Vincent J. Musi has been a regular contributor to National Geographic since 1993, covering subjects from the Texas Hill Country to hurricanes, volcanoes and mummies. A specialist in animal portraits, his recent work includes projects on domestication, intelligence and cognition. Musi’s work has taken him from historic Route 66 to the oldest temple on Earth in Turkey. He is also a contributor to TIME, Newsweek, Life, Fortune andThe New York Times Magazine.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a photographer? Probably when I realized I didn’t have what it took to be a musician, my first love. I own drums and have played them my entire life but that didn’t make me a musician. I was far better at getting a camera to say what I wanted to say than a drum.
Do you remember your first published work? How did it feel to see something you created show up in print? I was a kid working for the high school yearbook and then newspapers. A very exciting time for me, I often smelled of Dektol.
How did you get your first National Geographic assignment? I sort of bluffed my way into my first full assignment for National Geographic when I claimed to have a great love for landscape photography when they needed someone in a pinch. You might say I lied.
How nervous were you going on assignment for what many consider the “Holy Grail” of photography? I was very nervous because only a fool would lie just to get an assignment. It was just going to be a matter of time before they found out I was a fraud. I hope they don’t read this.
What was the emotion of seeing your work show up on your first National Geographic cover? My wife Callie Shell was working for Time magazine and we both had our first covers during the same month. It was a very special time for us.
In your TedX talk tedxtalks.ted.com, you go into some detail about some of the challenges of shooting animals. Have you come up with a pretty good formula for shooting live subjects over the years or does each shoot present its own unique set of challenges? Every animal and every day is unique. My formula is never to forget that.
Have you ever been on an animal shoot where the subject was impossible to shoot? There’s always a picture, just not always one you want to put in front of 40 million readers. That’s what keeps me up at night.
In your animal portraits, you seem to capture so much of their personalities. How much time do you spend with the animals before shooting to make them feel comfortable? Sometimes you’ll get “there” very quickly, other times not so quickly. I just spent a week trying to get near a Raven and I don’t think he was very comfortable until he saw me packing up to leave. That said, we try never to stress out an animal for a picture, so the process to befriend them can be very exhausting. I’m never in control; they just let me think so.
How rewarding is it when you can accurately capture and portray what makes each animal special? I’ve done a lot of celebrity animals, really famous ones that do extraordinary things. It’s an incredible honor to be able to make a photograph of them that represents that quality and character.
You have an amazing gallery on your website called “Big Cats.” How much time went into setting up each of these shots? You are very kind. We spent two weeks building sets to photograph each of these cats in small enclosures they occasionally spend time in. Often that meant we couldn’t put a light where we wanted to or have the angle you might think best. None of these animals were trained or under any control of humans, they ran the show.
Does shooting subject matter like lions and tigers create an extra element of anxiety? I always work from the position that this will be my last assignment because I’ll get found out and sent home for being a fraud.
What type of animals have you found to be the most enjoyable to photograph? Sheep. There, I said it, sheep. The have phenomenal eyes.
How do the animals react to studio lighting and flashes? It’s a bit disruptive for one minute and then they don’t pay attention. The light stands and booms and grip are more of a problem.
How much work do you do in post-production to get your images perfected? For National Geographic, I submit raw files, so I don’t do any post for them other than providing a guide to color. Natgeo does very little other than toning or dust removal, that sort of thing. For commercial work, I usually rely on professional retouchers to meet a client’s needs. I do print all of my own work for exhibition.
When you aren’t shooting animals, what subject matter are you most passionate about photographing? I like stuff, things, particularly when they represent some aspect of culture. My next work might be headed into still life.
Your “Sicily Crypts” gallery is quite the departure from shooting live animals. How was the experience shooting underground and what challenges did that project present? An extraordinary time for me. I really wanted to photograph the mummies as people not objects and Natgeo supported that proposal. Of course, I was sick for 6 months after that. Came down with a respiratory infection that doctors jokingly called the “King Tut virus.”
What advice would you share with aspiring photographers coming into the industry? Don’t let guys like me ruin it for you with talk about how things used to be. Enjoy it, tear it up and repeat.
What has changed the most in the photo industry since you began? It’s gotten a lot easier to make pictures and much harder to make a living.
How do you stay passionate about photography? I’m challenged every day to create something whether it be homemade pasta or a photograph.
Why did you choose Photo Folio for your website? I’ve always gravitated to the best tool for the job. Working with APF was an easy decision and I’ve never looked back.
Many of the world’s top photographers, like Vincent J Musi , use a PHOTO FOLIOwebsite to showcase their work. Isn’t it time you put the power of PHOTO FOLIO to work for you?
Taylor is an award winning photographer based in Chicago. His work focuses on conceptual and portrait photography – often times with a bizarre and comical twist. He’s worked with top advertising and editorial clients ranging from Nike, Hilton, Pepsi, Canon, Mars, and Ally Bank to E.S.P.N. The Magazine, New York Times, Fortune, Fast Company, and Men’s Journal.
Taylor’s style is a blend of dark humor and everyday hilarity. Even when he’s trying to be serious, he can’t help but find an excuse to laugh. Laid back and detail oriented, Taylor creates a fun environment on set and encourages everyone around him to play a part in the creative process. He believes his best work comes when the spirit of collaboration is omnipresent.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a photographer? I was a sophomore in high school, taking my first photography and film making classes. My friends and I were getting way into Terry Gilliam movies which was really having a huge impact on my creativity, imagination and extra curricular activities. At the same time, my photo teacher showed us a Jerry Uelsmann documentary, which just blew my mind. I started to gravitate more towards still photography, especially black and white, and by my senior year of high school I knew it was what I wanted to pursue.
What formal schooling or training (if any) did you have in photography? I started at Columbia College in Chicago my freshman year of college. I basically just took pictures of my friends smoking weed in our dorm bathroom and a lot of crappy alleys. To be honest, I lost a lot of my motivation for photography at this time and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do anymore.
I decided to move out West for a girl and settled in Eugene, Oregon. I took an intro to studio lighting class at Lane Community College which revived my interest and reignited my passion. Totally green, I started working for my processor as an assistant, which led to an introduction to a pretty successful architectural photographer in Oregon. I assisted him for six months or so on a variety of gigs, and gained a solid technical foundation and critical insight to the commercial photo realm. In that time he got me interested in his alma mater, Brooks Institute of Photography, which seemed like the ideal place for me to hone my skills. I moved to Santa Barbara to attend Brooks, which lasted off and on for about three years before I decided to quit school entirely and move back to Chicago to open my own studio.
Were your parents supportive of your desire to be an artist? Absolutely. I was raised by a single mother who was a very happy and successful interior designer. She loved her job and cherished the creative outlet it provided her, so she has been nothing but supportive of my endeavors throughout my entire career.
Your Dark Humor Gallery has so many images that tell an entire story with just a single frame. Where do your ideas for these shots come from?It’s a bit of a mixed bag, I guess. I really love to satirize current events, fads, and political/religious/social issues. These ideas just sort of come naturally and can be the byproduct of something I read, hear or see. I try to write things down in my little idea Diary (iPhone) the second I think of it. These can be loose thoughts, or something much more developed and concrete. I also get a great deal of inspiration from design and illustration. I love the simplicity and open-ended concepts you often find within it. I really strive to make my conceptual photography function in the same way. I love basic messaging, simple humor, and giving the viewer a path for them lead the narrative.
