João Carlos: Great Inspirations

by Theano Nikitas

João Carlos

Taking a cue from Shakespeare and inspiration from illustrations, paintings and drawings, João Carlos’ “Ophelia” was photographed in Portugal as part of his “Love Tragedies” series. It was captured with a Hasselblad H4D-40, a 28mm f/2.8 lens and a single

April 16, 2013

Photographic inspiration can come from a variety of sources, both intellectual and emotional. For a recent editorial assignment, New York- and Lisbon-based fashion, editorial and commercial photographer, João Carlos, turned to social media to define an emotion universal to humanity: Love. And the answers that ensued became fodder for the way he visualized an exciting series of images.
João, who is a self-proclaimed romantic, combines his love for fine art, folk and fairy tales with exotic locations to create dynamic images for his fashion editorial, advertising and personal work. But beyond making esthetically pleasing photographs, he is a wonderful storyteller as evidenced by the narratives in his ongoing “Love Tragedies” and his “Definition of Love” series.

Though João was born and raised in New York, his Portuguese background plays a large role in his photography (both of his parents are from Portugal). “My heritage has a lot of influence on my photography, especially fairy tales and the Baroque and Renaissance periods,” João explains. He remembers creating stories as a child (“some I wrote down, some I drew”), and has always had an interest in painting, fine art—and photography.

João remembers asking his mother for a camera at the age of five. As the story goes, when his mother presented him with a small disposable camera, João responded, “Thank you, Mommy, but this doesn’t have a flash and I want a real camera.” Today he actually prefers shooting with natural light whenever possible.

Shooting professionally since 1999, João won the 2010 Hasselblad Masters Award in the Wedding/Social category. His “Love Tragedies” images are from a project he continued for Volume Two of the commemorative Hasselblad Masters Book, Emotion, and is based on famous love stories, including Romeo and Juliet as well as Portuguese folk and fairy tales. For the series, he worked with several clothing designers to create the lavish costumes and shot outdoors on location in Portugal with a Hasselblad H4D-40 and various reflectors, including Westcott Scrim Jims. The Scrim Jims are particularly useful, says  João, “because you can take the [reflector] cloth off and scrim it with a 1-stop or 2-stop cloth.” He also used the Broncolor Mobile A2L pack for the series, which is designed for location shooting. In addition to his penchant for natural light, João notes that it’s generally easier to travel with a set of reflectors instead of a full kit of lighting gear.

Recently João created an editorial piece titled “Definition of Love” for the Portuguese bridal fashion magazine, Moda Noiva, and designer Susana Agostinho. He had shot several campaigns for Agostinho in the past and worked with her on his “Love Tragedies” series, so the two were in sync when this editorial project began.

To get started with the assignment,  João  turned to his Facebook feed for inspiration. “I used social media to help me with the creative process,” says João. “I didn’t tell anybody what I was doing but I asked people to give me one word for their definition of love on my personal and photography Facebook pages.” João identified 10 to 15 answers that he felt were “interesting and that [he] identified with.” From there he “saw the ones that could be transformed into a visual image.” Some images, says João, “were spot on. Others didn’t achieve what I wanted, but the visual impact still worked.”

For the “Definition of Love” series, João shot at an old palace in the center of Lisbon that is sometimes rented out for French turn-of-the-century films. Though the multi-level building is starting to deteriorate, he thought it would be the perfect location for interesting images.

Since location is an integral part of his fashion images, João generally prefers to shoot wide- angle. For the “Definition of Love” photographs, he shot with the Canon 5D Mark II, using the Canon EF 17-35mm f/2.8 lens for most of the images. Lighting was a mix of flash, reflectors and natural light. For most of the images, he took advantage of window light and supplemented it with Scrim Jims, Profoto Monolights and a variety of light modifiers.

João notes that he always keeps records of locations he has scouted and suggests strongly that wedding photographers pre-visit their venues “Never shoot a venue or event without seeing it beforehand, so you can see the natural light and pick out the time of day to shoot. If you did your homework beforehand, you can quickly grab the bride and groom to take the photo [when the light is right],” João advises. “You have to be a light seeker,” he adds, “but it helps if you know what you’re looking for beforehand.”

Along with locations, João also keeps lists of models, concepts and ideas. To begin, he’ll generally create a mood board and a storyboard for his team, including the designer. On the former, says João, “I’ll pull images that I can show my lighting team or show a location or make-up or hair.” For the storyboard, he might draw stick figures and outline what needs to be done each day. Sometimes, he explains, “I’ll even create a treatment—it’s like the storyboard and mood board together. It’s the look and feel of what I want as a final result.”

This process, he explains, allows for clarity. “Everyone knows what’s in my head,” he says. “The problem I think most photographers have is visualizing the image beforehand and then transmitting that over to the team. I can write 20 pages, but if you show them [including models] a picture, they get it right away.”

João contends that the same method can be used by wedding photographers: “If you’re working with a bride or groom, you can do the same thing. You can pull movie references from a film and show them certain poses or expressions.” He goes on to say, “I use a lot of movies, paintings and illustrations—and even songs sometimes—to express what I want an image to feel like.”

While the “Definition of Love” editorial has wrapped, João continues to work on his “Love Tragedies” series and is doing research for a new series about saints. João’s long client list includes Nike, HP and Universal Music, along with magazines including Elle, Forbes, Wallpaper and Blink.

To see more work by João Carlos, visit For a behind-the-scenes video of his all-mobile fashion project (shot on a smartphone), visit

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