Written by Lloyd Wise
Edited by Justin Hertog
Diagrams by Halina Steiner
When he’s not sailing off the coast of Australia, Andreas Smetana – who was named “Advertising Photographer of the Year” in 2006 and 2007 by AdNews and Capture magazines – is in his studio planning projects and solving problems. Having shot for high-powered clients such as Adidas, IBM, and Pepsi, Smetana thrives on the mental grunt-work of carefully planning each stage of a shoot before he executes it. “That’s what I like about my job–it’s made out of thousands of little decisions” he says, “when I work on a job I like to think through the process and then re-think it to find a way of shooting it in a different direction from my first thought.” Eschewing any specific style, Smetana’s daring attitude and willingness to think ahead has enabled him to generate a diverse profile of powerful, striking, imagery. Look no further than our Featured Image, which was recently shot for Toyota. This fantastical, eerie, photograph of a man with an Australian Rules football trailing a ribbon of grappling defensemen took a lot of thought and some serious innovation.
“The shot was technically very difficult,” he says, “the ‘grips’ needed to look real, so there was lots to think about and plan.” To any observers, the setup might have looked a bit surreal: a trampoline was placed next to a mattress and muscled athletes were asked, one by one, to jump into the air and belly flop while clutching a piece of a mannequin’s body. Smetana shot the talent in the sequence in which they appear, beginning with the ball carrier on the left, building the image as he went. For the cross-section of football field at the bottom of the image, Smetana dragged a 9 x 4 meter square of sod into the studio and photographed it using front, back, and side lighting to create the stadium effect he was after. The earth below the grass was photographed separately using a large aquarium full of roots and dirt. In order to prevent any reflections from the glass of the aquarium he lit the dirt using a single light source equipped with a normal reflector. The background was created in post. Ample thought was given to lighting, as it allowed him to avoid retouching techniques that have, in his view, created a “world-wide genre of work with a strong ‘plastic’ look.” Seeking a “feeling of realness” as well as the look of stadium lighting, Smetana opted for simplicity: “direct light and mainly normal reflectors.” The talent was lit from each corner of the mattress using four standard heads each powered by their own 3000 watt/second Elinchrom power pack at heights varying from 4.6′ to 20′. Two additional heads were suspended from booms at a height of about 9′, and the camera was placed about 11.5′ from a reflector in front of the mattress. He used a Hasselblad H2 camera with a 80 mm lens and the exposure was f/16 at 1/800th of a second. He used a fast flash-duration on the power packs to ensure crisp, motion-free images of the talent. Incredibly, Smetana was able to finish the shooting and retouching a low-res comp in a single day using FlexColor and Photoshop to process the images. After seeing a low-res version of the final image a very happy client signed off and a high-res version was later produced by Electric Art, an Australian retouching studio. It took EA about one week to finish the job.
Smetana was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:
TFS: How would you describe your approach to image making?
Smetana: I always try to start with the idea in the brief. I try to think of a fresh way of getting the idea strongly across by being visually challenging, creating an exciting image–something people haven’t seen before.
In advertising, sometimes clients have a misconception that fulfilling a brief with photography only means creating an image that reflects the idea. I don’t believe that. If images have no visual power on their own, if the photographer doesn’t find that extra layer, if it’s not arresting, then nobody cares about the idea either. You need both.
TFS: How would you describe your style?
Smetana: I actually try not to have one. I get a kick out of exploring new ways, new looks to communicate concepts. I love the idea of finding the direction that’s right for the specific brief. This up-front thinking process is half the work and makes all the difference I think.
In our industry, we have to think time, budget, media, creative idea, client, other brief details, product point-of-difference, and so on. All of these factors input into what the “right” vision is for a particular assignment.
TFS: Who or what inspires your vision?
Smetana: Photographers who are better than I am, filmmakers, musicians, an afternoon sailing. It really depends. There are lots of shooters I find incredibly inspiring–Herb Ritts, Albert Watson, Richard Avedon–I just admire totally. I love the work of James Nachtwey, the war photographer.
I think that the time is over when an elite group produces all the best work. I sometimes see images I just love, even if I might not know of the photographer who shot them. The bar setting really good work is getting higher—and likewise the bar for bad work is getting lower.
TFS: What projects do you enjoy the most?
Smetana: Jobs paying lots are great! And I really love to go left of center a little–that turns me on. It is often not about perfection but finding a fresh way to add some soul, some feeling, some humor.
I always look for jobs that leave room for the unexpected; otherwise, working in the advertising industry can feel just like that, like working in an industry instead of having fun creating something new and interesting.
TFS: Can you give an example of a job that left room for the unexpected and how you took advantage of that opportunity?
Smetana: When I work on a job I like to think through the process and then rethink it to find a way of shooting it in a different direction from my first thought. I don’t believe in the first instincts being the right ones! Maybe in love but not in photography.
We worked on a campaign for Workcover, which is like workers’ compensation, in New South Wales, Australia. The layout showed accidents in workplaces. But we ended up with incredibly downplayed, simple, dignified portraits of people who had been severely injured on the job. You can really see the strength in their faces and what they’ve been through. We started with a campaign showing victims but we ended up with a much more powerful series of proud people–and it still communicated the safety idea very strongly. For me, that slight change of brief made the shots and campaign so much better.
