If you’ve been hanging out for some great information and story then this interview is for you. Russ has taken full advantage of the RAW interview providing us with an amazing insight into how he works. Chances are you have come across his website before so now you get to understand the man behind the lens.
Tell us a little about yourself?
I’m a commercial shooter based in Tampa, FL specializing in promotional imagery for bands & musicians. I was also a professional musician and recording artist in a past life, so I find that this genre is a perfect blend of my two greatest artistic passions. Simply put, I thoroughly love what I do, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
What made you get into photography?
Oddly enough, just 3 short years ago I knew absolutely nothing about photography, and had no interest in it whatsoever. I got my very first camera (a Canon DSLR) as an unexpected birthday gift in August 2008, and at first it was relegated to simply being a glorified point-and-shoot. However, I soon discovered this relatively new (at the time) thing called HDR, and it caused me to look beyond simply using a camera to document life’s moments—I began to view the camera as an artistic tool in itself. But the thing that was a real game-changer for me was watching the OneLight video by Zack Arias— it totally changed my life. Suddenly I realized that impactful and professional-looking portraits were actually within my reach, and I immediately ran out and bought my first strobe and umbrella. I haven’t looked back since.
How did you get started?
Armed with a shiny new strobe and 60″ umbrella, I began using my newborn daughter as a [captive] subject while I developed an eye for the subtleties of exposure, shadows, and highlights. My wife and I would frequently post the results of my little “experiments” on Facebook, and once some of the other mommies saw what was going on, they naturally began to inquire about having me photograph their babies as well. Shortly thereafter I found myself in a rather strange (but fortunate) set of circumstances where 6 or 7 of our “couple” friends all had newborn babies within the space of a few months, so there were suddenly plenty of photographic subjects available to help me refine my craft. I established Russ Robinson Photography as a business in December 2008, launched a brand new website, and set out to be the best baby/family/maternity photographer in Tampa. Obviously, I deviated from that path somewhere down the line, but that’s how it all started for me.
What sort of photography do you mainly do?
In April of 2010 I was asked by a local band to shoot some promotional images for their upcoming album. Not knowing a thing about band photography whatsoever, I was naturally quite intimidated by the request, but vowed to do the shoot for free as a learning opportunity— provided, of course, that the band acknowledged my limited experience and that they were willing to assume the associated risks. Since these guys were fairly cash-strapped (imagine that—a poor, struggling local band!), they of course had no problem agreeing to be patient with me during the shoot while I fumbled around trying to figure out how to make them look like rock star gods.
Over the subsequent 2 weeks leading up to our agreed-upon shoot date, I spent many hours looking through the portfolios of some other music photographers that I admire (guys like Zack Arias, JoeyL, Jeremy Cowart, and Dave Hill) trying to get a handle on what makes a great band photo. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the punchy, hi-def stuff that I tended to gravitate toward was shot using a multiple-light setup. In other words, my little lonesome Alien Bees strobe and umbrella just weren’t going to cut it. So I immediately picked up two more strobes, a beauty dish, and a light stand with a boom arm (I guess maybe I have masochistic tendencies at times, because the idea of doing a shoot with 3 lights when you’re used to only shooting with 1 seems like a recipe for disaster). Fortunately, the band remained true to their word as far being patient with me, and I eventually managed to pull off a couple of decent shots. I had an unbelievably amazing time that day— learning as I went, making a few mistakes but laughing them off, sharing stories and experiences, and talking about the crazy music industry with people who could actually relate with where I’d come from. In short, that day I discovered my true calling in the photography world— I wanted to be a band photographer.
What gear are you using?
My main camera is a Canon 5D Mark II, and I use a Canon 1Ds Mark II as a backup. I’m blessed with some really great glass— five Canon L-series lenses (17-40mm 4.0L, 24-70 2.8L, 70-200 2.8L, 50mm 1.2L, 85mm 1.2L). I’m still using Alien Bees strobes, and I’ve amassed a fairly large collection of modifiers for different shooting situations.
Whats your favourite lens and why?
