Phlearn Interviews Product Photography Genius Rob Grimm, Pt. 2
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This is part two of a two part interview with product, food, and beverage photographer Rob Grimm. Rob has been working as a professional photography in the advertising field for 20 years and has worked with large names such as Bacardi, Energizer, and Budweiser. We traveled to Rob’s studio in St. Louis and spoke for hours, covering the ins and outs of the advertising photography industry, client relationships, and finding your own niche in the photography world.
Take an exclusive look behind the scenes of Amazing Beer Photography with Rob Grimm
“Rob Grimm Photography is built upon the creative force that is Rob, with over twenty years in the advertising business under his belt. We take great pride in the images we create, believing that the process of crafting exceptional images is rooted in unmatched production, an open and problem-solving mind, as well as a good sense of humor.”
Stay tuned next week for part two of our interview with Rob, where we’ll cover specific images in his book an ask him questions from the Phamily!
Want to see how to make these incredible images? Check out this Pro Tutorial!
Aaron: Aaron Nace
Rob: Rob Grimm
Aaron: Hey guys, welcome to Phlearn. My name is Aaron Nace. You can find me on Twitter @aknacer. Welcome to part 2 of our talks here with international badass product photographer …
Rob: You forgot rockstaresque.
Aaron: Rockstaresque, Rob Grimm. You can catch him on Twitter @rggphoto. Robb is based out of St. Louis originally?
Rob: Originally St. Louis and I've recently opened up a Chicago studio.
Aaron: Built your Chicago studio, so you'll be right down the street from our new studio.
Rob: Which is great. We're going to be neighbors and yes, I'm really excited about it. It's been great so far. We opened up last summer and it's a studio just for me, so I bounce back and forth between the two cities and it's really phenomenal so far.
Aaron: Awesome. Well, welcome to Chicago and…
Rob: It's actually welcome back. I lived in Chicago after graduating college and that's where I got my first start in the photography business.
Aaron: That's where you got into product photography?
Rob: No, actually back then I was working with a couple of different people. Saden Photo Group, which is now long gone. Abbey Saden, and Ben Altman, and a couple other people, and Jack Peron. Is that guys still around?
Aaron: I think Jack is, yes.
Rob: I think he is, too. He was a really good fashion photographer way back when. I started doing some internships and assisting around those studios and that's where I got my foray into the business.
Aaron: Cool. Welcome back then.
Rob: It's nice to be back in Chicago, it's home.
Aaron: Cool city.
Rob: Great city.
Aaron: We're going through your book now.
Rob: All right, let's do it.
Aaron: A lot of really great images here and we were just talking about the difference between a book versus digital. Like, bringing an iPad to show people as opposed to a physical book. Let's just touch on that first, just a minute or so before we go ahead and get into it.
Aaron: What do you think the impact is? The difference?
Rob: Well, one's reflective versus luminous and that has a very different quality on the eye. iPads are amazing. That backlit LCD screen coming at you, now the retina display, it's just amazing. The colors are so vibrant and they're luminous and they're just incredible and the technology is something that a lot of people are obviously gravitating towards. Particularly guys your age, you're very well versed with all things electronic and digital, so for you it's totally second nature to flip through an iPad, to look into the different galleries and you can have so many more images in an iPad portfolio than you can in a printed book.
Printed books take time, they take a lot of money, you got to assemble them, you're pretty much locked into them once you've printed them, so it's much harder to make changes. With an iPad, you can go back and forth very quickly. You can remove something and add something, you can make an extensive number of galleries, so the iPad has a lot of great features about it. The book does, too. Have a printed book is really interesting. We walk into every portfolio showing with both, printed and iPad.
Aaron: You do?
Rob: Oh, yes absolutely. First of all, when you go into an ad agency, there's usually multiple people that are looking at your book.
Rob: Unless you go in with a bunch of printed books, you're going to have an issue. You can go in with a couple of iPads and a printed book and then people can spread out. One thing I try to do is I try to sit with the book, the actually printed book because that's the time where people are most engaged. As they're going through it, there's something about being physical with it and tactile, where they can touch it, and flip the pages, and they can feel the paper, and they look at the reflected image, and they're drawn into it. They want to know more stories. They ask me more about the behind the scenes and about how did this image come to life when they are looking at the printed book than they do when they're looking at the iPad, without question.
Rob: Yes, it's interesting. Now, the iPad is great though. When you have multiple people coming in, two people can look at it, they can go through it, they can hand it to the next guy, and it's good for that room setting, but this is where, I think, we still really get to engage with the prospective clients.
Aaron: Yes, it's real.
Rob: Yes, it is.
Aaron: It has that real quality to it that it's not just … it's interesting because the iPad, it is really great to show work, but it's … you go from emails to Twitter to your portfolio and this is nothing but your portfolio.
Rob: I was talking before; it's a mix of different marketing approaches. Same thing here. It's good to have the mix of your website, a portfolio that lives on an iPad, and a printed honest-to-God book that people can flip through. Back before digital came about, we had to make 10 copies of these and you had to have them all cataloged, know where they were because in an ad agency would call and you'd FedEx it to them and they'd have it for a week, and somebody else would call and you'd have to FedEx it, too. You could have books all over the place.
Aaron: Floating around?
Rob: Even locally in town. You'd have three or four floating around different ad agencies. That's expensive. You had to know where it was. Now, it's great that it's online. People can get that flavor for you, they can know what your work is like, they can easily and quickly send your website or a portfolio PDF. I use portfolio PDFs all the time.
Rob: This book, this exact book is in PDF format and I send it to clients with great regularity. Then, when they want this this can be shipped in.
Aaron: Perfect. That's kind of like the … gets their appetite a little bit wet and when they bite, you can send this?
Rob: Yes, absolutely.
Aaron: On their way.
