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Designed for a Horseshoe Casino campaign by RPM Advertising in Chicago, this image was designed to illustrate how spectatora at other casinos may have to sit far away from shows, where it's hard to see the entertainers, unlike at Horseshoe. Designed for a Horseshoe Casino campaign by RPM Advertising in Chicago, this image was designed to illustrate how spectatora at other casinos may have to sit far away from shows, where it's hard to see the entertainers, unlike at Horseshoe.
© Tim Hawley

Three Studio Photographers Share Their Solutions to Creative Quandaries

Even in the controlled environment of the studio, photographers face all manner of challenges in completing the assignments that clients and agencies dream up. The desired sets, subjects, props, angles, lighting and other effects require technical skill and creative versatility, as well as mental, and sometimes physical, ingenuity. Here, three successful studio photographers share the problem-solving methods behind some of their most compelling images, as selected by PhotoMedia staff.

Tim Hawley, Culver City, California

Montages can require the patience of a saint, as Tim Hawley well knows. Based in Culver City, Calif., Hawley has assembled complex images that look deceptively seamless when he’s finished.

"When you shoot everything separately, even when you’re in the studio and it’s controlled, you still have to make sure the lighting’s moving across it the same way," he explains. "Once you cut it out and put it (into the larger image), if you rotate something the wrong way, then the lighting’s coming from the wrong way."

Hawley relies, in part, on input from someone who can look over his shoulder. "Sometimes you get so involved with it, and it is so complex that you lose your objectivity," he says. "I’ll have to take it to where I think it’s right, and then actually my wife is the final judge. I’ll put it in front of her and say, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ She doesn’t necessarily know what it is, but she knows when something doesn’t feel right to her."

Creative vision

Shot for a Horseshoe Casino campaign by RPM Advertising in Chicago, this image at right was designed to illustrate how spectators at other casinos may have to sit far away from shows, where it’s hard to see the entertainers, unlike at Horseshoe.

Creating the set to indicate that the man is in the bleachers was the easy part, Hawley says. The theater chairs were rented from a prop company. Next, the man was outfitted with 16-inch-tall, Russian-made binoculars.

"To get the eyes to come out, it proved impossible to photograph an actual eye and get enough eye to put inside that big round hole in the binoculars," Hawley says. "So I contacted a guy out of Long Beach who makes glass eyes. He let me come down and go through his drawer full of glass eyes that were rejected... I picked out four different glass eyes for the clients to choose what sort of color they liked. They’re really interesting because the veins that you’re seeing in the whites of the eyes are actually red threads inside the epoxy."

The man in the seats holding the binoculars is one photo. The eyes were shot separately, as was the reflection that appears in the binocular lens. It’s a picture of the stage from a blues show that Hawley had attended a couple of months earlier.

A fish tale

To adorn its menu, Anzu, a sushi and martini bar at Hotel Nikko in San Francisco, asked Hawley to work with its concept of a fish eye doubling as a martini olive (above right). Hawley added the idea of making the martini look as if it’s underwater.

"This is another really complex shot," he says. The background is a combination of photography and illustration, using images of light refracting through the water in an aquarium.The bubbles that appear to be rising actually were sitting on top of water. This angle is required to get bubbles that look perfectly round, which Hawley wanted so that he could maintain a clean look and reinforce the roundness of the eye/olive. The glass holding an aqua drink, the olive (altered to look as though it’s halfway submerged in the drink), the toothpick and the fish all were shot separately. "The front of the glass in front of the toothpick, the liquid in front of the olive, the rear of the glass in front of the fish, which is in front of the background — that’s all just a mess of masks and opacity to get all those different layers," Hawley says.Sum greater than partsTo illustrate editorial content about the latest, greatest gear, Rap Pages magazine wanted to depict a cereal box with prizes spilling out and splashing into a bowl of milk . The fictional "Sticky Sweet Things" cereal box and gear were supplied by the client. Hawley shot each of the cereal pieces and gear items individually on white, cut them out and placed them to create the torrent of objects. The bowl is a series of shots. He generated the splashes by jostling the bowl with one hand while shooting with the other. The background is an illustration created in Photoshop.

In this assignment, alignment was the greatest challenge, Hawley says. "It’s a tough perspective to keep everything looking like it’s actually flowing and keep the lighting all correct," he says. "You really have to be sensitive to each and every piece so that one of them doesn’t stick out and look like it’s been cut out and pasted on top. Your overlappings all have to work."

Tom Colicott, Seattle, Washington

The work of Seattle-based photographer Tom Collicott has shifted over the years from seamless-looking montages to photo illustrations with clear delineations between elements that, nonetheless, cohere into an elegant whole.

"I found that I had really developed this language of combining imagery, and I liked doing that, but I was tired of doing it the way I had done in the past," says Collicott. He started exploring other ways to build montages, "as a way to break out of a previous style," he says, "and demonstrate that you can illustrate text with a more fractured, looser, less-perfect look."

