Nitin Vadukul

Posted on: June 3rd, 2007 by: Zack Seckler

Written by Lloyd Wise
Edited by Justin Hertog
Diagrams by Halina Steiner

Nitin Vadukul is a leading commercial photographer, filmmaker, and an avid dreamer. Claiming to “specialize in diversity,” Vadukul has shot portraits of A-list celebrities and advertising campaigns for major international corporations, his work landing in the pages of publications as varied as Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Vogue. A tripFinal image through his online portfolio reveals the scope of his work: everything from a grainy, high-contrast photo of Tim Roth jumping off the hood of a bombed-out car in an urban ghetto to high-gloss campaigns for Nike, Hewlett-Packard, and New Balance. Vadukul has worked as a photographer for most of his life, beginning his career as an apprentice at a London advertising studio at the young age of 13 and starting to freelance professionally at 19. He has been shooting for ad agencies, record labels and magazines ever since, relocating to New York City in 1994 where he now works.

His best ideas, Vadukul insists, come from dreams—the inspiration for our featured image “Stealth.” In it, an antique pilot’s helmet sits on a table in a dark room, the visor emitting a bright glare as the breathing tube exhales a whirling cloud of smoke. From the dense center of the haze, a steaming human skull begins to take form. Dreary and gothic, “Stealth” is part of a larger series titled The Art of War, which seeks to expose the “sinister and surreal world of the warrior.”

When lighting the shoot, Vadukul wanted to give it “a sense of drama and mystery, hence a Vapor diagramdark motive but with subtle tones for detail.” The helmet’s exterior was illuminated with two Profoto heads and 7a packs at a distance of three feet. To achieve the glow from behind the visor, Vadukul drilled a hole through the table and positioned a light inside. Vadukul positioned the camera, a Deardorff 8 x10 equipped with 165mm Super Angulon Schneider lens, four feet from the helmet. Exposure was f45 at 125th of a second on Kodak 160 VC film. The background was created especially for this image and was built to evoke the look and feel of an asylum.

The vapor was photographed separately using one Profoto head with a standard reflector positioned ten feet above and behind the subject against a black background. The camera was seven feet from the subject. No real skull was photographed—one was used only as a reference in postproduction. To get the whorls of smoke right, Vadukul had to experiment: he settled on a blend of several different types, finding that incense, a smoke machine, and burning cottonwood doused with water worked best. “As a painter looks at his subjects and paints, we looked atHelmet diagram the skull and painted with vapors.“

The helmet and smoke were combined in an arduous process of post-production. Vadukul first made a rough low-res file of possible variations on the final image and gave this to his retoucher to use as a guide. Vadukul and his retoucher took a total of four months to achieve the perfect balance “because I like to study the image over time to be at peace with it.” Vadukul has destroyed images of his works in process, letting only the final image stand to speak for itself.

 

Vadukul spoke with our Editor Zack Seckler about his philosophy toward his art and success:

TFS: How did you come up with the idea for your Art of War Series?

Vadukul: I guess how the story begins, sometimes my work actually happens, usually when I’m sleeping, or I’m day dreaming, or just not listening to somebody, and I go off on another tangent, which, I’m not trying to be rude or anything, but sometimes conversations are not interesting, and I go off on another planet. This particular image, I had this idea, this vision. It comes from cinematography, because I love film. Sometimes my ideas are born from moving images or a story. This particular image was actually born form an idea of a museum that contains archived pieces of warfare. This is actually a moment in the evening where everyone has gone home and everything just ignites and comes back to life and the spirit of this fighter pilot just pops out of that helmet for a short while but no one ever sees it. So it was a little story that was going on in my head when I was sleeping and this was the image that I came up with. I just loved the idea that you generally don’t see who that person is. In fact, in warfare, in aerial combat, the pilots never see each other. I love the idea of not what that pilot looks like, but the spirit of that pilot inside. There is something very evil, something sinister. I don’t know, it’s just something really passive, it’s my interpretation of that.

TFS: Why is the theme of warfare so important to you?

Vadukul: I don’t think anybody really likes war. Nobody likes killing or fighting. But there are different types of fights in life. We are battling different things in different forms. I love the design of everything to do with the military. I love the graphics and all that stuff. But the ‘Art of War’ has no blood and gore. I’ve taken portraits of these warriors–I call them warriors–set in their own bizarre worlds. It’s a surreal representation of what I think these characters may be experiencing. It’s got a lot to do with them showing up in places where they’ve died in combat and being reborn in this surreal place before they become pilots and go through the whole reincarnation process.
In war you’ve got combat and in real life you’ve got combat in some other form or manner. Every day you wake up and there are things that you have to just do. There are things you have to attack. To get through life you have to go through it. You can’t sit there and do nothing. You’ve got to move mentally and physically to evolve. Your intelligence and sensitivity become more powerful. Progression should lead you to a higher point every day of your life. Regression is not a good thing. I’ve been doing this since I was sixteen, this war stuff. I’ve always had a fascination for this. It’s only in the last two years that something clicked–don’t ask me what it is–it was always there. Every single image kind of has a story behind it. There was no conscious decision to choose this to represent philosophical or mental battles that we face every day, some of which are good and some of which are bad. It may look like it’s conscious, but it’s actually totally subconscious.