Rob: This is a good hook.
Aaron: A good hook, there we go, so a printed portfolio is a good hook?
Aaron: Yes, it's gorgeous. You went with a somewhat frosted plastic at the front?
Rob: Yes, this is actually from Lost Luggage. It's one of the ones that they make.
Aaron: Oh, really?
Rob: You can buy off the shelf, which is good. I did have a completely custom book before. Actually, the guy who owned this building before me was a bookbinder and I had him make my portfolios, which is how I found this building in the first place.
Rob: Kind of cool.
Aaron: Yes, very cool story.
Rob: Those kinds of things are gone now. It's much easier to buy them. There's so many companies that make portfolios. They're very specific and…
Aaron: They do a great job.
Rob: They do a great job. They can customize it quickly and get it to you where it's not… I hate to say, like a six month process? But I think back then designing a portfolio, looking at comps, looking at mock-ups, seeing the first one actually being made …
Rob: Then, going through the rest of it. It could be six months before you have a portfolio.
Rob: It's a lot of time.
Aaron: Your work can completely change over six months.
Rob: Yes, it can. Particularly now.
Aaron: Yes, now it can anyway.
Rob: Particularly now, yes.
Aaron: Yes, good point.
Rob: Let's talk about it.
Aaron: Yes, the printing you do in house, right?
Rob: Yes, we've done this here. You cannot undersell Epson technology. The Epson printer … digital photography changed this market completely, so did the Epson. When Epson came out … and Canon and HP, there are a lot of great printers out, but Epson really changed the game. Before we were looking at sending all of our books out or we were looking at technology called di-sublimation, which I don't even think exists anymore, really expensive printers in the studio. Now, we can print this on a $1000.00 machine. It looks amazing. It's better than offset in some ways. It's just amazing ink quality and you can do full bleeds. Why not do it here? It's fantastic.
Aaron: You're not getting paid by Epson to say that are you?
Rob: No, I'm not and it's not just Epson. Canon printers do the same thing, HP, there are quite a few different printers that will handle this pro line and it's incredible.
Aaron: Almost every professional photographer I've talked to, who prints their own work, they all print on Epson.
Rob: Epson did come out with that technology that changed the game and there's no question. You can proof in the studio before we would have to send out for Kodak proofs or approved proofs that you can send to clients to make sure that it was color matching and that everything was right. You can actually do that in studio now. We hardly do proofs anymore, every once in awhile, but when that transition first happened, it was great to be able to make the proofs in the studio. It saved you time, you were able to charge for it, full game changer. Epson really ... they deserve accolade because they changed the game.
Aaron: Good job Epson, I know you're watching us.
Rob: You better be watching us.
Aaron: The president of Epson, John Epson. John Epson?
Rob: It's actually Phillip Epson.
Aaron: Oh, Phillip Epson. Well, congratulations Phillip. Your book is awesome. I obviously love your photography. I wouldn't be here if I didn't.
Rob: Thank you.
Aaron: Of course. I want to talk about a lot of these images, but there are a few that I'm going to focus on and we'll put those on the screen, as well. Let's go ahead and start from the back to the front. We're going to start with this image.
Rob: Yes, that image is probably one of the most difficult if not the most difficult job I've done in years. That was for a company called Yogurtland and it's a soft-serve ice cream company very similar to Pinkberry, so the creative on this was to have the idea that everything was swirling from the sky and plopping into your bowl, any ingredient you want it was all there for your taking. This was tough because soft-serve is soft.
Aaron: That was my nickname in high school.
Rob: That was a tough high school at the time, I bet. Soft-serve is never hard, so getting it to cascade and hold in this shape is impossible and it squirted out of a machine. It's not like I could just pony up my camera to the machine, all the lights and get exactly what I wanted and get it to come out in a swirl. This took a lot of time. First and foremost, I hired a Nir Adar, who is an amazing food stylist. He's known for his ice cream. In fact, if you're going to shoot ice cream, he's the only guy that I would turn to. He's out of New York and he's a terrific guy. He and I talked about this in the production stage. How can we execute this? Quite frankly, we didn't know yet. We had ideas, but we spent a day and a half just testing. He came to St. Louis before the shoot two days ahead and we tried one thing after the next. All the machines were brought in and those soft-serve machines are huge.
Aaron: Giant, yes.
Rob: They weight a thousand pounds and I think the delivery guys were going to herniate on the stairs as they were trying to lift these things up. We didn't exactly have the pathway to it, so it was a lot of trial and error. We got to a point to where we figured out … we basically had to use tubing that we could cut along the slide through packed with dry ice, very fine dry ice that an assistant food stylist sat and ran through a food processor.
Rob: Powdered. Basically turned to powder, so the tube was packed with that. Nir did this magical twirl with the soft-serve. It was all placed into a huge cooler of very finely powdered dry ice so it could freeze without damaging the texture because the other thing that's a killer about this soft-serve, since it's soft you can't just set it down.
Rob: You can't put it in a freezer without damaging it and with the nature of this being swirled, we had to see the front, we had to see the sides for transitions and we had to see the inside back. Really, every element of this had to be photographed without messing it up, so it was a bear.
Aaron: It was a nightmare.
Rob: It was a huge challenge. It's not a nightmare, it's a challenge and that's what's cool about it because we got to experiment for a day and a half before we were like, "Bam! We hit it." We tried four or five different things and they didn't work, they were based on very solid ideas and experience from previous shoots, but it's fun. That's actually really fun if you can experiment and come up with a new way. We got it to the point where we figured out how we could freeze these things and then take them out on set and literally remove that tube from this swirl of yogurt and hold it on set and get my captures before it died. We just did it over and over and over. What's interesting about this, we've only got two shots that make up the swirls coming down and then another shot for the bowl. That's done in three shots.
