Award-winning commercial photographer Vincent Dixon talks in depth about the process of creating his masterfully lit and often witty images, the importance of shooting from a personal perspective, and what it really takes to break into advertising photography.
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You can also see more of Dixon's photography on his website.
Aimee Baldridge: You have a doctorate in molecular biology. How did you become a photographer?
Vincent Dixon: I did my PhD in Paris, and when I was there I met Peter Lindbergh's assistant at the time, Justin Creedy Smith, and I became interested in photography. So when I finished my PhD, I did an internship at a photo studio, Pin-Up Studio, for about two months, and then I assisted a fashion photographer, Steve Anderson, in Paris, over a two-year period. And that's where I learned how to expose film and lots of things like that as well. And then I worked as a producer for a couple years. So most of my training has been on-the-job training as opposed to academic, in terms of photography.
AB: How did you get the position as an intern with no background?
Vincent Dixon: An internship is not a paid job. Basically, I was sweeping their studios for free. But getting an internship, I think, is terribly important in terms of the type of work I do, which is commercial advertising. Very few people go straight from photo school to being successful photographers, because there's a lot of our business that you really need to learn by being on the job.
AB: How did you learn to take photographs?
Vincent Dixon: I actually learned to take photographs by taking photos, strange as it might seem. I got a camera and I read all of Ansel Adams's books on photography. Ansel Adams had a series of books, The Print, The Negative, The Camera. They're very technical, but I'd come off a PhD in molecular biology, so I'm pretty good at dealing with technical things.
This was back in 1985, so we didn't have the Internet. You couldn't look up on the Internet how to do things. I would just take pictures every day. I had no money, so I would process my own film, and I'd print all my own work, and I really learned by doing it. I never did tests. Tests are where you try to do a fashion shoot or another type of shoot. I just really took pictures that interested me—portraits of my friends and street scenes, stuff like that—and printed them and just worked on that. The really important thing is to take, for want of a better word, relevant photos. And they're relevant photos because they're relevant to you.
AB: You have a distinctive style, with many of your images employing a subtle wit and an almost painterly approach to lighting. How do you retain your personal style while meeting the requirements of the advertising professionals who hire you? How does the process of collaborating with them to develop and shoot an image work?
Vincent Dixon: Quite often people come to me for my style. Over time you develop a style, and then people come to recognize that style. When they come to you for your style, that's great, because generally everybody agrees on what you're trying to create.
In advertising, the most important thing is the idea. As long as you don't deform the idea or take away from the idea, pretty much everything is permitted. People sometimes forget that, and they get a little bit hung up on specific examples in the layout, which is what the advertising agency presents to you. It can be done with found artwork or a drawing that represents the idea but doesn't necessarily represent the visual language that the art director would like to be used. Sometimes that's deliberate and sometimes it's not deliberate. Sometimes they don't know what they want and sometimes they know what they want but they can't display it.
I think quite often when I see a layout, I don't get too hung up on what's visually in the layout. I'm more interested in the idea in the layout. By thinking about the idea I can think about what's the best way of showing the idea.
The best layouts are black-and-white line drawings. The less well developed, the more room you have to maneuver. Sometimes the art director will do a simple line drawing. And then sometimes you get a layout artist, a draftsman, and he'll draw the layout. The ones that are drawn by layout artists—the problem with them is that they tend to mix up perspectives a lot, which you can do in a drawing but you can't really do in a photo. As you work more, you get used to seeing these problems and you can bring them up.
Quite often you'll be asked to do a treatment. Basically, they'll ask you to reference images. They're not necessarily your own images. You can refer to paintings or to fine art photos or drawings or whatever. And quite often they really want what you can bring to the story.
One thing leads onto another. I did do quite a lot of funny photos, and because I do funny photos people ask me to do more funny photos. I like to play on the funniness of the situation and not to overemphasize it. The joke is there, so you don't have to ham it up. For example, I did that series last year with the monsters for a jeans company. We had these costumes built, and we had people in the costumes. So, it's a monster. A monster doesn't really need to ham it up. He doesn't really need to do much more than what he's doing. I think that sometimes people try to put too much into the ad, and you can keep things light by taking stuff out, and accepting that people are intelligent and they can see.
Accidentally things will happen that are more interesting than what you could imagine would happen. Quite often on these shoots there will be twenty people there. You've got all these people who are looking to you for instruction. How, with that kind of pressure going on, do you still have the space to go ahead and do something that interests you? One of the things that I try to do on a shoot is to leave enough space so that if accidents happen you can capture them. It's become easier with digital because you can shoot more. I'll sometimes say, "Let's take a five-minute break," but continue shooting. That allows offbeat things to happen which ultimately give the photos that whimsy or maybe a feeling of being real. When everything's perfect, it's kind of boring.
AB: Some of your work uses lighting that is reminiscent of techniques used in European Renaissance paintings. How do you draw on art forms other than photography?
Vincent Dixon: Most of my references when I started photography were fine art photographers. I didn't really know about advertising photography. When I was an assistant most of the photographers I assisted were fashion or catalog photographers. My references were people like Edward Weston and Avedon and Irving Penn, André Kertész and Koudelka. So they were really more from the fine arts realm than the commercial realm. I think today if I've got to use a reference I prefer it to be a reference from painting because it becomes very obvious quickly if you're imitating another photographer. And that's the last thing you want people to think—that you're a poor man's whoever. But I think the important thing is that you move beyond those core influences, so that your style has a little bit of yourself as well. So that you become more than just the sum of your influences.
We did a campaign for Wonderbra . . . and what we wanted to communicate really quickly is that you walk into a restaurant or you walk into a bar and everybody is looking at you. In the three images you've got about twenty people in each image, and what we really wanted was to have everybody focus on the faces, not on the clothes. So we looked at Caravaggio, who used to always have everything happening in shadows, but the faces were always really well lit up. In shooting those photos, we lit everybody individually. The way we shot it was that we set up a kind of a scaffolding grid, so that we could light everybody with one lighting head per person. We shot everybody in the photo and then we took away the grid for the final plate, which gives the environment. So it involved building a scaffolding. One of the shots is on an escalator. We built a full scaffolding next to that so we could literally light everybody individually.
AB: What kinds of tools do you use to shape the light in your images?
Vincent Dixon: We use kind of anything that's available. We'll use anything from a bare head if we want a hard light to a lightbox through a silk if we want a really soft light. Sometimes what I'll do as well is mix lights. Say, outdoors I'll have my main light as a softbox, but it's counterbalancing a backlight from the sun. So we mix lights and then add some reflectors which are reflecting the sun, so we're not using just one light source.
I think flash by itself makes things a bit static. If you mix light and use a slightly slower shutter speed, you get a little bit of movement; you get a little bit of color changes between different light sources. It gives you that painterly effect as well, because you have your very clean flash mixing with maybe a little bit of neon, which gives you a bit of green, and there might be some blue light coming from the door, or tungsten.
If I'm doing a personal portrait, I really like a silver beauty dish. I like the way the light falls; it gives you kind of a deep shadow. I quite often have a ring flash with me. I like to use a ring flash to open up shadows, and because it circles the lens, it can get into areas that a light that's off-axis won't get into. And I do like big softboxes. They give you that Rembrandt light. The Northern European painters always painted with light from a north window—basically an indirect light coming through a window—and that's what a softbox gives you if it's well set up. It gives you that very soft, gentle light. It gives you lots of volume, and then depending on the distance between the light and subject, falls off quicker or slower.
AB: What kinds of tools and processes do you use to control the way colors look in your photos?
Vincent Dixon: Cameras capture in RGB [for red, green, and blue], a three-color space. Anything that light travels through has a three-color space. Light travels through a negative; it travels through a CCD device, a digital camera; it travels through a transparency; it travels through a color screen—so they're all RGB. In a three-color space you can show a lot more colors than in a four-color space. A four-color space is a space—like with paper—where light is reflected off the surface Everything we do at the moment uses a four-color space, because everything is printed.
Our challenge is to make sure that the image that we capture will print well. So we work with calibrated screens. We work with EIZO screens, which are very accurate in terms of their ability to reproduce color. We shoot gray cards and ColorCheckers during the shoot, and then throughout postproduction we monitor the color space. The final step is we produce a color proof, which we give to the agency, and which we know is within the color space of the printing devices they're going to use. And then they have to make sure that the images match to that.
As your colors become more vibrant, some of those colors can't be printed, so we make sure that we give them colors that are both vibrant and printable. Because if you give a file that has colors that can't be printed, then they reduce the colors, and sometimes reducing the color space means that you're changing the colors and ultimately you can change the way the image looks. In fact it can become quite dead. So it's better to work within the parameters to make sure that you're getting exactly what you want within the color space you're working in.
