David Yurman, Baume & Mercier, and Roberto Coin have each had the pleasure of using images produced by New York City master shooter Don Kozusko. This graphic design student turned art director turned photographer got his jump-start early on through an ad agency employer whose bottom line was tied to the success of its high-profile jewelry accounts.
As an agency employee, one of Kozusko's responsibilities was to direct the photo sessions for ads he had designed. Eventually his duties shifted to shooting the assignments himself, which allowed him to build up a fabulous photographic portfolio. He finally turned to freelance photography. "At the beginning, I shot all types of product and fashion, but due to my jewelry roots, I had a strong following of clients with the most images from that industry," he says. "It was natural that I devote my emphasis in that direction."
A Stone By Any Other Name...
Kozusko hit his stride with stones and has spent 30 years polishing bejeweled imagery. "I truly enjoy working with a beautiful piece of jewelry and translating it into a photo that excites and stimulates the viewer," he says. "Each piece is unique, and each presents different challenges for best capturing inherent luster and dazzle. There's the highly reflective nature of the metals (whether gold or silver), the colored gems or diamonds, and the quality of each stone to consider and enhance."
He's shot simple, straightforward images for clients such as Color Merchants, Jewelfire, and Royal Chain, as well as big-ticket pieces from Ivanka Trump's new line-with each piece and environment requiring specific signature touches and techniques. James Robinson (antique and high-end estate jewelry) is also one of his longtime clients.
Kozusko shares some advice from his years in the business: "The higher the quality of the piece-be it the gem, the metal, or the manufacture-the more likely the raw image will have sparkle all its own. There is more depth and potential for a spectacular image using a luxury piece. Working with higher-quality stones makes it easier to produce a fine image. The challenge comes when the stones are dark and have bad spots or blemishes."
This is where lighting becomes critical. "I use multiple sources of light and reflectors and will shoot on various backgrounds to help the contrast and shimmer," he says. He's even been known to precisely place small strips of black tape onto reflectors or other light-bouncing shades to help enhance a small area or help another spot "pop" more.
Quality pieces call for more subtle lighting. "The brilliance is natural-the depth and richness of the stones need very little extra help to gain that stylistic touch," adds Kozusko. He does whatever it takes to catch the distinct glimmer and radiant flair. Other tricks in his bag include adjusting a camera or lens angle; varying the tone or texture of a shoot background; and considering a slew of lighting methods and equipment. Many times he's even built complicated mini-stages or mini-environments for gems and baubles.
Kozusko has watched many presentation trends and styles come and go. What seems most hip at the moment is photographers' desire to "push the envelope, push the creativity." By that, Kozusko is referring to art direction and settings that are out of the ordinary, editing techniques not usually seen in jewelry photography, and techniques such as the popular "reflection pool" look.
"One way to keep images from looking stale and to stay current is to hire young people," he says. While he doesn't always follow their suggestions, he says that there's often something that can he can learn from them. "A lot of my peers teach at colleges or schools," he says. "They enjoy interacting with young minds and staying inspired, keeping an eye on the lookout for new ways to present."
Doing it Digitally
To achieve the reflection-pool style-a jewelry industry mainstay-Kozusko used to shoot on a black plexiglass background to obtain an actual reflection. Today he creates the look in a matter of moments using Photoshop. And he can also create that same mood on other color backgrounds or even on a white background-something he couldn't offer in his film days.
One of the biggest time-eaters when shooting jewelry is the hours spent physically placing pieces to advantageous repose. Years ago he'd do practice shots using Polaroid 8x10 instant film at a cost of $15 per image. Back then, doing this was economical, because editing actual print images could run far higher. He comments that the Polaroid machine cost roughly $600, the instant film was $15 a sheet, and final film and processing tallied up another $10 per shot. "Plus I would always bracket exposures, so I would spend $30 per session-and this doesn't include man hours to shoot or slosh in the pan," he says.