You have the gift of being a comedian without ever speaking a word. How do you find the comedy in everyday situations? I’m a pretty sarcastic dude by nature, so I often find great joy and humor in how I react to and engage with everyday occurrences. I’m actually rather shy in public, so I love me some people watching and eavesdropping. A lot of the characters I create in my work are manifestations of these observations in fact.
Based on the images found on your website it looks like you have a lot of fun when shooting. Do you find it hard to be really serious when behind the lens? You know I sometimes try to force myself to be the serious guy on set, and it never goes well. When I’m on an assignment I’m very focused on what I have to do and how I have to do it. I really believe that my work is an extension of my personality, so If I’m not being myself, I’m not doing my job to the best of my ability. I know that my energy is infectious to everyone I’m surrounded by and that in turn helps create the atmosphere where I do my best directing. There certainly are times where I need to crack the whip a little bit, but for the most part, I’m pretty fun and goofy guy.
Some portrait photographers believe that they need to provide all the direction for the shoot while others prefer collaboration with their subjects. Which style works best for you and why? Both, and I sort of feel it out as I go. It’s important for me that we’re all on the same page before even starting. I always ask for the talent’s input and try to riff off it to see what can come about organically. If I’m working with skilled actors or comedians it’s definitely more collaborative, and I really thrive in that design. Professional models can be great too, but often times they’re so used to doing it one way. I usually have to work a little bit harder to break them of that mold, and to get them to understand the uniqueness of what I’m attempting to create compared to some of the routine work they’re more accustomed to doing.
You have portraits that were taken in studio and others taken on location. Do you have a preference as to which environment you are shooting? Not really. I’m much more calm shooting in the studio, but I also find that I get stifled easier as well. Shooting on location brings so many variables and the chaos of it all can be vexing, but my mind is working much faster and ideas can sometimes just flood in. I’m a pretty calculated shooter, and love to have complete control of my variables, so the studio is my sanctuary. But I also love the unexpected quirks that come with shooting in uncontrollable environments.
Do you find that shooting outside the studio gives you more options for creativity? Yes, It certainly can, but It really depends on the environment, who I’m shooting, and how much time I have to shoot outtakes. I don’t enjoy a rushed production, so I’m much more prone to simplify my options rather than expand on them if I’m not in my comfort zone. A tech scout is always preferred so that I can come in with a solid strategy, pre-visualize my shoot, and start to generate other ideas before I even show up on set.
What advice would you share with aspiring photographers coming into the industry? Be confident, be fearless, and be hungry. Find what you love, and keep shooting it. Figure out your weaknesses and make them strengths. Study the history of your art, and stay current with where it is lives today. And for the love of god hashtag everything.
What motivates you to get up each morning and shoot? Dark roasted coffee and a breakfast burritos.
As a Chicagoan, do you think this is finally the year that the Chicago Cubs will win their first World Series since 1908? Yes. Absolutely. It’s happening. There’s no way we are not going to win this year. Nothing can stop us. It’s definitely our year.
What does the perfect Taylor Castle day look like? A toddler who is super excited to get up and go to day care, and agrees with every outfit decision I make for him. A bid request in my inbox when I get to the studio. Maybe a corned beef Reuben for lunch. A surprise royalty check in the mail in the afternoon. A 72º walk along Lake Michigan. Tacos for dinner, and 2 episodes of Game of Thrones for dessert.
How important is your website to the success of your business? It’s paramount. It’s what drives almost every opportunity I get. I don’t get hired because I have a cool name. I stay busy because I work hard to create good work. My website is the conduit to my vision, my passion, and my brand.
Why did you choose Photo Folio for your website? Wonderful functionality, smart design, great customization options, powerful SEO capabilities, ease of use on the backend, and most importantly how beautiful my photography is displayed on the site. The support staff has been stellar as well and handle all of my stupid questions and requests so graciously.
Many of the world’s top photographers, like Taylor Castle, use a PHOTO FOLIOwebsite to showcase their work. Isn’t it time you put the power of PHOTO FOLIO to work for you?
Our new homepage is live on our brand new url photofolio.io and we’ve got exciting things in store this year. Because, not only have we redesigned our homepage we’ve rebuilt our entire platform from the ground up. Our award winning, patented, Design X software is now in the cloud. We’ve spent just under a year retooling everything to be faster and more robust. Not only that but we can now add in more fabulous features and improve further on the only fully customizable portfolio website in the world.
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Photo Folio client Dan Winters is known for the broad range of subject matter he is able to interpret. He is widely recognized for his unusual celebrity portraiture, his scientific photography, photo illustrations, drawings and photojournalistic stories. Dan has won over one hundred national and international awards and won the World Press photo award in the portrait category, among others. He was also awarded the prestigious Alfred Eisenstaedt Award for Magazine Photography. In 2003, he was honored by Kodak as a photo “Icon” in their biographical “Legends” series. Dan has photos in the permanent collection at the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian. Dan is the chief staff photographer for WIRED. His clients include Esquire, GQ, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, TIME, Texas Monthly, Fortune, Discover, Details, Premiere, W, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, Newsweek and Golf Digest
You attended film school in Munich. How was that experience? I had a romantic idea about attending university in Europe and immersing myself in a new culture while going to school. It was a fantastic experience, but after the initial shine wore off I was ready to head back to the states and get started on my career.
How did you get started in your career in photography? I got a job working for a newspaper in Ventura County, north of Los Angeles. I initially worked as a lab tech and after a year was hired as a staff photographer.
You have a very unique style of shooting portraits that really seems to show people differently than we see them in traditional portraits. How would you describe your portrait style? I would say that my style is to shoot the subject in a manner that is quiet, pensive and shows their vulnerability. I really like simple, elegant lighting and shooting in a way that allows the subject to occupy the environment. I try my best to be reverent to my subjects.
What made you focus on shooting portraits early in your career? I began spending time at newsstands studying magazines. Portraits occupy the pages of magazines, and new photographs of people are in constant demand. I also sensed a renaissance in magazine portrait photography in the late 80’s and early 90’s. It was an exciting time. I never wanted to focus my efforts on one specific subject as it seems counter to the diverse nature of the photographic medium. However, I knew that having the ability to create compelling portraits was of value. I started by shooting portraits of everyday people and friends. I wasn’t shooting high-profile subjects, but I was working with very interesting people.
How did you get your first assignment shooting a celebrity? My portrait work was being recognized by a small group of Photo Editors and I started getting assignments to shoot people that were noteworthy and a part of the public consciousness. Karen Frank at GQ hired me to photograph John Thompson (Famous Georgetown Basketball coach during the Patrick Ewing era) and musician Branford Marsalis. From there additional assignments started to come and I began photographing high profile subjects with more regularity.
You have shot some of the world’s most prolific celebrities. How challenging is it to shoot these high-profile subjects? Working with celebrated folks is enjoyable as they are typically very professional and understand that we both have a job to do. I have shot some celebrities numerous times and I have developed a rapport with some of them due to our shared interests. I rarely have any unusual circumstances shooting high-profile people. My ultimate goal is to create a likeness that is a fair and accurate representation of my subjects. I understand that their image is often their commodity so I am very respectful of that when shooting and do everything possible to capture portraits that are mutually agreeable.