TFS: Do you think Art of Warfare the series represents not just warfare but also the battles that people face within themselves?

Vadukul: In my mind it does. In that way it’s so personal. That’s what art is: it’s whatever you make of it. My explanations go much deeper than what ‘The Art of War’ is on the surface. I’m very interested in the layers that we all have. We all have layers–hundreds of thousands of them. There are a lot of layers of meaning behind these images, like how do you interpret a dream?

TFS: You are unique in the sense that you shoot a broad range of subject matter in varying styles. It’s interesting to me as a photographer because ever since day one people say that you have to specialize. How have you succeeded as a photographer without specializing?

Vadukul: How do you measure success? Do you measure success by quantity? Do you measure it by fame? Do you measure it by money? What is it, you know? I think success in this case was actually getting it through those different commercial subject matters, like if it was music, or advertising, or if it was a live record… fashion, etc. The thing is, it all comes down to sticking close to what you want to do, and not really giving in too much. All this stuff… like money, all these things, whatever you want to do, you have to, as I tell you, you have to live, and eat, and survive. What tends to happen when you’ve got such a diverse range of styles or a very personal point of view, people get very exited or attracted by it. Most of the time the work they’re actually doing isn’t really that interesting. So it’s quite mundane. When they see something that is pretty exciting, they say “how could I apply this to this product, or to this idea?” Sometimes you actually get inundated, like “this one would like to work on this campaign, how would you approach it? What work can you come up with, ideas to make this breathe?” You know, it’s pretty exciting in doing it your way. Now that’s very, very rare. So, you know, it’s nice when you’re able to. When you’re not, that’s when you have to kick back on your personal work … you must keep that going, you know?

TFS: As far as marketing goes, do you have separate books for different styles or do you put everything together in one book?

Vadukul: There is a general book, and there are books that we make up, actually kind of tailored for a specific project. You have to be really quick on how you put that together. Sometimes the client won’t tell you what the job is, they just want to see a book, so you give them a general book. Sometimes they’ll call back and say, “do you have something more specific this?” Of course you say, “yes, or course we have,” and you provide it. My reply today is, I don’t do it, and only because you can do it after you specialize. After you specialize, then you can go completely mad and do what ever you want.

TFS: How did you avoid becoming a specialist?

Vadukul: I did it the other way around. I specialized in diversity and basically I’m not really trying to specialize in anything right now. Once you’ve done that you set your goal, your identity, your ground, and that’s what people remember you for, which is a great thing. You tend to get put up for the most creative jobs, because jobs that aren’t so creative, quite simple, the clients tend to get quite scared, they don’t know what you’re going to do, even though you’re not going to come back with a picture that is not what they are expecting, you know what I’m saying? They’re terrified, and they really don’t know, so that fear is not a good thing to have around. The only advantage from my pint of view is that I’ve retained an extremely high level of integrity about what I do. I haven’t really sold out, you know, I have to say, to get my head in the door, and then come back and say, OK, now what I want to try to become is this, which is fine. I’ve just always been like that. I do what I do and that’s what I do, if you want me to do this I can do that too. If you want me to shoot a very simple portrait I’ll shoot a simple portrait and it will be a really great portrait. That really brings you into an arena of creatives that I guess in some respect is on par with your level, you know? You’re not working with somebody who is very insecure and terrified to use you. Or not really knowing how to. The best jobs that I’ve ever worked with are where the creative director says “I just want your best shot – give me a great image.” Go and shoot something that’s really going to knock me off my chair. That’s the brief – go out and make a great image. When you look at images shot by Penn, Avedon, etc., you know that they are really strong images. They’ve gone in there with a 35 mm camera and armed with a great eye, and see things. So, diversity is a great thing, I believe, because you explore things you never would have really explored. At the same time it’s always very important to stick close to what you’re really good at. Don’t try to be a jack of all trades, which is certainly not my intention. It’s just that I love approaching everything. If you give me a flower, I’ll go shoot a flower. It doesn’t really matter, I’m interested in everything. As I said, traveling from ordinary to extraordinary, that’s a great philosophy to have. How can you make this thing that’s been seen a million times by somebody look like something you’ve never seen before?

Andreas Smetana

Posted on: June 3rd, 2007 by: Zack Seckler

Written by Lloyd Wise
Edited by Justin Hertog
Diagrams by Halina Steiner

 

Final image

When he’s not sailing off the coast of Australia, Andreas Smetana – who was named “Advertising Photographer of the Year” in 2006 and 2007 by AdNews and Capture magazines – is in his studio planning projects and solving problems. Having shot for high-powered clients such as Adidas, IBM, and Pepsi, Smetana thrives on the mental grunt-work of carefully planning each stage of a shoot before he executes it. “That’s what I like about my job–it’s made out of thousands of little decisions” he says, “when I work on a job I like to think through the process and then re-think it to find a way of shooting it in a different direction from my first thought.” Eschewing any specific style, Smetana’s daring attitude and willingness to think ahead has enabled him to generate a diverse profile of powerful, striking, imagery. Look no further than our Featured Image, which was recently shot for Toyota. This fantastical, eerie, photograph of a man with an Australian Rules football trailing a ribbon of grappling defensemen took a lot of thought and some serious innovation.

