You could say photography is a family affair for C.J. Burton—but that statement, like his innovative work with miniature sets, is trickier than it first appears. After retiring from police work, Burton’s father worked as a wedding photographer. The younger Burton began shooting weddings at 17. When C.J. said “I do” to art school, his father had to adjust. “He was convinced I was wasting my money because I was paying all this money to go to a photo school, when in his mind I had all the photo knowledge I needed being able to shoot a wedding,” says Burton. “Now he fully acknowledges that I’ve done the right thing and I think he’s really proud of the work that I’ve done. I’ve shot the cover of TIME five times now, and that’s a really big deal to my parents. I don’t think my dad looks at it as the same career anymore. We both use a camera for a living but we’re not really doing the same thing. I think he sees that we may both be called photographers, but what I did was change my career.”
Miniatures are used widely in commercial and fine art photography, but few people working today use them with the same bold playfulness as Burton. Half his work is shot on miniature sets that take between a few days and two weeks to complete.
Our featured image was shot for Newsweek, a longtime client who generally gives Burton lots of freedom. “They came to me with the story—and this is typical of how I work with editorial jobs—and I read through the text and started penciling down ideas. Then I picked some of the one-liners from my brainstorming sessions and made quick, one-inch thumbnails,” Burton says. The thumbnails become sketches, which become blueprints upon final approval from his editor. For this image, Burton first built a 20-inch set with a back wall and carpeted mini-floor. He lit the miniature set with three Speedotron heads and captured on a Hasselblad 555ELD camera with a V series digital back and a 50mm lens. The “smoke” is actually just cotton “It’s a really simple effect,” he says, “I’ve done it a bunch of times.” He then shot the talent (a real person) on a normal sized couch lit by four Speedotron heads and captured with a Hasselblad 555ELD with the same V series back but now with a 80mm lens. Both images were exposed at f/16.5 at 1/125th of a second. The television (also real) was shot separately and combined with the other two main images to create the final image used in Newsweek. “It’s a really simple effect,” he says, “I’ve done it a bunch of times.”
Miniatures get harder from there: on other shots, Burton has had to simulate lights in buildings with mini-LEDs, tiny fluorescent tubes, or even Christmas-light bulbs. “I’ve actually gone out and shot buildings and then come back and cut out their little windows and put them in my miniature buildings,” he says. “It takes them to a whole new level of believability.” For a photographer who specializes in images that flirt with odd, even believability means something a bit different, strange, new, and exciting.
Burton was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:
F STOP: How did you get your start in photography?
Burton: My father is a wedding photographer and a retired police officer. I started shooting weddings seriously when I was seventeen, but I hated it. I always swore that I would never be a photographer. Eventually I went to community college and took a photo class for easy credit. My instructor, an Art Center graduate, looked at my portfolio and told me that I could have a great career in commercial photography. I drove out to Los Angeles to check out the Art Center and I was blown away. I was lucky enough to get accepted into the school right away. Most of the instructors at Art Center were working professionals. Len Zimmelman, one of the main art directors from Kovel Fuller in Culver City, was a professor of mine. One day Zimmelman gave us an assignment for Crayola Crayons. I bought a huge box of crayons and tried to find all of the crayons with the best names. I work from sketches, just like storyboards in films, and I started doing sketches about the color Aquamarine. I came up with the idea of a crayon-submarine and built an entire undersea cavern with rocks and blue lighting and smoke and then made an 18-inch long crayon. I reconstructed it with submarine parts. I found my approach to shooting with that project.
F STOP: Where did you develop these skills in working with miniatures?
Burton: I just followed my interests and my instincts. I loved comic books and building models as a kid. I would build a model a week.
F STOP: Did you see a lot of people using miniatures and models when you started out? Did you think that you might be a unique photographer if you used miniatures in your work?
Burton: It was never a master plan. Perhaps I over-thought it too much in the beginning. It’s a mistake that a lot of young commercial artists make. If you do that too much, you’re selling yourself short. When I finally started to let myself go and just follow my instincts it clicked. I had an assignment from Nan Oshin, the former art director at the Los Angeles Times. She gave us an assignment for NyQuil. The campaign was “NyQuil to the rescue.” I made a shot of a cop running away from a cop car, but the cop car is shot in miniature. Once I assembled a portfolio of ten to fifteen pieces like this, I instantly started getting work.