Right now it’s the 24-70 because of its versatility. However, I still sometimes reach for the 50mm because of its ultra-shallow DOF (useful when shooting outdoors with busy backgrounds) and also because it produces a stunningly gorgeous bokeh.
How are you marketing yourself?
At the risk of sounding crass, I actually don’t do much marketing at all. I intentionally limit my bookings to roughly 2 or 3 per month, for a couple of reasons. First off, I’m not a full-time photographer, so my day job and family activities take up the lion’s share of my available time. Secondly, I’m extremely methodical in the way I go about producing my images. I typically have at least one face-to-face “creative planning” meeting with every client to map out the artistic direction for each shoot, and there is usually some fairly extensive back-and-forth communication via email and/or phone to nail down specific ideas, lighting styles, and overall looks. A bi-product of this approach is that it forces me to focus exclusively on each client, one at a time, and of course everyone loves to feel like they’re the only client you’ve got. This usually translates into referrals, which helps me to stay quite busy.
Whats your favourite photo you have taken?
Before I reveal what my favorite shot is, please allow me to set a little bit of context. I do the vast majority of my shooting in a room that’s roughly 25′ x 15′, with 9′ ceilings. Having a relatively small studio space has forced me to get really creative when it comes to controlling light and preventing unwanted spill. In addition, photographing groups of people has historically been a huge challenge for me (not exactly a good situation when your primary clientele consists of bands). However, these constraints ultimately led to quite a serendipitous little situation. Please allow me to explain….
One day while shooting a band client it occurred to me that instead of trying to squeeze everyone into such a tight space, perhaps I could simply shoot each band member separately and then later recombine them all in Photoshop. Not only would this make things more comfortable for the band members during the shoot, but it would also completely eliminate traditional concerns such as catching someone with their eyes closed or with a funky expression on their face. In other words, we would have the freedom to pick and choose the best shot of each individual person so that the final product was something that everyone could be happy with.
Although this approach significantly increased the amount of retouching work I had to perform following each session, it soon became my go-to method of shooting bands in the studio. It gave me the ability to easily make adjustments band members’ relative heights to produce a more pleasing overall composition, and it allowed me to create interesting arrangements and group poses that would have been infinitely more difficult to capture in a single frame. But the really serendipitous part is that this methodology not only forced me to get really good at extractions and compositing, but it eventually took on a creative life of its own. I began to shoot my bands with an eye toward how I would eventually post-process them in Photoshop, lighting and posing them in a way that would ultimately complement the environment into which I planned to place them. For instance, I began incorporating colored gels to simulate the amber light of a sunset, or sidelighting my subjects to simulate streetlights. These choices ultimately made the composites more seamless and believable, and allowed me greater artistic flexibility to experiment with new concepts. Today, composites are a central part of what I do, and a major reason that many of my clients come to me.
Anyway, now that I’ve gotten that painfully long explanation out of the way (please forgive my long-windedness), let me briefly summarize the important aspects of my favorite shot. The client was a jazz guitarist named Tim Riddle, and during the course of our creative planning phase I suggested a shot where he would be in the center of the frame with converging lines behind him (a recurring and prominent feature of Joel Grimes’ work). In order to pull off the composite I saw in my mind’s eye, I lit him in the studio with gridded softboxes on either side for rim light, and a beauty dish directly overhead. In post I added a new background of course, but also dropped in a different sky with an ominous-looking moon to complete the image, mainly because the title of Tim’s upcoming album was “Luna Loca” (or “Crazy Moon” in Spanish). In all, I spent about 8 hours retouching this image, and you can see the “Before & After” comparison here.
Advice for new photographers looking to go pro?
It’s imperative that you do something to differentiate yourself from the competition. With everybody and their brother entering the photography arena these days, simply being able to produce a well-exposed, technically sound image isn’t going to cut it anymore. You have to find your unique inner voice and run with it. Not only will it help you stand out from the crowd, but ultimately you’ll find that your work is so much more fulfilling and rewarding. When things get tough (and they will), your inner drive and passion will be what carries you through.