Change is afoot in commercial photography. Depending on how one chooses to see it, the convergence of stills and video is either a new opportunity or a sign of the coming apocalypse. Photographer Tyler Stableford has chosen to embrace the change. It’s energizing his creativity and reinventing his business.
intersection of profitability and creativity. From a business perspective, if you can hold onto that, you’re not a victim of change; you’re an agent of change."
Stableford couldn’t be happier with his recent debut on the national television advertising stage. He directed Cabela’s new "brand anthem," a soulful short film meant to visually embody the outfitter’s "It’s In Your Nature" slogan. Although he had been shooting for the company for almost a decade, landing the assignment wasn’t easy. First, he had to teach himself a new way of visual storytelling and then put those skills on display in a way that high-end clients couldn’t ignore. For that, he sought pro bono work and personal projects that would allow him to master the medium while doing some good for the world.
"Like many shooters," Stableford says, "the advent of the 5D Mark II DSLR changed the course of my career. I thought, ‘Great, I have a camera now that can work with all my equipment, it’s full frame, and you can shoot it at ƒ/1.2 and it looks gorgeous…this is a real breakthrough.’ I shot my first video project, a volunteer project in Ethiopia, literally the week the camera came out. It was for a wonderful humanitarian aid agency that works around the world for child welfare—building schools, clean water projects, health clinics. I was committed to this organization. So I said, ‘I want to tell this story for you guys. I’m guessing I’ll make a lot of mistakes along the way, but at least I’m not being paid.’ Last I checked, it had helped to raise over $300,000 for the organization."
A year on, though, Stableford still didn’t believe his newfound skills were enough to land him the high-end assignments he wanted. So he made another self-funded project.
"I was looking for a portfolio piece," he says, "one that would push me. So I shot a short film called The Fall Line on a wounded warrior named Heath Calhoun. He had been a 101st Airborne Army Ranger, and both of his legs had been blown off by a rocket-propelled grenade while serving in Iraq. He went on to become one of the world’s greatest ski racers, on the cusp of qualifying for the Paralympics to ski in Vancouver in 2010. So I hired a good friend who’s a top director of photography, a Hollywood cinematographer named Kent Harvey. He shoots a lot of big movies, like Iron Man and The Bourne Legacy. I said, ‘Look, I want to pay you your full rate to train me and my staff to shoot a film.’ So he came out and shot with us for a couple of days, and it was this big, eye-opening experience.
"With stills," Stableford explains, "if I was shooting a feature on Heath Calhoun for Sports Illustrated or Powder magazine, you can break it down pretty quickly. You’d need five images, that’s it: a shot of him with his family, a photo of him training hard in the gym, an environmental portrait in his skis on the slopes, you need a racing shot, and maybe one with his coach or his friends. Done. What more do you need? But, for a film, that hardly gets you anywhere. The question is kind of the same: How do we get to the slopes of Aspen? You’ve got to bring us. So we shot footage of the wheels of the chair-lift motor spinning. This would be the world’s worst still image—you would never use it. And it’s essential to filmmaking. It’s very, very different.
"For that film," he says, "I invested at least $20,000 in equipment, expenses, crew and weeks, if not months, of my time to shoot and edit and learn. Then we started making small forays into getting some add-ons: ‘Hey, can you shoot a little bit of video while you’re shooting stills?’ Eventually, we landed a nice commission to shoot a project for Canon, for their 1D X camera, called Shattered. It was a labor of love, a work of art. That piece started to become our calling card. We can tell stories this way and still connect to the human story. That’s the gift that DSLR filmmaking has really brought to us."
I wouldn’t have come to filmmaking so rapidly if I didn’t believe that the world was changing so quickly that I absolutely needed to be able to shoot stills and video in order to survive.
Adds Stableford, "I’m not saying it’s easy. It hurts even to think about it. I had to invest in the transition to video at the height of the recession. I wouldn’t have come to filmmaking so rapidly if I didn’t believe that the world was changing so quickly that I absolutely needed to be able to shoot stills and video in order to survive. That hardship produced, as it often does in life, a beautiful opportunity to change and become something stronger, faster, brighter than I was before."
Stableford seized the opportunity after a photo shoot last year to show Cabela’s executives what else he could offer. They were suitably impressed. In Shattered, they saw what Stableford was capable of.
Says Stableford, "They told me, ‘This is what we want our brand anthem to be. A poem. It should be a visual poem. It should be ethereal, not literal. The visuals should touch in-to this unpredictable realm of beauty and soulfulness.’ So, that was the start of them keeping me on the table. Without that, I would have never had a shot."
Unlike a still photographer working on a national print campaign, with a television campaign, the guy running the show isn’t usually the one with the camera in his hands. Stableford directed the project, and certainly lent his visual acumen, but it was a creative collaboration with a team that included handpicked directors of photography who did the majority of the shooting.
