Interview, Craig Lamson, Professional Advertising Photographer

 

Craig Lamson I would like to introduce Craig Lamson.  Craig has been a professional product photographer for over 3 decades.  Craig has done it all and I encourage you to check out his website for the best product photography you’ll ever have the privilege of viewingOften times I can spend a great amount of time viewing just one of his images and learning while observing how he uses light.  Craig is a master of light, and I’m afraid that is an understatement. If you've ever wondered who I go to when I have a question you now have your answer.

 

Small Metal Bearings.  Horseman 4x5, Betterlight Digital Scan Back, 210mm Rodenstock

Small Metal Bearings.  Horseman 4x5, Betterlight Digital Scan Back, 210mm Rodenstock

 

BKKSteve:  I was drawn to your images initially not because they were mostly product shots, but because you have an way of turning something ordinary into an individual work of art in a way you rarely encounter.  Would you share with us how you got started in photography?

Craig:  First of all, thanks for asking me to do this interview, I’m honored.  I hope your readers will find it of value.

I was lucky to find photography.  Or maybe more to the point I was lucky that photography found me.  I was young, married and wandering somewhat aimlessly.  On a vacation to California in the mid 70's I took a bunch of photos with a pocket 126 Kodak and when I returned I was disappointed with the quality of my photos.  I decided then and there to buy a better camera and I did, a Minolta SRT102 SLR.  That camera lead to a basic darkroom and I was hooked.

 

Spinner Self Portrait.  Canon 1ds Mark II, Sigma 12-24mm

Spinner Self Portrait.  Canon 1ds Mark II, Sigma 12-24mm

 

BKKSteve:  A large percentage of our readers are just starting out and forming their own styles and methods.  For myself, when I see something I like, I try to draw the relevant elements into my own style.  I think our readers can realize great value by doing the same with your work.  Can you describe your first commercial/professional employment?

Craig:  As I mentioned I was wandering aimlessly at the time, working in a factory and not really thinking about a career... after all the money was decent and I was young...

But after a few years of shooting for fun I found I had a real passion for photography and decided that perhaps I could earn a living at it.  In the end I did, but the road was tougher than I could have ever imagined.

My first job was as a lab tech printing b/w prints for a local portrait/ commercial photographer.  He had been in the business for many years and was a PPA (Professional Photographers of America) Master.  I worked for him for almost two years and made barely subsistence wages.  But the experience was extremely valuable and he was very patient.

 

Spinner Self Portrait.  Canon 1ds Mark II, Sigma 12-24mm

Power Painter.  Nikon D100, 105mm Nikon

 

BKKSteve:  I've seen your portraits, or rather when you bring models into the scene.  Do the techniques in portraiture you learned in this position still reflect in your work today?  Specifically the lighting styles, poses, and general feeling of the image?

Craig:  Yes to a degree.  I learned a lot about formal posing and portrait lighting on that job, even though I went on to become more of a product specialist.

 

Airport Chair.  Hasselblad 500 C/M, 150mm, Kodak Plus-X Film

Airport Chair.  Hasselblad 500 C/M, 150mm, Kodak Plus-X Film

 

BKKSteve:  This was over 30 years ago?  Where did you go from this first position?

Craig: I used my b/w darkroom experience to move to a high volume commercial studio.  I was a b/w and color printer, processed negatives and slide film and produced graphic slides for business slide presentations.  I learned photography from the back end.

All the while I studied the work of the photographers whose work I was printing very closely and put the lessons learned into my own photography.  At the time I was also studying the works of the masters like Weston and Adams and it was in  these formative years that started my lifelong passion for light.

After a few more years as a lab rat I was fortunate to find employment as a junior photographer/lab manager at yet another busy commercial studio where I shot, among other things, thousands of products for the sale brochures you see in your Sunday papers.  What a training ground that was!

But the best part was that the studio was also doing cutting edge advertising illustration photography and the photographers were top notch.  It was simply amazing to watch them take nothing but a product in a box and create a stunning advertising illustration.  I was hooked ...again.

 

Sparks.  Canon 1ds.  70-200mm F4

Sparks.  Canon 1ds.  70-200mm F4

 

BKKSteve:  Wow!  Looking at your experience(s) in your career path I can't help but wonder how many of those jobs are still available today and in today’s world what education/experience prerequisites would be required.  Do you think it's possible for someone keen for photography and no formal training to follow the same path you did today?

