Zachary Scott has always been interested in blurring the lines between photography and its older cousins, drawing and painting. He was one of the pioneers of the now-ubiquitous illustrative effect. But before art director’s desks were flooded with that style, Scott’s innovations buoyed his portfolio to the top of the stack.
“My work looked different from other photographers. I was being considered for things that felt more Americana, like a Norman Rockwell kind of style,” he says. “My conceptual skills helped. Magazines and ad agencies want to see that you can think before they hire you. Even if they have the concept worked out, they still want to hire people they think can process concepts and understand how to communicate an idea and translate it into a photograph.”
Our featured image is one such concept. Scott says he recognized an element of the absurd in the Got Milk? campaign, as well as a “soft beauty” look he planned to later emphasize during his postproduction process. At the shoot, with tiger cub and trainer, Scott set up his lighting carefully. He used four Profoto heads bounced against two white v-flats to light the blue screen background, a 5’ Octabank positioned almost directly above the talent, a magnum reflector with grid and diffusion above the camera position, a ring flash for fill and two 1’ x 4’ strip lights positioned behind the talent for highlights. He set his highlights at an angle of incidence. “When you do that, you’re not really dealing with a lot of power in those lights,” he says. “It’s about positioning.” The final image was a composite of a handful of images all shot on the same set with the same lighting. The exposure was consistent throughout: f/16 at 1/250th of a second at 50 ISO. He admits to using equal parts knowledge and intuition when making his lighting arrangements, and swears by Magnum reflectors for their flexibility. “I don’t try to light an entire picture with one main key light source.” Though he believes people weren’t intended to spend as much time in front of computers as he does, Scott remains inspired by the “infinite possibilities” of retouching, which leads to “almost every one” of his pieces being a composite.
Art buyers and directors often want to see the personal work of the photographers they hire. In Scott’s case, there is no division. “On some level my portfolio is personal, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it,” he says. Unlike many commercial photographers, he prefers to spend his free time not behind a camera, but with his family. “I try to use editorial as an outlet for that personal work. I actually operate better when I have an assignment,” he says. “I don’t wake up in the morning and think I’m going to get my camera out and go shoot something.”
Scott was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:
F STOP: Let’s start with the featured image, White Gold. How did you get the job?
Scott: White Gold was a Got Milk? Campaign. I had been working with Goodby, Silverstein & Partners off and on for seven or eight years. Jenny Taich, a senior art buyer at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners knows me and I had worked separately with Brian Gunderson, the art director on the project, when he was at Templin Brink Design on a Michael Graves project for Target.
F STOP: What was the ad agency looking for stylistically for this campaign?
Scott: The look of this campaign was different than a lot of the things that I’ve worked on with them before. The assignment had this ridiculous beauty look that contrasted with our main character, White Gold. It’s an over retouched, semi-plastic romantic look.
F STOP: You were definitely working with some interesting characters, Siberian tigers…
Scott: It’s supposed to look like a Siberian tiger, but it’s just a regular tiger. We couldn’t get white tigers so we shot a tiger cub, which is about the size of a great dane.
F STOP: Was there just one?
Scott: Yes. Everything in the shot was a separate element. We did the whole campaign that way because they had to be so specific about their layout. The project was built around the layout, so we decided early on to composite the image later, rather than get it all on camera.
Scott: It’s really cool, not something you’re going to do every day. The tiger trainers were pretty crazy. One guy was letting the tiger climb all over his back and wrestled with it. However, there were a lot of precautions, like you couldn’t move suddenly on stage.
F STOP: Did you guys have to drug him up at all?
Scott: No. I think they take him on little walks. They have a giant chain they walk him on.
F STOP: How did you decide to light this? Did you know before hand what you were going to do?
Scott: I do some variations of lighting set-ups on almost every job; I just use different ratios depending on what I have to do. In this particular scenario, I think that the Octabank coming in from above was doing more than just about everything else. I raked it in front of White Gold for a few shots too, where everything else provided fill. I brought a lot of it out through the retouching. I wanted to record everything more or less, and not have like really hard shadows, because of the soft beauty look that they were going for.
