"One of the great things about photography is, you make mistakes and you learn what not to do," Nathan says. "Someone once asked me, ‘How did you learn to take pictures?’ I took a lot of really bad pictures. And I think, to a great extent, that helped me become successful more quickly when I did finally turn pro 10 years ago because I got to make the vast majority of my big mistakes in private. I always shot—all through college I had a Linhof field camera, and every person who would come over would sit for either 4×5 Tri-X or more likely a Polaroid. And I’d shoot landscapes and all that stuff. I always had a camera in my hands my whole life. I just never thought to turn pro."
Then he met Dean and Davis Factor, founders of the now iconic Los Angeles photo studio Smashbox. They were clients of Nathan’s in another endeavor, and they changed his life one afternoon during a round of golf.
"As we were walking up the 18th fairway at Riviera Country Club," Nathan says, "Dean said to me, ‘You know, Davis and I were talking, and we decided that you’re turning pro as a photographer.’ I said, ‘You guys are out of your mind. I’m 38 years old; I’m not starting a new career. I’m finally making a living. There’s no way.’ They said, ‘No, we decided you’re doing it. The studio is yours. Lighting, yours. Pretend you have the same name as us.’"
Nathan went to work as a digital tech at Smashbox, which allowed him to watch Davis work for six months, until the photographer told Nathan he had taught him all he could. "Go, fly away," he said.
Nathan soared. Since his first professional assignment in 2005, he has rocketed to the upper echelon of the beauty industry. He shoots stills, directs commercials, sells soap, makes art.
"Sometimes we get to make art," Nathan says, "sometimes we get to make commerce. I think one thing that has been good to me is my ability to be fluid. Sometimes a client will come to me with complete storyboards, and they’re, like, ‘This is exactly what we want.’ It might be just smiling people on a white background, but one thing my dad always said to me is, ‘When your client is happy, you’re out of ideas, stop talking.’ We’re selling soap at the end of the day, so if you want to keep your client, give them exactly what they want. Not everything has to go in your book."
What does go in Nathan’s book is beautiful work, all meticulously illuminated. He made his name shooting with strobes, but fairly recently made the switch to continuous lighting. While versatility is a benefit, the change wasn’t brought about simply by the need to seamlessly move from stills to video. Instead, Nathan simply fell in love with the look of HMI lighting, and through another series of fortuitous events, after seeing what tremendous work Nathan was producing with their Joker HMIs, a representative from K5600 offered to set him up with a suite of great lights.
"I thought I would just use their stuff for video work," he explains, "but I haven’t popped a strobe for six months. I haven’t needed it. Not that there’s not a time I would use strobes—like doing a white-out in-studio or overpowering the sun on a beach—but for the vast majority of the static still beauty stuff I do, I prefer the HMI. I had to sort of change the way I thought about light, to a great degree, because you obviously can’t adjust HMI light by tenths of a stop like you can with a strobe pack. So you’re using neutral density, you’re using scrims, you’re using distance, you’re using shutter speed and ISO to adjust all these things. You become aware of things like negative fill more. It takes a minute to sort of get your brain around it, but once you get the hang of it, it’s amazing, particularly because I can use all my adapters. We’re still using snoots and grids, and beauty dishes and softboxes. Well, I rarely use softboxes anymore, actually.
"I don’t use softboxes because I find it to be kind of a dated look," says Nathan. "The reason I stopped using them was because of beauty. It would just make everything look soft and mushy, and I was shooting products like eyelashes and eye shadows. You want specularity. You want that sparkle, that snap, that pop. You want really sharp hair, you want red hair to look like copper wire. And when you shoot with a softbox, it makes everything mushy. And the thing is, it scares clients when you use a bare head, when they see it come up on the screen, because the skin looks like shit. But you can soften skin; you can’t harden hair."
All photographers want their subjects to look great, but for no one is that more imperative than a beauty photographer, whose job is delivering perfect skin and shimmering hair. The challenge, Nathan says, is that what makes hair look its best doesn’t work for skin.
"I use a lot of grids and I use a lot of snoots for hair," he says, "and I use a lot of different light sources. I’ll have it coming from behind, I’ll have a boom overhead, and we’ll play with ratios for highlights. You’re using barn doors and taking pieces of cinefoil and dialing in little slices of light coming in here and there. And a lot of times, with hair, what I’ll do is bounce light, whether strobe or continuous light, into slabs of silver or gold show cards. I’ll cut little strips of it and bounce light in it to make those Pantene-like ribbons of light through the hair.
