Written by T.K. Dalton
Edited by Jesi Khadivi
Diagram by Brandon Jones
“Photography is like a marriage,” says F. Scott Schafer. “To stay excited and in love, you need to keep pushing yourself.” Following his own advice, he has pushed himself for years, through junior college and art school, landing a job after graduation and never looking back. The lifelong music lover snuck a camera into the metal shows he attended growing up in San Francisco. As a professional he has shot Velvet Revolver, Outkast, Motorhead, Aerosmith, and, in our featured image, DMX. The shot we’re featuring was a double-page advertorial assignment commissioned by Suzuki motorcycles for an auspicious edition of Rolling Stone―the magazine’s 1,000th issue.
Shot under the West Side Highway in Harlem, Schafer used a location that was spacious and free, something that’s often hard to find in New York. That free factor proved crucial, allowing him to afford a water truck to wet the streets. This detail sealed the nocturnal mood he’d been aiming for, in which he could frame the subjects in a rich, dramatic setting. The lighting, seven Profoto lights powered by a combination of battery powered and generated electricity (see diagrams for more technical info), complemented the nocturnal background, and the water accentuated Schafer’s effects equipment (gels, fog and practical fire) to create a texture that virtually shimmered with verisimilitude. Schafer placed the camera in two different positions to capture the talent and the background plates for this composite image. The exposure was f/16 at 15 seconds for the background and f/16 at 1/60th of a second for the talent. All of the images were captured on a Mamiya RZ with a 65mm lens and Portra 400 film. He got the most out of it by shooting with film, rather than digital, using Polaroids to gauge the page placement and exposure composition. He is equally comfortable with film and with digital, but saw advantages to film in this case. “When you shoot film you have more latitude in many ways, certainly in regards to highlights,” he says. He began compositing long before Photoshop, and he says he has “always treated Photoshop as a glorified printer.” Digital innovations have allowed photographers more freedom, he says, but that freedom makes it harder to distinguish yourself. To fight this, often looks turns to another medium. “I always look at movies, a lot of photographers do,” he says. “We’re always looking back and reinventing what’s next.”
Schafer has undergone his own fair share of reinvention in his distinguished career. He has worked with countless celebrities. At first, he was nervous, but not anymore. “I’ve reached a level of maturity where I can handle the big job now. We did a half a million-dollar job this year and I felt comfortable doing that. When I shot an album package for Aerosmith in ’96 for $70,000 I could not sleep for months, it just consumed me,” he says. Now, he says, ten minutes with a cinder block wall and Allen Iverson can lead to a great shot. “That just comes with experience and time and confidence.”
He shot an anxious Sarah Silverman for a Maxim cover. “My job was to reassure her and to lighten up the mood. I have a particular amount of experience with comedians. They tend to be really intense people, actually,” he says. His solution is simple. “I just try to be the total regular dude. I’m not a personality, I just try to make it easy.” In some ways, he says, he has the easiest job, one that’s not unlike the stars in front of his lens. “I’m on stage. I’m a performer,” he says, adding that others on the shoot can worry about budgets and timeframes. “My job is to have fun and take pictures.”
Schafer was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:
F STOP: Let’s start discussing the featured image you did of DMX and the Ruff Riders.
Schafer: The advertorial was for Rolling Stone/Suzuki for the 1000th issue of Rolling Stone Magazine and the anniversary edition of the motorcycle. They wanted DMX in it and this motorcycle crew, the Ruff Riders. We scouted locations in New York for the right kind of urban, night vibe. We were able to get a location in Harlem for free, which helped our budget quite a bit. I pitched the idea of shooting a cool evening shot, hanging out on the street and proposed wetting the street down to get a nice ambient vibe.
I have a pretty good relationship with Rolling Stone and they trust my ideas. We’ve had things come out well before, so they let me do what I want.
F STOP: Tell me about how you this shot this.
