Q&A with Advertising Photographer DANA NEIBERT

13Sep11

Dana Neibert is an advertising photographer based in Coronado, California, just outside of San Diego. A campaign he shot for Chevy Trucks was featured on POP in an interview with Peggi Jeung many months ago and I’ve been waiting for a break in the schedule to reach out to him. Luckily, he had some time between jobs and was interested in being interviewed—word hadn’t made it to San Diego that I sometimes come back three and four times with clarifications, more questions and requests for more images and he said ‘yes’ right away.

Photo by Dana Neibert

Trained at California College of the Arts as a graphic designer, Dana spent many years working as an agency art director before transitioning to commercial photography, where he expands on his award-winning graphic sensibility to produce his instantly recognizable lifestyle, landscape, travel, automotive and conceptual images for an international client list that includes American Express, Four Seasons, Lexus, GM, AT&T, Eli Lilly, Frito Lay, Johnson & Johnson and Intel among others. I often try to get to the heart of what informs a photographer’s work. With Dana Neibert, it came back over and over to his love of image making which is evident in his precise and expressive compositions and color choices, and the ease and beauty he captures in his portraits and lifestyle shots.

I spoke with Dana about how a chance shoot with Andy Anderson convinced him to make the move from art director to photographer, launching a successful commercial career from Coronado, the evolution of his portfolio and the important role that personal work plays in both growing his vision and in landing commercial work. Thank you very much to Dana for all his time on the interview and for treating my repeated requests as if they were coming from a valued client—each was met with a ‘yes’ followed by a quick response. And on top of it all, he is extremely nice and makes beautiful images, which again I had trouble editing down. Enjoy!

Photo by Dana Neibert

Photo by Dana Neibert

POP: You were a trained graphic artist and an agency art director before making the move to commercial photography. How did you make the transition? Had you always been interested in photography?

The transition from art director to photographer was a gradual one. I worked for several small agencies who naturally had small clients and a lot of times hiring a photographer was not in the budget. You either used stock or shot it yourself. Over time I created more and more images and started putting a portfolio together. When I left art directing, I’d been working on my portfolio for about five years. I’m almost entirely self-taught except for one black and white darkroom class I took. Basic black and white printing helps you understand fundamental Photoshop tasks because the basic tools in Photoshop are what you would find in the darkroom.

Photo by Dana Neibert

POP: How long was it until you were working commercially after leaving advertising?

I was working commercially as soon as I left advertising. In fact, I was booking jobs before I left advertising and that’s what helped me make the decision to make the switch. I had started a search for an agent before I left and had several dialogues going. Right off the bat I signed with Fox Creative and have been with them ever since.

POP: Were you living in Coronado when you first launched your commercial career? When were you able to leave the city and has it impacted your career in any way?

I have been in Coronado since I was an art director. My family loves Coronado and it’s one of the reasons I made the switch from art directing to photography. San Diego isn’t known for it’s large ad agency market, so at a certain point you kind of plateau career wise and if you want to advance further then you have to move to New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco. The good thing about being a commercial photographer is you can live anywhere in the country because you end up flying wherever the agency wants to shoot anyway. There are a number of top tier shooters that live in small towns in the middle of nowhere.

Photo by Dana Neibert

Photo by Dana Neibert

POP: How did you build a crew while not living in a metropolitan photo community?

I’ve had the same crew for the past 5 – 7 years. When you find good people, they know good people. It’s word-of-mouth. My entire crew is based out of LA. If the client doesn’t care where we shoot, I shoot in LA. My crew is there and you can get a camera at 3am if you need it. Since I do mostly location work though, so I don’t have to live in the middle of a city.

POP: What did you first start shooting? Film or digital?

Film. 4 x 5. At first, digital lacked the dimensional and organic quality of film. But in the last five years digital has really become nearly indistinguishable with whatever magic the camera makers have figured out and proper post production. I really have embraced it. But I’m glad I started out shooting 4×5 as that’s when photography really started to click for me. With a 35mm or even a medium format camera it’s so easy to point, shoot and blast through film. With 4×5 sheet film you are usually composing very carefully on a ground glass and then when you do decide to shoot, you are loading one sheet at a time. That discipline really helped me develop my photography.

Photo by Dana Neibert

Photo by Dana Neibert

POP: Favorite photographers before you made the move?