Talent on set

“The shot was technically very difficult,” he says, “the ‘grips’ needed to look real, so there was lots to think about and plan.” To any observers, the setup might have looked a bit surreal: a trampoline was placed next to a mattress and muscled athletes were asked, one by one, to jump into the air and belly flop while clutching a piece of a mannequin’s body. Smetana shot the talent in the sequence in which they appear, beginning with the ball carrier on the left, building the image as he went. For the cross-section of football field at the bottom of the image, Smetana dragged a 9 x 4 meter square of sod into the studio and photographed it usingTalent with mannequin leg front, back, and side lighting to create the stadium effect he was after. The earth below the grass was photographed separately using a large aquarium full of roots and dirt. In order to prevent any reflections from the glass of the aquarium he lit the dirt using a single light source equipped with a normal reflector. The background was created in post. Ample thought was given to lighting, as it allowed him to avoid retouching techniques that have,Overhead view in his view, created a “world-wide genre of work with a strong ‘plastic’ look.” Seeking a “feeling of realness” as well as the look of stadium lighting, Smetana opted for simplicity: “direct light and mainly normal reflectors.” The talent was lit from each corner of the mattress using four standard heads each powered by their own 3000 watt/second Elinchrom power pack at heights varying from 4.6′ to 20′. Two additional heads were suspended from booms at a height of about 9′, and the camera was placed about 11.5′ from aSide view reflector in front of the mattress. He used a Hasselblad H2 camera with a 80 mm lens and the exposure was f/16 at 1/800th of a second. He used a fast flash-duration on the power packs to ensure crisp, motion-free images of the talent. Incredibly, Smetana was able to finish the shooting and retouching a low-res comp in a single day using FlexColor and Photoshop to process the images. After seeing a low-res version of the final image a very happy client signed off and a high-res version was later produced by Electric Art, an Australian retouching studio. It took EA about one week to finish the job.

Smetana was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:

TFS: How would you describe your approach to image making?

Smetana: I always try to start with the idea in the brief. I try to think of a fresh way of getting the idea strongly across by being visually challenging, creating an exciting image–something people haven’t seen before.

In advertising, sometimes clients have a misconception that fulfilling a brief with photography only means creating an image that reflects the idea. I don’t believe that. If images have no visual power on their own, if the photographer doesn’t find that extra layer, if it’s not arresting, then nobody cares about the idea either. You need both.

TFS: How would you describe your style?

Smetana: I actually try not to have one. I get a kick out of exploring new ways, new looks to communicate concepts. I love the idea of finding the direction that’s right for the specific brief. This up-front thinking process is half the work and makes all the difference I think.

In our industry, we have to think time, budget, media, creative idea, client, other brief details, product point-of-difference, and so on. All of these factors input into what the “right” vision is for a particular assignment.

TFS: Who or what inspires your vision?

Smetana: Photographers who are better than I am, filmmakers, musicians, an afternoon sailing. It really depends. There are lots of shooters I find incredibly inspiring–Herb Ritts, Albert Watson, Richard Avedon–I just admire totally. I love the work of James Nachtwey, the war photographer.

I think that the time is over when an elite group produces all the best work. I sometimes see images I just love, even if I might not know of the photographer who shot them. The bar setting really good work is getting higher—and likewise the bar for bad work is getting lower.

TFS: What projects do you enjoy the most?

Smetana: Jobs paying lots are great! And I really love to go left of center a little–that turns me on. It is often not about perfection but finding a fresh way to add some soul, some feeling, some humor.

I always look for jobs that leave room for the unexpected; otherwise, working in the advertising industry can feel just like that, like working in an industry instead of having fun creating something new and interesting.

TFS: Can you give an example of a job that left room for the unexpected and how you took advantage of that opportunity?

Smetana: When I work on a job I like to think through the process and then rethink it to find a way of shooting it in a different direction from my first thought. I don’t believe in the first instincts being the right ones! Maybe in love but not in photography.

We worked on a campaign for Workcover, which is like workers’ compensation, in New South Wales, Australia. The layout showed accidents in workplaces. But we ended up with incredibly downplayed, simple, dignified portraits of people who had been severely injured on the job. You can really see the strength in their faces and what they’ve been through. We started with a campaign showing victims but we ended up with a much more powerful series of proud people–and it still communicated the safety idea very strongly. For me, that slight change of brief made the shots and campaign so much better.

That’s what I like about my job: it’s made out of thousands of little decisions–every photograph is–and those decisions are formed by what inspires me. So we all really need to work to stay hungry and stay inspired. And then I filter out the input that’s hot smoke from what’s of value.

TFS: What is your approach to lighting?

Smetana: I guess just identifying the mood I want to create and the rest pretty much flows naturally from there.