Schafer: I always shoot with Profoto. I had a Honda 5600 [generator], which you can only run with two packs. Everything else we ran with [battery operated Profoto] 7Bs. I think you can run a total of 40 amps off the Honda 5600, so you can run two packs at full power without it clicking off.We had them [7Bs] up on high highboys to light up the bridge and used narrow beam reflectors that are like flat reflective pans. They spread light well. We set the high-boys behind the giant pillars of the bridge overhead and we gelled it up with green and blue to emulate a fluorescent mercury vapor vibe. The light behind DMX is a strobe that we gelled to mimic the street lights to the right of the bridge. We also had a water truck and used a smoke machine. It’s nice to use them outdoors because it dissipates quickly and you can get nice effects.
F STOP: Why did you decide to wet down the street?
Schafer: It’s an old movie trick: wet down the street, especially if you’re shooting at night, because it picks up the light. It’s like adding another light source. Dry concrete does not look as exciting as a wet concrete.
F STOP: How many pieces were composited to make the image?
Schafer: It’s a composite of four images. Two vertical shots of DMX and his crew shot at the same time that lined up. We went back and forth on two cameras. I shot the background as well, so we had to plate the background in two verticals. The camera stayed stationary but we had to do multiple pops with the strobes to the background. Even with the 7Bs cranked up all the way it was a lot of distance to get the bridge lit up. We did about 20 second burns with multiple pops at the same time to get good [background] plates. We had to do a lot of backlighting to keep them separated. Obviously, if [the background] goes black it becomes quite difficult to separate them, so the smoke and backlighting helped cut an edge for us to composite. But there’s also no way I could ask those guys to sit there for 15 second burns, they’d just go crazy. I barely had DMX for ten minutes before he got restless.
F STOP: How long have you been doing compositing?
Schafer: It’s always come up throughout my career. I did a ton of music in the ‘90s so art directors were always doing head swaps with my stuff, but I was never in control of that. Art directors are savvy at compositing things on the post-end, probably more than most photographers. We’ve been compositing as early as 2000. I’ve done a lot of composites successfully, without shooting digitally.
F STOP: Obviously digital makes it easier. Is there anything you had to account for differently now with digital when you are shooting film?
Schafer: I come from a background where I mastered all the techniques of exposure and processing, like most photographers did before going digital. Digital isn’t more relaxed, it’s just different. When you shoot film you have more latitude in many ways, certainly in regards to highlights. If I shoot [film] and overexpose a bit or my highlights are blown, then I can bring it back to a certain degree. I have that luxury with digital. When I got my own scanner and started doing everything in-house I started getting control back. My printing skills came in handy when I started adapting to the post-end Photoshop. I’ve always treated Photoshop as a glorified printer where I could control my dodging, burning and color balances.
F STOP: How did you get started?
Schafer: I grew up in San Francisco and was a big metal fan. We used to sneak our cameras into big rock shows. I took a fine art photography class in junior college and I started to work for a lab owned by an Art Center graduate. He taught me hand-line processing, E6, E41, printing, color printing, duping, 4X5 copy work, and small product work, and introduced me to Art Center. I would not have known anything about going to art school without him. I got into Art Center with a lot of technical prowess, but without a creative background. By the time I graduated I was already working. [Now] I’m 42.
F STOP: Where do you see things going trend-wise?
Schafer: Trends are a catch-22. You need it because you want work, but it ends up being the death of you eventually because people will typecast you or pigeonhole you. I think now people want to go back to Terry Richardson’s flash on-camera point and shoot look. I love Mert and Marcus and Steven Klein. Those guys are very diverse and they still shoot a lot of film. For or me the trend has always been film. I always look at movies, a lot of photographers do. We’re always looking back and reinventing what’s next. With digital, everyone is on the same playing field now technically. Although everyone has their own style, Sascha Waldman and Jim Fiscus have an incredibly trendy advertising look.
F STOP: How long do you think trends last?
Schafer: I don’t really gauge it by time. I always feel like the trend goes like this: it fires up in editorial and then it ends in advertising. What I mean by ‘advertising’ is the ad companies that will catch up like three years later. You start working hardcore in editorial and can’t get anyone in advertising to hire you to actually get any money. Once you get to do it in advertising, it’s already dead editorially. Today, I don’t really feel I’m thrown into a typecast anymore. I think I’m in a different place. My work had broadened and I don’t feel like I’m as stuck.
F STOP: When you were more pigeonholed, what was it like?
