Douglas Dubler is a man who knows what he wants.
He knows the type of client he wants to work for. He knows the type of work he wants to shoot (work that's becoming increasingly more personal). And he knows how he wants to do it (whether the technology is there to help him achieve his vision is another matter).
"It's all about picking the right jobs," he says. "If someone comes to me and I realize that's not what I can do, then I won't be able to bring anything different to the job. It's all about working for people who are willing to take a chance and are looking for something a little different. I look to get involved in the conceptual stage with a commercial project, and make sure it's going to be a good fit. You want a client who's willing to give you a vote of confidence and let you do your job. That doesn't mean all my ideas are right and they're going to agree with them all the time, but certainly enough that I'm going to be happy with what I do, and hopefully create a successful ad for the client."
Dubler isn't interested in copying what others are doing. "Being challenged by the visual potential of something becomes the starting point," he says. "I've got a pretty clear vision about that, and it doesn't take me long to say yes or no. If something doesn't interest me, then I don't get involved; if it does interest me, then it's a matter of bringing my palette of tools and techniques that have become layered over the years like an onion."
Most important is the lighting that twinkles in his subjects' eyes ("that defines what the photo is"); then come the color and the composition. "I've always approached commercial photography jobs like they were fine-art photography jobs I was doing for myself," he explains. "I think I may be one of the only people in my business who never did much catalog work, and the catalogs I did do, I had quite a bit of control over what the images were going to look like."
Dubler doesn't rely on one standby technique as his signature. "I try to evolve everything I do, and mix my techniques up," he says. This somewhat flies in the face of good marketing--I've heard for years to do one thing and let it be identifiable as your style, and then people will come to you for that one thing. I would get really bored."
That's not to say Dubler can't pinpoint what sets his work apart. "If anything would characterize my style,' it would be my ability to represent the visual projects I do in three dimensions, thanks to my training as a sculptor," he says. "I do this with my still lifes, fine-art pictures, and beauty and fashion pictures. My images have good dimension to them and very good separation. People with a discerning eye always make that observation about my work.
It's subconscious, just a way of working. I did that in the picture I did for Nik Software [see sidebar on the cover shot]; even though she's on a plain background, she separates really well. A photographer friend made a comment to me the other day that the lighting doesn't look accidental in that picture; it looks like there's a definite intention with the lighting."
Dubler is a big believer in staying ahead of the curve when it comes to the latest and greatest photographic and digital gear, often serving as a beta tester for some of the biggest names in the industry. "The technology and tools available to us change on a daily basis," he says. "I like having those things before anyone else does.
"I always say to my young assistants that knowledge is power," he continues. "If you don't have the knowledge, then you don't have the power. If you think that it's enough to just be a good photographer, it's not. I'm a good photographer, and have been a good photographer, but I sometimes wasn't able to do the things I wanted to do because the technology didn't exist."
He cites an abstract fine-art project he's working on now as an example of technology finally catching up to his vision. "I saw the potential for a great series several years ago, yet there wasn't the technology to do this project at the quality level I was looking to do it at," he explains. "I have to shoot the pictures at a very high ISO, 1000 or 1200. A couple of years ago, this wasn't doable without a lot of noise in the pictures; I wanted to make the prints really big, so that wasn't going to work. Plus I'm working with a very fast lens, an 85mm f/1.4, so I need to handhold in very low lighting conditions."
Then Nikon came out with the D3, and Dubler realized he could finally bring his idea to fruition. "When Nikon came out with the D3, I processed the files, looked at them on the computer, enlarged them, saw how amazingly quiet they were, and realized I could now enlarge these files to whatever size I wanted, to make big prints. It opened the door for me to begin working on this particular series--something I had wanted to do years ago, but couldn't, because the technology didn't exist."
Likewise for his ownership of the Epson 9900 printer. "Im one of the few in the U.S. who has that printer," he says. "I've made custom profiles and I've been printing with that printer; it's an 11-ink printer, and I'm getting color gamut volumes that are close to 20 percent higher than what I got with K3 inks. When I look at the profiles in ColorThink Pro, the shape of the profiles has become rounder and smoother (as opposed to dog-legged straight lines, which indicate abrupt color and tonal transitions). It's a whole new era in printing. I've got the ability to appreciate and look for those very subtle gradations, particularly for skin-tone reproduction, which is the most difficult thing to reproduce."
