Magazine Article


Casting His Vote
Commercial photographer Brian Kuhlmann on confidence and crew

Brian Kuhlmann

Brian Kuhlmann

Brian Kuhlmann

Brian Kuhlmann

Brian Kuhlmann

Brian Kuhlmann

Brian Kuhlmann

Brian Kuhlmann, a veteran commercial and advertising photographer with studios in Chicago and St. Louis, specializes in advertising photography that leaps from the page with its edgy colors and contrasts. With a style and complexity to his lighting that draws in his clients with obvious finesse, he has the impressive ability to cast his commercial shoots, conduct a symphony of chaos, and capture a great final shot for his industry-leading clients.

It's Who you Know

Kuhlmann urges his clients to take special consideration when casting their campaigns, and his clients rely on him to help choose models that will bring their vision to the photographs. It's not always easy, sometimes requiring a thorough casting session that lasts more than eight hours, with 200 faces auditioning for a photography set requiring as few as eight models. During these auditions, Kuhlmann is trying to cast not only the best look but the best personality for the part. He's looking for confidence-and if it's not there, he wants to be sure he can build it during his rapport.

"I enjoy the casting of the talent, and I like to see that the energy is there, that some magic might be possible," he says. "I'm usually the one with the final call, and if I say that I don't think it will work because of x, y, or z, I'm doing it to protect my client as well as myself. I think my ability to direct and get a confidence level built up with both the client and the talent is my strong suit. The collaboration is fun for me, and to get everyone on the same page in a comfortable manner is key. You're not in this business for long if you're not selling your abilities and gaining client trust and confidence. That makes a lot of difference during casting-make no mistake about it."

When Kuhlmann is evaluating potential models, he'll try to put them into similar situations he'll be using during the shoot-an approach he learned the hard way. "I remember once we were casting for a sports theme, and kids were showing up saying, 'Sure, I played volleyball in junior high'-I figured they would step right into the role on set," he says. "Of course, that's not an easy thing to do when you've been off that court for years, and we had a lot of trouble finding people who could perform for the camera the way we needed them to. We're casting a shoot now for a shoe manufacturer, and we need everyone jumping and posing in midair off a trampoline. You can bet there will be a trampoline at that casting call."

Once a model is hired for the shoot, Kuhlmann will meet with them to go over "mood boards," or sketches of the story and a general illustrated idea of the shoot. "This gives them a way to tune into what we're after," Kuhlmann says. "Most experienced talent are really being asked to be actors, playing a role in front of my camera. So I like to give a crystal-clear outline of what we're going to be doing, and what they need to convey."

From there, Kuhlmann embraces the immediate feedback of digital photography, since both the talent and he can look at what they're creating, seeing what's working and what isn't. "Even the stylists and production people become part of the creative process-it makes a huge difference to me over the somewhat lonely feeling of shooting film, when you're on your own with the vision through the viewfinder," he says.

Kuhlmann is no stranger to stories from talent that some photographers can be overbearing, even menacing, on-set. Never one to be deliberately intimidating, he is instead constantly relieved with feedback remarking on how laid-back his approach is to the shoot. "I'm not the funny comedian on the set, looking for laughs," he says. "I'm just kind of there, treating everyone the same way I treat my coworkers, friends, even my kids. I tell them like I see it, and I think that really lets them know they're in the hands of someone who cares about the pictures and what they look like. I'm relaxed, and the atmosphere as a result is what makes our shoots as cool and fun as they are."

Bidding on Jobs

Bidding on jobs for some of Kuhlmann's larger clients can be a meticulous process, but it's a process that Kuhlmann doesn't mind engaging in-he's all too aware of how lucky he is to have some of his opportunities, and he's thrilled to be collaborating with the best in the industry. "It's always been a goal of mine to work for companies like these, and to be the ringleader of the circus some of our shoots can create is exhilarating," he says. "You're in charge, delegating, with someone assigned to booking models, taking care of food, securing licenses for locations, scheduling talent-and then I show up with the camera and lighting and start shooting. It's great when it all comes together."

