Welcoming whimsy with Shilah Sirois

Meet your Mentor Shilah Sirois

Our mentor this week sure knows how to bring the whimsical to her images…she welcomes it with open arms and embraces it with a passion. Shilah from @shilahsirois creates beautiful images that invite you to escape reality into her mystical and magical world. From submerging herself with jellyfish to levitating her family and beautifully ghostly family portraits, Shilah brings the cool to the whimsical and makes us all want to defy reality. She makes the unbelievable believable and the imaginable in your dreams possible. We have delved in Shilah’s world to show you her whimsical ways too.

Q&A with Shilah

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Hey Shilah! Thanks for joining us again for a Creatively Squared challenge for our conceptual month. We are absolutely thrilled to have you mentor the community. Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your background and how you came to be creating such whimsical imagery?

Hi! I am so excited to be here thank you for having me! Let me first introduce myself, my name is Shilah and I live in South Florida with my husband Lucien, and our 2 children Laz and Lita, who are 3 and 6 years old. I’m a production stylist and photographer and my husband is a commercial photographer. We mainly shoot with big brands for advertising and ecommerce purposes which means our creative freedom is extremely limited and everything is very client driven. It’s a wonderful industry to work in, but we don’t always get to use our creativity to its fullest.

This is where Instagram enters.

So a little about my early days; I’ve always had a heavy interest in art and creating, since I was a young girl I was always creating or drawing something. And throughout my school years I was involved in art classes and participated in various art competitions. When I began college, I was initially going for a degree in illustration and eventually switched to photography. (This was many moons ago when we were still shooting film!) I was obsessed with editorial and conceptual styles of photography and focused my entire portfolio on this theme, creating images based on all sorts of concepts, from circus themes, to inspirations coming from fashion, to a mad hatter, my graduating portfolio was definitely unlike any the program had seen before and I actually won Best Portfolio! I’d say I’ve always seen creative and magical images in my mind, and I’ve always been determined to find a way to bring those visions to life. And I’m never satisfied until I get there! I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a mad artist truthfully!

Working in commercial production however doesn’t quite allow me to bring all of that mad artistry to the table. So Instagram is a place where I can create my own visions and my own art that I get to very excitedly share with others. It’s like I get to present me for who I actually am and don’t have to hide or “tame” anything. It’s so rewarding for me to receive so much love for my work. Our industry can be a very thankless one, it’s tough and very fast paced, so my personal work I shoot for Instagram is a chance for me to slow down and feel like I’m actually creating something for myself and getting to really show my true talents and the things I’m actually proud of. And the love and appreciation I receive for my work is the true icing on the cake! And ironically it’s always the most whimsical or “out there” types of images that I create that I get the most nervous about sharing, and they always end up performing the best. It’s hard to create imagery today that hasn’t been done before, it’s getting more and more challenging to actually get “noticed”. So for me it’s extremely rewarding to feel like I still stand out in this world that is so heavily saturated with so much amazing talent.

Your Instagram feed is so magically beautiful. Can you tell us about your creative process, how do you come up with ideas for what to share next on your Instagram account?

Thank you so much! I wouldn’t say I have one particular creative process but in general, I am very planned and particular about the order of my posts and what comes next. Typically I use existing images of my own or images I find inspiring (which could be something I’ve seen on Pinterest for example) and I use an Instagram planning app to drop those images in to plan out my grid for what I will be shooting next. This helps me to be sure things feel balanced with color, negative space, etc. I’m too OCD for my own good I will admit!

Once I decide on what I will be shooting next, I make a list of everything I will need for the image. Props, wardrobe, backgrounds, floor.. Then I make a list of everywhere I need to go to source these items. Whether it’s in storage or I have to shop anything. I try to allow myself a prep day so I don’t cram everything into one day. Getting everything prepped the day before, and planning to shoot the next day really maximizes the actual time that I’m shooting. I always talk things through with Lucien as well - lighting, the sets, getting props prepared - as he’s always involved in the shoot day, even if it’s just so I have an extra set of baby wrangling hands on set!

Who or what inspires you the most to create your beautiful images?

Well this is a loaded question! My inspiration comes from everywhere. (And I do mean everywhere.) From random things I see while driving, to images I see in a magazine, to a recent project I’ve worked on, to a song I hear, to unexpected colors and objects I see next to each other, to other artists’ work, to stories I read with my kids, to a garment I find while shopping.. I mean it truly comes from EVERYWHERE.

This challenge is all about creating whimsical images. What are your three top tips for others wanting to bring the whimsical is their images.

My number one tip would be to try new things, even when it intimidates or overwhelms you. I know that may sound cliché but trust me, this is a big one. Some of my favorite images have come from me totally experimenting and HOPING the image turns out the way I see it in my head. And you know what, sometimes it actually doesn’t work! It happens, it sucks when it happens, but it does happen. And that is totally ok! It’s part of the process, it’s part of creating and growing. 

My next tip would be to remember that while some whimsical elements can be digitally created, they can ALSO be physically created in real life. I think when we think of “whimsical” we typically divert to surrealistic elements like flying, fairy dust, and magical things that happen in Photoshop or a fancy app. But some of my favorite “whimsical” images I’ve created, have had very little photoshop work done to them, such as the image of my daughter with the white butterflies floating around her. Many people thought this image was photoshopped, but in reality I spent a ridiculous amount of time cutting out 150 paper butterflies and hanging them from the ceiling. It was grueling!! But so whimsical and totally worth it! So remember, you don’t have to be a photoshop whiz or an app whiz to bring whimsy to your images!

