Written by Zack Seckler
Edited by Joann Jovinelly
For photographers who dream of shooting fun ad campaigns for international brands Mat Baker is surely a source of inspiration. In less than four years Baker made the move from shooting headshots of models in his native New Zealand to traveling around the world shooting campaigns for top ad agencies. In those few short years he’s shot dozens of campaigns and in the process has been showered with awards from Cannes, the Clio Awards, D&AD and The One Show to name a few.
Mat Baker is always picked to shoot the funny campaigns – from a construction worker wearing panties to a twenty-year-old computer sporting an old mannish looking toupee. The one thing that is never the same is his aesthetic. Instead of making his name with a specific vision or signature lighting or retouching technique, Baker has done so with a style that adapts to fit the concept.
How has Baker become so successful in such a short period of time? His humorous answer in our recent telephone interview “I like drinking beer and socializing” hints at an easy-going personality and savvy networking skills but there’s of course more to it then that. During our chat Baker discussed how he turned a very difficult location shoot into a campaign that ended up winning a Cannes Silver Lion. The description of shooting this commission, which is also our featured image, showcases Baker’s creative approach to image making and ability to improvise in what turned out to be a very tough situation.
Our interview begins on the creation of our featured image and continues on to cover many other interesting topics.
Seckler: Tell me about the ad campaign you shot for Science Diet and how you were awarded the job?
Baker: I had been shooting a lot of funny stuff, especially with dogs and cats, so we had done a couple of shoots beforehand and the agency had seen that work. I had photographed dogs from weird angles, so the agency initially came to me with the job because they wanted me to duplicate those ideas. I had to do some research to ensure that no one else had done anything too similar. The big thing was getting the right sized dogs to make the photos funny. We [also] thought if we used a really small dog and had this little tiny light beam and contrasted that with a much larger dog and a much bigger beam, that would make the photographs funnier.
Seckler: What was your technical approach to creating this image?
Baker: This was always going to be a component based shoot, its just one of those things when you shoot animals. You can get the best animal wrangler around, but animals will always be unpredictable. So then it comes down to timing, doggy treats and a fast camera. Deconstructing the ad we needed the scope and elements to push this image to be as funny as possible. Main dog image, mouth open, tail up, our vet, torchlight and main plate shot. The vet space that ended up being available wasn’t our first choice. We wanted something a lot bigger. But as soon as we saw this though, we thought, perfect…more intimate and less distraction to draw the viewer into the comedy of what was happening in the shot.
Seckler: Did you add props or change the location in any way?
Baker: No, I changed very little. The walls were quite clean and the x-ray machine and the background above the vet’s head were original. I did shoot a couple of extra components like the stuff on the right hand wall—just to add a little bit of interest to the shots—but that’s it. What you see was the exact layout of the room.
Seckler: Tell me about your approach to the lighting.
Baker: Lighting the shots was a challenge. I was aware that I had to show the torchlight shining through, so I knew that I had to darken the shot enough to do that without losing any other details. It was tricky. That’s among the reasons why the second location ended up being a better choice. I was actually crammed into a corner and slightly out the door, so I didn’t have the biggest amount of room to add lights. I had a couple of assistants holding lights up in the air. We bounced a lot of light off the ceiling and combined that with soft light from the outside and a little from off the roof. I wanted the environment to look institutional—to have that sort of floor lit look—you know, like when a vet examines a dog, with the x-rays and other machinery, there is always a very slight light coming from the ceiling. I just wanted to emit that familiar feeling.
Seckler: So what kind of equipment did you use and how did you put it all together?
Baker: When it came to the plate shots, we darkened the shot down to put emphasis on the light beam which was the most important element in the shot. For this I used three Broncolor Pulso Gs and two Broncolor A4 Grafits. I focused one light with a 10 degree honeycomb for the rear wall (I wanted to create the foundation for a vignette). For the vet and dog talent we used a 80 x 80 Pulsoflex EM softbox angled towards the ceiling. For the right wall we used a P70 with diffuser. I shot with a Hasselblad H2 with a Phase One P45+ Back with a 55 to 110mm zoom lens set at F8 @ 250th for the animals and F8 @ 15th for the plate shots.
Seckler: Given the tight space it seemed like a really tricky lighting situation…
Baker: It really was. I mean, obviously you want every single advertising job to look kick ass, and I think that’s among the coolest things about working in advertising: You get so much stuff thrown at you all the time. You need to be able to come up with solutions very quickly.
Seckler: Tell me about the flashlight source. Did you actually use a flashlight?
Baker: I totally used a flashlight. At the time, I was trying to quit smoking. I experimented with just shooting the light, but obviously you need another element to highlight—or make it more humorous—so I actually blew a little bit of cigarette smoke into the torch light. I shot those components and then tweaked them a little. Basically, I stayed true to the different light sources.
Seckler: Tell me more. There are obviously two separate beams of light…
Baker: Yes. I think I used three or four different-sized torches with different-sized beams. Through a process of elimination, I went through every different-sized torch and matched each up to the size of each dog.
Seckler: How many components are in this shot?
Baker: I would say five or six—the vet, the room, the dog, its jaw, and the beam.
Seckler: Tell me about the retouching.
Baker: It was a straightforward retouch, just adding the components together and the look that we wanted. We wanted it to look quite plain and gritty. I basically used the film grain filter and added a grey, soft light blend mode so you can control the opacity of the grain to the image. It was actually the first time I actually added grain to a shot because I largely prefer my images to be clean.
Seckler: In an earlier conversation you mentioned your younger brother does most of your retouching right? How did you begin working together?
