Jonathan Beer spent most of last year photographing domestic irons and hairdryers.
He describes himself as a commercial products photographer who specialises in ‘bringing boring objects to life’.
And he’s exceptionally good at it.
This Manchester-based still-life photographer is the current FEP (Federation of European Professional Photographers) Commercial Photographer of the Year – and when he picked up his award at a special ceremony at Photokina he said: “I never dreamt my work would ever be appreciated on a European stage, particularly as I believe a good deal of continental still-life photography is superior to much of the ‘fast and cheap’ work produced in the UK.
But Jonathan has built a solid reputation for producing highest quality imagery in the UK – even if the subject of the shoot is frequently mundane and plastic.
“I am stubborn and I am a perfectionist to the point of bordering on obsessive compulsive”, he confesses. “Fortunately I enjoy the methodical nature of what I do and I am lucky that I have the time and the patience to keep plugging away until it looks right. I’ll often spend four or five hours lighting something before I see it hasn’t worked – and then it all has to be stripped back and started over. It’s a difficult decision sometimes because you know you’re in for a very long night – but when it’s finished it’s worth all the hassle.”
He adds: “My desk is a complete rubbish tip with papers, books and VAT returns scattered all over the place. But in stark comparison, my lighting is completely clinical. For me it’s the lighting that pays my bills.”
“I am always following a client brief so I am told what to photograph, at what angle and with what background. I do have input into the photographic side of things though and there is skill that goes into that; the movement on the camera to get focus correct and exposure control and post production too. But there are plenty of photographers out there that can do all that. For me lighting is 90% of my final image.”
Jonathan has become expert at making boring stuff look sexy.
“If you have a shelf full of very similar products in a retail store it’s vital that the product image shown on the box conveys the texture and feel – and almost the weight of the item.
I think customers want to look at that image and imagine what it would be like to hold it and use it – that’s why I take so much time with my work. I want it to look different to the competition’s solutions.”
So how do you make an iron sexy?
Says Jonathan: “There is no ultimate formula; it’s just about hard work. I light each element of a product in a way that gives me complete control of the shape, texture and tone of that particular element – and without affecting neighbouring elements, which can then be lit separately. This way I can build up the lighting knowing I have absolute control over every part of the image, without compromises.”
This is a photographer who works from an outbuilding studio measuring six metres by six metres, adjacent to his home – and yet admits to housing a minimum of 20 heads there, of which between ten and twelve are used on every shoot.
He tells Litebook: “Yes I do use a lot of heads and as a result my sets are a real maze of cables. I use combinations of normal stands, Hi-Glides and C-Stands, which are good for getting things into those hard-to-reach places.
One of the problems I have is that because the product is completely surrounded by light, screens and diffusion material, it’s often hard to change things. Typically a product will be absolutely encased. It’s a truly bespoke set.
I want to surround the subject with light. I don’t just want light on one side and a reflector on the other.”
The Beer MO is to start from scratch with his lighting set-up at every shoot.
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