In the interview series for the MIOPS blog, we meet Ray Detwiler, a commercial and advertising photographer who manages a 4-man photo studio from Dallas, USA. Ray shares his journey to becoming an in-demand professional and how he continues to stay one step ahead of his competition…
For those unfamiliar with your work Ray, how would you describe your style of photography?
This, probably, is the hardest question for me to answer. I feel like my style is ever evolving as I both learn and grow as a photographer. I’m generally drawn to shots that have good use of color and contrast, I like subjects to be bright and to jump off of the page/screen. For me, an image gets bonus points if it looks like something special has gone into pulling it off. That’s probably why I’ve been drawn more and more into splash photography. It gives images that complex element. I’m also a bit of a “get it all in the camera” kind of guy. I don’t do a lot of compositing in my photos, I try to get things the way I want them straight out of the camera.
When did you first pick up a camera?
A Black & White photography class caught my attention at school and I thought I saw an opportunity to get outside and have some fun. I borrowed my father’s 35mm Minolta and shot 6 or 7 rolls of Black & White. The course was fun, and I learned all of the basics about composition and exposure, but I wound up not liking the assignments. I thought photography would be better if I was free to photograph whatever I wanted, so I lost my enthusiasm for it after a month or two. It’s ironic that now most of what I photograph is what someone else tells me to, haha!
Later, at university, I went on a field trip to an art museum as part of a Fine Arts class. At the museum, I saw a photo exhibit and remember very distinctly thinking to myself, “I can shoot better photos than that, and this guy gets a museum exhibit!”. There was obviously more to it than I appreciated, but for some reason, that was my takeaway. That day was when my photography journey really started. I devoted countless hours to taking photos, reading about photos, looking at photos, learning about techniques, etc. After I graduated I took a few different jobs and finally found myself in the marketing department of a large clothing brand. It was in this department that I was exposed to my very first real photoshoot. I was instantly hooked, and all of a sudden I knew I HAD to be a professional photographer!
What was your journey to becoming a professional?
I started working with models on Model Mayhem and attended a meetup for “Strobist” enthusiasts. I met a photographer there, named Mike, who had been shooting professionally for almost 20 years. He seemed like the only one who really knew what he was doing, so I latched on and started trying to learn whatever I could from him. About 4 months later my company laid off a whole bunch of people in an attempt to save money and stay in business. Unbeknownst to me, right around the same time, Mike’s assistant had moved to North Carolina. Within a few weeks of me landing on the unemployed list, Mike sent out an email to 3 or 4 people he had met at the meetup a few months before, in an attempt to find an assistant for an upcoming photoshoot he had. I immediately replied, and got the “job”. Over time, I built up a portfolio, and as Mike trusted me more and more, he would give me some of his assignments when he was too busy or if he was out of town.
In 2014 I was offered a full-time position as part of the marketing department of an international company, heading a photography division in the US side of their operations. They wanted to launch an e-commerce website and wanted to do all the photography in-house. They brought me in and asked me to build them a photo studio, so I got to order all the equipment I had always wanted to have without paying for any of it! Later that the marketing department would spin off and start taking on outside clients. That is how I find myself as the manager of a 4-person photo studio for an advertising and branding firm called Eighty Three Creative, Inc, here in Dallas, Texas.
What kind of clients do you tend to work with, and what are they looking for in an image?
I work almost exclusively with other businesses and companies nowadays, shooting lifestyle and product photography for clients of Eighty Three Creative. They range from small start-ups to international corporations. I have found that no matter the size of the client’s company or pocketbook, they all tend to want images that get attention and communicate their message well. We live in an age where visuals are everywhere, so in order for a company to stand out, they need to catch potential customers’ attention quickly. In short, clients want images that show a product in its best light, communicate what it is, or display it in an eye-catching way so that viewers are drawn in and take note.
How do you differentiate your images in a competitive marketplace?
Working at an agency has taught me that you have to be informed about current trends in photography, social media, and marketing. When a client comes in asking for a photo, they don’t always know what they want. Sometimes they do, but a lot of times they would not consider themselves creative, and that is precisely why they hired an agency or a photographer. They want the photos of their product/person to be relevant and to look as good as possible when the shoot is done. It’s up to the photographer to know what is trending, what style has been used too much, and what might be outside the box. From there they can apply everything they have learned as a professional to produce images that will be eye-catching. I spend a lot of time in the studio playing around with new techniques, which is one of the reasons I invested in the MIOPS SMART. I look at photos on Instagram and on other photographers’ websites and I try to recreate them, make something similar, or even make improvements. By doing this, I learn all kinds of different techniques for shooting, posing, and lighting. Where another photographer would just see screwdrivers, and photograph them like everyone else does, someone who has been playing around with different styles and types of photography could find a style or trend that could be used to breathe life into a potentially boring photograph.
