You may not be familiar with Steve Brown by name but you will most definitely be familiar with his work and his subjects. His photography has graced the cover of countless magazines including Rock Sound, Terrorizer and Metal Hammer. He has photographed everyone from Slipknot to Dr Who and his portfolio contains some astounding compositions. He has turned Carcass and Slayer into ravaged, flesh-eating zombies, taken long walks in the forest with Norwegian Black Metal legends Immortal and in fits of extreme bravery has had Lenny Henry and Gary Lineker stare down his lens. Steve has very graciously taken some time out of his busy schedule to chat with Zombiehamster.com about his dark arts.
ZH: So, I guess we should start at the beginning, how did you become involved in all of this? Was it through University or was it something that you pursued in your own way?
SB: I kind of fell into it really. My Grandparents were keen amateur photographers and my parents had a fine set of good quality SLRs that they used to take holiday photos etc., so I was aware that photography was something that could be taken seriously and produce great results, but I originally wanted to be an illustrator.
To this end I did an Art Foundation course at Bradford College after my A Levels, for which you spend the first six months trying out all the different disciplines (painting, illustration, fashion design, photography, sculpture etc.) and then choose which to specialise in. It turned out that I liked photography the best, and so specialised in that, and then went on to do a photography degree at Blackpool and the Fylde College of Art and Design.
ZH: Did the technical and conceptual elements get equal focus in the courses which you attended?
SB: Yes, Blackpool was great in that the course did actually value craft and tried to prepare us for a career in the industry. A lot of courses are so conceptually focused that they almost disdain having the skills to actually make a career as a photographer and I think that’s a real shame.
ZH: Did you always want to venture into the Media (Music, Film & TV) side of photography? What drew you towards this?
SB: After I graduated I came down to London and followed the tried and tested route of assisting established photographers as a way of gaining experience and a feel for the industry. I had always been drawn to music photography, as I love music and it seemed to offer a lot of creative freedom and exciting visual possibilities, and so I went out of my way to assist some great music photographers, such as Andy Earl, Scarlet Page, Soren Solkaer Starbird and many others. I learned a lot from them, and then when it came to shooting for myself I followed that route as well.
I shot for music magazines for a couple of years, and then a commissioner at the BBC saw some shots I had done for Lacuna Coil which she liked enough to put me forward to shoot the publicity campaign for a new Doctor Who spin off show that no one had heard of, called Torchwood. I worked my ass off on that campaign and it was very successful, and that led to more TV show commissions for the BBC, and eventually ITV, Sky and other channels and production companies, usually through word of mouth and recommendation. I have continued shooting for music magazines, but a bigger proportion of my work is now for TV companies.
ZH: So would you recommend that any potential or trainee professional photographers out there get themselves associated with some established names to try and learn the industry and gain some experience?
SB: Yes, though they don’t have to be well known or famous photographers, just people who are out there doing what you ultimately want to do and getting paid for it. There is so much more to being a successful photographer than just taking pictures and working with established photographers will show you the ins and outs of the industry in a way that a university course never can.
ZH: A lot of your shoots are very high concept, how much creative input do you get to contribute to them?
SB: It really depends. Sometimes I am presented with a set concept, which may be verbal or sketched out. Other times I am given the script of a TV show and have to work out ways to visually represent the story, or pull out certain great scenes which would work as stills concepts. I always try to offer as much creative input as possible and my favourite jobs are where I can come up with a concept, draw up concept sketches, work out the logistics, shoot it, and then do all the retouching. Then I really feel like it’s MY work! That said, I do also like being handed a strong concept and just having to address the technical challenge of actually bringing it to life.
ZH: Some of the layouts and scenes which are portrayed in your images are simply stunning. How much of the digital wizardry is your doing?
SB: I do all my own retouching when I can, and I don’t have any work on my website that wasn’t retouched by me. I do occasionally do shoots for which budget constraints mean that they have to use in house retouchers, but I never really feel that they are my final images, it’s more a case of just handing over the raw materials and letting them get on with it. I much prefer to see the project through to the end myself, and the way I work is designed for this ‘full service’ approach; I plan and shoot the various elements in such a way that it makes them easy to work with in post-production, so I have a good workflow through the whole process.
ZH: It sounds like a great deal of time is spent in either prep or post production. What’s the average time limit that you would allocate to a project?
SB: The only limit is the budget! You have to make sure that you are being compensated for the time you spend on a job, sometimes a fee can seem quite good but when you break it down over the length of the job the day rate is actually very small. But I definitely spend more time on pre and post production than I do on actually shooting, it’s surprising how much behind the scenes work goes into a short one day shoot.
ZH: Do you still get a rush when you walk into a newsagents and see your work on the cover of a magazine?
SB: Yes, it’s always nice to see my work out there. I’ve had a lot of covers over the years (there’s a small selection here ) so the novelty has worn off a bit, but it’s always nice to see an image used in a layout and out there for sale.
