Pro's Choice; Chris Collins, Problem Solver; Bringing Still Life To Life Takes Ingenuity, And The Right Tools

How do you photograph a duck pumping gas? When Aflac came to New York advertising photographer Chris Collins with just such a dilemma, this problem solver had the answer and years of experience to back him up. One duck was a given: they'd use a very sophisticated puppet designed (and finessed over the years) by noted Hollywood model-maker Stan Winston. But they'd also need a live duck and a duck wrangler. Collins' experience working with everything from monkeys to snakes meant this would be no more challenging for him than, say...topping off a gas tank.

Aflac Ducks

In this ad campaign for Aflac, it took three operators to give this custom-designed duck puppet the right attitude (the rods are retouched out). The lighting for this digital series relied primarily on softboxes to achieve a soft, open look.
All Photos © 2007, Chris Collins, All Rights Reserved

For nearly all of his 30 years as a pro, Collins rode the current of the 8x10 and 4x5 formats, which were in heavy demand by clients. More to the point, clients wanted transparencies. The view camera, with its array of swings and tilts, carried the tide.
A few short years ago the current shifted. Clients began to change their attitudes and were asking for images shot digitally. While Collins' film-based 8x10s gathered dust, a pair of 4x5 Toyo Views and a Hasselblad--all digitally enabled--moved to the forefront. These cameras carry the day with the help of Phase One digital backs--a 39-megapixel P 45 and a 22-megapixel P 25 ( (The medium format comes to the fore when the picture does not require swings and tilts.) Collins also uses a Nikon D-SLR on occasion when he needs record shots or small file sizes, as with stock shots that may be used in more complex composite images. Each format naturally has a selection of lenses suited to the task at hand, with short telephotos and moderate wide angles doing most of the work.

Considering the high cost of a digital back, why go the distance with that P 45, you ask? "For the still life photographer, that added detail makes a difference," Collins observed. "What's more, the larger back gives you more leeway in cropping. The downside is storage. We need more storage space for the larger files." For that the studio has several large external drives that are used with the Mac system. And it should be noted that they use Photoshop CS3 for all their digital work. Toward that end, Collins has two talented digital artists, Dan Smith and Leila Sutton.

Meow Mix

For this Meow Mix ad, Chris Collins first had a set built to size by PropArt ( Three quad heads were used to freeze the water and light the set. Collins added the sky and seagulls from his stock photo files.

Strobe And Tungsten Take Turns
At the heart of Collins' strobe lighting sits Speedotron ( "It's a workhorse and has proven reliable over the years," Collins commented. While less costly to purchase, this largely mechanical power pack-based system has also been less costly to maintain over the years than the high-tech lighting that grabs more attention these days. These features are of paramount importance to a busy studio. The 2400 and 4800 ws power packs deliver plenty of light to meet the needs of a still life set. "In fact, we constantly find ourselves having to turn the power all the way down."

One of the studio's specialties is liquid pours, where you freeze liquids in midair. That was evident in a recent shot done for Meow Mix. To achieve the required motion-stopping speeds with a system such as this required some real ingenuity on Collins' part. And he found a simple solution: Collins connects a quad head to the power pack using "Y" splitters, effectively shortening flash duration further (he gets these Y-splitters custom-made at Flash Clinic in New York The shorter the flash duration, the better the flash is at freezing motion.


This was part of an ad campaign for FruitSimple. It may seem simple to stuff fruit in a glass and photograph it, until you stop to realize that the fruit would smudge the inside edges of the glass. So, on a light table, Chris Collins laid down two Plexiglas strips where the sides of the glass would be, carefully added the fruit, and photographed that with a diffused strobe head. He separately photographed the upright glass with backlighting from a small softbox aimed into a brushed metal sweep for the final composite.

Not every set needs motion-stopping speeds. Having the ability to visualize the effect of the lighting is of paramount importance on a still life set. For that Collins uses Arri tungsten lights. One of many examples where these lights came to the fore was on a set capturing the glare-free qualities in Schott glass used in a bakery shop set. But here Collins took advantage of the warm quality of tungsten and combined it with the cool quality of strobe to truly simulate a storefront display.