Hello everyone, Bella here! I'm excited to introduce you to the accomplished fine art photographer Sonja Hietala from Jyväskylä, Finland!
As an artist at heart, Sonja initially explored the creative realm through painting and drawing fantasy characters. Eventually, she made the transition to the digital world using her camera and Photoshop.
Describing her photos in her own words, Sonja says they are "mostly combinations of a photo, parts of old paintings, and images that I have made with AI."
Sonja graciously took the time to answer our questions, so let's dive into getting to know the talented artist behind the captivating art!
Model: @aadaorpana | Crown: @cos.ucos
Hi Sonja! Can you share a bit about your background and how you got started in photography?
Hi and thank you so much for having me!
I am a photographer from Finland, the land of thousands of lakes and Santa Claus.
Basically I've been a fairytale lover since I can remember. I have lived my childhood watching Disney movies and I used to paint and draw fairies and mermaids all day long. At some point in my teenage years the brushes and pens switched to a digital camera and free editing software. I started doing photography in the woods and I enjoyed taking macro shots in nature. I believe that's how 80% of the photographers start their journey!
In 2014 I thought I was going to become a wedding photographer because I had a few shoots around that time. I still shoot 5-7 documentary weddings a summer.
Around 2016 I found the courage to start asking people in front of my camera to model for me in fantasy-styled photos. That's when I understood that this could be a way to continue my childhood dreaming and creating in a new form. When I learned Photoshop, I was amazed that you can basically do anything with it, if you try to learn hard.
Model: @hedeliat | Crown & earrings: @soroka_crowns
When dreaming up the narratives and scenes for your fairy photoshoots, where does your creative process kick off? Is it the model, the styling, the location, or some other element that sets the tone?
I often go search for props from second hand stores and I start to build up the idea around those items that I find. Also the styling is a huge source of inspiration.
I have found many dresses (new and old) that are still waiting for the story to build up around them. Usually I search for a model after the props and styling.
Sometimes it's also totally opposite. I might have an interesting model and we have set a date for the shoot. I might go to the second hand store in the evening before, and just wish that I will find something interesting to have as a prop. To this day I have always found something that has worked somehow in the shoot.
How has being based in Finland influenced and shaped the art you create, and in what ways does your culture play a role in the stories and themes you wish to share with the world through your photography?
That's a great question and I haven't thought about that before... Maybe the long, cold and dark winter is one of the reasons to create something bright and colourful? (Looking out from my window right now, seeing total darkness and -20 celsius in the thermometer…)
I would say my pictures are somehow "universal" and you can not see Finnish culture in them. But there's one exception, I made a photo series about Finnish mythology a few years back and those were shot in Finnish nature in natural light. The pictures represent different characters from our national epic, Kalevala.
On the technical side of things, what skills do you find crucial to imagine and bring to life the visions you have in mind?
If you have an idea of a picture you want to create, you need to think about the lighting first and how to achieve that. I have used studio lights since 2016 and nowadays I use them in 95% of my pictures because only that way you can control everything. The most important skill is the understanding of light and shadow. If you want to add your model into a new background, the lighting has to be the same for the model and background for the picture to look realistic. Also when making composite images, you have to understand perspective.
Masking, of course, is something you have to master to make realistic composites, so lots of practice in that.
Composition of the final image is crucial too because that way you can compel the viewer’s eye to navigate across the entire image the way you want. Color harmonies need to also work seamlessly, to catch those eyes.
Model: @hannakaisas | Crown: @carbickovacrowns | Dress: @monikaserekdesign
Color seems to play a huge role in setting the mood in your images. How big a part does color play in the initial planning and conceptualization of a photoshoot?
When I plan a photoshoot, I usually don’t know what kind of color palette I’m going to use in the final image. When I open the picture into Photoshop, usually the very first thing for me is to start playing with the colors, not in the end. If I don’t do that in the first place, I might get bored and lose interest in the picture.
When I see what can be done with the colors, I know I can make the picture work. You will always find the right colors for that specific picture if you keep searching. Colors play a huge role in every picture and make the atmosphere so don’t skip that part.
I noticed you've utilized our Photoshop color toning actions. What motivated you to incorporate these into your workflow, and have they introduced new creative possibilities compared to your previous methods?