He estimates his savings due to his switch to digital four year ago to be about $15,000 (and that's just materials costs alone). Thank goodness for digital (even though this doesn't always lessen the costs of setup).
"Digital has changed a lot of things I do to shoot-from setup to travel, from editing to delivery," says Kozusko, directing the conversation to a shoot he was hired to do several years ago. "One of the most difficult assignments I undertook was shooting a 36-page jewelry catalog on location in Alaska. I was still using film and large-format cameras. Naturally, I had to pack a huge trunk and with it the means necessary to protect the film-when working with the camera, while working in my makeshift darkroom loading film into the camera, and after the images were taken." Due to the remoteness of the client's location and the large number of crates of gear, items did not get to the destination as soon as the photographer. Kozusko lost at least one day waiting for the boxes to arrive.
Lengthy on-location shoots such as this can be the norm in the gem business. "When you're shooting one-of-a-kind or extremely costly pieces, it can make more sense for the client to hire the photographer to come on-site," says Kozusko. "This cuts the cost of insurance and keeps the merchandise in the store, but it can be more challenging for me. It can take up to a day just to readjust my gear and myself to get the lighting right. It takes awhile to create environments on the fly that work for different types of product; the physical travel and transport are easy."
Digital editing work is vastly different from film editing work-there are significant time- and cost-savings in working with digital. "And the client is far less likely to request a print with digital," he says. "We just email them the shot and make any necessary changes while it is still set up. After that, we burn a disc and send it to them. If there are any other revisions at that point, it's usually just a minor Photoshop color adjustment or two."
"When shooting digital for jewelry, the idea is to get as close as possible to the piece so the camera can produce the highest resolution possible," says Kozusko. "However, the depth-of-field, especially when doing bangle bracelets, watches, and rings, lets you only get so close. I must use a focal-length lens that allows me to back away while still keeping the subject large. I must also have room to place reflectors and keep the camera reflection small in a reflective item. Some of the lenses I favor are the 105mm Micro-Nikkor and the 60mm Micro-Nikkor. It's also fun to play with the 28mm Nikkor for special effects."
Kozusko prefers to shoot in his 1,200-square-foot studio at 150 West 28th Street, knowing that all his gear is at the ready. He counts on two Kodak DCS SLR/n cameras with 14MP resolution, finding these to be excellent cameras for studio shooting. The Kodaks are paired with Nikon lenses-of which he has ample supply. "My lighting consists of several Balcar systems and five mini slaves to punch up the highlight in diamonds," he explains. "I have one large plexiglass shooting table for large objects or sets, and one smaller table, both with softboxes and the capability to light from underneath."
Kozusko shares the space with an art director employee and his wife, who helps with silhouetting and retouching. As for other mechanical workhorses, he points to five Apple G4 computers: two are reserved for image capture and initial preproduction; the others are for complete prepress. External FireWire hard drives are paramount to back-up work using Retrospect software.
Give Him A Ring
Kozusko fields calls from potential clients from all around the U.S. He's tried postcards, which worked O.K. before the internet, but they got stale very quickly. His website remains the most valuable part of his marketing (aside from referrals). "With the web, clients can see what we produce, as well as our taste level and breadth of shooting experience," he says. "We continue to update the site with our latest techniques and trends."
Another positive marketing technique is his ongoing work producing images for Rapaport Diamond Report. "I shoot a lot of basic product shots for this diamond industry monthly publication, plus three to four special pieces on varying backgrounds and props as part of a trends page."
For Hammerman Brothers, Kozusko recently finished shooting an embossed 8-1/2x11 catalog with more than 36 image pages and over 42 individual color images. The project, which took roughly two months to shoot, was a followup to an 80-page book with hundreds of images shot with 8x10 Fujifilm on a Deardorff camera. "We produced an issue that's virtually a coffee-table book," says Kozusko. "It was sent to clients, retail stores, and designers. I'm now fielding calls from other companies who have seen how impressive the finished product is."
For more information visit www.dkphotoimaging.com