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November 2016

Master manipulator: Calvin Hollywood on the art of imagery

Calvin Hollywood abandoned a career in the German military to carve out a new niche for himself as a leading commercial photographer. Since that switch he has gained a large following for his eye-catching art images, which are often aided by his stunning, signature Photoshop retouching work. In an exclusive interview he spoke to CPN writer Steve Fairclough to discuss his workflow, how he shoots and creates his images, his impressions of working with the high-resolution 50.6 Megapixel EOS 5DS R DSLR and much more...

When did you first become interested in photography and why? What made you make your career change to start a photography business?

“I became interested in photography in 2005. That was the start of everything because I downloaded Photoshop software and I was a retoucher first. Then I needed some pictures to retouch so I started with photography by taking some pictures.

One year later, in 2006, I saw there was a market for me to become a professional in photography and retouching so, as an artist, that was my first goal. My style of photography was very special – a combination of retouching and photography – in Germany [at the time] it was not a well-known style. That was the point where I saw ‘hey, I can be creative’ and this was the beginning of everything.

© Calvin Hollywood

‘Bertrand Iron’. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with an EF85mm f/1.2L II USM lens; the exposure was 1/125sec at f/11, ISO 100.

At this time I was in the German Army as an instructor in the Air Force in the boot camps and this was when I set my goal – in five years I’d like to be a professional photographer. There is [still] a German video on You Tube with a movie when I’m sitting in a uniform in the kitchen and I say, ‘In five years I’d like to be a professional photographer and when you see this video in five years I’ll have made it!’”

Have any other photographers inspired your work? If so, who are they and why did they inspire you?

“At the beginning it was Bill Simon, Dave Hill and Jim Fiscus – those are three photographers whose style I love... that illustrated look; the combination of retouching and photography. It was their style that inspired me and I did that style for many, many years. In the next years there were many photographers who inspired me and my work. It changed and every year it was other photographers [too] but these three names – Bill Simon, Jim Fiscus and Dave Hill – are three photographers from the early days who inspired both me and my work.”

How did you teach yourself Photoshop?

“I didn't learn it on YouTube because at this time (2005) YouTube had just started, so I learnt it in communities; in forums. ‘Retouch Pro’ was a community where I learned retouching – that’s Then I started reading books and that was how I learnt retouching.”

Do you think there is room for improvement in image manipulation software? If so, what features would you like to see added?

“I don't think there is much room for improvement in image manipulation. I think that the future is more and more about getting faster [results] with one click. I don't have any special feature [in mind] that I’d like to see but I am very interested in easier ways to do something; to extract images from the background or something like that. But I don't think there is much improvement [possible] in new tools. I think that it’s [likely to be] more about making things faster and easier.”

How do you find ideas for images and how do you plan your shoots?

“The most important thing I try to do is I try to get it right in-camera – this is my first thing. All that I can do with the camera and lighting I try to do it and then what I can't do [in-camera] I will do in retouching. In my early days it was the opposite but, in the meantime, I’m more of a photographer than a retoucher.

© Calvin Hollywood

Crazy Clown. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with an EF16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens at 19mm; the exposure was 1/30sec at f/11, ISO 100.

I find ideas for images in movies, in music, what’s out there and I get a lot of inspiration from other photographers. I have a final image in my mind and I write down all of the things that I need to make it real. Then I look for a team and then I go for it!”

How do you compose your pictures?

“When I shoot compositions and photo manipulations I have to shoot every single image with the same lighting and same perspective and then I bring everything together. When it’s one shot I try to find the right location; the right lighting, the right light modifiers and the right time to shoot and then I bring everything together.”

Tell us more about your most recent projects?

“My most recent projects are commercial jobs that I can't show in public. The last recent project that I do every year that I can show is for the biggest theme park in Germany – Europa-Park. I shoot an event for them, the actors of the ‘Horror Nights’, which is a big event. I shoot all the actors and compose it and retouch it in a special way. That’s my biggest project every year, for the biggest theme park in Germany, and they use the images for commercial [purposes]; everything.”