So we calibrate our monitors on the shoot, we work within defined color spaces—generally Adobe 1998 in RGB—and then if it's for America it's SWOP and if it's for Europe it's Euroscale, which are both very similar color spaces for four-color CMYK [cyan, magenta, yellow, and black]. We have a RIP which gives us proofs, so we can print out and get a pretty close simulation to what you would get on a web-fed printer. So we're making sure that everything we've got works for our final client. Because there's no point in having a wonderful Epson print that is out of gamut.
What's good about the EIZO screen is that when you're calibrating it, it does both physical and software-based calibration. Within the color space it's very accurate. You get better shadow detail, and those are the kind of things that are important on a shoot as well. You can see it pretty close to how it will look when it's printed. A lot of the color correction happens at the post stage as well. When you're shooting, what you want to make sure of is that you're capturing as much information as the digital chip can capture with that setting.
AB: You've done many images on location that incorporate expansive urban and rural landscapes—for example, your photos for the Sony Cyber-shot camera campaign. What are the greatest challenges in creating that type of shot, and how do you meet them?
Vincent Dixon: There are two types of landscapes. There's your classic landscape that doesn't contain people: You wait until the light's perfect, you filter, and If you've got a subject, you can light it a little bit. It's really a question of patience and of finding the right landscape. It becomes more complicated when you've got a big group, like in the Sony ads, or in a campaign that I did for Virgin Digital where we shot about eighteen bands on a Hollywood backlot that looks like a New York City street. When you're shooting outdoors, the sun is continuously moving, so if you cannot shoot everything in a relatively short timeframe, it's difficult to have everything match.
What you do in a photo like the Sony shoot is you work out where everybody's going to be and then you make sure that you shoot everybody in the same light. There are two things you need in postproduction: You need to have your light the same and you need to have your perspective the same. If your camera is at seven feet, you cannot shoot some people at seven feet and some people at five feet because they're going to look wrong. Most of my work involves a lot of postproduction, taking people from different photos and putting them all together so it will look seamless. In the Sony photos we're using the same people several times. You see some people's backs and then you'll see them further on in the photo. The important thing there is to make sure that if, for example, the sun comes out, you cover your subject with the sun and then you cover it when it's overcast.
What I did in a situation like the Virgin Digital photos, where we were shooting from about 9 a.m. to about 4 p.m., is I shot everybody in backlight. As the sun moves, it doesn't have as radical an effect on the scene as if it was the principle light. If we didn't use fill light everybody would be very dark, so we used big lightboxes as our main light and we controlled their direction. So our main light doesn't change and as the backlight changes from right to left, you really don't notice, because it's a secondary light. If you looked at it in detail, you probably would notice. In fact, on that photo both sides of the street are lit. The sun is hitting both sides, the buildings on the right and the left. But because it's mostly a backlit photo, it doesn't jump out at you the way it would if some people were lit from the right and some people were lit from the left. You'd look at it and it would look strange.
One of the main challenges when you're working outdoors is that if the light's beautiful at 7 a.m. you have to be ready at 7 a.m. to deal with the fact that your light is moving continuously. Generally what you'll do is set up the photo, get your perspective, and get your camera angle, and once you've got your camera fixed, it's kind of fixed for the day. From there on, you set up your composition and your lights, etc. As you work, you're making sure that as elements are removed or added to the photos you're keeping your composition fixed.
I pretty much 100 percent work from a camera on a tripod, and once we've decided what our angle is we don't move from there. If we need to shoot another element, we use a second camera on a second tripod. Because as soon as you move a tripod, you can never get it back exactly in the same place. That can be a challenge over a full day—keeping your tripod from moving a little bit. Even if your camera moves to the right or to the left, that changes perspective. Where an object is placed within the lens affects its distortion as well, especially as you get to the edge of a wide-angle lens. The only thing you can change is the lens. You cannot move your camera once it's been set up. If you move it, then you essentially have to reshoot all of your elements from a new perspective.
AB: How many people work on your more elaborate productions, and what are their roles?
Vincent Dixon: I would say it rarely gets above thirty. On the Wonderbra shoot, I think we had five hair and makeup, because you can't have one person working on the hair and makeup for twelve hours. You need so many people to light an environment in a pretty quick way. I think we had four photo assistants, one digital tech, a stylist with two assistants . . . somebody running a generator truck, a digital tech, a producer. Quite often a producer will have an assistant, who might have a runner—that's just somebody who can go get things as you need them. And then you might have a model maker or a set builder. Generally there are twenty or twenty-five.
From the agent you have an art buyer, you have an art director, you might have a creative director. You might have a print producer—that's the person who's involved in coordinating the production aspect of the print. From the client you have the account executive. You can have one or multiple clients. If you're working for a big company—-let's say Motorola—you will have your head client, but then you'll have the various clients who deal with different markets. Like on that shoot I did in China, our head client was based in France and another one was based in the UK. The art director was based in the Philippines, the agency was based in the Philippines, the account execs and art buyers were based in New York, and we had clients based in the UK and in Miami. We would have to have phone calls either at 8 o'clock in the morning or at 8 o'clock at night, so that everybody could be on the call, because of the time differences.
I use different producers. Generally there's a producer who coordinates everything. I do a lot of productions in LA, on the West Coast, and for those I tend to use David Sapien. I do a lot of productions in Latin America. It really depends which market I'm in, and sometimes it will depend on the skill set of the producer. Like photographers, producers have different skill sets. That really comes down to the team of people they have. If it's a more fashion-type shoot, you definitely want someone who knows the good hair and makeup stylists. If it's a car shoot, you need somebody who understands car shoots. For example, let's say somebody is looking for your location, and you say you need a glass building in it, and they show you a picture of a glass building. If there's a tree above where they shot, that tree is going to throw a shadow on the car and it's going to show its reflection on the car. A car producer wouldn't make that mistake. It also depends on your budget. You might use one producer when you've got a lot of money and use a different producer when you've got less money because they've got less experience but they can get the job done with less money too.
There are a lot of people involved, and they all have different skill sets as well. You try to get the relevant person for the job. A high-fashion stylist might not be the ideal person for the job if you're trying to make everyone look pretty normal, because they wouldn't know what Ann Taylor makes. But if you want everybody to look a little bit trendy, you really do need somebody who is very versed in that language, who knows that this is the right tie for now and that other tie is so three months ago.
AB: Have the capabilities of technology influenced your style and the way that you're able to employ visual devices?
Vincent Dixon: The kind of stuff we're doing now was very difficult to do ten years ago. One of the advantages of shooting digital is that you really don't have grain. Whereas when we were shooting film, even if we were shooting with the same emulsion and it was processed at the same time, different sheets of film would have different grain structures. So when you tried to match a building to the foreground, you had to deal with the grain of both images, especially with negatives, when you were retouching. And it was also very expensive.
Before I went digital I used to shoot 4x5 film, which worked out at probably about 20 or 30 dollars a sheet when it was processed, if you counted the Polaroid costs. You had to be very careful while shooting. Now you can shoot and cover yourself. In film I would shoot maybe 100 images. Now I shoot maybe 800. You're getting more elements and you're covering yourself in terms of slight changes in perspective. So it does allow us to do more complex images. The big challenge for me is keeping those images looking photographic and not looking like an illustration. As you start shooting everything in forty different pieces, how do you make it feel like a seamless whole at the end? You're taking all these disparate elements but at the end you want to be able to look at it and see a photo and not question how it was done, but just enjoy it.
It's pretty similar to how music used to be recorded. Miles Davis could go into the studio at 7 p.m. and leave at 3 o'clock in the morning and he'd recorded an album. The orchestra was there, his musicians were there, and they recorded an album in an evening. Now you go in and everything is recorded in pieces and kind of put together. And sometimes there's an immediacy to a live recording which you don't always get with a multi-track recording.
Basically we're doing the same thing. You'd love to be able to do it as a live photo—go out and take one picture and that's it. But the ideas require that they're shot as multi-tracks. Generally when I'm shooting a photo that's got a big composition, I do try to set it up so that at least at one stage we're looking at the whole photo, and then we concentrate on the individual pieces as we're going through it. You try to set up the whole composition as one photo because it becomes very difficult otherwise to place all those pieces together if you don't see how they fit in perspective.
AB: It's a tough market out there today. Give it to us straight: What do photography students who want to get into your line of work need to do to break in?
