When Gucci wants its latest line of luxe to drip je ne sais quoi, Mitch Feinberg is the one it turns to. Feinberg, an American advertising and editorial photographer, shuttles between New York and Paris studios on an almost monthly basis. Over a 20-year career, he has developed near infallible strategies for lighting, styling, composing, and shooting to convey just what makes luxury goods so seductive. Feinberg has shared some of his best strategies, one or two of which could help even rookies to take their studio work up a notch.
Bringing It to Life
Feinberg’s first suggestion: “Realize that you’re shooting more than things. You want your studio photography to convey something about the objects themselves.” Uninteresting still lifes, he maintains, are like nouns. They represent objects and little else. Think catalog photos. “Still lifes that fascinate me are more like verbs, adverbs, or adjectives,” he says. “That is what makes studio work inspiring and challenging: It’s the ability to create an idea or stimulate an emotion using something that is otherwise inert.”
A good example is our opening shot of the cake. Feinberg’s assignment from GQ was to illustrate a story about desserts that the author remembered from his childhood, including a chocolate cake. Feinberg ultimately styled the cake with a vortex-like center that would draw the viewer into the cake, and, by inference, into the author’s past. “The image isn’t about a cake, it’s about the power of memories,” he says.
Feinberg feels that objects have personalities, character, and an inner life, and it’s the photographer’s job to find and reveal all of this.
Ironically, he’s a perfectionist who recommends that you don’t get hung up on perfection. “I don’t want things to look too good,” he says. “When I’m shooting laced shoes, I often try to make the laces look loose and natural, not tied into pretty bows.” Similarly, for his guitar picks on the next spread, he grabbed a handful of picks and tossed them onto the light table. “When they didn’t look right, I picked them up and threw them down again and again until I saw something I liked.”
Lighting and Styling 101
In a studio, lighting is one of the most important tasks. “In fact, every still life is an exercise in lighting,” says Feinberg. Start by selecting a salient feature or characteristic of your subject that you want to showcase. It could be texture, color, form, line, or a mix of these elements. Then play with the lighting until it forces the viewer’s eye to notice that salient feature first and foremost.
You don’t need expensive lights to get started, says Feinberg. “Just set yourself up next to a window with north light, or start with one light and a white reflector. Build yourself a little set or backdrop. Get your object and turn it around to see how the light reacts with it. Start simply. You can use flashlights—I did at the beginning,” he says.
Some lighting errors are common to studio novices. “They place their subjects directly onto a backlit light table,” Feinberg notes, “and wonder why the object’s edges aren’t sharp, and why detail in translucent fabrics are blown out and free of detail.”
It takes more than the right angle or output strength of a light to show an object to its advantage. Distances between the lights and subject are crucial.
An essential light-table strategy, therefore, is placing your subject on a glass plate that’s suspended above the light source, and then finessing the distance between the light source and the suspended subject until its edges are sharp and the background white.
Another lighting mistake is overexposing white backgrounds. “You want them to be white, but no more than white,” says Feinberg. Flare, softening, and blown detail result. “If you’re shooting tethered, open the file, and read the whites with your software’s eyedropper. If you get a reading of 250 for each color channel, you’re good. Don’t go any brighter.”
Styling your subjects is as important as lighting them. “For me, it’s a source of pleasure,” says the photographer, who does almost all his own styling. In the eggshell shot on our opening spread, for example, he broke open each of the eggs, refined their edges, nestled them within each other, and then placed his subject, a Cartier ring, within them. “It’s in the doing that I find the fun,” he says.
While he doesn’t usually source his own props, he does almost everything else, including arranging and composing his shots. “In the studio, it helps to be handy,” he says, but it’s not a necessity. “Studio photography is all about sculpting the viewer’s perception of reality.” You can do so, Feinberg explains, by “manipulating materials and bringing out different aspects of your subjects through photographic technique.” If you’re not building sets, he notes, “you can model with light, just as you can with your hands. You can also use perspective, backgrounds, or decorative elements to bring out the personality of your subjects.”
Listen to Your Subjects
Anyone who is interested in getting into this kind of studio still-life photography should start with subjects they feel attracted to, Feinberg recommends. “For me, the most difficult projects are the ones whose subjects I don’t like. Ugly fashion accessories, for example. I think, ‘Oh my God. What am I going to do with these things?’ Knock on wood, though, it’s very rare that I can’t pull something off.”
He stresses that you choose the right gear for each subject. “Every capture device has its own voice [or look],” says the photographer, “and you can’t avoid the signature traits of the instruments you use. They determine the quality of the ‘music’ that you can create as a photographer. Pairing the right camera, lens, and light with a particular subject can improve your chances for success.”
An example? For most subjects, Feinberg likes “the voice of 8x10 transparency film.” Viewing these huge transparencies, you can see why: the level of detail is breathtaking. You feel you’re looking at the actual objects. For the handbag shot at left, however, he switched to digital (a Sinar P3 with a Phase One digital back) and shot tethered. Why? “Because digital showed me right away if I had the shot, and I need that when movement is involved. I could see immediately if my movements were too fast or too slow,” says Feinberg.
Finally, Feinberg suggests that you shouldn’t enter the studio with a firmly preconceived notion of how you’re going to treat a subject. “I don’t pre-visualize,” he says. “I have a rough idea of what I’m going to do, but I’m always open to spontaneity. So often, once I get in the studio with the subject in front of me, I change my mind about where I want to go with it. I prefer to stay in the moment and allow happy accidents to happen. They often do.”
It’s in these serendipitous moments that Mitch Feinberg’s inspired, even magical, studio still life photographs are born.
While it would certainly be edifying to assist on one of Feinberg’s shoots, since that’s unlikely, try the next best thing: visit his excellent and varied portfolio. Here are some typical Feinberg strategies that you might find there:
- SHOOT IN MULTIPLES. Get multiple examples of your subject and arrange them to form a mosaic. If you’re having trouble with a single object, gather a dozen of them—as Feinberg did for the blue shoes on page 56.
- GROUP PROPS. Surround your subject with objects or props that can be arrayed in a pattern. The pattern can add visual interest, structure, rhythm, and can be used as a framing device.
- SIMPLIFY BACKGROUNDS. Work with white or black backgrounds for simplicity’s sake. If opting for a color, use tones that closely match or strongly contrast with your subject’s hue.
- FIND UNUSUAL ANGLES. Arrange or present common objects in ways that are different from the ways we see them in everyday life. This forces the viewer to consider their shape and design, as opposed to their purpose or function.
- USE THEMES. For a series of images, create an organizing theme that runs through and links all your shots.