Product photography isn’t what you’d call exciting. You aren’t working with gorgeous models, you aren’t traveling the world, and you aren’t partying with rock stars. What you are working with, however, are lifeless props and a set of clients who expect you to be able to turn plastic bottles into something truly wonderful.
"Still life, in its essence, is very contrived," says commercial photographer Michael Crichton, "so we try to bring an element of happenstance, whimsy or the unexpected to the image."
When asked what it is that attracts him to product photography, Crichton says he’s most excited by this kind of work because he feels that he’s able to transform everyday objects into something fantastical. Crichton’s minimalist approach to product photography lies somewhere in between fine art and still life, yet the images pop with life, no doubt due to the energy that he’s able to instill in his images through meticulous designs and the technical proficiency to make the image in his head come to life. Making the familiar extraordinary is a rare talent, and Crichton is quite talented at what he does.
Crichton says he’s able to construct incredibly dynamic shots out of what are essentially still lifes because he employs the basic principles of design in his images, but he’s not afraid to ignore them when he needs to. Form, color and composition are at the forefront of his process, but then, during that initial approach he’ll step back and figure out when to "break those rules." "That’s where your intuitive gifts come into play," he notes. "You just know when a shot works and when it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, your experience and craft will help you work through that to get one that does."
Perhaps Crichton’s strongest quality as a photographer is that he’s not afraid to take chances. He often uses a color palette that borders on desaturation. His concentration is on texture, repeating patterns and leading lines over anything else, and he’s not afraid to go ugly, either, with compositions that bounce back and forth from magnificently elegant to truly messy.
"For example," he says, "I personally couldn’t imagine creating a flowing stream of mustard in CGI. It’s very rewarding and a lot of fun to capture it in midair with a camera, but I also embrace the creative possibilities that Photoshop can bring to a photograph."
He uses Profoto lighting gear for most of his studio work, but when needing to freeze action like in his Flying Foods series (his personal favorite), he falls back on his Broncolor Scoro A4S system for high-speed-sync and quick recycling.
"After that," he laughs, "a good toolkit of blocks, glue, sticky tack, tape and fishing line helps a lot. As one of my college professors once said, ‘One of the hardest things in still photography is making things stand up.’ I find that challenge still confronts me every day!"
"There’s something liberating about throwing breakfast or a bologna sandwich across the room," he says. "For example, the flying coffee and donut shot was done by actually tipping a coffee cup onto a donut. We wanted realistic shadows, so it had to be shot on the set with real shadows. The coffee ‘lick’ was real, and the result of many, many tries. The thrown creamers and sugar cubes were shot separately on the same set and added in digitally later to control where we wanted them in the composition."
The still life, by definition, is fundamentally static. In Crichton’s images, he conveys a sense of kinetic energy that’s a real challenge to pull off. Spilling coffee and flying sugar cubes can look contrived, but Crichton succeeds, at least in part because he’s not just adding an element of motion, but creating a deconstruction of the subject. Look at the photograph of the egg on the opening spread of this article. This is the kind of photograph that could be used to illustrate Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine. Crichton isn’t so much spilling things as breaking them apart and breaking them down into the fundamental elements.
"I think it’s the narrative in our images that appeals to our clients," he explains about the impact that his truly different body of work has made in the often-homogenous world of advertising. His unique vision may be avant-garde when compared to many other product photographers, but this same quality also attracts new campaigns.
"A client will approach you based on an idea that they have and an image or body of work they have seen of yours," he adds. "The best projects are when a client has come to you because of your style or a specific image in your portfolio. That’s the starting point. Then it becomes about ideas, what you can bring to the project and to a collaboration. The best images always happen with great collaboration!"
"I love to shoot with really loud music in the studio," Crichton says, "client permitting, of course." He also thanks his wife Leigh MacMillan, who he considers to be an indispensable creative partner and a co-collaborator on all of his projects.
When asked if he has any inspiring words for young photographers, Crichton has fairly practical suggestions. "Work harder than you ever have," he says, "and shoot what you love. If you aren’t being paid to shoot what you love, then shoot it for yourself—to keep you sane, to keep your vision and to keep you engaged."
Crichton adds that it’s absolutely vital to understand the business aspects of photography. "It is a business, after all," he says.
You can see more of Michael Crichton’s work at www.michaelcrichtonphoto.com.