Science fiction

A photographer’s archives can be a boon, particularly for montages such as Collicott’s illustration for Amazing Stories, a science fiction magazine (above right). "The archive makes it affordable for people to use me, rather than if I have to create everything," he says. "It’s almost like a custom stock solution. I’m able to type in, say, ‘butterfly,’ if I need a butterfly, and I get all the butterfly images to choose from. It’s a way to make my style more accessible to different budgets."

To create a piece that reflected themes in the assigned issue of the magazine, he combed his digital, searchable archive for suitable icons. Some of these originally had been shot on film and then scanned. The image in the top row center is one that Collicott shot using old specimen jars, a cow bone and a mannequin hand.

His collection of "weird stuff," as he calls it, came in handy in this case. The heart and brain are photos that he took of etchings in old medical texts. The eye comes from a shoot he originally completed for a corporate publication. For this montage, the individual images were altered in Photoshop and assembled.

Fire and ice

"I made this promotional piece at one point that had four or five images in it that illustrated physics experiments," says Collicott. "I found this old book of experiments and decided to loosely illustrate some of them in my style. So, I printed up the book along with the images."

His complete original fire and ice illustration was composed from two primary images: the image shown at right, with burning wood embedded in a full block of ice on a scale, and a post-experiment image of the lighter, melted block with remnants of the charred wood. Collicott framed these with a series of smaller images that implied other elements of the experiment, designed to investigate the weight of ice.

Working with ice, the obvious concern was that it melts. Perhaps more interesting were Collicott’s own experiments with freezing pieces of wood into blocks of ice, then dousing the wood with lighter fluid or other accelerants in an effort to set it aflame. Dissatisfied with the results, he finally added the flames digitally.

On target

This image at left for a Novell brochure is one in a series developed by the firm Hornall Anderson Design Works. "That was pretty carefully drawn out on their part," says Collicott. "It was one of the rare times that I was working to a pretty tight comp."

A model maker built the target from wood and painted it red and white. This was shot alone and the color altered digitally. The pencils and container, like arrows hitting the target, were shot separately. Collicott split the shots, reassembled them with the hard line in between, added a texture and then overlapped the text layer.

Techniques such as this for combining objects are very valuable, he says. "There is this real need in corporate and editorial materials to combine imagery," Collicott explains. "When you’re dealing with copy, there is usually more than one issue involved in what you’re illustrating. So it’s figuring out a way you can use photography to combine different aspects of the article (into one image). It’s always tough to distill an article down into one subject matter. My being able to put multiple things together is a good problem-solving technique for a lot of clients."

Hans Sipma, 
Vancouver, British Columbia

The creations of Hans Sipma, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, often spring from concepts presented to him by advertising agencies."Normally, I get the ideas from them. In terms of executing them," he says, "that’s my problem.

"We usually get a layout, which is a rough drawing, a scribble on a piece of paper, showing what it is they want," Sipma explains. "In terms of quoting (a fee for the project), you do have to sit down and figure out, ‘How are we going to do this?’ It’s one of the things, I think, that gets me work — that I have the ability to figure these things out or find the right people to make it happen for me."

Take a ride

The spinning bed is one of six concepts Sipma executed for Labatt’s "Know When to Draw the Line" alcohol-moderation campaign. He shot the image in his studio in order to get the desired angle on the bedroom, which meant building a set. "Even though it looks like a small room in the photograph, you really do have to have room for your lights, your camera. It was a little impractical to have that setup in a house because the rooms wouldn’t be big enough to accommodate everything," he explains.

Inventive prop acquisition can add that special texture. "One of the difficulties was that we needed some very old, worn carpet, so that it looked like a pretty grungy place where this carnie would look right at home," says Sipma. "We ended up hiring a props guy who phoned around and found a house that was having its carpet taken out, and that’s what we used on the set. This way we were able to dirty it even more."Turning an idea on its head.

"Playland," Sipma says, "was very interesting." This image of a man in his laundry room was one in a series designed to depict the lasting exhilaration of an outing at the Vancouver-area amusement park. To achieve this effect, Sipma hung his subjects by their feet.

"I built a rig here in the studio that was kind of a tilting bed apparatus so we could lay them down on it, hook their legs onto a bar at one end, and then two assistants would flip the people upside down," he explains. "We would grab the shots while they were hanging, and immediately we’d bring them back upright again."When the ad agency’s art director approached Sipma with the idea, the art director wasn’t sure what the subjects would look like upside down, so Sipma arranged a test shoot to see if this method would work.

The final image is a composite: a shot of the man’s head and body, taken upside down on Sipma’s tilting apparatus, and a shot of the background, the man’s feet and his shadow, taken right side up in a laundry room.

Problem solved

Sophisticated technology and good old-fashioned resourcefulness combine to make possible the eye-catching pieces executed by our featured photographers. Digital tools, such as photo-editing software programs, go a long way toward helping them create the images they need. Sometimes, however, it’s a well selected piece of dirty carpet (or a homemade tilting bed apparatus) that makes all the difference in getting an effective shot. Their work reminds us that the creative thinking that goes on between artists’ ears is as important as the scenes they arrange in front of their lenses.

Laurie Fronek
Story Author: Laurie Fronek

Laurie Fronek is a freelance writer based in Seattle.

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