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Interview with commercial photographer Yaroslav Danylchenko

For about ten years Yaroslav Danilchenko has been a commercial photographer performing the “delicious” orders for huge brands – McDonald’s, Samsung, KFC, Marlboro, L’Oréal, Kraft Foods, Petcube, WOG, Mironov’s breadstuff, MAY, Good Wine, and Shostka Ukraine.

Also, his photo portfolio includes the works for such magazines as Esquire, Forbes, Men’s Health, Harper’s Bazaar, he has worked with various advertising agencies, namely, TBWA, BBDO, Leo Burnett, Aimulance, Tabasco and others.

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How did you get interested in, and why did you decide to dedicate yourself to photography?

I am a lawyer, and being an undergraduate at university I used to work as a designer at the polygraphy. Photography was my hobby at first. After I got my diploma, I worked as a lawyer for three and a half years. In 2008 I quit my job to become a freelance photographer.

It wasn’t as easy as it seemed. The issue is that there is no place where they can teach you to be a photographer: actually, you can learn some theory, but nobody tells you about the commercial side of the profession. But art photography differs from commercial one a lot. That is why I had to learn from my own experience, which was not an easy one, as I got in all possible and invented traps, but I am grateful to that experience from scratch and to the people I met along the way and helped me a lot. 

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Why did you choose exactly still life photography?

Like anybody else, I first tried to take any kind of photos: I made portraits of my friends, weddings (yes, I did them, too), a lot of reportage shooting for the agency “Ukraineinform” and a couple of printed publications.

It all happened naturally: I started working for a weekly city magazine – I photographed clothes in stores, food in restaurants, and interiors. With time I got focused more and more on still life photos. Wedding photos gradually disappeared from my portfolio. Five years ago I completely deleted all the of peoples’ photos, and now I have become exclusively an still life photographer. A couple of years ago I started to receive orders to photo food, and now I have got an additional specialization – food photography.

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How did you promote yourself?

At first, I used to shoot a lot in the studio just for myself: I was mastering my photography skills and tried to shoot all the objects I found interesting. I visited different trainings: rather rarely, but you should always search for someone you can learn from. Then I started receiving orders for this type of photos. It is easy to develop yourself – you just have to work hard.

Several years ago I got interested in shooting cosmetics for huge companies. They usually receive all their photo materials from their European offices, and they don’t take still life photos here in Ukraine. All of a sudden, there happened exceptions which I am very happy about. The Universe helps us if we clearly formulate our desires and work in this direction a lot.

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What does it mean the evolution of a still life photographer?

If you look at different photos taken by the same person, you can always see his/her development regardless the genre they are working in. The development is revealed in the way photographers treat the light, build the frame, and express desired emotions in photos.

I was so much absorbed with the technical aspect: how to set up the proper light, how to choose the right light for a specific object, how to emphasize certain object parts to make the whole object visually look as great as possible. Also, I studied carefully commercial photos and tried to understand how to achieve the same effect in the studio. There were a lot of attempts and mistakes, but in time I managed to understand how to do it.

Today I sometimes “switch off” the technical part and focus on the composition, color, the technical aspects are secondary in this case. While working on commercial photos these two aspects blend together. For example, I need to light up the liquid in a glass in one frame and show the food freshness, that is basically to raise your appetite. Trying to achieve this effect you should carefully observe the light beautifully reflecting on the glass, the food itself look delicious – everything must have a spectacular composition, considering the right colors, light and proper location in the frame, etc. Apart from things mentioned, the file should be of the highest technical standard for further post-production and printing.

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Where can you learn commercial photography and can you learn it, for example, with trainings on Youtube?

You can learn anything if you want to. I started off when there was very little information about it on the internet. I had to search hard and simultaneously learn technical English to understand photo terminology, as almost 99% of materials I could find was in English. I took a photography course in 2004. It is very difficult to get to a shooting set, because nobody knows you.

Now it is different: it is easier, because a lot of information is available. You can even build a house with Youtube-lessons. At the same time some of the things will never appear Online, because it took years for some photographers to learn them. They don’t want to share their personal tricks their clients hire them for. A photographer is usually hired for his/her personal style which I am just creating, and everything is yet ahead.

You can study Online, you just need to dig deeper. You need to visit trainings, watch backstages (actions, processes that a common viewer can’t see – ed.), blog shootings, and photographer blogs. Also, you should try to visit shooting sets, assist, communicate more and keep your eyes wide open, and the most important is to try to repeat the same thing in your own studio.

