Spotlight Interview … Photographer Thorsten Ott

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JRP: If one were to spend the day with Thorsten Ott , you would discover not only a highly dedicated photographer but a sharing one as well. We are pleased to have some time with you Thorsten, thanks for sharing a moment with JRP Blog.

Thorsten Ott: Thank you James, I am very honored to have the opportunity to speak with you and share something about my journey as a commercial photographer.

JRP: Where is home for you Thorsten?

Thorsten Ott: I was born in West Germany, grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, but consider Seattle,Washington and the Northwest my home. Seattle offers such great photographic opportunities and I have met many terrific and talented photographers here.

We have 3 great modeling agencies and a host of superb makeup artists, hair stylists, and wardrobe stylists. Seattle is a regional fashion market and not an international fashion market. I love the enormous diversity of shooting locations both architecturally and outdoors. The weather can be challenging in the Winter months, :-). Everyone I work with in Seattle is “imported” from another city, but we all call this home.

JRP: When and how did you get started in photography? Do you have any formal training?

Thorsten Ott: Photography began for me when I was about 15 years old, when my father bought me a Nikon EM and a full darkroom. I think I borrowed, and read every photography book at my library.

I first studied aerospace engineering, yet quickly discovered that I was a visual person. My second semester I switched over to the arts program and took Photo 101 and 102 at the same time, along with art history and theory classes. My first photography teacher, Ed Collier, is the person that really pushed me to make photography my career. He suggested that I continue my education at Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara.

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Brooks was a real wake-up call for me. We had to learn technical skills and process film and print gray scales for weeks. The first two years we shot with view cameras ONLY…people, sports, products, fashion, and food. It was zero creativity, but I loved it. I learned to take the time to compose, light, and create an image before pressing the shutter button.

During the last year at Brooks, I discovered that I enjoyed photographing people. I was initially terrified of the concept of having to photograph a person and make them look good and enjoy the photo session. With practice and shooting models several times a week I quickly overcame this initial fear.

After graduation I relocated to Los Angeles and the real education began. Assisting jobs were difficult to find, or rather my expectations were too high. Matthew Rolston, Herb Ritts, and Chris Bush, just weren’t going to hire a newbie like me.

I swallowed my pride and took a job at Pan Pacific Camera in the rental department. That rental job turned out to be the best decision ever. I met commercial photographers every day and slowly built my reputation for making sure that their rental was in top shape.

We also had a modeling agency near by, and the girls frequently asked if I would shoot with them. Soon I received assisting offers and all the networking I did paid off.

Three months later I gave my two week notice and began shooting actors, models, and assisting full-time.

JRP: What basic equipment would I find in your camera bag for a typical shoot?

Thorsten Ott: The older I get, the less gear I have in the camera case. Today I use 4 Photogenic mono-lights, two 500 watt/second and two 1000 watt/second units, the PLR2500R’s and PLR1250R’s to be specific. Pocket Wizard on camera for triggering because they work every time. I prefer mono-heads over power packs because I can dial in the power individually on each mono-head.

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I shoot with an “ancient” Nikon D2x and Nikon’s prime film lenses only. The camera may be only 12MP, but using a DX sensor with full-frame lenses allows me to only use the “center 75%” of the lens, which is also the sharpest part of a lens. I typically shoot 2-3 stops from wide open and that also helps with image resolution. Specific lenses are 24mm f2.8, 35mm f/2, 60mm macro f/2.8, and the 85mm f/1.4…all the older AF-D versions.

My current lightmeter is a Sekonic L-358 with the Pocket Wizard transmitter built in. Other items include a MacBook Pro and a small external 2.5 inch hard-drive with a cloned copy of the laptop. I feel better knowing that I can boot off a second drive in case of a failure and still have all my software intact.

Final critical items, a Gretag MacBeth graycard and chocolate covered espresso beans, LOL

JRP: You do a lot of fashion / glamour work. What is it about this genre of photography that peaks your interest?

Thorsten Ott: It has to be the outfits the models wear and the incredible makeup/hair stylists I work with. Each model has a different personality and seeing what we can do as a team is what I find exciting. I rarely know what I am going to do until I see the wardrobe in front of me. The makeup and hair stylists give me their input on what they would like to do, and then I determine poses and lighting. Different fabrics require either soft or hard lighting. We are selling a particular look.

