A Conversation with Evan Kafka, a Photographer.
by James Worrell
Recently I had the idea of interviewing some of my colleagues, photographer to photographer, to gain some insights and see how they do what they do. I started with someone I know well and whose career has somewhat mirrored my own. Although Evan shoots portraits and babies, and I shoot still life, he has long been one of my technical go-to people and a good friend. He is one of those photographers who is not only creative but also knows how everything works. I have always loved talking to him and I hope you will find our exchange interesting and informative. In order to focus the conversation I chose some recent ads Evan has shot for Huggies Wipes.
Evan owns and operates a small rental studio in NYC’s flower district called Some Studio; it is here that we sat down for a conversation.
Worrell: Hi Evan, I am here to talk with you about your work but my first question is: why a rental studio? It seems like a lot of work on top of being a photographer, how is that working out for you?
Kafka: Hey James, thanks for stopping by. Yeah, I like having the rental studio. It helps keep me from being isolated like a lot of photographers are. It’s fun to meet new people and have people around all of the time but you are right, it is a lot of work. I used to have an office in my apartment but my daughter was born and she kicked me out (laughs). No seriously, I wasn’t looking for a studio but i needed an office, and a friend of mine was leaving this space. I saw it as an opportunity. The rental income offsets the cost of the space but as you said before, it is a lot of work with upkeep, marketing, etc.
Worrell: I am glad you did, it’s a great space. How long have you been shooting, how long did you assist other photographers and where did you go to school?
Kafka: I went to RIT, came to New York in 1995 and assisted for about 5 or 6 months. I got shooting work really early, I was pretty lucky.
Worrell: Your work is very bold, simple and graphic, did the transition to digital affect your style or way of shooting?
Kafka: I don’t think it has that much. I look at pictures I took 10 years ago on film and printed C-prints of, and I am always amazed at how similar the lighting and composition is. Digital is really just another tool. Obviously I wasn’t doing the post-production that I am now, and that is a big part of my look, but part of that is just to get it back to how it looked in film. Another part if it is trying to get it to where I wanted it to be when I was shooting film but I didn’t know how to do it, how to get it there. There were people doing post production work back then of course but it wasn’t as common as it is now.
Worrell: I was looking at your work and was struck by the Huggies ads you did recently. I love the humor and simplicity but I know that it was anything but simple. How did you get the gig?
Kafka: It was my 3rd job for Ogilvy Chicago in the past 12 months or so. It’s hard to say exactly where it came from or specifically how they found me but it’s safe to say it was a group effort between me and my agent. I have spent years marketing myself with the help of my agency, Glasshouse Assignment, and have done a lot of baby promotions in recent years. I think a lot of people believe that if you get an agent, that alone is going to bring in the work. But for me it seems like I have to drive it, I have to bring it. My agent helps things go smoothly, negotiates and puts my work in front of the people who need to see it. But I have to give her something to sell. I had to get my work to the right place before we started getting work, that’s the bottom line.
Worrell: What was it like leading up to the job? Were the ideas collaborations or did they bring you everything sketched out?
Kafka: This particular art director, Vince Soliven, had these ideas and concepts sketched out, they were definitely his concepts, but I had ideas on how to execute them and together we worked that out. You mentioned that they looked like a lot of fun, and they were a lot fun, some clients and agents have a good sense of humor (laughs). It’s great when you can work on something that is supposed to be quirky and humorous. The traditional market for baby photography is more lifestyle oriented so it’s sometimes hard to get them to choose the funny pictures. Which is what I love about babies, just how spontaneous and ridiculous they can be. Ultimately, clients decide on the tone of the piece by their edit, luckily Ogilvy, and by extension Huggies, has a great sense of humor. I commend art directors and agencies for wanting to go for the full-on funny and if their clients have to pull them back, at least they went for it.
Worrell: How many shots did you do for this campaign? I see 3 tearsheets on your site–were there more?
Kafka: There are four ads total, one should be coming out in the near future. But we did five shots plus variations.
Worrell: Did you do it all in one day?
Kafka: No, it was two days, thank goodness (laughs). And it was a pretty intense couple of days.
Worrell: How much pre-production did they give you?
Kafka: Well, it was really hard because we bid on the job right before the Christmas holidays and the shoot was on January 2nd or 3rd, something like that. We had little time to prepare and we had to pull it together during that crazy time of year. We had one producer tell me that it couldn’t be done–luckily I found one that said sure, no problem.
Worrell: So how big was your crew? As you said you had a producer, someone who organizes and puts the whole thing together. But who else?
Kafka: This was a big one, in fact I have a crew photo on my blog which shows the 20 people directly involved with the shoot. So basically, we shot at Gary’s Loft, a location studio.
Worrell: So you didn’t use your own rental studio?
Kafka: No, quite often I need to rent a bigger studio, especially for advertising productions.
Back to the crew:
We had a producer, Jake Mills, and he had a production coordinator with a production assistant. The prop stylist, Peter Gargagliano, was also the set builder and he had four assistants. There was a wardrobe stylist, Ellen Silverstein, and she had an assistant. Nikki Wang who did hair and makeup. I had three photo assistants and a digital tech. Also, Huggies used Bambini Casting for the casting and wrangling of babies.
Worrell: That is an important point, a lot of people might not know about the baby wrangler.
Kafka: Yeah, you gotta have a baby wrangler. Bambini is run by Michele Avantario and she is the main wrangler but she has a team of usually two or three assistants who also help wrangle. A big part of what they do is manage the flow of babies (we both laugh).
