Commercial photographer Dean Bradshaw talks about creating composite images, working with models, and how personal and advertising work can feed each other.
Aimee Baldridge: You're Australian. How long have you been in the U.S.?
Dean Bradshaw: I moved out here in mid-2009 to work as a retoucher. I did that for a little while and then moved out on my own to focus on commercial photography and retouching my own work.
AB: Were you a retoucher in Australia?
Dean Bradshaw: No, I was a zoologist. I have a degree in zoology and worked as a field biologist in outback Australia. I would go on two-week field trips where we would trap and survey the native fauna. My specialty was in reptiles, so I was running around catching snakes and lizards, kind of like Steve Irwin, but not on TV.
I had a camera and got more and more into photography and started doing travel stories for magazines, and then realized I was more interested in people and started playing with lighting and experimenting with Photoshop. I became more involved in photography and realized that’s what I wanted to pursue.
AB: Now that you’re doing the shooting, why do you prefer to handle everything in the process, including the retouching?
Dean Bradshaw: For me, retouching is a big part of the end look of my images and what I’ve become known for. It allows me to do things I couldn’t otherwise do. I see it as image making. In some projects, the taking of the photographs is only halfway there. Putting it together is as creative a process as taking the photos.
Image for Star Trac. © Dean Bradshaw.
AB: What does handling the whole process, from shoot to retouching, allow you to do that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to?
Dean Bradshaw: It allows me to do things like create composite images, to build an image out of 15 other images, and to create alternative worlds that would be very difficult or expensive to produce otherwise. A good example is a series of sports images I did for a brand called Star Trac. They wanted a very hyper-realistic, surreal look. There’s a golfing image in that series, and if I had shot the talent at that golf course, which is right on the ocean in San Diego, it would have cost maybe $10,000 or $15,000 just to gain access to do that, so they could shut down the golf course. But I was allowed to shoot backgrounds that I could composite my talent into, and we shot the talent in the studio. So that allowed me to create the look I wanted to create, and to do something that otherwise might have been cost-prohibitive for our client. I could certainly outsource the compositing, but I like to have control over the creative process and full ownership of my imagery. When someone says, “Did you do that?” I can say, “Yes I did.”
Star Trac 2012 Photo Shoot: Behind the Scenes from Dean Bradshaw on Vimeo.
AB: Do you always shoot the location first for composite images?
Dean Bradshaw: I don’t always, but I like to. I like to have at least an idea of what my background will be, because that motivates the lighting that will be on my subjects. If I know that my background is going to be late afternoon and the sun is from behind, then I know how to light my foreground subject to maintain consistency between the subject and the background, and that’s crucial in composites. As soon as the viewer notices a discrepancy in the direction of the light or the color, your composites aren’t as successful.
Matching the perspective of the subject or the foreground element with the perspective of the background is also a crucial part of making the composite look seamless. I have an Arca Swiss Cube tripod head that helps with that. For a long time I got by with a more inexpensive tripod, and then it came to a point when I decided that I just had to have the Cube, as it makes the process that much easier.
AB: Is having a precision tripod head a requirement for matching perspective?
Dean Bradshaw: It’s a luxury that I’ve been able to afford because this is what I do as a career. But you can do it with anything that keeps your camera steady. In photography, there’s always equipment that isn’t really a necessity, but if you’re a professional and it makes your life even a little bit easier, it’s often worthwhile.
AB: Are there other tools that aren’t essential but that make your life easier as a professional?
Dean Bradshaw: A designer friend of mine tweeted an interesting quote the other day, which was “Buy right or buy twice.” I really feel that’s relevant in professional photography. If you buy the best gear from the outset, it will last you a long time, unless it’s a camera or something that’s updated regularly. So I try to buy the best gear according to my needs, and to buy it once instead of going through it multiple times. That applies to lighting—having the best lighting you can afford.
The same goes for cases for holding all your equipment. When you’re a professional and you’re taking gear to studios and moving around, you want anything that makes your life easier. Things like the case being able to withstand baggage handlers, being able to roll across floors with wheels, having carrying handles in the right places—all these little things become more important.
I’ve grown to love the Tenba iMac case, for example. I take my iMac on set for almost every project because we use that to tether our camera to and the digital tech is watching every file that comes in and checking focus and doing all the digital back-end things. So having a case that can handle an iMac is a huge advantage, because when you’re taking one from a studio to another studio, it can be very difficult to transport.
For this last project we’ve been working on, we traveled to New York, and we had three lights and all the accompanying grip—light stands, softboxes, etc. I had one assistant with me, so we needed to be as efficient as possible. I had to go find a case that was big enough and strong enough and most transportable, and we ended up with the Tenba Transport Rolling Tripod/Grip case. There’s no other case on the market that can hold my light stands and has wheels. Those wheels might seem like a very small thing, but if you have to walk to a location from your hotel in New York City because it's just a couple blocks away, those wheels become really useful.
And Tenba is a trusted brand. That’s the other thing: You have Profoto, Hasselblad, Phase One, Tenba, etcetera—these very trusted brands that you don’t have to really think about too much. If they have a product that works, you can trust that it’s going to be of high quality.
Image for Diageo. © Dean Bradshaw.
AB: The style of some of your images could be called painterly. What kinds of media aside from photography are you influenced by?
Dean Bradshaw: I did oil painting when I was in school. I became very interested in hyper-realistic painting. I spent sometimes months on very elaborate, hyper-detailed photorealistic paintings. So I suppose where I’m at now is that I like the photographic medium because for me it’s the intersection between being an artist and the real world. It’s assembling real-world elements to create art.
