Magazine Article


A Problem Solver
Gregor Halenda speaks the language of commercial photography

Gregor Halenda

Gregor Halenda

Gregor Halenda

Gregor Halenda

Gregor Halenda

Gregor Halenda

Gregor Halenda

New York City's Gregor Halenda is the go-to artist if you want an advertising or editorial campaign that's so graphically clean and grabbing that your product is bound for sales success. Halenda, a Hasselblad Masters award-winner with clients such as Ducati, American Express, and Popular Mechanics, dreams up visual schemes and compositions with a seeming effortlessness, leaving other photographers to ask: How does he do it?

Halenda's success, apart from his trademark unconventional lighting and crisp designs, lies in his ability to hear and articulate his clients' vision, then shoot accordingly. By "talking the talk" with the graphic designers in charge of the production or magazine article, he's able to discern precisely what they want to transmit. It doesn't hurt that he's well-spoken and good at networking--an edge in a competitive city filled with shooters who would love a crack at his client list.

Conundrum Captures

Halenda has always taken the road less-traveled, even back in his high school days when shooting for the school newspaper. He always accepted the assignments no one else wanted--he figured if he could make a compelling photo at a debate-club meeting, he could be counted on even more for the popular and important shots. This same philosophy transmits through his work today. Clients may bring requests to Halenda they wouldn't think of bringing anywhere else because they trust his solution-oriented approach. "I think my work is inspired by being easily bored and trying to come up with ways to see things differently," he says. "I like to make an otherwise dull subject interesting. The reward is that you really stretch yourself and create something so much more than was anticipated, and that's great for everyone involved."

Such was the case when a certain publication wanted to showcase exploded views of common devices, such as a laptop computer or a digital video camera. Instead of suspending each component of the product on monofilament for a single still-life, Halenda photographed each device's components individually and created a composite in Photoshop. "For me, the more technical a situation is, the better it is," he says. "I've been working digitally since Photoshop v1.0, and I'm comfortable with challenges like the exploded views. My clients know that Photoshop is just as integrated into my process as looking through the viewfinder. My brain just starts making the shot into three dimensions and contriving how to shoot it. It's meticulous work, with perspective shots with different transparency layers that get assembled into one image. It's a puzzle, and I love solving problems." His solution worked so well with the exploding views that an entire book is being published with the resulting images.

Keeping the Client

With 80 percent of Halenda's work based in Manhattan, a good portion of his clients are editorial. The industry has been falling off since 9/11, and the economy surely isn't helping. "You have to work hard to maintain clients," Halenda says. "It's about making imagery that stands out. So much editorial work is lost to magazines that have an in-house studio and a light tent. Many clients are opting for cost over quality, so if you sell yourself on price, you're in a downward spiral--all you'll ever be able to do is get cheaper. The more it comes to price, the more I deliver quality--I don't want to have to compete on price."

"My way of keeping that quality is my lighting," he says. "I don't use, and never will use, softboxes. I think the results from them all look the same, and equalize photography. So I use multiple lights and a lot of silks--often complex setups. Ironically, the goal is to produce something clean and simple. I look for minimal reflections, creating images that are impossible to reverse-engineer from reflections. If you look into a model's eyes for reflections and can figure out the lighting, you're likely not looking into the eyes of a model I worked with. We try to really go beyond that deciphering. It's important for reflections to not always be harsh, but to accent the individual product. That's where your choices are, and the end results always are separated by those measures."

Halenda also feels that understanding a client is an edge, too. "Sitting down with them to figure out how to make, say, an exploded laptop into a piece of visual art is a way to help guarantee you'll see that client again--and seeing that client again is very important," he says. "Also, never forget that it's the little things, like remembering what pastries particular clients like when they'll spend the day in the studio. We never treat a job like it's an in-and-out of the studio gig. You can't take any of it lightly--put your full effort into every single job. Finesse it, work the problems, overcome them--get the best results you can."

Knowledge is Power

Halenda has worked with many client budgets. Sometimes the biggest problem is that people want to do more for less. "Editorially, we used to do 8 to 10 photos a day and have time to work on them to perfection, but now we're expected to do 20 in the same time frame and at the same cost point," he says. "The challenge is to keep the bar up with less money. A client sometimes wants a more complex job, though; then we have to help the client understand why the estimate is what it is. We had a client that had never spent more than $10K for a photo shoot. We had to explain that unless they really had a budget to produce the shoot, they'd end up with substandard images. We explain why a rented motorhome is better than making models change behind a barn, and why a motorcycle handler is better than having a few bikes dropped off at the set."

Halenda walks clients though estimates. "It's difficult to make a client understand why we were $40K off budget," he says. "We let them know how each expense impacts the shoot, and let them decide if the expense line stays or goes. You can cut hair and makeup, but you'll have to spend it back on retouching. Transmission of this process empowers them and changes them from defensive to being a part of the team."

For large jobs, Halenda includes a producer who oversees everything about the shoot. "My studio manager can handle jobs that don't require huge crews, but I would never ask him to get airline tickets for clients and crew, catering, local production assistants, local casting, local scouting--it's a big job," he says. "You can spend two weeks preparing for these shoots, with more than 1,000 emails to arrange a weekend of shooting nuances."

But it's more invigorating to work on a big job than it is scary. "It's exciting to have a big crew and work a process that's larger than you could possibly put together on your own," he says. "It's teamwork--and every time you work with a team, you raise your game. I like the pressure--the more pressure, the more accurate and focused I am."

Clients are delivered their files on hard drives or even iPods, but sometimes just double-layer DVDs if it's a small delivery. The idea is to keep the billing as diligent and accurate as the production. "I had a bookkeeper who did the invoicing; they did an amazing job running the books, but there wasn't as much urgency getting out the invoicing," he says. "Now my studio manager gets the receipts taped down by the time the last image is shot. Thirty days for payment is the best scenario; when you send invoices weeks after the job, it falls in priority. When they receive the invoice with the final image delivery, it speeds up the payment process. Also, we make sure we get advances on bigger projects. You can't afford to underwrite a job for a larger shoot--you're financing $5,000 of expenses on a credit card that a client may not pay for 90 days. That eats into a bottom line."

Putting Himself Out There

Marketing in a big city with dog-eat-dog competition is hard. Halenda's approach is both pragmatic and personal. "Our website and promos are designed by a PR firm, and we've even won a few awards with those--they have to set you apart," he says. "Eighty to 90 percent of email promos get filtered by spam filters. That sort of spam is likely as welcome to an art director as spam for male-enhancement pills. I'm starting to take a different tack. My vacations include trips to local art directors when I can arrange them, and when a client is in my studio, my book comes out for them to see. and other online social-networking sites are working for me. I've definitely landed jobs from those sites. Even social gatherings are places to network yourself; I can't tell you the value of a handshake and casual conversation. If there's a social connection as well as amazing photography, you're up on the other guy."



Photoshop is far and away the most productive asset to my workflow. It's a very intuitive program to me, as I've been with it since v1.0. I'm very, very comfortable with Photoshop. If a client asks me about a particular touch-up, I can likely do it right in front of them. Sometimes it's like I'm the guy who can order for the table in French when we're out at a French restaurant. I'll never regret starting the learning so early on.

- Gregor Halenda


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