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F. Scott Schafer: Photographer Spotlight

This commercial photographer spotlight features F. Scott Schafer. Schafer’s unique style and portraiture have garnered him work with numerous entertainment industry magnates such as Stephen Colbert, The Lonely Island crew, Steve Carell, Jack Black, Flight of the Conchords and more. He’s worked for companies such as HBO, MTV Networks, Paramount Pictures, Universal Records and Nike. Schafer lives and works in New York City.

F. Scott Schafer: Photographer SpotlightTell us a little bit about how you got started in photography. Was it always what you wanted to do?

In 5th grade one of my teachers set up a darkroom in the library for some reason. My first camera was a little Kodak instamatic and we just made little prints…that was my first introduction to the craft. I was very intrigued by the process. My dad helped me set up a little makeshift darkroom in my closet where I could just make contact sheets. I took photography in Jr. High and sucked at it. I remember I had seen a photo of a flower with dew on it and then tried to recreate it by spitting on a flower. It just looked like flowers with spit on them. In high school I was really into music, particularly metal bands, and I loved to go to shows. I would sneak my camera into big shows like Van Halen and Iron Maiden and then sell the photos to my friends at school. I loved seeing images from Ross Halfin and Neil Zlozower in magazines like Hit Parader and Circus. When I was 17 I had an image of Ronnie James Dio published in a Hit Parader photo contest and it was a huge deal to me.

You’ve got a great sense of humor and style to your work. How did this evolve or was it always what you were shooting?

It’s definitely evolved. When I graduated art school my work was really dark, moody, and a bit scary. There would be elements of humor but the work wasn’t funny. I just started working with funny subjects. When I entered the world of commercial/editorial photography I was really moved by people like Richard Avedon and Irving Penn because of the beauty they’d get out of their black-and-whites. But as I got into shooting color I’d look at how Annie Leibovitz and Mark Seliger would incorporate heavy concept into their images and tried to start doing that. My first assignments out of school were with Entertainment Weekly so I needed to start coming up with little ideas on the fly to make the images special.

F. Scott Schafer: Photographer SpotlightWhat’s the environment on set like with celebrities such as Stephen Colbert or the Lonely Island crew?

Lots of fun, lots of laughing. Working with comedians can be a very collaborative process. Working with people like Stephen or the Lonely Island is a special situation because they get really into the shoots while other people can hate doing PR stuff. Those guys understand that I get their humor, that I’m fans of theirs, and that I’m anxious to contribute to what they already do. I’ve learned through experience that highly creative people like them don’t just like to become puppets. They’re heavily involved in the ideas. They’ll take pitches from you but they’ll evolve them into something else. If you give them a baseline they’ll come up with something and then you can sculpt it into something useable. For instance, I’ve worked with Andy Samberg seven times now and every shoot has been very different because we both bring a lot of different ideas and experience to the project.

How do you get into celebrity portraiture? For our readers who are interested in developing a portfolio in this genre, where do you even start?

Compile a portfolio of strong portraits with a strong unique vision. Someone will see something really compelling in your book and they’ll say “Oh wouldn’t it be great if you shot…”, but you don’t start off shooting celebrities. When I started it out creatives who saw my book were refreshed because my work was strong even without the celebs and I wasn’t leaning on the fact that so-and-so was in there. It’s just about having strong presentation – a strong sense of style that works for the magazine you’re trying to sell to. New photographers have an advantage. A photo editor’s job is to try and make the magazine different and trying to discover the next whoever. They want to get the new guy, to try new people out. But you’ve gotta know what you’re doing.

F. Scott Schafer: Photographer Spotlight

A lot of your work incorporates some heavy props and environment. How much of this are you building in the studio or is it mostly design work in post production?

Depends on the shoot. I definitely don’t rely exclusively on post. We build as much as we can. Like the pic of Rick Ross and Andy Samberg on the money wave, we built that. The subjects need something to facilitate the action and it just looks better.

I hire great set designers who have done similar things before and who are people I can rely on. I do as much research as possible to get the right visual aid to help them. We pull a lot of images, show the mag how we’re building it and how it will work and then we start piecing it together. In the actual shots there are a few gaps here and there that need to be filled by a retoucher, but it’s pretty close and pretty clean.

We do everything possible to get it right in camera. I think these days people look at a shot and everyone believes it’s all Photoshop because that’s so common, but I like the real thing. Basically, if we can afford it we build it.

F. Scott Schafer: Photographer SpotlightWhat kind of production level goes into most of your shoots? Is it a packed house in the studio or a pretty light crew?

