Photographer Spotlight Christopher Wilson
Christopher Wilson is a highly talented, multifaceted photographer who shoots a variety of subjects and subject matter. His strong visual style unifies many disparate genres, ensuring that no matter what’s in front of his lens, be it a portrait or exotic car, the photos would both look at home on the wall next to each other, or on adjacent pages in his portfolio. We were lucky enough to be able to talk to Christopher recently, and ask him a few questions for our Spotlight.
You’re quite varied in what you shoot, from landscapes to portraiture to automotive to sports, yet each diverse section seems to tie together seamlessly. How do you go about planning shoots with your style in mind to achieve that cohesion?
I know people say there is a certain stylistic cohesion to my photography, but it’s not something I ever think about, or have ever thought about. I just shoot what I shoot, and it all seems to come out looking like I shot it. It’s really that simple. I do, however, think about mood and feeling a lot. For me, there are really two parts to photography. There is the actual capturing of the image, which, for me, is really about composition and making sure I get the information I need. And then there is the post work which is where the image comes to life. As Ansel Adams once said, “you don’t take a photograph, you make it. The negative is comparable to a composer’s score. The final print, as the result of working in the darkroom (digital or otherwise), is the music.”
Before any shoot, I also do a lot of research, looking for imagery that inspires me – whether in terms of composition, or subject matter, or coloring – that might somehow inform what I shoot. It helps me a lot with planning a shoot, and the kind of imagery I want to walk away with. I bring them to my shoots with me, and only refer to them if I get stuck and really don’t know what to shoot. Mostly, however, I never refer to them. I find that once I’m on a shoot it’s better just to see what’s in front of you, with no preconceptions in mind, and shoot from the heart. Yes, plan a ton, but forget it all on the shoot day, and just go with your instincts.
You originally were a creative director before making the jump to photographer. Do you think you see a much more smaller vision of work while working as a photographer, or do you try to branch out beyond what you’re shooting for more influence and inspiration?
I think you always bring your past with you into the present, whether consciously or not. I used to be a ballet dancer when I was younger, for example, and that I know has played a big part in my photography. For both are about composition, and movement in space. And as far as advertising, and being a Creative Director, that experience has definitely helped with my photography. First, because I understand how an agency works, and what it means to be a creative in an ad agency, I find it very easy to talk with creatives. I speak their language, if you will, having been on their side of the fence for more than 15 years.
And having being a creative at assorted ad agencies – first as a writer, and then an art director – I was extremely fortunate to be work with and be exposed to some of the best photographers and directors in the business. And I got to see how they worked and managed a big shoot. And all that exposure has definitely influenced how I approach my photography projects. Ad agencies hire you for two reasons. First, they like you creative work. That’s what gets you in the door. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, to land a big commercial project, you have to be extremely well-organized. And that begins with having a great producer. And I’m extremely fortunate to have a brilliant producer. She is so buttoned-up that I never worry about anything, and so I’m free to just concentrate on what I need to do, which is to create the imagery I’ve been hired to do. I get the glory, but she’s the one doing all the heavy lifting. She’s the fifth Beatle.
Oh, wait, now I think I understand your question. My apologies. The answer is no, not really. I do not see a smaller vision of work now that I’m a photographer. In fact, the kind of clients that I get now are very similar to the kind of clients I worked on while I was a creative – that is high-end luxury brands. For example, I used to be the Group Creative Director and creative on Audi of America. Now, as a photographer, as the result of having working on Audi, I’ve had the opportunity to shoot for a number of automotive brands including BMW, Infiniti and Fiat.
And yes, I’m constantly looking for opportunities to branch out from what I’m shooting. For example, most of my work comes from location work with mainly available lighting. Now, I’m very interested in controlled, studio portraiture with lighting. At the end of the day, I’m just looking for opportunities that interest me in some way.
With regards to the project Beautiful, what was the impetus for that series?
My original thought was that it was a fashion/beauty series, but that felt limiting somehow, so I was just looking for a handle that felt a bit more expansive. Even though I don’t shoot a lot of fashion, I love great fashion photography, and would love to do more of it. I love costume. Nick Knight and Irving Penn are two photographers who I absolutely love, and who have managed – magically somehow – to transform their fashion photography into art.
Why Capture Integration? What made you choose us?
Well, it all started with Chris Snipes, and I’m not sure how we found him. Probably though my producer. This was a few years ago. I had been renting my medium format cameras when I needed them for projects, but really felt it was time to own a system. So we contacted Chris, and have loved working with him over the years. His expertise and availability and kindness have all been greatly appreciated, and we tend to stay loyal to the people who work hard for us.
