Art and inspiration go hand in hand. For photographers, curling up in the corner of the bookstore with a stack of magazines, oohing and ahhing at photographs we wish we had created seems to be a part-time job. However, equally as important as what our heroes produce is how they produce it. We can learn a lot from the methodology of the folks that do what we want to do day in and day out. With that in mind, here's a conversation with Art Streiber.
First, a bit about Mr. Streiber: since the mid-nineties, Streiber has been a mainstay in Hollywood, shooting not only for major entertainment publications, such as Vanity Fair, ESPN The Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and Esquire, he frequently shoots collateral for movie and television productions. In this way, Streiber not only produces editorial content, but commercial content as well, moving freely between the markets with relative fluidity. He does this by maintaining a consistent methodology on his shoots, regardless of who the client is, and creates an efficient work day that blows away his clientele. More on that later.
He got his start in the eighth grade, shooting 35mm Tri-X film on a Canon AE-1, learning to develop and print in his grandfather's darkroom and going on to shoot for his high school and college newspaper. As romantic as this sounds, though, Streiber makes no bones about his lack of knowledge at that time. “I had no idea what I was doing,” said Streiber. “In the beginning, it was a lot trying out new lenses and new lights and basically doing what you're not supposed to do: taking a new piece of gear out of the box and immediately using it on a job. I did that all the time.”
Thankfully, he's become more refined in his gear selection and usage these days. He likens the process of selecting your equipment for cooking. “Whether we are baking, grilling, or sautee-ing, we are finding the right components, adding a little bit of this and a little bit of that, using the right tools to get something we like.” Unfortunately, and boo-hoo for us film lovers, that selection of equipment doesn't include film. “I haven't shot film in a long, long time,” says Streiber. “Not only is our workflow set up for digital, but our clients' expectations are that they are walking off the set with a drive or that they will get the files tomorrow.” Progress!
Instagram as a Teaching Tool
Although I've been following Mr. Streiber for many years, what made me want to reach out to him was his Instagram page. On it, he documents his shoots, giving brief descriptions of everything from creative decisions, to lighting, to catering. You really get a sense of the scope of each of the shoots, as well as an appreciation for the team that it took to pull it all together.
It would seem that Streiber is riding the current wave of presenting #bts content for social media, but the beginnings of this practice of capturing behind the scenes information go back much further. “We started doing that years ago, really, to document the lighting. It was really about being able to refer back to something we had done before,” says Streiber. “We have folders and folders and folders for every job. I expanded what the interns and assistants were being asked to do and asked them to document the shoot. Show people what we're doing here today. From the clothing racks to the catering table.” As handy as having a massive archive of lighting information is, all of this behind the scenes documentation makes for fantastic teaching material. “I came at it from a problem-solving point of view. Here are the problems that we had that day. Here is the biggest one and how we solved it.”
When Instagram came along, like most of us, he began by posting the banal happenings in his life, from palm trees to stop signs, but when he reflected back on the trove of information his team had been accumulating, he realized that there was much more that could be done with his account. “I want to show people that this isn't just me. This is a collaboration of all kinds of talented, creative people. I can't say, 'Hey, look what I did!' because it's just not true. It took these assistants and it took this digital tech. It took this set designer and his team, and it took this makeup artist, and the creative direction came from the client. So, it's important to say to people that I'm not operating in a vacuum. I'm not making this myself, and here are the people that worked on it.”
Even though he goes into some depth on his Instagram posts, he isn't worried about giving away secrets. More like he's trying to save us from falling asleep while reading. “There's more that goes into these shoots than I could ever post on Instagram or even cover in my lectures! I mean, if you read it carefully, I'm not even saying ISO 400 at f/11. I'm not even saying the ratios! And that's not because I'm afraid someone will copy me. At a certain point, that information is boring, or esoteric, or just not important. I can't say everything about how we arrived at the lighting,” he says. “I'm trying to be economical with my captions. People ask me: 'do you write those captions yourself?' And the answer is yes, I do!”
Of course, running a photography business takes organization, tenacity, and establishing systems that work. Mr. Streiber and his team have established workflows that deliver a consistently high-quality product to their clients in a speedy fashion. But, before the shoot day, sometimes before landing the client, a balance has to be struck between the two most important considerations for the shoot: creative versus logistics. Dealing with line items like budget, time of day, parking, catering, availability of the subject, and transportation can be at odds with the aesthetic wants of the creative team. “We spend whatever time we have before the shoot trying to marry the aesthetics to the logistical. Sometimes, the aesthetics come first. Sometimes, the logistical,” says Streiber.
Landing the Job
Being a big-name photographer doesn't mean that Streiber gets handed all of his jobs on a silver platter. “If it's a commercial job, we are bidding on it, making a budget. We might have to make a treatment to get the job. If it's an entertainment job, 9 times out of 10 if they are asking for you, they are going to go with you. But, sometimes we're on hold for a job that we've done an entire budget for and we're told that they've gone another direction and gone with another photographer.” See, there's hope for us all yet!
There's a Method to the Madness
If you've taken the time to check out the Instagram, you may have been struck by the same thought that I was: all of that lighting looks, really, really complicated for such a simple image. However, looks can be deceiving. Many of the setups on the feed are for multiple looks in a small area. So, the talent can be walked through from set to set in a short amount of time, creating many looks for the client in a short amount of time. Not only is this more efficient on set, but it creates the maximum amount of coverage for the client in the shortest amount of time. “With commercial and entertainment work, there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen. Sometimes, those cooks aren't even in the kitchen! Because they have to show the work to people who aren't even there, be it the marketing director or producer, and they want coverage and rightly so,” says Streiber. “In the moment, they don't know what they're going to use and how they are going to use it, so they want as many options as possible.”
Making the Most of Your Time on Set
Because of the luxury of digital photography, we've gotten used to shoots where it isn't uncommon to produce hundreds and thousands of shots. Having options is a good thing. However, too often, we produce many more images than necessary because of a lack of focus and a methodology on set that gives quality as well as quantity. “I like to remember that back in the day we used to shoot 3 or 4 rolls of 220 film, about 80 frames. So, if you're shooting more than that and you're not exploring, making subtle changes to what your subject is doing, then you're really not maximizing the experience, “says Streiber. “For example, we had a shoot with Steven Spielberg where we did five setups in 45 minutes. With each setup, we weren't shooting more than 40 frames. We knew what story we wanted to tell.”
Taking Responsibility for the Product
One of the most interesting parts of the Spielberg story to me was that in addition to the speed and efficiency of such a shoot, the direction wasn't dependent on the behavior of the subject. This makes total sense because if you only have 45 minutes and you know that you need to get a certain amount of shots, no matter what; you can't assume you're going to be able to pull what you want out of the subject. It's our job to get the shot. “He's gonna stand there, and he's either going to put his hands in his pocket or he's not. He's going to smile or he isn't. He's going to look down or he's going to look at you,” he said. “If we know we've got Spielberg at 11:30, we are getting there at 5:30. We've done our homework. We've walked through the sets so we know how the shoot is going to go,” says Streiber. “When a subject or publicist or agent comes up to me and says, oh my gosh that went so quickly and we got so much done, that's a huge compliment to me and my crew.”
The Question of Gear
Of course, we wouldn't be Fstoppers unless we talked a bit about gear! Streiber favored the venerable Mamiya RZ67 back in the film days (I approve), but with digital, medium format isn't such an obvious choice. “When digital came along, I was a Hasselblad guy. And then the Canon files started getting a lot better. Recently, the demand for volume from my clients has been greater, and I find myself reaching for the Canon a lot more and more. And the Profoto Pro-10 can keep up. It can flash right along with the Canon! I'm still shooting both, but there's a lot more flexibility with the Canon” says Streiber. Even file size isn't as much of a concern with high-megapixel DSLRs. Which Canon was he referring to? The 5D Mark IV.
Wrapping It Up
Thanks for bearing with me for this long article. It was incredibly enlightening to have a conversation with one of my photographic heroes. Hopefully, some of the information hits home for you and helps you in your own photography. Definitely check out Streiber's Instagram, as there are tons of nuggets of inspiration to take in. Thank you to Evan Mulling for helping to set all this up as well!