Smashing Interviews Magazine

Compelling People — Interesting Lives



April 2013



Scott Kelby Interview: The Wizard of Photoshop Exposes His Photographic Magic

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Image attributed to Scott Kelby

Scott Kelby

Florida native and photographer Scott Kelby is editor and publisher of Photoshop User magazine, training director and instructor for the Adobe Photoshop Seminar Tour, President National Association of Photoshop Professionals, CEO of Kelby Media Group and award-winning author of more than 50 books including Photoshop Down & Dirty Tricks, The Photoshop CS3 Book for Digital Photographers, The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Book for Digital Photographers, The iPod Book, The Digital Photography Book and The i-Phone Book.

Kelby is also Conference Technical Chair for the Photoshop World Conference & Expo, author of numerous Photoshop training DVDs and online courses and co-host of Photoshop User TV. In the fall of 2007, he created to bring much of his training material into one easy-to-find location.

"Once digital came, I could see my images instantly right there on the camera. I think that makes you a better photographer because you can see right there if your subject’s eyes are closed or if you exposed it wrong and if it’s too bright or dark. You can fix it right here. With film, you wouldn’t know until you got the prints back if something was messed up, and then there was nothing you could do. That was a huge advantage."

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Scott, you were born in Lakeland, Florida. Are you still living in the area?

Scott Kelby: I’m living in Tampa about an hour away, an hour and a half in really bad traffic.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That’s a beautiful area. As a child, were you constantly clicking away to the chagrin of nearby adults?

Scott Kelby: No. I was a musician when I was young. I played drums and then later switched to keyboards and played professionally until I was 32. That was my thing when I was younger. I was totally into music and didn’t really start photography until I was maybe in my mid 20s. This was back when you shot film.

I shot film for a number of years and shared a small studio with another photographer. I was super into it at that point so much so that I completely burned myself out on it. I closed the studio, took all my gear and put it in the attic and probably didn’t touch it again for 15 years … until I held my first digital camera. That totally reunited my passion, and I’ve been shooting ever since.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): After perusing your “About” page on Facebook, I found the line, “kind to small animals and children,” amusing. Do you have small children and animals?

Scott Kelby: (laughs) I have a 7 year old daughter and a 16 year old son. My wife and I have been married 24 years this year. They are two awesome kids. My son is just the greatest kid with a great attitude and just a real good person. My daughter’s wild, but she’s a ball (laughs). We have Maggie, the wonder dog, which is the cutest dog in the entire world. I’d tell people that and they’d say, “Well my dog’s really cute.” I’d say, “But you don’t understand. This is Maggie, the wonder dog.”

I’d show them a picture of Maggie, and they’d be like, “Oh!” She is a Coton de Tulear, a little French dog who never grows up. She’s not as small as a Chihuahua, but just white, small and fluffy. She looks like a janitor’s mop and is just as cute as can be.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Maggie sounds adorable. Take me through a typical day in the life of Scott Kelby.

Scott Kelby: Well, we have 80 something employees, so every day I’m in meetings. That takes up half the day. We do three live weekly shows each week that are broadcast literally live. I host one of the shows, and I’m a guest on the other two. Every week I’m taping some sort of video. I’m either doing a video tutorial, taping an online class or working on a book, so I have to split all that between running my business.

My wife is my business partner. I kind of manage the creative side, and she manages the other side: the accounting, customer service and marketing. We’ve always worked very well together. Although our offices are next to each other with a door in between, we actually work on different parts of the company. So every day, I’m either in a meeting or creating content, creating some sort of photography tutorial or Photoshop tutorial, doing a Photoshop show or photography show. That’s pretty much it.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): When you lost interest in photography for about 15 years, was it due to shooting with film?

Scott Kelby: Well, this is going to sound really shallow, but I have the attention span of a hamster. One of the things that really frustrated me about film photography was waiting to see the prints. You had to take the film to a lab, wait a minimum of an hour or sometimes overnight to actually see your prints. I actually started using Photoshop while I was a graphic designer before I became a photographer again, so I was already pretty good at Photoshop.

Once digital came, I could see my images instantly right there on the camera. I think that makes you a better photographer because you can see right there if your subject’s eyes are closed or if you exposed it wrong and if it’s too bright or dark. You can fix it right here. With film, you wouldn’t know until you got the prints back if something was messed up, and then there was nothing you could do. That was a huge advantage.

Since I had already used Photoshop, I could then take these pictures I made with my camera and do the things I wished the guy in the studio had done. I could dodge and burn and make parts of the photo darker or brighter. I could do things to make the photos look even better than the camera made them look. The ability to edit the photos on my computer and the ability to see the results instantly are what made me fall in love with digital.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why do some people criticize Photoshop users and are adamantly opposed to post processing?

Scott Kelby: It is because they feel like you have an advantage. You know this program that will make your photos look better, and they don’t. You don’t hear anybody that’s good at Photoshop complaining about it, right? You don’t hear them go, “Man, I’m really good at Photoshop, but I’m angry that people are using it.” It’s really people that don’t know how to use this important darkroom tool that are angry because they don’t know how to use it. So they feel like it’s no longer a level playing field.