It’s important because on a shoot like this, I think we had five babies for each ad, knowing that we were going to only use one in the end. It’s just a matter of who’s going to perform best when the time comes.
Worrell: How much time do you get when you book a baby model?
Kafka: Typically you get two hours, we try to stagger them a bit so they are not all there at the same time. Another thing is that Huggies is very particular about having a separate baby holding studio. Gary’s loft is three floors, we had one floor for two days that was essentially the baby holding area. We had to pad the floor with foam padding and that area was just for the babies and the parents. We shot on the other two floors, one on the first day, the other on the second. But one of the rules is that the parents and families can’t be on the same floor as the shoot, or within earshot. So we really needed a big studio.
Huggies also used a diaper stylist named Heidi Samuda. Like Michele, Heidi Samuda is a freelance stylist and she also cuts the babies’ hair if needed. An important point is that we have her do that the day before the shoot so as not to aggravate the baby the day of the shoot.
Worrell: So was that the whole crew?
Kafka: No, there were three people from Kimberly-Clark/Huggies, three people from Ogilvy Chicago, and one from Ogilvy New York. So it was a lot, certainly one of the bigger ones for me.
Worrell: Wow, that is a lot but it’s a good thing to point out. I don’t think the average person knows how much goes on behind one of these ads.
(Above is a crew shot, and below are a bunch of behind the scenes shot by his photographer friend and assistant Joshua Freiwald.)
Worrell: Now let’s talk specifically about that one shot, the Spaghetti Challenge. First of all, was that sauce real or was it done a lot in post?
Kafka: It was real tomato sauce, with some pasta in it. So yes, it was real and Peter did the sauce the day of the shoot. It was a little scary because once it was laid down that was it. So what we did was we shot as much as we could without it. We shot a lot of plates, etc, then splattered it on the dad and then we gradually built it up on the floor and the wall. We also splattered some sauce in different shapes on a smaller piece of wall board and shot various angles so they would have different splatter options for the shots.
Worrell: So let’s talk about how you lit this shot.
Kafka: It was our second shot of that day so I tried to get it going before the other shot was finished. When I am doing a multiple set shoot like this I have my assistants set up a number of lights that I typically use and I start grabbing things. On this specific shot we had our main light, a small Photek Octabank coming from overhead and the left. It is similar to the Elinchrome mini Octabank.
So, I had this light up high overhead, pointed straight down which is what I tend to do. I tend to point my lights straight at the floor more often than at the subject. If you think about lights in nature, they are very seldom pointed right at somebody. It’s more of a gradual feather, where light sort of catches, where you sort of enter into the beam of light. It’s a better way to evenly illuminate somebody from top to bottom. If you point the light more at the floor it tends to rake across their body a little more evenly.
Worrell: That is interesting to hear you say that. It reminds me of the advice a lighting master once gave me during my assisting days where he said never point the lightbox directly at the subject, always off to the side to find the sweet spot.
Kafka: Yeah, it’s also an easier way to control the light falloff on the background. One thing I want to say is that my lighting tends to evolve throughout the shoot, I don’t get it perfect at first. It tends to change as we’re shooting. I would say typically I arrive at the lighting that works about 1/3 of the way into a shot, sometimes less. I have some standard things that I tend to do but I try not to start a shot with the same formula, especially when the shot is in an environment.
Worrell: Here is a lighting diagram that your assistant Richard did so everyone can see all the other lights and modifiers used:
(Diagram made by Evan’s Assistant, Richard Solinger, using a lighting diagram photoshop document @ www.kevinkertz.com)
And for all the gearheads out there, specifically what kind of lights and cameras do you use?
Kafka: I light with strobes or flash equipment. I own Profoto Acutes and when I rent I tend to use the Profoto 7A packs. So if I have a job with a decent budget I will rent the 7As because although they are bigger they have a much faster flash duration. And with babies, animals, even adults, you can get a bit of blur with the Acutes due to its slower flash duration. It really has little to do with camera sync and shutter speeds and more to do with flash duration.
Worrell: For those who may not know, what is flash duration exactly?
Kafka: It is essentially the length of the flash. When you increase the power of your flash you are actually just increasing the length of the burst; you’re not really increasing the strength of the burst. So when you use high powered lighting it tends to have a longer flash duration. Studio Packs are usually engineered to have shorter flash duration than the portable packs but they are a lot more expensive. I just had the chance to use Profoto’s new 8 pack and not only is the flash duration fast, you can dial one channel from the full 2400 watt seconds down to 4.7 watts. This is great because I tend to use a lot of lights and often have a hard time shooting below f11. With these packs I could dial it all down and shoot at f1.6. I sometimes have to use an ND filter to get my f-stop where I want it but these packs are more versatile.
Worrell: Canon, Nikon, or Digital back?
Kafka: I use Canon. Right now I have the 5D MarkII and MarkIII cameras. On that Huggies ad I used my 50mm Zeiss ZE Macro lens which is not an autofocus lens. And since I was on a tripod for this shot and the models weren’t moving around too much I used the Zeiss lens which is a sharper lens edge to edge when wide open at lower f-stops. So at lower f-stops I like the Zeiss lenses but down past f8 or f11 I think the Canon lenses are better.
Worrell: Do you shoot tethered and if so, what program are you using?
Kafka: I use the software that comes with the Canon Utilities and I focus in live view, I find it easier and faster to use than Capture One or Light Room. But I catalog and organize everything in LightRoom.
Worrell: Thanks Evan!