Which celebrities have been the most enjoyable to shoot over the years?I have always enjoyed shooting artists, musicians, painters, actors and writers. I like shooting subjects that really understand and appreciate the creative process. I have really enjoyed shooting people like Sandra Bullock, Ryan Gosling and Hellen Mirren. Al Pacino and Tom Waits I have built great professional relationships with people like Tom Hanks as we share a love of WW2 history and spaceflight.
Have you had any subjects that have been extremely challenging to work with when photographing? How do you handle challenging subjects? I have only had a couple shoots in all my years that were really challenging and those were due to baggage the subject brought to the shoot. Once the subject appreciated that I was a professional and had a job to do they were fine. It is a matter of gaining their trust and getting to work. I have even been forewarned before shooting certain celebrities that they can be difficult to work with, but I haven’t had any problems working with any of them.
In your portrait work you have a great blend of shots taken in a natural environment and shots taken indoors with unique lighting. If time wasn’t an issue, what is your ideal place to shoot portraits? I was originally intrigued by shooting in the studio as it provided mystery for me. It was a bit daunting as I wasn’t sure how best to populate a wide-open, empty space. I started creating my own sets for shooting and painting my own backdrops. These became a way for me to control the environment and create a vessel that could be occupied by the subject. Over time I have become a huge fan of shooting outdoors as well as the environment is alive and ever-changing.
Tell me about the Honeybee gallery on your website? I started raising bees in 4H when I was 9 years old. After high schooI, I sold off my hives but set up a small apiary about 6 years ago. A few years back a phenomenon known as CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) began destroying commercial Apiaries. After doing some research it became clear that Texas apiaries were being affected by CCD. I pitched a story to Texas Monthly about the disorder and they let me work with scientist at the University of Texas to shoot images through microscopes of the bees that were being studied.
What made you decide to shoot the “HELLS UNION” project? I have a love of history. My friend Jeff Decker, who is an artist and historian has amassed a large number of outlaw motorcycle vests or “cuts” as they are called, as they started as denim jackets and the bikers would cut the sleeves off. Jeff’s collection is one of a kind and I felt compelled to create a photographic record of this unique collection of american folk art. The look of the cuts evolved over time and the photographs help document the transition from denim in the 40’s and 50’s and 60‘s to leather in the 70’s. This project was much more about my desire to showcase a bit of American History than is was to highlight motorcycle culture.
What is it about photographs that moves you? Since a photograph is a moment in time it becomes the only way to truly ponder stillness. The ability to absorb the content of an image at our own pace creates a powerful platform. I am surrounded by photographs and they are something tangible that I can enjoy all the time. I still have binders of my archived work, next to my desk that I can open anytime and instantly be transported to the place and time that particular image was captured.
You have some amazing illustrations in the “Works on Paper” gallery. Did you do these all by hand? These are drawings done by hand. I have always had an interest in illustration as it is another creative outlet. These drawings are just an extension of what I love to do, and it is a great was to mix things up.
Do you have trouble leaving the camera behind when you are on vacation or not working? I photograph every day. It is my passion and I always find something to photograph. My family has a strong connection to photography and it is an inherent part of what we do so it is part of our vacations and has been a great way to document our lives. I am a gentle photographer and don’t go overboard so it doesn’t become a distraction from what we are doing. I see my ability to photograph as a blessing so it never feels like work when I am making pictures for myself.
How do you unwind and relax? I really enjoy building models, especially Sci-Fi models from scratch. Right now I am rebuilding and improving upon a model I made many years ago.
Describe the ultimate Dan Winters day. Eating breakfast on my porch while watching the deer, taking a long bike ride with my wife, having lunch, working on some models, working out with my son, having dinner and a walk and then finishing the night with some more model building.
Many of the world’s top photographers, like Dan Winters, use a PHOTO FOLIOwebsite to showcase their work. Isn’t it time you put the power of PHOTO FOLIO to work for you?
Jason Hawkes has specialized in aerial photography since 1991, he is based just outside London, and shoots worldwide.
His clients include brands such as Virgin Atlantic, Amazon, Rolex, Microsoft, HP, Citi, Siemens, Red Bull, Nike, Coca-Cola, American Airlines, Toyota, Samsung, National Geographic, and BP.
He has produced over 50 aerial photographic books for publishers such as the BBC, Random House, and Harper Collins.
What was your path to becoming a professional photographer? I studied photography at college and then went on to assist in a London studio where we shot fashion and still life work. At the time, I was looking to move into studio still life work as that was my main focus whilst studying
You specialize in Aerial photography. How did you find that niche? Whilst assisting I was looking for something interesting to do at the weekends. A couple of friends and I started jet-skiing but then came across an advertisement for microlight (ultralight) lessons. I remember standing in a field in the middle of the countryside and seeing this tiny black microlight glide out of the sky and land next to us. I was just 21 years old and thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. The instructor took me up flying, and whilst the flying was pretty fun, what I remember more than anything was the amazing patterns of the landscape from 1000ft. About six weeks later I had a bank loan and one of my own.
Are your images taken primarily from helicopters or do you use other devices to gain the vantage point needed to shoot aerials? I shoot all my work from helicopters. They are such a great platform from which to shoot. You take the door off or just slide it open, and have yourself and all your kit harnessed in. I shoot from anywhere between around 400 ft to 10,000 ft day and night, it is a great buzz.
Flying in helicopters is extremely expensive. How do you maximize your time once you are airborne? They are quite expensive but when you are flying over a city you can cover so much in two or three hours they are actually very cost-effective. It’s just a question of knowing exactly where you need to be at what time, making sure all the permits are in place, the pilot is incredibly well briefed, and of course that you are flying in very nice light.
How long is a normal flight when you are shooting? Over cities a normal flight will be around 2.5 hours. When we are shooting a whole range of locations, you might fly six hours in a day, but you’ll probably only be shooting for two of those.
How will drones change the landscape of aerial photography? Any aircraft and any camera come to that are just a tool. Personally, I’d rather be flying than looking at an iPad screen, but there’s no getting away from the fact that given a decent drone, and nice location you can get fantastic shots. I’m amazed how many people are buying into the drone idea. In the past year, I must have been emailed by at least 100 people asking for advice as they want to start a drone company. Most amazing of all are those who say they are learning to fly them on a course but mention nothing whatsoever about the photography side. They seem to have not thought about what they actually doing is becoming a photographer.
You have a lot of images that show patterns in the landscape. How do you shoot these images to give some sense of scale? I really like including people in my graphic landscapes If at all possible, even if it’s just a single person you can pick out in the corner of the image to give scale.
You have exceptional aerials from many places, but London dominates your portfolio. What is it about shooting the city from the air makes it so special for you? I live very close to London, and it only takes me ten minutes to fly into town from here, so it’s my most obvious subject to shoot. I first flew over it many years ago shooting a book for Random House. Like all cities it changes dramatically with all the new buildings going up. It’s a beautiful place to fly with the huge green expanses of the Royal Parks dominating the West End and, of course, the Thames meandering through the middle that on an amazing day can sometimes even look blue!
Aside from London, what is the most spectacular location you have shot from the air? Hong Kong and New York are great cities to shoot, but I also remember shooting right up in the very North of Norway. It was incredibly cold and covered in snow and ice. Really quite bleak in many respects but just an amazing location to be sent to shoot.
What place is on your photographic bucket list? Dubai and Iceland. Very different locations but both so dramatic.
