Magazine Article


Shooting Still Life for Catalogs
Kevin Lowes shoots still life for high-end catalog clients

© Kevin Lowes

© Kevin Lowes

© Kevin Lowes

© Kevin Lowes

© Kevin Lowes

© Kevin Lowes

© Kevin Lowes

© Kevin Lowes

© Kevin Lowes

With current clients such as Orchard Brands and Charming Shoppes; and past clients Lands' End and JCPenney, Kevin Lowes of Kevin Lowes, Inc. and Catalog Resource is an in-demand master of still life and fashion for catalogs. You can find him on location shooting a fall-clothing line with a team of assistants and models, or holed up in his Long Island, New York studio making clean, crisp product images. Shooting everything from brassieres to business suits, he's on the road up to 250 days out of the year, and his formula for success--understanding the big picture and relying on his team--will certainly keep him busy for years to come.

Know Your Client

Lowes feels that staying in tune with a client's needs is integral to having repeat customers. Catalog shooting is a big job, and needs an experienced captain at the helm if the finished book is going to work at the advertising, style, and consistency levels--and that's a lot of work. Location shooting, Lowes feels, is a trend that started when catalog publishers decided they wanted a realistic setting for the page content complemented by studio shots of the items' options. Photographers are sometimes hired to shoot an entire catalog, so as a shooter, "I've been lucky enough to fulfill the entire photography gamut," Lowes says.

That taps into Lowes' forte--understanding not just how to make a great photo to sell a product and handle location shooting with ease, but to implement his understanding of the process of putting together a catalog from a design and publishing standpoint. When he's hired for a catalog job, he has to think in terms of layout, text additions, and captioning. "I've been lucky that my clients like to work with me," he says. "I've done so many catalogs that I think about the shoot in regard to the entirety of a catalog and how the images will fit into it. I don't just want my sweater-wearing girl on a mountaintop to look her best; I also want there to be space for the inset photos from the studio and the text they'll lay in. I'm composing a layout, not just a photograph. I've been fortunate enough to retain many clients for a long period of time and know what we're doing as a team. The experience and foresight in planning for a job like this keeps the phone ringing--we have a trust that we're on the same page. I think this lets the job be more enjoyable for me, too--the job becomes lots of little parts instead of one central part, which makes for a fun assignment."

Lowes' involvement in the preproduction varies, but his experience is on the table if discussions with an art director about what the client is thinking will take place. "With some clients I handle all of the production; with others I just show up with the gear and get to work," he explains. "But the more involved I am, the better a job I feel I can do. If you're in tune with the job when you show up, it goes that much better."

Ready, On-set, Go

With ever-shrinking budgets, catalog work can be just as pressed for time and performance as any other facet of the industry. That means Lowes' diligence and experience pays off for the client on location, with daylong shoots that exemplify his lighting control, teamwork, and efficiency. "The long trips are about a week of sunrise to sunset," Lowes says. "We will nowadays rarely have the leisure of only early or late light to flatter the models as best we can, but mostly we're shooting through the whole day on a budget, cranking out the highest volume we can."

Lowes arrives on the set with more than a dozen cases of gear to be prepared for anything, but prefers--along with his clients--images that are as naturally lit as possible, considering the catalog's audience and his gear's capabilities. "I don't use a lot of strobe light outdoors," he says. "There are limitations to all-day shoots with generators and recycling times."

He adds that there are many ways to control the light without dragging in power for strobes: "We put up scrims and 12x12 silks to keep the wind off of models, create open shade, and so on."

The voice of experience guides the handling of his location shoots, to the point where Lowes was almost hard-pressed to deconstruct what he feels is second nature at this point in his career. "For example, let's take lens selection--I'm pretty much at a point where I'm familiar with almost any situation," he says. "Last week we were shooting under a pier in San Diego. I usually prefer to shoot with long lenses to compress the shot and blur the background for text overlay and multiseason use. On this morning, though, there was a lot of fog, and I knew that the further I was from the model, the more water vapor would be between her and the lens. So I selected a shorter lens to keep the clarity in the final images. It's the sort of move you just know, having been there on location so many times before, playing chess with the variables."

