Over at 500px HQ, our number one job is to get our awe-inspiring community of photographers as much exposure to a wider audience. This is the story of how a young Minnesota-based photographer landed the cover of a remarkable international photo magazine—and it all started with getting featured in 500px’s Editors’ Choice page! Meet Pauly Pholwises who—at only 21 years old—is a prodigy at capturing striking, contemporary portraits in dreamy, softly-lit environments.

Recently, he is also the Grand Prize Winner of 500px’s Birthday Photo Collection Contest and brand-new owner of a Sony Alpha a7 mirrorless digital camera—just one of the few prizes he is getting from us for a job well done. In his contest entry, he shares the story of how his photo went from 500px Editors’ Choice to the cover of Digital SLR Photography magazine:

“Last year, I received an email saying that one of my photos was chosen for Editors’ Choice. That was one of my best photography moments ever! I’ve been submitting my photos on 500px since I started photography, hoping that it would reach the Popular section. To be chosen for Editors’ Choice was such an honor. A week after my photo got onto the Editors’ Choice, I received an email from a magazine publisher called Digital SLR Photography magazine. They said that they saw my photo (the Editors’ Choice photo) and would like to feature it on the November [2013] issue. They featured two of my photos from that set. That was also my first time getting published in a magazine! A few months later, I received another email from the same magazine publisher saying that want one of my photo to be the cover of their March issue! It was such an honor being featured in November issue but I couldn’t believe that I would be on the cover of a worldwide international magazine! All thanks to 500px for seeing something in my work, and choosing one of my photos for Editors’ Choice.”

We love a great success story, don’t you? Read on and get to know this emerging portrait photographer a little better in our exclusive interview. Plus, the story behind some of his winning portraits!

500px: First of all, congrats on the win! How did you found out about the results?
It was the morning of December 1st when I checked my phone. I received an email from someone that commented on my post on the ISO group saying, “Congrats, you won the 500px contest!” I quickly go to my computer to check, and I saw my name on the winners list! I celebrated by doing a little victory dance. Thanks so much again for seeing something in my work! If it’s wasn’t for that Editors’ Choice photo, I don’t think I would’ve gotten all these accomplishments.

We’re so happy for your win. How did you get started with photography?
I took a photography class in high school and I fell in love with photography immediately. I got my first camera in my senior year of high school. I started getting serious with it after I graduated and that was summer of 2012.

What are your favorite subjects to shoot?
My favorite subject to photograph are people. But I also like to photograph pretty much everything from landscapes, conceptual projects, and other types of photography. Those are my “personal” work, so I don’t really share them as much.

Can you share some tips for photographers who want to achieve the same style and look of your portraits?
I think it all comes down to how it was shot in the first place, from choosing the model to location to how you want the lighting and also setting on your camera. Doesn’t matter how much editing and processing goes into the photo. If you get the lighting and the exposure right, I think it’s really easy to get similar style that I get.

What can we find in your camera bag?
In my camera bag I have a Canon 6D, Canon t2i which is my first camera, and 35mm f2, 85mm f1.8, 18-55mm kit lenses, and a 5-in-1 reflector.

We noticed you shoot in a lot of natural outdoor environments in natural and soft light. Why do you prefer it than shooting in a studio?
I love shooting in natural light because that’s what I’m most comfortable with. I love shooting in studio as well when I have a chance, but I still have a lot to learn and practice. Also, something about natural light because I love seeing the environment and there are so many ways to manipulate natural to fit the look that you are going for. I don’t really have a preference when it comes to lighting environment!

Do you have any tips on maintaining a good working relationship with your models and subjects?
Most of the models that I worked with are my friends so it’s a little easy for me to get comfortable right away. Don’t treat your subject like they are there get their pictures taken. Sit with them and talk about your concept and ideas. That’s the best way to get emotion and the feelings out of your subject.

Your photos are a standout. How much post-processing do you do after a shoot?
Thanks! I process my photos through Lightroom and Photoshop. I start with small adjustments in LR. correcting white balance, exposure. After that I export the photo into photoshop. First I retouch and do some dodging and burning. Tone the photo the using curves and selective colors. and the last step is sharpening with unsharp mask!

We just turned 5, and we’ve gone through a lot of pivots and changes over the years. How about you? What were you like as a photographer 5 five years ago, and how have you grown in your craft today?
When I first stared photography, I had no idea the style I was going for. I would just take pictures of random things. But once I start taking more portraits, I realized I really enjoy just interacting with people, and capturing the emotion and expression that I would get from them. So I kept focusing on photographing more portraits. After a while, I started to develop a style that I really love which is something very moody, cinematic, and expressive.

Out of all the photos in your 500px portfolio, which one is your most favorite?
My favorite photo would be the one that got into Editors’ Choice for the first time. It was my photo of a girl holding the flowers. To this day, this photo still the most popular photo I’ve ever taken!

PAULY: (continued) This photo really motivates me to keep taking pictures. It reminds me that people out there are looking at my work.

What’s next for you in 2015?
2015 is the year that I want to really work as hard as I can to get myself out there as much as I can. I have some upcoming projects that I’m planning on. I’m very excited to start working on them. I have lots of ideas and concepts that I want to do! I’m also planning to do a workshop and maybe an exhibition.

Pauly Pholwises’ Grand Prize Winning Photo Collection
For our 5th Birthday Contest, we asked all our community members to share their best photo collections as contest entries. Out of the 2,600+ entries submitted to us, Pauly won us over with this collection he curated from his own portfolio. Scroll down to find out how he shot each image!

“This photo is my latest photo that got into Editors’ Choice! Chose by one of my favorite photographers, Emily Soto. This shoot was very last minute. I saw this field, and I wanted to show it to one of my friends who is also a photographer. So we just grabbed our gear and checked it out. I asked my friend Maria (the subject) to be our model. Although it was a last-minute shoot, the result that came out of it is really great!”

“I was at my favorite location when I photographed my sister in this shot. I really love this photo because when I took this photo, everything just fell right into place. It was the exact image that I had in mind. Her expression, the breeze that came through, the background, and the feeling of the image. It was very real.”

“This photo is one of my all-time favorites so I had to put this in the entry. I really want to give the image more drama and some more depth to it. So I asked her to hold these flowers. I think that really makes it a much better photo. I learned from that shoot that the little details you add to the photo can really change the mood and the feeling of the image.”

“I saw this patch of hydrangea, and I just had to put someone there. I really wanted the photo to be very dreamy and moody. I think we pulled it off. This photo was also my second photo to be featured in Editors’ Choice!”

“This is the photo that was featured Digital SLR magazine. It was from the same set as the one of my model holding the flowers. I love this portrait because it was really showing the beauty of the model—her name is Abbie. It’s very simple and elegant.”


“It’s my first time getting my photos published in an international magazine!”

4 (1)

“Here it is—my first magazine cover!”

To see his original contest entry, click here.

To see more of Pauly’s inspiring images, follow him on 500px, or visit his official website. You can also connect with him on his Facebook page and Instagram.

Got a question for Pauly on his technique, style, photos, and story? Leave a comment for him below!