"I start with the star," Nathan says. "If the star is an eyelid, I start with the eyelid and I’ll light that. A lot of times, I’ll end up throwing up a bunch of lights and then turning off three-fourths of them. But if you’re showing off an eye shadow, you never want to have a lot of hair lighting because then your eye doesn’t know where to look. So a lot of it is sort of subtractive lighting, in a way. Anybody can throw up a beauty dish and have a perfectly finely lit human head. But it’s the sort of stuff that you wouldn’t think about knowing, your brain knows. Why is your eye strictly going to this one spot? Sometimes, I’ll have the face a little bit darker just so the eyes will go to the hair, so they know what they’re supposed to be looking at."
For a key light, Nathan prefers the K5600 Joker Evolution kit. The 200-watt lamp provides ample output. "It feels like an 800 used to look," he says. "It’s a lot of light. So I’ll use it with a beauty dish a lot. They also have another product called a Softube, which isn’t quite as soft as a softbox. I’ll sometimes use that to highlight. And then they have a 200-watt Alpha light with a Fresnel, and there’s a set of scrims that goes with it, so I can take it down, and barn doors. I’ll use that as a hair light a lot. I use the Fresnel on stills, but for video—which is what this new project that I’ve been
working on is—it’s a little crisp for that. I’ve also been using Schneider Optics Classic Soft FX filters, which are incredible. I’ve played with these things for video over the years, renting them. But what I’ve found is, most of the products out there have kind of a ‘Penthouse’ soft-focus look, and it’s not what I was after. It’s more soulful. Then I found these things, and what’s amazing is, they will soften skin, but somehow through pure magic, the eyes and the hair still look crisp. The proof is in the pudding. So I’ve been using them on this video project."
Nathan has thrown himself completely into a personal project this year. He was in a commercial rut, shooting clients’ storyboards more often than he had liked, and looking for a passion project. He found it in "Confessional," a series of 10-minute video portraits of women gazing directly into the camera. The concept sprang from Nathan wondering aloud to a friend how long he’d have to point a camera at someone before he saw who they really were. "Do you want a guinea pig?" she offered.
"So I put up black duvateen in my apartment and a couple of HMIs," Nathan says, "and for the first two or three minutes, I’m sitting by the monitor thinking this is really boring, she’s just being cute and acting and trying to model. This isn’t interesting at all, but I’m going to let the camera keep running. All of a sudden, at about the five-minute mark, it kind of looks like she’s drifting off somewhere. And at seven minutes, she just burst into tears. And I was like, oh, my god, this is amazing. So I called cut, and she says, ‘Let’s do another take. I’m going to get naked. Maybe with all my clothes off I’ll feel that much more exposed.’ So we did another take, and it was awesome."
Nathan has made dozens of these videos now, and each one is a profoundly personal experience. The only direction he gives is, "Don’t take your eyes off the upper third of the lens for the entire 10 minutes." He has had well-known actors and models ask to participate, and all of them have a visceral reaction to the session. Some people laugh, many of them cry, most experience a whole range of emotions. Even supermodel Rachel Hunter, one of Nathan’s very first subjects, was visibly moved.
"I said, ‘Rachel, what the hell?’" he recalls. "’You’ve been in front of a camera way more than I’ve ever been behind one. What happened?’ She said, ‘I don’t know. It’s the first time I was ever me and the most alone I’ve ever felt in front of a camera. It was just amazing.’
"We’re all completely exposed," he adds. "When you watch it, you see all of this nuance. You see what they’re thinking about. You see them change. And what I’ll do, I’ll pick people that don’t know someone, and I’ll say, ‘Watch this video and tell me what you can tell about this person.’ What’s amazing is, everything they’ll tell me about this person will be 100 percent true. It’s just incredible what a face, what eyes, can tell you about a person.
"I thought I was going to find out how different everyone is," Nathan says, "and what I’m finding is kind of how the same we all are. I started maybe three months ago. I’ve been going crazy. I’ve been shooting sometimes two a day, five days in a row. I’m at over 40 people now. I promised myself I’m going to stop at 60, but I don’t know if I’ll ever ‘stop’ stop."
See more of Scott Nathan’s work at scottnathanphoto.com and follow him on Instagram @scottnathanphoto.
Scott Nathan’s Gear
|Camera and Lenses:
My go-to work camera is the Canon EOS 5D Mark III.
For beauty and portrait still work, and depending on the shape of the face, I go back and forth between the 85mm ƒ/1.2 and the 100mm Macro. Both are Canon L-Series glass.
For three-quarter to full-length fashion, I use the workhorse 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 L-Series lens. I also used it a great deal on safari in Africa, sometimes with a 2x multiplier.
I like the 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 and 24-105mm ƒ/4.0 as all-arounders, as well as a 50mm ƒ/1.2.
For video, I really like the Schneider Xenon FF-Primes in 35mm, 50mm, 75mm and 100mm.
The Evolution kit uses such little power, I can run them off household current and never blow a fuse like I have in the past with other HMI and tungsten brands. The whole kit with stands fits in a tiny roller case that fits in a trunk or an airline overhead compartment.