Craig:  That’s a good question.  Today the photography schools churn out far more graduates than there are jobs available, so the market is quite crowded.  But talent stands out and yes, I think a person of talent will find a place, formal training or not.  That said this is not a profession for the weak.  In addition to the large number of people seeking a career in photography, the pay is mostly average or below except for a select few.  In my own career I worked many years for little pay while learning my craft..  And I must thank my wife for being patient and putting up with the meager pay and my obsession for all those years.

 

Tequila Sunrise.  Horseman 4x5, Nikon 300mm, Fuji RTP Film

Tequila Sunrise.  Horseman 4x5, Nikon 300mm, Fuji RTP Film

 

BKKSteve: Yes, today it seems like formal education is available and mostly required for just about every profession, and even trades which traditionally required no formal education.  It's good to know someone can still break into the photography field through hard work and perseverance.  I get 4-5 clients a year going through my workshops who tell me they're thinking of going through an art or photography school.  Once you were hooked on products, did you immediately go into your own business, or did you continue your career path with agencies?

Craig:  I ran a small business of my own for about three years shooting mostly architectural photography after working at that commercial studio.  It was hit or miss at best but I learned a lot about running a business.  In fact it was a real eye opener!  Sadly the income was not nearly enough to keep my household afloat.

Then the job that would shape my career found me.  I was hired to be the in-house photographer for a company that produced boats, recreational vehicles and custom conversion vans.  I now had my own studio. The president of the company was quite thrilled with the quality of work I was producing and gave me a mostly blank check to build the equipment and studio to my taste.  I did!

The important thing was that this job unleashed my creative potential.  The art director was in-house also and together we took the work as far to the edge as we could.  Being in-house also eliminated the need to meet a clients photography budget.. we could experiment until we got it right.  It was during this period that I refined my lighting and studio skills.  These were wonderful years.  Today this same art director owns his own advertising agency and we still work together often.

 

Motoring.  Canon 1ds Mark III, Canon 24-70mm F2.8

Motoring.  Canon 1ds Mark III, Canon 24-70mm F2.8

 

BKKSteve:  And this brings you into the more current part of your career which is photographing boats, trailers, and other recreational vehicles?

Craig:  Yes, after a brief stint as the marketing director for a trailer company I opened a new business providing photography to the RV and Marine industries.  The irony is I started my own business by purchasing the assets of the photo studio from the company where I had been the in-house photographer.  Another plus is that this new business allowed me to bring my wife into the mix and she joined me as my stylist and office manager.

 

Equipment Room.  Horseman 4x5, Nikkor 75mm, Fuji RTP film

Equipment Room.  Horseman 4x5, Nikkor 75mm, Fuji RTP film

 

BKKSteve:  I remember an image you had of your equipment and remember thinking it looked like a camera store!  It must take a lot of equipment and a huge studio for your work, but at the same time I was surprised to find that as far as actual camera equipment goes you were using just a few pieces from your collection?

Craig:  Yes I had a huge collection of stuff and we were still shooting film.  The largest part of my work was shot with a 4x5 view camera.  It was slow and exacting photography but it suited the subjects well and in those days everyone wanted BIG film!  We shot cases of 4x5 transparency film and boxes upon boxes of b/w Polaroid film as a proofing medium.  The Hasselblad 500 c/m was another workhorse and it was used for almost all of the shots that were being reproduced 3"x5" or smaller.  I had a decent collection of 35mm gear but it did not see much service other that running shots of boats or event photography.  The format was considered too small.. imagine that in today's world of the 20+ mega pixel 35mm DSLR.

 

Camera Room.  Horseman 4x5, Nikkor 90mm, Fuji RTP film

Camera Room.  Horseman 4x5, Nikkor 90mm, Fuji RTP film

 

BKKSteve:  I can't help but think that for my own work at least, in the last 7 years or so DSLRs have advanced to a point where for many purposes they've replaced 4x5's and most film use altogether.  Has the transition to digital taken place in your world as well and what are your current cameras of choice?

Craig: Oh yea, digital is the standard for commercial photography.  My experience dates back the Kodak DCS-200 a 1.5 mp black and white camera that cost many thousands of dollars and Photoshop 2.0.  My how things have changed.

Over the course of the last decade I've shot with a BetterLight digital scan back for a 4x5 camera, Nikon D100, Canon 10D, Canon 1Ds, Canon 1ds Mark II, Canon 5D, Canon 450D and my current bad boy, the Canon 1Ds Mark III.  All of this represents tens of thousands of dollars and many generations of computer hardware and software.