Lowes is also quick to applaud his team when putting a catalog shoot together. "You lead an entire team, so never think about getting into this line of work if you're not ready to captain a ship with players that work well together," he says. "I'm nothing without my crew and assistants. It's in the end, when you have the pleasure of clicking the shutter--that's when it all comes together.

"I have associates all over the country, so when a job comes up on location in California, I start making calls and putting my crew together," he continues. "Sometimes I'm also involved in the model selections, stylists, etc.--and I work often with the same people.

He also says that knowing how a group dynamic works is really the key to success with large crews. "It's important to know who is going to get along well, so making a team of great, communicative crew members is very important," he says. "If the crew isn't operating together smoothly, problems can arise. Production is everything, and a crew that bonds is what you want--nothing beats a happy set."

Lowes has a digital tech that accompanies him on most every location shoot, and their trust in each other allows Lowes to stick to his focus. "My tech knows me very well," he says. "He knows what I'm looking for, and having him with me is a crucial part of my confidence in the final product. When he calls me on the walkie-talkie and says the first set of images look good and as well-produced as we aim for, I immediately feel good moving forward."

When shooting still life, Lowes is well positioned to handle most, if not all, of the work in his own studio. "We shoot a lot of soft goods," he says. "And consistency is everything. There's a lot of discussion about camera angles, keeping the lighting consistent, etc. You're working for the same client, too, in many cases so you want to keep their overall look of the catalog line consistent."

Lowes is never alone, either--there are specialists present to make sure the products look as good as they can. "We have stylists who'll spend the days with us in the studio, particularly for still-life images of soft goods," he says. "It's a lot of work, and their help is immeasurable. We also now have a trend of the ‘invisible man' looks, where the clothes are ‘worn' on a ghost figure of sorts--appearing as they'd be worn but without a person. The people who dress these are specialists, and we fly them all over the country for shoots. That may sound like an excessive expense, but remember: There are no models!"

Bang for the Buck

The economy is impacting photo shoots in all areas, and catalog work is no exception. "9/11 was a drastic change," Lowes mulls. "The catalog photo business was very centralized in New York City, and the whole industry seemed to be in Manhattan. After 9/11, the catalog business seemed to decentralize, and maybe the whole garment industry was already going in that direction, too, with out-of-country manufacturing. But that did make it unnecessary to be in the city, hence my move a little east to Long Island."

Estimates are kept pretty simple for clients, but it's always the extras that add up when the shoot is in a rented studio by the day. "When we rent studios, we're usually forced to use the studio's gear, computers, and makeup," Lowes says. There's a studio staff guy following you with a clipboard, and if you touch a clamp they add a charge for it. Drink a coffee? Another charge. A $2,500 studio rental fee can balloon to double pretty quickly. So I'm always sure to keep my estimates coherent and comprehensive--the client doesn't need any mystery there. Also, there are no added fees for licensing--if they're kind enough to hire me for the day, they're welcome to enjoy the images license-free. After all, some shots may not have a lot of shelf life."

Clients are therefore happy to send Lowes the items that need to be photographed via FedEx to his home-base. "We'll get a box of products wherever we are," he says. "Because of digital and FTP uploading, we're all getting along electronically without the essential need for the client, or even all of the members of my staff, to be present. We take advantage of the electronic age as much as possible. I'm so close to home now that I can spend three hours more each day working, cutting off that commute to New York City--and that translates to more bang for the buck for my client."

Lowes looks forward to a flourishing business, with continuing recommendations and the product he produces better than ever with digital. "When I look at catalogs these days, I'm thrilled with the digital product compared to my film days," he says. "It's consistent, and the image quality--which you can control so well--is beating film's performance--and I'm a guy in a position to say that, having been in the business for so many years."

Kevin Lowes' Gear Box

• Canon EOS-1D Mark II
• Canon EOS 5D
• Canon EF Series lenses ranging from 24mm to 300mm, especially 70-200mm IS

• Profoto studio and location gear
• Speedotron lighting
• Plume softboxes
• Odds and ends and other grip gear

• Customized 17-inch MacBook Pro
• LaCie hard drives
• Battery Geek backup batteries
• EIZO monitor
• MAC G5 towers and monitors
• Epson printers
• Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop