Interview: Bill Wadman

Tell us a little bit about yourself?

My name is Bill Wadman, I’m a portrait photographer in NYC.  Most of the time I’m shooting editorial portraits for magazines like TIME and BusinessWeek with some advertising thrown in for good measure. In 2007 I completed a project at 365portraits.com which got a good amount of attention. That said, I really only picked up a camera about 5 years ago, my education is in music of all things.

How did you become interested in photography?

Honestly?  I’m not sure. I used to play with my dad’s Canon AE-1 when I was a kid, but really it began with my desire to do something new. I tend to get bored a lot, so I like to try things I’ve never done before. So picked up a camera and got hooked.

What was the first photograph that you remember making an impression on you?

Actually, I have no good answer for this one.

What were the early steps you took, to grow as a photographer? Are you a self taught photographer or did you have a mentor that showed you the ropes?

I’m completely self taught, figuring out how to do it is where most of the fun for me. I certainly read articles and interviews on the web along with occasional books, but most of it is experimentation. It was interesting getting my 4×5 going the first day. “oops, blew that sheet of polaroid, another five bucks down the drain!”

What sort of equipment do you use? Which is most important or vital? Any favorite lenses? Anything you don’t have that you would like to use?

Right now I do most of my work with a canon 5DII. 28/1.8, 35/1.4, 50/1.2, and 85/1.2 lenses. I sold all my L zooms last year in deference to primes, but kept the 24-70L just in case.

Besides the digital canon, I’ve got a Leica M4, Hasselblad 500c/m, and a Cambo 4×5, but those are relegated to special circumstances nowadays. Film is too expensive and time consuming for me.

As far as lights go, I’ve got a couple of speedlights and a few Alien Bees, and a Profoto AcuteB for on site shoots when a Speedlight just won’t do.

Most of the time though, if I have my 5D with the 28 and 50mm lenses (love that 28mm), and a diffuser/reflector, I’m happy. I like to use available light or incredibly simple light setups whenever I can. Also, people often yell at me for using wide-angle lenses for portraits, but it works for me.  I like having some of their environment in there as well.

As for toys I’d like to have, I wouldn’t mind taking a nice medium format back if someone wanted to buy me a P65. I think I’ll wait until they’re full frame 6×6 though. But honestly at this point, if my photographs don’t look the way I want, it’s my fault at this point, not my gear’s.

Would you give a brief walk through your work flow?

Well first comes the shooting. I’m not the guy who has to get exposure perfect in camera. In fact with the small dynamic range of these sensors, I don’t know that there is such a thing as perfect exposure, you’re almost always losing the highlights or the shadows. In any case, I shoot RAW and if I’m within half of a stop from where I should be, I’m usually ok.

I consider shooting to be gathering raw footage for later editing, so I tend to worry more about the subject than the camera. Sometimes to my detriment.

When I get home I copy everything over to a raid 1 array. A folder for each shoot inside a folder for each subject, just to keep it straight.  Then I import them from the disk into Lightroom, convert to DNG, rename and sort.

I go through a multiple-step process. The ones worth anything get 1 star, then I go through those and the best get two stars, then I go through those until I end up with the 5 or 6 I want to retouch. WB and exposure and fill light etc are done in lightroom, then I export a 16bit PSD into Photoshop and add lots of masked curves to make the image look like something. When I’m done I backup the project to an external drive and export a full-res jpg which I upload to jungle disk as a last ditch backup in case my house gets bombed.

How do you decide on locations & subjects? Where is your favorite location to take pictures?

Most of the time, I don’t get much choice on the setting, or I have to do the best with what I’m handed. The backgrounds in many of my pictures are not that interesting until after I process them. This is something I have to work on though, I’ve got a few letter size pieces of paper with reminders on them stuck to my wall above my monitor and one of them says, “Find & use better backgrounds”.

There are many schools of thought on this though.  Some people like Greenfield-Sanders or Avedon for example, wanted the background to be nothing or next to nothing with the subject the focus of attention.  There are other photographers who go to the other extreme and have a well styled person sitting in a gorgeous setting with a blank look on their face. Personally I’m somewhere in between.  I think I tend to lean towards the minimalists but I’m also envious of the beautiful settings, so I think my goal is to merge the two going forward.

Do you rely on lighting (natural, or artificial)?

In the past I used almost all available light. It was like a puzzle to find a way to make it work. Lately I’ve been using more strobes, mostly for control. But they do add time and complexity to shoots, so it’s a tradeoff.

In general, during a session, how many pics would you say you take to find “the right one”?

Anywhere from 2 to 500. On average though I can get what I need in 125 or so, that’s usually where the numbers come out. I had two shoots the other day though that couldn’t have been more different. First shoot I shot 450 images and got about 2 pics I was at all happy with. That night I did a studio shoot where I ended up with 200 images, 40 of which were better than the best of the afternoon shoot. There are a lot of variables.