TFS: How has your lighting changed through the course of your career?

Smetana: I learned more and still do–I had a very solid training so that really helps me now every day. I still rely on those basics but have grown and changed naturally over the years. I try to challenge myself to change my lighting for each brief. I often like the idea of switching things around, and not using the obvious light for a shoot.

For example, I did something different for the last job I did for Kraft Foods. It was a huge modelmaking job and I decided to keep the light extremely real. It looks more like a snapshot than a great big campaign. I could have made it a “better-looking” image but we would not have kept the realness, freshness, and believability for the campaign. It’s not “technically great” but we created a very cool modern feel, and I think it was the right direction.

TFS: What factors influence your lighting decisions?

Smetana: The product, the layouts, the creative idea, the target–it depends.

TFS: Are there any lights or lighting modifiers you are particularly fond of?

Smetana: I love it all, really. I have my phases.

TFS: How would you describe the phase you’re in now?

Smetana: I always compare lighting with Formula One Racing: you have to use every trick in the book to go just 5 Km/h faster. At the moment I’m trying to get back to realness. Retouching created a worldwide genre of work with a strong plastic look. And as much as I love that look, and I think it works extremely well for some concepts, I try to give my shots a feeling of realness, a kind of snapshot feeling. This direction is harder and harder these days as the concepts are bigger and more retouching oriented. So I find it a challenge to make incredibly difficult work look real.

TFS: How do you approach creating images for personal work?

Smetana: Doing what I want to do is nice! Giving it a “non-commercial” feel is where I start since I do so much advertising work normally.

TFS: Your imagery sometimes involves extensive retouching how does your approach to image making change when working on an image that will either require heavy retouching versus none at all?

Smetana: My decision hangs on lots of factors: the layout, budget, etc. Often I love to look at what else is out there at the time of the campaign and try to find a different look rather than do what’s obvious. Sometimes I get a layout and it’s so great that I just want to let it be what it is, not play too much, not take the life out.

TFS: Can you give an example?

Smetana: I’d say the campaign for Kraft Easy Mac (macaroni and cheese). The shot was taken from the perspective of the teenagers’ mouths, which are turned into the huge, mean mouths of sharks, lions, and bears–wild animals representing taste and hunger. We had these incredible and amazing models of the animals’ mouths made, but in the end we decided to give the campaign a very young and cool feel–not studio perfect, but rather a snapshot. I think it was the right way but not necessarily the obvious way to go.

TFS: What did you like so much about the Toyota idea?

Smetana: The Toyota layout was a technically difficult one to make look great. The elements don’t fit: on the one hand you want to show strength, power, and movement; on the other hand there is a lot of post to be done. I thought it would be a great challenge to create a shot that looked great without losing any elements or showing weakness. I often think it would be great to see the same layout shot by different photographers and see other people’s approaches.

I worked closely with a terrific creative director (Jason Williams, now at Leo Burnett, Melbourne) and we were discussing extreme realism vs. simplicity. We decided to go extremely toned down, keeping it very graphic and bare. We thought it would give us an image with more interest and power. We wanted to show the idea of strength and mobility at its strongest visually. The look also fit the media very well–I love a simple look for outdoor and it looked great in magazines.

The shot was technically very difficult. The “grips” (one person’s hand on another’s legs) needed to look real, so there was lots to think about and plan. Shooting it in the studio meant also we did not waste time or money for locations. We had more control and added nothing that we did not absolutely need. It worked very well I think.

TFS: How much freedom did you have with this assignment?

Smetana: Is there freedom in advertising? We had a great layout, a great creative director to work with, and a client who trusted us. The agency liked our written treatment before the job and they loved the final image–that’s as much freedom I need.

TFS: How much input did you have?

Smetana: Lots. I always try to create room for my input before the job, before shooting. Our clients tend to like to hear our input and thoughts. That is really what they pay for, besides the manual work of shooting it.

TFS: Can you discuss any specific input you provided for this image?

Smetana: I wrote a treatment for the CD, discussing why I thought to keep it simple, why I didn’t think we should shoot on location, showing visual reference, and so on. The shooting days were long but it was the thought and direction beforehand that’s the heavy lifting. I think that’s what made this campaign look cool. That’s most of the work–creating the shot in your head first.

TFS: How important is doing personal work to you?

Smetana: Very, but I feel I don’t have enough time to do it as much as I would like. I think it all depends very much on your stage of your career–how much time you have got, how much time you want to set aside for personal time. I guess once they don’t give me work anymore I will shoot even more! I am so impressed by Nadav Kandar and the amazing amount of great personal work this man shoots–really impressive. I work lots so for me the idea of going sailing for two weeks sounds as important as doing a personal campaign. It’s a hard balance.

TFS: Any tips for photographers about how to keep a balance?

Smetana: No…hmmm…buy a sailboat!