It can vary. I don’t need a ton of people flying around me, but there are usually a few assistants, a digi-tech, the prop/set people and the glam squad. When clients and entourages are involved there can be as many as 50 people (and a few dogs) on set. With digital now everyone hovers over the monitor and everyone has an opinion. Everyone chimes in. It’s annoying with that many people constantly whispering in your ear and that’s when the photographer can snap and yell “OK!” So it can get a bit crowded. When I do personal work it can be just an assistant, the subject, and me.

How do you meet new clients and make sure your work gets seen by the people who are going to hire you for your unique style?

Get a dream board, get a dream…put the dream on the board. Not really. My agent helps with some of that but I try to be as personal as possible. I grew my business by making cold calls and taking trips to New York. I’d make trips to places I wanted to work. Your work needs to be solid but 80% of the process is marketing yourself, meeting people, and getting in peoples faces without annoying them. But you still need to have a good product to sell. You can’t sell BS with BS. Everyone thinks that you just get an agent and then you’re done. Most magazines don’t want to talk to agents. You’ve gotta get yourself that one big job, then it’s just the trickle down effect from there – you do one big story and then the calls start coming in.

What does it take to be a great commercial photographer? What can our readers do to improve their photography?

F. Scott Schafer: Photographer SpotlightI’m still trying to figure that out…no idea. Persistence and thick skin are key, and you’ve got to love what you do. I think it’s an on going process. It’s a practice. You’re never done. I’m up for a job right now and I need to show certain pictures from my archive that fit the right look and I was looking through pictures that are seven years old and was like shit… you just never know how you keep advancing. You just don’t know what’s next and that’s what’s fun.

When I teach, a lot of my students just want to learn one thing and they’re done. They go off and shoot these hipster photos or want to be the next Terry Richardson. That’s not where it ends. A good commercial photographer needs to know it all. It’s like a musician, a musician needs to know how to play, read music, mix in the studio and all that. I don’t shoot still life, but if I have to I can. It’s knowing all those skills and if/when you have to use them, you can.

As a commercial photographer you’re a problem solver, and you need to figure out a solution to the problem you are being presented every time. Or get the right person to fix it. That’s how you keep getting better.

Your motion shorts are great. How has video changed the way you work and do you see it playing a bigger role in years to come?

I definitely think video is playing a bigger role. We’re definitely asked to do it more. We don’t get paid more, but we’re being asked. Certainly the 5D Mark II makes it easier. It’s just like anything else, when digital came along you had to embrace it as a tool and evolve. So video is another tool and another craft we need to learn to keep up. The dynamic lighting for video is different and you need to learn that. Working with good DP’s that understand the style is great. They can take care of things. But if you don’t have that luxury and you need to do it yourself you have to know how to light it and shoot the video in a short amount of time.

Like we shot this thing with Stephen Colbert. It was a piece that went from a still and turned into video. Really fun but we had to shoot the stills, then in 10-15 minutes shoot the video and make sure they looked consistent from a lighting standpoint. That can be tough. And with video you don’t have the luxury of cleaning up your background. It has to all be right there. I’ve had to learn all those things and have certainly had help from people who know what’s up.

So I don’t know where it’s going. We’re still all trying to figure it out.

F. Scott Schafer: Photographer Spotlight

Where do you see the industry in 10 or 20 years from knowing how much it’s changed in just the last five?

I have no idea…no idea…downloading pics through a brain chip? Optical inserts? “Hey I’ve got this new pic – downloading to retina.” People like looking at imagery and that will always exist in some shape or form. I don’t want to know where the industry is headed…but it’s always been changing.

F. Scott Schafer: Photographer SpotlightWhen I graduated my teacher told me that if I wanted to make a living in photography then I should marry rich. That was in the 90s. People back then would say things like “Oh, back in the Seventies…those days are gone.” So photography was never the sport you play to get wealthy. There’s always that dream of making it big but that shouldn’t be the motivation…especially if you live outside New York or LA or some major theatrical town that does starry commercial work. There are so many people that live in their home towns and just shoot everything. Weddings, annual reports, product photography, they do it all and they’re good at it. Then they go off and do their personal work. That’s a cool thing to me, that’s a photographer.

If you’re really in love with what you do then you’ve already made it. Breaking into the advertising/commercial field is going to take a while. It’s a long road and it’s not always pretty, that’s for sure. I don’t know…I’m still trying to figure all that out.

Where can we find more of your work or hear more about you?

We’re redoing the website, but you can check out my work there at www.fscottschafer.com. It’s like 5-6 years old and it has been good but we need to make it so it’s readable on iPad, iPhone, Android and all that. You can also find me on twitter.com/FScottSchafer or facebook.com/FScottSchafer or FScottSchafer.tumblr.com.

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Matt Dutile
Matt Dutile

is a New York City based travel and lifestyle photographer. He recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to produce a book on Mongolian nomads. Check the page out to learn more. You can view his website or join in on his Facebook page as well.

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