It’s the old thing when people feel you have this advantage that they don’t have. That’s really what it’s based on. They look at their photos right out of the camera, and that’s the end of the story. If it’s too bright or dark, if it’s not sharp, there is nothing they can do. But this other person has the advantage. They can go into Photoshop and fix these things and make it better. They can’t do that, so it’s cheating!

I think that’s kind of ridiculous anyway because anyone can have Photoshop. You can rent it for $19.95 a month. It’s a full version of Photoshop. You can just rent it. It’s now pretty much accessible to everyone. You can buy Photoshop elements at a maximum of $79, but you can also find it for $39 online. It does pretty much the same things. It does 85% of what the “big” Photoshop does. It’s the biggest bargain ever, so it’s not the financial curve anymore. It’s the learning curve. It’s the fact that Photographer A took the time to learn these things, and he’s being criticized by Photographer B or someone who did not take the time. Like I said, nobody that knows Photoshop doesn’t like it.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Great point. I’m looking at the March issue of Photoshop User magazine now. Tell me why it’s so important for a photographer to specialize.

Scott Kelby: It’s because when a client goes to hire you, they want your “look.” If your images look like everybody else’s images, they’re not going to give you a second look. Photographers that have a specialty and a “look” are the ones who are getting hired today.

Say that an ad agency is looking at six photographers, and then one of those photographers has a particular style. All of his images have a cool blue tint to them, and they’re kind of dark. You could say either “I like that” or “I don’t like that.” But you’ll make a decision on it. All the photographers take nice pictures, but it’s not very compelling. It doesn’t make you think, “Oh, I want that ‘look’ for my product.” Those guys will take a picture of my product, but this other guy will give my product a “look.” It’s a “look” and a “feel,” and people are willing to pay for that.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Florida has attempted to pass a bill that would criminalize unauthorized photography on privately owned farms. What is the reasoning behind this law?

Scott Kelby: I don’t know. What do they think you’re going to do with a picture of a farm? I haven’t read any cases where somebody was able to use a picture to commit a terrorist act. You can stand in front of anything. You can stand at the airport all day long. No problem. You can sit at the runways in San Francisco. Right off the runways, there is a parking lot. You can stand there and watch planes take off all day long, but the minute you take a picture, they yell, “Wait a minute!” I think it’s just the typical overreaction.

I was standing outside an old railway station in Dallas, Texas … a beautiful, old railway station. I was standing on the sidewalk on public property. I set up a tripod and starting taking photos. The security guard came out and said, “You can’t take photos of this.” I said, “Well, it’s an historical building, and I’m standing on public property.” So she said, “My boss told me you couldn’t take pictures of it.” Seriously. I’m standing outside of an old building in downtown Dallas where millions of people have walked by. If I were to type it in on Google, I could find 500 photographs or more. I told the security guard, “Go ahead and call a police officer, and let’s see if he says I can’t stand on this public sidewalk.” I stood there and waited and waited. The cops never showed up. What was the cop going to say?

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Nothing. You were on public property.

Scott Kelby: Yep, I was on a public sidewalk. I could take the tripod down if he said that someone might trip over it, but it wouldn’t stop me from taking the same picture. It just seems like they think, “Well, we have to do something.” They can stop a photographer from taking a picture of an old historic building in downtown Dallas so that they’ve made the country safe today.

My wife’s friend is a pilot for Delta. He went through security at TSA, and they took his nail clippers. He’s like, “Are you kidding me? You’re taking my nail clippers away?” They said, “These can be used to take control of the plane.” He answered, “I’m the pilot. I have control of the plane.” But they took them away! It’s almost like, “We’re not thinking at all, but here’s something we can do.” Does not taking a picture of a farm somehow make America safer? I could name 500 things that might make America safer, but none of them happen to be, “Don’t take a picture of a barn.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I know. It’s ridiculous. Will you be covering the Tampa Bay Bucs home games this season?

Scott Kelby: I’m hoping to cover them again as I did last season. When I wasn’t covering the Bucs, I got to shoot a couple of games for the Falcons up in Atlanta. It’s an air-conditioned stadium, and the crew there is great. I just have a ball. Wish I could get credentialed and shoot the Falcons all year (laughs). I shot the Braves, too.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What kind of lens do you use, and what is the most important thing to remember while shooting a sports event?

Scott Kelby: For sports, I almost always use a 400mm because the key to compelling sports photos is to get in really, really close and really, really tight. If you come back with photos people could get from the stands, it’s not very compelling. But if you can get in there and see their facial expressions, tugging on each other’s jerseys and sweat flying, it really makes for exciting images. So I shoot with as long a lens as I can and generally a 400mm for most sports events except basketball. In basketball, I have to go a little shorter with a 300mm.