My aesthetic is constantly evolving and changing, based on my own experience and the things I’m seeing. To me, image making is more about taste than technique. Obviously you need to get to a point where you can implement your taste, but your taste dictates what you’re going to create. At this point I have the technical ability to kind of do anything, but my sense of aesthetics and taste is continuously evolving. I’m trying to always improve.
AB: How do you meet the demands of the market as a commercial photographer and still grow as an artist?
Dean Bradshaw: When I’m hired to do a project, it’s often for my style, my look. So that’s always nice, to create images that are within my aesthetic sense. But when it comes to subject matter, it’s sometimes difficult for an artist to reconcile commercial messages with artistic integrity. The way I get around that is that I really enjoy working with brands to tell stories, because ultimately that’s what advertising is. It’s telling stories or eliciting emotional responses.
At the same time, I want to be creating a body of work that’s more in line with the stories I want to tell, the things that are important to me, and the emotions that I want to elicit. So personal work has always been really important to me. I just know that to maintain my passion and enthusiasm for what I do, I need to be creating images that mean something to me, and in turn will hopefully mean something to other people.
"Diné," personal work © Dean Bradshaw.
AB: What kinds of images are meaningful to you?
Dean Bradshaw: That’s something that’s always changing and evolving. Because I’m in the advertising field, I find myself thinking much more conceptually now. Advertising can create an aspirational idea of how life could be, and I think that personal work for me going forward will be stories about things that I think are important. I think to be a successful artist or photographer, it’s important to pull what is important to you into your work. Then you’ll always be truly unique, because we all have different things that we’re interested in.
AB: It sounds like working in advertising has allowed you to hone your approach to your personal work.
Dean Bradshaw: Definitely. Advertising does have its negative connotations, but to me, advertising has this incredible ability to communicate and create an image of a world as it could be. So I definitely have become a lot more conceptual and thoughtful about how I approach my photography by working in advertising and being exposed to so many creative people and ideas.
At this point, it’s not so much my technical ability that I try to learn more about, but it’s enhancing my taste and my vision and my ability to communicate visually. Always enhancing your idea of what you think is a good image is so important. Ira Glass put it really well: When you start out as an artist, you have a certain level of technical expertise, but your taste is a little bit higher than that. They’re out of sync. Your ability to create an image is not at the level where you think the image should be. So bringing the technical ability up to meet your level of taste is hugely important. And then once those two meet, pushing each other up the ladder is how you grow as a visual artist.
"Break," personal work © Dean Bradshaw.
AB: You work with a lot of people who aren’t professional models. What is that process like?
Dean Bradshaw: I really enjoy interacting with people. That’s a huge part of being a photographer—being able to interact with people, getting to know them, and making them comfortable in a very short space of time. I like to have my sets be really fun, energetic places that are conducive to someone revealing themselves or letting their hair down.
I like to work with people in my photographs the same way that a feature film director might work with actors, to kind of make them into characters. I’m not always trying to get to the core of who they are as a real person in the real world. I’m oftentimes casting them in my photographs to be a character and tell the story that I want to tell as an artist. Every person, no matter how photogenic or unphotogenic they are, has the ability to portray a certain character.
It takes a lot of directing, and I like to direct quite a lot on set. It’s facilitating that character to come out in that person, describing to someone not necessarily how to stand or how to look, but who they’re playing.
"James Dean." © Dean Bradshaw.
AB: Did anything surprise you about coming to the United States?
Dean Bradshaw: I was excited because the United States is the capital of creativity. It’s such a Mecca for anyone creative. I really identify well with living in America because I enjoy the culture here. The work ethic is quite aggressive, but I enjoy that. To me it is really the land of opportunity, so I’ve dived right in. It’s a place where if you apply yourself and have a great idea, you can achieve anything.
AB: Your optimism isn’t necessarily the zeitgeist in the photo industry right now. You’ve built a successful career during a period that has been considered very difficult for photographers.
Dean Bradshaw: That’s true. It’s an exciting time, because everything is available. For some that’s scary, because the gates have been opened, which means that everyone can potentially succeed, and that means you have to be better and better. You need to be a better marketer and a better image maker and a nicer person and more attentive than the next guy. It can definitely become sort of exhausting and difficult to keep up, but that’s where we are.
You need to find people who are good at what they do to support you so that you can focus on doing the thing that you love. It’s very difficult to be a generalist in this marketplace. You need to be really good at a handful of things and then for those things that you aren’t effective at you need to find people who can help you. This new world is much more collaborative. Cross-pollinating into other creative spheres is a really effective way of becoming a better image maker and a better artist. I know that it’s enhanced my taste and sensibility more than anything, to surround myself with other artists and creatives who go through the same struggles and artistic growth.
AB: You’ve made a lot of changes in your life. Is there a common thread for you between zoology and photography?
Dean Bradshaw: It might be curiosity. I’m an intensely curious person. I love finding out about the world, and zoology was a manifestation of that. And now photography allows me to explore the world—I’m always doing something different and learning about different walks of life. So I think what I’m doing now is more in line with who I am, and my pursuits in zoology were kind of my training wheels.
I’m a very passionate, obsessive, want-to-learn-everything kind of person. When I was a zoologist, I was very much embroiled in the world of zoology and herpetology and learning the Latin names of all the different animals and finding them in the field. Now my very passionate personality is applying itself to image making and creativity, and that’s where I want to be. I love thinking like a scientist, but ultimately creative work is what I want to be doing.
To see more of Dean Bradshaw's work and behind-the-scenes videos, visit his website. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter too.