When it comes to portraiture, celebrities are like everyone else, except that for editorial shoots your time with them is very limited. “I’ve literally had as little as 3 minutes and as much as 20 minutes with an individual,” Los Angeles-based photographer Michael Becker observes.
“My dad won a Nikon FM at a company-sponsored event when I was 12, and, the moment he handed the camera over to me, it was love at first sight,” Nels Akerlund recalls. Six months later, he’d built a darkroom in his basement and that love affair with photography has not abated. It carried him through the Rochester Institute of Technology, an internship with a White House photographer in the Reagan administration, and assignments for the National Geographic Society, The New York Times, and photo shoots worldwide. He shares this passion with his wife Anna, who is also his business partner and fellow shooter. Aside from weddings, Akerlund shoots architecture, food, small products, and of course portraits in his studio and on location. He and his wife operate a spacious, two-story, 2000-square-foot studio behind their home in Rockford, Illinois.
Many commercial lifestyle/portrait shooters turn first and foremost to studio strobe to light their subjects. Not Ann Elliott Cutting. Her studio features a south-facing window that she utilizes to the max. I know, it’s not the proverbial north-facing skylight that we’ve been taught to strive for, but it does the job—and quite nicely. More than that, her penchant for employing window light doesn’t mean she shuns brawny power pack systems. She owns and uses those as well, but they’re not always the go-to gear even on commercial assignments and often play a subordinate role.
“I started in my father’s darkroom, retouching negatives at 5 years old,” recalls New York City-based photographer Paul Aresu. “My father was a wedding photographer, with 10 studios and maybe 50 photographers working under him.” In his late teens, Aresu was already shooting weddings for his dad. “It grew from there.” He achieved a BFA from New York’s School of Visual Arts and went on to assist Pete Turner and Tom Arma for several years. “I learned a lot about the business from them.”
Philippe Halsman, in his book Halsman on the Creation of Photographic Ideas, talked about an ad he’d shot, where he had to show a car making a splash as it was driving through a water-filled trough. But rather than give it the traditional treatment of the day, he sought to make a real splash with the picture, so he lit it differently. Shooting at dusk, he positioned flashbulbs so they hit the “wings,” as he called them, from each side. Like Halsman, photographers specializing in automotive are finding ways of introducing unusual and unique twists to make the shot stand out. Peter Dawson is one such automotive photographer who takes a particularly keen interest in dealing with challenges outdoors, on location.
Jeffrey Totaro (www.jeffreytotaro.com) didn’t plan on becoming an architectural photographer. After graduating Drexel University in 1991, he became an architectural engineer. In his job, he found himself working alongside architectural photographers and was soon assisting them, until finally he found the allure too great and switched careers. Now he runs his own studio near Philadelphia.
Jonathan Robert Willis knew where he was going at a young age. “In school, imagery always spoke to me louder than words and numbers. My interest in black-and-white photography was sparked during my high school years by music-industry portrait photographer Michael Wilson, a family friend. His work really resonated with me and I just fell in love with the idea of making pictures for a living and shooting the music that I listen to.” In fact, Willis switched to a public school “because that school had a decent darkroom that nobody was using. I knew I wanted to make photographs.” It was there that he taught himself black-and-white processing and printing. And in college, “I pretty much lived in the darkroom.” Fast forward and we now find Willis comfortably settled in his Cincinnati, Ohio-based studio, although we may find him shooting on location just as much, if not more. Willis’s creative team consists of first assistant Scott Meyer and digital retoucher Patrick White, with Laura McMurray serving as production assistant/studio manager.
“The first questions I ask myself, after receiving the layouts from the art director, are: how can I make this my own, what can I add to it?” Active lifestyle photographer Rod McLean continues: “When we select the final locations and talent, the ideas become clearer. During a tech scout, we’ll shoot various views of the location, create rough comps, and talk about the possible scenarios: the best time to shoot, the props and wardrobe, etc. We all have to have a clear idea what we’ll be shooting and how the final images are going to look because we’ll be setting up the first shot in the dark, waiting for the morning light.”
Mark Katzman has been shooting professionally for over 25 years. Originally, he studied filmmaking at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In college, and for a short while thereafter, he found he could earn money by taking pictures of baseball teams.
“I have a mantra that I live by,” states San Diego-based Tim Tadder. “I believe that I work with the best clients in the world, and that they demand the best out of me. If the job calls for equipment I don’t have, I’ll make sure that I have it available so that I’m delivering the best product I can.”