Rob: Then all of the fruit that was there, was all hung on wires, shot individually on a background and all that was clipped out and brought in individually. This thing probably took a week in a computer to make it what it is, but we shot everything in different pieces. This was a major, major trial and error, figure it out, make it work, I'm not sure how we're going to do it, but let's figure it out.
Rob: It's a great project.
Aaron: The end result is awesome.
Rob: This gets a lot of attention and everybody stops and goes, "Man, how did you do that?"
Aaron: How did you do that?
Rob: First of all, you hire the right people.
Rob: You test, you scratch your head, you figure it out, you go down different avenues until it hits. It's good.
Aaron: Yes. Knowing that it's real, you actually did it, really makes it sell that much more.
Rob: Here's the thing, I think you have to do it that way. It's really important to show the client's product. You could do this with a fake, you could have an acrylic model made, it would be a lot easier, you could light the whole thing, but it's an acrylic model. At the end of the day, even with retouching, it's still going to have that quality. It'll be a little too plastic. Here, you can see texture in this. You know that it's real, it's not this plasticized thing and that's really important.
A lot of clients are very conscious about that for legal issue, too, because somebody … one of the things that we have to walk a very fine line with is being hyper-real. We call it truth in advertising where we want to make something entice you. You've got to want that, you've got to want it to the point where you're going to run out and buy it again, and again, and again. We're going to make it look as good as possible.
Aaron: Better than it would in your hand?
Rob: Better than in real life.
Rob: But you have to be careful because it's … people go and they say, "Well, this doesn't look at all like it did in the ad." They throw it back and run. It's important to use the real product to be able to say legally, "No, that is our product." It's not that we put completely fake stuff in it, it's all food coloring or whatever. You want to use the real stuff as much as humanly possible.
Aaron: Has that changed? I remember years ago people say that when they photograph ice cream, it's really mashed potatoes?
Rob: Mashed potatoes or Crisco with food coloring.
Rob: Crisco, powdered sugar and lots of food coloring, that was the magic combination, but keep in mind, that was back in the day when you had to shoot on film, right?
Rob: You couldn't scoop and put it out there and grab it.
Aaron: Right away?
Rob: No. It would die very quickly and a lot of time we were using hot lights, not the strobes, so there were a lot of issues in with it. Now, that you're digital … when digital photography came into being, the shift in food photography happened, as well, because it went to the more editorial style where it's real food. It's not over analyzed, it's not plastic or an acrylic model, it's not mashed potatoes. Sometimes that stuff is still in there and I don't want to fake it and say it's not because like when we shoot cereal, the bowl is still with mashed potatoes at the bottom then all the little pieces of cereal are put in the mashed potatoes so they stay.
Aaron: Oh, no way and then you pour a little bit of milk over the top?
Rob: Or something that looks like milk. Yes.
Aaron: Yet to be named.
Rob: Right yes, yet to be named. I won't let that secret out yet, but milk will absorb very quickly into the cereal.
Rob: It makes it soggy and it caputs it, so it's dead. If you were just to pour milk in a bowl of cereal, stuff would be floating and moving and going all over the place and wouldn't necessarily look good.
Rob: There is a placement that happens with these things. There's still some smoke and mirrors. Let not …
Aaron: That's interesting. When we first met, you talked about photography … let's flip to a bottle of Budweiser, I think we've got in here or Bud Light.
Aaron: You said, "You think all those water droplets on there are real?"
Rob: Are real? Yes.
Aaron: Tell us about these.
Rob: Yes, they're not real. This is done in a very methodical way. To get the light to come through the bottle, and have it look refreshing, and iced, and all that kind of stuff, that just doesn't happen. You don't pull this out of the fridge because it's been really cold, and stick it on set, and wait a few minutes, and it looks like this. This, we actually do by hand. All those drops are put on by hand. The ice chips are put on by hand and it's using special effects stuff. What looks like ice is actually … it's very similar stuff that's in a diaper. If you've ever seen a diaper explode, they're these little tiny beads, they're these little crystals of clear and they hold five times their own weight in water, so they puff up.
Aaron: Very interesting.
Rob: This is what they look like. I literally take a paintbrush … I have a tub of this that I mix up. I'll show you guys this later. I paint it on. I paint it on the edges of the bottle; I paint it where I want it. I'm being very conscious now not to have too much of it over the label because I don't want to obstruct the view. It will tend to warp lines and things that are underneath it, so I don't want to cover a client's logo up with an ice chunk that's going to make it look funky. All this stuff is placed on there.
The droplets is a mix of glycerin and water and sometimes other photographers use different tricks. There's stuff called drop effect and it's sprayed out through a variety of different sprayer to give it that randomized feel, so it's not all the same sized droplets, they're different, they're spontaneous, but at the same time, this is planned. One of the things that I talk about that we do a lot in photography is forced spontaneity. We make something look casual, we make it look like it just happened, we make it look like it's going to happen at your house, but there's a lot of planning and forethought that goes into it to make it look like that.
Rob: Forced spontaneity.
Aaron: Very cool.
Rob: I like that term.
Aaron: Just the realization that you hand placed these droplets, it's insane.
Rob: This is another area for a photographer where you can set yourself apart. You can hire a food stylist to do this if you want and there are drink stylist that will go in and they'll style this stuff for you. A lot of photographers, including myself, will style beer bottles themselves. It's part of our style.
Aaron: It's part of who you … yes. You can identify who took what photo based on how they style?
Rob: Yes, I can tell what bottles some of my competitors did, not by the lighting, but by the style of the spritz and slush that's on the bottle.
Aaron: The slush styling.
Aaron: Put that on your business card. Slush stylist.
Rob: No, but I charge for it.
Aaron: There we go. Very, very cool. What are the secrets? This next image I want talk about here is this Milagro tequila.
Aaron: Fire in it.
