Pro's Choice: John Bellenis’s Hospitality Photography: Capturing Resorts, Hotels, And Destinations In The Best Light
Across The Pond
John Bellenis studied photography in London, England, at Harrow and Watford Art Schools. After graduating, he assisted a number of photographers for a year, gaining experience in everything from tabletop to fashion and cars. “I probably learned more in that year assisting than in four years in art school.” When he opened his own studio, he expanded his portfolio to include hospitality. Back then he was shooting on Sinar (from 4x5 to 8x10), Hasselblad, and Nikon.
When he’d considered making the move “across the pond,” he’d contacted a local photographer’s rep, who emphasized the need to specialize. So Bellenis chose hospitality and hasn’t looked back since. Boston became his base of operations, as of 1992. Bellenis continued to shoot film until 2005. But when he made the move to these shores, he replaced all his Hasselblads with a Mamiya RZ67 Pro II system. “I still used my Sinar when I needed to employ camera movements, but nothing larger than 4x5 at this point.”
The Move To Digital
“At one point, the bulk of my work went from print to web,” Bellenis observes. “Which meant I didn’t need the large, cumbersome film cameras. What’s more, when shooting hospitality, I can go from interiors and exteriors to lifestyle and food in the same day, so it made more sense for me to work with a 35mm-style D-SLR.” Bellenis now shoots with the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, owning several bodies. His primary lenses include the 24-70mm, 16-35mm, and 70-200mm—all f/2.8. He also uses the 24mm tilt-shift lens quite often. “The only real advantage to using a tilt-shift lens now is that it gives you less to do in post.” He adds: “I tend to like fast lenses because the viewfinder is a bit brighter and they let me use differential (selective) focus. Although I should add that I generally stop way down.”
The camera is normally mounted to a Gitzo pan-and-tilt head or a Manfrotto geared head on a Manfrotto tripod, unless he’s shooting lifestyle, in which case he shoots hand held. “I don’t usually shoot tethered because we have a lot of shots to do in a day and we’re moving all over a property.” He also notes that shooting to card cuts down considerably on setup time, and, by eliminating extra cables, creates a safer environment. “If I set up a studio-like environment for food shots on location, for example, I’ll shoot tethered.” He processes the Raw files in Adobe Lightroom, adding finishing touches in Photoshop.
From Power Packs To Monolights
Bellenis bought 20,000 ws of Speedotron Black Line gear once he arrived in Boston, having sold all of his 240w equipment when he left his London studio. “I needed all that power because I was shooting 4x5 and medium format. When I switched to a D-SLR, I got rid of the bulky power packs and bought a variety of monolights, from Calumet and Elinchrom.” That included some battery-driven units.
“My monolights are almost disposable. I’ve been everywhere with these lights, coast to coast and abroad to Barbados, Belize, Guatemala, Scotland, Honduras, the Caribbean. They get beaten up, so I replace them regularly.”
Why not rent? “For me,” Bellenis explains, “it’s just a matter of the time it takes. If I fly into a resort in the evening, I want to be able to start shooting the next morning. What’s more, my clients won’t necessarily pay for the rental. There’s a certain comfort in having your own stuff and not worrying about what gear you’ll get or returning it in good shape. I’ve always had my own gear. The only things I’ve ever rented have been specialty lenses, like the 17mm tilt-shift, or a very long lens, like a 500mm.” On flights, he carries his camera gear and 17” MacBook Pro with him, but checks the tripods, lights, and grip gear.
Choosing What To Light
Even though he brings a lot of lighting gear to a shoot, that doesn’t mean he’ll always use it. But when he does, Bellenis has a mantra about using lights. “I don’t want my pictures to ever look like I use any lighting. If it looks like I used strobe, I failed.”
The interior spaces that Bellenis usually lights are guest rooms, bathrooms, restaurants, bars, meeting rooms—“spaces that you absolutely have to light up.” A first step, where practical, is to swap out screw-in fluorescents with incandescent bulbs that he brings along, making white balance with strobe lighting easier. Where the situation warrants it, Bellenis will use the strobe’s modeling lights to match interior lighting, also for better color balance.
What about using HDR? “If I can get the contrast to where I want it by judiciously employing my lights, then this is the preferred route. When I do engage HDR, I use a program called Bracketeer (www.pangeasoft.net/pano/bracketeer—available direct or on the Mac App Store).”
Bellenis’s lighting kit also includes Chimera softboxes, grids, snoots, and round Lastolite collapsible reflectors. While he carries umbrellas, he generally avoids using them. “I’d rather just bounce light off the walls, if the paint is relatively neutral, or instead bounce light off a bedsheet stretched across lighting stands or taped to a window. And if I’m shooting lifestyle, I don’t like the spidery catchlights umbrellas add to a person’s eyes. Generally, if I’m shooting people, I’ll use softboxes. The only time I employ umbrellas is when I need to copy a painting (to be later composited into a shot): I’ll put up two umbrellas as copy lights.”
To see more of John Bellenis’s work, visit www.johnbellenis.com.