What are the inherent challenges to shooting from a helicopter? Well first and foremost you have to think about the safety aspect. I’ve shot in a few locations over the years, (http://www.jasonhawkes.com/Behind-the-lens/Stills/1) and been in a few crazy helicopters, where I was glad to get back on the ground, but on the whole, things go as expected. I suppose like any photographer you just have to know your kit back to front and plan things down to the last detail. Obviously shooting at night, or doing 360 panoramas or filming like this (http://www.jasonhawkes.com/London-/London-Portfolio/7) present challenges of how you mount the camera, but apart from that its really just up to the photographers eye to get great shots, just like it is on the ground.
What does the perfect Jason Hawkes day look like? Firstly great visibility, secondly great light. Without both elements in place there’s not much point getting off the ground.
Why did you choose Photo Folio for your website? Well, I asked quite a few photographers and art buyers around, and it was always on the list of companies to look at, was really a no brainer.
Lucas Gilman is one of the leading adventure photographers and filmmakers in the industry. He currently resides in Pismo Beach, CA. His powerful and incisive images run in top publications & advertisements worldwide. A love of adventure and an addiction to a color creates his distinct style of photography and filmmaking. Lucas documents subjects ranging from expedition kayaking in India and Costa Rica, Surfing in Brazil to backcountry skiing in Wyoming, Alaska and South America. He has covered international events such as the Tour De France, Kentucky Derby, ESPN X-GAMES, IRONMAN® and NFL Playoffs. Lucas regularly works with advertising and editorial clients that span the globe including Land Rover, Nikon, SanDisk®, Red Bull, G-Technology, Garmin™, GORE-TEX®, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, ESPN Magazine, ESPN.com and Outside Magazine.
What was your path to becoming a professional photographer? I was the kid in the family who always wanted to take the family photos on vacation. I went to college at CU-Boulder to be a writer and never knew that photography could be a career until I took an intro to photojournalism class. We had a spot news assignment and I happened upon a really bad car accident one night. It ended up running the Denver Post, which is Colorado’s largest newspaper. From there I began working part time for them through college.
You shoot both commercially and for editorial. How do these types of shoots compare and do you find one more stressful than the other? Both have their share of stress in different ways. The commercial shoots are generally more scripted with the end result planned, storyboarded and tend to have more people involved. The editorial is fun, but you are there to document what happens and don’t have any control of the outcome, which can be stressful. I enjoy both for very different reasons. I have also jumped into video and filmmaking recently which has a whole new set of challenges.
Do you have an agent, or do your own representation and marketing? I’ve never had an agent and have built my business with the idea that personal connections and relationships will win out in the end.
What percentage of your time is spent actually shooting compared to editing, post-production, submissions, billing, marketing, etc? I spend 80-90 percent of my time taking care of the business side of photography and as I’ve become more successful the projects tend to be larger with longer lead times and more pre-production. I still do personal projects throughout the year to try new techniques and get back to the roots of why I got into photography originally: taking pictures.
You have a lot of great images of kayaking. Did your drive to shoot kayaking come from being an avid waterman yourself? I sort of fell into shooting kayaking. I was living in Jackson Hole working on my portfolio, and a buddy was going to Costa Rica on an expedition. He asked if I kayaked and I said no, but I can bushwhack. I was lucky enough that they were some of the best boaters in the world. I got an image published after the Costa Rica trip as an opening spread in ESPN Magazine and from there on out I did a lot of kayak shoots around the world.
Many of these kayaking images are athletes paddling massive waterfalls. How much scouting and planning go into these shots? How critical is timing and finding the perfect water flow levels for these projects? Many of these waterfall projects take years of planning to come to fruition. For instance, our crew went to the same waterfalls every year for five years in a row until the 128-foot-tall Big Banana Falls in Veracruz was run. It takes a lot of patience and dedication to see these things through. They only run the big ones once, so there is not take two or second chance and timing is everything.
How often do you get into situations where you are setting up a shot and the athlete wants to back out because they just aren’t confident in the conditions? It happens all the time. You have to go into it knowing that there is a good chance you’ll walk away with nothing. But, you have to remember that you are a human first and part of a team. I’d never talk an athlete into doing something that was outside of their comfort zone. Athlete’s are the key to making amazing images and they need to trust you; not only to get the shot but also to be there for them if something bad goes down.
You also have many epic shots of skiing. Do you enjoy shooting a variety of sports across multiple seasons to keep things fresh?I started out shooting skiing as it was what I knew from growing up in Colorado. Kayaking was my second season and now I’ve branched out into shooting a lot of surfing. I feel like it helps to shoot different sports to keep a fresh eye.
On your website, there are also some shots of horses. How does an action sports photographer get into shooting equestrian events? I used to do a ton of editorial work for ESPN and shot the Kentucky Derby for many years. It’s a huge event and has a unique set of challenges. To cover it properly you need many remote cameras. I spent five years trying to get approval to put a remote camera above the crowd at the finish line. Finally, I got approval and that year Barbaro won by the most lengths in current history. I was the only one with that shot and the shot summed up the race in once image. It’s pretty cool when something like that works out.
What is the standard kit you take when you are out on an action sports shoot? Nikon D4s, Nikon D810 , AF-S NIKKOR 24 f1.4, AF-S NIKKOR 24-70 f2.8 VR, AF-S NIKKOR 80-400 f4.5-5.6, Nikon TC14-E III Teleconverter, (8) Nikon Batteries, (12) SanDisk Extreme Pro CF & SD Cards, F-Stop LOKA UL Backpack with ICU, Gitzo Systematic tripod + Head, 15 Inch MacBook Retina, (2) G-Technology G-DRIVE ATC, (2) Profoto B1 Strobes, Pelican 1510 + TrekPak Inserts
How much weight do you carry when you are out in the field shooting action? As little as possible. It really depends on the day. For a backcountry ski mission, I may carry one D810 body and two lenses in addition to all the safety gear. For a big waterfall drop, I’ll have at least two cameras and preferably three, so I can get horizontal and vertical shots of the drop, which helps in layout and sales as you never have an art director say we loved it, but we wish we had a vertical for the cover. I use strobes often as well, and the Profoto B1’s are great as they are battery powered and have wireless TTL so I can control them from my camera with the transmitter.
You have some great people shots. How do you work with your subject to create great portraits? I love portraits. Much of my work is big landscape with little person, so it’s a joy to get to hang out with people and connect. To make good portraits it’s worthwhile to find something you have in common with your subject. Every little bit helps to build that bond of trust. Face it. Being in front of the camera is a vulnerable place to be and the more the subject trusts you the better the results.
What is the one piece of photo equipment that you can’t live without? Ironically, my iPhone as I do a lot of research: weather, lunar cycle, water levels, surf reports, sun tracking, hyperfocal tables, location scouting, shot lists, etc.
What does the perfect Lucas Gillman day look like? I’m on the road around 200 days a year, so It’s always different, but usually involves an early start with some strong coffee and a weather check.
If you weren’t a professional photographer what would you be doing? I’d be a chef. I almost went to culinary arts school instead of college. I love cooking when at home. It’s my way to relax and catch up with my five-year-old son and wife.
Why did you choose Photo Folio for your website? Photo Folio has the cleanest layouts and really lets the work shine through. The last thing an editor or art director wants when they look at your work is to have a poorly laid out page with Justin Bieber blaring in the background. As in my images, I like to keep it simple and clean, and Photo Folio allows me to do that.
