Lifestyle photographer Colin Finlay attributes his success in the industry to one thing: his ability to keep it real. Finlay, who has been a photographer for 17 years and traveled to 80 countries, keeps himself grounded by creating pictures that are honest and uncontrived. Whether he's shooting an ad campaign in downtown L.A. or photographing the Pampas in Argentina, his images are natural and candid.
In an industry where lighting, retouching, and posing often take center stage, Finlay is a rebel. He uses native light in most of his shots, retouching only to accentuate detail, and he doesn't pose his models. With clients that include Vanity Fair, Grey New York, Ogilvy & Mather, Samsung, FIJI Water, Eastman Kodak, Adobe, and Microsoft, his natural style is in high demand.
Finlay noticed early in 2001, after shooting a project in Argentina for a gaucho story, that advertising directors were looking for a less manufactured look in their campaigns. The company Ocean Pacific approached Finlay with a project that needed a photojournalistic edge. "They saw my photographs of the gauchos and said, 'This is the look we want. We don't want it to look posed. We want it to be real people, having real fun, in real environments.' They didn't want it to look 'like everyone else's pictures.' I've just followed that tradition ever since," he explains.
Finlay is a firm believer in relating to his subjects on a human level to add a level of intimacy to the shoot. "Your job as a photographer is not taking pictures—it's making pictures," he says. "You build the photograph with your subject. I can read someone's body language and know when someone is not letting me in. Sometimes I have to pull them aside for a one-on-one. I am direct, open, and honest." These images, reflecting sincerity and closeness, have become Finlay's signature look.
"I have such empathy for the models and for the people I photograph because it is hard," he says. "I'm not about hustle and flow. I'm not going to say, 'Hey, this is great, sex this up.' I am all about realism and relating to people. I tell the models this isn't fake fun, but something more organic."
Finlay finds that for a photo shoot to be really successful a synergy has to exist between himself and the people he's working with. "My job is to create energy with my models, assistants, producers, and all the people working with me," he says.
"People say my energy is infectious. I stay positive and help the people I'm working with feel comfortable. I try to break myself down so there's no ego. We're creating this project together."
Building this level of trust makes for a fluid, more-flexible shoot. Toward the end of the day, as the relationships build among the models, he gets the shots he needs. During a three- to four-day ad campaign, the photographs get better and better as the models become more comfortable with one another.
Whether it's a small portrait setting or a larger set with a lot going on—like his most recent project with fashion brand Torrid—Finlay brings passion to all of his projects. "Torrid was a big job," he explains. "We had models, two clothing stylists, two hair stylists, two makeup artists, assistants, and a digital tech. It was an extremely elaborate and well-produced set."
Shooting with a Phase One back on his Hasselblad, Finlay filled up 48GB on that shoot alone. "The company was looking to reinvent their brand and take it away from the catalog look," he explains. He shot plenty of images so the client would have a choice when looking over the end results.
"As I tell all my clients, 'Let's explore 20 different ways of interpreting what it is you want to say,'" he explains. "'Then I'll give you the photographs and you can decide which you think reflect your voice.'"
Crafting His Vision
Finlay taught himself how to light a shot by envisioning the picture in his mind's eye first, then crafting that vision with his camera and available light. Using the sun as his single light source, he says, "It all depends on the time of day that you shoot, and whether you're going to use backlighting or front lighting. Most of my decisions are dependent upon the sun."
In 2003, Finlay was nudged down the digital road by an advertising client who had tight deadlines and needed the project shot only in digital. Thrown headfirst into unfamiliar waters, Finlay has since switched to shooting primarily digital. "Digital is so incredible because we are fully engaged with our subjects," he says. "I can show them what I'm seeing on the back of the camera. It offers such immediacy."
Finlay continues to use film when shooting monochrome. "There are still times when I integrate film into what I do," he explains. "I was doing these sessions for Sony, and the client didn't want any color. They looked at my digital camera and my color images and told me to put it away and come back tomorrow with film. They wanted prints and contact sheets; they wanted film. They were looking for that older, classic feel. I returned the next day with Kodak T-MAX 3200."