Nothing is off-limits in Ric Cohn's photographic repertoire. Cosmetics, cars, beverages-even motor oil and plumbing fixtures have found their way in front of the lens during his 25 years in the business. He doesn't allow himself to be pigeonholed into a product corner, which proves valuable in attracting varied clients. "I like it when I'm awarded a job involving different specialties, and they know I can do them all."
But Cohn's still-life skill-set ventures beyond simply setting up static objects, adjusting the lighting, and taking the shot. "With my work, I hope technical proficiency is a given," he explains. "I've studied the technical so that producing an image that will look and reproduce the way I want it to is automatic. It's bringing that extra something to it that I feel is the hard part."
Working with the creative team is critical to gaining a feel for his inanimate subjects. "I try to understand what the image I'm shooting is supposed to mean-how someone should feel when they view it," he says. "I try to bring out the unique qualities in a product and give it a life that the viewer can relate to. Not all products are inherently beautiful. I try to find the angle and lighting that will make the viewer see it at its best."
Angling for the Best Shot
Cohn considers himself to be a "visual" person, so he requires a hands-on approach to the objects in his images. "I don't think well in the abstract," he says. "Once I can play with an object, I can look for what I think sets it apart. When I set up a shot, I try to keep everything very loose until I have a point of view. I'll take an object or a group of objects, move them around, and look at them close-up, from a distance, and from various angles. I'll take different kinds of lights and move them around."
Cohn loves natural light, but it's usually not practical to wait for the optimum natural-lighting situation in his line of work. "Whether I'm in the studio or on location, I make sure I have options available," he says. "My favorite time of day is when the sun is low or has just set, giving either distinct but open shadows, or a diffuse glow. Even when using sunlight I tend to shape the light with diffusers, cutters, and reflectors. In the studio I try to light so the viewer accepts it as natural, even when it involves multiple light sources."
While he tries to make sure the shot is spot-on from the start, the nature of still-life photography requires adjustments in the computer at the end of the day. "When I believe it's better to handle something after the shoot, I have no hesitation in shooting elements to be combined, or shooting in such a way as to simplify subsequent retouching," he says. "At the very least, I'll produce what I call a ‘reference file' for my client, which is a rough rendering of my vision with layers that a retoucher can look at to see how I think it should be put together."
Cohn stays on top of the latest and greatest gear to maintain the high quality of his work. "I try to keep up with technology and incorporate anything that I think will help me with the kind of work I do," he says. "I get involved with beta-testing products. I tend to be harsh on the design of new products and software, and I'm not shy in expressing my opinion."
Mastering Multiple Specialties
Cohn is self-effacing yet confident in what makes clients flock to him. "I'm no business genius, and there are definitely things I could do better," he says. "But I do believe I excel at giving clients a feeling of good value and added value. I'm more likely to see an art director again if they're more interested in getting excellent work than speed, lowest price, or a party atmosphere."
Because Cohn has specific specialty areas (and also because he's often called on to combine two or more of these specialties), the reasons his clients hire him depend on, well, the client. "Some clients hire me for my experience and problem-solving ability. They know that if things change on set, or the situation throws a curve, I have the ability to deal with it and still end up with the shot."
Still others hire him specifically because they know he can merge his different specialties. "For one project, a cosmetics company had products with natural ingredients and wanted to shoot things like milk, oranges, cherries, and oils along with their products; they hired me because, in addition to shooting cosmetics, I have experience in shooting food," he explains.
A coordinated marketing plan is key to Cohn's overall business strategy. "I use websites like WorkBook.com, BlackBook.com, PhotoServe.com, and SearchAPA.com to help potential clients find me and my website, and I use direct mail and source books to put my work in front of potential clients," he explains.
His own website is critical to his marketing success. "All my promotion is geared toward directing people to my site," he says. "When I had my first site built, it was impressive enough just to have a site. Today it's important that it look good, show the work at its best, load fast, and be intuitive to navigate."
Cohn worked with the founder of liveBooks back in 2002 when it was just a two-man shop. "I was their first photographer client ever!" he says. "Over the last five years, I have learned to use my site not only as an effective marketing tool, but also as a production management tool. The liveBooks Client Access provides me with features for coordinating my shoots and in giving clients a working experience that helps generate repeat business."
Cohn hopes his clients continue to come to him for all their still-life needs. "I'm not big on wining and dining, which I consider a fault rather than a virtue," he says. "However, I do try to show that I care about their projects and make it clear that I am giving my all. I try to bring something unexpected to each project so they feel they are getting something from working with me that is different than they would get with anyone else. I also work to make their life easier rather than harder, so that they come away from every shoot with a positive feeling."