Fortunately I think we are fast reaching the phase in digital photography were the upgrade cycle is slowing rapidly.

 

Family Time.  Horseman 4x5, Nikkor 210mm, Fuji RTP film

Family Time.  Horseman 4x5, Nikkor 210mm, Fuji RTP film

 

BKKSteve:  And it couldn’t come too soon!  Sometimes we have to be careful what we wish for.  Okay, so far we've covered your growth as a photographer from the beginning to basically the pinnacle of commercial photography where you're now sitting.  We've discussed your cameras and software.  Now for the good part.  When I look at your images I see a delicate balance of every pertinent element in such a way I've never seen before.

Attention to the smallest details, light in hundreds of places at once, all combined to create a visually stimulating image.  The sort of image that makes us buy expensive boats and RV's.

Can you tell us what’s involved in making one of those images?  What lighting equipment, studio, time required, and prep work?

Craig:  Well, that’s a tough question because every image is different and I employ a number of different methods to get the final result.

But generally speaking a major interior for a boat or RV is 5-8 hours of work, both in the studio and later in post production.  I can use from as many to 20 lights and 5-6 hours in the studio to create an image or as few as 2 or 3 lights and1-2 hours in the studio with an additional 3 to 5 hours in post production.

If it’s a highly crafted and sharply lit interior the standard is about 5 to 8 hours of studio time.

When it comes to the details of the image I am lucky to work with some very talented stylists who craft the ambience of a given trailer or boat.

Fine tuning the image is one of the strengths of digital imaging. It’s not uncommon to shoot 20 or 30 frames as tests to finalize the selection and placement of props, composition and lighting before taking the final exposure.

 

Purple Haze.  Horseman 4x5, Nikkor 300mm, Fuji RTP film

Purple Haze.  Horseman 4x5, Nikkor 300mm, Fuji RTP film

 

BKKSteve: It's probably important to realize that when you give an estimate of 3-5 hours of post production, for the readers to realize you have decades of Photoshop and post-processing experience.  With this expertise you can fashion an image in post to levels most can never achieve, and faster than us mere mortals can imagine.  Some of your images have in excess of 10-15 layers?  I remember an image you had of a hot rod which was lighted and presented in a way rarely seen.  Can you tell us what was involved in shooting that one?

Craig:  Nothing has unleashed my creative potential and my desire to fine tune images like digital capture and Photoshop.  I'm somewhat of a perfectionist and back in the days of shooting and delivering film, I was often disappointed with the printed results of my images in catalogs.  Even though in the later years of shooting film, and digital scans were done, it was uncommon for the agencies to spend much time working on images.  And there was always something I wanted fixed that I just could not do when shooting the image.  Now every image is tweaked to my satisfaction before delivery.

That hot rod shot is an interesting case.  It was shot on 4x5 film and scanned.  I did some retouching on that photo like cleaning up the reflections on the side windows and fixing a few bad spots on the car body, but for the most part it was all done in camera.  The light from the side came from reflecting spotlights on 60 foot section of cyc wall.  There was also a large 15'x30' white reflector in the ceiling with spotlights bounced and a 10' x 16' rolling white reflector with spotlight bounce to light the grill and front of the car.  The floor and back wall were painted purple and the pattern on the back wall was created by shining a spotlight through a piece of cardboard with the pattern cut out of it.  This is the essence of commercial photography, taking a product and creating an illustration by using light and set building.

 

Fantasy Composite.  Canon 1ds Mark II, 24-105mm F4 (trailer), Canon 5D, 24-105mm F4 (background)

Fantasy Composite.  Canon 1ds Mark II, 24-105mm F4 (trailer), Canon 5D, 24-105mm F4 (background)

 

BKKSteve:  A beautiful shot!  I find with many of your images that I can study them for an extended period and never lose interest.  Detail after detail reveals itself in such a way that I can learn much just from observation.  I think it's especially interesting with this image that you combined film with digital processing.

Unfortunately the global economy is on a down turn and it's affecting everyone I know.  Boats and RVs are often purchased as luxury goods so I'm guessing it's affected your business.  Has the economy and perhaps other factors affected your business model?

Craig:  Oh yes, the economy has had a huge impact.  We were shooting RVs and boats in a 10,000sqft studio until a year ago.  At that time $4.00 gas and the housing implosion simply killed the RV and Marine industries.  We were forced to close the studio.  I'm currently shooting only location photography now.  However all segments of the advertising photography market have taken a huge hit.  Work is very hard to find at this point in time.  I can only hope the situation improves soon, not only for my sake but for all of the other advertising photographers being hurt by this down turn.

 

Mobile Resort.  Canon 1ds Mark III, Sigma 12-24mm

Mobile Resort.  Canon 1ds Mark III, Sigma 12-24mm

 

BKKSteve:  Every time we have an economy downturn of this nature we lose businesses, only the strong survive.  And as we lose businesses we lose the photographers who ran the businesses.  I'm looking at the skills you've acquired over 3+ decades in the industry and I can't help but feel what a shame to the industry it would be to lose you as a resource.  Have you noticed many losses of talent because of our current economy?

Craig:  The talent is still there, its just being refocused.  In my old marketplace I'm seeing the big studios like my old one close.  It’s sad to see them go.  But the photographers will continue to create images, just in a new environment.  Change can sometimes be painful but it can be a growth opportunity.

 

Dusk Running, Nikkor 50mm F4, Kodak Kodachrome 64 film

Dusk Running, Nikkor 50mm F4, Kodak Kodachrome 64 film

 

BKKSteve:  Yes.. change often forces growth and opportunity, often in unexpected places.  Craig, I think your career has been fascinating.  Anyone looking at your images can see the you've become a master of your art and I dare say a master of light.  Using light to create your masterpieces in a way that creates/displays your signature look.  Have you given any thought to publishing a book or even video series that can help those just entering the business or even well along in their careers?

Craig:  Thanks, it’s been quite a ride.  I'm doing some teaching now, on a individual level, and I'm hoping to use that for as a template for bringing that information to others.  I've also been trying my hand at writing software reviews which is very interesting.  It’s a challenge.  I had never really given any thought to the teaching aspect of photography so all of this is quite new to me.  But it has been interesting and enlightening.

I’m also shooting more for personal pleasure than ever before.  It’s almost like the old days with my first Minolta.  I’m finding my eye again and simply enjoying the time spent looking for images in the world around me.  Sadly that was an element of photography that went by the wayside when I was shooting so much studio work for commerce. 

 

Rinker Boat.  Canon 1ds, Canon 17-40mm F4

Rinker Boat.  Canon 1ds, Canon 17-40mm F4

 

BKKSteve:  I know that personally I get great satisfaction from teaching my workshops. Perhaps you'll feel the same as you get more into it.  Your reviews have been really well received on this site and I know the software developers love them too.  Now that you've reached the 'master' stage of your career you have much to offer those of us lacking your experience.  I hope you continue in this direction and we see some books and maybe even a video training series from you in time.

I want to thank you for sharing your career with us in this interview.  Hopefully it will provide valuable insight to what it takes to produce images at your level and will encourage anyone thinking of photography as a career.  If I could impose on you for one last question, what would be your advice and direction to someone just starting out in the field who wants to be a commercial advertising photographer?  How should they prepare themselves and what kind of work experiences should they look for?

Craig:  My advice...be a lawyer instead!  Just kidding!

This is a very tough business and you really need to want it badly to succeed.  Despite of the impression this is all glamour and fun, the reality is it’s lots of hard work and long hours.  Sometimes it can be downright boring.

You need to have a real passion and you need to keep learning.  Study the world around you.  Light is your paintbrush and there is no greater school for the quality of light than nature.  Look, learn and recreate what you see.

If you can work as an assistant for a commercial photographer and study everything.  It’s not as easy as it can sometimes look.  As a pro shooting for commerce you will be expected to deliver every time you shoot, regardless of the situation.

Your goal is to put as many tools in your toolbox as possible before you step out on your own.  I can't begin to count the lessons I learned by just watching and assisting.  Those became the very backbone of my career. Be humble and remember even the very best school can't teach you everything.

 

The Domani.  Canon 1ds Mark III, Sigma 12-24mm

The Domani.  Canon 1ds Mark III, Sigma 12-24mm

 

BKKSteve:  This is really great advice Craig.  I hope we can get you back in the future to write a learning topic or two, I'm sure there are a lot more tips and tricks than we've discussed here tonight.  Thank you! I'll give you the last word and say goodnight to you at the same time.

Craig:  Thanks so much for inviting me for this interview.  I hope your readers will find it entertaining, and maybe informative.

My last piece of advice is to keep shooting.  Given the nature of digital photography it’s now possible of be more creative and experimental than ever before.  Use that to your advantage and make images.

 

Family Reunion.  Horseman 4x5, Nikkor 210mm, Fuji RTP film

Family Reunion.  Horseman 4x5, Nikkor 210mm, Fuji RTP film