Client: Toyota
Creative Director: Jason Williams
Agency: Leo Burnett, Australia
Retouching: Electric Art

Kai-Uwe Gundlach

Posted on: June 3rd, 2007 by: Zack Seckler

Written by Lloyd Wise
Edited by Justin Hertog
Diagrams by Halina Steiner

Kai Gundlach hates being bored. Winner of two AOP awards in 2006 alone, he is Image used in Gundlach’s personal portfolioa highly accomplished commercial photographer—but it is his pursuit of personal work that brings him the most satisfaction. When on location for a shoot—whether that be Shanghai, Iceland, or Texas—he likes to shed the strains of crew, deadlines, and the zealotry of clients to wander off and aim his camera. Drawn primarily to landscapes, Gundlach prefers the rugged and industrial—not boring “typical post cards of just landscapes and blue skies.”

And this is what brought us to our Featured Image. Gundlach was on an airfield in Houston, location-scouting a campaign he was working on for the BMW X5 when inspiration hit. Before Overhead viewhim was a provocative view—a weed-filled concrete drainage ditch, the steely lines of an industrial park, and glowing lights from a gas-station peering out from a ledge. Jets blinked overhead. Gundlach and his crew stopped, set up, and hunkered down, remaining on location for four long late-night hours. They shot roughly once every three minutes, whenever a plane passed. At first Gundlach planned use the sky as a backdrop for the X5 campaign but he became so enraptured with the foreground elements that he left them in, letting the image stand as part of his growing collection of industrial landscapes. A fan of ambient light, Gundlach lit this image exclusively from the surrounding street lamps (metal halide or mercury vapor) both in front of and behind the camera. He used a Linhof The sky background used in an ad campaign for the BMW X5.Technika 4 x 5 with a 115mm lens at f/16 on Fuji NPS 160 film. The shutter speed was programmed at 6 seconds, a long exposures to capture the lights from the airplanes as sweeping yellow strands. It took a while to get it perfect—and this late-night vigil was only half the battle.

“fifty percent is shooting the image and fifty percent is adjusting the color in post-production,” Gundlach says, “I make most of the look I’m creating in my own studio.” A fan of the unique hues of Polaroids, Gundlach took a few during the shoot and gave them to the retoucher to use as a guide for adjusting color tones. “I often like to go with a bit more yellow in the light and more blue in the shadows,” he says. For Gundlach, good, creative, retouching can make a bland picture exciting—Photoshop is a boon to photographers—and a boon to himself, “my wish is to not create the work new, but to put in some little things, the color tone…that makes the photo more interesting.”

Gundlach spoke with our Editor Zack Seckler about his personal and professional work:

TFS: What attracted you to advertising photography when you were starting out as a photographer?

Gundlach: It was more about my living situation, about my surrounding. I was very young and I was living in a small city. I asked a few local photographers if I could work for them. I could have studied with a portrait and wedding photographer but that seemed too boring. The other possibility was a job with an advertising photographer who had a lot of equipment. I said “Okay, I’ll start here.” After I worked for him for three years, I settled in Hamburg, where I assisted other photographers. I like those situations where I can work collaboratively with art directors or creative directors on a brief. I need to work within a frame and some rules around me so I bring my own ideas and spirit and language to the campaign.

TFS: How would you describe your vision, your style as an artist?

Gundlach: I don’t like to describe myself. I’m looking for good pictures. I have no really good answer for that. Fifty percent is shooting the photo and fifty percent is how to turn the color in the post-production. We do most of that work in my own studio. I have a big team of retouchers. We are really looking to enhance the natural colors in post-production. We put in a bit of strange stuff or we turn the color a bit in different directions.

TFS: You have a very distinct color palette, how do you and your retouchers accomplish this look?

Gundlach: I think it’s not good to talk too much about that, all the little stuff. I’ll give you some general information about how I make my pictures. It’s not a big deal; everyone uses Photoshop to create some weird colors. But the specifics are a special thing.

TFS: I understand. Is there something that you look for when you try and create a color palette for an image? For example, specifically with the image that we’re talking about here, it’s got such a beautiful unique look—cyan color caste, but there are some warmer colors that work together, some yellows. It’s an interesting mix. How much of that was created in post and how much of that was from the existing light?

Gundlach: It was very easy because of the Polaroids I did on location. It looks a bit in this direction, and I often like the color tone of Polaroids. Often times if I get the contacts or the transparencies it looks totally different. Often I tell my retoucher to look at the Polaroids first, and go in that direction with the color tones. Then sometimes he turns it a bit more and adjusts the color tones to make them more interesting. I often like to go just in the light with a bit more yellow and in the shadows a bit more blue tone.

TFS: You said you really try to take work that is essentially more creative. How often are you sent out and just allowed to photograph whatever you want within certain limitations, and how often is it more controlled by the client?

Gundlach: I think my creative contributions are very important in most of my jobs, and eighty percent of the time the art director loves to work with me–the reason why they book me is that I bring my own part into the campaign. Often times I get very boring layouts. If I talk to the art director and bring some ideas into the stuff, how I like to shoot this, then they decide “OK, we can talk to the client and maybe we can bring all the creative ideas into the campaign.” Often times everything is fixed–especially for the big car campaigns. Often times it’s fixed and I see the boring layout. Then I say this is not my stuff. If I get ten layouts, I think seven of the layouts are too boring and I don’t want to shoot the stuff.