What is your usual workflow in Photoshop and how long can you spend on manipulating one image?

“Sometimes I shoot commercials, big campaigns, where I retouch [images] for some days. In the last few years I haven't had so many jobs like this – maybe five or six times in a year. Most of the time I shoot portraits of artists, fitness guys and sports people and, of course, I can spend a lot of time on manipulation of the image... but most of the time it’s not longer than 30 to 45 minutes on each image. The reason is I’m very fast [at manipulating images], so my 30 minutes is maybe 90 minutes for other people.

My workflow always starts with RAW conversion, then fixing problems, then adding a ‘look’ and then it’s done!”

Why do you prefer to shoot portraits?

“I prefer to shoot portraits because I love the communication with people; I love to meet interesting people. I always learn a lot from the people that I shoot.”

What is your usual lighting set-up?

“I have different kinds of lighting set-ups – it depends on the set and what the picture is for. But my favourite lighting set-up is a three light set-up – two strip lights from the back and one, main soft light coming from the top front to get this gritty, edgy look; my unique style that looks a little bit more like a painting or an illustration or a 3D [picture].”

© Calvin Hollywood

Slave. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D with an EF85mm f/1.8 USM lens; the exposure was 1/125sec at f/8, ISO 200.

What is your favourite aspect of Photoshop?

“My favourite aspect is that I’m able to change things to what is not reality; to bring a little bit more inside the picture that is not possible with photography. So I can add a little bit more art in my images and a lot of colour grading and creating a look – that is my favourite aspect of Photoshop.”

What, if anything, do you want viewers to see in your pictures?

“Well... it depends. Sometimes it’s a story – in the early days I shot a lot of images with a story inside [them]. Since then, when I’m shooting portraits I like that people see that the picture looks not out of [the] camera; that the pictures have a look. It’s hard to explain... I like people to ask themselves ‘how did he do that? How did he create this lighting? How does it work?’ This is what people should see – people should see the difference in my portraits to other normal portraits – that’s the point.”

Do you enjoy teaching people and passing on your knowledge of Photoshop?

“Of course. I love it and I often do it. I love to see that people are getting better and better. I don’t have any fear that they will ‘steal my job’ or something like that but, yes, I love it and I teach a lot.”

What equipment do you usually use? I believe you’ve been using the Canon EOS 5DS R?

“I use everything from Canon…. Well, not everything. I have the 5D Mark IV, the EOS 5DS R, the 1D X Mark I and the 1D X Mark II. I have a lot of other Canon cameras but those are the four cameras that I use most of the time. I use the EOS 5DS R for the high-resolution images and the 5D Mark IV most of the time for all other pictures and movies, because I also film and record video.”

What sort of exposure settings do you normally set your cameras at? Do you manually focus or use AF? Do you shoot RAW?

“I shoot RAW, of course, all the time – that’s very important for me. The exposure depends on the image; I don't have [any] special settings here. I hate to manually focus so I use the autofocus and I’m very interested in cameras with a good autofocus [system].”

What features of the EOS 5DS R did you use? For example, Fine Detail Picture Styles or In-camera sharpening?

“It doesn’t matter what camera I use… all the time I have my own Picture Style settings because I like to see the best sharpness in the image. So, when I shoot RAW the image that you see in the camera is a JPEG and includes the Picture Style… so it doesn’t matter if I shoot RAW – what I see on the back of my camera is a JPEG with a Picture Style.

© Calvin Hollywood

Driver. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with an EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens at 24mm; the exposure was 1/160sec at f/13, ISO 100.

So I use a Picture Style with the maximum sharpness, a little bit lower contrast and a little bit lower saturation to see if I have everywhere detailed in the shadows and the highlights and to see the maximum sharpness. Then I can see what is possible later when retouching.

When I don't do this – when I don’t sharpen or use a Picture Style that includes maximum sharpness – I have to guess ‘is this the maximum sharpness or do I have to add it later?’ So, it’s very hard for me [to tell] so [that’s why] I have my own Picture Style with a little bit lower contrast, a little bit lower saturation, maximum sharpness to see if I have the detail everywhere and the maximum sharpness to check if I’m right in focus.”