Aaron: This bottle is amazing. Is that supposed to be agave in there?
Rob: Yes, it's actually the piña plant and it's hand blown into this particular bottle. They're really beautiful bottles and no two bottles are the same. That's something that's interesting about my end of the business and one of the reasons I like it. Even though a Budweiser bottle is made in the same mold, one after the next, they're all blown into molds and they're very, very identical in their appearance. They're not because glass has a property of itself, so each bottle with very a little bit. You get some different qualities to it and that keeps me interested because there's always a little bit of a challenge that comes out of shooting a bottle. You can be working on one bottle and switch another beer bottle into that same place and it doesn't exactly look the same.
Aaron: That's really cool.
Rob: It's because it's glass. It keeps you on your toes and keeps you thinking. This is a great example that is really interesting in terms of the glass, what's going on with it. It's very complex, lots of faucets, lots of ways to catch light, reflect light, throw light, and create problems for you. This one was a challenge. We wanted to show the reposado bottle with both fire and water, get this reflective quality and have it very, very dark and mystical, yet still be luminous because the product can't die. This is another example of something that was shot in multiple stages. We shot for the neck and the cap, to get that in one capture. We shot for the base label, to get that in another capture. We shot the fire and that's probably … I'm going to say that's three different captures. Then, the water is actually shot with the fire. It's a tray that we painted black, just put in an 1/8 of an inch of water and used a little bit of a can of air to make the ripple while the fire was going, and then we capture it. The reflections of the fire are actually real and they are consistent with what's going on with the actually fire itself.
Aaron: Exactly. Wow. Every thing in this piece … a lot of what we do on Phlern is compositing and talking about special effects and things like that. This is a composite, but every piece is real.
Rob: It is real, yes.
Aaron: The fire was photographed? The water was photographed?
Rob: Yes, the fire was photographed. Here's a little secret for the fire, that's something that's really dangerous and hard to control. Rubber cement. Rubber cement is very flammable, but it's also very controllable.
Aaron: Oh, no way.
Rob: I had this tray; it's a baker's tray.
Aaron: Watch out what you tell me because I'm going to be putting rubber cement on people now.
Rob: Don't light anybody on fire though, man.
Aaron: I have come close.
Rob: This stuff … yes, that's bad. Rubber cement is very flammable, so what we did is, had this tray that was spray painted black and put rubber cement on the back of it, they tray was filled with water, just the back edge had that rubber cement, we'd light it and then hit the water with the can of air (click click click) and that's how we would get this.
Rob: You just do it again, and again, and make sure you have lots of fire extinguishers close by.
Rob: Yes, you want to be safe.
Aaron: That's awesome. It really does sounds like a lot of fun.
Rob: Oh, it's a ton of fun. This business is a ton of fun. It's a lot of experimentation, it's a lot of problem solving, it's a lot of playing around, and figuring stuff out. It's amazing.
Rob: You get to make artwork, you get to use amazing tools, amazing toys, amazing lighting, and I don't want to use the word play, but you get to play and experiment and somebody pays you for it. It's kind of a great business to be in.
Aaron: It's pretty awesome.
Rob: I wouldn't do anything else, it's awesome.
Aaron: Yes, it's like, all right how are we going to put fire behind this bottle? Have the fire reflect in the bottle on water on black, still get details in the label?
Rob: Yes, and not overpower, not be a focal point …
Rob: It's all got to be complimentary, they have to work in unison and it's getting all these parts figured out, but then getting them to work together and play together in a solid visual image.
Aaron: Yes. Very, very cool and it really does sound like you're building multiple pieces of a puzzle and when it all comes together, it's like, wow that's what [cross talk 00:22:16] …
Rob: Now, back in the film day, this would be really hard to do.
Aaron: Oh, yes I can image.
Rob: This would be really hard to do. You would have to do it in one take and it would take a long time to craft that. You'd have to have …
Aaron: But it could be done?
Rob: Yes, it could be done, but that image would probably take … that would be a three day image. I don't doubt that for a second and it would take a lot of testing, sending film to the lab, getting it back, looking at it, figuring out what's wrong, why it's not working, doing it again, doing it again. There'd be a lot of repetition in this. That's where digital is really nice.
Aaron: I like digital.
Rob: I know you do. Probably because you've never tried film, right?
Aaron: I don't know. Chris keeps trying to get me to shoot a roll of film for Phlern and I'm just like, "It's a bad idea. You're going to get a roll back, it's going to be black, but I'll do it."
Rob: No, it's a right of passage. You should know how to do it.
Aaron: You're right; I should know how to do it. I'm part of the younger generation, but you're completely right. I do feel like there's a lot of things that I missed out by not have shot on film. I tend to overshoot for one. I tend to …
Rob: Well, you know what? That can happen in film, too, and it gets hard to edit. It also gets more expensive when you have roll after roll after roll.
Rob: I guess we should put this in context because I feel very privileged that I grew up in an era with film and I have that knowledge base, but I never did a digerotype. I don't feel that I've missed out on the photographic process not having done that or I never had a wagon with glass plates in it that a mule was pulling out in the West to create my images.
Aaron: Good point.
Rob: In that sense, maybe it's not so horrible that you used the technology that's available.
Aaron: The technology that's available at the time?
Rob: It's a tool. We've had this argument for a long time with a lot of people about Photoshop when it came out. Is it cheating? A lot of people are, "No, it's cheating." But it's a tool. It's a tool to help you create what you create. Period. The technology changes; the tools change.
Aaron: Different people use the tools in different ways.
Aaron: Some people are more successful. You can hand me a paintbrush, but I'm not going to paint anything that you'd hand in your house, like some other people, the Picassos out there. Very good point, yes. Everything around us is just like you said, it's all tools and quite frankly, if you gave me all the tools of your studio, there's no way I would produce these images. That's one of the reasons why I really love sharing knowledge is because I think that with the knowledge, people can then go on to use it to create something good, but I don't ever feel like just giving away a hint here or there. It's not going to replace [cross talk 00:24:55].