Vincent Dixon: You need to learn skills. Those skills can be lighting skills; they can be directing skills—your ability to direct models—they can be composition skills; they can be marketing skills. Photography is one of those jack-of-all-trades fields where you need to be good at a lot of things to be successful. The more skill sets you can build up, the better chance you have of breaking into the business. So you need to start thinking, "What skill sets do I need?"
Most people don't approach it that way. They approach it by thinking, "I'm taking great photos"—and that's part of it. But those photos need to be able to solve problems for art directors, etc. So it's important to know what they're looking for, as opposed to what you've got. If you know what they're looking for then maybe you can address those questions. Maybe the guy who's got a book full of black-and-white portraits on a gray background actually could do really great funny photos or would be great shooting groups or would be great shooting environmental portraits, but he doesn't show them. If you don't show them, then people don't know you have those skills.
One of the most important things to study in photography is light. If you're in a school that has a studio, you should be getting your money's worth and be in there every day taking pictures. Light is easy and it's not easy. It's not easy in that sometimes you set up the lights and nothing happens. You need to know how different modifiers work in different environments. You've got your light modifier. You've got your lightbox. But you've also got the space where you're using that lightbox. The space affects the light as well. If you're in a black studio, you're in the ultimate high-contrast environment, because there's no place for light to bounce. You basically get what your light source will give you. If you're in a white studio and the walls are close, you're getting bounce everywhere. So the same light at the same distance from the subject will give you a very different effect depending on the environment. A light that looks really beautiful four feet from the subject has a very different effect if it's eight feet from the subject or if it's higher or if it's lower. The modifier gives you different lights in different places. And you really need to experiment to know what to do. Because the day when you've got twenty people behind you—that's not necessarily the best place. You should still be experimenting, but you should have a fair idea of what you're going for.
The other thing that I would say is that If you want to break into advertising, the best thing to do is to work for a good advertising photographer. The first thing I would do is try getting an internship in an advertising agency at the art buying department. Because in six months you'll see everybody's portfolio. You'll actually see why people like some portfolios and not the others. You'll get an understanding of why one portfolio works and another one doesn't. That's really something they can't teach you in school. And then after that I would go work for the best photographer you can get to take you on.
AB: Photo students are often advised to be very focused in their portfolios. So how do you demonstrate an array of skills while maintaining a focus that communicates that you have a specific style?
Vincent Dixon: I see portfolios where you've got one super-high-contrast photo, you've got one low-contrast photo, you've got a cross-processed photo, you've got a black-and-white photo. . . . What you're showing is: This is me doing Mapplethorpe, doing David LaChapelle, doing all these different people. But you're not actually showing who you are. I've never had a focused portfolio. I've never had a portfolio which shows just one type of thing. But from pretty early on, I hope I had a portfolio that you could believe came from one person, and not one person imitating a lot of different people. Quite often portfolios are showing you that the person hasn't made any decisions as to who they want to be. They're simply showing you the sum of their influences.
This goes back to what I was saying about taking relevant photos. I'm not sure that it's relevant to imitate David LaChapelle or Bruce Weber. I think that it's more relevant to take photos that mean something to you yourself. Everyone has something that's unique to them, and yet maybe they feel it's not relevant to people out there. But I think it's far more relevant. I'd prefer to see a photo of somebody's family—because at least I know it's personal there—than a photo that looks like a David LaChapelle photo done without the production. That's what I think people mean when they say you need to be focused. I think that your focus should be on what makes photos relevant. And then you can choose anything; you can have as much diversity as you like. You then need to know your market. If you want to be an advertising photographer, your photos need to say something to an art director somewhere.
My very first campaign was for Absolut vodka in Europe. And the portfolio that I got it with was all black-and-white portraits, really just my family and a few friends and a couple of street photos. The art director saw something there that she thought would be relevant to a color landscape campaign. It also happened that I was really cheap and I had production experience. I was lucky to get that break, but when that break came I was ready for it.
And that's the other thing: You need to be ready, and being ready, to me, is just to be out there taking pictures all the time. If you take pictures enough and you care enough about them and you print them and you think about them, you don't really have to worry about your style. That was a piece of advice I got, when I was an assistant, from a really good fashion photographer in Europe called Jacques Olivar. He said, "You don't have to worry about style. That will come." If you take pictures enough and you care enough about them, you just know that one day you'll have a style. You'll realize: actually I do have a tendency to take this type of picture. Whereas if you go around looking at other people's photos, looking for a style, you're kind of as good as the last image you saw, which is not really a safe place to be.