Everyone likes to think that when they do a commercial assignment, the photographer will have an enormous amount of control over what gets photographed and how it will be done. In corporate assignments, the team involved is similar to what you would image working on a movie set, and this doesn’t even begin to account for the number of corporate people on hand to supervise production. Tyler Stableford is among the leading location photographers who worked on an ad campaign for Stetson. This interview with him sheds light on the complexities and nuances of doing a corporate shoot of this magnitude on location.
PS: Tell me about how you got the Stetson job.
TS: I think with many ad agencies, it’s a court- ship that can take many months and even years. Pure Brand Communications in Denver is one of the top ad agencies—they had my portfolio and I met them six months to a year before I had a chance to bid on this campaign—that’s generally how it works. I never give my portfolio to an ad agency and they say, “Great, let’s start working next week.” It’s usually, “We’re interested in your work and what you’re doing, we’ll keep in touch.” And then I start a relationship—I’ve met the art directors and the art buyers and account managers, and then I stay in touch with them and say, “Hey, I’m continuing this work and do things in your genre.”
I think my work is a mix of outdoor adventure, as well as industrial and environmental portraiture. The Stetson project was double/triple bid, as usual. What that means is the bidding comes down to two or three top photographers being considered in the process. They want to know the budget—what would it cost to shoot this campaign over four days in a range of places, from the high mountains to a nightclub, to working ranches, and where should we shoot this thing—they were thinking maybe in Wyoming. I said, “I live in a really beautiful spot that has all that—everything from the country bars to working ranches. We could shoot it locally— keep cost down by shooting locally—have a local producer and crew.” I think that was appealing. It also meant if weather changed or things changed, my crew and I knew the area well and could adapt quickly.
PS: I look at the photographs of the shoots, and you’ve got quite a few people involved. I think this is something that really escapes people who would like to do a project like this. How many people are involved in this production?
TS: I would preface it by saying that this is probably one of the largest productions that I shot last year. Typically, as a Colorado photographer, my productions are a little bit smaller, for shooting at a ski area or such. This production, because it was a big national campaign, and it was fashion-oriented, the clothing and the sunglasses were very important; there were a lot of people who played important roles in it. So, from the top down, there were several people from Stetson. There was an art director from the national brand of Stetson. And then Stetson has some licensees of its brand, so one company makes and sells their boots and another makes and sell their sunglasses, their cologne, etc. The cologne is made by Coty, and the hats by Hatco. Roper makes the clothing as well as boots. We have account managers on set who know this clothing line really well, and if things come up as we shoot a scene, where we have a checkered shirt and we want to show a nice t-shirt underneath, too, this person can say yes, that shirt is going to be sold next year, and can match the two together. If we want to do a scene with a t-shirt, they’ll say which are the t-shirts we want to represent, so we have a whole wardrobe to choose from.
Then we have the ad agency people who are really running a lot of the creative, the art director, Jerry Stafford, the account manager, Eric Espinoza, and the co-owner of Pure Brand Communications, Gregg Bergan, who also acts as creative director. And then I have my crew there, an amazing producer named Liz Long and her assistant who line up all of the locations, arranges for vintage trucks on location, insurance and permits to shoot on a ranch, and make sure we have whatever we need there. Also, the ranch manager to oversee the location, a garment and wardrobe stylist to prep all the clothes and make sure they look good on the models, and a hair and make-up stylist. And then I have my first and second assistants who are helping to work with the lighting and run all the equipment, the digital tech and viewing, so if the client’s at the shoot, we can put the compact flash cards in the computer with a full screen to see if we’re getting what they had in mind.
PS: So what is it you actually have control over?
TS: Shooting a large campaign requires a great mix of patience while all the moving parts come together and the creative concepts are hashed out with the clients, who are Stetson and the agency…trying to push professionally for what they think is best for the brand, and people have different opinions and one’s not better than the other. It just requires a lot of discussion, and I try to stay out of it as much as possible. I’m hired for two reasons, I think. I’m hired to execute the client’s and the agency’s vision, and also to bring my look, my talent set, to the shot. I’m happy to comment upon creative direction, but it’s not my position. It’s up to Stetson and it’s up to Pure to decide and say, “This is the look we want for our campaign.” I don’t do the research—I don’t know exactly who their buyers are. I can say, “It looks great with the cowboy sitting on the truck with his hat cocked sideways,” but that may not be the look that speaks to their brand that they’ve developed over their 145-year history. These big shoots are an opportunity for me to be very patient, but also to act very quickly, to be decisive, and to have a super dialed operation with my two assistants, because we’ve spent so much time hashing it out, and the sunlight’s slipping away, so when we finally get the creative direction, it’s action time and it needs to happen very quickly.