Burton: Now that I’m getting more and more well known, clients approach me more often saying, “we have this rough idea and love your look. Can you help us finalize the concepts on it?” They will bring me a concept and I’ll give them sketches. My sketches are like the blueprint for a project. I follow them closely.
F STOP: Do you ever stray from them or try out different variations?
Burton: I don’t very often.
F STOP: Do you shoot the talent first or the background plates?
Burton: It doesn’t have to necessarily be one or the other first. Shooting the miniature first allows me to let the model play a little bit in the space. I do the environments first if I can, but there have certainly been times when I needed to shoot the model first.
F STOP: What do you need to think about technically in terms of using different types of lenses and equipment and having the final image look seamless?
Burton: A key thing about working with miniature is determining whether you want the viewer to be aware that you are working with miniature. I like to play with scale, like there is something a little bit off about the way it looks, but the viewer is not completely sure what. One of the ways you can tell something is a miniature is the change in depth of field because when you’re working with something that’s smaller, things are going to fall out of focus much easier where they wouldn’t on a large scale. Like if you’re shooting a cityscape. If you’re walking downtown with a regular camera, no matter what focal length your lens is typically most of the buildings are going to be sharp because you’re so far away from them. Whereas if you built a little miniature city and it’s on a 4’ x 4’ tabletop and you’re getting down low with a wide-angle camera, you’re going to start loosing focus really quick.
F STOP: Do you shoot miniatures out of convenience or for artistic reasons?
Burton: In the beginning it was probably a little bit of convenience. There was no other way too do the submarine project.
F STOP: What about now that you are working on bigger projects?
Burton: Now, it’s a choice. I like the way it looks and I like the way that it plays with the viewer’s expectation of what is real.
F STOP: Tell me a little bit about what a photographer needs to do to light and shoot miniatures. What kind of light and camera equipment do you use?
Burton: Most of the time I use medium format. I’ll use a large format 4 x 5 for really small environments. I usually shoot with a Hasselblad 555 D series camera with a digital capture back. I use a lot of wide-angle lenses for the miniatures, which allows things to look bigger and more expansive. Telephoto doesn’t have the same effect as a wide-angle . As far as my lighting goes, light should be used sparingly in miniatures because a big broad source can fill up a whole scene and you don’t have much chance for lighting a whole scene when you are shooting little parts. I use a lot of little light sources to make the miniatures look like they are bigger spaces.
Burton: I use strobe and then I’ll have some kind of lighting in the scene. I used ambient light plus strobe in the featured image. I use a Speedotron strobe and have a lot of different heads and scrims to make the light smaller or break it down into smaller pools.
F STOP: Do you shoot talent with a telephoto lens?
Burton: You just want to make sure it matches. Let’s say you’re using a 50mm or a 30mm when you’re shooting a miniature, you may need to back that up to an 80mm or a 120 to make sure that the person doesn’t have any distortion and to make sure that the two scales will fit together. The lighting is the most important part. When you can marry the light sources and make them look like they’ve been shot in the same scene that’s when your composition looks believable. Just make sure that your ratios are similar. If you are looking at a miniature scene that you shot and you’ve got a 2 to 1 ratio between highlight and shadow, it’s important that you keep those same kind of ratios with your model. Also, if your key light is coming from high right, you better make sure that there’s a similar direction coming when you’re lighting your subject.
Burton: I’ll approximate it. I’ll figure out how far the light source is and will take meter readings to keep the same ratio between images. If I have an environment that I’ve shot previously and I’m shooting the model, I’ll quickly PhotoShop the person in and do a multiply layer to make sure everything looks good while I am shooting.
F STOP: Do you shoot the talent against blue or green screen?
Burton: I shoot against white screen most of the time and then do a manual cut out afterwards.
F STOP: Do you do all of your post?
Burton: I do, except for computer-generated (CGI) stuff. I have a couple guys that do digital imaging for me on the rare occasion that I have a prop that just isn’t practical to build. I do everything else myself.
F STOP: Is most everything in your photographs actually photographic or is there a degree of illustration?
Burton: I try and keep most of it photographic. The less the computer does, the more believable it is in the end, and the nicer it looks.
F STOP: How long does it take you to put together a miniature set?
Burton: I’ve gotten pretty quick over the years of having to work on tight editorial timelines. It depends on how intricate it is. Generally it takes anywhere from a few days to two weeks.
