Dana Neibert: Keep It Real

The tear sheet section of Coronado, California-based Dana Neibert’s website has the imprint of the quintessential commercial pro. What separates him from many of his globe-trotting, camera-toting colleagues is the variety of images he creates for an unusually diverse range of clients from American Airlines, American Express and AT&T to the United States Postal Service, the United States Tennis Association and United Way, with banks, drug companies, and automotive and food manufacturers in between.

But whatever subject matter Neibert finds or puts before his lens, the resulting images are all equally polished, infused with a subtle dose of his individual, reality-based style.

DPP: After studying graphic design at the California College of the Arts in Oakland, you began your professional life as an art director. Why the switch to photography, and how did you make the transition?

Dana Neibert: I worked at a bunch of small agencies in San Diego, which isn’t a huge ad agency market. We had smaller budgets, and a lot of times it was either stock or shoot it yourself. More and more, I would shoot stuff myself. Once in a while, we would have a budget, and I would go out on a shoot using a good national photographer, and I would see what they were doing. Seeing what they were doing, and shooting more and more myself, eventually I realized that photography is what I would rather be doing. The more I shot, the more my portfolio built up. I made the switch from being an art director to being a photographer in the summer of 2003.

DPP: How did you build up your client base?

Neibert: As an art director, I had an insight into being on the receiving end of promos. I knew what photographers did to promote themselves including advertising in magazines such as Archive and Communication Arts, and I knew who all the agents were. I knew getting into awards shows that art directors see was important. If you enter industry-related competitions, you get accolades within the industry, but not many art directors know what PDN is. For a photographer who wants to reach advertising people, definitely, the CA Photo Annual is worth its weight in gold, if you can get in. It’s one of the bibles for art directors. They read every issue, then keep it on their shelves as resource material.

DPP: What about social media?

Neibert: I have a Facebook fan page; I do Twitter and Instagram. Instagram is the hot one right now. You stay on people’s radars. You’re staying fresh in their minds. On social media, 95 percent of the people following you are other photographers, but then there are also art directors and creative directors. Social media is a great way to get images in front of them. We also do four mailers a year. I print them all in December. The deal with my agent is, I print them, they mail them, with the first one going out in January, then April, July and one in the fall.

It was a do-it-myself kind of thing. I’ve always had photography as a hobby. In high school and college, I was too naïve to realize that you could make a living as a photographer.

DPP: How did you learn the craft of photography?

Neibert: It was a do-it-myself kind of thing. I’ve always had photography as a hobby. In high school and college, I was too naïve to realize that you could make a living as a photographer. I did take a black-and-white class in the late 1990s at a junior college by my house. Printing in a darkroom helped me really learn about light. It wasn’t until I became an art director and hired photographers that I realized, "These guys are getting paid pretty good."

DPP: Your clients represent such a diverse range of products and services. Is this due to where you came from career-wise or just your interests?

Neibert: There are photographers out there who just shoot cars or tabletop or interiors. But I don’t really care what the subject matter is or where I have to go to shoot it. I bring my spin, my eye, to whatever the subject is, whether it’s cars or people on a beach. I’m not pigeonholed, but most of my shoots are lifestyle-related. Most of the jobs I get have something to do with an environment, whether it’s a person or a place. If it’s a portrait, I’m never shooting the person looking at the camera, cropped in tight on their face, smiling. If I shoot a portrait, it’s almost always going to be of them in their environment.

DPP: And with a good dose of reality.

Neibert: I try to make things real, a little more candid, a little more photojournalistic, but beautiful at the same time. I’m not a straight-on shoot it, print it kind of guy. I like to go in and work on my print. I admire Ansel Adams, the way he would be thinking about his exposure, knowing how he was going to print later. Sometimes he would revisit images over the years and print them a different way. The image comes to life in the print.

I bring my spin, my eye, to whatever the subject is, whether it’s cars or people on a beach.

DPP: Are you doing a lot of work in post?

Neibert: A fair amount. I have a certain look with my color that I like to put through. For the most part, it’s dodging and burning and adjusting my color levels. I’m not getting too artistic, where I’m popping certain colors out. I’m playing with the curves. I like a monochromatic palette. Sometimes, with my commercial work, there’s a lot of compositing. Everything is captured to Capture One. I’ll set the file up how I want it, get my color temperature going, then process it out to Photoshop where I’ll fine-tune it.

While Neibert enjoys the time spent with his images during postprocessing, he sticks to his largely monochromatic palette and maintains a journalistic sense of reality and candidness. This desire to capture real moments is also seen in Neibert’s personal work. When he has downtime during a client shoot, he likes to explore the area to discover fresh moments. Attracted to landscapes and urban spaces and the interplay between the two, much of Neibert’s personal work solidifies sense of place.

DPP: What’s on your equipment list?

Neibert: I use the Hasselblad H1 or H4 with a Phase One back, mostly the IQ160 and sometimes the IQ250 because the low-light range on that back is awesome. I’ll shoot with the IQ250, at times at ISO 6400, with the results having little to no noise. The IQ250’s usable ISO range is kind of like the Nikon D800, which is the other camera I use. The range on that camera is incredible.

Dana Neibert’s Gear
Hasselblad H1 and H4
Nikon D800 with a variety of lenses
Phase One IQ160 and IQ250 backs
Profoto 2400-watt packs and heads
Profoto 7B strobes

Before digital, I shot 4×5 and 8×10 no matter whether I was shooting landscapes or people. When the Phase One P 45+ back came out, I realized I could do anything with that back that I could do with large-format film. Prior to the large format, I had played with medium format and 35mm. I was loving photography, but not the images, until I started shooting 4×5. When you shoot large-format photography, you think more. You slow down. You compose more. You’re on the ground glass.

I try to use natural light when-ever possible, but I have 2400-watt Profoto packs and heads and Profoto 7B packs. The 7Bs are great on location because they don’t need to be plugged in, but they’re also great for the studio or interiors because you can get a lower power setting on them. A lot of times when we’re shooting inside, I like to burn in the room with natural light, so we’ll go high ISO on the camera. Obviously, I don’t want my strobe blasting the rest of the room, so the 7Bs come in handy for just popping in a little light where needed.

DPP: How do you come up with ideas for personal work?

Neibert: Most of the time, it comes from just going somewhere and discovering what’s there. I might already be there for a job, and will just go around and shoot at night, or when we have some downtime, just see what’s there. I love landscapes, which is obviously something you go find rather than build in a studio. The world is still the best set.

You can see more of Dana Neibert’s work at dananeibert.com.

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