Rob: No, it's not going to replace experience. Quite frankly, even though a lot of us use the same thing, a lot of us use that same stuff to make the ice chips; we don't do it in the same manner.
Rob: You can talk to assistants who have worked for three or four of photographers that are doing that style of photography, meaning beer, slushed beer, and you'll find that we all have different approaches. We are comfortable with the things that we know work, and we have our own workflow, and they differ completely from another studio.
Aaron: That's good. That's what sets us all apart.
Rob: It's right for you and I think that's one of the keys is finding what's right for you.
Aaron: Yes, and we talked about that in the first part of the interview. Be yourself. If it feels good to you, if this is how you want to go then don't try to photograph other people's art, be yourself. Let's talk about this image because it's just really hard. I'm trying to figure out how you did the lighting and how you brought everything together. First of all, we're working with a very shallow depth of field here, which I don't see a lot with beverages. I see it a little bit more with food.
Rob: That's actually one of my signatures though, is shallow depth of field. I tend to do that with everything across the board. There are times where you obviously can't.
Rob: If something has to be in complete focus, but shallow depth of field has always been one of my hallmarks without question. This job was tough. This was done for the movie Sex in the City 2 and it was done in conjunction with Skyy Vodka, where they had a partnership and the particular creator was charged with coming up with a unique drink for each of the characters. The four ladies, plus Mr. Big, so we had five drinks and we were doing them all with people. The human element is really important in both food and beverage photography. It doesn't happen a ton. The image next to it has nobody in it.
Rob: This has a very different feel. This one was kind of a nightmare job in that I was booked on the project, we had talked about what we were going to do, I did the pre-lighting for it, I sent .jpegs to the ad agency the night before the shoot with my pre-light, and they loved it, they were really happy with it. A bit of a problem came in during the shoot day because the client had never really signed off, in their mind, they never really signed off on the creative direction and once they saw it, they weren't happy with it. We had to shift gears and come up with a completely creative direction on the spot. When we initially going to do this, we were only going to have hands, they were very minimal, it was a much more simplistic approach. Now, we actually needed to see body parts, so we had … and we were shooting in St. Louis. We had hand models come in from Chicago and we had clients coming in from different parts of the country. We had a lot of people here with the clock running. We had to completely shift gears, we had to both go out and get wardrobe. Luckily, right next door there was a little boutique and I was friends with the owner and she let us raid her property. We actually took fabric here that I had in the prop room, we made a dress, literally on a woman out of fabric that we had here. A lot of shifting gears on the fly. We tried a couple different directions before the client finally signed off on it and said okay this is what you want. I think it was 4:00 PM in the afternoon before we got our first shot off and we had five shots to do that day.
Aaron: In one … in the day?
Rob: That brings a whole 'nother element in. Creative isn't going where it needs to be, client's not happy, a lot of people on the payroll on this one, people have come in from different parts of the country, a lot of money riding on it, and if it's a total loss, there's a big problem. We had to shift gears very quickly. We had to do a couple different explorations of creative styles before the client had hit the one that they liked. Then, we had to very quickly be able to execute all five of those shots, talk with the client, know that there was going to be overtime because it wasn't our issue.
Aaron: It's not, you're right, exactly.
Rob: We had had sign off. In fact, I did everything that I could. I did a pre-light, I sent the images out, the art director had even responded, "Love it, can't wait. Everything is going to be great for tomorrow." Everything went in a different direction, so we had to talk to the client and say, "Okay, there's issues here," right? In the creative, which means we're going to have some money issues and then we had to get it done. We knuckled down, we got it done. I think we shot everything by 8:00 PM at night, so we were able to compress that day down, but it was a lot of trial and error in the early part of the day to get us to the point between 4:00 PM in the afternoon and 8:00 PM at night, where we could do all five of those shots in four hours and knock it out.
Aaron: That's insane.
Rob: It was insane and that's a lot of pressure. That's why I'm saying there's no replacement for experience. If I was new in this business at that time, I probably would've been barfing in the bathroom under that pressure.
Rob: It was just a matter of okay … and I actually got to the point … the client who didn't like the stuff wasn't here and the art director had been talking to them through the phone and I got to the point where I said, "I need to be on the phone call with them." This is really important for me because that telephone of going from one person to the next, something gets lost in the translation. It was important for me to calmly say, "Hey, let me be involved in this conversation, as well. Let me see if I can come up with some of the solutions to the creative problem." Work our way through it, be calm, be rational, be reasonable, and be there to help the client because at the end of the day, even though there's a problem that's occurring, it's my problem to fix it and be polite about it and be professional about it.
Aaron: That communication is huge.
Aaron: A lot of people, I think, they're almost afraid to say there's a problem, so they wait to the very end and it's like, "Oh, by the way we need to charge more because we went over."
Rob: I think a lot of human nature fears conflict. People don't want conflict, they're afraid it can escalate very quickly and tempers can flare. Really? We're problem solving. There shouldn't be conflict; there should be solutions to problems.
Rob: That's where a good crew around really comes in handy. The best producers are the producers who'll look at the project know that something is going to go wrong. Something always … there's always a curve ball. I personally work very well with the producers that come up and say, "Hey Rob, tell me what you think. We've got this, this and this that we can do for the problem that I'm not going to tell you about." Other producers will come up to you and say, "Okay, this is messed up and it could go badly in this respect, or this respect, or this respect. What do you want to fix it?" Very different approaches.
Aaron: Very different approach.