Many of the models I work with are very new and just signed with an agency. I prefer working with new models because they have not learned bad posing habits yet and will at least try a difficult pose. If they are comfortable with the team we get a good expression.

I also shoot many product and landscape images. At times I just need a fashion/glamour break. Travel is also great for inspiration.

JRP: Please describe your digital workflow and the software you use.

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Thorsten Ott: Much of my digital workflow is based on how I learned to develop B&W film. I light very low contrast and process the RAW file so that I preserve detail in the shadows and highlights. Highlights are placed at Zone 8, also known as “white with detail”, and shadows are at Zone 3. All files are processed for 16Bit Prophoto Tiff.

Step two is to apply a film s-curve from AlienSkin Exposure 2. I really like their color negative film profiles and apply these as a new layer and lower the opacity till it looks good. For B&W images I like the new NIK Efex Silver Pro, it is a complete B&W darkroom.

Skin retouching it is a combination of a High Pass layer and Imagenomic Portraiture 2. I use a Wacom tablet and pen to first clean up the images for blemishes, many times this is all that is needed. The agencies want the models to have skin pores, so using a low opacity with the filters is recommended. I find it best to walk away from the image and look at it later in the day, then I lower the retouching opacity even more before flattening the final image.

JRP: How do you handle image printing?

Thorsten Ott: I used to do all my own printing on a Epson 2200 with a Colorbyte ImagePrint RIP station. Today, so much of my work goes straight to web, especially the product and fashion images.

My product work is primarily for intent based e-Retailers.

This might be a very good time to discuss a monitor profiling solution. I recently switched to ColorEyes Display Pro and the Spyder Pro 3. This combination of software and hardware is just amazing and the best I have used. Now the MacBook Pro screen has VERY similar gray tones and color as my reference HP LP2475W. Before the ColorEyes software, the Spyder 3 proprietary software profile on the laptop looked very flat. I suspect even better reviews on the new LED screens of the 13″ and 17″ Mac laptops. The one 13″ LED MacBook Pro I profiled looked identical to the reference HP monitor.

JRP: You currently offer a couple of DVDs on commercial and fashion lighting? There is emphasis on one and two light set ups. Could you elaborate?

Thorsten Ott: Both videos demonstrate the type of lighting I wanted to see when I was going to school. Photographers frequently purchase lighting gear we really don’t need, myself included and guilty as charged.

The photographers I assisted in Los Angeles were shooting international fashion campaigns with just 1, 2, and 3 lighting setups consisting of DIY lighting modifiers/solutions or sheets of foamcore. The sheer simplicity of how they created such dramatic lighting in minutes left a lasting impression on me and molded my opinions.

Dominique Guilimott and Rohn Mejier had such a simple and sophisticated approach, they created an atmosphere and concentrated on a models personality. I learned more about fashion lighting and posing models in one week of assisting them, than during 3 years of school.

Keeping the light quality looking natural and 3-dimensional in a studio environment is what intrigues me the most. How do we recreate a daylight environment or the different light qualities of the Sun and not have the light look artificial. Lighting should make sense and also tell a story. We see great light everyday, how do we create this in the studio?

Lighting does not have to cost a small fortune. Some of my best work was done when the Profoto gear was in for repair for 2 months. During that repair time, I used very large reflectors and the Seattle Sun exclusively. I went old school and concentrated on posing and styling the model.

JRP: Besides lighting what for you is the most critical aspect of image capture?

Thorsten Ott: Pre-production and casting the right top of model is important, then selecting the best stylists. I spend 3 days setting up a 3 hour shoot.

JRP: I am sure that you have picked up plenty of insight over the years. What has been the best advice given to you by another photographer?

Thorsten Ott: The comment that seems to stick with me forever is something Gilles Bensimon once said, ” A beautiful model without an expression in her eyes is like a room without furniture.”

JRP: What advice would you like to pass on?

Thorsten Ott: This has been said my many photographers, but practice and shooting often is still the best way to learn quickly. Don’t spend too much time reading photography forums. Sometimes performing a 60 minute test yourself, is better than a thousand expert opinions.

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Find a team of people that you like working with and develop relationships, photography is a people business. Marketing is 75% of the work, shooting a job is the easy part.

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

Thorsten Ott: Thank you James, I appreciate your kindness. Hopefully I offered a slice of advice to others that are interested in such a great profession.

JRP: To view more of Thorsten Ott’s photography please follow this link: http://www.thorstenottphotography.com/

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