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Take Your Product Photography To The Next Level: Catching Up With Richard Gary

Hey everyone! I'm Reese and I'm excited to be a part of the Fstoppers team. My segment, The FS Spotlight, is a new weekly Q&A session with professional photographers at the absolute top of their field. The interviews are going to touch on everything from how they reached rock star status to their shooting style to what cameras they shoot with as well as their advice to all aspiring photographers. This week's feature is product photographer extraordinaire Richard Gary; enjoy!

When I was younger, I drove my parents crazy by wallpapering my room with images from magazines. What I didn't realize was that half of the photos peeling the paint of my parents' walls were actually Richard Gary's product shots and still lifes. While product photography usually puts me to sleep faster than foreign films, Gary's work still captivates and fascinates me... However, in the interest of keeping my security deposit, I leave it IN the magazines now.

Richard Gary is one of a kind. The conceptual still life photographer has managed to find that perfect balance between commercial work and fine art, while still maintaining an impressive client list including the likes of BlackBook, W, and Zink magazines, Neiman Marcus, and Andrew Morgan Collection. From elaborate, macabre pickle spreads to Baroque gift guides and (dare I say it?) an ambiguously cracked-out Barbie spread, Richard Gary gets paid and doesn't hold back. Anyone else jealous?

Richard Gary, Zink, fstoppers, product photography
Fstoppers: How did you get your start in photography?

Richard Gary: I started like a lot of people, I was on my high school yearbook staff in Virginia. I went to college, but I did not take photography. I actually interned every summer with different photographers in Virginia. Some of them were wedding photographers, some were portrait photographers, and then I landed a photography job right off in a museum. I was taking pictures at museum events and artifacts, and that’s how I got interested in still lifes.

Fstoppers: Conceptual still life photography is pretty specialized, how did you get into that? And fashion product photography?

Richard Gary: I stayed at the museum for a number of years, and I was promoted to supervisor of photography which was great for financial purposes, but I actually stopped doing a lot of shooting. After a while I decided that it wasn’t what I wanted to do, and I left Virginia and went to New York about 11 or 12 years ago. I think assisting is what really started me in still life photography.

Richard Gary, fstoppers, still life, product photographyFstoppers: You gained most of your technical skills through assisting?

Richard Gary: I already had a lot of technical skills from working at the museum, but I really honed in on the skills while assisting. After the shoot was over, I would ask the photographers if I could stay a little later and really look at the lighting and take down diagrams. If they would allow me, I would play on the same set where they had just shot to get a sense of how things placed on set would look. That’s how I got my sense of lighting, and I think that lighting is just seriously important. That’s all there is, light.
Richard Gary, product photography, fstoppers
Fstoppers: Who did you assist starting out?

Richard Gary: My first assisting gig was with Steven Hellerstein. I assisted a lot of people at one time because I wanted to get a taste of the scene and understand how professional photographers worked in New York. I assisted Ilan Rubin, Gregory Heisler, Grant Delin, Elizabeth Watts, and Gabriela Penn, and I made that circle for about 3 years, getting my chops down and learning the business. With Ilan Rubin and Gabriela Penn, especially, I started to learn about still lifes and that what I could make that was more inside of me than technically recording what was in front of me, because they had great sensibility with their work.

Fstoppers: What do you shoot with? Do you still shoot film?

Richard Gary: I only shoot film when I shoot my personal projects. There are a few personal projects on my website where I’m documenting Southern Virginia where I grew up. I started with large format, and I tend to stay with that. But I’m shooting all advertising with a P45 back on a Hasselblad, and when I’m not shooting with the Hasselblad I’m shooting with a Canon EOS-1DS Mark III for a lot of editorial stuff. Between those two I pretty much get what I need.

Richard Gary, Zink, product photography, still lifeRichard Gary, fstoppers, product photography, still lifeFstoppers: How many people assist you on a given shoot? How much time is spent getting the light just right?

