"I’m well built for being a commercial photographer."
—Steve Giralt, from his blog
Being a generalist can be tough. Photographers are constantly being told to refine our specialties into tighter and tighter niches, becoming not just food photographers, but the specialists who shoot only potato chips, for instance. How can someone who’s good at a lot of different types of photography compete? Steve Giralt has found a way.
A self-professed generalist, Giralt is a commercial photographer who shoots food, portraits, interiors and still life for magazines, catalogs and advertising. He’s the kid who loved photography, went to a great photo school, moved to New York as an assistant and finally found himself exactly where he always wanted to be—specializing only in professional photography. Still, being a generalist presents challenges in marketing and branding—which is why Giralt doesn’t rely on the same old methods to find work.
"I have traditionally marketed each specialty separately," he says. "I find it’s easier for people to see a clear vision of one aspect of my photography at a time. I’ll use different lists for different genre email blasts or mailings. The key thing I have always done is keep the genres separate on my website and in portfolios.
To some clients, I’m Steve Giralt, the portrait photographer; to others, I’m Steve Giralt, the food photographer, and so on. A lot of what I photograph blends together quite well. My food, interiors and portraits live nicely together, and I have clients who hire me to do multiple things. It’s usually the clients I’ve known the longest.
"I find so little of my work comes from traditional marketing methods," Giralt continues. "I think some potential clients do get confused by the fact that I shoot a variety of subject matter, but it’s hard to know exactly because generally we just hear from the ones who do want to hire me, generalist or not. I find all you can do is put your best work out there in the best way you know how and wait and see what happens. The fact that you’re a generalist or a specialist doesn’t matter as much as the fact that they feel they can trust you’re going to shoot the images they want and make the experience a pleasure for everyone involved."
Adds Giralt, "As a generalist, it’s harder to get work via traditional marketing promos and emails. Actually, forget that; in general, it’s hard to get work from those traditional methods, especially in the market where I work. Yes, you can narrow your marketing lists and try to target the right people, but that in itself is a hard thing to do when the same art buyer may work on food, portrait and still-life accounts. What do you do then? I find you need to try to show that art buyer that you’re about so much more than a guy who takes pictures. There are tons of people out there who take great pictures and send beautiful promos. I try to show that I have much more to offer than just the beautiful photo."
"We need to ask ourselves if we are doing enough for our clients, and if we can do more for them."
—Steve Giralt, from his blog
Business savvy and work ethic aside, Giralt is one helluva photographer. After all, he competes in New York on everything from slick still life to natural lifestyle and portraiture. You have to be talented to master that gamut. What he initially thought of as a unified travel portfolio that showcased a wide variety of skills in fact worked better as several different portfolios highlighting a few different specialties—food, people and places. Thus, the generalist is born. The consistent thread running through his work, he says, is an obsession with making subjects appear as natural as possible. He accomplishes this with meticulous attention to lighting detail.
"I have been told," Giralt says, "that there’s indeed a common feel to lots of my work. Obviously, there are exceptions, such as slick studio still life, but otherwise there’s similarity. I think in any genre it’s good to show a bit of your range. Just as I diversify what I shoot, I diversify a bit in how I shoot each specific genre. I’m the guy that shoots a lot of different stuff, but I feel I shoot most of it with a very similar approach and feel."
That similar approach is defined by light. Giralt strives to make the most natural-looking illumination in order to fight the inherent artificiality of so much commercial photography.
"I’m obsessed with light," he says, "and very often I’m the one creating all the light in my photographs. My greatest obsession for years has been mastering the creation of the feeling of daylight. This goes for food, interiors, portraits and more. Lots of the work on my site that looks like it was shot with natural light is indeed artificial light. This means sometimes using two lights or sometimes using 12 lights; it all depends on the scene I’m shooting. There are obviously infinite kinds of daylight, but there are some aspects of light that just feel natural. I find people can instantly tell you when the light feels fake, although they can’t really tell you why it feels fake. This feeling of light absolutely goes across all my subject matters. As an example, the way I shoot interiors absolutely effects the way I shoot food or people in an interior environment because, to me, they’re all tied together. It’s almost as if I want the viewer to feel like the photographer isn’t present in the way the shot is lit. I want the picture to be believable."
Giralt continues, "Re-creating daylight with strobe will be an eternal challenge for me. I have experimented with many different techniques and have learned a few rules. Obviously, there are plenty of exceptions, as daylight has infinite forms, but these are good general rules to follow. First, daylight is often made of both specular and diffused highlights, so I always mix soft light with hard light. I might mix a straight head with another head bouncing into a foamcore coming from the same location. For it to feel real, most of the ‘main’ light needs to come from a single direction. Catchlights need to be somewhat irregular, as daylight doesn’t usually come in the form of a rectangular softbox. Fill light should be soft and come from behind camera. Most of the time things go wrong it’s because of the fill light, so extra care needs to be paid there. If the fill light is off, then the daylight feels fake."
Daylight was only the tip of the iceberg when Giralt found himself shooting for the summer issue of Kraft Food & Family.
"We created an entire backyard summer party scene for a two-day shoot," he says. "Making ‘daylight’ that looked convincing while at the same time making the food and models look good was a challenge. To add to the fun, the first day of the shoot happened to be the same day we got a blizzard in New York and we got about 20 inches of snow. How ironic is it that we were shooting summer pictures in the middle of a blizzard? For different shots, I adjusted the light to vary between bright midday sun and evening dusk-type light to go with the desserts. I have this kind of shoot lots of times, and I feel every time my lighting gets better and better."
y is most often accomplished in-camera for Giralt, which is surely part of the reason he’s so diligent about lighting. The surprise here is that prior to thriving as a photographer, Giralt was a talented digital artist.
"The funny thing about my path," he says, "is even though I worked so much as a digital tech and retoucher, I do very little retouching to my own images. I felt like it made me a better photographer because I would rather do it in-camera than have to retouch it later. I always got angry with the photographers I worked for when they would have me retouch the image rather than fix it in-camera. I pride myself in shooting things right in-camera and not needing to do much retouching. I have even been hired for some jobs specifically because of this."
"Being a commercial photographer is all about making decisions and being in control of your process."
—Steve Giralt, from his blog
Giralt is able to accomplish so much in-camera and with his lighting specifically because he has been so well trained. As a high-school student, an RIT photo student and a young assistant in New York, all along the way Giralt benefited from the generosity and expertise of more experienced photographers. Not only did it make him a better photographer, but it shaped the way he thinks about giving back to the young photographers he meets today.
"I have received tons of emails from students over the years," he says, "asking me questions about how to get started in photography, and I felt it was my duty to help those students if I could. When I first moved to New York and started assisting photographers, I got lots of feedback and support from most of the photographers I worked with, and I felt that helped me become the photographer I am today. This is what inspired me to start writing about photography. I strongly believe that it helps the entire industry when young photographers are better educated on what they should and shouldn’t do. At the very least, I feel that they should be aware that the decisions they make early in their career can have a long-lasting impact."
Giralt made his own mistakes as an up-and-comer. Not staying in touch with early clients was a big one. "Once you lose touch with them," he says, "it’s hard to regain a lost connection. If I had been better about staying in touch, I wouldn’t have lost those connections and the work they could have given me. I was pretty good about avoiding lowballing to try to get jobs early in my career, though—and that’s a common mistake. What young photographers don’t realize is that once you’re labeled as the cheap photographer, it’s almost impossible to change the industry’s perception of you."
Giralt has always helped young photographers within his own circle, but lately he has taken to broadening his reach through blogging. He imagines what would have been most helpful to him when he was starting out and he writes about that. From business issues to technical and philosophical concerns, the blog provides another way for Giralt to help make others successful in his beloved profession.
I always got angry with the photographers I worked for when they would have me retouch the image rather than fix it in-camera. I pride myself in shooting things right in-camera and not needing to do much retouching.
"Writing about photography has helped me better understand what I do and how I differ from others," says Giralt. "I feel the better I understand myself as a photographer, the easier it is to understand what I should be doing differently to improve my craft and my business. Most of what I write about is lessons that I have learned the hard way over the years. The articles I write are written as if I were sending them to a younger version of myself to read so I would figure things out the easy way instead of the hard way. I try not to be negative in my writing and instead share the realities. I guess you can say I just try to keep it real."
Explains Giralt, "For example, because I’m a very technological individual who comes from a family of engineers, it’s easy for me to get caught up on the technical aspects of photography. Sometimes I’ll find myself concentrating so much on the qualities of light of an image that I lose track of the big picture. It happens to everyone, and that’s why I wrote, ‘It’s not about the ƒ-stop.’ Some people took it as if I was saying that the technical aspects of taking pictures aren’t important, but for so many the words resonated in the same way they would have resonated in me. The technical is important, but you need to concentrate on the big picture."
To read more about what Steve Giralt has to say to young photographers, visit his blog at stevegiralt.com/news.