Rob: The second person is tough to work with because they get everything in a tailspin. The first person that comes to you and says, "Okay, here are a couple of solutions you might want to think about. Here's the problem. What do you want to do?" It gives me the decision as the job leader. It gives me the opportunity as a job leader to make a quick decision, "This is what I want to do," and go down that road. That road maybe wrong, by the way, but I'm being decisive and I'm doing it in a non-combative way to say, "Okay, let's try this. Let's make it work." If it doesn't, all right, I'm going to shift gears and I'm going to figure out another way to make it work. It's definitely a professional attitude.
Aaron: To be able to make a decision quickly and stick with it until you need to make another decision?
Rob: Not necessarily quickly. I think you need to be decisive. I don't think you can just make a quick decision; it has to be an informed decision.
Rob: You need to be able to talk with your client in a way that they know is not combative, that you're trying to help them, that you're looking for answers, you're looking for them to give you as much information as they possibly can for you to help guide the project in the way that you think it's going to be most successful for them.
Rob: Because at the end of the day, this project is for them. It's not for you. It may go in your book, you may sit down at a table and tell somebody the stories about this image and how it came to be, but it's not for you.
Aaron: Right, you don't own the vodka brand.
Rob: No, I don't own the vodka brand and that's something that interests me, you think about, as an artist, you tend to get into this business to make your art, but as a professional artist, you're making your art on somebody else's nickel against a clock for an end result that isn't necessarily yours. That's something to keep in mind, too. It's an interesting mindset.
Aaron: Yes, even I'm thinking of Renaissance painters. They had clients. They were painting for the royal family. If the royal family didn't like the paintings they were fired.
Rob: Right, or beheaded, even worse.
Aaron: Exactly. It's an age old issue that artists face. It's like, yes you're creating great art, but at the end of the day, if someone else is paying for that art, that's the person who has to be happy.
Rob: Yes, and it's weird to get your head around the fact that art is commerce because a lot of people think of art as art, not art is commerce, but if you're going to make a living on it, it is commerce. It's a commercial product that you got to sell.
Aaron: Yes, the exchange of both goods and services. This is your goods.
Rob: I hope it's the goods.
Aaron: Very good and you're making other people look good, as well. Let's just talk about a couple of the other images. This is a really interesting image. The Triumph watch here.
Rob: Yes, this is something I like talking about because this is completely done for my book. I had this watch … I thought it was really interesting, I bought it to shoot for the portfolio and I probably put it out on set two or three times and I hated everything about it, didn't work, tried a couple different approaches. It just didn't … none of the images were there, so I set it on the shelf and just let it sit. I'd pull it out and try it, it wouldn't work. Sometimes that happens, not often, but sometimes you just can't get something to click.
Rob: One day, it was nice summer day, I had a yellow tomato in my lunch and I literally started pulling out my lunch and I saw the yellow tomato, which was very orange. I'm like, "That's the color of the watch. That's that graphic element that I need," so I pulled the watch out, got it off the shelf, wrapped it around … it's just wrapped around a tomato. Sat down on the set, lit, bam. That was the clean, simple graphic element I needed. It was what I needed to tie the background in and it worked. The reason why I like talking about this, I tried several times to come up with something that all failed and inspiration came to me in something …
Aaron: Your lunch?
Rob: Yes, my lunch. What? I never would've thought of that. It just hit me and that's one of the great things about being an artist. Sometimes inspiration just hits you, don't know why, don't know from where, just wait long enough, it'll come.
Aaron: Right, as long as it's stirring in your mind.
Rob: As long as you've got something going in there, yes. I didn't give up on it. I liked this watch; I thought there was something interesting about it. I like shooting watches. This one just hadn't clicked yet and I needed the right inspiration and it turned out to be something very simple and kicked it.
Aaron: It's interesting, too, because this was done personally.
Aaron: This is a personal project, but perhaps doing this is going to inspire a shoot in the future. Maybe it already has, in which you shot a different watch and you're like …
Rob: Yes, there's no question and if you look at the book, when you go through it, I think it's important to have a mix of personal and client work. It's tough in the beginning you have to go in with all personal work because you haven't had client stuff and clients don't want you to come in just with client work. They want to see what you do, what your vision is because you can go further when you don't have the parameters of a client or not necessarily the client, if you don't have the parameters of a layout, you have to fit in this 11x14 crop or you have to fit something that's going to fit on the back of a bus or a casecard or whatever. That can have a big hampering effect on what the creativity is. If you're just shooting for your portfolio, there's kind of no limit and people want to see that. It's really good to have that mix in your book or personal and client work.
Aaron: That's really good advice and I know that this is … you've been shooting for over 20 years and this is not all the images you've ever taken?
Rob: Oh, God no. It's a weeding out.
Aaron: Percentage of … what's that process like for you in choosing the images that are ultimately going to make the book and how many … this is awesome this octopus. How many … is there a number that you focus on, between 20 and 50 images?
Rob: 20 and 30 is a really good number. I tend to go towards more toward the 30. I think what is really critical, absolutely critical is to tell a story, to have a thread, to have something that moves people through this. Some people will put only what they want to photograph in a portfolio and those in some ways are the most successful portfolios because it really shows the client what you want to do and then a lot of people will hire you based on that. A lot of clients really do though, they need to see examples of client work.
Rob: It's important, to me it's important to have that mix, but without question you have to have them engaged from the front image to the back image. There has to be a way for their eye to go through this. There has to be a way to stir emotion through them through the entire thing. That emotion, keep in mind, can be wanting something. It's not just like, "Oh, man that guys is unbelievable, like, "Look at this face." It can be like, "Ah, I want to buy that. Ooh, I'm thirsty." I love it going in portfolio shoots and people are like, "Oh, it's only 11:00, I'm so hungry."
Rob: That's what I want.
Aaron: I hate octopus, but I want to eat one right now.