F STOP: Do you let your highlights blow out?
Scott: No, the only place where they usually get hot is on my edge lights. I don’t turn them up very much. I position them in a place where I get a reflection, basically off of the subject. So I put them at an angle of incidence. When you do that, you’re not really dealing with a lot of power in those lights, it’s about positioning. In post if I feel like they need to go hotter, I just do it. My film or digital film is mostly flat before I get in there the ratio between my key and my filler. The key is usually half a stop brighter than everything else. Often times their exposure value, the f-stop that they’re at is even less than everything else. They appear to be a brighter light because they’re reflecting off of the subject but I don’t really think about the lighting that much. I just sort of get everything out start shooting and if it looks good, then I keep going in that way and if not, we change it up.
F STOP: Do you have a standard way of lighting things?
Scott: It’s some variation of this (what we just discussed). It’s been a little bit different lately, I might diffuse my Magnum or use more or less of my ring flash. There is some order to it, but I tend to break everything down into pieces on all my shots and adjust lighting as I’m shooting.
F STOP: How did you arrive at your general style as far as setting up lights and the types of lights and the positioning of those lights?
Scott: I’ve tried a lot of things like similar lighting sources and this just seems the most consistent and easy for me to modify. For example, I like having a Octabank above my set because it provides an overall even light to everything. I like having frontal fill coming off of a ring flash because I think that it has more of a textural quality than let’s say putting an Octabank or another giant light source behind the camera. I used to shoot like that. I like a Magnum as my key light because it’s kind of small but it can still be a soft light. And I can position it where I want to. Let’s say if I’m shooting a subject I can get it right on their face and let it fall off on their body and let my ring light and other lights do their job of illuminating the rest of it. I don’t try to light an entire picture with one main key light source.
F STOP: Tell me a little bit about how your work in post.
Scott: Almost every one of my images is a composite. I shoot a lot on blue screen or green screen. I like having my background sharp, foreground and subject sharp. I work on everything separately. There are infinite possibilities with retouching.
F STOP: Do you do all of your own retouching?
Scott: I manage it and I prep some images if I’m not too busy. I spend a lot of time comping and probably just as much time overseeing the retouching. I work with Satik Digital in New York. They’re aware of my process and kind of how I like things to look, but I still play an integral role in seeing the image through from start to finish.
F STOP: How long have you been shooting for?
Scott: I’ve been shooting for about 10 years. I took it up when I started art school at Art Center.
F STOP: When did you start doing the illustrative look?
Scott: I started messing around with that about four years ago. I’m not really sure where that’s going right now. I’ve always been interested in blurring the boundary between painting, drawing, and photographs. There is a lot of that out there, so it’s lost it’s appeal in some ways. I’m trying to develop some other kind of a look that’s still true to that intention. I think I want to arrive at this illustrative look through a more conventional, general mean, which just might be focusing on the art direction more.
Scott: There were a few of us that were doing it before everybody did it. We all had a similar take on it but it looked different. Now it’s not really unique anymore.
F STOP: You’re 29 and have already been quite successful. How do you think you found success so quickly?
Scott: I don’t want to say I’m one of the first people to do what I do, but my work looked different from other photographers. I was being considered for things that felt more Americana, like a Norman Rockwell kind of style. It helped me get to a place that was unique and worked at the time. My conceptual skills helped. Magazines and ad agencies want to see that you can think before they hire you. Even if they have the concept worked out, they still want to hire people they think can process concepts and understand how to communicate an idea and translate it into a photograph. Earlier in my career I got hired by Kathleen Clark at LA Magazine, who was one of my teachers. That professional work was a segue way to meeting my agent, John Sharp. Having my portfolio in his hands opened a lot of doors for me. I think having your agent shop your portfolio keeps you on the ad agencies’ radar. Shooting for the New York Times Magazine was also crucial. It was huge in terms of building notoriety.
F STOP: What do you think you would be doing if you weren’t’ a photographer?
Scott: I’d be happy doing anything design related: architecture, interior design, furniture, anything like that.
F STOP: Is there anything that you don’t like about being a photographer?
