While a student at RIT, Rick Burda didn’t foresee that one day he would assume the role of master of fragrance flasks. Or that he’d eventually spend his workdays establishing intimate relationships with high-end handbags and footwear. But he always knew where his creative talents would take him.
“I was one of those strange kids who knew from a very early age what I wanted to do,” he says. “Even when I was in high school, I turned a spare bedroom in our house into a studio.”
He’s come a long way since those early days in the darkroom. Today, Burda’s stunning still-lifes have elevated him to product-photography superstardom, with an impressive cross-section of clients (Nautica, Calvin Klein, and Smirnoff, et al.) that any commercial photographer would envy.
Although he shoots all kinds of products, Burda has established a reputation as “the cosmetics/fragrance guy.” “I like the combination of surfaces, of glass and chrome—it’s fun to work with, a challenge every time. Every brand is slightly different than the others, posing a whole new set of challenges.”
Burda meets these challenges—and keeps clients coming back for more—with a seemingly innate awareness of how to position his inanimate subjects, as well as a willingness to check his ego at the studio door.
“You hope you give your clients exactly what they came to the studio for, and without that ego,” he says. “I’m always hearing stories about photographers saying, ‘I’m not doing that’—and that’s the wrong attitude.”
Because Burda’s creative skills were honed in a time before Power Macs and Photoshop plug-ins existed, he strives for clean, graphic photographs that are done right the first time around.
“I use a digital camera the same way I would use film—I try to capture the images in one shot,” he explains. “I get it as close as I possibly can. Every once in a while I might have to pull a product out in Photoshop and pose it differently because it’s throwing some weird shadow on something. But for the most part in my images, everything you see was there. That was the exact image.”
Burda is flexible in how he expresses the essence of a product, relying on collaboration with the client, as well as his own interpretations of the curves and lines before his lens.
“A lot depends on what the marketing is behind the product, if there’s a specific idea the client is trying to convey,” he says. “But other than that, I really like to light a product to show its shape. You want something to feel like you can reach out and touch it, that it has a 3-D effect, by using shadows and feathering highlights to create a curve, for example.”
Predictably, Burda doesn’t take a formulaic approach to his lighting setup, since every product dictates a different setup. “If I’m shooting something that’s matte, I can get away with a very hard light source. If I’m working with an object that’s very shiny, I have to use something a little softer. Much of what I do is putting a grid on a head and putting that through plexi, instead of using a light bank, because that way I have the control,” he explains. “I can pull the head away to get the light softer and get the edges to feather out a little more, or, if I want something a little harder, I can push the lighting closer to the plexi.”
Keeping an eye out for interesting angles helps him maintain his unique signature style. “I tend to like to shoot with a wide-angle lens to exaggerate the perspective and to create a sense of depth in the shot,” he says.
For those times when Burda does need to delve into post-production enhancements, he usually delegates the task to someone who can do it quicker and better, while he concentrates on creating more images.
“An assistant usually does that,” he says. “I like working with physical things, moving things around, seeing how the light affects them. As far as sitting behind a computer and moving a mouse, I find that very tedious. And because Photoshop didn’t exist so much when I was in school, I don’t know the software that well. If my assistant can do most of these tasks in 10 fewer steps than I can because she knows all the shortcuts, that’s an easier and more efficient way to get it done.”