Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Tyler Stableford - Authentic Adventurer
Tyler Stableford adds polished perfection to gritty realism for a signature look
“Another popular technique is doing a curve layer and then blanking out the curve layer and doing a gradient from the bottom up,” Stableford explains. “It adds a little bit of density at the bottom of the image, assuming your subject’s eyes aren’t at the bottom; it anchors the bottom of the image and then your eye can go to where the light is more quickly. I can probably guarantee you we did a good strong curve gradient on the bottom of that image so that your eye goes a bit more quickly to where the focus is.
“I think it’s really good for photographers to look at Fujichrome Velvia slide film and remember how heavily manipulated that film was,” Stableford continues. “This was the evolution of however many hundred years of photography to create film that really didn’t look anything like reality. The contrast was certainly pushed; the color range wasn’t ‘true’ to what you actually saw. I think it’s good to keep in mind that you need to push your RAW file in terms of contrast and saturation more than you might actually think because we tend to forget how manipulated Velvia was and it was the gold standard for outdoor adventure photographers.”
Though the look of Stableford’s images is equal parts polish and grit, it’s the realism that seems to set them apart. Scores of photographers make a living by photographing people separate from their locations and compositing the shots in post. It’s not that Stableford sees anything wrong with the practice, but he has a hard time giving those images the same feel as the “natural” ones.
“I get kind of sick of doing that stuff,” he says of compositing. “It never looks as good as getting it in the actual photograph. I’ve done it in the studio. I shot a wildfire guy for a catalog campaign for a company last month, and the shots just weren’t as good as actually being there at a real fire. We blackened his face and added dramatic light and whatnot, and it’s not the same. We tried our best, but we just couldn’t do it.”
But this isn’t a philosophical requirement for Stableford either. It’s simply a matter of getting the look he wants. If that look is achieved through compositing, fine. If it’s achieved in-camera, fine.
Explains Stableford, “I was showing my book to an art buyer in New York, and he looked through the book and said, ‘You know what’s a real shame? I know this stuff is real, but 99 percent of the world would just assume that’s fake, they just dropped that guy in on that scene.’ I don’t really care. If a photo sells, I don’t care what people think about how it was photographed or composited. I’m not trying to tie my ego to ‘I was there! I got this!’”
Stableford’s success is at least partly due to a sixth sense for business. He has overcome those obstacles just as he overcame the technical ones—by outsmarting them. The first obstacle for getting great shots is being there, of course.
“Access is a huge hurdle,” he explains. “There’s no way I could call up a coal mine and say, ‘Hey, can I come to your mine and get some photos of your guys so I can sell it to my stock agency in New York City?’ Not gonna happen. So I think about projects that really excite me and that might have some commercial value, and then I’ll try to pitch a journalistic story. Then I’ll do double-duty. I’ll shoot for any local magazine. They pay like $350 a day with no expenses, no digital fees, no nothing. They’ll pay me for two days. In the case of the wildfire shot, we shot for six days. In the case of the coal mine, maybe they paid me for a day and I shot for four. I’ll shoot the heck out of it, so they get really good value. I get access through an editorial calling card, and I’ll bring model releases and pay the models $40 or $50 each to sign releases.
“As an outdoor adventure photographer, you don’t have a lot of outlets,” Stableford continues. “The outdoor industry itself is really tiny; you just can’t make a living. You can only sell so many photos to a trail-running shoe company. They’ll buy one for $250 and that’s your sale for the year. So I got a lucky in with Getty, started selling and said, ‘Whoa, I’m making a couple thousand dollars for this rock-climbing photo. I should be doing this more often!’ I just started figuring that out. Then, of course, energy and industry are huge themes that businesses need. I’m always thinking stock, but hopefully my images don’t scream stock when you look at them.”
Stableford says that much of his retouching can be done via vignetting and subtle color adjustments in Lightroom. Even when he does get the image into Photoshop, he’s not doing anything particularly revolutionary, but it works.
Adds Stableford, “I’m starting to see, as I have the opportunity to show ad agencies my book, the fact that having stuff that requires special access—it isn’t just a couple at an outdoor café or whatever—it’s something visually different for them to look at. So they spend a little more time looking at my book. And then they hire me to shoot the couple sitting at the café!”
Even in the face of all this success, Stableford still focuses on learning. He’s constantly refining his shooting and lighting skills, as well as the postproduction processes and the business side of things, so that he can continue to set himself apart from the pack and go on living his dream.
“I went to Greg Gorman’s workshop in April,” Stableford says, “and I had just been sponsored by Canon, and people were asking, ‘What the hell are you doing at this workshop?’ I said, ‘You know, if Greg can help tune my lighting and my portraiture look, if I can bring that authenticity in the outdoors, if he can raise my bar five percent, I’m going to separate myself that much higher.’”
Of everything Stableford has learned about business or lighting or digital imaging, though, the simplest and most valuable lesson of all also has been the most effective.
“You have to shoot what you love, what you’re passionate about,” concludes Stableford. “Because it shows in the images.”
To see more of Tyler Stableford's photography, visit www.tylerstableford.com.
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