Written by Lloyd Wise
Edited by Justin Hertog
Diagrams by Halina Steiner
German photographer Jan Steinhilber is in the fast lane. He has shot coveted ad campaigns for Volkswagon and Mercedes-Benz and in the process, netted prestigious awards for his work. Trained as a graphic designer, Steinhilber has a penchant not just for pretty pictures, but for images that communicate with boldness and clarity. “I try to understand the idea of the image, or even make up an idea if it is personal work” he says, “I judge everything I do by asking me whether this helps the idea or not.”
This philosophy is in full effect for our featured image, part of a series Steinhibler shot three years ago showing people as they comically over-react to the sight of a coveted car. In it, a man stares across a parking lot so in awe of the vehicle before him that he has unknowingly emptied his coffee cup onto his pant leg. Inspired by the look of graphic novels, Steinhilber wanted an image that is “almost like a drawing or an illustration, very classic, very focused with a reduction in detail.”
To achieve this minimalist, pared-down aesthetic, Steinhibler opted to cut and paste, piecing the image together from four separate shots: the car, the talent, the building, and the sky. This made lighting a challenge, as it was necessary for “the light for all the single exposures work in a way that they could be credibly composed into one final piece, yet I wanted a light that would allow me to bring out all the details in a hyper-realistic yet somehow artificial way.” To get the “crisp and highly defined textures,” Steinhilber selected a Sinar 4 x 5 camera with a 150mm lens. The exposure was f/32 on Fuji Provia 100 film.
Both the car and building were shot on location using natural sunlight, the light for the car enhanced with 4’ x 4’ reflectors. For the talent Steinhibler chose to shoot in-studio, knowing that he would need to have maximum control over the lighting, which was done with Broncolor strobes. The studio environment was also needed to perfect the coffee stain. Getting it right took a total of six attempts, using a non-staining, fast-drying cleaning fluid chemical rather than real coffee to avoid the expense of ruining several pairs of pants. For the sky, Steinhibler dug into his personal image archive.
The four images were combined in Photoshop and subjected to heavy retouching, a process requiring three basic steps: the heightening of contrast, de-saturation, and re-coloring the image so that the different components matched. “I wanted the image to be very graphic, and to reduce it in post to the elements that are relevant for the story.”
Jan Steinhilber recently spoke with our Editor Zack Seckler about his artistry and his craft.
TFS: Please tell us how the featured photo was inspired by a graphic novels?
Steinhilber: It’s just like, sort of the angle of view, how the foreground relates to the background. It’s not specifically related to one. I am still asked to do stuff in that way, but when I do personal work now, I try to do it slightly different, to develop my skills, to refine everything. I try to do things different or to try to do something in a way I haven’t done it before.
TFS: Do you think that graphic novels inspire the look in a lot of your work?
Steinhilber: No I think it was some sort of time period where I wanted everything to be very much, oh let’s say, in this sort of look, which is almost like a drawing or an illustration, very classic, very on-the-point of what you are saying, very focused with reduction in detail. Or in let’s say details that are not part of this story are taken out. So basically very focused on the story you want to tell. But that changes from time to time. You give that up and then you, you do things in certain ways for a certain amount of time, and then you try something else.
TFS: How did you get your start as a photographer?
Steinhilber: In college I studied graphic design in Wiesbaden and got interested in photography because it was part of the curriculum. After I graduated in 1999, I started working as an assistant while attending college. First Jobs came in while I was still in college, mainly because friends of mine who had already graduated had started to work in agencies. So when I finally graduated I rented a studio and started. At first all I did was still-life. At some point I was asked if I could imagine shooting a car in the studio. I did, they liked it, and soon came the next project.
TFS: Do you think it’s a good idea for young aspiring photographers to assist?
Steinhilber: I think it is, yes, sure, because you get used to the business and how things are going, which are usually things that you wouldn’t learn at school. I mean, you can probably learn to handle technical equipment, and also to develop skills, artistic skills at school, but the way things really go, how you do an estimate, and how you handle everything, that’s much more what you learn when you work in the system apart from getting more experience.
TFS: How has your lighting changed through the course of your career?
Steinhilber: I think I am more efficient now than I was when I started.
TFS: How has it become more efficient?
Steinhilber: Well, I think I’m faster. It doesn’t take me all day and half the night anymore to get my lighting down. Yes, of course, I mean, you get more experienced, you get faster, and you rely more on that experience. That’s only one part and the other part is that I think I am able to, let’s say to achieve the same things with less equipment. In the past, I had to use like four lamps and a lot of different complicated tools and flags and reflectors and everything. Now I can do the job with just two lamps.
TFS: Are there any lights or lighting modifiers you are particularly fond of?
Steinhilber: Sun, sky, and clouds. The problem is, that these are hard to control, so we use a lot of tools to achieve predictable results. I tend to be really proud when I manage to use only available light or–when it comes to studio work–when I succeed to use only one or two lights instead of a mix of different flashlights, dedolights, and Kino Flos that I usually end up with.
TFS: What appeals to you about using natural light?