Tell us about your proudest achievement as a photographer…
I would probably have to say that being able to make a living as a professional photographer is my proudest achievement. It can be really hard to make it in this industry. The cheaper cameras get, the more people are entering the field and marketing themselves as “professionals”. So the fact that I started on this journey 10 years ago and am still running full speed ahead is something I am very grateful for and consider to be a great achievement.
Do you have a dream photoshoot?
The Annie Liebovitz shoot with Sean Connery for Louis Vuitton pops into my mind. I mean, wouldn’t love to be flown out to an island on a private jet, with a whole crew of people, to photograph a celebrity in a beautiful setting?
If we’re talking more realistic, there’s one shot that is kind of “the one that got away” for me, and I would love to be able to have another chance at it. Several years ago I was hired to photograph a brain surgeon as he was operating on a patient. The image was to be used in a magazine and would feature him in the Operating Room, with his tools and staff all around him and the patient in front of him. I wanted to stay for the whole procedure and get cool images of him actually working on the brain, but the marketing woman who was my escort had a very weak stomach and we ended up having to leave almost immediately after I got the minimum required photos. He had barely cut away the skin from the top of the head, so I did not get anything cool, other than the shot they wanted for the article.
What do you think is the most important factor in producing a successful advertising image?
Knowing and understanding the product always plays a big part. It doesn’t matter if it’s an apartment complex or a pair of headphones. If you don’t understand what you are photographing, who would use it, or what it is used for, how can you really know how best to photograph it? On some of my first shoots for e-commerce, I would get a product I knew nothing about and I would photograph it the way that made sense to me. Then I would have to go back and re-shoot it because, in my ignorance, I had put the product down backward or something like that. Knowing what the most important features are of a product, and how the client wants those features displayed or marketed will almost always dictate the direction the shoot goes. You can light almost anything to look cool, but if it’s photographed upside-down it will make the client look silly and will ensure you don’t stay in business for long.
What MIOPS products do you own, and why did you choose them?
I recently acquired the MIOPS SMART trigger. I have been playing around with splashes, water, and liquids for about a year now, and one of the hardest parts of that kind of photography is the relationship between the event you ideally want to capture and the tool used to catch it. The event can be a splash, it can be something dropping and breaking, or even just a cup of water flying across the frame. The tool is the camera, with a method to trigger the shutter. Before I started using the MIOPS SMART, this method was usually a cable release, or me simply stretching my arms as far as I could. A lot of times I dropped something with the left hand and pushed the shutter button with the right. I could usually throw away half of the images I had taken due to bad timing from every shoot. This is where the MIOPS SMART makes a big difference. I have primarily been using the laser function, so it requires a little more setup before the shoot can start, but once you get the laser where you want it and figure out where to hold the product that is being dropped, the process just become a matter of fine tuning the delay setting, to get as many variations of a splash or water drop as you want.
Describe how you set up your equipment for one of the images featured?
For the ice cube shot, I had a small acrylic container on top of a blackboard, with less than a cm of water in the container. I set up a laser on one side, pointing at the MIOPS SMART, which was on the other side, so they were running perpendicular to the direction the lens was looking. I had one bare Profoto B1, set on Freeze mode, on a C-Stand about as high up as I could get it. Then I stood on a stool and dropped the ice cube over and over and eventually liked one of the shots more than the others. Later on, I played around with just using water droplets and trying to catch that one little drop that comes back out of the water. Suffice to say, I may be getting the MIOPS SPLASH in the not too distant future!
What do you feel your MIOPS products have helped you to achieve?
The MIOPS SMART has helped me capture those fleeting moments in time that usually take a lot of patience and trial & error to get when shot with a manual shutter release.
What’s the one piece of advice that you would give to an aspiring commercial or advertising photographer?
I would have to say make yourself as appealing as possible to potential clients. Especially in the US right now, it seems like everything is about the experience. So if the experience a customer has is amazing and they feel important to you, they will more than likely come back to you for the next job they have and will recommend you to anyone else they know who is shopping around for a photographer. Figuring out how to give the client a good experience can seem tricky, but one exercise you can do is putting yourself in their shoes for a few minutes and looking at the process from their side. What would they want in an ideal world? I’m not talking about what photo would they want, but how would they want to be treated? What would make them trust you more as a professional? How long would they want to wait to receive their images? Would they want a 24h reminder email about their shoot day? What would help instill confidence in them?