Stephen Newport is an Ohio native with a basecamp in Columbus. He splits his time between post-production/photo-illustration for local and national clients and travels as far away and for as long as possible to progress his photography and discover new roads with his partner.
“I realized that I was learning more getting paid, than I was paying to learn.”
What made you get into photography? I tend to jump between interests very easily. When I was focusing on graphic design in high-school I started becoming more interested in music. When I was studying painting and drawing in Chicago, I signed up for woodworking and sculpture classes to hold my interest. When I was studying digital illustration in Columbus, I began taking my bike out through the town to photograph… avoiding my assignments. I suppose photography is the one thing that I’ve been able to maintain relative focus.
Did you go to school to become a photographer or morph into that field from something else? Drawing had been my primary interest for most of my childhood, but at the age of ten I was introduced to digital illustration when a family friend installed a British vector program on our home computer, and I was hooked! I progressively became interested in graphic design, and then digital painting, then concept illustration. I enrolled at SAIC to explore traditional painting, drawing & sculpting, then transferred to CCAD in Columbus, Ohio to pursue digital illustration. In high-school, I began exploring digital photography with a point and shoot. In college, I bought my first DSLR and started experimenting outside of class. I eventually started getting photography work and used my illustration background to jumpstart a new focus. I still have an interest in those other pursuits, but photography seems to have taken over!
What made you choose to focus on landscape photography? As with most of my direction in life, it wasn’t a particular decision as much as simply realizing one day that this is a thing that I’ve really been enjoying. Through various factors I’ve gone through stages of pushing and pulling in different directions, mostly “this is what I should do,” or “this is what I feel I’m expected to do,” and I’m thankful each time I’ve snapped out of it and done the things that interest me most… I’m lucky to have had supportive voices around me.
When did you know that you could make a living in this industry?Around the same time, I decided to end my formal education in 2007. I was starting to get consistently paid to shoot or assist and I realized that I was learning more getting paid than I was paying to learn; I still sometimes think, “How am I actually making a living doing this?”
Looking at a majority of images on your website it seems that you favor cloudy conditions for shooting. What are the ideal conditions for your style of shooting? Well, you nailed it. I’ve noticed a preference to have a “roof” on my images, something that makes me feel like I can explore any direction but “out.” Clouds are a helpful tool in promoting this sense of introspection. I do try and challenge these notions, nevertheless.
What happens when you are planning to shoot and the day is sunny and clear? Sunny days scare me (photographically), and I’ve only recently begun finding techniques and subject matter from which to approach them. I’ve had the ambitions of solving this problem for a number of years, and I don’t think I’m there yet. My Southwest gallery benefits from the expectations of clear skies, and therefore they are a little easier to succeed at. The challenge for me has been to solve the ‘Midwest Summer’ where things seem all blue and green (postcard colors). I believe I have benefited from being exposed to the work of Wolf Kahn a number of years ago. His style may not suit everyone, but his work (along with the teaching style of one of my college painting professors, Ernie Viveiros) subconsciously built a different relationship with colors and I began seeing the palette that hides behind every hue. This exposure influences a lot of my post-production color-grading, sometimes softening the obvious and enhancing the subtle. That’s where I’m at currently, we’ll see where that takes me.
You have a gallery of cloud shots that all appear to have come from being above the clouds. Did you go up in a private plane to get these shots or were they just taken from the window seat of a commercial flight? I had a client for a number of years that sent me across the country 26 out of the 52 weekends of the year, so I was frequently on a plane in the wee-hours of the morning. I don’t like sleeping on planes which is very beneficial to evolving this particular portfolio. It is extremely challenging shooting quality work out of two layers of greasy, muffed-up, shatter resistant plexiglass, so the urge to shoot out of an open fuselage is very real, but I haven’t had that opportunity yet. The other challenge of commercial airline photography is that you spend most of your time at 39,000 ft or above, which usually puts you above the interesting cloud layers and leaves you with a boring fractal “ground,” flat horizon and clear blue skies. As such, many of my images could only be shot well after the captain advised us to turn off all electronics as we rose or plummeted between all the wonderful levels of cloudscapes. Thankfully that arbitrary rule is quickly being written out of regulation
Most of the images on your site are in a panoramic layout. What format camera do you use for shooting? I shoot with a Nikon D800e using a pano head. I typically am shooting 3-5 horizontal frames to stitch together…. even when I’m flying!
How much work is done in post-production to get the images to where you want them as a finished product? I maintain that post-production is as important as any other aspect of photography. As such I am usually not happy with how the lab-engineers have profiled my colors! My approach could be described as impressionistic, with the attempt to recreate what it felt like to be me, there, at that specific time. Art is an empathetic discipline, and if the viewer can feel what you felt during those moments you’re probably doing a decent job. ‘Proper’ white balance and lab-conditioned contrast rarely seem to do that for me. I think it would help most photographers not to take pride in that title and instead think of themselves as artists first, photographers last.
In terms of landscape shots are you just shooting things as you see them or do you first find a location you like and then come back when shooting conditions are optimal for your style? Part of the fun for me is working with what I’ve got. I like to road-trip, explore and see what I can find. Photography gives me an excuse to do this. I wouldn’t have as much fun going on a weekend trip to sit in the same spot and wait for the perfect shot (though props to those that do, we all benefit from it). I have a lot of fun taking all of the back-roads and weird hikes and seeing what I can find and capturing it in a way I couldn’t plan for. I learn a lot that way. Golden light is great, but so is producing a good shot at high-noon when you thought that was impossible.
What locations are on your photographic bucket list? I’m very attracted to the Northern latitudes, I like harsh environments. I would love to take a couple months and explore the hell out of Northern Russia, but that’s a trip I’m not even sure how to start thinking about. Rural China and Mongolia fall into similar categories. It seems like there would be so much more there than is typically documented… it excites me to think about. In the more immediate future I’m planning a trip to Iceland 2016, and New Zealand the year after with lots of smaller trips in-between. It’s always very exciting to think about.
If you could only shoot one region for the rest of your career where would it be and why? The most beautiful place I have ever been is Norway. It is really hard to imagine a more beautiful country… but I still have a lot to see.
Do you always carry your camera when you are traveling? The only times I will go without a camera is when I am traveling with a group for a unique reason (not very often.) I will then resolve/challenge myself to enjoy the experience without being too worried about “that shot.” It’s hard, but it can be enjoyable…. I mean, I guess some people do that all of the time!
How often do you see a perfect shot that you can’t capture because you left the camera behind? Not very often. I do, however, often pass up a shot that I feel won’t be good only to regret not trying later. My partner, whom almost always travels with me these days, has helped to keep me from doing this by giving me a reason to stop and enjoy a moment even if the shot may not turn out great. It’s been an interesting evolution of my traveling style.
Has there ever been a scene that would have made an unbelievable image when you didn’t have your camera handy? I was traveling through Ecuador when we found ourselves in the evening on a high-mountain pass on a very narrow dirt road in the middle of a cloud forest. The light was dripping through the air over-top the lower mountains and all I had was an instant camera (this was before I owned a camera). I wound and snapped the shot. When I had those developed I never found it flipping through the prints. It has always haunted me like a dream that didn’t happen.
What element of the photographic industry do you find most challenging? Agencies creating vanilla imagery to maintain pretty balance sheets.
What are the pieces of camera gear you can’t live without? Probably a simple polarizer. Being able to subtly change the quality of light reaching your sensor is more powerful than I think is usually given credit. The science behind them still impresses me.
Also, my iPhone. I frequently like what I shoot on my phone more than my fancy camera. I credit this to the ability to intuitively take the shot. Being pinned to a tripod and twisting knobs and levers to frame your shot can sometimes blind you from the reason you stopped in the first place.
Why did you choose Photo Folio for your website? After a trial phase with a hand-picked selection of companies, Photo Folio was extremely responsive to my needs. Having my wide-format shots displayed large and quickly was essential as well, and I am very happy with how my site performs, how good it looks, and how easy it is to keep current. I’ve had a personal website for about ten years, and this is the first time I’ve ever felt that it’s been more than an embarrassing relic of my past work. Previously I had dreaded anyone visiting my site because of how outdated it was. Now I am very proud and confident with the direction it is going and happy with my choices.
The high-octane action images that make our jaws drop aren’t shot from the safety of an armchair. Photographer Michael Clark tells us what it takes to get the great shots and why he couldn’t be happier pushing the envelope.
“I have used up six or seven of my nine lives. The most intense near-death experience I have ever had was when my rope got cut…..”
You were originally a physicist. How did you make the transition from physicist to photographer? It was all because of my obsession with climbing. My last semester in college, I took a rock climbing course through the University of Texas at Austin. I also met a friend who was a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) instructor. He was looking for a partner to go climbing in Hueco Tanks, Texas for spring break that year and he was nice enough to take on a neophyte. Climbing soon became an obsession and I ended up turning down job offers in Physics to go climbing. I only ended up working as a physicist for a year before climbing took over my life. It was climbing that brought me back to photography, at first to record the amazing places I traveled to and later to inspire others.
How did you acquire your photography skills? My education in photography came via a teacher in middle school who was kind enough to take me under his wing and teach me the basics. From then on I was self-taught, save for the occasional photo workshop.
What elements from your career in physics have translated well to the field of photography? My physics education taught me how to solve problems and to this day that is probably the most valuable asset I have as a photographer – Physics taught me that with enough time I could basically solve any problem, within reason. I also worked on the same chips that are in modern cameras and helped build the world’s first ultra-low temperature Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM) that could electronically image individual atoms on the surface of the substrate (i.e. the chip). That gives me a fairly unique understanding of how modern digital cameras work.
Do you remember the first paid project that made you realize photography could be a legitimate career? It was on a trip in France that I first thought I could make a living from my photography. I was photographing Toni Lamprecht, a world class German climber, in Buoux, France. When I returned home I made a deal with myself: if I could get my first three submissions published I would make a go of photography as a career. I sent my best work to Outdoor Photographer, Climbing and Rock and Ice. All three submissions were published within a few months. Looking back, it still shocks me to this day. It took five more years to get another image published in Outdoor Photographer. Those first three published submissions, referenced above, let me know that I could make some money as a photographer. I knew from the outset of my career that it was going to be a long road to make a living, but being a “dirtbag” climber I also knew how to live cheaply and live a lifestyle that was committed and focused. As far as that first paid project, I shot on spec for the first three years and started getting assignments at the end of the third year. It was a series of assignments with the climbing magazines Rock and Ice and Climbing, as well several climbing companies like Black Diamond, Patagonia and others, that really helped me get established. From there, I went on to shoot some big assignments for Men’s Journal, Sports Illustrated and several other magazines. My big break into the commercial side of things was when Adobe called and asked me to shoot images for the first version of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom before anyone had ever heard of it.
You have had countless images published over the years. Do you still get excited seeing your work show up? I do still get excited when images are published, especially if there are published by new clients or in a unique publication. These days it seems like half my work or more is published online more than it is in print, but that is just the way it is these days. I get really excited when an assignment takes me somewhere new or some place that I love.
You have built a reputation as one of the industries top action sports photographers, traveling the world to capture the world’s best athletes in remote locations. Do you think you could have survived a career in the physics lab? That is a hard question to answer. For sure, I could have survived in physics. I probably wouldn’t be as fit as I am today, or as happy, but I could have done it. I miss the math (how many times do you hear that statement?) and the mental gymnastics that physics provided. The flipside is that when I am out in a wild, remote and amazing landscape, working with the world’s best athletes and getting to see some of the most remote corners of the globe, I have to pinch myself. I am incredibly privileged to see what I have seen and to do what I do. I don’t take that for granted. I hustle every single day to make sure this whole thing continues.
You have a massive range of work from portraits to landscapes and architecture to action. Does this huge variety help keep you fresh or does it become taxing to try and do them all at a world class level? I realized after five or six years that I would be broke the rest of my life if I didn’t start shooting other sports besides climbing. At that point, I branched out into mountain biking and whitewater kayaking and kept pushing into other sports to round out my portfolio. It was only after ten or twelve years that I realized I was one of a very few photographers worldwide that shot all of the adventure sports. I suppose I was always looking for something new and different to shoot. I am still looking to shoot as wide a variety of sports as I can and even though I live in New Mexico, I shoot a lot of big wave surfing all over the world. I would definitely say that I am not world class in the architecture and portrait genres. I have good friends that are world-class in those genres, like Andrew Eccles. But I continually keep pushing my portraits to be better and they have come a long, long ways since those early days. My lighting skills are finally getting to the point where I can get really creative and make some unique portraits.In fact, Rob Haggart of APhotoFolio was instrumental in my portraiture photography. I met with him every once in a while when he was the Photo Editor at Outside magazine back in the early 2000s. Rob told me, “You adventure photographers couldn’t light your way out of a paper bag!” and he was right. Back in the film days none of us adventure photographers shot with flash or strobes very often. He also told me to “Go out and buy a Hasselblad and some lighting gear and learn how to shoot a decent portrait and you will be way more valuable to me and every other photo editor.” He was right. It was excellent advice. [Thanks Rob!] I went out and got a Hasselblad and some lights a few months later and the process began and still continues to this day.
As far as keeping it fresh, my clients are always asking me to shoot a wide variety of action sports – and many of them want portraits of the athletes to go along with the action shots. Red Bull in particular is pushing the envelope in so many ways and they ask their photographers to think big and push the envelope creatively. Hence, the drive I have to really create top-notch images in a variety of genres is partly from the clients I work with and partly my own drive, which is insatiable.
Your action shots include rock/ice climbing, surfing, kayaking and B.A.S.E. jumping. Which of these sports is closest to your heart? Since I started out as a climber, anything related to climbing is a natural fit for me. Surfing is a relatively new sport since I have only been shooting it for the last seven years or so, but it seems very similar in terms of the lifestyle to climbing. [Swimming out at Pipeline is perhaps the scariest thing I have ever done – my surf buddies think rock climbing is completely insane so it all comes down to what you are comfortable with.] B.A.S.E jumping and wingsuit flying are also some of my favorites to shoot and as the world’s most dangerous sport these disciplines fascinate me to no end.
If you could only shoot one sport what would you choose? Luckily, I don’t have to make that choice, but if I did it would be climbing in all its forms. The mountains call to me…
Do you ever wish you were on the other side of the lens being the one captured in the moment? I sometimes wish I could be doing the activities I am photographing but I don’t have the skills for all of them. I am a decent climber, cyclist and skier, but I am nowhere near as talented as the athletes I work with. I probably get more excited creating images of the sports I shoot than I do when I am participating in them – and often, documenting the action requires me to be a participant. Ice climbing is perhaps my favorite sport. It is tough for me to put down the ice axes and actually shoot images instead of climbing. When I photograph climbing I have a strict rule that I don’t climb unless I have to climb to get into position. Otherwise, I will ditch the cameras and just start climbing.