PS: Working with creative direction, and yet having your own style, how much of “you” do you give up to do this, and how much of you do you get into it?
TS: I would say that in a big shoot I think it’s a general rule that a photographer will give up some of his creative talents—and that’s fine with me. I have plenty of time in my life to pursue my creative dreams, whatever those are. When somebody’s paying me to photograph, I’ll photograph puppies and Barbie dolls all day if that’s what they want me to shoot and the rate’s right. I don’t bring my ego or my sense of what I should be shooting to the job, and I can keep my creative vision for my own side.
PS: How about the lighting scenarios? Do you control that aspect?
TS: Yes, I control the lighting, but of course I’m constantly showing my lighting tests to the art director to see if it fits their concept. For the photo of the model, Paul, by the vintage truck, we used a silk scrim overhead to diffuse the sun, and filled light on one side with a Hensel strobe and large Westcott Octobank.
PS: Can you talk about the interior shots and the lighting scenario and solutions?
TS: This scene at the Belly Up nightclub in Aspen was the most intricate lighting setup of the campaign. We used the nightclub’s existing stage lights and fog machine to start, and added several of our strobes to light the model in a dynamic, energetic way. It took a couple of hours to really get the lights set up in such a way that the scene felt energetic—as though the model/performer was just about to go onstage during a concert. The creative director, Gregg Bergan, was very helpful in communicating his vision and helping us evolve the lighting setups to carry energy. In this behind- the-scenes photo, we are using some scrims and reflectors to block stray light from the stage lights and using our strobes to bring a dramatic look to the model’s jeans and boots. We used an Octobank for soft fill and a gridded light to paint a harder streak atop that.
PS: When someone sees a corporate brand photograph, I don’t think they appreciate the complexity of the shot, not only in terms of the photography, but also the negotiations.
TS: As a professional, I want to know how that’s done. How much is offset, how much is posed? That really helps me learn as a professional. I’m happy to share that any time.
PS: What other projects are you working on? How many projects do you have going on at one time?
TS: Anywhere from zero to a dozen—it depends. The usual freelance entropy, you know. I just have completed a short film on a Paralympic skier. I am shooting a campaign for a flame-resistant clothing company. I shot a controlled burn this week, and we’re shooting with heavy industry workers this month. And then I’m completing an exciting shoot with F-16 fighter pilots that will run in the July issue of 5280 Magazine and also later in Southwest Airlines Magazine. I also do quite a bit of work for Cabela’s; they are one of my top clients.
PS: Last thing. I noticed that you also do video work with your Canon 5D Mark II. This is a new role for the corporate photographer. Can you discuss your DSLR video experiences?
TS: Yes, when the Mark II came out about a year and a half ago, I used it immediately to shoot a volunteer fundraiser for a humanitarian aid agency, and I was super impressed because I was able to work with my existing set-up. I was able to travel with a carry-on bag of equipment and made a very moving, successful fundraiser with stills to video. That would not have been as easy before the 5D Mark II came out. I was able to tell a very powerful story, more powerful than shooting stills alone, for a cause that’s very important to me. And then, of course, my filmmaking has grown. The story-telling abilities that we have now are way more powerful—it’s amazing, but you definitely have to be willing to give up a lot of free time to make the jump. DSLR filmmaking has allowed me to create some of the most powerful projects of my career, because they have three or four layers of audio track on them, motion and stills—I’m very excited about it.
Product Resources: Cameras: Canon 1Ds Mark III, 5D Mark II, Lenses 24-70 f/2.8, 70-200 f/2.8, 16-35 f/2.8; Lights: Hensel Porty Lithium 12 lights, Westcott softboxes etc, Octobanks and diffusers; Tripods: Gitzo and Manfrotto carbon; Software: Adobe Lightroom 2, Photoshop CS4; Monitor: Apple 30″ cinema display, Wacom Cintiq 21UX; Computer: Apple Mac Pro MacBook Pro; Other: PocketWizard radio transmitters; Think Tank SpeedRacer beltpack.