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Is there any art in food and still life photography?

Commercial shooting doesn’t leave you much room for the improvisation, as this is a kind of work is limited by a client’s brief. While shooting you have to use the skills and knowledge acquired. There is no time for experiments, you are paid for the required result.

You can only afford to do art in your own projects, where you are your own client, agency and post-production. If you want to develop, you can’t do only commercial projects, you need to have space for realizing your own non-commercial shooting. You need to open yourself up, look for something new to be involved and excited in your business, even to feel goose bumps while shooting.

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What is done to make food look tastier at the shooting?

There is natural food-stylistics and special effects. These are two different things for different tasks. For example, you need to photo soup. Depending on the task it may be natural, eatable with carefully crafted ingredients, or you happen to turn the plate upside down, but the soup is still there.

The main goal at food shootings often consists in keeping a delicious and fresh view of food. That’s why you’d better not take food from the table. For example, an olive may be buttered with only God knows what, so that it doesn’t dry fast. We use different chemicals or natural acids, such as lemon juice to protect food from air influence. Sometimes we use a gas-burner to fry chicken.

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How to take “delicious” photos?

With your soul. First of all, a photographer herself/himself should feel that this food is “delicious”. For example, I don’t quite understand how vegetarians manage to photo meat.
Only if I am satisfied with the picture in my screen, I show my photos to the client to receive the comments. If you yourself like your product, your work will have more chances to be liked by a client. I learned this lesson long time ago.

If we are talking about commercial photography, the final photo is the result of team work, but not just one photographer.

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Do you mean that food and still life photography is team work?

Any photography becomes team work when you reach a certain level in commercial shooting. If this is a commercial project, you can’t do everything by yourself.

Apart from client’s representatives and advertising agency, there will be a producer, food stylist, if the food is in the frame, or a stylist if we work with objects; an assistant photographer, property master, or art director. On top of that, you may have a special effects expert, designers who perform the post production. A photographer is working among all these people, so he is just a part of the entire mechanism.

Everyone is busy with his/her own task: some put up objects, for example, boards in the frame, the other is responsible for plates, a food stylist is busy with food and its setting in the frame, I am responsible for the light and arrange all the technical questions, then together with the agency we create an image.

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How does the process of food styling look like?

Food stylist’s work starts before shooting. He may be creating recipes based on the specifications. There are almost always preparation days when we do testing and buy needed ingredients.

During the shooting itself the food stylist prepares food, sets it up in the frame as well as keeps an eye on its condition. If, for example, you need to photo salad, you have to set each single leaf separately, each single piece of cucumber or tomato must be carefully placed, with its proper side to be shown, there can’t be any random objects in the plate. All the vegetables have to pass casting: we buy and select only the best ones.

We are used to seeing moving pictures, as for photos we see some fixed moments there, that is why I is easy to get all details. So our goal is to direct our viewers’ eyes and show them the “deliciousness”.

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What are the best foreshortenings of food and still life photos?

You have regular 45o angles, it is the regular position from which we look at food on the table. Well, of course, top view.

What food is the most photogenic, and what is the most capricious?

Each product has its own peculiarities at shooting. For example, it is hard to photo ice-cream. You need to do it either in a cold venue or use fake products, namely, some kind of porous material which doesn’t look authentic. The same goes for chocolate.

But sometimes fake material is “playing” better than the natural one in the frame, maybe, the wind doesn’t affect it, and it can stay in the shot for a long time. There are different modeling materials such as gypsum or some mixtures. There are special people who create mock-ups, these are exact replicas that can be used many times. You can put them on the shelve if needed you shoot them over and over again.

Oh, desserts such as cake, are very capricious. They always take extra time, especially if a cut is supposed to be done in this shot. Soup and coffee are difficult to shoot.
Personally, it is easy for me to work with bread, salads, and beverages. I love chocolate, though it is a difficult material under process.

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What is the world-class level in food and still life shooting?

The photos that make you wanna eat or buy it at once. Open a photo and go to your fridge. You have seen a photo of a watch or a car and thought: “This is what I’ve been missing, I need to buy it right now”.

You see, I have even acquired a kind of professional deformation. For instance, I come into a café or restaurant, open the menu with pictures and see they are bad? I lose my appetite. Maybe, the food itself is tasty, nevertheless, I can’t order it. It is clear the restauranteur does not think about the menu aesthetics, he/she has economized on its visual part, but if it so, we can conclude they will do the same with something else.

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What trends in food and still life photography can be mentioned now?

I am happy that we are slowly getting rid of luxury style when the frame is overfilled with everything. The number of such orders is reducing. The more natural, the better. These can be pictures imitating the daylight, but they were done in the studio. Although it is impossible to state for sure, where they were shot in the studio or by a big window.

Also, I observe people try to avoid using a white background if no minimalism is supposed to be in the frame. There are a lot of shots with top views. Nowadays mobile photography is breaking our common patterns, this is also a trend. Just visit Instagram, you will see everything yourself.

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What are the most common mistakes in food and commercial photography?

There are plenty of mistakes starting with improperly set light or view and finishing with choosing a bad side of a product or lack of a necessary specialist in the team.

Some subtle things connected with a mood of the frame play a certain role as well as the presence of definite objects. For example, coffee plus morning light is fine, but the idea to show wine with a slanting morning light and shadows from blinders is so-so. Wine at 7 am? Although people even won’t be able to understand what the problem is.

Then sometimes the incorrect background is chosen, its texture will divert our attention from the product being shot, there mistakes with props or their stylistics.

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How many orders a month do you usually have? How many permanent customers do you have?

As a rule, I perform shooting by myself just gathering a team for a definite project, or I take part in tenders for advertising projects and work with the production team. On average, I have two-four commercial shootings a month. I don’t count my own shootings.

Are food and still life photographs in demand here (in Ukraine – editor’s note)?

Yes, they are. Due to the crisis the number of commercial projects reduced, which raised the competition.in addition, there is a great difference in the time taken for performing work. We can easily count those who professionally work in the field of food and still life photography in the country.

It is worthwhile differentiating advertising and other commercial shootings, for instance, restaurant menus, magazines, Instagram or site catalog. They have different tasks and goals, so they need their own set of performers.

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How could a photographer “sell” herself/himself to a famous customer? How did you manage to do it?

It is a painstaking process, nothing can come with nothing. You have to work hard, take many bad pictures until 1005th will help to understand how everything should work.

Of course, you have to communicate as much as possible, grow your own network. Look for your proper producer. Be the way, the issue of communication is really urgent. I mean tolerance, ability to express your ideas and adequately react in extreme situations, nobody wants to work with a photographer who is hysteric and rude.

The customer’s trust is of great importance, it is the photographer’s responsibility to fully understand all risks and the whole process of shooting. It is easy to say “I will photo this”/”it is so easy, no problems”, but to perform it in practice and solve all the popping up problems is so hard. Therefore, only one is chosen out of many.

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Can we call food and still life photography the most profitable niches at present?

Art is more expensive than craft. Commerce refers to the latter. You already know the example with the photo of potatoes made by Kevin Abosh, an Irish photographer, it was sold for $1mln at the auction. Everything depends on the photographer name, his/her experience, and popularity. It does not matter which genre of photography is presented.
Kevin Abosh’s photo was sold for $1 mln

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What is the difference between the advertising photography in Ukraine and abroad?

We do not have any legal base in this sphere, people do not know such things rights for a photo and licensing. Copyright exists, but it is too far from reality. However, there have recently been some successful cases of court contestation of the fact that a photo was stolen.

Many photographers do not know how to earn using copyright. Well, a photographer produced a picture which belongs to him/her if there is nothing different written in the agreement. A photographer first gets money for creating pictures, and then it is possible to earn the license allowing a customer to use these photos on various printed materials, say, for one year in Ukraine. A year passed, but the customer wants to go on with these photos, OK, you are welcome, pay the interest and use them on. This issue is not even considered legally here. Such a legal base in Europe and the USA has been existing for tens of years. It is a commonplace to produce an estimate where the fee may be $100, but the right to use costs $5000.

We don’t have agents who are involved in “selling” photographers. This is not a producer, it is an agent who is engaged with several photographers of a certain genre or different genres. I miss this service a lot.

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How can you measure the success of commercials?

It goes without saying, the main measure is sales rise. If a customer says about sales rise after using photos in advertising, of course, it is a success. It has to be so: it means everything has been done properly, the task has been fulfilled.

The original article could be found here: blog.rabota.ua

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