TFS: Why do you think there are so many boring layouts?

Gundlach: The clients do not have enough background. There are so many people, they are so afraid and don’t want to lose their job. I think this is worldwide the same problem. Everything is often times too boring, especially for big clients. If you go to smaller clients or if you have direct contact with creative partners, or direct contact with the owner of the firm, then it’s more interesting. But, I don’t know.

TFS: Do you see things improving at all? Do you see people getting more creative with their layouts or is it getting more boring?

Gundlach: It goes both ways. Sometimes I think it’s getting worse but some stuff its getting better. Reebok, Adidas, Nike, are getting better and better. It’s art–this is all art. If you go to the fashion industry, it’s getting better and better. But if you look at the car campaigns, they’re getting more boring and uglier, especially now with the tools that permit you to shoot without the car and add it later with CGI. It’s unbelievable.

TFS: Do you think CGI is making things worse for the creative side of the business?

Gundlach: It’s a question of how to use the tool. If you have a good art director, a good photographer, and a good CGI operator, then you can create wonderful results. If you have no time, no money, and a bad retoucher, then you can see all the ugly stuff from other campaigns.

TFS: Did BMW give you a focused brief on the X5 campaign?

Gundlach: I wanted to create original work for BMW. I have become more selective about my projects. In Germany, I have declined assignments that I don’t think are right for me. Car campaigns can be very uninteresting. I don’t think the car advertisements in U.S. magazines are very interesting right now either.

I’m happiest when my art partner wants to create original work. Currently I’m working on the post-production for a campaign for Mercedes-Benz. We shot some beautiful landscapes in Iceland. Our concept is called “electric nature.” We shot often in the evening, using one flashlight to scan the whole desert. By moving the position of the flashlight in each shot we were able to cover the entire area with 150 shots. Each three meters–one flash: go three meters back–flash; go three meters to the left–flash. It’s like painting with a flashlight.

TFS: So you must have used very long exposures.

Gundlach: Yes, it was amazing and fun. There’s a lot of post-production to do: we’re combining the flashlight stuff with the ambient light stuff and looking for a good result.

TFS: That sounds wonderful. I look forward to seeing that.

Gundlach: I think you’ll find it very interesting because it required a lot of art and skill to shoot. The post-production effort, as I said, has been extensive. We also had to put a car into CGI. It’s a very interesting job. I like the combination for jobs. I have learnt a lot from jobs that required a lot of post production. But for my personal work, I prefer to shoot more simply. It’s just the Linhof–open the lens for six minutes, shut down, and print the picture. It’s a very simple method.

TFS: When you’re not working on a campaign, do you go out and do a lot of personal work?

Gundlach: Not so often. I travel a lot. If I’m in interesting cities or countries for jobs, I’ll look to stay one or two days longer and try to shoot some personal work. But it’s not so often that I book a journey for personal work. I have family, and I am happy if I don’t go. If I go just for me, then I get in trouble with my wife. Half the year I’m traveling and there are a lot of possibilities for me to make personal work. Last year I was in Shanghai and I shot a lot for personal work–a normal Chinese family living in a normal flat. It was just editorial. I shot some interesting Chinese people, the normal people, the normal life. This was a series I did for myself.

TFS: When you are doing personal work, is it whatever speaks to you visually?

Gundlach: Exactly. I’m not looking for special things.

TFS: I noticed you have a particular affinity for highways, highway overpasses, parking lots, and hotel rooms. Is that because you travel extensively, or do you prefer those subjects?

Gundlach: I don’t have a preference for those subjects. Each journey is different. Sometimes I photograph my hotel room; sometimes I shoot out the window of a moving car. It’s not a particular thing I’m looking for. I’m looking on each job, on each trip, for new things.

TFS: I noticed that there are a lot of empty spaces and landscapes in your work, what is your attraction to that type of environment?

Gundlach: Good question! I just love to make landscape shots. It gives me a good feeling to shoot my personal work solo. For jobs, I have a big crew and lots of technical equipment around me so I don’t have the flexibility to shoot other stuff. It can be boring. Sometimes in busy cities I shoot cityscapes or landscapes with a small amount of civilization in it. The typical post-cards of landscapes and blue skies are not interesting to me.

Credits:
Ad Agency: Jung von Matt Hamburg
Art Director: Sina Gieselmann / Jan Knaur
Creative Director: Thim Wagner
Retouching: Elisabeth Sigmund c/o Gloss PostProduction

Jan Steinhilber

Posted on: June 3rd, 2007 by: Zack Seckler

Written by Lloyd Wise
Edited by Justin Hertog
Diagrams by Halina Steiner

Final imageGerman photographer Jan Steinhilber is in the fast lane. He has shot coveted ad campaigns for Volkswagon and Mercedes-Benz and in the process, netted prestigious awards for his work. Trained as a graphic designer, Steinhilber has a penchant not just for pretty pictures, but for images that communicate with boldness and clarity. “I try to understand the idea of the image, or even make up an idea if it is personal work” he says, “I judge everything I do by asking me whether this helps the idea or not.”