I see that you have the full spate of social media links across the bottom of your website; how do you find your work has changed with the inclusion of social media pages to portfolios, or the fact of art directors hunting for talent on places like Instagram?
I don’t think my work has changed as the result of social media. I think of it all as just PR and a way for people, if they want, to keep informed of my current projects. I also tend to think of social media as just other vehicles to disseminate my work – that is, alternative portfolio sites.
Along that vein, you have a lot of shots on instagram that didn’t show on your site; what are your thoughts on what to put on each social media platform?
Before I put an image on my portfolio site, I’ll test it on Instagram and Facebook just to see how people are reacting to the image. Sometimes I get the reaction I expect. Something I’m greatly surprised, and people end up loving some images that I just think are okay. It’s an interesting way to screen your images before you showcase them in a book or your online portfolio.
I see you have a lot of shots with your daughter, Celia. Do you often travel with her for work? The pictures of her in Iceland and Scotland are absolutely gorgeous.
Thank you. No, I actually don’t travel with Celia that often. But I’ve always wanted to go to Iceland and Scotland, and I wasn’t at all interested in just shooting the landscapes by themselves. I always like having people in landscapes to give a sense of scale. It also just interests me more that way. I like the interaction between people and a landscape. In the case of Iceland and Scotland, we worked with a stylist out of New York who put together a wonderful collection of wardrobe for Celia. In that sense, it was more a spec shoot that us being tourists. We were working, and paid Celia as we would any model. We had fun, but we wanted Celia to know that she was there to work. And boy, did she! Climbing mountains, working through rain and snow and cold and howling winds. It was quite the adventure, and she was a real trooper.
You have a very particular coloring and toning scheme, almost like color grading in some big picture Hollywood films. How do you shoot knowing you’ll be toning your images?
I do all my color grading, and I absolutely love this part of the process, as it’s where the image, with the mood and the feeling I want to create, comes to life. In my view, there’s no such thing as a great photograph right out of the camera. As Ansel Adams said, it’s in the post process that the “music’ is created. So, knowing that I play with colors a lot, I just shoot everything as flat as possible, with no contrast, making sure I have everything exposed, and occasionally bracketing to make sure I’ve got all the options in post.
What’s currently in your bag? What are you shooting with, what are the go to essentials on your sets, or even for when you’re editing or lighting?
Last year, I started using the Phase One IQ250, and found it was the absolute perfect back for me, as I found the ability to shoot noise-free at higher ISO’s perfect to my shooting style. So, now I shoot almost exclusively with that. My medium format kit is pretty simple: The Hasselblad H4x body (editor’s note: Capture Integration now sells the successor, the H5X,) Phase One IQ250 back, and the Hasselblad 35mm and 80mm lenses. That’s it. If I need to augment with a longer lens, I’ll rent it.
I also always bring my Canon kit with me as my backup kit, in case the medium-format kit fails for some reason. Or if there is more action required. My assistant will carry that. That includes 2 Canon 1DX bodies, a 24mm, 50mm and a 85mm lens – all the fast L series lenses. I rarely use long lenses, and if I do, I’ll just get them from Canon directly.
Until recently I’ve always rented any lighting gear – whether it be hot lights or strobes – depending on the project. And I still do that. However, I just recently purchased a small strobe kit for personal projects that I can easily travel with. I basically wanted the ability to create a pop-up studio anywhere in the world with as little fuss as possible. So, to that end, I had Oliphant Studios create a custom backdrop for me, and purchased a small strobe kit which includes a Profoto B1 Monolight, a couple of modifiers, including an Elinchrom 69” Octa Softbox and a beauty dish, and some assorted grip gear and stands.
What would you want to see next in the industry? Any big changes to your gear or photography that you want to see in the next year?
Well, I’d love to see the industry go back to what I would call a purer sense of photography – not that I see this happening any time soon. I think commercial photography now has gotten way out of control with all the retouching and compositing going on. While I admire the pyrotechnics involved with all this compositing post work, I do find it, for the most part, soulless and lacking in feeling and heart. It’s pretty, but it’s veneer and lacking in any depth. I also think this compositing madness has led to a lot of laziness, not only on the photographer’s part, but all the clients’ parts. Clients, in many cases, aren’t paying attention on shoots, and thinking it can all be changed and retouched in post – which it can, but often at a cost to the integrity of the shot.
As far as my own photography, yes, I’m very excited about this new year, and have many personal projects I’m working on that I hope will push my abilities and be compelling somehow. My first project I’m excited about, and will be shooting in June, is a project with the Maasai in Tanzania. I can’t wait. It’s a subject matter that has interested me for decades now, and I’ve just decided to go there and photograph these truly beautiful people.
You can see more of Christopher Wilson’s work below: