Fstoppers Interviews Celebrity Photographer Luke Fontana

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.

Luke Fontana FStoppers (7)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.

Luke Fontana FStoppers (12)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.

Luke Fontana FStoppers (10)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.

chrisknightversionActors 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.

Luke Fontana FStoppers (8)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.

Luke Fontana FStoppers (13)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?"

Luke Fontana FStoppers (2)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.

Luke Fontana FStoppers (16)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.

Luke Fontana FStoppers (18)Comedian Carmen Lynch

Luke Fontana FStoppers (17)Actor Bruce Dern (Nebraska)

Luke Fontana FStoppers (15)Comedian Seaton Smith

Luke Fontana FStoppers (14)Comedian Reggie Watts

Luke Fontana FStoppers (6)Actress Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave)

Luke Fontana FStoppers (4)Comedian Seaton Smith

Luke Fontana FStoppers (1)Comedian Jermaine Fowler

Luke Fontana FStoppers (3)Comedian Neal Brennan

Chris Knight's picture

Residing in New York City, Chris is an internationally published photographer whose work has appeared in Vogue, People, MSNBC, ABC, Ocean Drive, GQ and others. He is an instructor of Photography and Imaging at Pratt Institute and the New York Film Academy.

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Soulful. Stylish. On a busy night, you caught my attention. Keep up the creative vision.

Love the look and mood.

Great style to his images.

Great work! But how'd those pesky hipsters get in there?

Great work man! Love the look and treatment, not the mention the expressions you were getting from your subjects!

Skimming over the comments one question immediately pops into my mind : What if the portrayed persons where ordinary people from around the corner ?
The images are well executed (no doubt) but would they elicit the same enthusiasm ? I have some doubts. It's the celebrity face that when it graces a billboard makes people cheer about how awesome a piece of art is.

Couldn't agree more. They are really nice... but don't cry for endless superlatives.

I would have to disagree, being from the UK many of these faces are unknown and yet I can read into them straight away, there is a different feel to the comedians and the actors for example.

To me they could be people from around the corner and I find them great images.

That is my opinion only, as we are all entitled to our own.

Is it wrong that he takes great images of famous people? Does it make his art less valuable? I believe that who you photograph is as important (if not more) than the light you are using. Hence why people love to see beautiful women on the cover of magazines. I appreciate the fact that his images are fantasticaly lit and also like the whole postprocessing behind each and every one of them.

I believe he's trying to say that the technique of a 39" softbox at a 45 always looks pleasant, but uninteresting to trained eyes. This is an entirely legitimate critique on a technical level, and I mostly agree with him in that regard. A lot of photographers want to see unique lighting setups, and this is some of the safest lighting out there. However, I feel Fontana's saving grace is paying attention to the performance of the subject--which is the most important aspect of portraiture (ignoring the topic of having connections). I would also imagine that he's given only 5-10 minutes to get the shot, and he'd rather focus on their expression than getting his lighting out of 'safe mode'.

My trained eye spots more than a 39" softbox at a 45 degree angle. Lupita Nyong'o's portrait, for example, is not lit as you describe. She appears to be lit by a gridded beauty dish from above. A great choice to get those beautiful specular highlights from her beautiful skin. The point is that what makes these portraits interesting isn't what light modifier the photographer used; it is rather that the photographer captured a truly essential portrait from each of the subjects. Each is expressive and give a interesting view to the personality behind the face. The ability to do that is real talent.

Not sure why you chose Lupita as a counter example. If you revisit the photo, notice how the left side of her face is much darker than the right, indicating an off-centered angle. Also the shadow cast on her neck (again fading to camera right) is way too soft to be a gridded beauty dish. If anything, you could have mentioned Neal Brennan or Carmen Lynch's portrait that were shot top down centered. Or at the very least mention that Reggie Watts has rim lighting.

The second half of your comment reflected exactly what I was saying in the second half of my comment about the importance of Luke's ability to pay attention to the performance of the subjects. So again I'm really confused as to why you even commented...especially 23 days later.

I'm from Australia and some of these 'celebrities' are unknown to me but I still think the images are top notch quality on both lighting and pp.

Great work, on many levels. I see the "meh" comments and the "safe lighting" stuff as well, but
I'll tell you what - there really are many, many people who can take this kind of shot - some are commenting right now - and there are tens of thousands of photogs that can take the exact same image you see on Vogue and GQ covers, or stunning "celebrity" shots... that's not the trick at all in this business. It's not the "taking of the shot" you have to work your ass off for, it is the "getting to a place where you get ASKED to take the shot" that's the work, that's the trick. Monday morning quarterbacks need not apply.

Luke, I applaud you on both fronts.

Excellent work and I disagree with the "meh" comments about his lighting technique. His setup seems to be one of the few that has lasted throughout all the trends. It works and when done properly outshines the elaborate and over-lit setups, especially when trying to establish an intimate mood and connection. Good stuff.

Great read and great shots. What i love is stylistically, these are quite different - from low to high key and a little in between. Different lighting, different focal lengths, different expressions, composition etc - however, they are all unified through a sensibility and a consistent high level of quality. You can tell he is really working with his subjects, drawing something out, and, like every good portrait photographer, putting something of himself in the image. Great stuff!