With over 30 years of experience, John Beckett has shot it all. Art directors that have been in the business for a while will know Beckett for his celebrity portrait work, but others will be familiar with his many high profile fashion assignments.
People in the beverage industry know him for his many beer ads.
New art directors think John is an editorial or product shooter. The real truth is, he's a generalist with the ability to produce under many different situations.
Five years ago John partnered with Julie Koeth, one of Arizona’s most sought after makeup artists, who also acts as Production Director, to form J2 Photo Productions. Together, they have built a successful photography business that capitalizes on teamwork.
J2 has a streamlined organization that yields impressive results during photo sessions. When your client list includes Anheuser-Busch, Jockey International, McDonald’s and Oprah Winfrey, you need to be at the top of your game.
A few months ago I (Jeffery Luhn) had a chance to ask John a few questions about his approach to photography:
Q How do you decide upon the lighting when photographing celebrities?
A - For a celebrity the first question we pose to them or their agent is how do they perceive themselves…what is their self image? Often it's the agent who gives us the best information about the celebrity or the image they need to convey to the public.
Most times the person we're photographing is only looking to update their look…not change their "image".
The answers to who they are, or who they wish to appear to be to their audience helps to determine the set, lighting and creative approach we'll use to best portray that image.
Males can handle more dramatic lighting to showcase strong features or convey a certain character. With females the lighting approach is pretty much the same as any other beauty shot…more front on to help hide age and facial lines.
Q It seems that you do a lot of work with soft lights as opposed to focused spots or narrow grids. Please briefly discuss your approach.
A - My lighting techniques change gradually. I may get bored using the same setups and begin to search for a new feel…maybe a new attachment to use that will give a different look.
I find photographers, including myself, often get stuck using the same lighting approaches from one subject to the next. We all have habit patterns that can be the result of time constraints or simply a matter of "If it ain't broke…" thinking.
When I see it happening too much in my own work I begin asking why and then look for ways to change things up just to challenge myself…give the work a different look.
There's also a great deal of curiosity I have about what different lighting will do.
At present I've been playing around with a more dramatic side light as my main source. I've been using the large Octodome as the main light positioned about 20 degrees off to the subject's side. Of course, it can't be used effectively for every subject but I give it a try whenever possible to see what creative surprises I discover.
I've also started looking back at images I shot years ago to see how the light setups will work with digital and Photoflex's StarFlash lighting units.
Q You’ve been in the photo business for a while. Did you have to make big changes in your approach when you adopted digital?
A - Digital has come with a great many blessings and a lot of curses. Editing is so much more time consuming with digital. Gone are the old days of spreading film on a light-box and quickly seeing the best images. Now it's hours of editing in some computer program.
There are so many more options available to achieve color balance, contrast and saturation versus the days of pushing film and using filter packs to achieve a certain look. Photographers can do things in camera and post that were out of their immediate control before.
It also means clients have come to expect more from us and more quickly.
Those of us who went through the darkroom days and learning to solve problems with light may have a certain edge but we're up against less experienced photographers who use post production techniques to make up for lack of knowledge.
The challenges comes in educating your clients about skills, problem solving and additional services you provide that were gained through years of experience. It's the added value of experience that technology alone can't make up for.
When you've got a lot of years in the profession it's easy to say with pride and a certain self-assuredness, "Been there. Done that." There's not much that catches you by surprise on a shoot.
Digital's impact on our profession is huge. We've become the retouchers, color separators and taken on roles once performed by print production houses. We've even become art directors and designers in some cases.
Q What specific piece of Photoflex equipment do you depend upon to get your job done? Why?
A - There isn't a specific piece of Photoflex gear I depend on more than another. For me it's an entire system I have at my disposal. The StarFlash headswith FlashFire triggers have given me a speed of creative freedom I never would have expected.
In the past we'd be running sync and extension cords all over a room and figuring out how to use slaves to fire distant units on a set.
Now it's a no-brainer. Just put a light with a FlashFire where you need it and no worries about a popcorn slave not being hit by the main light or having a crew member's shadow block the light that's supposed to hit it.
One of the other things I really appreciate about PhotoFlex is the equipment cases!
To some that may seem like a small matter but for us it's both the look and functionality when you're on location. You show up and look professional! That's important in dealing with high profile clientele. It's that first impression thing.
When you're working on creating a client's image make sure to look at your own!
~ John Beckett Lessons on Photoflex Lighting School: