Howard Huang: The Photo Hit Man

Born in Taipei, raised in Hawaii and now based in New York, Huang worked with commercial photography legend Michel Tcherevkoff. His digital skills are honed to a fine edge, but Huang cut his teeth in a film darkroom. Regardless of the process, Huang creates a narrative in his mind when he’s conceptualizing a shot, and he’s always striving to make work with an emotional impact. Above: Part of a recent fashion shoot in Shanghai, China.

DPP: Tell us about your experiences working with rapper, singer, songwriter and actress Nicki Minaj. Do you suggest ideas to her, or does she come in with her own ideas, or is it always collaboration? Your photographs are able to capture and cultivate her multiple identities.

Huang: I started working with Nicki a few years ago before she was internationally known. From the first time I met her, I felt that she was going to be a big star. She’s not only talented, but she has a big presence and a very exhilarating attitude on set. We hit it off right away. I presented my ideas to her and she loved them and totally went into character. Nicki is still the same creative eccentric artist even after her album Pink Friday dropped and she made a big name for herself. The difference is, now the sets have become more elaborate and she has more ideas of her own. But we just play like we always do. We have a great collaboration. To me, photography is to create a fantasy in a still frame, and her multiple identities fit perfectly into this approach. Both Nicki and I believe that photographs with a story behind them are the most interesting kind of image.

DPP: What equipment do you work with?

Huang: The Hasselblad H2 with the Leaf Aptus back or a Canon EOS 5D Mark III, depending on the job. I have a bunch of cameras like any photographer, and the camera I use the most is my iPhone. We had a beautiful girl last year, and I’ve been trigger-happy with my phone’s camera. She has her own Facebook page, and I Instagram almost daily. Someone said the best camera is the one you have on you at the time. It’s so true.

Rapper Flo Rida photographed in a meat locker.

DPP: Between the medium-format and the 35mm, when do you go with one system over the other?

Huang: Whenever I’m in the studio, I try to use my medium-format camera with the Leaf back. But when I need fast focus or I’m shooting in low light on location, I use my Canon. The thing is, I shoot fast. That’s one trick when photographing celebrities. They don’t have much time. The faster you do a great job, the better. That’s why I originally chose the Leaf over the Phase One because of the capture rate. But I’ve yet to test the new Phase One IQ2 and the Leaf Credo side by side. I usually will choose the fastest capture rate over the largest sensor. If you missed the moment with a 100-megapixel back, you might own an amazing piece of equipment, but you still missed the shot.

DPP: What’s your typical lighting setup?

Huang: I try to match my background light when I do the compositing work, so I usually shoot it first and then match the lighting in-studio with the model. I often use grids to control the light and create contrast. Sometimes I use a ringlight flash set to a low power setting to catch a little shine on the skin, especially with darker-skinned models. I often have a top light and backlight. I own a bunch of Dynalites, which I’ve been using since school. They’re small and easy to transport. I also have some Profoto 7Bs that I use on location. I usually rent all Profotos when I shoot on location or in other studios, especially when I need fast recycle times and short flash durations. I have a live/work loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It’s not too big, but good enough to do the small shoots. I’m near Fast Ashleys Studio, so I often rent there. And there are a lot of other studios in my neighborhood, too. If the client wants to be in Manhattan, then there are, of course, even more options. I recently shot in China, and it’s all Broncolor there. I liked using them, too.

DPP: How are you able to get such vibrant colors in your work?

Huang: I’m using some gels, and I’m doing some post work to add some colors to my liking.

DPP: Do you still retouch and composite all your own photos?

Huang: Yes, mostly. But now I have assistants to do some of the cleanup work, and I do all the compositing and finishing touches on them. It’s hard to tell people how I want a certain contrast—darker here, a little lighter there—as well as positioning and blending composites just right. It’s a long process, but it’s like painting, so I do enjoy it.

See more of Howard Huang’s photography at www.howardhuang.com.

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