Kuhlmann has a production manager and a studio manager to handle in-studio work, and freelance is contracted for production on larger jobs-and they have their own help, too. Usually there are a minimum of four people on his personal team: a digital tech and a first, second, and third assistant. Then there's support-hair/makeup, sometimes up to three people, all working for hours straight to get talent ready. "To let everything go smoothly, you have to always have extra hands to [take] care of the details," Kuhlmann says. "I love that my teams will even keep me from knowing when things have gone wrong, fixing them before I can even ask. Don't get me wrong, I'm hyper aware of everything happening around me-I can see when something's amiss. But if I'm not approached about it as a problem, I don't even ask. That took a long time, my being able to relax like that! I can't emphasize enough how important it is to surround yourself with a crew you trust."

Kuhlmann needs to be extremely diligent when finishing a bid for a job. Some shoots are very complicated, and the experience and history of lessons learned help make the bottom line as affordable as possible for clients. "For a job with a major beer label, we had to look at the most cost-effective way to shoot a music campaign covering several genres, while also shooting the Super Bowl theme (think 'beer babes'), a dance theme/club scene with about 15 people cast for talent, and also a summer theme," Kuhlmann recalls. "That's a broad spectrum, especially when it's the middle of winter in Chicago. We ended up shooting the music and dance parts in Chicago, and the second week we were shooting in Miami. We had to rent clubs, secure permits for street scenes, hotels, etc. I think my producer had at least 10 days of production to organize everything, in addition to the actual two weeks of shooting. It's an amazing concert of players to get something like this done in a cost-effective way."

Kuhlmann's confidence in himself and his crew never wavers, but he's quick to point out that he's only human, and his customer focus can often get in the way of a good night's sleep. "It all gets very, very intimidating," he says. "My brain likes to wrap around the details, making me lose sleep the night before, worrying about anything I may have overlooked. Even if it's just me playing around, casting some local talent for some experiments where I'm the client, I get nervous tension and butterflies. I appreciate everyone's time and don't want to waste it, so I lose sleep worrying. On the bright side, I think that keeps me sharp!"

Kuhlmann notes that he may charge more than his competitors because he lists all of his gear as rentals even when he owns them, but he insists it's a practice that keeps his overhead in-line, and that in the moving-picture industry it's a practice that's commonplace. "On a film set, a 6-inch strip of gaffer tape ends up on the invoice," he says. "If the gear and materials cost you, you're within your right to be reimbursed, including wear and tear. Otherwise, damaged gear and replacements come right out of your bottom line-which is not a great way to stay in business."

His clients seem to understand, especially when they see the way he puts five to seven lights to use for a shot, where his competitors might use only one or two to accomplish the same shot. The results are signature, and the photographs arresting. "My crew teases me-I always make things complicated," he laughs. "When we've set up the seventh light, everyone knows we're getting close to making me happy."

But, thanks to the chiding and the attention to detail, Kuhlmann finds that after a decade of asking other photographers whose images impressed him how they lit a shot, they're now asking him, too: "I think that means I'm doing O.K." Absolutely!

To see more of Brian Kuhlmann's work, visit

Tips for Photographers:

Shoot what makes you happy. You'll never hate going to work.

Don't compromise on gear. If the gear is first rate, the only thing you'll ever be able to blame for a bad photograph is yourself.

When you meet someone who can do it better than you, hire them. Surround yourself with the best managers, assistants, and techs.

Most Important Product for Productivity

Adobe Lightroom, without a doubt. I can make a broad range of adjustments, or just small ones-from boosting shadows to cooling or warming the color, all the while attending to keywording and preparing the images for output. The time it saves me is amazing.
-Brian Kuhlmann

Brian Kuhlmann's Gear Box

Hasselblad H2 body
Phase One P30+ digital back
Hasselblad 35mm, 80mm, and 50-110mm lenses
Canon 5D with 24-70mm lens

Broncolor Grafit, Primo, and Verso packs
Broncolor Primo and Pulso heads
Broncolor Ring Light, 3200/ws
Extensive assortment of Broncolor modifiers
Chimera softboxes in numerous sizes

Apple 15-inch MacBook Pro, 4GB RAM
Apple Mac Pro Dual-Core Intel Xeon with 8GB RAM with 21-inch Apple monitor
Multiple G5 power PCs with Apple monitors
Phase One Capture One software