When David Barowsky and Steven DeVilbiss met as freshmen at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts in 1996, little did they realize that they would become partners in a highly successful photography business that specializes in shooting jewelry. The pair became good enough friends in school that after graduation, they shared a loft where they set up a small photo studio. "We were both working as photo assistants at the time," recalls DeVilbiss, "and eventually both began assisting well-known jewelry photographer Adam Savitch [for various clients], such as Cartier and Piaget."
After spending several years honing their craft and learning about the intricacies of jewelry, the pair decided it was time to step out on their own. "The catalyst for making that happen was one big catalog job," recalls Barowsky. "We had a setup in Brooklyn, and this low-end jewelry company that just made chains and pendants took a chance on us. We didn't have a lot in our portfolio, but they just gave us this big job shooting a huge catalog."
Soon after, the duo decided to move their operations to the lower East Side of Manhattan. The result was Antfarm Photography. Antfarm Photography? "There's really no good story behind the name," says DeVilbiss. "We thought that it would be a good name to brand ourselves with, and we wanted to be known as something other than two individual photographers." And, yes, they did have an ant farm for about a year. "We actually each have an ant tattoo on our wrists now," admits Barowsky. DeVilbiss and Barowsky are equal partners in Antfarm, trading roles as photographer and assistant. They also employ a full-time retoucher, Ashley Troy, and occasionally use freelance photo assistants on larger jobs.
Shooting jewelry can be difficult. "There's a technique to it that we learned from assisting other photographers," says Barowsky. DeVilbiss admits that in the beginning there was a lot of retouching to get the perfect image. "Now we know how to lay out the jewelry perfectly throughout," he says.
One of the biggest challenges to shooting jewelry is lighting. "There's a system to it that we picked up from photographers, such as Adam Savitch, like using Plexiglas in different shapes," says Barowsky. "Our studio is full of custom-made pieces of Plexiglas (like domes with holes in them and really big sheets) to get different effects for diamonds and gold."
The pair have manufactured a lot of custom-made pieces of Plexiglas to give just the right reflections that they're looking for in the shiny objects. They shine lights right through the Plexiglas and then either cut a hole for the camera to look through or put different pieces together and shoot through that. "It's all about surrounding the piece with Plexiglas exactly where you want it, because you're going to really see where there's that white reflection and where there's that black reflection," explains Barowsky. "If you want that great shine, you have to have these black reflections, but you want them to be perfectly placed. So that's kind of the challenge with it."
Another difficult aspect is getting the jewelry to appear as it would in "real life." The reflections are obviously difficult," says DeVilbiss. "Having lighting that's going to show the stones the way they look in real life, not like they're a photograph, is the challenge. You need a certain amount of raw light mixed with some soft lights to make this perfect combination where they look the way they do in real life--where they're kind of moving and sparkling."
Barowsky admits diamonds are especially tough. "It's something that, when you have it in your hand, you're moving slightly and it's really sparkling," he says. "We're kind of experimenting: How can you really show that in a still image? It's a tricky thing."
DeVilbiss says the hardest part is understanding the expectations of the client's aesthetics. "Jewelers look at ads from other jewelers and tend to base their expectations on the images they like," he says. "Some want a very clean look, while others want a more true-to-life look. It's our job to figure out what they're looking for."
Both photographers admit that they didn't have any kind of jewelry background, which can be complicated when dealing with jewelers who are concerned with certain technical features of a ring. "You really get to learn the names of all of the parts of the jewelry and the different stones that are used," says Barowsky. "It's been kind of fun gaining that knowledge and guessing what the stone is, for instance, and to know all of the different parts of the rings and the different names for the diamonds."
Jewelers also tend to want to really highlight the product, so many times they insist on certain backgrounds. "Most jewelers ask us to shoot on white," says DeVilbiss. "Their product is so valuable, and they want to make sure it can be seen accurately in a photograph. It's hard shooting jewelry on a model, because often jewelry is very small, and worn on a figure in a photo, it's hard to see the small details such as the cut of a diamond."
Like most industries, jewelry photography has been affected by the tough economy. "In this economy, people don't want to spend money unless they feel they're getting a good deal," says DeVilbiss. "It's in our best interest to help our clients weather this economic storm." He adds that they're talking to their clients about discounts or doing things on a smaller scale, such as just a plain white background as opposed to trying to do a couple of shots. "We're explaining ways that we can move quickly and give them a rate we're comfortable with while still giving them lots of work," he says. When the economy recovers, they hope their clients will remember how they helped out and will stay loyal.
When asked if they had any advice for photographers looking to start shooting jewelry, the pair say that it's important to understand jewelry itself. "Architectural photographers know about architecture, food photographers know about food," explains DeVilbiss. "Do your homework about different gemstones and cuts of diamonds. Jewelers will feel confident working with you if they feel like you have a basic understanding of the products you're photographing."
See more of Antfarm's Work on www.antfarmphotography.com
Antfarm Photography's Gear Box
• Sinar P2 view camera with Sinar 54H digital back
• Broncolor Strobes: two Grafit A4 packs and two Grafit A2 packs
• Five Broncolor Unilite Heads with Grids
• Two Broncolor Picolite Heads with Snoots and Grids
• Two Broncolor Fibrolite Fiber Optic Systems with Hoses
• Broncolor Boxlite
• Specialty Plexiglass (domes, cones, and custom made pieces)
• G5 & G4 Machintosh computers
• Wacom Tablets
• Sinar CaptureShop
• Adobe Photoshop CS3