Baker: He retouches about 90 percent of my shots. Basically, Karl, who at 28 is six years younger than me, has always been interested in photography. Working together happened organically because we love hanging out with each other. He was always into computers, and at the time I think he was going to get into graphic design. And at that early stage, I was still shooting film. As I moved into digital photography, our collaboration was gradual. Everything fell into place quite beautifully; it’s been five years now.
Seckler: Where are you based?
Baker: We are based in New Zealand, but we do 80 percent of our work offshore. We do a lot of traveling, about 48 flights a year; we are on an airplane all the time. We didn’t envision it was going to be this way when we started. We used to do a job in Sydney every now and then, but after winning a few big awards, it has gone pretty ballistic. It’s been pretty cool.
Seckler: Do you travel mostly in Australia or do you go other areas of the world?
Baker: We just came back from shooting for Coca Cola in Hong Kong and just before that we did another job in Melbourne and Sydney. We travel all around Australia and Asia. We did a job in Shanghai about six months ago. And we shot the Singapore Bank campaign throughout Singapore and Thailand for two weeks, which was amazing. We are focused more towards Asia right now, but we do want to work in Europe and the United States as well.
Seckler: How do you view the different markets? For example do agencies in Asia like a certain style, or a certain approach or sensibility more than your clients in Australia or in New Zealand?
Baker: I think there is quite a big difference in the Australian and New Zealand markets. You can really push the humour; you can push your ideas really far. Australian and New Zealand clients also seem to be more willing to take risks and that’s what I love about them. We dig doing funny stuff; we really like shooting humour, so the further I can push it the better. But there are limitations, especially in China because it’s Communist. You’ve got to be careful.
Seckler: Are there specific cultural shifts that influence your methods of working? Can you give me an example of how an Australian client has let you push something further.
Baker: We did a job for Vespa, which is a good example. The job was for the new GT 300 CC, which is the first time Vespa had actually put out an engine of that power. So the idea was to shoot really obese people, just with a Vespa helmet to their right, no bike, nothing—just the logo, the all-new powerful 300 GTS Vespa. So, it’s pretty borderline, and when it came to retouching, we actually made the people sort of larger than they were initially, and they were pretty large initially, so it was a case of the bigger we make them the funnier they’ll be. The other thing is that the clients who we shoot for in Asia are more commercial; they cater to a wider audience so we need to be more careful about where we take an idea there. And personally I am obviously careful about where I try to push my ideas, so I try to take what I can from facial expressions and body humour—as opposed to other outside influences; I think that’s the main difference.
Seckler: You were saying that most of the work that has taken you overseas has been the result of winning many awards recently, is that right?
Baker: Winning the awards definitely accelerated how much work we get, especially through word of mouth. The first year we shot for five clients. We were very lucky that we got involved with amazing creatives with really amazing ideas.
Seckler: What is your photographic background?
Baker: My background was fashion. I shot as a fashion photographer for a number of years and I was bored with fashion because it restricted what I could shoot. It was very commercial in New Zealand. There were fashion magazines, but on the whole, to earn money in New Zealand, you have to shoot commercially. I started shooting fashion when I was about twenty, but even before that I was a press photographer. I was a newspaper photographer from about eighteen to twenty one. And then from twenty-one I got into fashion and then it was roughly around age 30 when I started getting into advertising.
Seckler: How did you start as a press photographer and how did that that career lead you to fashion?
Baker: I freelanced with different newspapers and it got to a point where I was shooting mostly car crashes and house fires, mostly news stuff. And I was getting a little bit down about it, because there is more to life than just seeing ugly stuff, so I wanted to photograph stuff that was more upbeat. After awhile I met a girl through a mutual friend whose mother was a fashion designer in New Zealand. The girl, who was also a photographer, became my girlfriend for four or five years and she had a massive impact on my photography. We went to fashion shows and shot backstage, met models, and that is how I fell into the fashion thing. I found work shooting head shots for local modelling agencies. After I shot like 100 girls—basically all the girls that they had—I started showing my book around to magazines and ended up getting editorial work.
Seckler: Do you consider yourself mainly an advertising photographer, or do you still do editorial work or fine art photography?
Baker: I do now, but a year and a half ago I would have said, “Yeah, I am just an advertising photographer.” At that time I was so prolific. I was shooting campaigns all the time that I actually didn’t have any time to shoot personal stuff. I was shooting four times a week at one stage, non-stop, then we would retouch images in the evenings. We were working twelve to fourteen hour days for a long time. But I missed shooting personal stuff. When I shot in Shanghai in the middle of last year it was the first time I cracked out my camera and basically walked around and shot. Since then I have done a nude study. I basically work on about seven or eight different personal projects in between conventional jobs. Working on personal images has revitalized my passion for wanting to experiment and push my craft as far as I can go.
Seckler: You’ve won so many awards recently, how do you get yourself involved in so many award-winning projects?
Baker: I like drinking beer and socializing. Inevitably, you have a few beers with creative people and then you start to joke around and say this could be funny or that could be funny and you go on from there. I think that it’s important to just have fun and be light hearted, to not take life too seriously. If you begin to take everything too seriously, it almost stops that organic flow of the humour you want to achieve. It’s tricky.
Seckler: You mentioned traveling dozens of times a year, what’s it like being away from your family and trying to juggle that with your busy career?
Baker: It’s pretty hard. My son is a year and a half and my daughter is four. We use Skype to stay in touch, but it’s hard, especially because I am often traveling farther away for longer periods. The Singapore bank job took about three weeks; it was a really big job. During that time my son started saying “daddy,” so I missed out on a few things. I love what I do, but I have become more selective about what jobs I take. It’s one of those situations where you think, ‘I don’t want this to end. This is awesome, it’s like a dream.’ I get to travel to amazing places, but I think there is a point where you can burn yourself out. I’ve been shooting so much over the last three to four years; I’ve just become more selective about what I shoot.