"I hired fellow Coloradan cinematographers and outdoorsmen Anson Fogel and Kent Harvey as DPs," Stableford says. "They alternated, depending on their availability, as we shot the project piecemeal over several months to capture the best season in various locations. It was essential that we shoot the first of October for a few days in Texas and Louisiana, then we shot in Carbondale, Colo., and Aspen shor
tly thereafter—hunting, fly fishing, camping. We were scrambling to get done before the leaves changed, otherwise the whole thing was going to feel like it was fall. But, then we wanted the leaves to fall off, so we waited until late November and went to Missouri and Kansas to shoot duck hunting and bird hunting. Then, we went to the Florida Keys to go shoot deep-sea fishing for essentially one day at sunrise."
Every setup was done during the golden light of sunrise and sunset. It brought inherent beauty to the images, but it also made the setups stressful since everything was riding on a tiny window of ideal light.
"The bulk of the success of the shoot really hinges on the production details," Stableford says, "finding a beautiful location, casting great talent, hiring a top crew and, importantly, arriving at the location with the right tools to rehearse everything the day before the actual shoot. With the heavy lifting done in advance, the actual shoot itself is the easy part. If all goes well, you press ‘Record’ on the camera and call ‘Action!’ to the talent. It’s not rocket science; it’s simply a lot of hard work, long in advance of the actual 10-minute sunrise shoot."
Stableford and his crew used the RED EPIC as the primary camera in their arsenal, with Canon EOS 5D Mark IIIs and 1D Xs, as well as the C300, as second cameras. The photographer used his DSLRs for framing purposes and to collaborate with the DPs. He relished that collaboration, which not only is essential on a large-scale project, but beneficial, as well.
"This is the most fun, most meaningful part of video projects," he says, "which I actually love more than stills because there’s more collaboration. By the time you get to the higher levels of campaigns, there’s usually at least a couple of people with creative ideas. I think any good idea should have to be defended. It should stand up to argument. I present my ideas to the client, to the DPs, and we talk about this at length. And through that we have this tremendous collaboration that’s so much better than if I had just run with this on my own."
So, how does a big video shoot differ from a big photo shoot? Stableford says it’s night and day.
"Executing a stills shoot of similar scope in many ways would have been more stressful," he says, "in the sense that I would have been the guy lying on the ground, fiddling with camera details and trying to direct talent at the same time. But with video shoots, if the budget allows, the director can be the important bridge between the shooter, the talent and the client. And that’s a thrilling place to be. I don’t claim it to be more important than any role in the crew because it’s not; it just happens to be a wonderful place to be working, right in the heart of the action.
"I’m also not convinced the results would have been as good," he continues, "for the main reason that it would be rare to give that many resources to a photography campaign. It would have been rare to achieve 10 scenes that have that kind of consistency and quality. We had a crew of 12 people we had to bring in and talent and airplane costs and an art department. There’s a lot of resources in it."
Before he was trusted with that big budget, though, remember that Stableford quite literally paid his dues of time, money and creative energy on those earlier projects. It’s a path that he believes in and one that he encourages other photographers to follow.
If all goes well, you press ‘Record’ on the camera and call ‘Action!’ to the talent. It’s not rocket science, it’s simply a lot of hard work, long in advance of the actual 10-minute sunrise shoot.
"Like a lot of stories," he says, "there was a mix of magic and luck. But, there were many years of pretty darn heavy investing into this—research, training, and self-funded and volunteer projects—so that I could get up to speed in this arena. I always point people at all levels to do the volunteering thing. Not because you’ll make the world a better place—which, of course, you will, which is great, and we all should—but for the purely selfish reason that you’ll hear and share stories you simply won’t hear in the everyday world. You’ll hear stories that deserve to be shown in film and still images. That, to me, has been a big source of inspiration and connection to the community, and to the world.
"Nonprofits, as a rule, have terrible marketing," Stableford adds. "They’re trying to save the world; marketing is the last thing they think about. But, photographers or filmmakers can bring something incredibly valuable to them; it’s far more helpful than if we’re just helping to bring a hammer to a Habitat for Humanity house. We’re leveraging our skills many times more, and we get something great in the process—whatever that is. Maybe you want to learn to get closer and shoot tighter portraits. Shoot the best five sunset portraits you’ve ever shot for a land conservation trust, or whatever it is you want to do. Do it selfishly. Because when you’re selfish about it, you’ll be a better volunteer. You’ll commit yourself with your whole heart, and you won’t leave until the job is done."
You can see It’s In Your Nature, Shattered and more of Tyler Stableford’s still photography and motion work at www.tylerstableford.com.