Richard Gary: In many cases when I can see the shot, I draw schematics. I automatically know where the lights are going to go for the shoot, so I can explain to an assistant where to put the light and at what powers. Drawing everything out actually saves me time, and it also helps to have those in case I have to take the set down for some reason and then put it back up. I work with one assistant who is moving around the lights and sometimes helping me with capture, and I normally work with a stylist. If it’s a very large shoot or for a large client, I’ll sometimes invite more people. I really like a more intimate set where sometimes it’s just me and a stylist.

Richard Gary, product photography, fstoppers, still lifeFstoppers: For your average cosmetics shoot, how many lights does that involve?

Richard Gary: There’s normally one main light source and a ton of reflectors. There’s maybe one or two key lights coming in from different directions with a lot of stands or wires with little tiny mirrors or white cards, and those cards are catching light from the main light and putting it where there’s very little light on portions of the product. That gradation of light in the product is what makes the product pop and stand out. It’s not just a broad source of light going across. It’s a lot of little reflections that are popping it out. It’s kind of an illusion.

Fstoppers: Your images are so clean and perfect, how much post-production work do you do, and do you do it yourself?

Richard Gary: Most of it is just the lighting. I’m really, really critical about lighting, as most photographers are, and I try to find the cleanest light that I can find. Post-production, I do a lot of my own retouching, but I do use two retouchers if I need to or if the volume of work is just too much. There’s not much retouching in my work, most of it is just clean up. We try not to have too much clean up in the end.

Fstoppers: Do you do more advertising or editorial work now?
Richard Gary, fstoppers, still life, product photography, Zink
Richard Gary: Most of my shooting is probably advertising, but I still like to do editorial every now and then. I work with clients that allow me to play with their products and still give them what they need so far as showing their products. I was fortunate that when I started experimenting with still lifes, I met a lot people at Zink magazine who allowed me 100% freedom. They would say, “Hey Richard, these are our products for spring. You’ve got 6 pages. Go for it!” That was fantastic! I also got to work with a lot of different stylists. BlackBook magazine also let me experiment.

Fstoppers: How often do you work with stylists? Is that a normal part of your job?

Richard Gary: Yeah, I work with stylists pretty much constantly. I like that collaboration with people, seeing where their minds go. Sometimes things are just simple, but if I’m able to bring a stylist in for a job, I definitely will.

Fstoppers: In your opinion, what makes a good still life or product shot?

Richard Gary: I think the same thing that makes most images stand out. It has to have some emotion that the photographer brings to it. I don’t think that an image is simply capturing what’s in front of you or showing technical acrobatics, just pulling it off. It’s less about what the photographer can do and more about what the photographer can bring. That applies to music and to art and to fashion, too... its about the emotion that the photographer brings, that’s what draws me in. I think the technical part is a given.

Richard Gary, fstoppers, product photographyFstoppers: Then on the flip side of that, how does product photography fail? What are the most common mistakes that you see?

Richard Gary: I don’t normally don’t see a failure in it. Normally it’s just that someone is trying to execute something that technically isn’t quite getting pulled off, or just the whole vision doesn’t work. I do the portfolio reviews for graduating FIT students, and in looking at their work, and they had incredible work, I’ve realized a lot of young still life artists want to create something but technically aren’t there. As you continue to shoot - and you should ALWAYS continue to shoot - you’ll be able to illustrate what’s in your head through your lighting and your camera.

Fstoppers: Many of your shoots have a strong narrative element to them. How much art direction goes into that? What inspires you?

Richard Gary: The images are all mine, but I normally draw constantly and sketch out my sets. When I’m lecturing students I often tell them they need to have some way of writing down their ideas or sketching them. For instance the story I did on pickles, I did a drawing. From the time I was a little kid I just remembered walking in the five and dime and seeing pickled this and pickled that sitting on the counter, and I knew I’d always wanted to do that, so I turned the page and made it more dark and gloomy. Most of the time ideas spark from music, paintings, imagery that I’ve seen, a feeling that I get, or words... two words joined together. Sometimes I’ll open up a book and read a sentence, and it may be out of context but it can take you to an image.Richard Gary, fstoppers, product photography, Zink

Fstoppers: What is the most important skill for any photographer to have?

