Spotlight Interview … Photographer Simon Gerzina

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JRP: I became a fan of photographer Simon Gerzina after watching a video which acted as a showcase for some of his work … very enlightening. We are very appreciative of Simon for sharing with JRP Blog.

JRP: Where do you call home Simon?

Simon Gerzina: I currently live in Brooklyn, NY. I’ve lived in NYC for something like 15 or 16 years now, but up until this I’ve loved all over the place. I travel pretty regularly for client work.

JRP: How and did you get your start in photography? Do you have any formal training?

Simon Gerzina: I have some training and education in photography but I’m largely self-taught.

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My father is a really talented photographer in his own right, even though he never pursued it professionally, so growing up we always had at least once really nice camera in the house and had fantastic photos being taken. I started taking B&W and color photo and darkroom classes in high school and continued pursuing it in college, though I actually went to film school. During and after college I began shooting concerts and portraits for the music industry and ran a very early music website with a friend, had we started it in 2005 instead of 1995 you would have called it a blog. I moved away from photography towards video and live events production for a while and now I tend to wear both hats pretty interchangeably.

JRP: What camera and lighting equipment would I find in your camera room / camera bag for a typical shoot?

Simon Gerzina: Oooh, tough call. I tend to be a lot lighter on camera gear than most people but heavier on lighting gear. Right now I’m mostly using a Nikon D300, though I own several other bodies and multiple film kits as well.

For a studio shoot I have a bag that’s always packed and ready to go. D300, 17-55/2.8, 80-200/2.8, 50/1.8, 85/1.4. I prefer to work close, so the 17-55 and 85 are my most-used studio lenses, they’re both monsters! Beyond that: iPod, WhiBal card, Sandisk FW800 CF reader, backup USB card reader, microfiber cloths, 4x PocketWizard Plus and Plus-II units, Sekonic L-358 light meter, I never shoot without that. I also tend to toss a Canon G10 camera in as a backup and for setup shots. Shoots on the road get a variation of that bag, but I’d probably pare down one or two of the lenses and think about a backup Nikon body.

My lighting gear is always stored in the studio, so it’s nice knowing that I’ve always got it all at the ready. Right now I’m straddling Profoto Acute2 and AcuteB and Hensel Porty kits. I’m exclusively a pack/head shooter these days, I just prefer the process and ergonomics of it, not to mention the ability to drive a lot of power to a single head when necessary. I tend to work pretty simply when shooting anything but beauty, so I’m often using just one or two heads even though I have more sitting in their cases.

My most used modifiers these days are probably a 5’ octa for shooting classic studio fashion and a white beauty dish for shooting portraiture. I use the Mola Demi. I’m embracing hard light more and more in my work, so I get a lot of mileage out of simple gridded heads, then using neutral fill sources to control the shadows as necessary. I’ve also started using large diffuser and reflector panels the same way, just to tame shadows or add really subtle kicker here and there. I love the Calumet kits, large fabric panels that go over a collapsible frame and can be taken out on location easily.

JRP: What is it about fashion / glamour photography that motivates you?

Simon Gerzina: I’ve got a joke that I crack way too often in the studio, I’m sure everyone who works with me is tired of it: shooting fashion is the closest socially-acceptable thing that straight men can get to playing with Barbie dolls.

I’ve always been interested in fashion, though not really in an avant-garde way … I just appreciate style and making people look good or interesting. Being told that you can have access to some of the world’s most beautiful models for playing dress-up on and all you have to do is make them look even more beautiful … there ain’t nothing wrong with that. You get to role-play, tell little subtle stories, decide who someone is going to be for an hour or two.

At the end of the day I really like taking pretty pictures – fashion is a great opportunity to do that. In a funny way I’ve always considered myself a portraitist first and foremost, but somehow fashion photography really resonates with me.

JRP: Could you please describe your digital workflow and the software you use?

Simon Gerzina: I’m a bit of a post-production dunce, so I’m sure there are ten things wrong with my workflow, but so it is. My work is actually minimally-retouched, more often than not, so frequently a finished image is different from the camera-original by only about five minutes of editing. A larger focus of my workflow is figuring out which images get finished.

Seventy five percent of my post-camera work is done in Lightroom now, the last 15% in Photoshop. I’m also a big fan of Nik Viveza and AlienSkin Exposure.

A day of studio shooting, in which I might shoot 2-3 models in 6-8 “looks” (hair / makeup / wardrobe / concept changes), can easily result in 1500 images, so sorting and culling can be a big task.

Everything goes into Lightroom immediately, usually while I’m still shooting, and my first pass is simply to cull out rejects: strobe misfires, blinks, test frames, obvious clunkers. My second pass is to flag images that I immediately respond really positively to: this might be one out of every thirty or fifty frames, just the ones that immediately leap out at me. I like to sleep on it at that point, get a day or two of distance when possible. When I come back I’ll start rejecting out awkward or ungainly poses, then flagging in candidates for keepers.

Anything not marked rejected at that point is shown to my client or my team or the models’ agencies in proof galleries. I’ll use the “compare” function to look at all the positively-flagged images side-by-side and pull out my keepers for finishing from there, it might just be one or two per “look”. Those get basic blemish clean-up, pull out any dust spots, tweak the color and contrast, go into Photoshop for sharpening and possibly a film-look from Exposure. If an image needs more than that I send it to my retoucher, but that’s uncommon. I like things to look a little more “real” and raw.

