In the last couple years, the relationship between Pratik Naik and Bella Kotak has grown well beyond what most of us see in a couple, and expanded into some of the most enchanting fantasy portraiture that has ever been produced. When I saw what they are creating together, it struck me as incredible given the energy and inspiration that making even one of these photos requires. I was curious how they manage to make stunner after stunner, and stay dedicated and inspired with their work. So… I asked.

Before we get to that, both Pratik and Bella are giving a workshop/presentation at an event coming to a city near you! Phase One is hosting the Stand Out Photo Forum in several cities this year, and Bella and Pratik are taking the stage in Dallas, Chicago and Los Angeles! For more information on those, head over to the Stand Out website.

To stay in the loop on Stand Out, make sure you follow them on Instagram @standoutphotoforum (#standoutphotoforum) and Twitter @standoutphotof (#standoutphotoforum #standoutUS).

“If you ask anyone who is obsessed over retouching, you’ll get a wide range of answers,” Pratik told me. “It’s hard to quantify into words because it’s a mix of many reasons. For me, it’s seeing a photograph in its raw state and wondering what the final product is going to look like with my craftsmanship. In short, the answer is driven by curiosity.”


Pratik seems driven by not only what he can do with something, but how much he can bring to the table to fully appreciate what the photographer is doing. “It’s met by the end result after (sometimes) hours of work. Can I bring justice to what the photographer spent so much time capturing? Will I also live up to his standard of me he has in his head? That thrill of bringing a flawless image image to reality and making a photographer happy is all the drive I need. I find joy in being a part of someone’s vision and living up to the standard of my portfolio and hype that came from hearing about my work.”

“The answer is driven by curiosity.”

For many artists, it’s all about working alone. For this team, the key to their creative power is each other. “If I could edit by his side all day every day I would! It’s funny, I always tell him that I feel that my pictures turn out extra beautiful whenever I work beside him,” Bella told us, with Pratik agreeing. “It’s true, she always seems happier working next to me,” he said. “I feel the same as well, often because I do like knowing I’m there should feedback is needed in the progression of her color work.”

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“Something about the good energy just channeling into the work,” Bella continued. “Art is so subjective that the emotional state really does play a part in how I create so for me working together I feel, elevates my work. Either way, I always make sure that Pratik’s eyes are the first to check out a finished piece.”

Pratik said that he does watch what Bella is doing, if first just to see where an image is heading, and also to build a better understanding of his own craft. “I peek out of the corner of my eye now and then to see how it’s going. I still learn so much from her direction for every image she does. The before and after shots are startling! For me, retouching next to her keeps me motivated as well. I’m continually inspired by her feedback on my work too.”

“I always start off with asking myself, ‘what’s distracting?’

On the same note of working together, Bella and Pratik said they are “complimentary” in how they work and interact, and that results in few confrontations when it comes to creating their work, something that I have no doubt is a reason the images come out the way they do. In fact, they are presently working together on a Fine Art Action venture which they launched just a week ago. “It’s all very exciting right now! I think Pratik and I are incredibly fortunate,” Bella said. “We’re both complimentary personalities and as a result we don’t really clash often. We just focus on bringing on board our individual skill sets and learning from each other. If there’s a problem we take a walk and talk it out,” she said. “I think this project, the first we’ve ever worked on together, really highlighted to me just how easy it can be to work with someone who’s on the same level and is as focused on bringing something beautiful into the world.”

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“The reason this project was special to me was because I got to see an idea start off from what people wanted from us finally come to life,” Pratik added. “We went through a lot of hurdles and figured out solutions to them.”

Speaking more directly on the last image they worked on together, Pratik referenced an image that they made on the Phase One IQ 3 100MP system. “The files were massive but It really allowed her to show off her potential even more with the sheer color depth and resolution that camera brought,” he said. “I haven’t seen that vibrancy and intricacy with colors replicated on her SLR before.”

Pratik specifically is considered to be one of the best retouchers in the world, but he never seems content to stay there, and won’t even recognize his place when asked about it (the humble guy he is, and he did it again during this interview actually). He’s always working at improving, and I was curious to hear how he personally does it when he’s already considered to be one of the most excellent out there. “You’re right in that I do not broadcast everything I am up to with regard to actual projects. My main channel of improvement comes from the strict eye of clients, who are at the top of their game,” he explained. “The art directors, editors, and photographers won’t send me a dime unless I can meet their standard. With their feedback, I get to see improvements that I never imagined. It opens up my eyes on how I can always do something better or differently to improve upon the final image. I still look at images retouched from a year ago and realize how much better I could have made it. Never be shy of feedback, it’s free education!”

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I was curious how Bella maintains the incredible intricacy of her images, where there is unprecedented detail in almost every pixel of every photo. Personally, there are things I see in her images that would never have occurred to me. “I think a lot of the sense of detail comes from deliberate choices,” she said. “I always start off with asking myself, ‘what’s distracting?’ This could mean anything from hair movement across the face, bringing back highlights, shadows, removing elements that stand out too much or draw the eye away from the subject, etc. Controlling the viewer’s eye is something I also keep in mind, such as where do I want the eye to go to first? This consideration helps so much when it comes to color toning too.”

“I like to think of my process as fairly organic. I follow the light, create scenes with what I have, and whenever possible, strive to bring a fairytale to life if only for a few minutes.”

So how did this come into play with a recent image? “My most recent photo is called ‘Under your spell’. It was created in a public park in Oxford and as with all my pictures, I love picking a rather nondescript location and bringing it to life through a picture,” Bella said.

"Under Your Spell," © Bella Kotak

“Under Your Spell”

“In this case, there were some small white flowers blooming on a bush. It was surrounded by other plants and colors but there was something about its delicacy and quiet presence that captured my imagination. This awareness of its existence sparked the light [of inspiration]. Once I placed my model in the scene, connected her to the flowers by placing some in her hair as well as draping her long hair across them, I could see a picture beginning to form. I like to think of my process as fairly organic. I follow the light, create scenes with what I have, and whenever possible, strive to bring a fairytale to life if only for a few minutes.”

“The scenes in every picture of mine change in real life with time. What bloomed this year may not bloom the next and this, in turn, motivates me to strive towards capturing slips of beauty in time.”

Speaking of organic, and plants and colors, Bella chooses to use them a lot. I was curious as to why, and what keeps her coming back to these elements. “Well that’s because I live in the country!” she told me. “We work with what we have and I have lots of flowers, foliage, greenery, overgrowth around me. I’m incredibly fortunate in the part of the world I live in and I suppose loving nature and natural life could have something to do with it too.”

What Bella said next is a real example of how her mind works, and painted a vivid picture in my mind as to how she is able to create the images she does.

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“As I’ve gotten older I’ve begun to notice time in a way that I never had before. I’m more conscious of it, how it slips away, how relative it is, and just how fleeting. Nature lives in its own time and it’s a constant, steady and slow. Blossoms bloom in Spring, leaves fall in Autumn and every year the cycle flows, one season into the next. It’s this reflection of nature and womanhood that channels itself into my work.

“The scenes in every picture of mine change in real life with time. What bloomed this year may not bloom the next and this, in turn, motivates me to strive towards capturing slips of beauty in time.”


All images used with permission.