How do you make your subjects feel relaxed in front of the camera?

I talk to them. I’ll do research before I meet them if they’re known. Helps to break the ice. Usually I’m honestly interested. If it works, the subject almost forgets what’s going on and let’s down their guard.  Sometimes it takes a while, an hour or more, but there’s eventually a moment where the whole thing shifts and the scale tilts in my favor.  It’s a great moment.

How do you know when a photo, of yours, is really good?

When it looks like something better than the pictures that I usually take. In many ways I’m my own hardest critic. I always want each shoot to lead to better and better images, but that’s not always possible, and then I beat myself up over it.  It’s more a feeling than anything else.  When stuff really clicking I get buzzed.  Usually that happens when I’m shooting and the lighting or framing or pose all come together, I get this “ooo, ooo, ooo” feeling.  Sometimes I even say that out loud.

Usually when that happens though, it’s because it’s both a pretty photograph as well as telling about the subject.  Like I said, a pretty picture with a dead looking subject is pretty boring to me.

How would you describe your style?

I usually say that I take deliberate environmental portraits. When I’m at my best, I want my images to look like paintings.  Other than that, I have a hard time putting words to it.

Do you ever find yourself in a “photo funk”, and, if so, how do you get out of it?

All the time. Hell, I’m in one now.  Usually the only way out is to keep shooting until I come up with something new that excites me. Idle hands are my shackles, I’ve got to keep moving.  Unfortunately the funk usually comes with a depression that makes you uninterested in shooting at all.  It’s a bad cycle to get into and hard to get out.  Some people look at other people’s work to get inspired. It’s funny, but I tend to only get inspired by either super famous people or dead photographers.  I’ll pick up a Cartier-Bresson book and be inspired by it, but some kid in Tokyo that’s taking great stuff and posting it on his website usually just makes me feel like I suck.  So sometimes surfing other people’s work for inspiration can backfire on you.

How do you market yourself? Do you advertise? If so where? How important is an awesome website for your business?

I have an agent now, but in the past I’ve used some of the services like adbase and photoserve. Honestly though I’ve gotten the most work from word of mouth and networking.  I guess my 365 Portraits project helped get my name out there as well.  In this economic climate though, there are thousands of other photographers all going for the same small pie that’s out there.  Ultimately I think and hope that it comes down to your work.  Do good work and eventually people start to notice.

Is there anybody or anything you would love to photograph?

Sure, in fact I keep a list of them at http://www.billwadman.com/thelist/
I had the chance to shoot some of my heroes during 365.  I’m a space and science geek and got to shoot Buzz Aldrin, and Brian Greene, and James Burke, and others.  Honestly, those were some of the coolest things I’ve ever done.  I like meeting people who are exceptional at what they do. Most of the people on my wishlist are in that category.  Tomorrow for instance, I’m heading up to Mt Kisco NY to shoot a Grammy award winning mix engineer who’s work I’ve loved for years.  Shooting him will be interesting, but I’m just as excited to meet and chat with him.

What’s the wildest thing you’ve done to gain better access for a shot?

Hmm, I’m not really that kind of photographer. I’ve schmoozed plenty of people and left letters at theaters where people where in shows and such, but that’s as crazy as it gets.  Actually, to meet Buzz, I signed up as press for the premiere of a movie about the moon landings where I knew a few of the Apollo guys were going to be.  I took some pictures on the red carpet to keep up appearances and then finally got to meet him because I was lucky enough to befriend a guy who  just so happened to be something of a business partner of Buzz’s and close to his wife.  So he went and chatted with Buzz’s wife and she made it happen. The women always have the power.

Who are the 3-5 most inspiring photographers to you?

This changes constantly. Lately Eric Ogden, Brigitte Lacombe, Stephane Lavoue, Joey Lawrence, and Dan Winters are making me ill.  And that’s the highest form of compliment from me.  It means that I feel like I’ll never do stuff as cool as them.

What has been your most memorable assignment/project and why?

I’d have to say that 365 Portraits was the most satisfying overall.  It was so big and long and with so many facets that it’s hard to compare it with other things.  That said, many of my assignments have cool parts to them. For example, I shot Malcolm Gladwell for TIME last year and I just got a copy of “Outliers” in the mail a couple weeks ago with an inscription that said, “To Bill, who made me look like something out of a Rembrandt”.  That was pretty great.

*****

I must say, when I finally discovered Bill’s work, I was astounded. Most recently, I’ve been keeping track of Bill on his current blog, On Taking Pictures. But, I first saw his 365 Portraits project. It must have been in June of that year. I remember spending the whole of that afternoon, looking at each and every portrait before that one day’s. What struck me was that Bill clearly had a certain level of quality, yet shifted in style for each portrait. He truly is a gifted and wonderful artist.

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