Talent in studioTalent from overheadThis philosophy is in full effect for our featured image, part of a series Steinhibler shot three years ago showing people as they comically over-react to the sight of a coveted car. In it, a man stares across a parking lot so in awe of the vehicle before him that he has unknowingly emptied his coffee cup onto his pant leg. Inspired by the look of graphic novels, Steinhilber wanted an image that is “almost like a drawing or an illustration, very classic, very focused with a reduction in detail.”Background elements

To achieve this minimalist, pared-down aesthetic, Steinhibler opted to cut and paste, piecing the image together from four separate shots: the car, the talent, the building, and the sky. This made lighting a challenge, as it was necessary for “the light for all the single exposures work in a way that they could be credibly composed into one final piece, yet I wanted a light that would allow me to bring out all the details in a hyper-realistic yet somehow artificial way.” To get the “crisp and highly defined textures,” Steinhilber selected a Sinar 4 x 5 camera with a 150mm lens. The exposure was f/32 on Fuji Provia 100 film.

Steps 1 through 4Both the car and building were shot on location using natural sunlight, the light for the car enhanced with 4’ x 4’ reflectors. For the talent Steinhibler chose to shoot in-studio, knowing that he would need to have maximum control over the lighting, which was done with Broncolor strobes. The studio environment was also needed to perfect the coffee stain. Getting it right took a total of six attempts, using a non-staining, fast-drying cleaning fluid chemical rather than real coffee to avoid the expense of ruining several pairs of pants. For the sky, Steinhibler dug into his personal image archive.

Car on location

Car from overhead

The four images were combined in Photoshop and subjected to heavy retouching, a process requiring three basic steps: the heightening of contrast, de-saturation, and re-coloring the image so that the different components matched. “I wanted the image to be very graphic, and to reduce it in post to the elements that are relevant for the story.”

Jan Steinhilber recently spoke with our Editor Zack Seckler about his artistry and his craft.

TFS: Please tell us how the featured photo was inspired by a graphic novels?

Steinhilber: It’s just like, sort of the angle of view, how the foreground relates to the background. It’s not specifically related to one. I am still asked to do stuff in that way, but when I do personal work now, I try to do it slightly different, to develop my skills, to refine everything. I try to do things different or to try to do something in a way I haven’t done it before.

TFS: Do you think that graphic novels inspire the look in a lot of your work?

Steinhilber: No I think it was some sort of time period where I wanted everything to be very much, oh let’s say, in this sort of look, which is almost like a drawing or an illustration, very classic, very on-the-point of what you are saying, very focused with reduction in detail. Or in let’s say details that are not part of this story are taken out. So basically very focused on the story you want to tell. But that changes from time to time. You give that up and then you, you do things in certain ways for a certain amount of time, and then you try something else.

TFS: How did you get your start as a photographer?

Steinhilber: In college I studied graphic design in Wiesbaden and got interested in photography because it was part of the curriculum. After I graduated in 1999, I started working as an assistant while attending college. First Jobs came in while I was still in college, mainly because friends of mine who had already graduated had started to work in agencies. So when I finally graduated I rented a studio and started. At first all I did was still-life. At some point I was asked if I could imagine shooting a car in the studio. I did, they liked it, and soon came the next project.
TFS: Do you think it’s a good idea for young aspiring photographers to assist?

Steinhilber: I think it is, yes, sure, because you get used to the business and how things are going, which are usually things that you wouldn’t learn at school. I mean, you can probably learn to handle technical equipment, and also to develop skills, artistic skills at school, but the way things really go, how you do an estimate, and how you handle everything, that’s much more what you learn when you work in the system apart from getting more experience.

TFS: How has your lighting changed through the course of your career?

Steinhilber: I think I am more efficient now than I was when I started.

TFS: How has it become more efficient?

Steinhilber: Well, I think I’m faster. It doesn’t take me all day and half the night anymore to get my lighting down. Yes, of course, I mean, you get more experienced, you get faster, and you rely more on that experience. That’s only one part and the other part is that I think I am able to, let’s say to achieve the same things with less equipment. In the past, I had to use like four lamps and a lot of different complicated tools and flags and reflectors and everything. Now I can do the job with just two lamps.

TFS: Are there any lights or lighting modifiers you are particularly fond of?

Steinhilber: Sun, sky, and clouds. The problem is, that these are hard to control, so we use a lot of tools to achieve predictable results. I tend to be really proud when I manage to use only available light or–when it comes to studio work–when I succeed to use only one or two lights instead of a mix of different flashlights, dedolights, and Kino Flos that I usually end up with.

TFS: What appeals to you about using natural light?

