An Interview with Mike Campau

Back in the early 90s when Mike Campau (BFA ’96) was in school at Stamps, Photoshop was an obscure software program that came free with your order of Barneyscan*. Campau came to Stamps to study scientific illustration but soon found he was spending his spare time soaking up everything he possibly could about the newly emerging field of digital imagery and manipulation.

* Photoshop was invented in 1987 by Thomas Knoll at the University of Michigan.

A job right out of college with a retouching studio was a lucky break that propelled Campau into the world of high‑end retouching and production for advertising, which at that time was all done on film.

“We'd work on the computer and output to film. It had to be super-detailed because the resolution was so high - they'd look at every single little hair. That's where I learned the retouching trade. We had three photographers, a 1,000,000 square foot photo studio, because we'd bring cars in, and people. I didn't do too much photography then, but I was working around it everyday and began learning all the tricks.”

Campau was particularly interested in the CGI aspect of the finishing process and started learning it on his own, outside of work. Gradually, he began to develop projects that fused photography, CGI and retouching.

Process shots from MOTION IN AIR. Click to view larger images.

Now Campau has a thriving career as an independent artist in the world of photo manipulation.

He’s a star on Behance with over one million hits on his work, including a celebrity series he started with photographer Paul Mobley.

Click to view larger images.

“Celebrities” started when Paul Mobley began taking photographs of celebrities backstage before concerts, in their homes, and at hotels while they are on the road. He brought Mike into the process to create unique visions of the artists using the magic of digital manipulation. After brainstorming concepts together, Paul takes the photos and then passes them on to Mike who, through subtle color and tone corrections, full out CGi or composites, works to create the final image.

Campau does all this without ever having to leave Michigan. But being in business for himself means he has to work hard to get his name out there.

Here’s Campau’s advice on how to build
a successful independent freelance career:

You have to be constantly branding yourself.

Make sure you're promoting your name and your brand. Even if you already have a job, don't just rest on having that job. Keep promoting your name and yourself, because you'll build value even when you're working for somebody else.

There are tons of talented people out there that nobody knows about. No one's going to hire you if they don't know who you are. That's the difference between a good, talented artist, and then a talented artist who knows a little bit of business and marketing.

If I was an independent 10 years ago, I would need to hire a Photographer Rep to go to all the agencies and to go to the clients, show my work and sell me, because it would be physically impossible for me to try to get in front of everybody. But now, more and more people do it themselves, networking online with Twitter, Facebook and the like. The whole thing's evolving, so you really have to be more involved in selling yourself.

Early on, I made a goal to make sure I had my name attached to everything I did, even when I was working for companies. And, that's why, when I do an avatar, or I go into social networks, I don't use funkymonkey23 - I use my name, because that's my name and I don’t want any brand confusion.

Click to view larger images.

If you work hard, and you love what you do – well, that's the biggest way to “get lucky.”

In order to brand yourself you need to find your area, the thing you love. You can’t just say, “I do everything.” My advice is to find something you would be doing whether you got paid for it or not. Because if you like it that much, you're going to end up being good at it. A lot of the guys at the first company I worked at would just work on the projects that came in - the production work - and they wouldn't do any of their own personal work, so they never expanded outside of doing what the studio was hired for.

I tell people, “You should always be working on something.”

No one says that it has to be good or that it has to be finished. But you learn something from it every time. If you get done and you're like “eh, I don't like it,”... well, figure out why you don't like it and why it didn’t work. The more and more you do it, the more refined you'll get. It's almost like exercise, or practicing a sport, or anything.

Click to view larger images.

Finally, you have to keep working.

With everything moving so fast and so viral, you can have a huge success and then it's all over and, literally, within three days nobody cares about it anymore. You have to constantly keep that flywheel spinning, otherwise it's going to stop and it takes way more effort to get going. You’ve got to be constantly working at it or everyone will forget who you are.

For more info on Mike Campau, visit




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