Steinhilber: That it looks natural, that it’s not, well it always depends on the location to a certain amount, some images and some ideas of course, need more than just natural light or need to be lit in a certain way or need more lighting effects than others. I think the nicest thing is if you look at the picture, and it is just there and you don’t see or don’t think or don’t feel that someone has worked a day on that to have it looked like that and it’s just there and you don’t even have to think about it. It’s just lit. It’s beautiful because of what it is and not because of how it’s lit. I mean, of course it is beautiful, because it is beautifully lit but people shouldn’t see it or think about it. It’s complicated that way. It should look easy, it should look very easily done, not like hard work. That’s probably the best way to tell it.
TFS: What types of projects inspire you the most?
Steinhilber: The ones that have the best ideas, the ones that are the most challenging, and the ones where the teamwork leads to a result that I would not have been able to achieve on my own.
TFS: Have you incorporated CGI into your image making?
Steinhilber: Yes, mainly in tests and personal projects.
TFS: What kind of personal work have you done with CGI?
Steinhilber: Cars on location. I wanted to find out how this works and how it changes the image making process.
TFS: How does the image making process change when working with CGI?
Steinhilber: The work on location does not change that much, except for the fact that you don`t have to light the car. It turns out that stand-in cars are really helpful if available. The most difficult thing is that you can`t really judge what you are doing while you are doing it. You can`t see when is exactly the right moment to do your exposures–you can only guess that it might be.
TFS: How do you see CGI impacting automobile photographers?
Steinhilber: It`s a new tool which should be used just like any other tool. You should always think about what you want to achieve under the circumstances and then think about the best way to achieve it.
It might be CGI or it might be classic photography, depending on the goal. Some locations might make it really difficult or even impossible to place a car; whereas, for example, a dynamic driving shot will always look nicer especially in parts like rims or landscape reflections in the car when it is done as a classic rig-shot.
TFS: Do you see CGI becoming a threat to photographers? If not why not? If so how can photographers protect themselves and stay ahead of the curve?
Steinhilber: I would not call it a threat, but the way pictures are created changes and photography (in the meaning of setting up a camera and pressing the button at the right time) might not be considered as the main part of the image creation anymore when CGI is used. But no matter what technique is used, someone has to have a vision of the image and has to take the responsibility of transforming this vision into a picture. It is up to us photographers if we want to leave this responsibility to ambitious art directors or retouchers or print producers and end up producing background plates, or if we are prepared to take the challenge and create our visions with different techniques.
TFS: Do you frequently shoot for the purposes of expanding your archival imagery? Do you just go out and shoot or do you do location scouting or other planning?
Steinhilber: I do this too little–my archive is really small, containing mainly skies, architectural elements and asphalt surfaces. Most of these images have been shot during tech scouting or prep days. I really believe in creating images with a certain aim or goal, the archive is just a back-up.
TFS: Do you prefer to use multiple images or capture everything in camera?
Steinhilber: I prefer to capture as much as I can in one shot, yet there is no use in accepting a compromise in image quality just for the purpose of having everything in one exposure.
I think of what I want to achieve and then I check my possibilities and try to find the best way to achieve it. Using multiple images is one tool out of many and it is good to use it if it makes sense.
TFS: What do you see as the downsides to using multiple images?
Steinhilber: It never looks as integrated and natural as a one-shot image, it is more work in post production, and it is more difficult for everyone involved in the process to judge if everything that might be needed is covered properly during the shoot.
TFS: How important is doing personal work to you?
Steinhilber: Very important. I have so many Ideas and there are so many things I would like to try to do, so whenever I have time, I work on personal projects.
TFS: Can you give an example of a project you’re working on now and why you chose it?
Steinhilber: There is no project I am working on right now, because I am quiet heavily booked at the moment. The last project I did was a small still life series of three images for a promotional piece of my German agent. She is doing theme-related magazine twice a year and this time the theme was gold. I came up with the idea of showing very simple things that are golden but worthless and displayed them as if they where treasures (a pumpkin, an autumn leaf, and some fish sticks). I think I wanted to do something surprising because the first things you think of when you hear gold are shiny and glossy and upscale.
TFS: How do you approach creating images for personal work?
Steinhilber: I do scribbles, almost layouts. Then I show these to the people I want to involve in the project. We talk, everyone adds something, we plan it and eventually produce it just like if it was a job.
TFS: And do you always do a layout, a sketch of how you want the image to look and kind of very formulaic like that, or is that part of your process in general?
Steinhilber: Kind of, yes. Sometimes it’s just like sketching ideas nothing very formal and not a very refined composition, but whenever I can I try to revise those sketches, and then go one step further and think about, like, Okay what’s the relation and how might this work together and do some simple graphics sketches to get a feeling for an arrangement. Basically doing small layouts to work on those to have a reference, to get a feeling if the idea might work at first.
TFS: So it’s not a specific composition–it just gives you an idea and helps you work through the image and the process?
Steinhilber: Yes, but it’s also, it helps me to get ideas of what might work too, like, you know, if you try things and if you do scribbles or sketches before you start working. Of course, you think that that person could be on the left side or the right or center–even what proportions, how big is the guy or the talent in the shot, what part of his body do I have to see the least or can I leave the whole figure in or how big might that car get in the actual ad–the actual shot in the end, and all that sort of thing. So it helps me to be faster when I shoot because I have something to refer to.