Steinhilber: That it looks natural, that it’s not, well it always depends on the location to a certain amount, some images and some ideas of course, need more than just natural light or need to be lit in a certain way or need more lighting effects than others. I think the nicest thing is if you look at the picture, and it is just there and you don’t see or don’t think or don’t feel that someone has worked a day on that to have it looked like that and it’s just there and you don’t even have to think about it. It’s just lit. It’s beautiful because of what it is and not because of how it’s lit. I mean, of course it is beautiful, because it is beautifully lit but people shouldn’t see it or think about it. It’s complicated that way. It should look easy, it should look very easily done, not like hard work. That’s probably the best way to tell it.

TFS: What types of projects inspire you the most?
Steinhilber: The ones that have the best ideas, the ones that are the most challenging, and the ones where the teamwork leads to a result that I would not have been able to achieve on my own.

TFS: Have you incorporated CGI into your image making?

Steinhilber: Yes, mainly in tests and personal projects.

TFS: What kind of personal work have you done with CGI?

Steinhilber: Cars on location. I wanted to find out how this works and how it changes the image making process.

TFS: How does the image making process change when working with CGI?

Steinhilber: The work on location does not change that much, except for the fact that you don`t have to light the car. It turns out that stand-in cars are really helpful if available. The most difficult thing is that you can`t really judge what you are doing while you are doing it. You can`t see when is exactly the right moment to do your exposures–you can only guess that it might be.

TFS: How do you see CGI impacting automobile photographers?

Steinhilber: It`s a new tool which should be used just like any other tool. You should always think about what you want to achieve under the circumstances and then think about the best way to achieve it.
It might be CGI or it might be classic photography, depending on the goal. Some locations might make it really difficult or even impossible to place a car; whereas, for example, a dynamic driving shot will always look nicer especially in parts like rims or landscape reflections in the car when it is done as a classic rig-shot.

TFS: Do you see CGI becoming a threat to photographers? If not why not? If so how can photographers protect themselves and stay ahead of the curve?

Steinhilber: I would not call it a threat, but the way pictures are created changes and photography (in the meaning of setting up a camera and pressing the button at the right time) might not be considered as the main part of the image creation anymore when CGI is used. But no matter what technique is used, someone has to have a vision of the image and has to take the responsibility of transforming this vision into a picture. It is up to us photographers if we want to leave this responsibility to ambitious art directors or retouchers or print producers and end up producing background plates, or if we are prepared to take the challenge and create our visions with different techniques.

TFS: Do you frequently shoot for the purposes of expanding your archival imagery? Do you just go out and shoot or do you do location scouting or other planning?

Steinhilber: I do this too little–my archive is really small, containing mainly skies, architectural elements and asphalt surfaces. Most of these images have been shot during tech scouting or prep days. I really believe in creating images with a certain aim or goal, the archive is just a back-up.

TFS: Do you prefer to use multiple images or capture everything in camera?

Steinhilber: I prefer to capture as much as I can in one shot, yet there is no use in accepting a compromise in image quality just for the purpose of having everything in one exposure.
I think of what I want to achieve and then I check my possibilities and try to find the best way to achieve it. Using multiple images is one tool out of many and it is good to use it if it makes sense.

TFS: What do you see as the downsides to using multiple images?

Steinhilber: It never looks as integrated and natural as a one-shot image, it is more work in post production, and it is more difficult for everyone involved in the process to judge if everything that might be needed is covered properly during the shoot.

TFS: How important is doing personal work to you?

Steinhilber: Very important. I have so many Ideas and there are so many things I would like to try to do, so whenever I have time, I work on personal projects.

TFS: Can you give an example of a project you’re working on now and why you chose it?

Steinhilber: There is no project I am working on right now, because I am quiet heavily booked at the moment. The last project I did was a small still life series of three images for a promotional piece of my German agent. She is doing theme-related magazine twice a year and this time the theme was gold. I came up with the idea of showing very simple things that are golden but worthless and displayed them as if they where treasures (a pumpkin, an autumn leaf, and some fish sticks). I think I wanted to do something surprising because the first things you think of when you hear gold are shiny and glossy and upscale.

TFS: How do you approach creating images for personal work?

Steinhilber: I do scribbles, almost layouts. Then I show these to the people I want to involve in the project. We talk, everyone adds something, we plan it and eventually produce it just like if it was a job.

TFS: And do you always do a layout, a sketch of how you want the image to look and kind of very formulaic like that, or is that part of your process in general?

Steinhilber: Kind of, yes. Sometimes it’s just like sketching ideas nothing very formal and not a very refined composition, but whenever I can I try to revise those sketches, and then go one step further and think about, like, Okay what’s the relation and how might this work together and do some simple graphics sketches to get a feeling for an arrangement. Basically doing small layouts to work on those to have a reference, to get a feeling if the idea might work at first.

TFS: So it’s not a specific composition–it just gives you an idea and helps you work through the image and the process?

Steinhilber: Yes, but it’s also, it helps me to get ideas of what might work too, like, you know, if you try things and if you do scribbles or sketches before you start working. Of course, you think that that person could be on the left side or the right or center–even what proportions, how big is the guy or the talent in the shot, what part of his body do I have to see the least or can I leave the whole figure in or how big might that car get in the actual ad–the actual shot in the end, and all that sort of thing. So it helps me to be faster when I shoot because I have something to refer to.