Staying up on technology has also helped him to maintain his close relationship with the people who have collaborated with him for many years, including his hair and makeup artist, Sylvia Pichler, and retoucher Willie Williamson. "I've been working with Willie for close to 15 years," he says. "Willie knows what I like in a final product--when I sent him that Nik ad, I explained to him what I was doing, and I made a little JPEG and did some bad Photoshopping to show him what the concept was. He knows what I like and delivered the final image with few edits, saving me very valuable time."
Where technology comes into play is in his long-distance relationship with his number-one retoucher. "He's been in Australia for several years now, so we have to send files back and forth to each other" he explains. "Some of these big files are 200MB, and by the time he gets done retouching them and adding layers onto that, the files are even bigger."
Dubler's building in Manhattan was one of the first buildings in the city to get Verizon's FIOS fiber-optic technology, which has helped substantially with intercontinental sends. "Now I've got 20,000 kilobits per second up and down--I can put a 500MB file up in minutes; it would take 30 minutes with DSL," he says. "The creative implications of that are huge. For instance, I would always prefer to have a layered file from Willie, so I can just turn the layers on and off. But because of the speed of ISP providers in the past, I usually just told him to compress the file and send me the layered file on a DVD--which means I have to wait to get that in the mail. Now I can take the layered file immediately."
Being an eager adapter of digital technology has also allowed Dubler to pay back an old friend and mentor. "I'm working on a project out in California with Neil Barr, who was a well-known photographer in New York City in the '60s and '70s," he says. "He was the inspiration for me to get into the business; he critiqued my portfolio often in those early days and was a big help to me. He's been working on a definitive photographic reference book on street fashion from the 1920s. He's been collecting the materials, all the clothing, shoes, and hats, for 35 years--and he's been shooting this for years using film. Half of the book has already been done in film, 4x5, but he can't get timely processing anymore. So I'm helping him as a technology advisor: I got him the latest Apple computer and a good monitor. He's got a D3 camera right now that we're getting him up to speed with, and Nik is getting some people up there to help him. I'm glad I can help him; it's like coming full circle. Although it's a bit daunting to him, like any great artist he rises to the challenge. I'm glad I can help him make the transition."
Working the Personal Into the Professional
Dubler has been trying to incorporate more of his personal interests into his commercial work. "I just try and do things that interest me," he says. "I've been doing still life lately, for example. I'm trying to make a better fit between what it is I want to do and what I have to do to make a living."
Shooting the Tuareg nomads of the African Sahara was one such project that appealed to his sensibilities. "A friend of mine in California, Leslie Clark, is an artist and has been painting them for many years," says Dubler. "She's involved in fundraising to help their communities in Niger, which is under siege from the government. These are very interesting people visually, their costumes and headdresses. I was able to get a few of these guys into a studio out there that had Broncolor lighting, which was a complete surprise. These may be the only photographs, according to my artist friend Leslie, that have been taken of the Tuareg in the studio."
Dubler has also been spending some more time out on the West Coast, where he has a house in Ojai. "I'm moving some equipment out there, some Broncolor flash equipment; I've got my camera with me, and I have the Epson 9900 printer," he says. "I'm doing these kinds of personal projects that I might end up using commercially. By creating the images myself first, and then finding someone I think might be interested in them, it's a way of not getting trapped."
He's also recently contracted with [the] Alexander Mertens Fine Art gallery in Montecito, California (www.mertensfineart.com), to represent his fine-art work. "Alex was working in New York before he set up this gallery in California, and he wanted to do something different," says Dubler. "He's getting involved in photography for the first time and is very excited about the fine-art aspect of my work. The prospect of being represented by someone who sells artwork from such icons as Picasso, Monet, and Warhol is a whole other level, one to which I have been aspiring for many years. When I go to the photography galleries here in New York, I don't see any abstract work at all--everything is figurative. I'm getting involved with the gallery as the director of photography to introduce work that is representative of this newly evolving genre of fine art. I think this will be good for the gallery. The Montecito community is very upscale, and so far the reaction to my work is positive, even with the economy being the way that it is."
