Interview with Colin Anderson.
John interviews leading photographers about the future of stock photography and other important issues.
Colin Anderson Interview Colin, you are one of the premiere photographers in the world. Your work is unique, stylish, and inspirational. As a stock photographer I appreciate the strong conceptual nature of your work. I am curious about how you got to this point in your career? My background is that of advertising and design. I was working as a Creative Director and just got to the point where l wasn’t enjoying it anymore. But l realized that what l did enjoy was creating the imagery & visuals. I had a very backward advertising style, create the visual first and work a headline into it. Totally the wrong way to do it. But l believed you needed stopping power for the viewer to want to stop and find out more about the product. Anyhow, that’s what l use to justify it. So for me it was a want to just concentrate on the imagery, stock seemed a great way to do this. The first time I saw your work I believe it was with Brand X. I couldn’t believe that this incredible imagery was in Royalty Free. You probably have some unique insight into the returns on such high-end imagery in RF vs. RM. Can you share your thoughts on this? When l started producing any real amount of stock, RF was just the model l fell into. So l went about it like l would have any stock model. I had no real expectations of what type of money was in it. I was surprised at the returns when I started seeing them. How do you decide what to put in RF and what to put in RM? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each of those categories as you see them? That’s something that can be very tricky and I’m still working it out like most people. Production and styling is a big part of it, plus creating imagery for a market that you think can spend more. RF seems to have a faster return. Sometimes I feel like I am running out of ideas. Luckily I seem to get past that quickly. Is that a feeling you ever get? Yeah like right now(laugh). Seems l go through these spells every few months. I’m learning to deal with it better these days and not panic as though I’ve used all my allocated ideas l was given and I’ve got no more coming. Lucky it seems to pass like a bad flu after a couple of days. Where do you get your ideas from; and what is your process for choosing an idea to illustrate?
It’s not a spiritual or romantic process for me. I can get ideas from anywhere. I might be walking through Target and see something that jump-starts a concept. Movies and TV are also a big source of ideas as are locations. Finding an unusual or cool prop can always open up a range of ideas and clothing is also a big source of inspiration.
I’ve even on occasions of desperation, forced myself to go outside into the yard and find one object, no matter what it may be and create a concept around it. Actually works pretty well, until you run out of stuff in your yard. Mind you, it gives you a good excuse not to clean up. Another trick l use is to find a song l really love and create an image based around it, like a snap shot of what l imagine is happening. Just don’t use Leonard Cohen, they don’t sell well (laugh) Sometimes your images seem very targeted towards business needs, other times I feel like you are really having fun making “fantasy” images. Most of your photographs look, to me, like there is a ton of work involved. Do you always factor potential monetary return into the decision to make an image, or do you sometimes just do an image because you want to? That’s a really good question, and one that is always in the back of my mind. I know when l create certain imagery that I’m probably not going to see great return for effort. But for me that’s my “holiday shot” Something that revitalizes me to churn out yet another ‘stock friendly RPI maintainer’.
It can actually really depress me to look through a submission and not see a few “out there” type shots. You just hope that there might be some equally bent Art Director or designer out there who might go for it. And look, that does happen. I’ve been more than surprised on a few occasions on how well some shots have sold.
It’s a very careful balance you have to walk between making money and keeping enthused about what your doing. Plus you have to experiment and push yourself in new directions to keep developing. That weird self-indulgent image may lead to another one that is highly profitable.
I see a lot of 3D imagery used in your work. What prompted you to get into 3D?
Probably the most frustrating and incredibly hard thing you could ever want to get into, but the possibilities are endless, taking you in new directions and visual possibilities you never considered before. You hear some photographers talk about the first time they saw a black and white print develop in front of their eyes, same thing for me in 3-D. I set an image to render and saw it pop up in front of me a few seconds later and just thought wow.
Do you enjoy the 3D as much as the rest of your work?
I wouldn’t say I enjoy it more than the rest of my work, if l was better at it that might be a different story. I’ve got a love hate relationship with it in that I have just enough success to keep coming back. But it’s like a bad relationship, everything great until you start having problems, then it gets ugly.
What are the strengths and weaknesses in 3D for still images as you see them at this point in time?
Difficulty in learning and staying up with it. If your not doing it on a regular basis then you can really forget a lot. The second big thing would be render times. Some shots can involve a lot of geometry and render times can easily blow out to 48 hours. Getting realism is time expensive.
What software do you use for your 3D work?
I use Poser and Vue(to a lesser extent) and Maxon Cinema 4-D the most.
I have always found the photography more demanding than the post-production end of things. Do you find one aspect more difficult?
Yeah the shooting is more of a challenge, if that’s not right no amount of Photoshop is going to save it. There is more stress involved, every minute is costing money and if things aren’t going well with the model, equipment or whatever then it can be very miserable. We do a lot of planning to minimize these things by using models that can deliver and good equipment that won’t seize up.
What do you enjoy doing the most?
I prefer post, l love taking random elements and combining them to create something totally new. I’m not much for realism, I don’t enjoy shooting lifestyle. My passion is hyperrealism; epic and big over the top dramatic type imagery that is highly stylized. I see realism every day, the last thing l want to do is capture it.
What percentage of your work is stock? Do you see that changing?
That changes but we are doing more and more assignment work.
How do you feel about the stock industry at this point?
There are a lot of challenges out there, and a lot of changes for the worse.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of stock?
Yeah, well optimism isn’t the first thing that springs to mind. This year will be very interesting.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing stock photographers today?
Shooting work that is unique and hard to copy, and keeping expenses down to a minimum.
How do you plan on dealing with that challenge?
We’ve always worked this way so we’ll just keep on going.
Do you have a favorite image (or several)?
That really changes, which is probably a good thing. I mean l ‘d hate to have a favorite shot l took five years ago. Especially with the type of stuff l do, it would tell me I’m not improving. However l have been working on a project that l like that is themed on female warriors which shows them as powerful and strong, not the cliché half nudes ones woman are often portrayed as. I also picked up a client from it which was great. The images can be seen on my web site at http://www.andersonproductions.com.au/
What advice would you offer to an aspiring photographer?
Really learn all the technical aspects, especially lighting. Still life is a great way to learn lighting and composition.
OK, got to ask you these questions: What equipment do you use for your photography and what equipment for your computer work?
I shoot with a Leaf medium format back most of the time and also use a Canon MKII (I’m waiting for the Mark4). My main work machine is a Mac quad core Intel machine running 18 GB of ram. I have a 30-inch cinema display and use a wacom 21 Cintiq (which is my favorite piece of equipment I own!!)
Creating a stock image. See pic 1&2
This image came about based solely on a prop l found, which, as l mentioned earlier is always a great source of inspiration. In this case it was a lifesaver. The idea to have a girl with it was kind of the first thing that sprang to mind. Looking through some of my beach and ocean files I came across one of a lone rock l had photographed while in New Zealand last year. I liked the circular shape of it which l thought could be a theme or string to tie the shot together with the lifesaver.
See pic 3 Often when I’m working on an idea l do a quick pre-vis in 3-d just to get a feel for it. This is usually just a quick 15-minute process. In this case l imported a poser file of a girl and modeled a quick rock and ocean scene roughly matching that of the image l would be using.
I also modeled a crude lifesaver and played with the idea of having numerous lifesavers scattered across the shore with a girl perhaps scouring the sea for survivors. Once l had it all together, it didn’t really seem to work and the idea was a bit obscure.
I liked the idea of all these lifesavers in the ocean but not with the girl. I thought it might be a stronger image just to break it down into a simple scenario and concentrate on styling a mood to sell it. Maybe this way it could have good potential as a health and beauty shot.
Styling wise l wanted to go with a 1950’s feel, which would give the shot a longer shelf life. Sourcing a 1950’s bathing suit was trickier than we had thought, especially now that’s it coming into winter here in Australia. But we came across a store that had something that resembled such a suit, the colors were perfect, style good, only problem was it was a mans bathing trunks, albeit a brave man.
Looking at the style though we knew we could get away with it and nobody would spot the difference. We told the store what we were doing and they offered to let us borrow it for free, which was great as the suit cost $80. From what we already had from previous shoots we were able to put the rest of the outfit together without spending a dime.
See pic 4
On the day of the shoot we had worked out to get through about 7 different and unrelated concepts in a 4-hour period. The lifesaver concept was the last as there was a possibility we might want to wet her hair and didn’t want to spend time drying it.
Lighting was fairly straightforward; going from my pre-vis I knew l had to simulate late afternoon light that was hazy but bright. So for the main light l used a large Mola beauty dish, which does have that punch, and placed it to the side of the model. For fill I placed a white translucent umbrella to the left and near a wall, which once fired through hit the wall for a little extra fill.
The model stood on a Step Reebok because l wanted her feet to bend forward and roll to match that of the rock (for the back shot of her). The image was then shot on a Mamiya MF camera with a Leaf back and just a standard 80mm lens which was tethered to a Mac G5.
Once in Photoshop, it was fairly straightforward. I cut the model out with the path tool and then separated her hair from the background using color range. I also smoothed and highlighted her skin using a soft brush set at about 20% opacity by sampling her skin tones and repainting them.
I then added a very slight drop shadow to anchor her and also using levels slightly darkened the tops of her feet and ankles. The landscape wasn’t altered too much, I just dropped in a new cloud that was a little more dramatic and desaturated it.
Then on adjustment layers above the model and background I punched the contrast up using levels, then desaturated it slightly before warming it up using color balance to give it an almost nostalgic look.
Finally using a layer set to soft light, l painted red at about 30% opacity onto the lifesaver and bathing suit just for a little pop.
1. The model was in for a 4-hour block, we pay $50 dollars an hour. This shot took about ½ an hour to shoot. With the other images created that were not related to this concept l can roughly value the production at $25 as no other expenses were made.
The make up was done for free as the make up artist is building his folio. Once the other concepts from the days shoot are completed and accepted, l will be able to more accurately revise these figures, however from experience, l know this is fairly accurate.
2. Time in Photoshop 1 1/2 hours.
3. Sourcing and returning props for the entire days shoot including non similar concepts- 3 hours.