Scott: The amount of time I spend in front of my computer wears on me. I don’t think that humans were meant to be in front of computers this long. I spend at least 8 to 10 hours a day on the computer.
F STOP: Do you ever do any personal work?
Scott: I really don’t. I spend most of my extra time with my family. I try to use editorial as an outlet for that personal work. I actually operate better when I have an assignment. I don’t wake up in the morning and think I’m going to get my camera out and go shoot something. I enjoy having the assignments, so I just kind of wait for them to come and they generally do. If I were to change anything, I’d try to do more of it. Usually I’m booked on an ad job and I can’t put all of my time into the editorial assignments, so I have to turn them down a lot, which I hate doing. Generally I’ll lose money on it. I’ll end up using their budget and putting some of my own money into it just to make it exactly the way I want it. I really do view it as advertising for me and at the same time being a creative outlet. You don’t get as much of that in the advertising world.
F STOP: You were just talking about how some of your shoots require building a set. Do magazines always have budgets for those kind of expenses?
Zachary: Yeah, they do. Everybody has to be extremely cost effective and do what they can. This might mean calling in favors or approaching the problem in a resourceful way. My crew might grumble while we’re doing it but everyone seems to be happy with the work we get done. A large budget certainly helps, but doesn’t dictate how well the image will turn out. While they don’t provide anything close to an ad budget, they do provide plenty of creative freedom.
F STOP: What kind of budget would a magazine have for a shoot where you need to build a set? Meaning the production costs, not your fee.
Zachary: I haven’t made any money on editorial projects this year. A typical assignment for a men’s magazine feature might include three or four images total. Two might require large sets, one may be a still life and perhaps the fourth might be a portrait against a backdrop. They magazine could come up with between $15,000 to $20,000 for something like that. There are generally larger budgets for multiple pictures. You might $6,000 or $7,000 tops for a single image. Up to $10,000 maybe.
F STOP: Have you noticed your advertising clients trying to get things done on smaller budgets?
Scott: Yeah, they are. They’re probably being pinched and in turn photographers are too. Everybody takes a hit when the economy is down. You’re going to do poorly as a photographer if you get stuck in an idea of what your fees are and are not willing to work with ad agencies’ budgets in a time like this. I’m working with their budgets and doing the best I can.
F STOP: A lot of times art buyers say that they care more about a photographer’s personal work than their commissioned work. Have you ever heard people say, “Where’s your personal work?”
Scott: No. I haven’t really heard that. On some level my portfolio is personal, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it.
F STOP: Your pictures almost always involve people and you get them to emote in fun and expressive ways. How do you get them to perform for you?
Scott: I’m very casual about it. We have a very relaxed, chill set. I try to create a safe environment for them to act like a dork. I shoot a lot, nonstop. It becomes a hassle when I have to go back and edit, but I like to cover a lot.
Scott: I’ll ask like a guy to giggle like a little girl. That’s probably the most ridiculous thing, I don’t know where I got that from. I want people to be natural on set. Everybody has a different style. Some people tell their talent what their motivation is. I’ll tell them the gist of it, but I don’t get too into it because I don’t want them to over think it. I’d prefer they are natural on set. The guy that we shot for White Gold became the character the second he walked on set. I didn’t really have to say anything to him. That’s an example of just having a great actor. He looked at me straight in the eyes and put his guitar in his crotch and started making pelvic thrusts and sticking his tongue out at me. I thought “okay, this is gonna be easy.” This guy is already crazy. We don’t have to bring out the crazy.
F STOP: How did you find him?
Scott: He was cast through the production company and most likely chosen by the commercial director. It was a full-scale ad campaign launch where they leaked the TV spots (music videos) on YouTube without identifying them as a got milk campaign, when the tv spots dropped, the website also went up and our print ads were released. I think it was the agency’s dream to not even have the Got Milk? Logo on it. It created so much mystery. Is this a real band? Is it not? The people would eventually figure it out that it was Got Milk? because all the songs are about drinking milk. I think the “got milk” discovery for the viewer had a unique and tremendous impact.