[FS Spotlight] Mike Schreiber Shoots Hip Hop's Biggest Stars...With Natural Light

Mike Schreiber is not your average photographer. The renowned hip hop photog shoots natural light, has never assisted, and doesn't give a crap about your fancy digital camera. This badass photographer has shot for Vibe, Spin, Atlantic Records, The Source, XXL, and URB, and his portfolio is filled with incredible images of Erkyah Badu, John Legend, Mos Def, Diddy, MIA, and Nas. Not enough? Schreiber recently released his first book, True Hip Hop.

I knew it was going to be a good interview when hip hop photographer Mike Schreiber’s e-mail signed off with the words “Find food. Mate. Don’t get eaten.” Read our interview below, where Schreiber talks about getting the shot, getting to the top, and keeping it real in the digital age.

Mike Schreiber, Maino, fstoppers, hip hip, fs spotlight, reese moore
Maino photographed by Mike Schreiber

Fstoppers: How did you get started with hip hop photography?

Mike Schreiber: I worked at a photo agency that syndicated celebrity pictures. Photographers would come in with their pictures from concerts, and I thought, “Well... I like going to concerts. And if they can do it, I’m sure I can do it!” I started getting into shows, getting photo passes, and taking pictures. It was just for fun at first. Going to free shows and taking pictures, what could be bad about that? With hip hop, I started shooting shows that I wanted to go to anyway. I would take my pictures and go to The Source and Vibe for the party section. Once I started to place pictures, publicists started calling me because they knew I could get photos in the magazine. I did that for two years or so, and I shot a lot of live stuff for Spin. People at magazines started to know me, and at hip hop magazines especially. I would get little assignments, and I’d take portraits out of each thing that I did, and eventually I had a body of work. People gave me opportunities and I made the most of them... (laughs) and then next thing you know, somebody’s interviewing me about it!

Mike Schreiber, hip hop, fstoppers, fs spotlight, reese moore
Erykah Badu photographed by Mike Schreiber

Fstoppers: What was your first professional camera?

Mike Schreiber: The first one was a Pentax K1000, and I used it for a really long time along with other cameras. I had a Canon EOS Elan, and that’s what I shot the shows with. I’ve never been too into cameras and technology and all that stuff. I get a little queasy when people ask me that question.

Fstoppers: What do you shoot with now?

Mike Schreiber: I still shoot with a contax 645 and a Leica R5. I don’t like digital at all, so I don’t really do it... unless I have to. It just doesn’t appeal to me on any level... whatsoever! (laughs)

Fstoppers: So you shoot film most of the time?

Mike Schreiber: Yeah, unless someone expressly says, “We want you to do this digitally” I shoot film, even if it means not making as much money because I just don’t like digital. I don’t like the way it looks, I don’t like the way it feels. It seems like a lot more work to me. Where other people think it’s a lot less work, it looks like a lot more work to me. And I’m incredibly lazy!

Mike Schreiber, Biz Markie, fstoppers, hip hop photography, fs spotlight
Biz Markie photographed by Mike Schreiber
Fstoppers: It seems like the background and mood is very important to hip hop artists, what do you look for in terms of the backgrounds for your shots?

Mike Schreiber, John Legend, fstoppers, hip hop photography, fs spotlight, reese moore
John Legend photographed by Mike Schreiber

Mike Schreiber: I prefer to shoot on location. I’m not a fan of studio stuff... I was never trained as a photographer and never assisted, so I’m much more comfortable outside. I studied anthropology in school, and while it sounds weird to say when someone’s interviewing me about photography, I’ve never been that into photography itself. For me, I love the interaction with people, and I love meeting new people and seeing new things. That’s the real appeal of it, the humanity of it. So if I have the opportunity I would prefer to shoot on location. And with rappers if I’m able to shoot them in a place that is familiar to them or personal in some way, it always works out better. It’s more true to who they are. What do I look for? I like texture and walls with texture. Since I do a lot of black and white it becomes different shades of gray and different textures.

Fstoppers: I wanted to ask you about your use of black and white. It lends a classic feel to your work, and I was curious about that.

Mike Schreiber, MIA, fstoppers, hip hop photography, fs spotlight, reese moore
MIA photographed by Mike Schreiber

Mike Schreiber: I’ve always liked black and white photos better than color photos. I think there’s something about color that can be distracting. I shoot both, but the color stuff is not as strong a lot of times, and I think it’s because we think of black and white as being more “real” in a way, but it’s the opposite. We see in color, so black and white is special and different.

Fstoppers: What’s your approach to lighting? Do you use mostly natural light?

Mike Schreiber: Almost 99% of everything I’ve ever shot is natural light. I don’t even like reflectors. The thing about photography, and thankfully I learned this a long time ago, is that it really doesn’t have to be that complicated. It just has to be what you like. And I don’t like lighting things. When there are lights and light meters and all this stuff, it’s just too much. It takes away from the interaction and people act more natural when they don’t have lights burning their eyes, whereas after each flash they do a different pose. For me, that’s not interesting. Natural light is beautiful. That’s the one thing I’m really great at, knowing when something looks good and when it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, I don’t do it! (laughs) Or I find another place to do it where it looks better.