Speaking of which, how has Dubler's business weathered the recent economic storm? "The economy hasn't been good for 20 years!" he laughs. "Remember, I was in the city when there was crazy money in the '80s. My simplistic view about it is that there's a big world with plenty of business out there--you just have to find out where it is. I'm doing something with a major financial institution as a potential sponsor, and maybe now that's going to fall apart, but you know what? If it does, I'll find somebody else. When the music stops, there have to be some chairs to sit down in."
For more info on Douglas Dubler's work, go to www.douglasdubler3.com
Douglas Dubler's Gearbox
Nikon D3 w/AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D IF, AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED lenses
Mamiya RZ67 Pro II
Leaf Aptus 75S, 33MP
Canon PowerShot G9 and G10
8GB Lexar Professional 300x CompactFlash
8GB Lexar Professional 133x SDHC
Broncolor Scoro A4, Grafit A4, with Lightbar 120 Evolution
Broncolor Para 330 umbrella w/ringflash
Sekonic Prodigi Color C-500R
Gitzo Tele Studex G1509 (Bogen Imaging) w/Arca Swiss B-1 ballhead
Apple 8 Core Mac Pro (2-3.2GHz Quad-Core) w/32GB RAM
Apple MacBook Pro 17" (2.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo) w/4GB RAM
PORTABLE HARD DRIVE
G-Technology G-DRIVE mini triple 200GB, 7200 RPM
Eizo CG221 and CG211
Epson Stylus Pro 9900
Epson Stylus Pro 4880
GTI Graphic Technology SOFV-1E
Color Management Devices
X-Rite ProfileMaker 5 with i1iSis XL Spectrophotometer
Color Eyes Display Pro 1.42 with X-Rite DTP70
Nik Capture NX 2, Silver Efex Pro, Sharpener Pro 3.0, Color Efex Pro 3.0, Define 2.0
Adobe Photoshop CS4, Lightroom 2
Apple Aperture 2
Chromix ColorThink Pro 3.0
TechTool Pro 4
Genuine Fractals 5 (onOne)
Roxio Toast 9 Titanium
Parallels Desktop 3.0 for Mac
Proof CMYK RIP
The Creation of the Nik Ad/Studio Photography Cover Shot
"To me, seeing a B&W shot demonstrating an image that's been converted from color to B&W doesn't quite convey the message. I thought it would be more interesting for photographers, since the language that we speak is a visual one, to do it this way. Rather than read some copy about a B&W conversion, I wanted to show them the colors, what the colors were, and what they are with the conversion. I arranged the photo in such a way so the girl appears to be stepping out of color, forward into B&W.
"I wanted to use couture fashion; this outfit was from Balenciaga's 2008 Spring collection. I wanted something vibrantly multicolored--that relationship of one color to another color is one of the difficulties of doing a B&W conversion. You often end up getting something that's not exactly what you're looking for. With Nik's Silver Efex Pro, you just exercise some simple sliders; you can just dial it in to be exactly what you want. The accurate visual interface is the key to the whole process.
"What I like about Nik software: I'm not really a Photoshop expert, because I haven't had the time to sit for hours to do the type of retouching that I require. Nor would the economics of time permit me to do so. But with NX2, the learning curve was so quick, and I didn't forget everything in two days. And instead of having to do intricate selection and masking to make these changes, I just used the U Point technology using control points; I was able to do quite amazing things easily in regards to the details in highlight and shadow areas. When working with NX2, I'm working on a RAW file and not degrading any info, I'm not creating any holes in the histogram. I end up getting a file that looks more like an HDR file, but unlike an HDR, it looks photographic and more believable, in my opinion. Plus, once you use NX2, it's easy to pick up the others, like Color Efex Pro, Silver Efex Pro, and Sharpener Pro 3.0."
--Douglas Dubler 3