Richard Gary: The first thing is that you always have to practice your chops, and I always compare photography to music. You always have to practice. No matter what you can imagine in your head, it’s impossible to execute or shoot that unless your hands can make that happen. Study your craft and be open to everything that’s out there. A lot of times assistants get insulated in whether they’re still life assistants or fashion assistants and they don’t even get to know each other. You have to keep a very, very open mind and pull these ideas in.

Fstoppers: What is the best part of your job?

Richard Gary: Creating. Period. Hands down. I love it. I still get a high every time I see an image in my head and it comes out how I see it. It’s like magic!Richard Gary, Zink, product photography, fstoppers, still life

Fstoppers: What is the most challenging part of photography for you?

Richard Gary: The business, partially because of the economy. Trying to be more creative with where clients come from and what they want to see, while being conscious that their budgets may not be huge anymore but still being creative. That part doesn’t come naturally to me, maybe it does to other photographers.

Fstoppers: What advice do you have for photographers that are just starting out?

Richard Gary: When we were starting out as assistants, we used to call it the “gray period.” The one most important thing is to try and keep expenditure low, and try as hard as you can to talk to as many people in the field as you can. It’s very important to study and practice as much as you know. Even if you don’t have the money or the equipment, there are plenty of rental studios and camera shops, and many of those people are very willing to talk to you and show you how the camera works and allow you to do little steps there. You really have to depend on a lot of people in order to learn. The other assistants that I started out with, we shared cameras, we shared printers, we shared computers. We really had our own little circle, and we really depended on each other for guidance and feedback. After that, it’s just a matter of continuing to shoot so that you continue to grow, and showing your work to as many people as possible so that you continue to get feedback and establish relationships. Those relationships, ultimately, are what’s going to get you hired.
Richard Gary, fstoppers, product photography, still lifeRichard Gary, fstoppers, product photography, still life

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Lee Morris's picture

Great Q&A! Love how different these pictures are. 

Sean Shimmel's picture

Oooo.... saving this one for an after lunch read.

Will comment thoughtfully in a follow up soon.For now... Reese... I emailed you a few days ago with an important tidbit. Making sure you received it from your site.

Sean Shimmel's picture

Such an "alchemist"... mixing static product with moody (almost Gothic) presence. I'm intrigued.

You're a great bloodhound, Reese, seeking out fresh interviews.

Anonymous's picture

Thanks, Sean! I've been slammed, but I'll get back to your e-mail later tonight. :)

Sean Shimmel's picture

Beautiful. Will connect then

Reese, I really like your pieces, it's great to be able to learn a bit from the best. Personally I'm really interested in band photography, in a documentary way, behind the scenes. So no fancy concert photography or promotional pics, but a pure view of what it's like being a musician. Touring, recording, rehearsing, waiting, travelling, tension before the gig, excitement afterwards etc. I don't really know any famous photographers in this particular field other than perhaps Anton Corbijn (but getting a hold of him might be hard...), but perhaps you have some suggestions? I'm particularly interested in how to blend in with the band and get them to open up to you.

Anonymous's picture

Hey Bram! That's actually a really great idea. I'll look into it and hopefully we can come up with something along those lines. Thanks!

Michael Battenberg's picture

Wow, great interview... thanks Reese and Gary!  This work really reminds me that there are no hard and fast rules about what product photography is or ought to look like.

George Quiroga's picture

Great job Reese! I liked the depth of your interview and range of questions. Looking forward to reading more of them and hope that you include as many different genres and niches of photography. Besides the common themes, some possible ones could be sports, aerial, fine-art figure, conceptual art, microphotography, industrial, medical, architecture, and underwater.

Golgo Thirteen's picture

I would love an interview from; Jill Greenberg, Markus Klinko, Mario Testino, Bruce Webber, Peter Lindbergh, or Annie Leibovitz. 

All around great post and incredible images as well!

William Jason Wallis's picture

thanks so much for another great interview!

Sim Leiner's picture

wow, so clear! I will be shooting a product shoot today and this really changed my outlook!

inspiring, inspiring, inspiring. Thanks! (again)
Nigel - School Ball Photographer -