms, characters from the movie, and several elements of the characters throughout their history. With the elements gathered, he worked toward creating the product with Photoshop. He drew a mushroom, then a forest of mushrooms and tried to add several of the features of classical paintings. He mentioned the Golden Ratio and how it was possible to use directing lines, swirls, and colors to focus your view to a certain point. While working on this idea, he was contacted by a Volleyball team who wanted a team portrait. Interestingly, one of the players was named Alice and he told them “I have an idea for you.” He added checkerboard volleyball court/net, flamingo in the background, mushrooms changed to basketball theme. He had all 6 of the seniors come to his shop and then made it theme specialized “Alice and the Mad Hitters.” He compared Disneys Alice In Wonderland poster to his picture and felt ft was markedly better than his. He questioned why his image did not turn out like theirs? It could not simply be a budget constraint, or that there were more people working on it. He thought more about the secrets of storytelling and provided a masterclass in visualizing art.

I think my favorite part of the class was watching the accelerated videos of the secrets to his storytelling. As noted above, he used an artistic background to modernize the concepts of color harmony, complementary vs analogous schemes, leading lines, and movement. The overarching goal was to direct one’s attention to a certain location to set the scene/state of the piece. He noted colors signify mood and emotion: Red colors typically suggested strength/romance and excitement. White colors signified safety, cleanliness, and purity. Orange colors suggested flamboyance, dynamic emotions, and spontaneity. Blue coloration suggested a more melancholic, subdued feel. By playing on these colors, you could use a complementary scheme. With this method, a cooler color becomes the dominant one, while the warmer color serves as a splash of interest. He showed pictures of Avengers and Star Wars posters, as well as Starry Night by Van Gogh and Picasso Blue Period. He noted you could also use an analogous scheme by selecting colors that were adjacent to each other on the color wheel. This could be used for calming quiet images. He noted leading Lines, converging lines, or curved lines could be used to isolate you within the image. Lastly, he noted that Western cultures tend to read left to right. By directing the view/motion toward the left, the artist could add movement to their piece. You need to actively think about each element of the art, to trap the viewer into looking at the image longer.

Mr. Shirk provided several images and detailed their creative processes. He used images like the Red dress/flower image, “Adventure Awaits,” “Orphans Odyssey,” and “Till Death Do Us Part,” to show how the compositing/storytelling could be done. I loved how he used the recorded Photoshop edits, crops, overlays, etc. to teach the class. He relayed his motivations and discussed how each image came to fruition. Each image drew from an inspiring story, from family, neighbors, props, from uninhibited creativity, and a brain allowed to imagine. Humble, yet professional, he noted that you too could create similar imagery. You can take classes, you can practice photography, and you can continue to work on improving your craft. Do not simply reuse, do not simply provide the same material as everyone else. The only way to expand your ability is to step away from being safe.

Follow Ben Shirk on Facebook and Twitter.
Learn more from Ben Shirk through his 3 Day Creatography Workshop.

Originally published at on January 22, 2020.




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