Andy Anderson is a favorite of mine as he is with most art directors. I did a job with him when I was an art director. He was shooting the same cameras and film as me—or I guess I should say I was shooting the same cameras and film as him. Before that point, I was intimidated by commercial photography. On most of the shoots I’d been, most of the photographers were using fancy medium format cameras, strobes, etc. And here I was, shooting 4 x 5 with a 60 year-old Crown Graphic. But when Andy showed up with his Speed Graphics and Portra film, gears started spinning in my head. Andy and I started talking and I showed him my work and he encouraged me to make the switch if that’s where my passion was. Other favorites are Nadav Kander, Alec Soth, Todd Hido, Michael Kenna; I’m sure there’s more as I used to have all kinds of lists of guys I wanted to work with.

Photo by Dana Neibert

POP: When you were building your portfolio, what subjects were you first drawn to? Landscapes? Lifestyle? Conceptual? How long before you developed your point of view?

I’ve always been drawn to landscapes and conceptual images. My first images with people were usually wide shots where the people were about an inch tall in an 11×14 print. One of my assistants used to tell the fussy talent not to worry about their hair or makeup too much because they were going to be about as big as his fingernail in the shot. I think my point of view is still evolving. I see differences in my work from five years ago and today.

Photo by Dana Neibert

Photo by Dana Neibert

POP: Your style could be described as graphically epic. Were you drawn to work like this as a designer and art director? And did you shoot like this from the beginning?

I like simple and graphic things. In the beginning, I was so graphic that I couldn’t even stand more than one color in my images and mostly shot black and white. As I went through graphic rehabilitation, I was slowly able to introduce color but still keep my work fairly graphic. Most of my favorite images are the simple and graphic ones.

Photo by Dana Neibert

POP: As a former designer, you have a sophisticated graphic sensibility. How did you develop your ability to relate with and shoot people and lifestyle images?

I think my design sense is visible in my images. I tend to like things simple and graphic and my color also follows along with a near monochromatic pallet. When I shoot people and lifestyle I extend those values into the direction I give the talent and usually try to create simple and beautiful images. It’s all about finding that right moment and making it sing. I pull a lot from what I see in everyday life when I create my images. I try not to over think things and do what comes natural.

Photo by Dana Neibert

Photo by Dana Neibert

I talk with them in hair and make up and when they first come on set and explain the role to them and most of the time they are pretty good with it. I’m on the sidelines and waiting for those special moments, like with a dad and son interacting, and hoping I catch them. Once in a while, I have stiffer talent and it becomes like a fashion shoot and I direct every little thing. With professional talent, they can usually run with it. Every situation is different though, but maybe I’m lucky to get good talent.

Photo by Dana Neibert

Photo by Dana Neibert

POP: When did you start building a conceptual portfolio?

The conceptual portfolio kind of just built itself. As I shot more jobs, I soon had enough images to put in their own category. I don’t really approach a conceptual job much different than a lifestyle job. Every job comes with a challenge and I come up with a creative solution. A lot of times the conceptual jobs need a simple and clear solution which is ideal for me.

Photo by Dana Neibert

Photo by Dana Neibert

POP: Who was your first automotive client and how did you start getting transportation work?

My first automotive client was Lexus. Before that Lexus job, we were called in to bid on a lot of car jobs. I had zero car shots in my book. An art buyer or art director can see a photographer’s portfolio and get a good sense of how they would shoot cars. But they also have to convince their client that you can pull it off which wasn’t happening for me. I was lucky that there was a great creative director and art buyer on the Lexus job that obviously had a lot of trust from their client.

Photo by Dana Neibert

At some point, you’ve never shot something before. I’d never shot a cruise ship my first job. They can look at your portfolio and know what colors you choose, how you’ll compose and how you direct and know that if you apply this to their campaign, you’ll get it right. They knew me and knew my work and factoring all of these things, it wasn’t so much of a gamble. There was a high probability it was going to come out pretty decent. After Lexus, I started shooting more cars on my own and started building a car book. From then on it was a little easier to get some of the car work although that category is very competitive.

POP: The Chevy job was shot on the retrofit section of the Bay Bridge. You made a behind the scenes video in which Producit is credited with getting permits to shoot where no commercial projects were permitted. How did you choose this location and how happy were you when they got the permits? It’s an amazing shoot.