ZH: There’s a very particular darkness to your work (contextually, not aesthetically), is this a conscious decision that you make whilst preparing the compositions, or is it just indicative of your particular style?
SB: I think this is something i fell into to a certain extent, and which i do make a conscious effort to balance out with lighter subject matter as well. I started out shooting rock and metal bands for metal music magazines and so obviously there was a certain aesthetic that worked for that subject matter, and when you start shooting a certain type of work you inevitably get commissioned to shoot more of the same. One of the reasons I pushed hard to shoot more TV work was that I didn’t want to go so far down the metal band route that I would never be asked to shoot anything else!
That said, I think as a visual creative there is a certain ‘look’ that just seems to creep into my work, as a result of the way i shoot, the lighting I am drawn to, the post production techniques I use and maybe just the way i see the world. When I see a bunch of my pictures together, for instance on my website, there is a very definite common ‘feel’ to the images, whether they are of Norwegian Black Metal musicians or Under 18 American Football players in North London. I guess it’s just the way my brain translates the world.
ZH: Your Joey Jordison Metal Hammer cover is the stuff which nightmares are made of; can you tell us a little about it?
SB: The Joey Jordison picture is an interesting example of how that ‘feel’ is also fed by the particular brief and circumstances of a job. I was sent to Des Moines to shoot the band and James Isaacs at Metal Hammer had the great idea of using Dave McKean’s amazing Batman comic Arkham Asylum as the inspiration for the shoot. I was really keen to do this as I love combining illustration and mixed media with photography and looked at a lot of Dave’s work for inspiration. I had the idea of shooting all my shots of the band normally, but then also shooting long shutter speed, blurry images of every shot and set up as well, which when blended with and overlaid over the sharp images gave a slightly odd, dreamy feel to the shots which fitted nicely with the Dave McKean style. Joey also had a new mask and that in itself is fairly creepy and unsettling, it would be difficult to take pictures of Slipknot and not have them look quite scary!
ZH: I’m sure they’re all lovely once the masks come off though.
SB: They were actually all really nice and friendly, I was pleasantly surprised!
ZH: There is also a very cinematic element to some of the shoots, in particular a lot of the band ones, what are your celluloid influences? Are there any directors or cinematographers who you admire greatly?
SB: I love film, and I do take a lot of inspiration and influence from watching films. Super stylised movies such as The Fifth Element, The Matrix, Star Wars or pretty much any of Tim Burton’s back catalogue had a big effect on me early on in my career and gave me a desire to go beyond the banality of everyday reality, which a lot of modern photography is very enamoured with, and create worlds that you couldn’t see in everyday life.
Other people I really like include:
Joss Whedon – the episodes of Buffy that he directed were always stunning, and I’m a big Firefly/Serenity fan, and I LOVED The Cabin in the Woods.
Paul McGuigan – I love Lucky Number Slevin, beautifully shot and amazing production design, and he did an amazing job with Sherlock for the BBC too. I had a chance to meet him recently when I did some work on Sherlock, and had to keep myself from gushing about Lucky Number Slevin
SB: Danny Boyle – along with Slevin, A Life Less Ordinary is pretty much my favourite film ever, plus Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Millions and Sunshine, all fantastic, visually stunning films.
ZH: I think I have just met probably one of only about three other people who will admit to liking A Life Less Ordinary. Personally, I think it’s a really sweet film with some great performances. One of those great quirky 90’s features.
SB: Matthew Vaughn – Layer Cake is another ‘this is also my favourite film’ film, again visually amazing and so well put together, it looks like it has five times the budget that it actually did and is an incredibly confident first film. Stardust was also great and then Kick Ass just blew me away, I wanted to go straight back into the cinema and watch it again.
Ridley Scott – I just watched Alien again today, and although it’s actually incredibly slow paced you almost don’t notice because every shot is so beautifully lit and framed.
Gareth Edwards – Monsters was another film that absolutely blew me away. I thought it was a beautiful and stunning film in its own right, but the fact that he shot it with a crew of 3 or 4 people, for a miniscule budget, and did all the post production work himself, is incredibly inspiring.
ZH: Monsters was astounding. I was blown away with what was achieved on the most minimal of budgets and basically edited by Edwards himself. Really inspiring stuff.
SB: Neill Blomkamp – Similarly with District 9, I loved the feeling that you were actually in a real world where amazing stuff just happened to be in front of the cameras, rather than the often very contrived blockbuster aesthetic. Trollhunter was another film in this style that I really loved as well, directed by André Øvredal.
ZH: I love both of those movies so much. A wonderful example of what can be done with determination and a great idea.
SB: There are loads more, but those are the ones that spring to mind.
ZH: Do you prefer to work on location or use studios and green screens? What are the limitations / possibilities of each?
SB: I really like to do both, and they both do a different job and have different advantages and disadvantages.
