Ethan Pines: The Storyteller

Ethan Pines not only knows how to take a good picture, he knows how to tell a good story. The award-winning editorial and commercial work he produces has underlying backstories that give a depth to images, which often are worth far more than the requisite thousand words of the old adage.

DPP: Your career goals at both the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia were aimed in a very different direction than what you ended up doing, yet in a sense, it shows up in many of your photos. How did storytelling in a single image with a camera evolve?

Ethan Pines: I got my BA in English at Penn because I wanted to be a writer. I grew up in Los Angeles and came back here after school, and ended up writing for the accounting firm Arthur Andersen, doing proposals for the marketing department for them to get new clients. It was very much a burnout job and not where my heart was. So I went to Columbia for an intensive one-year Master’s degree program in journalism. Then I wrote for a newspaper in North Carolina for a bit, then went back to New York, where I did freelance writing. This was during the whole Internet boom, so there was a lot of copywriting work around. But I wasn’t really enjoying the process. I was on the computer all the time.

While I was doing the freelance work, I wrote some short stories and had a dramatic reading of a one-act play I wrote at the Westbeth Theatre in New York. To see actors doing it live was great. But did I want to be a novelist or a playwright? Not really. Two friends and I had a television show on the college station, so initially I thought I would get into TV, but I got into this copywriting world. I started feeling that this wasn’t how I wanted to spend my life—being in front of a computer all the time. It’s a purely cerebral job. There’s nothing tactile about it. I moved back to Los Angeles and promised myself that I would get a job that got me off the computer and out into the world.

DPP: How did you end up choosing photography for your next career challenge?

Pines: I took a photography class at Santa Monica College (SMC) out of just random interest. I knew nothing about photography. I didn’t even know what aperture meant. Until then, I had shot only point-and-shoots on automatic. Learning how to take a picture in the manual mode was so eye-opening. I fell in love with photography. I started taking more and more classes at SMC. I knew that I had found what I was looking for. Photography gets you out into the world and has a technical side and a creative side, both of which I had yearned for, but up until then hadn’t quite found in one medium. I did the certificate program in photography, which I completed in 2002.

Early in his career, Pines discovered that it’s less important for a portrait to fit a particular aesthetic than for it to tell a story. "When I was first shooting editorials for magazines such as L.A. City Beat, the money was so low, but I had artistic freedom. It was a great boot camp. It was a weekly magazine, and I was shooting for them all the time. I got access to people I would never have gotten access to otherwise, which helped me build a better portfolio. I knew I had to shoot something that worked for the article, but I would ask myself, ‘What do I want to do here?’" says Pines.

DPP: Did the school focus on film or digital?

Pines: They had Better Light scanning backs for the 4×5 for shooting still lifes, but that was about it at the time. Now they have medium-format tethered setups. But shooting and printing in film taught me what’s going to look good in a photograph and what’s going to look tacky or fake or contrived in a photograph. Even if all your retouching is going to be digital thereafter, having experience working in a darkroom helps you understand where you can take a photo in a classy, substantive way. I hardly shot any digital until about three years out of SMC. By that time, I had assisted a number of photographers.

DPP: How much of what you do these days is in postprocessing and how much is in-camera?

Pines: I try and do as much as I can in-camera for a few reasons. I think the results look better, I enjoy challenging myself, and I want to spend as little time in front of the computer as possible. I think compositing can be liberating, and there’s a time for that.

DPP: What are the components that make a great environmental portrait?

Pines: There’s no absolute answer to that question. You see great portraits that are very traditional, and you see great portraits that, by some definitions, might not even be considered a portrait. One of the photographers whose work I fell in love with early on, even before I started studying photography, was Mary Ellen Mark. She was shooting very photojournalistic portraits that you wouldn’t call a traditional portrait, shooting wider, not necessarily flattering, and people in odd moments. Looking at her work, I started to understand that a portrait could be anything you wanted it to be, whatever you want to say about the person. That influence percolated into me.

When I was first shooting editorials for magazines such as L.A. City Beat, the money was so low, but I had artistic freedom. It was a great boot camp. It was a weekly magazine, and I was shooting for them all the time. I got access to people I would never have gotten access to otherwise, which helped me build a better portfolio. I knew I had to shoot something that worked for the article, but I would ask myself, "What do I want to do here?" Then I started working for Angeleno and other Modern Luxury magazines. That helped me add a lot of lifestyle imagery to my portfolio. I’ve been working for Forbes, and it’s a lot of businesspeople. But if I ask myself in advance, "What do I want to do with them?" it’s more likely that we’ll end up with something that’s a little more offbeat and unexpected.

DPP: The shot of the race car with the executives from Sequoia Capital isn’t the way one expects to see top executives portrayed.

Pines: That one we developed hand in hand with the people in the photograph. Because they’re venture capitalists, the idea was that they were the pit crew, and the companies that they’re funding, backing and working with are the race cars, and they make sure they’re running at peak performance. The names on the car are some of the companies they’re working with. Sequoia pitched the idea of using the Formula One car. Forbes was concerned that it might be too over the top, but I talked with them and explained that I thought there was a way we could do it that would be cool, so I got the green light and ran with it. I had the idea of using the smoke and having them with the spare tires and the other props.

DPP: How did you light the scene?

Pines: There’s a 20×12-foot white Ultrabounce overhead with strobes shooting up into it. For a little dimension on the subjects, we had a bit of sidelighting with a 7
4-inch Elinchrom Octa Light Bank off to the left and some fill over to the right. We were shooting outside.

DPP: It does feel like a pit stop. What camera equipment do you work with?

Pines: I shoot with the Hasselblad H3DII-39, predominantly with their 50mm lens, unless I need to shoot at a higher ISO, from 400 on.

DPP: What’s the story behind your images of former American Idol star Todrick Hall?

Pines: I had a couple of shots in mind with Todrick, including having him jump through the air holding his dog, sort of flying like a superhero. He was game for everything we wanted to do. It’s great when you have these collaborations. We shot it in his manager Scooter Braun’s office. He jumped off Scooter’s couch. I put a bare-bulb strobe in the lamp in the background to fire at the same time as my key light. It would have been a little dead back there without it. It’s very useful, except that you can’t adjust the output except for wrapping neutral density around it to lower the exposure. We did another shot with Todrick singing and holding the dog. In one frame, the dog yawned, which made the shot look like they were singing a duet.

DPP: If you had to give your work a photographic label, what would it be?

Pines: My editorial work tends to be portrait-oriented, and my advertising photography tends to be more lifestyle or conceptual. For both, I try to inject some humor without being corny or hammy, but with a sense of irony and some irreverence. Even with portraits, I try and tackle them in more of a conceptual way where it’s not just a beautifully lit portrait, but there’s a mini story built around the person.

DPP: In a sense, that goes back to your interest in short stories. Maybe this is a visual expression of that. The shot of interior designer Kristen Buckingham, wife of Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac, sitting next to her dog in another chair shows a sense of humor and also your ability to do an environmental portrait lighting multiple rooms. The dog feels like he’s a co-owner of the house.

Pines: I like to have a little fun, and I’m amazed by how often people are willing to go along with it. That was for Angeleno. I like to give the client more than they expect. The goal is not just to have them happy with the portrait, but to have them call you again. The dog never looked at me while he was in the chair, but did when he was on the ground, so I did a little Photoshop and switched heads. I lit the house deep into the background, and then we brought the dog in for part of the shoot.

DPP: Why do animals so often find their way into your shots?

Pines: I love animals, and I think I have a good rapport with them. They have a deadpan presence, which gives the scene a feeling of the absurdity of things. They’re just earnest beings coexisting in this very complicated, strange, unpredictable human world. They’re so sincere. They’re just being themselves. They add an element of humor to the shots. Having them there sets up a kind of counterpoint to the complexity of the people and their environments.

DPP: One of the things you have under your belt, and maybe one should say "weight belt," in this particular context, is that you’re a Nitrox-certified diver. Yet it doesn’t look like you’ve delved into the world of underwater photography.

Ethan Pines’ Gear
Hasselblad H3DII-39 body and back
Hasselblad Wide-Angle 35mm ƒ/3.5 HC Autofocus lens
Hasselblad Wide-Angle 50mm ƒ/3.5 HC II Autofocus lens
Hasselblad Normal 80mm ƒ/2.8 HC Autofocus lens
Hasselblad 35-90mm ƒ/4-5.6 HCD Aspherical Zoom lens
Hasselblad 1.7X teleconverter
Hasselblad Extension Tube H13mm
Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a full set of Canon lenses
Profoto Pro-6 2400 Freeze pack
Broncolor 1600ws pack

Pines: I appreciate it, but I don’t even own an underwater rig. I’ve shot around water for several portfolio projects, though, including my triathlete series, which I produced on my own as portfolio pieces. I also did a series of portraits at a big municipal pool in Culver City, Calif., that had a fundraiser called Coast 2 Coast Swim Challenge to help teach underserved kids how to swim. Some of the participants are hard-core triathletes and some are just people who want to help out. I did the portraits just after they got out of the pool. I set up my key light, which was a beauty dish with a white grid on it that focuses where you’re pointing it, but doesn’t feel like an obvious spotlight. Then I had a fill light with a 60-inch Octabank with a grid, same deal, so it wouldn’t spill everywhere. The beauty dish was plugged into a Profoto Pro-6 2400 Freeze pack and the Octabank was on my ancient 1600ws Broncolor pack. I have a mishmash of packs.

DPP: What’s the story behind one of the most elaborate pieces on your website, the "Welcome Aliens" shot?

Pines: The model is my nephew in his space pajamas. I lit the insides of the house and clubhouse, and the outside of the house. I had a retoucher enhance the overcast cloudy sky to make it more dramatic and add the alien beam of light. Things like my nephew’s tin-foil antenna, I think, helped sell the shot. The antenna was my idea, but my brother and nephew sat down and did it as a little arts-and-crafts project, so it feels like a kid did it. My nephew and niece drew the big "Welcome Aliens" sign. The photo was a family effort.

Go to to see more of Ethan Pines’ photography.

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