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Beers With: Dave Hill

(Photo by Dave Hill)

Conceptual portrait photographer Dave Hill, of Nashville, has never won a photography award. Nor does he belong to any photographic organizations. So you have probably never heard of him.

(That's not him above. Dave has better pecs.)

I caught up with Dave via email for a little Q&A while he was in London recently. More from the guy who has the "Dave Hill Look" down better than almost anyone else, after the jump.

Dave Hill Q&A

Your lighting, shooting and post-production style is unique, and generates a lot of conversation among this site's readers. Is there really a definitive "Dave Hill Style," or are you more subject-driven in your approach to visualizing and lighting a photo?

Well, I'm not sure if there is a "style," but I do tend to light in similar ways, even if the audiences and subjects are totally different. I have definitely studied and used other people's lighting styles that have been around way before me.

My post production process, though always evolving, has become almost second nature to me. I'm pretty good at getting the Dave Hill look by now.  :-)  But of course, not every subject works with an 8 light setup. Recently, I've been playing around with fewer lights, not always insisting on rear lights, etc.  

(Photo by Dave Hill)

You are 28 years old. In just ten years you have gone from shooting local skateboarders to photographing some of the hottest people in the entertainment industry. How does that happen so fast? When you look back, do you see a moment when things really started to gel for you?

Haha. Actually, it seems like a long time coming really. Look how much Britney Spears has accomplished in the same amount of time?

I shot for my college paper for 4 years (UCLA Daily Bruin) and then worked at Loyola Marymount University as their full-time campus photographer, working mainly with film (medium format). I didn't really know any freelance photographers at the time and didn't really know what I was doing, lighting-wise. It wasn't until I packed my bags and moved to Nashville in 2003 that stuff started changing.

I was sick of shooting for a salary and decided I would shoot as much as possible on my own, while working random odd jobs (valet parking, video editing, etc). I got a lot of flak from some of the bigger photogs in Nashville for putting up signs for $100 artist promo shoots. I'm happy I did, though. Besides getting a ton of experience, I shot one band, with a guy who worked at EMI records. He liked my stuff, got me a meeting with the label, and it turned into a lot of jobs with Nashville records labels, and then nation-wide labels. During the $100 days, I also shot an indie musician who was friends with some guys at a Seattle design firm, then called Asterik Studio (now 

They saw my stuff, liked it, and started using me more and more. It helped that I was willing to build huge water tanks and massive sets for almost no budgets. With them, I really got to do some great photoshop-heavy compositing work. All in all,  I guess my $100 campaign really sparked things for my career (and just shooting a ton!).

Regarding your light, do you tend to design it before the fact in a given situation, or does it just evolve as you shoot and look at the results?

If the shoot involves a planned concept, I usually have a good idea of how I will light it before I arrive on set. Of course, sometimes stuff looks great in my head, I set the lights up, and then it looks like crap, so I have to play it cool and try another set up (acting confident in front of the art director the whole time, of course!)

For less-planned shoots, like most artist promo stuff, I just set up the lights on the fly. Funny thing is, the lighting setups for planned stuff and the last minute stuff usually come out pretty similar.

Your photos, although highly produced, are also very moment-oriented. You describe them as "cinematic." How to you create these moments? Is there a lot of pre-thinking and direct coaching involved, or is it more of an organic collaboration on the set?

For all of my bigger-budget shoots, the concepts are planned out in my head at least a few days before we shoot (sometimes much farther in advance). I did the packaging photos for Chris Brown's latest CD this past summer, and I had to come up with some concepts for him based on some movies he liked. I had a lot of fun coming up with image concepts, locations, etc and finally having the budget to pull them off (sports car, big plasma screens, baby Leopard, radio dishes, etc...kinda ridiculous!). 

I did an ad for Nationwide Insurance this past summer which also involved a ton of planning, and coaching on set. We had these poor high school kids jumping on trampolines and flying into mattresses all day. The image was accurately sketched out a few weeks before we started shooting. I really love spending lots of time on single images. I really hope to do even more stuff like that this year.

Clearly, your clients are hiring you with expectations of a certain look and feel to the photos you'll make. Do you think that expectation hems you in, of gives you the freedom to stretch?

I really do feel a lot of pressure to keep progressing my style in the same direction (big composites, post, etc). Of course there are upsides and downsides to this. It's very rare that my clients aren't happy with their product since I rarely take too many chances (which is something I'm actively working to overcome!) They pretty much get what they expected. 

Recently, I've tried to tone down some of the post-processed look on a few assignments and the feedback I've gotten from the art directors is "great stuff! but can you add some of that "animated" look to the images?" So ya, we'll see how much I can grow and stretch this year... :-)  

You are shooting what many of the readers of this site would consider dream assignments. What would you consider a dream assignment?

I would love to shoot Zach Braft, Mandy Moore, and Clint Eastwood riding wild camels, with pursuing Arab militants in the deserts of Namibia for the cover of Vanity Fair, in promotion for their upcoming movie "The Desert Chronicles," directed by Steven Spielberg (of course I would shoot him for the sidebar). My wife would produce it, and all my friends would be there hanging out, assisting, etc.

Afterwards, we would explore for 2 months, shoot a lot of film, get stuck in the sand at least 4 times, then come home, and cash our checks. A month later, Universal would buy out all of the rights to the photos for their movie poster for $1,000,000.


Are you near the greater L.A. area? Be sure to stop by the Koos Art Center in Long Beach, to see Dave's work along with that of seven other photographers, in the show, Photo Pass: An Exhibit of Music Photography.

Related links:

:: Dave Hill's website
:: Official 'Dave Hill Look!' navel-gazing thread ::


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