Sam Kaplan: The Problem Solver

In the era of social media, a talent for marketing can be just as important to a photographer as a talent for creating an image. Kaplan thanks his eye for design for setting himself apart from so many of his contemporaries, while it’s his intuitive approach to branding of his own work that helps to bring in new clients. His website, for example, is as straightforward and minimal in design as his product photography—and just as effective.

DPP: Are you trying to make a statement with this series about how we live?

Kaplan: A little bit, but it’s more just to serve the concept. Photography can certainly comment on what’s happening in the world around us. For me, a lot of it is trying to frame a problem, then figure out solutions with it. For CONSUMABLES, I wanted to take inexpensive food and make it as interesting as possible. That was the seed of this project. Pringles, Starburst, Big Red gum, ice cream—I wanted the items to be immediately recognizable.

DPP: No matter what objects you have before your lens, your lighting is very precise. What are the most difficult products to shoot?

Kaplan: I think the toughest is a clear jar with something inside of it, especially if you need a highlight on the jar and at the same time illuminate whatever is inside of it. Silver can be very difficult, as well. But once you learn the technical stuff, it becomes more of an issue to make the object look exactly how you want it to look. It doesn’t necessarily need to be technically correct; it’s more important to highlight what you want to see and work out how to achieve that. You do need to know how to technically light and photograph a perfume bottle to fall back on. Then you can have the freedom to know what you want to see as an outcome and know how to achieve it. Firing a strobe through frosted Plexiglas, for example, allows light to wrap around a glass object, creating a beautiful rim light. What I do a lot of times, and it’s so easy with digital, is combine a couple of shots altering exposures. If it’s silver or chrome items, I might use sheets of diffusion or Plexiglas.

Assisting was very important for me. In the three years I was assisting, I worked with around 40 photographers—food, still life, product, fashion, portraits. For my own work, I gravitated toward still-life and food photography, approached in a conceptual way. That’s what I enjoy most. During that time, I would shoot to build my book up. The FEED and CONSUMABLES projects that I did were done to develop my portfolio to get editorial work—that was the main impetus behind it. I wanted to shoot for magazines.

DPP:How much of your portfolio is personal concepts versus assignments?

Kaplan: My website now is probably 50-50 assigned work and personal work. Every day that I’m not shooting an assignment, I’m contacting people to set up meetings or I’m creating new pieces. I’ve been doing more and more sketches for clients to sell them on ideas. It was faster and clearer to do a quick sketch than trying to explain my ideas in a series of emails. The picture of the guy made out of candy I first sketched out for Reader’s Digest. They had a story about how candy is bad for you and how it affects your brain. My initial idea was to shoot a brain made out of candy, but they passed on that so I came up with the idea of doing the whole body, which they signed off on. To do the shot, I made an outline of a body on the computer and output a 20×30 print. A food stylist sourced all the candy and brought it to the shoot. We went in and built the print up on the paper that was laying flat. I then photographed it with my Arca-Swiss view camera shooting straight down.

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