Rob: Some people are like, "God, that's so gross. I can't stop staring at it." That's good, you're drawing them in, you grab their attention. You got to grab them, somehow you got to grab them and suck them in. It's key, so the pagination, the way you put these images together, I think about this stuff. I think about what is the very first image? How it's going to look and then what happens on page 2 and 3, and how does page 3 then translate to page 4? What people see here will have an effect on what they see here.
Rob: It's very well thought out.
Aaron: I noticed just a couple of things and I'm just going to point them out as I kind of see. We've got complimentary colors working?
Aaron: I'm guessing that's on purpose?
Rob: Yes, sometimes … I'm not going to say that there's a formula.
Rob: Because sometimes it's the emotion that's evoked by the two pieces side-by-side. Sometimes it's pure color pallet. You don't know why two images necessarily work together and the way I did this … this was a lengthy process. It took a few months and it happened in conjunction with my new website, so I was trying images left and right and switching things around. I printed everything out really small and cut them out and moved them around, put things side-by-side. Then, I wound up printing them large and doing the same thing, putting them side-by-side before I printed the final book.
Rob: It was a lot of trial and error in terms of either this image actually worked well with two or three images, but which one was the best for it.
Rob: There's some experimentation that goes with that and you do see different combinations in it from going through and looking one time to the next, you can see different combinations and it's a matter of really trying to figure out what has the best impact that's going to get you the most clients.
Aaron: Yes, and that's really interesting because it's not only the individual photos that are the product that you're selling, it the compilation of all the photos together. You're selling the whole book, too.
Rob: The compilation of all those photos together gives you your style.
Rob: An image or two here is an image or two. The book as a cohesive unit is your style.
Aaron: That's the quote of the day, right there.
Rob: All right, good.
Aaron: The book … yes, your work as a whole is your style.
Rob: Yes, that is your style. That makes up your style. One image does not make up your style.
Aaron: That's brilliant because I think a lot of people out there in year one and two they're like, "What is my style? I got to create my style."
Aaron: I think the answer's probably like look at your work. That already is your style.
Rob: Style is also fluid, it changes, like if you look at my work from the early '90s to now, completely different.
Rob: Oh, yes totally different. Matter of fact, in the early '90s, too, it was super saturated color and I had a very distinctive style. I had this multi-layered plexiglass set and I would shoot colored lights up from the base through this white plexiglass and I had product floating on clear plexiglass above it, so all the stuff was floating in these fields of color and sometimes it was simple one color. Other times it was multiple colors that were bled together down underneath with light, very complex stuff, super saturated, completely blinked out … if you were to look at it now, it might give you epilepsy.
Aaron: That was big in the '80s. They would've loved that stuff.
Rob: It was huge.
Aaron: Epilepsy, where can I get that? Where's that drug, right?
Rob: Crazy. It's interesting to see how your style does change. It is a very fluid thing. It will change as you grow through the business, there's no question. I don't know where I'll be in 15 or 20 years, what my style will look like in comparison to this? I would think now, it would probably be pretty similar to this because I've really settled into a groove. I've been in the business for a couple of decades and I think I've really found my voice. I think it's very difficult for a young photographer to find their voice in the first year or two. I think it's really a decade or two process and once you've built that business and you've been going for a while, you've really found a voice that's yours and it's fairly unique and that gives you room to explore some other directions.
Aaron: Is your voice a reaction to the times? Let's say the difference between the '80s and '90s and today? The general styles have changed [cross talk 00:42:48] …
Rob: Oh, yes absolutely. I think that …
Aaron: Did you react to those?
Rob: Sure, well you have to. Like I said, during the '90s it was really colorful stuff, but still very shallow depth of field, tight cropping … you can see a lot of my approach to that style is the same approach that I have here even though it's much more open, and [inaudible 00:43:13], and very light, and shallow. You'll see a lot of similarities even though the end result was completely different. Yes, you have to react to the times, otherwise you will look dated, right?
Rob: It's interesting though, really successful images will last through some serious years. You don't want to have stuff in your book, necessarily that you did 10 years ago, unless it's a really enduring image that still grabs people's attention and it's current and relevant with your material. Yes, you have to change with the times, otherwise you're stagnant and people are going to leave you where they last saw you.
Aaron: "He's a product of the '90s."
Rob: Yes, you do that with people in high school. You tend to think of them as the way they were in high school.
Rob: They may have been a total dork and now he's running some major company and …
Aaron: I was a dork, by the way.
Rob: Perfect example.
Aaron: What's the oldest image in this book?
Rob: Good question. I don't …
Aaron: Or just one that maybe pops out as like, "I shot this a long time ago."
Rob: That will lead to a quick look through here.
Aaron: No worries. I know I popped that one on you, but it was a reaction to what we were just talking about there.
Rob: There isn't a lot in this book that is very old. I don't think there's much stuff in here that's older than four years at most.
Aaron: Okay. That's interesting, too, because …
Rob: Maybe … that's funny because I think it's actually this. That image is probably five or six years old.
Aaron: The latest image in your book is five or six years old even though you've been shoot for 20 some years?
Rob: Yes, and this is probably five years old, too. I did that for Starbucks Tazo Tea. That may be five years old, as well. Yes, I want to keep things current and I feel like as I've been in the business longer, I get better.
Rob: I want to show more current work.
Aaron: You want to show the current better work?
Rob: Yes, without question.
Aaron: Yes, it also shows that you're still shooting. If you can come to a client meeting and you've got 10 new images in your book and they're like, "I haven't seen this stuff."
Rob: Yes, they like to know you're busy. They like to know what you've been working on lately and they like to hear that you are active with other clients and that you're still relevant. They don't really want to … "Oh, he's hasn't shot anything in five years. Let me go spend my ad budget on him."
Rob: You want to show current work and it's important.
Aaron: In periods of downtime, because there are ups and downs, do you focus more on personal work during those down times?