Your workspace is harsh environments ranging from blistering heat to frigid winter conditions. Do you find it extra challenging to shoot in these conditions? I am used to rolling with whatever comes my way and I have a gear closet that can outfit me for just about anything anywhere. I was in the Amazon earlier this year on a documentary film project with recently contacted indigenous tribes in Brazil. It was 108 °F and 100% humidity the whole time. The bugs were out of control. I came home with a parasite. There were 50 ways to die and that was before you even got out of your hammock! I don’t do well in crazy humid conditions like that, but I don’t really know anyone that does. We were soaked from head to toe with sweat the entire time we were down there. Compared to that, -40 °F on a glacier somewhere is a cakewalk. I love the cold. The cameras seem to be able to deal with anything these days. I have never really had issues in super hot or super cold environments.
What sport has proven the most challenging to shoot? Wingsuit BASE jumping and BASE jumping in general are very difficult to capture as you only have a second before the athletes are just a dot in the sky. Mounting cameras on the jumpers results in the best images but that isn’t always possible. Careful planning is required to get decent images and you have to make sure everything is dialed in before they jump. In order to capture action sport athletes in their element, you too are usually in that same element.
What is the scariest situation you have been in when capturing a shot? I have used up six or seven of my nine lives. The most intense near death experience I have ever had was when my rope got cut down to two strands of the core (out of 7) on an assignment for Climbing magazine. You can read the story of that experience on my website. Every time I tell the story of my rope getting cut, I get shaky and a bit out of sorts – so I try not to tell it that often. I have also fallen into quicksand, been hit by a beach-ball sized rock falling off a 450-foot cliff, been hit by a car while training on my road bike, went hypothermic in the Beagle channel at the bottom of South America, and I have been caught in an avalanche. If you document adventures, you build up a few adventure tales of your own.
How do you coordinate shooting with top athletes to keep them from pushing beyond their “comfort zone” when trying get great shots? On some assignments, as with Red Bull, that is their job and they know what they have to do before we even start. I always have a group discussion with the athletes at the start of any shoot and discuss with them what is possible to do safely. If it’s a portfolio shoot then I ask them to push it but only to the point where they are safe and comfortable. For most of the athletes I work with, they are already at such a high level that they just have to do what they do and it looks extreme.
Is there any athlete you have worked with that has simply blown your mind with their skill set? There are lots of athletes that have blown my mind with their abilities. The entire Red Bull Air Force is composed of “super-human” beings if you ask me. I have seen climbers pull up on ridiculously small holds. I once saw a climber do five one-arm pull ups off his pinkie finger. The downhill mountain bikers are also incredible as are the top whitewater kayakers. And big wave surfers are unbelievably skilled. Every adventure sport these days has been pushed to mind-blowing levels, which is why it is so exciting to be able to work with these athletes and create images with them. As an athlete myself, who has wrangled with fear, desire and doubt, it is an incredible thing to spend time with athletes from so many genres and see and hear how they are progressing in their sport. In many ways for me, the images are just the icing on the cake – but they are obviously important for my career and the athletes I work with as well.
You do a lot of location lighting in your action sports photography. Do you have a “go-to” way you like to light things outdoors or are you constantly looking for new ways to shoot? I vary my lighting according to the sport and the scene. It’s never the same from shoot to shoot. I have been playing a lot with Hypersync flash technology over the last few years and that is helping to take adventure sports photography to the next level. Elinchrom just announced their Hi-Sync transmitters that will help me take lighting to an even higher level (and already is) for adventure sports. Since lighting is more difficult than just shooting with available light it sets my work apart from many of the other adventure photographers. I am constantly pushing the envelope in terms of artificial lighting. It is very exciting to have so much new technology at our disposal these days, especially on the lighting front where Elinchrom is making some big waves.
You have some great landscape images. Do you find it relaxing to shoot when you can just focus on the surroundings without having to incorporate an athlete in motion? I shoot landscapes for my sanity. Just me and mother nature, out there at the crack o’ dawn or at sunset. Many of my adventure sports images are basically landscape images with an athlete in them. I have always loved landscape photography.
Looks like you are extremely busy with global travels for shots, teaching workshops, creating a newsletter and publishing photography books. Do you ever have time to truly unwind? I do have time to unwind. I have to take time to relax. I can’t stay creative if I am constantly traveling so down time is key to my creative process and especially for coming up with ideas that will help push the envelope. There are certainly stretches where I am traveling non-stop for a few months (like right now) but that is hard to sustain for more than two or three months.
Are you able to go do action sports for yourself and leave the camera behind? I do go climbing with friends on my own and without a camera. I also train by riding my road bike as much as possible in the summer and fall. In the winter, I go skiing as often as possible and make sure I get out hiking for turns. I have sea kayaked, whitewater kayaked and have participated in quite a few adventure sports but climbing, cycling and skiing are my main sports. If I had to say my favorite, it would definitely be ice climbing.
What has inspired you to write so many great tell-all photography books? All of my books grew out of my Newsletter, which Rob featured on APhotoEditor years ago. It is still going strong and goes out to over 8,000 people. As for the books, I was asked to write the two printed books. My digital workflow e-book, entitled A Professional Photographer’s Workflow: Using Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, was originally crafted after I shot the first Lightroom assignment way back in 2006. Because I had some insider knowledge, I thought I would share it in the form of an e-book and that proved to be a huge success. I just recently, a month ago, revamped the entire digital workflow e-book so it is up to date. Folks can find it on my website (see the link above). I wrote the first printed book on Adventure Photography because it seemed like a novel thing to do. I wrote the second one, Exposed: Inside the Life and Images of a Pro Photographer, because the first book was such a great marketing piece. They were both torturous to write. But they were also great for my career and helped me get to where I am now.
What is the one piece of camera equipment you simply can’t live without? Aside from my cameras, my main three go to lenses are key to everything I shoot. Those include the 14-24, 24-70 and 70-200 f/2.8 Nikkor zooms. Also, in the last month I have been testing the brand-new Elinchrom Skyport Plus HS transceiver that controls my strobes and allows me to shoot at 1/8000th second with flash, which has opened up an entirely new world of possibilities.
You are fortunate to have an amazing job and travel to incredible places, but it is still very much a job. What do you say to people that think you are just on a year-round vacation? I wrote an entire book on this topic, trying to strip away some of the glamour people seem to associate with pro adventure photographers. In the book Exposed, I made a graph showing the reality of the job for a pro photographer. Occasionally, when I am traveling somewhere exotic (like Tahiti) everyone I tell asks if they can carry my bags. What they don’t realize is that I spent five days on a boat for 13 hours each day going up and over the shoulder of huge waves and could barely sit down when I got on the flight home. It wasn’t a vacation. I am a baggage handler, a professional traveler, the marketing guy, the photographer and everything else. I have to work my ass off just to get into position and often with a ridiculous amount of gear. Then the stars have to align for the images to actually happen. If I don’t come back with stunning work then I’ll never be hired again by that client and potentially others. The pressure is often quite stressful, especially when the budgets are huge. You have to come up with great images on command in less than ideal circumstances. That is the job. That is why they hire a pro. The athletes who I have worked with are often amazed at how far I will go to get the image. )
Your images are loaded with power and energy. How do you harness this power in a frozen moment? When shooting the action, I am looking for that peak moment and I think through the images I want to get before the shoot. A big part of that process is thinking about how I can convey to the viewer not just what is happening visually but how it feels to be that athlete. I want the viewer to have a sense of the exposure, risk, talent, and bravado on display at the moment the athlete goes for it.