Schafer: When people are hiring you it’s great. I don’t think I can only shoot one thing. Variety keeps everything interesting. I tell students that photography is like a marriage and to stay excited and in love, you need to keep pushing yourself. If you only get hired to do the same thing over and over again and don’t do anything different for yourself it will end up going away. That’s a scary place. It can be very frightening. And I’ve certainly gone through that. I had to break out of it, so I did a complete 180.
F STOP: How did you change?
Schafer: I didn’t purposely make a change, a change happened. My agency closed. I was coming off one of the best years of my career and then all of a sudden it just all came to a grinding halt.
F STOP: So how did you get through that?
Schafer: I had to get back in there and do it myself. I had plenty of interest from agents, but I didn’t want to make the wrong decision. In that period I had gone through two different agents. I was with one agent for ten years and then I left her and went to Art Mix and that didn’t work well. I left Art Mix for Korman and it went well until they closed. I was left with “now what?”
F STOP: What did you do during that do-it-yourself time?
Schafer: I wasn’t inspired by my work anymore. I needed to work, but I needed to feel good about what I was selling. I also had to be patient. I couldn’t just pull the trigger on anything. I ended up paying my producer an agency fee to put me together with bidding and stuff when jobs came and I began doing a lot of network stuff that started to come up. Things got lean, but I never had to go get a job. Someone introduced me to my present agent out of the blue and I really liked him. Things fell into place.
F STOP: Did your style actually change?
Schafer: To a certain degree. I don’t think I’m a definitive person stylistically, like say Jill Greenberg, David LaChapelle, or Terry Richardson.
F STOP: What do you think set you apart then?
Schafer: I think my diversification and my ability to do both simple and complex work. I’m also really good at lighting. I work with people that I don’t know very well and am able to make them comfortable. I think there is a lot to being a photographer, a lot more than being able to light well and make a cool picture. You need to work with a lot of people. You’re a director.
F STOP: Do you think there is any similarity between photographers and Hollywood actors when they’re typecast in their careers?
Schafer: I’m not an actor and don’t know what they go through but I think it’s a creative process. Sixteen years later I feel like I’m getting better, I don’t feel like I’m falling off. I feel like I’ve reached a level of maturity where I can handle the big job now. We did a half a million-dollar job this year and I felt comfortable doing that. When I shot an album package for Aerosmith in ’96 for $70,000 I could not sleep for months, it just consumed me. I’ve reached a point where I am comfortable with what I do and how I do it. I can just be thrown into a room with Alan Iverson for ten minutes and just a cinder block wall and I can come out with something beautiful. I can do both. And that just comes with experience and time and confidence.
F STOP: Tell me about working with high-profile people. How did you get started?
Schafer: I started working with Entertainment Weekly. At the time, magazines gave you a lot of freedom. There were sometimes when I would be art directed into a corner, which seems to be more what’s going on now where photographers are chosen to shoot a predetermined concept. It used to be like, “you’re the photographer, you’re going to shoot this person, what are your ideas?” Which is great, and scary. All of a sudden I was shooting up and coming celebrity stuff. Front-of-book stuff. I didn’t get features for a while.
F STOP: How do you like working with your high profile subjects?
Schafer: Usually the people aren’t that difficult. Women are a little trickier than men, I do a lot of men. Women are more insecure. They need to have great hair, great make-up, all this styling stuff, and by the time they get to you, half the work is done, put some nice light on them and usually it’s okay. My book has become more male-oriented and comedic over the years. When we shot Sarah Silverman for a Maxim cover she was very insecure about showing her body. Maxim had a specific way they wanted her to be, which automatically can make someone insecure and defensive. My job was to reassure her and to lighten up the mood. I have a particular amount of experience with comedians. They tend to be really intense people, actually. I just try to be the total regular dude. I’m not a personality, I just try to make it easy. I’ve learned over the years that they don’t want to be there. Generally, these press shoots are on a big tour to promote a movie or album. They don’t want to wait around for your technical BS, it’s like pulling teeth for them.
F STOP:Has the talent ever shot down one of your ideas?