Rob: I photograph on creating … I concentrate on photographing more images, yes. Personal work? I can't say that I do a ton of it. I think that I personally have a lot of commercial end … insight for my images. I'm not going off and doing a bunch of work that I then want to wind up in a gallery somewhere.
Rob: I don't have a big focus on creating images that I can have a gallery opening and have all my friends come and they can talk about how great my artwork is. The images that I tend to create are to get me more commercial work. Now, my kids are well documented. Hopefully, my grandkids one day will be like, "Wow, look at these pictures of mom that grandpa took." That tends to be a lot of my personal work, but the images that I do during my downtime, we definitely concentrate on making stuff that has commercial viability that can be saleable. Bottom line, it's got to be saleable.
Aaron: In those down time because I know they all come, what is your process? Do you look at what's out there currently and say, "Oh, this is a really cool tread that's going on," or "What are these other successful people doing?"
Rob: Yes, you need to be looking through magazines and looking at websites. Places like Behance and other places where people are putting out work, but it's also really important … I do look at a lot of magazines. We get magazines, we look through them, we tear them out, we put all the tear sheets in binders for inspiration. I will very often do a screen grab of something I think is cool because there's something about that image that will inspire me. I don't want to go and rip somebody off, but I do find inspiration in other things. It can be photography, it can be painting, it can be words, inspiration comes from many different places, but it's really important to look at what other people are doing. They're your competitors, right? If you want to be in this market? If you want to be a beverage photographer? You need to be looking at the beverage ads that are out there. Find inspiration, find your own voice and go out and make some images. Yes, we definitely spend time during our down time doing that.
Aaron: I do that all the time, whether I'm up or down.
Rob: We do, too, and quite honestly, I'm much better when I'm busier. I get a lot more done when I'm busier. The down times are hard. When you've got time on your hands … it's great to get the studio organized, it's great to get the filing done, it's really important to have that down time and to work on portfolio images, without question. I personally work better when there's more going on.
Aaron: It's more exciting?
Rob: It's more exciting and it gets me more focused. I can concentrate better when I have a bigger list of things to do.
Aaron: Right, I think I've experienced that, as well, and I think many artists are the same way. Like when you're feeling like you're actually doing something, it's easier to feel like you can take on more and you can be productive with the time that you have. Very cool. Last question I have is about your book in general, is in seeing your work as a whole, going from one image to another, how much of it do you see yourself in? It's a weird question that I'm trying to figure out. That's just not even a question is it?
Rob: What are you trying to say? It almost seems like you're asking if I see myself in these images in some way?
Rob: No. I see my style in these images. I see my approach; I see my production value, what I bring to the table in these images in that I'm hitting a mark for a client. Is this a reflection of me? I think is what you're asking? Yes, it is. I don't look at this and I don't see this as these images are me. When I look at a total studio, that's what I think is a reflection of me. The images from the front to the back, what's on the walls, the furniture, the way I've laid this place out, this is my creativity. I think I look at that as the whole and my studio is really and truly a reflection of who I am as an artist. In that sense, yes, the work is a reflection, but I don't look at it and say, "Ah, that's me."
Aaron: Right. That's a really interesting point because this is your job and you take it very seriously and you love these photos, but at the same time it sounds like you are fully aware that this is your job.
Rob: It's interesting the word passion is one of the most over used words in the world particularly when it comes to art. "I'm passionate about photography, so I want to do it," but it is a job and this is commercial work. I'm creating images for somebody else. They are contracting with me; they are paying me money to create images for them. That's commerce, that's a business, I've got to execute something and like I said before, it's not necessarily for me. There's me in this and there's my approach, my vision, my style, but at the end of the day it doesn't belong to me.
Aaron: It doesn't right?
Rob: It's kind of weird.
Aaron: It is very weird, but it's also wide opening, too, because there are so many different avenues to take as a photographer and that's one thing, I hope a lot of people are getting out of this, is that you're an amazing product photographer, you are being commissioned to take these photos. I go a completely separate way with my photography, other people go completely separate ways and I think it's eye opening to see that within the gamut of photography you can make a profession in a million different ways.
Rob: You can. There are so many different avenues in photography. There are different styles of photography, there are different roles that you can play within a photo studio, it's a really unusual business and one of the reasons why it's so unusual is because it's rarely the same day twice. You get to come in and you get to do different things from one day to the next and solve different problems for different clients. It's invigorating in that sense. I take great pride in what I do, I really love it, I'm very happy with the images I create, but I'm also very conscious about the production value. I take pride in making sure that we create a really good, strong production flow for these images to come out, to make the client happy. It's cool.
Aaron: It's not luck?
Rob: Oh, no. There are times when it's lucky, but there's that old code about luck is 75% preparation, 25% perspiration or something like that?
Rob: You've got to work into luck. You've got to be prepared so that if somebody does give you an opportunity because you happen to meet them somewhere … my best friend met his biggest client in Disneyland Europe changing their kids. They were just next to each other changing their kids at a changing table, struck up a conversation and he became his biggest client.
Rob: That could be luck, but at the same time he was prepared to deliver the goods that that client needed. That wasn't luck.
Aaron: Good point.
Rob: That meeting was, but delivering the product wasn't luck, it was preparation on his part.
Aaron: That's a really good point, cool. I think we'll end it there.
Rob: All right.
Aaron: Rob, awesome, thanks so much.
Rob: Thanks, man. I enjoyed the talk.
Aaron: It's been awesome. Loved the book, by the way.
Rob: Thank you, I appreciate that.
Aaron: Thanks guys, for watching. I hope you really enjoyed it and we're going to show you some more great things from Rob Grimm's studio and he's going to show you guys a little bit about how he works. Look forward to that coming soon. Thanks guys, I'll Phlern you later.