Why did you choose a Photo Folio for your website? Originally, the huge images that loaded wicked fast were the big draw for me. My website at the time needed a major overhaul and I noticed quite a few APhotoFolio sites that looked amazing. The interface was also relatively easy to manipulate so I could build a site that looked stellar and performed very well. My first APhotoFolio site was a Flash design way back in 2010. Once I made the switch my career took off in a whole new way, not just because of the site but as a result of years and years of hard work and getting all my marketing ducks in a row at the same time that I launched the new website. In 2013, I updated to the Design X version and it has been awesome. In the five years I have been with APhotoFolio my website has won two PDN Photo Annual awards. I’d say it has worked out quite well.
This is interview #5 in our series designed to showcase some of the talented clients in the Photo Folio family.
Steve Bronstein is a legend in the field of advertising photography. He is the photographer behind the famous Absolut Vodka advertising campaign which ran for more than 25 years. Steve has taken the time to share thoughts on the creative process of his photography, the Absolut Vodka campaign, and how the industry has changed over the years.
What was your first paid shoot? I do remember… an ad for Mount Gay rum. Straightforward beauty shot, but still a big deal to me at the time, as my first national ad.
Did you aspire to be an advertising photographer from the beginning? I went through a photojournalism program in college, but about halfway through I realized that studio work was a better fit for me.
All of your work has a creative element. Are you the creative mind behind these shots or do they come from ad agencies/art directors? It depends…if it is an advertising assignment, sometimes there is a lot of input, sometimes not. Sometimes it’s more about figuring a way to execute the project in a timely, affordable manner. Ad agencies frequently don’t have a good hold on the best way to approach a project from either the standpoint of budget or schedule.
How much collaboration goes into the process of what you do? It can be significant…model making (I work a lot with Prop Art in New York), stylists, home economists, etc.
You have had an incredibly long run in this business. What keeps you excited about shooting? It is always interesting to learn about whatever new business/product you are working on and to see all the accompanying dynamics at play. Plus, I still enjoy the problem-solving aspects of what I do. Recently I was involved with the launch of some new products for Keurig/Green Mountain, which was quite interesting. I’ve shot all sorts of computers and consumer electronics that have come and gone, and a lot of products before they really caught on, from the Sony Walkman to the Nintendo Game Boy. Guess it shows my age a little bit.
You are the photographer behind the famous Absolut Vodka campaign. How did that opportunity present itself? I was just starting out and my agent at the time was friends with an art director at TBWA, who was working on the Absolut campaign. Keep in mind that Absolut was not a well-known brand at that time. He had hired another photographer at the time, and he was not pleased with the results (The Absolut bottle had a reputation for being tough to shoot). I took a different tack, and it was well received. That was the beginning of the Absolut campaign, and I shot for them for 25 years. It’s pretty remarkable in the advertising world.
Are there any particular shots from the Absolut campaign that really stand out as favorites? I like the executions that broke new ground, or were challenging. Remember that most of these were well before the age of Photoshop. For ABSOLUT ATTRACTION, I figured out a way to precisely align a progression of 4 bent Martini glasses to one piece of film. Then there was the segue into miniature sets, which was both fun and challenging. The LA, Miami, Rosebud, Hamptons are a few of my favorites. These were all done largely or exclusively in miniature. Some of the cinematic series (Rosebud/Psycho) are also favorites…they make you think a little. I think Absolut really changed advertising.
What Absolut image was especially challenging to shoot/capture? ABSOLUT HAMPTONS (though also used for a variety of other beach towns) was particularly satisfying. It’s all miniature, built in forced perspective. The sky is a painted backdrop, and the background ocean is rippled dyed aluminum foil. It took up most of my studio. Not every material lends itself to a miniature approach, but in this particular execution the elements were such that they all worked very well.
Many of your images are done with models and incredibly precise scaling. Were you into models growing up? Not particularly…I was more the kid who would take something apart and then could not put it back together.
So much of what you have done in the past with models and props is now being done with CGI software. How do you think they compare in the finished product? There is certainly great CGI out there if you hire the right company, but there are also a lot of poorly done GCI. Miniatures, even in features, are still a viable tool. It’s a question of using it correctly. “Good” CGI can also be very expensive and take a long time.
It looks like some of these miniature shots are extremely intricate. Is working with scale models a tedious process? It’s more about the lead time to build them. Shooting them is not particularly time-consuming Most projects are a pre-light day and a shoot day, plus the pre-production.
It seems that many of today’s studio photographers spend 10% of their time setting up the shot and 90% of their time editing/tweaking the image in post for the desired result. How would you define your time split? That’s because they have too much time on their hands…I’m not any different. Certainly it is easier to spend time tweaking your images. I try and shoot so I have less to do in post, plus I don’t always do my own. If it’s something relatively straightforward I will, but in general I think the professional retoucher who does it 24/7 every day is going to have more tricks up his sleeve than I do, particularly in challenging circumstances. I’d rather be in the position of supervising him.
How has the move to digital from film changed your process? Quite a bit…and on a certain level, I’m nostalgic for film. I used to shoot 8 x 10 mostly. You would need the stage space to accommodate multiple set-ups since you were always waiting for the lab and approvals (Inevitably if you struck a set before seeing the film, there would be a lab accident or the client would have an issue). Sets sometimes stayed up for days, so you needed a lot of space and loads of cameras, grip and lighting equipment. Working with big view cameras, you would need huge f-stops, which made shooting cumbersome. Frequently had to pop the strobes multiple times, bracket exposures, deal with sheet film, and worry about the camera moving or the building shaking….(hey, NYC has subways!). It was much more time consuming than digital. That said, you had the satisfaction, of seeing the incredible detail of an unforgiving 8 x 10 transparency, still warm from the lab on your lightbox, 90 minutes after your shoot.
Digital changed all this…. suddenly you compete with the entire world, not just your backyard. You can do equally good work, actually better work because you don’t have to get it all in one shot. Still I’d like to think that film, shaped my sensibilities in terms of how to approach a project, and made me a better photographer. I think “film”, but shoot digital.
How do you come up with the ideas for the images in your “conceptual” gallery? I don’t have a set process… ideas just come to me. It might relate to something going on in my life or in the news. Some of those images are from assignments as well.
The images in the “Frozen Moments” gallery have so many elements to coordinate? How many takes does it require to capture the frames you need to build the finished image we see? In that category, some of the images I got in one shot because most of the action is rigged. For a majority of the images involving live action, there are usually at least four or five significant separate captures. Many of these images also utilize specialized short duration strobes and some sort of triggering device as well.
What is the perfect Steven Bronstein day look like? A balance…some time outside, I bike and hike, and snowboard in the winter. Some time with my family, and some work time as well. I don’t live in NYC anymore. I’m just finishing a small studio, steps from my home. I can work here, or for bigger projects, be an easy day trip into New York.
Why did you choose a Photo Folio for your website? It was easy. Nobody else makes anything else that comes close. There is tremendous flexibility in the way you present yourself, and it is fast, reliable, and reasonably priced. Plus the interface is great, and you don’t have to be a computer geek to figure it out.