Schafer: Always. There’s always something. You’re always fighting. And sometimes it’s not the talent, it’s the art director. You’re trying to convince the art director and talent is fine with it. It’s a lot of scared people I’m dealing with. It’s a fear-based kind of world when it comes to this. It really is. I’m dealing with people’s fears, their ultimate fears. A Publicist’s job is to be afraid, period. I’ve had some really bad experiences with publicists that has made shooting uncomfortable. I’ve also had wonderful experiences. When we shot Seth Rogen, his publicist said, “if you can get Seth to do it, fine by me,” because Seth is the master of his deal. So it’s my job to say, “Okay, I want an image of Seth humping himself. How do I convince him?” I did a quick composite of my assistant humping himself and didn’t say anything to him. I simply said, “come over here, take a look at this.” When I showed Seth the picture of my assistant he laughed and said, “Well, I guess I have to do that.” It was easy enough. Other times they say no, so you need a backup plan. When I shot Flight of the Conchords Brett refused to take his shirt off and lay on a bear skin rug, claiming he had issues with animals. We did the crate picture first and two hours in, after we were having a great time, I was able to convince him to do the rug. It’s about being a diplomat. People want to be reassured, like “Can I see this before it goes?” And that’s a very touchy thing, because the magazines don’t want to show the images sometimes.
F STOP: Do you feel like you have to be a certain way around people?
Schafer: I’m on stage. I’m a performer. I don’t know if it’s the power of being the guy charge, but it’s almost like becoming someone else. Whatever fear or insecurity I have all gets funneled into the energy of the shoot. I become really outspoken, kind of cliché, a little Austin Powers-like, but not. I’ve become incredibly foul, for humor’s sake. But you say things to get reactions and put people at ease. The crew can be around freaking out about the budget or the time, but my job is to have fun and take pictures.
F STOP: Can you give some examples of stuff you say?
Schafer: It seems wrong out of context. We were shooting a young Santa flying in a sleigh for Palm and I said, “Tell f-ing Rudolph to f-ing go shove that f-ing red nose up his a**.
F STOP: And nobody ever takes offense to it?
Schafer: It’s only as foul as necessary. You can just drop a bomb and the person you’re shooting usually understands that you’re making a joke. Everybody relaxes.
F STOP: Have you ever had a problem when some says, ‘I don’t like that foul language?’
Schafer: The only time was when I photographed Toni Morrison. I wasn’t being filthy, only a bit disrespectful. She’s a very dignified black, female writer and I was calling her ‘honey’ and ‘darling.’ She didn’t say anything to me, but she said it to my assistant, who happens to be black. He pulled me aside and said, “you can’t say that to her, you’re talking to Toni Morrison, you can’t talk to her like that.” I apologized immediately and she was really sweet and cool. My mouth has gotten me in trouble, but it’s never been so bad that people storm off the set. The toughest times I’ve had have been with rappers. They just don’t get me. I’m a skinny white guy that’s definitely not from that world. They’ll dig my work, but they’ll look at me and just think I’m a funny white guy.
F STOP: Some people have the conception that photographing celebrities is very glamorous. Has it had an impact on your personal life, do you find yourself hanging out with any of these people you photograph or developing friendships?
Schafer: There’s been a moment or two, but not much. With some photographers it’s part of their image. I’ve become friends with a few. I’m shooting Andy Sandberg’s crew next week for a record, The Lonely Island. I think he picked me because we did that shoot together at Newsweek, but we never hung out. I’ve photographed Offspring for the past ten years, doing all of their publicity since 1995. That’s the most glamorous thing I’ve done because they’ve taken me on tour all over the world. I’m not in the clubs with Lindsay Lohan or anything like that, however. It’s a job, and when we’re done and they leave it’s the happiest part of the day for me. It’s over.
F STOP: Should still photographers be worried in the current environment?
Schafer: Photographers will always be needed. When advertising budgets are low or we hit a recession and everybody gets panicky, rates will begin to drop down below where they should. It ruins it for everybody else. It’s our responsibility to keep an established rate. I think the music industry is a perfect example of that. It is definitely hurting, but the amount of money it has come down to it really insulting, especially for buy-outs. It’s ultimately about you as a person. The work needs to be there but, like one of my professors told me, it’s 80-20, it’s 20 percent your work and 80 percent you—your business skills, your personal skills, how you sell yourself, and how you market yourself. It’s a business.
To see more of Schafer’s work visit his website.