Photographer Vincent Laforet must have a very proud mother. At the age of thirty-four he has already accumulated a list of accomplishments that many iconic photographers could only dream of. Win a Pulitzer Prize—check. Staff photographer at the New York Times—check. First-ever national contract photographer at the New York Times—check. Named Photographer of the Year by the NPPA (twice!)—check. Named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Photography by American Photo Magazine—check. Won more industry awards and honors then he can even remember—check.
It’s not just the laundry list of awards that sets Laforet apart though; it’s his steady and unique growth as a photographer. From shooting weddings at eighteen to the NBA finals in college to his job at the Times and now his much publicized move to commercial photography and motion work it’s been a long and fruitful evolution.
In our interview Laforet starts off with detailed stories of how he created two famous aerial photographs of New York City. Next we learn about his progression from photojournalist to commercial image-maker. The second half of our interview focuses on the incredible success of Laforet’s short Reverie and how that changed the industry and thrust him into the world of motion. We conclude with detailed predictions for the still and motion industries and advice for photographers who want to build a reel.
Seckler: We have two images we’re going to discuss, both aerial shots over New York City. Let’s start out discussing the 360˚ shot over the Empire State Building.
Laforet: A good example of how my career evolved is with aerial photography. That never happened on purpose; I had a background in sports photography. I was used to shooting with very long lenses and being able to capture the moment on the first try—you don’t get to re-shoot a game; it happens once.
When I was first up in a helicopter, I shot with a 500mm lens, which is unusual. It’s why my aerial shots stand out. I shoot with extremely long lenses from high altitudes. I did not decide that factor; it was my background as a sports photographer and my comfort with long lenses.
The 360˚ aerial shot over New York City was made with a custom 7.5mm lens. The idea behind it was to shoot straight down on the city and encompass as much of it’s environment as I could. I mounted the Canon 1DS Mark III [set to f/3.5 at 800 ISO at 1/250th of a second] at the end of a monopod, because if you’re shooting straight down from a helicopter, it means the helicopter is banking at 90˚—which is very dangerous. It might be the last thing you shoot.
The safe way to do it is to shoot down from your seat, but with an ultra wide-angle lens, you’re going to get not only your feet, but also the landing skids of the helicopter. So I lowered a monopod with the camera and connected the Ethernet cable to my laptop so I could see what I was shooting as I shot it, and I fired it with a pocket wizard. That led to a unique image of the city just after sunset that showed the Empire State Building in its dead center.
Believe it or not, I shot that image as we flew by the building. You can’t hover above it; it’s too dangerous. We flew by at 50 mph and we were so close to the antenna that I actually raised my feet, just out of reflex.
Laforet: When I was shooting for the New York Times, I would always reserve the last five to ten minutes of any flight because flying time is very expensive. After I shot my assignments, I asked the pilot to do a quick detour through Central Park. It was a winter afternoon and the sun was very low on the horizon, casting these beautiful shadows—from the air you don’t see people, you see shadows.
As I mentioned, you can’t shoot straight down from the helicopter, so I had the pilot do very tight turns, quick circles above the skating rink. We did that for three, four, maybe five minutes, and I knew I had the photo at the moment that center skater did a pirouette. I’ve always loved how there is a family of three in the top left holding hands and a family of three in the bottom right. The beauty of that symmetry is that it’s a real image, a real moment—it’s not Photoshop. Reality is what photojournalists’ love, when chaos becomes beauty.
The other reality is that I had no feeling in my hands when I shot that photo because it was so cold. At every turn the wind hit my eyes, and at a certain point, they filled with tears. That’s when you love that you have auto focus because you can see that blurry image of the center skater coming together, but you’ve got tears flowing out of your eyes, and in my case, onto my glasses, where they’re freezing. Meanwhile, the wind is blowing at 120 mph. You just pray that you’ll get that exact moment framed correctly.
Seckler: What sparked your interest in photography?
Laforet: My father was a photographer in Paris. He worked at Gamma Press Agency where he shot everything from wars to movie sets. When I was 15 I asked him to quickly teach me how to use a camera, and he lent me his camera body, which was a Nikon F3 with a 50mm lens. He gave me a few roles of film and I shot my first images. I was immediately hooked with the process. Soon I was running around New York shooting street photography.
Seckler: Did you eventually go to school for photography?
Laforet: No, I learned on the job. I shot Bat Mitzvahs, weddings. At 18, I started working for agencies and magazines and I then I entered Northwestern University where I studied journalism. During the summers I got internships at the Los Angeles Times, in its Washington DC office, where I covered the White House, Capital Hill, and at the Miami Herald, where I got my feet wet in terms of newspaper photography. Internships remain among the best ways to develop a portfolio and make connections that will help you get a job after college.
Before I graduated from Northwestern, I worked for a wire service. I basically shot Michael Jordan in the NBA Finals while I was a junior in college. I missed my midterms and finals to cover the NBA, and I almost got kicked out of school.
After I graduated, I freelanced for a year. Eventually I went to work for a company called All Sport, shooting nothing but sports photography for two years. I traveled 300 days a year. I covered the Super Bowl, Rose Bowl, World Series, All-Star games, you name it. Eventually there was a job opening in the New York Times website. I worked there for six months. Having not learned my lesson about not working seven days a week, I worked four days a week on the website and three days a week for the newspaper as a freelancer, and low and behold, six months later I was hired for the New York Times as staff photographer.
Seckler: You were a staff photographer for the New York Times for several years and you created a fantastic body of work during that period but you recently got involved with commercial photography. Tell me about that transition.
Laforet: My career with the New York Times was one of the best positions you can get. It was a fantastic experience. But I was shooting only for the newspaper and wasn’t allowed to shoot for myself because there was a very strict conflict of interest policy. At one point, Moby contacted me to shoot his concert from the air and I had to turn him down, which killed me. That opportunity and a bunch of others passed me by before I realized that I needed to spread my wings and not be limited only to newspaper photography.
In 2003, I negotiated a contract with the New York Times that enabled me to continue working for them and to also work for other people, which led to commercial work. The point was simply to try other stuff. I’d seen these beautiful commercial productions and I thought I might pull that off someday.
Seckler: You’re represented by Stockland Martel, one of the most well respected rep agencies for commercial photographers. Tell me about that relationship and how you became a part of their roster.
Laforet: My agents Bill Stockland and Maureen Martel are two of the best people in the business. It’s a fantastic agency because they treat you like a human being. They actually want you to grow as a photographer. They took a big risk when they signed me. At the time, I had only 15 years of experience as an editorial photographer without a single piece of commercial work in my book. I suppose they signed me because I stand out. I don’t do the traditional portrait, but if you want an unusual angle overhead, or a shot that is very technical, that tends to be the category where I fall.
Laforet: It’s a third commercial photography, a third commercial photography plus video, and a third just video. My editorial work has slowed. I shot two editorial assignments in the past year and a half, one was Obama’s inauguration for Time magazine, and the other was Michael Jackson’s funeral from a helicopter.
Seckler: Is that because you’ve been too busy with commercial work?
Laforet: What I do tends to be expensive—renting a helicopter is expensive, or the production I get involved with is expensive. And given what’s happened to the editorial market in the past year and a half with the economy, magazines just can’t afford it. I have, in effect, priced myself out a little bit in doing some of these editorial assignments. Having done only two editorials in the past year is not my choosing; it’s more what has happened to the editorial market.
Seckler: Let’s discuss your now famous move into motion using HD-DSLR cameras.
Laforet: Right after I got back from the Olympics in Beijing, I went to have a meeting with a friend of mine at Canon. On the day I showed up for our lunch meeting I saw these white boxes coming in, which were the prototypes of the Canon EOS 5D MKII. I just begged and begged to get one weekend alone with that camera. They said no six times and on the seventh time they finally said “Borrow the camera for the weekend and then give us some feedback.” They weren’t expecting me to shoot anything, but I was so excited I called my wife who works with me, and I asked her to call modelling agencies and book the helicopter, and the next thing we knew we were shooting the very next night with a crew of three people. We shot the first HD SLR video ever that showed off the full frame sensor and I think it took the world by storm because of the brilliant technology. The video was viewed more than a million times the first week, and the next thing you know I was being invited to speak at Disney and DreamWorks, and I was showing my work on projection screens at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. It was a wonderful opportunity.
Seckler: Did that catapult you onto the film/video scene?
Laforet: Yes. I could not have hired a PR agency to do what “Reverie” did for me. I could have spent millions of dollars and it wouldn’t have gotten the kind of notice that the video did. I attribute my success to the technology itself and the luck and timing to be the first one to use the camera. I was simply asked to give Canon feedback, but I chose to shoot something that was relatively good looking and then blog about it. There was an explosion on the blog. Never before in history has someone been able to shoot something over the weekend, post it on his or her blog for free, and have a few million people see it immediately.
Laforet: It has definitely resulted in more work; I’ve never been this busy. I’ve been booked every day for the first five months of this year. Initially it was a hassle; I received close to 100,000 e-mails the first year. I missed so many jobs as a result because I couldn’t keep up with the demand.There was also a fan following, which I never wanted. I hated blogs initially—I thought they were the worst self-promotional things. And then I read some blogs by people like photo editor Rob Haggart and photographer Chase Jarvis, and found them interesting. That led me to start my own blog during the Beijing Olympics. I already had a readership, close to 20,000 people a day. At the same time I didn’t want to become a talking head for companies or products. I want to be an artist and a producer. It’s hard to find that balance, but writing a blog is interesting. It enables me to stay on the cutting edge of technology—I get to test out a lot of the newest toys before other people.