And lastly be playful and childlike with how you view ordinary objects. Sometimes listening to magical music helps. I know this sounds kind of corny, but the right music can help get my brain into that magical place. No joke when I need a little help getting my head in the game, I will listen to the Harry Potter theme song. It’s beautifully magical isn’t it? Those first few notes is all it takes and I’m immediately transported to a different world where I can see and create all sorts of amazing magic. Maybe it’s just me but music is crazy inspiring for me!

Do you have any hacks, tricks or tools which help you bring the whimsical magic to life?

I’ve definitely picked up a few tricks over the years. Simple things like movement. Movement is so simple yet can bring such an angelic and whimsical element to what may have been an otherwise boring image. Flowing fabric, hair blowing, twirling, falling petals, flying butterflies, sprinkling fairy dust.. little things that can kick an ordinary image up to that magical place. Overlaying fog or fairy dust in Photoshop is another quick and simple way to add that magical element to an image. Also dry ice! I shot with it one time and fell in love! I actually plan to shoot more with it as foggy smoke always brings that fantasy element to a scene!

P.S. Ultimate life hack for shooting with babies/children - (this isn’t really a whimsical hack but you need this any time you are shooting with little ones!) - NURSERY RHYMES are your best friend on set! I use this tactic on gigantic sets with huge crews for big brands, and I also use it down to my own teeny tiny little set with my own little daughter when it’s just her and I. Sing sing sing those ABCs and Wheels On The Bus and oh my goodness that ridiculously famous Baby Shark! That’s my ultimate hack, works every time with every child - you’re welcome in advance!

What equipment do you use?

If possible I often use natural light for my images. But living in South Florida usually means it rains, all the time and out of the blue without warning. And having children usually means I often don’t get to shoot when I plan to during the day so I end up having to shoot late at night after they’ve gone to bed. So often times I shoot with a White Lightening strobe and a 6 foot deep umbrella with silk diffusion. It’s a beautiful, soft light source and very easy to use. Typically Lucien will actually shoot my self portraits for me. If I’m alone however, I will use a tripod with a self timer but usually he is shooting with me or for me. Either way he is most likely involved somehow. And for my camera, I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark III and I do my editing in Lightroom and Photoshop.

What is your favourite image [or two!] that you have created? Can you tell us why it is special to you?

I’d say my all time favorite image is actually our Halloween self portrait from last year. It was so last minute and almost didn’t happen. I had been planning the shot for months, but before I knew it, October was ending and I still hadn’t shot it, and it was the last chance I had to do it, and it was WAY past my kids’ bedtime. So I despairingly gave up and said I guess I just don’t get to create this image this year with my head hung low. I was devastated. And my husband looked at me and said no, get up and get dressed, we’re gonna make it happen right now baby. And he got his outfit on, got the kids dressed, set up my little set and we shot it in probably under 5 frames. And it turned out exactly as I saw it in my head, only better. I rode that high all week. And my husband won the best husband award that week. My second favorite image would probably be my recent “underwater” image. I’ve been wanting to create an image like this for YEARS. So the fact that I finally did it, and it turned out just as I had been envisioning for so long was a double victory for me.

We can all relate to falling in and out of love with Instagram, how has your account evolved over time?

Oh my yes indeed. I’ve gone back and forth with Instagram in many ways for a couple of years now. When I first decided to start connecting with the community, I really had no idea what to expect. I don’t even know what I was looking for to be honest and I didn’t know much about Instagram at all. I definitely didn’t realize how much friendship and community was actually there. I didn’t expect to meet real people and make real friends but I have. It’s very special to me that I’ve met so many like minded people, other moms, other creatives, it’s amazing how many connections I’ve made.

Since my husband and I both work in production, our work life is crazy and hectic. We lead a very unconventional life and the constant unexpected wild cards can create added stresses to trying to “balance it all” so to speak. I’ll admit my account is neglected more often than I wish and work is the main culprit. But I always come back because I love the community so much. I love to get immersed in the creative world and feeling connected with people who share similar passions. Sometimes I like to look back through my account just to see how it has evolved over different phases of my life. Creative growth is one of the coolest things in the world. I’m still growing and learning every day. I can’t wait to see what I create in the next year. I can proudly admit today I am one of my own biggest fans. And I didn’t always feel that way. But I love what I do. I love what I create. And I so love that my account is a true reflection of simply me and who I am. That’s my favorite thing about it. My Instagram is so me.

I’d say the biggest thing in how it’s evolved is that when I began this journey I really played it “safe”, only creating images that I thought would perform well, that I thought the Instagram audience wanted to see. I would never go outside of the box and create the more “risky” images, the darker images, the whimsical images, the different images. And Instagram proved me wrong every single time as every one of those “questionable”  posts outperformed the crap out of my safe posts. It goes to show you just how much when you really find your stride and just do you, people notice. Don’t try to look like everyone else, everyone else already does. Do you authentically. I’m constantly challenging myself - “How can I make this better?” Constantly. Every post, every job, every image, how can I make this better, different, more.. And it’s clear if you look at the evolution of my account. And I can’t wait to see how I keep getting better this next year!

Shiah is the guest mentor for our August 26 - September 1 creative challenge ‘Welcoming Whimsy’ and will be featuring her favourite entries and feedback on the @creativelysquared Instagram account. You can find Shilah at @shilahsirois on Instagram. We invite you to join Shilah and the rest of the Creatively Squared community to welcome the whimsical. Hit the button below for entry information and full resources.