From a recent interview with ELLE Magazine
Instagram is technically democratic, but there's no denying that some users are more equipped to post gorgeous, like-friendly images than others. Photographer Michaela Wissen is one such specimen. At the core, the pictures she posts are no different than what you'd see on any account: friends, landscapes, and simple still life shots from an average day. Yet they're arresting. There's a feeling that comes through of languid afternoons, glossy hair, and skin that smells like coconut-scented sunscreen and balmy ocean air.
She's perfected a magic that makes a cast-aside pair of shoes or a basket bag feel like they're extra special and worthy of notice. When ELLE.com spent the day with her, in her cozy Calabasas, California home and traipsing up the Upper Las Virgenes Canyon, our main aim was to find out precisely how we could apply some of her self-taught skills to our personal feeds.
"I take a million photos because there's always something in between" the more posed moments, she explained. "It's usually not the stuff you plan out. When I do a shoot, I'll think of a location, but not plan too much. Just go with it—the best shots come totally in the moment. If I see something, like this basket which has some nice light on it and cool shadows, I'll snap a photo," she said, gesturing with a manicured toe toward a slouchy woven basket sat near a sliding glass door. To note: While her favorite photos aren't plotted out in detail, there is some thought involved. That basket was placed there with a mind to how sunlight would enter the room, and she'll peruse social media for inspiration. A lot of the time "I've most likely seen a photo like [one I took] and tried to replicate it. I'm always on Pinterest all the time." Copy the structure or pose, but inject it with your own style and vibe.
"Natural lighting and light on glass are things I love. If you have an old, cool glass with a texture to it, the light will hit it nicely and there will be some rainbows to it. Something simple like that can make an image so much more interesting."
There's no Photo-101 behind her approach: Wissen is self-taught, starting her career as a concert photographer in her native Sweden at age 18 (she was born there and spent her first decade in Connecticut before moving back). "I moved to LA when I was 20; I was here for six months and started [a blog]. Me and my three friends, we'd throw a bunch of clothes in our car, drive around, and shoot each other. I actually never wanted to be a photographer—it just sort of happened."
With 88,000 Instagram followers and counting, the non-student has now become the teacher. Other lessons? Consider the placement of a subject and how you're cropping.
"I love white space, and I probably won't place something smack in the middle. I'll put it a little off to one side. If I was shooting against the wall, I'd probably include a lot of it and not much floor," she mused, scrolling through her phone's camera roll for inspiration.
Using natural light is one of her most easy-to-apply tips, though be thoughtful about the time of day you're going out. Wissen tends to spend the mornings at home with Harper and their three dogs, venturing out post-lunch. "It's really hard to shoot midday because I like it to be a little softer. Afternoon golden hour I love, just a couple of hours before the sun sets. That's when you can get really good back lighting."
From there, she launches into a mini master class on lens flare. "It's like a little rainbow of light, and I love it. It happens when you're shooting a person and the sun is behind their head, maybe peeking out a little behind either side. It creates a little flare," she explains. "I'm always aware of where the sun is positioned and will keep moving around to catch the best light. When you move you see where the light comes out" from behind whatever object you're focusing on.
When it comes to what you're shooting, Wissen says not to force yourself toward the currently trending Instagram aesthetics. "I see all these accounts where people do clean, white stuff. It's so popular right now. People will go to a market and shoot fruit. It's everywhere on Instagram." Instead, she prefers to shoot people, objects from her real life, and bright colors. "Right now I like a lot of green. I love shooting against blue sky; it's just really easy." If you're throwing down a pair of shoes or a bag, hoping for a faux-casual effect, style it. "I'll throw it down and fix it so it looks like I just threw it down, kind of effortlessly. In this example, I wanted people to see the tag since it felt like, naturally, someone wouldn't have wanted you to see it." (The too-contrived way would have meant tucking away anything that hints at the real world).
And of course, when it comes time to edit, she suggests taking a ton of photos and weeding through them right away. "If you're taking something in the moment, you want to convey that feeling you felt." When she's using her phone, not a proper camera, she averages 100 snaps for one image. "My best advice is to take a bunch of different photos from a bunch of different angles so you can figure out what you like. Then you can delete." With Instagram shots as her bread-and-butter, Wissen tries to shoot with a proper camera, not her phone, and will edit on the computer. For amateur snappers, she suggests utilizing the burst mode function when capturing moving objects (like pets) and iPhone's new portrait setting for a professional-looking focus. Find a filter you love too and stick with it: She only uses two in order to keep consistency on her feed.