When Paul Octavious first began posting his photos online in the mid-aughts, he hadn’t anticipated that they’d launch a prolific career. But almost immediately, they drew attention from bloggers thanks to their composition and originality. Now, a decade later, he has hundreds of clients under his belt and an Instagram following over half a million strong.
His creativity is evident through the wide range of mediums and subject matter he’s worked with, from smoke to records, to Pantone color swatches. Impressed by his inventiveness, we challenged Paul to create something otherworldly using the new Canon EOS 6D Mark II DSLR. But first, we talked to him to find out more about how he approaches his work.
Studio@Gizmodo: You’re a self-taught photographer. Can you tell us about how you got started in photography?
Paul Octavious: I went to school for design. Junior year of college, I wanted to add my own imagery to my design work, because at the time, we were just going through all these stock photo books. So, I bought my first camera: a Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT. I didn’t know how to use it, but I just knew I wanted to have my own pictures because everyone else was using the same imagery. That was 2005.
My senior year, my grandfather moved in with my parents because he had Alzheimer’s. I decided to drop out and finish school later to stay home with him. I started playing around and taking his portrait while I took care of him. And then, I started posting those, and other images I took, online. That helped me get my first job in Chicago as a lead photographer at a T-shirt company. So then, I was like, “Oh, I’ll just become photographer.” That’s how it all started.
How did you move into shooting more commercial and editorial work?
It was mostly posting my work on the internet. As I started just experimenting, people and blogs picked up my work. Gizmodo was one of the first to write about me, actually. People started talking online, and then I got my agent in New York City, Tinker Street. At that time, I was just doing editorial work, and then Instagram came about, and then that just changed the game with photography online.
I was part of one of the first social media campaigns on Instagram, with Mercedes. They gave a car to five influencers at the time — I don’t even think there was the term “influencer” then — and they had us take road trips. Whoever got the most “likes” on that road trip won the Mercedes. It was wild. I didn’t win the car, but we were still getting paid as professional photographers, which was unheard of. It totally changed the game.
How do you tap into your creativity to appease so many different clients?
I stay genuine. For me, it’s great to have these clients, but also to have the clients’ trust in your your point of view and what you bring to the table. I just go with my vision and try to see things differently.
What subjects are you interested in exploring in your personal work?
It’s always changing. Right now, I’m into cacti and balloons. I know it sounds weird. It’s putting two things together that shouldn’t be together, but they work together. I started posting some of those images on my Instagram. I never know what I’m gonna come up with next. The thrift store is my jam; it’s where I go to find interesting objects and see how I can photograph them to make something new. It’s always just experimenting and asking the question, “Why not?”
Is it ever hard to translate ideas from your imagination onto the set?
I think, as a human beings, as long as we can think of an idea, we can make it happen. I know we’re going to have teleportation because we can think of it. It’s like, we have a potato spiral peeler. That is so weird, but someone thought of it, and now it’s in people’s kitchens. Anything I can think of, I know I can make. I’m just always trying to figure out how to do it and don’t put any limits on anything.
What kind of setting or environment helps you make your best work?
I start working at 11 or 12 o’clock at night. I need silence. I need to know that I’m not getting messages from clients, my agents aren’t emailing me, and my mom’s not calling. Once everyone’s sleeping, then I can work. I go into another zone, and I just start creating. And then I go to bed and wake up and and think, “Oh, that’s what I made last night.”
How have your photography and creative process changed over the years?
When I first started, I didn’t really have any money to buy the best tools. My lighting would be from a hardware store, and I didn’t really have a studio. I was just creating anywhere I could create. And now that I have a place where I can create all the time, I can look at something over and over and change it, instead of doing things too quickly.
I didn’t like taking photos of people when I first started because I felt uncomfortable interacting with them and photographing them. I loved still life because no one would talk back to me. Now I like combining the two, and my photography seems more well-rounded.
Can you tell us a few of your equipment must-haves?
I use Canon cameras. My lens of choice is a Canon EF 24-70mm F/2.8 II USM lens. I also use studio lights, and I use a drone for aerial shots. And whatever comes into my life, I’ll photograph it. But those are my staples.
Do you have any advice for budding photographers?
Experiment. For instance, I look at people’s work that I admire. I look at the styles, and I see if I can replicate something like it, but I don’t take someone’s work as my own. I try to riff off of that. I try to say, “Okay, this lighting is like this. How can I make my lighting like this, but make the subject matter different?” It’s good to learn, but you shouldn’t steal.
You’re gonna take lots of photos. You’re gonna take lots of bad photos. But you’ll come up with something in the end that’s really beautiful.
Besides our Canon challenge, what photography project is next for you?*
I have this series called where I took my grandpa’s record collection and did long exposures of the records spinning. He passed a while ago. Now I’m making three-foot wide versions, printing on metal. They’re going to be cut out like a circle, like a record, and that’s going to be my new endeavor for 2018: to get these printed and maybe have a show called “Grandpa’s Records.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
*Stay tuned for a follow-up post showcasing his work with the new Canon EOS 6D Mark II DSLR.
Angela Wang is a Senior Writer for Studio@Gizmodo.