People seem to assume that my fashion work gets a lot more retouching than that, but it’s really just the lighting. You get the lighting right and you can be 75% there.

JRP: How do you handle image printing?

Simon Gerzina: Short answer …  I don’t. I have so little cause for printing these days … I have two color inkjets at home that haven’t even been turned on in at least a year. Really, the only printing I do is for my own portfolios – models’ agencies get their own printing done, my teams get their own printing done, everything else is transmitted electronically. I FTP and email files to clients and collaborators, we look at images on the web and laptops and my iPhone, I send out the occasional DVD when necessary. In the fashion and commercial world, prints don’t have much of a place.

What printing I do get done is done by Adorama now (adoramapix.com). The service is fast and really inexpensive, the quality is tight, they’re local to me so I can go pick up my orders. Everything in my physical portfolio books was done by them at this point.

JRP: What in your opinion is the most critical aspect of image capture?

Simon Gerzina: Vision: pre-visualizing your objective before you even touch a camera, and making sure that everything you do from that point forward serves that goal.

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In fashion, everything is a collaboration. I can’t do it by myself, not including the models, there are still at least two or three people necessary to make an image, usually more. We have to discuss and decide what we’re trying to do, make sure that the hair, the makeup, the wardrobe are in service to that idea. We have to make sure my light is in service to that idea, make sure my lens choices and perspective are in service to that idea, make sure my interactions with the models and their performances accomplish that idea. If you can’t describe to your team or your model, or yourself, what the image is about before you’ve started to make it, then you aren’t going to make it. I see so much confused photography out there, especially in fashion, and it’s clearly because no one is communicating and everyone is just throwing random elements at the image and hoping something sticks.

On a technical level, people need to light progressively. One of the things I harp on when teaching workshops is that people can’t just setup four or five light sources based on an idea they have in their head, turn them all on and expect good results. You need to build your light, work one light at a time, know what the purpose of every light is. Add a light, evaluate and figure out what’s lacking before you add the next. You only add the next because there’s something that still needs to be done, not because it’s there or you decided in advance that it was going to be a 5-light setup.

JRP: Do you have an image that represents for you a personal achievement in your career?

Simon Gerzina: One of my own? Not really … I’m very critical of myself. If I’m happy with one of my images it’s only for about a week or two, then I start to see the warts and blemishes and what I could have done better. Having only made the move towards shooting fashion a few years ago, I’m very much in a growth phase right now. I’m still feeling myself out, figuring out where I feel most in my element and what my eye responds to, what feels like my personal style.

Lately I’ve been shooting really clean, simple, classic studio fashion … one strobe, white cyc, big light and letting the models move and explore and discover things. I’ve always been a closet classicist, but that look is getting a really positive response from people and feels the most “me”. I still play with other looks and techniques, but every time I get tricky and go back to look at the images I feel like I can appreciate them but they don’t really represent who I am.

JRP: Over the years what has been the best advice given to you by another photographer?

Simon Gerzina: I remember taking a fashion photography workshop several years ago, and the first of 10 sessions was entirely taken up by a class-wide portfolio review: everyone huddled around your book while the instructor critiqued it. I went in feeling more advanced and accomplished than most of the attendees, and many of them were getting a pretty positive critique, so I was all set for a total love-fest, he tore me apart. I had maybe 20 images in there and he just flipped straight through everything, barely paused, not doing anything more than grunting under his breath. He didn’t stop until he got to the last two images in my book, which were concert photos that I’d kept in there just to show what I’d been doing before shooting portraits and fashion. They were grainy, blurry, shot on film at ISO 1600, had white and black and almost nothing in between … but were dynamic. My fashion and portrait work was really still, gentle, composed. He said, “You’re onto something with these, but not the rest. Toss out every other image here, then figure out how to take what you’re doing in these two and translate it to fashion.”

I felt humiliated and confused and frustrated, but he was totally right. I think I’d been trying to shoot what I thought I was supposed to be shooting, and every image had a different trick or gimmick in it as though to prove I was capable of those tricks, but everything was half-assed. It lacked life and commitment and wasn’t really representative of who I was. I’m not saying I’m there now, but that kick in the ass was a wake-up call telling me that I had somewhere I needed to be going.

JRP: What advice would you like to pass on?

Simon Gerzina: Develop your own personal style, rather than aping someone else’s. I see so much online of people trying to break down and reproduce other people’s work: “look, it’s the Dave Hill look!” “I’m doing the Jill Greenberg look!” If you aren’t Dave Hill or Jill Greenberg then all you’re doing is applying their production to your point of view … it’s pointless. Figure out what you respond to in their work and why, what visual element is getting you fired up and excited, then see if you can apply that inspiration to your own work. You can’t apply someone else’s process to your work but you can definitely take inspiration from it.

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Lastly, always ask “why?” Don’t take a picture just to take a picture, don’t use a certain lighting scheme or approach just to do it. Ask yourself what the purpose of a photo is, then let that purpose guide your creative and technical decisions. If there is no purpose, then put the camera down and do something else.

JRP: Thank you Simon for sharing your thoughts and images with us. It has been really a pleasure talking with you. We wish you continued success.

Simon Gerzina: My pleasure! I’m honored just to be asked. I feel so thankful to all of the photographers who have put themselves out there and made learning resources for the rest of us that I’m happy to do anything I can to give something back.

JRP: To view more of Simon Gerzina’s photography please follow this link: http://www.modelmayhem.com/24278

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