The actions are so helpful. Somehow I found my way to the Color Lab actions a few years back and now that you have reformed and released new actions, I couldn’t refuse to try them too, they are addicting, haha! I love that I have the possibility to adjust the layers and make the colors look more like my own.
Which specific color toning actions have you found to be most useful for your style of work?
Usually the first one I try is “Regal”. Also ones that I love are “Black Gold”, “Letters from Tuscany” and “Orange Dahlia.” I never use only one action, there are always parts from different actions but some just play a bigger role.
What other artists or art movements have influenced or inspired you?
Art movements like Art Nouveau, Neoclassicism, Rococo and Renaissance are the ones that catch my eye and I try to mimic and mix those together in my work. I’m happy if people can see some features from those in my pictures.
A few artists I want to name from the photography industry, that I look up to, are for example Bella Kotak (hehe) because she must have been one of the first names I experienced when I got interested in fine art portraits and that type of style. I’m really honoured that I’m here being interviewed by her today. Other names that come to my mind are Laura Sheridan and Chris Koeppen (An Ethereal Fire). Chris is the master of mixing photography and paintings so seamlessly.
From Finland I will mention my dear friend Pia Rautio. Her portrait work is outstanding and known not only in Finland but also internationally. I’m glad I have found this soul who shares interest in art and we can talk about pictures and life whenever.
When I started photography I always looked up to Finnish digital artist / AI-artist Antti Karppinen and his composite work. I’m thankful that I have gotten some great tips from him. His work inspires me and many others, not only in the photography industry but also in the new and exciting AI world. He always goes forward and never stops and that’s the greatest tip of all time.
Model: @riina.tuuli | Crown: @soroka_crowns
I see that you also dabble in creative AI generations. What inspired you to try it and could you share some thoughts you have about generative AI?
It was June 2022 when I first created AI images with Midjourney and I was instantly hooked. I don't know how many hours of the day I spent making those images. For me, who has always been fascinated by fantasy worlds, it was mind blowing. You could literally create anything you can /imagine, in seconds. After months I started feeling numb because you could see everyone making the same looking images. For a while I thought I would never touch my camera again, but I’m glad that actually changed and I’m back again.
You can find a way to include AI in your art if you want. For me it’s making backgrounds and different objects in my images. Also for finding ideas for a new photoshoot before the shoot. AI is here to stay so why not take advantage of it.
Model: @dreamy.hogwarts | Hat: @thewitchscabin | Wand: @koestlers_fine_wands
What is your all-time favorite photograph that you've captured or created, and could you share what it is about that particular image that resonates with you on a personal level?
It must be my turquoise mermaid composite “Hopeless Dream”. When I was a kid, I always dreamed about being a mermaid and I thought I could become a marine biologist when I grow up. (Just a hilarious reason to have a chance to be near water and oceans and swim with dolphins. Sadly in Finland we only have dark and muddy waters and perches so that dream was not realistic for this little Pisces, haha.) I have been thinking that I have to make more mermaid pictures soon, this is the only one I have made.
When I created this picture, I had 100% trust in it and later I also got 3rd place with it in the Finnish Photo Awards, in the category “Illustration / Fine Art” with excellent points. My model Heidi travelled from far away and I’m happy I found her for this role.
Model: @hedeliat | Crown & earrings: @soroka_crowns
What are some of your goals as an artist for the next few years? What would you love to accomplish?
I would love to find customers who can utilize my skills and I’m glad I have gotten some of those lately. 90% of my work I have only made for myself and my models, not for paying customers.
I have attended various photography contests in the past three years and that is a big motivator for me to keep going. Why compete? For me it’s not about competing really, if that makes sense, it’s a way to challenge yourself to do something more. I’m always happy if I make it even in the finals.
But yeah, maybe one achievement I’d like to accomplish for now is to get a medal in the FEP Awards (Federation of European Professional Photographers) and the WPC (World Photographic Cup).
Model: @j.osanna | Crown: @soroka_crowns
What advice would you have for photographers who might want to discover their own creative style?
Study old paintings and the work of others. Think about what you like in those images and what makes them stand out in your eyes. Try to recreate them. Ask for feedback and don’t hesitate to get in touch with other artists and ask for tips.
Finding your creative style is an ongoing process. Stay true to your vision, keep exploring, and enjoy the journey.
Can you share five essential items that you include in your photography gear bag?