The location was actually dictated by the agency. They came to us with ideas for several huge construction projects in North America where they wanted to shoot their heavy duty trucks. They slowly whittled them down to the Bay Bridge project—in fact, it had to be the Bay Bridge and nothing else would do. Producit’s first contact with the Bay Bridge was turned away as Caltrans had a policy in effect that no commercial filming would be allowed during the retrofit. They would only allow documentaries and news crews. Somehow through several meetings, Producit was able to get an exception for our project. To this day I’m not really sure how they did it but Chevy was thrilled.

POP: The shot from above has the same dramatic aesthetic as your more spare, graphic images. How did you come up with the idea for this shot? And how did you get approval to bring a cherry picker to a restricted location?

The shot list was a collaboration between the agency and myself. The 80-foot cherry picker was no big deal to Caltrans as they were using similar equipment themselves. However, a 4-foot step ladder was not permitted on the construction site because it did not have a safety cage around it!

Photo by Dana Neibert

POP: With your Interior Landscapes series, you say that your inspiration was seeing ‘landscapes’ in everyday indoor scenes. This perspective seems present whether you’re shooting lifestyle, places, or air shows. Did doing the interior landscape project reveal anything to you about the rest of your work and the way you see?

I’m still exploring that series. I use one hundred year old lenses that are a little softer and have a very shallow depth of field. That combination seems to simplify an already simple scene and give it a whole new dimension. Previously I tried to shoot those “interior landscapes” that I saw with other cameras and I could never really capture the scene as I saw it. This was the first set of images that were really capturing my vision. I think there’s another evolution in there somewhere. When I’m shooting other work, what What I’ve learned from the Interior Landscape working is subconsciously being fed into the new work. Personal work is what helps the commercial work grow and evolve.

Photo by Dana Neibert

POP: You shoot a lot of personal work. What do you bring back to your commercial work from your personal projects?

The personal work helps you grow as an artist and photographer. It’s where you can experiment and take chances. I can’t count the jobs I’ve gotten from the Del Mar Fair images.

POP: For portfolio shows, how much of your portfolio is campaigns and how much personal work?

I think it’s about 50/50. Art buyers and art directors love to see what you do when you’re not shackled to a creative brief.

Photo by Dana Neibert

POP: For the Del Mar Fair project, what were your thoughts behind choosing this palette? You said this project got you hired for commercial jobs. What do the art buyers respond to? The graphics? The palette?

The Del Mar Fair was hot and bright. When I was shooting it, I knew I would print the shots overly warm to help convey that feeling. This project is brought up time and time again when we are brought in to bid on jobs. And for many different reasons. Sometimes people like the color palette. Sometimes they like the negative space. Sometimes the graphic quality. It’s been referenced so many times that I don’t recall all the jobs it’s helped land but we definitely keep it in the portfolio even though it’s nearly ten years old.

Photo by Dana Neibert

Photo by Dana Neibert

POP: Having worked as an art director, you know what is needed from a photographer. This must have helped you when you started shooting for bigger commercial clients.

I think having been on the agency side of the table has helped me as I understand what the agency’s challenges are. Many photographers may not be aware of how agency politics work, how timelines develop, etc. I know that when files are handed off to an agency, the job is not done. I keep these things in mind and try to deflect any stress from the art buyer, art director and studio manager by talking up front with them so that I can make their life easier on the back end.

POP: What inspires your palette?

My palette is a combination of simplicity and how I see things. I like things simple and graphic and when I remember a scene I think I must subconsciously simplify the color which is the basis for my images when I print.

Photo by Dana Neibert

POP: Early inspiration and influences? Favorite designers?

My inspiration is rather cliché as I love the simplicity of Edward Hopper’s and Norman Rockwell’s work. Also, Ansel Adams and his printing is a huge influence on me. I also love the work of painters Richard Diebenkorn and Wayne Thiebaud. El Lissitzky and anything Bauhaus.

POP: Job that you’ve had that’s allowed you to integrate your interests?

I can’t think of any jobs that have allowed me to integrate my personal interests other than my love of image making. But the personal work that I shoot definitely leads me to commercial work.

Photo by Dana Neibert

POP: Job(s) for which you think your perspective has been especially successful or a great match for the product?

