Written by T.K. Dalton
Edited by Jesi Khadivi
Diagram by Brandon Jones
Though he now has a mantle full of trophies and a stable full of prestigious clients, James Day suffered a rocky start as a freelancer. “I took out a bank loan and set up a studio,” he says, “and didn’t get a single job for about twelve months.” The loan was, however, a very good investment. Day now shoots for clients as varied as Canon, Heineken, Motorola, Nestle, Proctor & Gamble, Tropicana, and Volkswagen, and his portfolio has earned him awards from Communication Arts, Cannes, The One Show, PDN, AOP and others.
Despite the impressive depth and breadth of his portfolio, Day expresses singular pride for one shot in particular: the portrait that won him the John Kobal Photographic Portrait Award in 2002. The piece landed in London’s National Portrait Gallery. “…it was the first set of portraits that I’d ever shot,” he said. That sensibility as a skilled portraitist translates across subjects. In our featured image, he combines his vision as a portraitist and his technical skills to capture an unlikely (and unruly) subject: a koala bear whose custom-made parka was just one challenge in the production. “Koalas are quite docile until you have to pick them up and then they go absolutely berserk. We didn’t have to put any stuff on, but we had two handlers in the room,” Day recalled. “They were wearing protective clothing. Big, thick outfits like meat packers. The head keeper told me that someone had once lost a finger.”
Day has a unique approach to lighting his portrait subjects “I tend to light the people like they’re a still life. It’s quite a formal and static form of portraiture,” he says. For our featured image Day decided that because photographing unruly koalas was so difficult he had to shoot four separate images (the koala, the background, the sky and the furry parka) and composite them all together in post. The closest place they could find a koala was in a Lisbon zoo and the lighting was quite simple for that shot, just a bare Profoto head with some half weight spun diffusion plugged into the Profoto 7B pack. He shot the koala using a Hasselblad V system camera with a phase P25 back and a 150mm lens positioned approximately 3 feet from the koala. Day then had a custom-made parka created for the koala (they have relatively small heads) and shot it using three Elinchrom 3000 heads and a Linhoff 679 view camera with a Phase P25 back (see accompanying diagram for more details). He then gave those images and the two photos of the sky and dirt to his post-production specialists at Core Digital to be assembled into a seamless final image.
Day’s love of shooting still life drives his personal work and shapes his approach to portraiture. “I quite like putting a camera right, literally six, seven inches from people’s faces. And I like the slightly intrusive feel, which I think comes across in some of the images that look a bit—not intimidated—but slightly uncomfortable,” he says. This lends a certain realism that is missing from the mass of commercial photography of professional models posing for the camera.
Day was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:
F STOP: Why were you hired to photograph our featured image?
Day: The ad agency was attracted to my technique and the almost hyper-realism of my work.
F STOP: Were you bidding against other photographers?
Day: No, you get less of that in London. With the current economic climate triple-bids have become more common, but quite often people will come to you with layouts. Triple bids are not as common in the UK as in the United States.
F STOP: How did you approach creating the image?
Day: I thought the best way to make the image look believable was to use real animals. The client wanted a blue sky, which I couldn’t guarantee in London in March. We found a koala in Lisbon, Portugal. They allowed us to be in the cage with them and get right up close. We then found a shooting location in Southern Spain. After we took some test shots of the parka, a fashion designer made it to the size of the koala. So, first we shot the koala and went to Spain. Then we came back to the studio in London and took the main shot of the jacket.
F STOP: So was the koala easy to shoot?
Day: At the Lisbon zoo, I climbed up one ladder and my assistant went up another to hold the light. I was about three feet away from the koala, but it kept running away. I didn’t know what to do. I tried to explain to the keeper, but he didn’t speak English, so I ended up speaking with the head [keeper] in passable French. I was starting to panic because, after about three or four hours, I was worried about getting the shot. The keeper brought a scale with a eucalyptus branch on the other side and was able to get a koala to sit absolutely still on it. We were able to just shoot away for twenty minutes, and got the shot.
F STOP: Did you have to wear any protection?
Day: Koalas are quite docile until you have to pick them up and then they go absolutely berserk. We didn’t have to put any stuff on, but we had two handlers in the room to make sure we didn’t get too close. They were wearing protective clothing. Big, thick outfits like meat packers. The head keeper told me that someone had once lost a finger.
F STOP: How did you become interested in photography?
Day: I just started assisting. I didn’t go to college or have any formal training.
F STOP: Why did you start assisting?
Day: I started working because I didn’t want to go to college. I worked in corporate finance for about a month and a half. And I just thought, ‘I do not want to do this for the rest of my life.’ I’d always been interested in photography, but no one ever explained that it could be a career.’ It had never really been explained to me or proposed as an option. I began assisting for a photographer for about three and a half years, who I was put in touch with by a friend’s parents who owned a design consultancy. I totally fell in love with it. I was in there every weekend doing test shots and trying to shoot as much as possible. And I really, really enjoyed it, and it was quite a shock—both to me and my parents.
F STOP: That’s interesting. So you started assisting more as just a job, as something to do and you end up falling in love with photography?
Day: I was seventeen and a half and I thought it seemed like quite a cool job. It’s been my obsession ever since.
F STOP: How old are you now?
Day: I’m 37.
F STOP: When did you stop assisting?
Day: I sent letters out to the top advertising photographers. One of them called me in for an interview because his first assistant was leaving. I freelanced for him for a couple of months and then he offered me the job. I worked with him for about three years and once I was about twenty-four or twenty-five and I thought I had a fantastic portfolio so I went out on my own. Unfortunately the portfolio wasn’t quite as great as I thought and I took out a bank loan and set up a studio and didn’t get a single job for about twelve months. Eventually, I got an agent and started to get bits and pieces and started shooting and it just kind of built up from there.
F STOP: You shoot a lot of portraits and still life. What kind of a photographer do you consider yourself?
Day: I like to think that I’ve got more of a look and a feel—a sort of graphic hard light that I carry through the still life and the portraiture and the cars and stuff. But I suppose I probably would say I’m a still life photographer.
F STOP: Do you treat your portraiture subjects any differently than still life?
Day: I think because of my still life background, I tend to light people like they’re a still life. It’s quite a formal and static form of portraiture.
F STOP: How do they take to that?
Day: They’re alright. Sometimes it can be a little overwhelming when the lights are really close. I quite like putting a camera like, literally six, seven inches from people’s faces. And I like the slightly intrusive feel, which I think comes across in some of the images that look a bit—not intimidated—but slightly uncomfortable.
F STOP: Why do you like it?
Day: I always liked formal portraiture. My all-time hero was Irving Penn. He’s succeeded with both still life and portraiture.
F STOP: Why do you like your subjects to be outside of their comfort zone?
Day: I think by the nature of taking someone’s portrait that they are in a sort of slightly odd environment in the first place and many of my subjects are not professional models. When I shoot fashion models they have a kind of look and feel and they really like to do their thing in front of the camera. That can really work, if that’s what you’re after. But I prefer something a bit more realistic.
F STOP: Why did you settle on shooting still life?
Day: Partly because I trained with still life guys. With still life it’s all about the lighting. I quite like that you start in a room that’s completely black. I like to control what I’m doing.
F STOP: Tell me about the process of shooting a typical still life. Do you know exactly what the lighting is going to be or do you play around?
Day: Strong shadows are featured in my work, especially if I’m shooting advertising. But I don’t like to just turn out the same thing over and over again. So I tend to start with a hard key light and see how it interacts with the subject matter depending on what background we’re shooting against, the kind of look and feel that they’re after. I let the shoot evolve from there. You’re very much governed by what you are shooting and how it reacts to light. It has a big bearing on how hard I can use the lighting. Sometimes what I do is I’ll light the objects to get them looking how I want them and disregard everything else. And then I’ll light the shadow for the object and that balances out how interesting that is as a separate element. And then I’ll shoot the background separately and then comp all of them together. So I think quite a lot of my work is interesting because it looks like it could be all done in one image but when you look at it you think ‘well actually, that shadow shouldn’t be there and the highlights in that bit wouldn’t react like that it real life.’ But you don’t really question it when you look at it, you just think, ‘well that’s quite a striking image.’ I’ve definitely embraced the computer.
F STOP: Do you do all of your own post?
Day: No, I work with a fantastic set of guys called Core Digital in London. They’ve done all of my personal work and probably 90 percent of my advertising work for the last ten years. It’s quite good to have that sort of relationship where you can kind of work on the style and the look together and it’s sort of evolved over the years to where we are at the moment. And we constantly want to move it forward. So I have a whole raft of personal work that I’m trying to do at the moment where we are trying to take it on to the next level and just change the colors and the general look and feel, slightly, nothing too drastic.