Seckler: What is it about the HD-DSLRs that has you so captivated?
Laforet: I find two things about the cameras most appealing—their affordability and amazing sensitivity to light. You can use the lenses and equipment you already have; that’s how I shot “Reverie”. I didn’t have cinema equipment. I just shot with what I had on hand and the results are amazing. There are few cameras out there that can compete with it, in terms of sensor size. And as you know, the larger the sensor, the less depth of field, so it gives you a very unique look.I think it’s the best tool for filmmakers. You no longer need $250,000 to get a Panavision camera, lighting, dollies, and a twenty person crew. All you need is the vision. For the first time new filmmakers have the tools to produce nearly the same quality as professionals.The second thing that appeals to me is the camera’s sensitivity to light. It performs in low light like nothing else. The sensor sees more then my naked eye can see at times. Its low-light capacity enables you to shoot the average scene in available light.
Seckler: What does that mean for the film industry?
Laforet: HD-DSLR cameras are already being used to make dozens of commercials. There’s two or three feature films being shot with them, and a lot of shots in Iron Man and other big movies are being shot with them.
Seckler: This movement seems like when digital first came out for still cameras. Everybody was saying that people would be able to shoot for almost nothing, the competition would become intense, prices would drop, and the industry would start to collapse. Are people saying the same thing about HD-DSLR cameras affect on the motion industry?
Laforet: Some of it happened. Anyone can buy a Canon Rebel and shoot some good-looking stuff. But it does not replace the need for talent. In the end, the reason I am still excited about these tools is that they remove the technical limitations that we as professionals love because they keep us employed. But they also remove barriers because they enable truly talented people to rise to the top. And what I learned as a photojournalist working for the New York Times is that people gravitate toward quality. They gravitate toward good ideas and good execution, not glitz.The same is true for movie making. People still gravitate toward great stories and these tools enable you to focus more on storytelling as a filmmaker, and less on technique. I don’t think it’s going to affect the high-end filmmaking industry as much as it will affect the middle to low end. The high end is always going to shoot on Panavision. It’s more the indie films that will benefit from making production less expensive.In terms of equipment, I’d be nervous if I were an equipment rental company, or a lighting company, but as far as the people are concerned, you still need the crew. People are squeezing budgets because of the economy, regardless of what we want. These tools just enable us to meet that demand and stay in business. I do see it heavily affecting people in the print industry, however.
Newspapers and magazines are on their last legs. They need to create moving content to stay in business. I think editorial photographers are going to be asked to shoot video. It’s not what the editorial people want, it’s what the advertisers want. They want moving content that gets attention. More and more photographers will be asked to shoot video along with stills, and it’s going to be a huge learning curve for people.
Seckler: In your opinion, where is still photography going to be in the next few years?
Laforet: Regardless of video, the future is pretty bleak for still photography. Day rates for magazine shoots have not increased since 1980, despite inflation and the rising cost of gear. Ad revenue is down, assignment days are down, and the competition to get jobs is insane.
More and more, commercial clients want to see video. One industry insider said 80 percent of requests come for reels along with portfolios. Clients want to see both video and stills—they want to get both from one person so they get a unified vision of their product.
Seckler: Where will still photography be in 20 years? Will there always going to be a place for the still image?
Laforet: There will always be a place for the still image; however, it is going to be much more of a boutique thing. I think you will have the world’s leading photographers who are readily published on the web and have gallery shows. I don’t think you’re going to have 250,000 photographers in 15 years like we do now.
Seckler: Tell me about the unique video contest that you’re running?
Laforet: The “Beyond the Still” Photo Contest will be running until this summer. I was given a still image to interpret in a two- to three-minute short film, and at the end of my film, I end on a still image. Everyone who enters the contest in the second chapter has to interpret my image into their own unique two- to three-minute film, and then end on a still image, and so on. At the end of seven chapters, we will hopefully have a very interesting series of short films that are interconnected by a still image from chapter to chapter. I’m looking forward to the result. It’s a unique look into the social aspects of filmmaking.
Seckler: Do you have any advice for still photographers who want to build a reel?
Laforet: Take it one a step at a time. Study the market. There are so many disciplines of photography: stock, commercial, editorial, fashion. The same is true about video or film. Find out what entices you. Go get an HD-DSLR and use your existing lenses and play around. Do a quick edit, or find a friend who’s an editor to help you see what you’re good at—and what you’re not. The cost is so much less compared to what it used to be. Don’t over-think it.
Written by Zack Seckler
Edited by Joann Jovinelly
This piece was originally published 4/1/10 on Zack Seckler’s formally named publication The F STOP.