That’s what I like about my job: it’s made out of thousands of little decisions–every photograph is–and those decisions are formed by what inspires me. So we all really need to work to stay hungry and stay inspired. And then I filter out the input that’s hot smoke from what’s of value.
TFS: What is your approach to lighting?
Smetana: I guess just identifying the mood I want to create and the rest pretty much flows naturally from there.
TFS: How has your lighting changed through the course of your career?
Smetana: I learned more and still do–I had a very solid training so that really helps me now every day. I still rely on those basics but have grown and changed naturally over the years. I try to challenge myself to change my lighting for each brief. I often like the idea of switching things around, and not using the obvious light for a shoot.
For example, I did something different for the last job I did for Kraft Foods. It was a huge modelmaking job and I decided to keep the light extremely real. It looks more like a snapshot than a great big campaign. I could have made it a “better-looking” image but we would not have kept the realness, freshness, and believability for the campaign. It’s not “technically great” but we created a very cool modern feel, and I think it was the right direction.
TFS: What factors influence your lighting decisions?
Smetana: The product, the layouts, the creative idea, the target–it depends.
TFS: Are there any lights or lighting modifiers you are particularly fond of?
Smetana: I love it all, really. I have my phases.
TFS: How would you describe the phase you’re in now?
Smetana: I always compare lighting with Formula One Racing: you have to use every trick in the book to go just 5 Km/h faster. At the moment I’m trying to get back to realness. Retouching created a worldwide genre of work with a strong plastic look. And as much as I love that look, and I think it works extremely well for some concepts, I try to give my shots a feeling of realness, a kind of snapshot feeling. This direction is harder and harder these days as the concepts are bigger and more retouching oriented. So I find it a challenge to make incredibly difficult work look real.
TFS: How do you approach creating images for personal work?
Smetana: Doing what I want to do is nice! Giving it a “non-commercial” feel is where I start since I do so much advertising work normally.
TFS: Your imagery sometimes involves extensive retouching how does your approach to image making change when working on an image that will either require heavy retouching versus none at all?
Smetana: My decision hangs on lots of factors: the layout, budget, etc. Often I love to look at what else is out there at the time of the campaign and try to find a different look rather than do what’s obvious. Sometimes I get a layout and it’s so great that I just want to let it be what it is, not play too much, not take the life out.
TFS: Can you give an example?
Smetana: I’d say the campaign for Kraft Easy Mac (macaroni and cheese). The shot was taken from the perspective of the teenagers’ mouths, which are turned into the huge, mean mouths of sharks, lions, and bears–wild animals representing taste and hunger. We had these incredible and amazing models of the animals’ mouths made, but in the end we decided to give the campaign a very young and cool feel–not studio perfect, but rather a snapshot. I think it was the right way but not necessarily the obvious way to go.
TFS: What did you like so much about the Toyota idea?
Smetana: The Toyota layout was a technically difficult one to make look great. The elements don’t fit: on the one hand you want to show strength, power, and movement; on the other hand there is a lot of post to be done. I thought it would be a great challenge to create a shot that looked great without losing any elements or showing weakness. I often think it would be great to see the same layout shot by different photographers and see other people’s approaches.
I worked closely with a terrific creative director (Jason Williams, now at Leo Burnett, Melbourne) and we were discussing extreme realism vs. simplicity. We decided to go extremely toned down, keeping it very graphic and bare. We thought it would give us an image with more interest and power. We wanted to show the idea of strength and mobility at its strongest visually. The look also fit the media very well–I love a simple look for outdoor and it looked great in magazines.
The shot was technically very difficult. The “grips” (one person’s hand on another’s legs) needed to look real, so there was lots to think about and plan. Shooting it in the studio meant also we did not waste time or money for locations. We had more control and added nothing that we did not absolutely need. It worked very well I think.
TFS: How much freedom did you have with this assignment?
Smetana: Is there freedom in advertising? We had a great layout, a great creative director to work with, and a client who trusted us. The agency liked our written treatment before the job and they loved the final image–that’s as much freedom I need.
TFS: How much input did you have?
Smetana: Lots. I always try to create room for my input before the job, before shooting. Our clients tend to like to hear our input and thoughts. That is really what they pay for, besides the manual work of shooting it.
TFS: Can you discuss any specific input you provided for this image?
Smetana: I wrote a treatment for the CD, discussing why I thought to keep it simple, why I didn’t think we should shoot on location, showing visual reference, and so on. The shooting days were long but it was the thought and direction beforehand that’s the heavy lifting. I think that’s what made this campaign look cool. That’s most of the work–creating the shot in your head first.
TFS: How important is doing personal work to you?
Smetana: Very, but I feel I don’t have enough time to do it as much as I would like. I think it all depends very much on your stage of your career–how much time you have got, how much time you want to set aside for personal time. I guess once they don’t give me work anymore I will shoot even more! I am so impressed by Nadav Kandar and the amazing amount of great personal work this man shoots–really impressive. I work lots so for me the idea of going sailing for two weeks sounds as important as doing a personal campaign. It’s a hard balance.
TFS: Any tips for photographers about how to keep a balance?
Smetana: No…hmmm…buy a sailboat!
Creative Director: Jason Williams
Agency: Leo Burnett, Australia
Retouching: Electric Art