The possibilities of greenscreen (or in fact often whitescreen, as I shoot more on a plain white background than any other colour, though it depends on the subject matter and needs of the shoot as to what colour I will use) and compositing have done more to shape my career and photography aesthetic than anything else over the last 10 years, as it has enabled me to transcend the limitations of budget and people’s availability and still create epic, cinematic shots. In the past, if you wanted to shoot a band on top of a mountain you would have to get the band to take time out of their schedule to go up the mountain with you, and then keep them happy in the snow and freezing wind while you ran around trying to stop your lights blowing over. Now I can shoot the band in a nice warm studio with as much lighting as I like, and then go up the mountain myself separately to shoot all the background images.
This way of working has enabled me to develop my quite cinematic style, and to create highly stylised and high concept images without necessarily having the budgets and resources that they would otherwise need. However, it does have limitations. It’s difficult to simulate interaction with the environment, especially if you haven’t shot it yet, and so simple things like someone leaning against a tree or putting their foot up on a rock have to either be meticulously planned and measured, or done without. Similarly lighting, angles, distances and other factors all have to be thought about whereas when shooting in an actual environment they just happen naturally.
ZH: You’re basically getting them to act. I can imagine that might be somewhat of a challenge.
SB: It can be with musicians, asking them to imagine that they’re in a wood or on top of a mountain or whatever. Actors actually often find it really hard to just pose for the camera, so they really like being given a scenario to act out, as that’s what they do, they’re happier acting than posing. I guess it’s more like theatre, where a lot of the surroundings are imagined, rather than film where the sets are actually there.
I do really enjoy shooting ‘for real’ in actual environments, and being able to get subjects to interact with each other and with their surroundings. Shooting for real and then adding grading and postproduction elements as well is a nice fusion of the two approaches, and it’s something i am pushing to do more of over the coming months.
ZH: For all the techies out there, what are your preferred choices of equipment?
SB: I use a Canon 5D Mk2 which i love, usually with a 24-70 f2.8 L-series lens though I’ll occasionally hire in a 70-200 if I need to. For lighting I have 7 Bowens studio flash heads of my own and also hire in more for jobs if necessary, and use Pocket Wizard radio flash triggers to fire them. I’m doing some personal work in a week or two that involves freezing fast action and have been doing some test shots with Canon speedlites which are working really well, they can sync at 1/5000 of a second so I’m looking forward to seeing how they work out.
For post-production i do all my image processing and manipulation in Photoshop.
ZH: Who have you had the most fun working with? Do you ever get nervous when you shoot subjects whom you have been a fan of?
SB: One of the nicest bands i ever worked with were Avenged Sevenfold. I was a little nervous of shooting them, partly as they had a bit of reputation for crazy partying, and also because I had to fly into New York, jump in a taxi and head straight to the shoot with 30 minutes to spare, so no time for error, or even properly scouting a location. It was also only a few months since their drummer had died and we had been warned that they weren’t keen on doing press at this difficult time. In the end there was a rooftop location we could use which looked great and the band couldn’t have been more friendly and helpful. They took me to Shake Shack after the shoot and insisted on buying me a burger and a shake, total gentlemen!
I don’t get nervous about people I admire so much as people who have a reputation for being difficult to work with or easy to upset, although to be honest usually when everyone is running around in a panic before the talent arrives saying how difficult they will be they then arrive and are polite, helpful and co-operative.
ZH: I can imagine so; it’s funny how sometimes the people surrounding artists, musicians, actors etc. love to kick up so much of a fuss. Maybe it makes their jobs seem more relevant.
Definitely, it just makes everyone elses jobs much harder! It’s all part of the challenge of doing those kind of shoots though, and I generally find that if I’m friendly and professional, and make sure that I work as quickly and efficiently as possible, stars appreciate that and are happy to do their part to make the shoot work.
ZH: What individual pieces / shoots are you most proud of?
SB: That’s a tough one. In terms of music based work really like the shoot i did with Immortal in the Norwegian forest, they were great guys to work with and it was such an amazing setting to shoot in. I really liked creating Ihsahn’s smoking wings from a pair of actual wings blended with lots of smoke and flame textures, and i love the hot coals effect i created for Sam from Architects.
From my TV work I like a lot of the Doctor Who stuff, as it’s always fun to work with all that classic Sci-Fi imagery, and the shot of the guys in the pub for the ITV series Whitechapel has always been a big favourite of mine.
ZH: I love that pub shot as well, it’s great!
SB: I also just did a series of portraits of young American Footballers in North London which like a lot too.
ZH: Before we wrap this up, how can people get in touch if they’d like to find out more about you and what you do?
SB: My website has portfolios of my work, as well as extra content that I’m constantly adding, such as the moving images I’m starting to experiment with and, soon, more in the way of behind the scenes sneak peeks and stories about individual shoots.
You can also follow me on Twitter and, if you really like pictures of cats, on Instagram – stevebrownphoto.
ZH: That’s awesome. I’ve really enjoyed getting the opportunity to have a chat with you about all of this. I look forward to seeing what surprises you have in store for us all.
(this interview was originally published here .)