Commercial Hasselblad photographer and trainer Karl Taylor refuses to stand still and is continually looking ahead to his next challenge, relishing the problem solving that comes with the territory.
Playing things safe is not in Karl Taylor’s nature. He’s happiest when pushing the boundaries, whether that’s by setting up a fashion shoot in a hostile environment such as Iceland or, in his role as a Hasselblad ambassador, undertaking a challenging high-speed flash routine in front of a live audience at a show, capturing balloons full of paint at the precise point of exploding. The fact that he invariably succeeds in his endeavours is testament to his considerable technical and creative skills, plus his iron nerve in the face of almost overwhelming expectancy.
“I’ve always enjoyed a challenge,” he smiles. “It starts with me designing an image in my mind, and then I physically sketch it out and look for ways that it might be executed. What drives me are the technical aspects of the lighting, the physics and the problems that I’ll have to overcome, particularly since my aim is always to create as much as possible in-camera rather than rely on Photoshop to get me through. I keep a notepad of images that I want to work on in the future, so when I get the opportunity I try to shoot these. We’ll often film these ideas as they come together and then turn them into tutorials, or workshops or something that we can use for a future live show.”
“I was born and brought up on Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands,” he says, “and when I left school at the age of 16 I landed a promising job in the design industry. However, less than a year later I was made redundant, and I ended up taking a position in a camera shop just to fill a gap while I was looking for something else. That was my introduction to photography, and they used to set us assignments that were designed to give us more experience with the cameras we were selling.
“I became hooked through that, and from that moment forward I just dedicated my life to photography, initially assisting and then carving a career for myself as a photojournalist in my early twenties, working out in South East Asia for three years.”
“Eventually I got fed up with not really making a great deal of money, and so I headed for Australia where I worked for a while as an assistant in a commercial studio. It was here that I fell in love with the controlled use of lighting and started to learn the techniques that were involved, and then I came back to Guernsey and set up my own studio. Although it’s an island it’s a good place to be working because there are a lot of off-shore tax businesses and companies based here.”
Product photography, then as now, required the highest quality results and so medium and large format cameras were the order of the day in Karl’s studio from the very beginning. However, the cost of materials back in film days was excruciating. The bill for film and Polaroids was amounting to over £17,000 a year, and as the quality and resolution of camera sensors started to improve Karl looked to find a solution in the form of a Hasselblad H1 and an Imacon back. It was the start of a relationship that’s still going strong today.
“Moving to the H1 meant I could charge the same prices but make more profit as there were no film costs anymore,” he says. “I’ve now been a Hasselblad user for around eleven years, and after working my way through an H3 and then an H4 I’m now using the H5D-50 CCD model and I’m very happy with it. I did use the H5D-50c CMOS-sensored camera while working on the campaign images for Hasselblad’s stand at photokina in 2014, and was blown away by the quality of the files that I could shoot at high ISO speeds. I shot sci-fi themed pictures of a model who was posing and being lit purely by fluorescent tubes. I set ISO speeds of 800 and 1600 and couldn’t believe the quality of the files, even when they’d been blown up to an enormous size. They were virtually noise free, which was amazing.”
For work in the studio, however, where light is more controllable, Karl prefers his CCD-powered camera, enjoying the chance to work with an ISO entry point of just 50, compared to the lowest ISO speed of 100 offered by the H5D-50c. “It just suits what I do,” he says, “but they are both magnificent cameras.”
Accompanying the Hasselblads is a studio full of state-of-the-art lighting kit, powerful, portable and ultra fast, something that’s crucial to Karl’s approach to high-speed photography. He made the decision a few years back to trade in his existing lighting kit for broncolor units and Para reflectors, and it’s combined with his cameras to create the perfect, highly flexible outfit.
Although he loves shooting fashion and the whole buzz of working with a model and a full scale support team when he gets a chance to take on personal work, it’s still the product photography that drives Karl’s business, and he’s an absolute master of his craft, capable of being able to make the most ordinary of products look like a million dollars.
“I have a phrase that I like to use,” he says, “which is to say that I turn the mundane into the magical. The way I do this is through precision, observational skills and a mastery of lighting, and all of these things are key to the success of a product shot. You need to be able to look at an object and to identify its characteristics, whether it’s an iPhone, a stereo system or a bottle of whisky that you’re looking to photograph. It’s important to really look at it, to rotate it and to find the contours or the features that will speak to you in a picture, and to realise the elements of the product that the client wants to highlight.
“Once you’ve done that you need to identify how you’re going to light it and what’s going to make the object look sexy and dynamic. The biggest thing is not to compromise: many of those who are moving into product photography for the first time will take a nice photograph, but then you’ll notice a highlight that isn’t quite right, or the angle will be wrong or one of the lights might have been better had it been a bit brighter or positioned a little differently. And it’s simply because they maybe gave up a little bit too soon or they didn’t observe it closely enough, or there was an element of them thinking: ‘I’ll fix it in Photoshop.’ That just doesn’t work: everything has to be ultra precise, with no compromise and very good observational skills.”
© Karl Taylor
Karl knows that only the very best will keep his clientele happy, and it’s imperative that he always delivers work that’s of the very highest quality. “The kind of clients I’ve got will expect a high level of performance,” he says. “They know what standard is required and they come to me or photographers who are at the same level because they know we can do it. They know we’ll find a way to make it happen and that we’ll be able to bring their vision to reality. And that’s what I love about it: an art director will come to me and will say we’ve got this shoot, we don’t know if it can be done photographically, and I’ll find a way of making it happen.”
“That’s the challenge and that’s what keeps me motivated. And because I’m always aiming to achieve at least 90 per cent of the final picture in-camera with only the final stages requiring Photoshop my photography looks much more realistic and has a much greater clarity about it.”
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