Would you recommend the EOS 5DS R to other photographers?

“If they shoot campaigns where they need high-resolution [images] I would recommend the camera – it’s great. For me, it’s not a camera for sports photography or low light photography; then the 1D X is much better – it’s my favourite camera to shoot high ISO [values] with. It’s a beast. I guess a good all-round camera is the 5D Mark IV, for me.”

What’s the best piece of photographic advice you’ve ever been given and by whom?

“I don't know by whom but the best advice is you have to take many, many pictures. So carry your camera with you all the time and take pictures of everything… of your feet, of the clouds, of everything. And don't delete it – check all the pictures later and try to figure out what you can make better. That’s the best advice if you’d like to be a professional photographer and when you walk around in your daily life and you do not have your camera with you then you [will] need more time to be a professional. You can shorten the time by carrying your camera with you all the time.”

If you were advising a less experienced photographer who was interested in your style of photography what best advice would you give?

“Don’t focus on retouching. My typical style of pictures look retouched but the most important thing is to try to figure out the lighting and don't be focused on retouching. At the beginning I was focused on retouching but try to be focused on the subject that you shoot – the kind of models, the clothes, then the lighting and, after all of that, the retouching. That’s very important for my style of photography. Because my style looks retouched people are always focused on retouching but first of all [focus on] the subject, the lighting, then the retouching.”

What’s next for you in terms of major photographic projects? What photographic ambitions do you still have?

“My next plans are to keep on going with shooting athletes, sport, art and people. I love to shoot artists – it doesn't matter if they are musicians or magicians. I like to inspire people out there and one big thing for 2017 is more free work, because when you are a professional you normally forget to spend time in free work. But, at the beginning, we all started with free work just for ourselves and just for the portfolio and most professionals don't have the time. But this is very important… so I’d like to do more free work in 2017.”


  • 50.6 Megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor with ISO 100-6400 (Lo: 50 and H1: 12,800) sensitivity range.
  • Low-pass cancellation filter for maximum sensor resolution.
  • Dual DIGIC 6 Processors for outstanding image processing speed and camera responsiveness.
  • 5 frames per second (fps) with selectable burst speeds and silent shutter mode.
  • 61-point wide area AF with 41 cross-type sensors with iTR, AI Servo AF III and AF Configuration tool.
  • 150k pixel RGB+IR metering sensor.
  • 100% magnification Intelligent Viewfinder II with electronic overlay.
  • 1.3x, 1.6x and 1:1 ratio crop modes with masked viewfinder display.
  • Mirror Vibration Control System to reduce mirror vibration blur.
  • Fine Detail Picture Style.
  • CF + SD (UHS-I) dual memory card slots.
  • Peripheral Illumination and Chromatic Aberration Lens Correction in camera.
  • Multiple Exposure and HDR mode.
  • Customisable Quick Control screen.
  • Built-in timer functionality – bulb timer and interval shooting timer.
  • Time-lapse Movie function.
  • SuperSpeed USB 3.0 for high-speed tethering and image/movie transfer.
  • 150,000 shutter cycle life.
  • Compatible with most EOS 5D Mark III accessories (note: for the WFT-E7 new USB cables required and firmware updated).

Biografia: Calvin Hollywood

Calvin Hollywood

Calvin Hollywood was born in Heidelberg, Germany, and before devoting his life to photography and image manipulation he served in the German Air Force for 10 years. He switched to photography as a career in 2005 when he was in his late 20s. He is now a well-known author, art photographer and digital artist who regularly gives seminars on his art. He is known for his expertise and use of the Photoshop editing programme and his signature look and style is known as ‘Calvinize’. Calvin regularly contributes to journals, seminars and DVDs and has lectured at major international events such as Photokina in Germany and Photoshop World in the USA.


Clown. Taken on a Canon EOS-1DX Mark II with an EF24-70mm f/4L IS USM lens at 70mm; the exposure was 1/50sec at f/4, ISO 1000.