F STOP: Is any of the still life work on the website personal work?
Day: All of it is personal work.
F STOP: Tell me about the ketchup and berry images. Maybe I’m wrong here, but it looks like it’s cut out and put up against a computer generated background, like a single color background.
Day: Yeah, that’s basically exactly what it is, just shooting the object. I used to do a lot of that sort of stuff. I think those sauce bottle shots are probably five or six years old. It was quite new when I was doing it. But I think a lot of people started doing it since, so I’ve tried to move away from it a little bit. It’s got a graphic, kind of pop arty sort of feel. I use a slightly more naturalistic looking background these days. I shot the berries last year, I wanted to achieve a three-dimensional object that had a bit of depth to it, but then suddenly make it feel almost flattened out. We shot the berries and then we cut perfectly around it and then filled it in with black and then just slid it down, so it’s like a perfect shadow. And then you put the background in, so it sort of flattens. You know there is depth to the shot but it’s slightly off because then it’s grounded by this shadow that shouldn’t really be there.
F STOP: What do you see as new photographic trends?
Day: A slightly less post-productiony feel. I mean that’s what I’m trying to do now. I keep the sharpness and character of the images, but I feel like there is slightly less feel of the computer.
F STOP: So a lot of the still life is personal work. Is that work that you just have up on your website or do you show it in another context, in galleries?
Day: My portfolio is mostly personal work and there are a few small strips of ad campaigns at the back. I prefer for people to see my personal work and they like that. I send regular mailers and we do email promotional and stuff like that. Personal work is really important because it’s how you keep pushing forward.
F STOP: Do you exhibit your personal work in galleries at all?
Day: I haven’t. I’m definitely interested in doing it in the future.
F STOP: You’ve won several different types of awards from different magazines and award shows. I’m curious to know if you’ve noticed that one in particular has been particularly valuable in projecting your career to a new level?
Day: The one that was always very important, being based in London, was the Association of Photographers Awards. It’s not like suddenly you get loads of other work, but when you first start getting them but you definitely start to pop up onto people’s radar. People look at them, places like Communication Arts and PDN, in the photographic community. But I think it’s a combination of getting the right representation and then once you start getting the awards I think it’s good to keep winning them. Every time you get into the book it’s just a little reminder that ‘hey he’s out here, he’s trying to do something new or interesting.’ It just keeps your name floating around in this arena of commissioners. But I wouldn’t say that there has been any single one that suddenly put me on the map. It’s been more in the advertising community with certain campaigns that I’ve done. The advertising awards, at least for commissioning, have been more beneficial. The most satisfying one for me was winning the John Kobal Photographic Portrait Award in 2002. My work was up in the National Portrait Gallery in London and there was a big sort of gallery launch of the body of work that year. So for me, that was proper, worthy photography. And also it was the first set of portraits that I’d ever shot.
F STOP: Oh wow, well that’s quite the encouragement to do more portraiture right?
Day: Yeah, it was. That was probably the best one, but then it probably had the least impact on my career in terms of commissions and stuff like that.
F STOP: Did you have the opportunity to contribute your own visual ideas to the imagery often?
Day: Yeah definitely. Obviously, if they’re talking to me then they like the style of my work. It’s a collaborative thing. I think great art directors are the ones that you do collaborate with. I would never want to be one of those photographers who says, ‘this is how we’re going to do it and if you don’t do it like that I’m not going to shot your ad campaign.’ I think that it should be a collaboration and I think that both of you bring interesting ideas to the party. Conversely, I’d hope that if people were commissioning me, hopefully we can let it grow together. You can usually tell when you have a first meeting whether it’s going to be like that or not. Mostly it is. I think I’ve been very lucky with the people I’ve worked with over the years.
F STOP: When a client approaches you about doing a commission, do you have to agree with the idea behind it in order to accept the job?
Day: You have to be sort of pragmatic. I work in a very commercial environment with advertising and not every campaign that you shoot is going to win Cleos and Gold Lions. The good campaigns are the ones that actually consider the photographer, that have a great idea and then they want to use a good photographer who can really bring that to life. I think that’s where you try and position yourself in the market. I try to work with good reps who get my work in front of the sort of people who are making the interesting work, so mostly I’ve been very lucky. Hopefully I have enhanced the original idea with some great imagery as well.
To see more of James Day’s work visit his website.