Burton: I have a first assistant that works with me, but I do all of the post myself. I have a team I work with depending on the complexity of the project.
F STOP: Is doing a shoot in miniature more cost-effective?
Burton: I think it depends on what you’re shooting. Obviously if you’re shooting a freeway and you need to shoot ten high-end luxury cars, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper to do that. We’ve actually done that before. But then there are some things that can be more expensive with miniature, but you want to have that look. It can go either way.
F STOP: Tell me about the featured image. Who was the client?
Burton: The client was Newsweek magazine. I shot if for a story about the feature of high-definition TV.
F STOP: Was this their idea or yours?
Burton: This was my idea. I’ve done hundreds of photos for Newsweek. Clients like Newsweek and TIME will drop something on my lap and let me do what I want with it. They came to me with the story—and this is typical of how I work with editorial jobs—and I read through the text and started penciling down ideas. Then I picked some of the one-liners from my brainstorming sessions and made quick, one-inch thumbnails. I’ll turn some of them into a more detailed final sketch, about 4 by 5 inches. I’ll use that sketch as my blueprint once I get approval. For that particular image I built a room with a 20 inch back wall and carpeted floor. I didn’t build the couch. I just shot the model on the couch. The TV is real, but all of the flames and all of the smoke were shot on that wall. I used cotton and built a cotton-like explosion coming out of the space shuttle and I had a small hole built in the wall and through that hole I had an orange gel and a Tungsten hot light. It’s a really simple effect, I’ve done it a bunch of times. I shot the environment which was all the smoke and flames and then shot the model and dropped that in. Finally, I shot the TV.
Burton: Two or three days of production.
F STOP: What other kind of tricks are there?
Burton: One of the harder ones to do is to make it look like the lights of buildings are working. I’ve got a couple different techniques for that. If you get Christmas lights or little LEDs, you can get a little tiny breaker and wire an entire building. You can also get little tiny fluorescent tubes, like 1-2 inches in length and tape those in right above the window. I’ve actually gone out and shot buildings and then come back and cut out their little windows and put them in my miniature buildings. It takes them to a whole new level of believability.
F STOP: Do you like the process of building the miniature set more than actually taking the picture?
Burton: No, I don’t like it more. It’s funny, any photographer will tell you that taking the picture is often the quickest part. You’ve got all this build-up and then when it comes to shooting it’s just like, “click.” The actual shooting should be pretty stress free so you can get in there and solve the problem while you’re taking the photograph. I like every aspect of shooting for different reasons.
F STOP: What percent of your work is shot in miniature?
Burton: About half of my work. My look is evolving a bit. I’m trying out different concepts. As a commercial artist you need to be open to your work evolving. If you get stuck in a rut and keep doing the same thing over and over again you can get burned out and lose interest. I don’t worry about whether a shoot requires a miniature or not, but I think I will always come back to that. I let my mind just wander when I’m in the pre-production/sketching phase. My approach doesn’t limit me. Up to this point I’ve always been able to produce whatever I have sketched simply because I can always do it in miniature. It’s very liberating. Each image is a personal challenge. Sometimes it’s miniature, sometimes it’s not. But I’ve built up a skill level that allows me to not worry too much about how it’s going to be done because I know I’ll be able to achieve it.
F STOP: Are there other commercial photographers who frequently work in miniature?
Burton: I can’t think of anybody off hand that works quite the same way. I think some people shoot with the goal of the image looking like it’s not miniature. The difference with my work is that I’m letting you in on the fact that it’s a miniature. I want you to experience it as a miniature but maybe with a real person in it.
F STOP: Is your dad still a photographer?
Burton: He still shoots weddings.
F STOP: What does he think of your photography?
Burton: He had a hard time letting me do what I did. He was convinced I was wasting my money because I was paying all this money to go to a photo school, when in his mind I had all the photo knowledge I needed from being able to shoot a wedding. Now he fully acknowledges that I’ve done the right thing and I think he’s really proud of the work that I’ve done. I’ve shot the cover of TIME five times now, and that’s a really big deal to my parents. I don’t think my dad looks at it as the same career anymore. We both use a camera for a living but we’re not really doing the same thing. I think he sees that we may both be called photographers, but what I did was change my career.
To see more of Burton’s work visit his website.