I used to be a big tennis player so when I shot a job for the United States Tennis Association that was really about the obscure fanatical details of the sport, I was able to bring a lot of great shots to the table. I was given a huge amount of creative freedom on that job and we had a blast shooting it.

Photo by Dana Neibert

POP: You have a lot of really beautiful detail and environmental shots in the Dodge portfolio. Were those in the brief?

They had some specifics. The truck pulling a trailer in front of a barn. A cowboy walking his horse with a truck in the background. We also had to get some details shots like the truck bed with a saddle in it. The others were extra shots that I took when I had a few minutes of free time. Sometimes I do this for a client if there’s time. They can use them in the corner of an ad or a catalog. It’s always appreciated even when they don’t use all of them.

Photo by Dana Neibert

Photo by Dana Neibert

Photo by Dana Neibert

The Four Seasons portrait below was one of these shots. It was not on our shot list, but while I was waiting on talent and wardrobe, one talent was already ready and waiting on her horse. I just started shooting her as she waited and got one of those beautiful, unplanned reactions from her. The shot went on to be one of the hero shots of the campaign which went on to be a Kelly Award finalist.

Photo by Dana Neibert

POP: You’ve shot a lot of motion. What clients have you shot motion for and are you getting more requests for motion in your bids? Where have you looked for inspiration for your motion work?

I’ve only shot a couple of motion picture jobs. We get more and more requests for motion. Some have been to bid on broadcast commercial jobs where there is no still photo aspect of the shoot which in my wildest dreams I never really imagined. I always expected all my motion picture requests to be tagged on to a still job. Inspiration is everywhere. What I really like about motion picture is sometimes you can’t tell your story with one still image.

POP: How did you develop your ability to tell a story and what was your process for developing the technical skills?

The ability to tell a story is different for every job. When you shoot a job you have so much knowledge on the subject from all your research and collaboration with the creatives. So sometimes you need to take a step back and look at the subject as an outsider who is not privy to all that information and then figure out what it would take to convey the story. Mostly practice and working with great creatives develops those skills. There is also a certain amount of natural intuition that I have that helps bring out a story in a photograph.

POP: You’ve developed a diverse and successful portfolio of lifestyle, conceptual, landscape and portrait and transportation work. What’s next?

I’m not really sure. I never set out and said, “Okay, I need a lifestyle, landscape, portrait portfolio, etc.” to show people. As the number of images grew, I just kind of curated them into categories on my web site so art directors and art buyers can find the type of images they are looking for. Such as the conceptual category was kind of consumer request as more and more we were asked for sample images that fit that category. As I gathered them up to send to people, I realized I had enough that could warrant it’s own section on my site.

Photo by Dana Neibert

POP: You have a stock site. How do you market your stock images? With separate targeted campaigns? Who are your stock clients, existing or new? And do stock clients ever turn into full commercial clients?

The stock site is still in its infancy stage mostly because there’s only about a thousand or so images on there. I won’t start to market the site until I have 5,000 or so images. I think it could be detrimental to the site to send a large amount of people there only to disappoint them with a very little selection of images. Once I reach the 5,000 mark, I’ll market it with it’s own campaign. Right now it gets a fair amount of traffic and I’ve licensed images to existing as well as new clients. I know of lot of the images get used in comps by art directors for pitches so it also serves a purpose of just having a larger selection of my work available for creatives to present to their clients.

POP: Dream job/client?

An Army, Navy, Marines or Air Force shoot. I love shooting real people in real environments. I love to become a fly on a wall and capture real moments. With some commercial shoots I can do that if I have good talent where I can give them some up front direction and then they bring the rest to the table. Sometimes I can’t and I have to constantly direct the talent like a fashion shoot—move your arm, higher, little higher, now look past me, a little more, no, past me… It’s so much more gratifying when that stuff just happens and I can capture it. Shooting members of our armed forces and showing them as the heroes they are would just be ideal. I’m not proposing to embed myself in a platoon in Iraq but rather in a training type facility here in the states with an air conditioned motor home waiting for me after each shot.

Photo by Dana Neibert



One Response to “Q&A with Advertising Photographer DANA NEIBERT”

  1. Damn Dano, you are GOOOOD!! Great story brother.


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