These very big lenses have to be supported by a monopod because they are so heavy. They’re also very expensive unfortunately. A 400mm like you need for sports is about $11,000, so it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s something you have to save up for. But you can actually rent them online from a company called

There is a photographic thing and a personal thing to keep in mind while shooting these games. The personal thing is that you can get hurt shooting sports, especially football, baseball and hockey. What happens is sometimes you’re following the ball, but you get hit by somebody the ball was supposed to be coming to. I’ve had some friends that have been hit.

I got hit by Green Bay Packer’s quarterback Aaron Rodgers a couple of years ago in the NFC championship game as he’s diving for the goal line. He slides right into me and levels me, the guy beside me, and my camera on the monopod goes flying. I lost the bottom half of my monopod! I’ve had to jump out of the way of players numerous times.

I was shooting a Titans game last year, and a buddy of mine got hit by a receiver. It looked like it didn’t do anything to him. To this day, he still has neck problems. I watched it happen and said, “Oh, Paul fell over. He’s okay.” Well, he had to leave the game because he was dizzy. He had to go to the chiropractor and get x-rays, and his neck has been hurting ever since that day.

The other thing to keep in mind is in order to be successful in sports photography, you have to know the game. You have to be able to anticipate where the play is going to happen because they move so quickly. If it’s third down and seven, you have to know who the hot receiver is, what the most likely play is going to be and predict which part of the field where it will all happen. Knowing the game you’re shooting is the biggest advantage you can have. The people that do get a whole different level of photography than the guy sitting next to him with the same equipment that doesn’t know the game as well.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That’s very interesting that you have to stay on your toes so that you don’t get blindsided.

Scott Kelby: That’s right. If your eye is just stuck on the viewfinder, you can get hit. For example, let’s say that you’re on the quarterback, and he throws really quickly. He throws to a guy that’s behind you. You don’t even see where the ball goes. It could be four feet from you, and if you have to come forward for the ball, somebody could just flatten you!

In hockey, you’re following the puck. Two guys can crash on the boards right where you are and literally knock you off your chair. Two photographers last year had to have stitches at the Lightning. It’s very easy. A puck hit a photographer’s $2,400 lens and broke the glass. So you really do have to keep an eye out. It’s an action sport, and you’re the last consideration (laughs). They’re not worried about hitting you or even cognizant of you. They’re trying to get the ball.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Scott, what is your “go to” camera, the one you must have with you no matter what?

Scott Kelby: I would say it’s a Nikon D4. It’s basically a sports camera, but it’s good at shooting everything.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What, in your opinion, is a future trend in digital cameras?

Scott Kelby: What I’ve been thinking may be the next cameras are those with lower noise. When you’re indoors or shooting in low light, you raise the ISO so your camera doesn’t take blurry shots. But that always introduces a bunch of noise. Today’s cameras are introducing less and less noise. It’s kind of a revolution that started three or four years ago. It used to be only for $6,000 cameras. But now you’re seeing $1,600 cameras that are pretty good at low noise. I think that’s going to be the big revolution. You’re going to see less expensive cameras able to shoot literally in candlelight and look absolutely crisp and clean.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Very cool.

Scott Kelby: I think that’s the coming revolution.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are your two favorite locations to shoot anywhere in the world?

Scott Kelby: I love to shoot landscapes out and around Page, Arizona. You can drive and shoot probably six or seven iconic American landscapes that are just stunning within just a couple of hours drive from Page. Many people go there and stay at the Courtyard at Marriott. It’s the only nice hotel in town and actually a great place to stay. You can use that as your base and shoot Horseshoe Bend and the Vermillion Cliffs. You can go over to the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley. It’s just one of those areas that is close to everything and a dream place for landscape photographers.

For travel photography, there is just no place like France. Paris is one of those cities where every time you turn a corner, there is a new photo. Outside of France is the most beautiful countryside. It’s one of the most amazing places. In a relatively small country, you’ve got the French Alps, Monaco and Monte Carlo. It’s just a country with so many terrains, so many beautiful places with iconic structures and great architecture. Even the food photographs well in France.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have a new book being released in the near future?

Scott Kelby: I always have a new book coming out. I’m working on another photography book. I have this digital photography series. Not to brag, but it is the bestselling book ever on digital photography, so it became a series of four different books. I’m working on Volume 5 or Part 5. They’re all different. Of course, every time Adobe introduces a new version of Photoshop or Lightroom, I’ll be introducing books on them. I’m staying pretty busy.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): One last question, Scott. I read about your love for disco music on your website. But what is wrong with “I Will Survive” and “I Love the Nightlife?”

Scott Kelby: You know, what? I like such a wide range of music, and I like a lot of disco. But they played those songs to death when I was young! You couldn’t turn on the radio and not hear “I Love the Nightlife,” and I just got to the point where if I heard that song again …

It’s hard to find anyone who will admit they like disco. Period. But I really do. I listen to the disco station on my Sirius Satellite radio in my car all the time, and my daughter constantly teases me about it. But as soon as one of those two songs comes on, I flip to another station. Everybody’s got a couple of songs like that, you know?

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And, more than likely, they may be disco songs (laughs).

Scott Kelby: (laughs) I think I get some points for just admitting I like disco. That should get me something.

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