Fstoppers Interviews Celebrity Photographer Luke Fontana
Luke Fontana is a photographer and person based in New York, specializing in celebrity portraiture. After three years in New York, Luke has nothing short of an impressive body of work. He is proof, above all else, that hard work and determination are the key ingredients of success. Having the mind of a comedy writer doesn’t hurt either – something you can witness in 120 characters or less here.
Can you tell us about yourself and your photographic background?
Hey FStoppers! My name is Luke Fontana, I’m 24 and live in Brooklyn, NY. A few days before my final semester of college, I was browsing Twitter and heard about an internship at a photography agency in Manhattan. I sent an email, landed an interview, and quickly dropped all of my classes to take advantage of the opportunity. After a few days in New York, I met one of the photographers represented at the agency and started interning with him too. Eventually I became his studio manager. After eight months I went back to get my degree, but the real education came through those real-world experiences. It’s been three years now that I’ve been in NYC.
What got you started in photography?
My grandfather was a special effects artist and my dad used to photograph a lot for the government, so I was always surrounded by the technology. I used to constantly bug my dad to let me look through the viewfinder when I was a kid. I guess it sort of stuck.
Actor Forest Whitaker
What kind of gear would we find in your bag?
Surprisingly little. I’ve condensed my studio kit to a bare minimum. My Elinchrom head and camera go into a backpack, my light stand and softbox squeeze in a second bag. Portability is key when I do as much personal work as I do. I need to have a kit that I can easily take on the subway. When I’m doing commissioned work I take a bit more gear, but about 95% of my work is done with one light.
Do you prefer strobes or natural light if so what kind?
Artificial light is a key component of the look I’ve developed, so I treat the outdoors as one giant set and I light almost the same way as if I were in a studio. By using neutral density filters and balancing strobes, the sun can become as easy to control as any artificial light. But I’ll admit that this is much easier said than done. It doesn’t always work.
Actor Matthew McConaughey
Where do you find the majority of your inspiration?
In college I followed tons of photographers and would obsessively study their work, but I found it led to a bit of rigidity in the way I shot. I’m a chronic over-thinker so I had to learn to make room for happy accidents while shooting, and that meant not copying someone else. I’ve learned that it’s ok to be surprised by a location and react accordingly. For instance, in the personal series I’ve been doing with comedians, I’ve found that shooting at the subject’s apartments can add a lot to the personality of the shoot.
What is your mental checklist before a shoot?
Making sure I’ve packed the Pocket-Wizards. I’m embarrassed to admit that I learned that lesson the hard way. It’s important to shoot as much as possible early on, that way you can get all your dumb mistakes out of the way. There are a hundred different technical things to remember while shooting, but the goal is to get to a point where they become so automatic that you’re giving your attention to your subject and not to your gear.
Actress Kate Winslet
What is your thought process for location scouting? When shooting studio, how do you approach it differently?
I find myself shooting in a lot of small spaces, so I usually try and determine whether or not my light will fit. Other than that, I just keep an eye out for texture, color and whether or not there are any distractions in the location. However, if I’m in a studio, I’m working with a clean slate, so I have to build an interesting image from scratch. The two processes are total opposites, and I prefer the former.
What is your favorite subject to shoot?
The first year I was working in the city, my portfolio consisted mainly of models from local agencies, but I quickly learned that the fashion world was not something in which I wanted to directly participate. So I followed my love of stand-up comedy and started contacting comedians, who quickly turned into my favorite people to shoot.
Actors Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart
Can you take us though your workflow from shoot to post?
When I get home from a shoot I back up my images to a few different hard drives, then I go through several rounds of edits. I’ll send my selects to get approval from the client, or I’ll send them to the PR company if it’s a celebrity shoot. Once we agree on our favorite images, I spend some time polishing up the work in Photoshop. Occasionally I’ll forward the images to my retoucher, Ashlee Gray. She sees things that I don’t and she really takes the images to another level.
What is your favorite thing to shoot for yourself?
Some friends and I took a drive up to Nova Scotia for a long vacation last summer, and it was the first time in years that I simply photographed my daily life without all the gear and planning. I just took photos. After the trip I ordered photo books for the group, and giving those out was more rewarding than any professional experience I’ve had.
Actor/Musician Jared Leto
What do you do on your down time?
Using other people’s pets to get Instagram likes.
What has been your most memorable moment in your career so far?
Just last month I spent a few hours shooting with two of my favorite comedians from when I was younger, and it was probably the most fun I’ve ever had on a job.
Comedian Moshe Kasher
What is your favorite part of the whole photographic process?
Taking a risk and stumbling upon something that really works. Realizing that something has just happened that could forever change the way I shoot.
What is your favorite lighting modifier and piece of tech?
I’ve been using the same 39″ Elinchrom softbox for five years and I’m still discovering new ways to use it. Every few months I look back at my work and think “what was I doing?”
Comedian Adam Newman
What is your favorite post-production tip?
A lot of times, if you learned it from a web tutorial, don’t do it. Plug-ins and filters can only take you so far. There’s no easy way to get a “high-end” look. It really is all about tackling each detail bit-by-bit and being comfortable with your software.
With the amount that graphic arts now play in imagery, what do you think is the future of photography?
Like any creative medium, photography has very specific trends. They can be fun to play around with, but can lead to the production of work that quickly looks dated. I think we’re coming to the end of the raw/retro phase, and I’m guessing that preference of a clean, simple aesthetic will follow. But, maybe that’s just wishful thinking. Even though the way we view images changes every day, there will always be a place for good photography.
Comedian Brooks Wheelan (Saturday Night Live)
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some very established photographers over the years, and I always find myself jealous of their studio teams. The big studios and big paychecks don’t excite me as much, but I think that being able to work with the same people every day would bring a sense of routine into an unusually chaotic lifestyle. It’d be nice to have that at some point. But being able to sustain a life as a creative of any kind is already more than I can ask for.
Check out more of Luke’s work on his website.
Comedian Carmen Lynch
Actor Bruce Dern (Nebraska)
Comedian Seaton Smith
Comedian Reggie Watts
Actress Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)
Comedian Seaton Smith
Comedian Jermaine Fowler
Comedian Neal Brennan