Mike Schreiber, Mos Def, fstoppers, fs spotlight, reese moore, hip hop photography
Mos Def photographed by Mike Schreiber

Fstoppers: What do you think is the most important skill to have when photographing other artists?

Mike Schreiber: My biggest skill is my ability to make people feel comfortable. I’m incredibly funny. It’s crazy how funny I am! But for me, it’s about making people feel comfortable. It’s an unnatural thing, being in front of a camera. So the less self-conscious somebody feels, the less they pose. That’s much better than going through the motions of a photo shoot. It’s easy to take a photo that looks good, you just need a 5D or whatever. The challenge is to do a picture that will stand the test of time. There are certain pictures of Bob Marley that when you think of Bob Marley, you see these pictures. That’s always the goal but sometimes you don’t know until 20 years later. Like the Mos Def picture, I didn’t know. And Mos just happens to be incredibly talented and has become iconic to a certain group of people.

Mike Schreiber, fstoppers, hip hop photography, fs spotlight, reese moore
Jim Jones photographed by Mike Schreiber

Fstoppers: Who have been some of your favorite people to shoot so far?

Mike Schreiber: I’ve shot MIA a couple times, and she’s great. I like shooting most people, and I love meeting new people. The amazing thing about photography is that in the beginning of the day, none of these pictures exist. By the end of the day they exist and people can’t take it away. I like shooting Maino a lot, I like David Banner a lot. I like C-Murder.

Fstoppers: What is your advice to aspiring photographers?

Mike Schreiber: (laughs) Use a light meter. I don’t know! My advice is that people need to not worry about what they think other people want to see. Don’t worry about what’s the hot style or what photographer is popular or what you see in magazines. That’s not going to get you anywhere, chasing trends. You really have to find what you like to do and what you’re good at. Some people love lighting and they can spend days lighting a tomato and enjoy every minute of it. That’s what makes the world go round. I could not do that, it’s not in my nature. The person who loves that shouldn’t be shooting rappers, and vice versa. I shouldn’t be shooting tomatoes. It just wouldn’t look good. The most important thing is to have fun and do what you like. If you don’t like the pictures you’re taking, no one else will.

Mike Schreiber, fstoppers, fs spotlight, hip hop photography, reese moore,
Carla Duren photographed by Mike Schreiber

Fstoppers: At the bottom of the e-mail you sent me it says, “Find food. Mate. Don’t get eaten.” I have to ask about that!

Mike Schreiber: That’s my blog, that’s my tumblr. I was watching Jon Stewart and some guy came on with a book about evolution. He said that our ancestors had to do three things: find food, mate, and not get eaten. I thought that was genius, because that’s really what it’s all about!

Want more? Check out Mike's video about the debut of True Hip Hop.

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Benicio Murray's picture

Great interview and so refreshing compared to all the gear-heads out there.

Thanks, Benicio! I thought so too, I was pretty surprised during the interview... but I had a great time with this one!

Masta's picture

contact 645 (contax 645)

The Dark Room Co.'s picture

great interview....reminds me of Jonathan Mannion, but Mike definitely has his own style

Mos Def goes by Yasiin Bey (as of 2012)...but he was definitely Mos back when the photos were taken....

well done Reese

Thanks! We've got some great interviews coming up - next week is famous swimsuit/fashion/lingerie photographer - but let me know what else you want to see and I'll try to hunt them down!

what makes this so dope is the fact that he cares more about the subject and how he interacts than he cares about gear. I bet he seriously doesn't even really know much about what canon is making or nikon. This is the state of photography I really respect. It becomes way more organic. I feel one of the best things a fine art photographer can do is sell off all their meaningless gear and just use the basic stuff.

i agree. i had no idea he shot this way when i sent the interview request, but i feel like this experience has made me reevaluate several things.

What you start to notice is that many of these fine art photographers don't even care or talk about new gear. They are typically using what they have always used. One of the things I once read was to pick a subject matter and stay focused on that, develop your style in that, so art directors and museums can see your clear direction. Its hard to get this type of attention if you are all over the place in subject matter.

By doing so, you really don't need a whole bag of lenses and a ton of lights because you are shooting very specific thus there is no need for a tilt shift.  I'm not so much talking about photogs like Yuri Arkurs or Chase Jarvis who are commercial photographers, but more on the side of fine art photographers like Araki.

I since sold all of my canon gear and bought a single fuji x100. When you don't have to worry about lenses (I only have 2) you can focus more on composition and shot selection. 

His decision to use natural light is great also. People don't really look at a photo to see if you lit it correctly. They want to see what or who you shot and if that person of thing looks cool. Lighting it right helps it, but lets face it, a photo of Brad Pitt poorly lit by Terry Richardson is going to get much more attention and love than a well lit photo of some random male model.  So it's about subject matter with me. It's hard to make money when you are super picky but you really have to decide if you want to be a fine art photographer like this gentleman. 

The Dark Room Co.'s picture

well put....

inspring. thank you :)