Pro's Choice: Markku’s Take: Wry Humor, High Style


Client: Western Digital
The client was promoting their My Cloud personal cloud storage using humorous ads, each featuring a cloud to represent the key concept. The idea here was that the dog owner could instantly upload the picture to his cloud device, from which it could be shared around the globe. Markku shot this with a Hasselblad and Phase One, with a 35mm lens and Profoto lighting. “There was a large bay window behind me, which I softened with a diffusion silk. The light on his back and on the dog is coming from an Octabank, with another Octabank coming in on the set from the opposite side, essentially flanking the camera. There was also a gridded light on the fireplace wall and a fill light for the back of the room. Pro that he is, the dog just sat there wearing the glasses.” Before the shoot day, Markku went out to photograph clouds, later choosing one and compositing it into the shot. (Associate Creative Directors: Vince Murray and Chris DeNinno; Agency: R&R Partners.)
All Photos © Markku Lahdesmaki

Some photographers develop a trademark style over time. Markku Lahdesmaki had a feel for what he was doing early on. Shooting tongue-in-cheek came naturally, as did making his subjects feel comfortable with his vision for the shot. And clients loved it, enough so that they beckoned him to return to his native Finland from England, where he was living and working with his wife.

Early Career
Markku, as he is popularly known, opened shop in his hometown in Finland in the early 1980s, shooting portraits, bridal engagements, and small products in a modest studio on a Hasselblad 500 C/M. It didn’t take long for the commercial world to catch up to him. He caught the eye of a local ad agency and in particular the agency’s art director, Anne, whom he later married and who continues to run his studio to this day.

Realizing he needed to expand his creative vision and better promote his image, Markku moved to London with his wife and became an assistant to a prominent photographer for three years. That’s when a Finnish ad agency made the call, spurring this young photographer to return and open a studio in Helsinki. It was here that Markku established himself firmly, with his trademark knack for telling stories in images with quirky and humorous twists. “I was the busiest photographer in Finland for six years.” But feeling he’d reached a saturation point, Markku closed the studio, sold all his gear, picked up the family, and moved to Los Angeles to start anew.

Client: Atlantis, Paradise Island, Bahamas
Despite the inviting setting, this was a challenging shoot. The young model had to remain practically motionless in the water during this 45-minute shoot while Markku photographed her above the water and from midway below the surface (in preparation for the composite). One assistant held an Octabank above water, aimed at her, while a second assistant held a collapsible reflector from the opposite side. The Hasselblad with digital back was kept dry in a rented housing. “We needed to have everything figured out the day before.” Markku shot the fish separately in the hotel’s aquatic displays. The entire assignment, involving several shots, ran four days. (Creative Directors: Paul Wolfe and Scott Barbey; Art Director: Brian Gibson; Agency: ML Rogers Agency.)

Client: CLIO Advertising Awards
This takeoff on AMC’s “Mad Men,” a 1960s-based drama, was designed to promote the advertising awards ceremony. The campaign places this mock ad team in a rented office filled with rented furnishings. Markku shot this scene with a Hasselblad/Phase One with an 80mm lens, with Profoto lighting made to look like it’s coming from the window (actually an Octabank). There was additional fill lighting, along with the window light. (Executive Creative Director: Eka Ruola; Art Director: Jarkko Talonpoika; Agency: Hasan & Partners.)

New Location
Moving to Los Angeles did not alter his vision. If anything, this sunny locale brightened it. Markku’s positive and friendly outlook and unique viewpoint on every shoot garnered clients across the globe. And he still maintains good working relationships with agencies back home.

He did open a studio for a time, but as more and more of his work took him on location, he closed the Los Angeles studio and instead opened a much smaller one—a converted garage attached to his home. “I use it for small products.

For the big projects, it’s so much easier and more economical to rent a studio here in L.A.”

Client: Snickers/Mars
To promote the popular candy bar, the client was shooting commercials with celebrities—in this case, Don Rickles, who is known for his acerbic humor and facial expressions. A private home was being used for filming and stills. “We told him that we wanted something where he looks unhappy. He very generously stayed on set for a half hour, giving us maybe a hundred expressions. In fact, he was happy to let us shoot more. Usually, celebrities don’t give you more than 15 minutes, if that.” Markku brought in his own lights and a backdrop. The lighting consisted of strip lights hitting the backdrop from the left and right, plus a softbox a bit higher and to the right aimed at Rickles. Camera was a Hasselblad/Phase One with a 150mm lens. (Creative Director: Gianfranco Arena; Creative Director/Copywriter: Peter Kain; Agency: BBDO New York.)

Client: Snickers/Mars
This shot shows how one campaign can move in seemingly diverse directions. Shooting in a New York rental studio, Markku first had to create a solarium, which involved purchasing and modifying a tanning bed. “We needed to swap out the lamps in the bed because you can’t leave a person under the tanning lights for that length of time. And we needed to change the color, to make the light bluer. But when it came time to shoot, we ended up removing the tanning bed cover, which produced a harsh light, and replacing it with a pair of Octabanks.” There was also fill lighting around the set. (Creative Directors: Gianfranco Arena and David Lubars; Creative Director/Copywriter: Peter Kain; Art Director: Diana Chen; Copywriter: Jessica Rello; Agency: BBDO New York.)

Gear Of Choice
Markku owns Elinchroms, which he employs in his small studio. But on major assignments, he turns to Profoto, renting it when needed. He points out that Profoto is widely available worldwide and that assistants are familiar with it. His light-shaping tools normally revolve around Octabanks and strip lights. “I strive to make my lighting believable and three-dimensional.” He continues: “If we’re shooting in the L.A. area, an assistant comes with a cube truck filled with rented lights and grip equipment.”

Markku shoots with three camera systems that he owns and brings with him to each assignment. His main system is a Phase One P 65+ attached to a Hasselblad H2, with an H1 as backup, along with the 50-110mm zoom, 35mm, 80mm, and 150mm lenses. He favors the 80mm glass as being “very light and extremely sharp.” In fact, he’ll switch out the zoom in favor of the 80mm when he senses the zoom is in the same ballpark. “I also use a Canon 5D Mark III system with 24-70mm, 50mm f/1.2, 35mm f/1.4, and 85mm f/1.2 lenses. If I need the faster burst rates or need to be a bit more spontaneous, I use the 5D.”

The third system may actually be his favorite. “A longtime Leica enthusiast, I also recently purchased the new Leica M and Leica M Monochrom. They allow me to travel light when working on personal projects.” He can’t say enough good things about his Leicas. He especially loves the tonal richness he gets from the Monochrom. His lenses for the system include the Summicron-M 35mm f/2, Elmarit-M 24mm f/2.8, Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4, and Tele-Elmarit 90mm f/2.8.

Client: GE Capital
The idea here was to show how this company invests personnel and know-how to help clients invest wisely. The reading room of the New York Academy of Medicine was one of several scenarios involved in this campaign, each tongue-in-cheek. “We had a wall of light on the left side, consisting of two or three Octabanks aimed through a silk, plus the existing lighting.” Most of those featured in the shot were people on set belonging to the client, agency, and studio, with only the two people on the left being actual hired talent. (Senior Creative Director: Bill Schwab; Agency: BBDO New York.)

“When I’m carrying my Leica M Monochrom camera, I walk around seeing the world in black and white. It’s a different mindset. In this instance, I was on a recent visit to my native Finland and was shooting a series on summer dance festivals. Suddenly I noticed this little girl enjoying a cake and knew I had to capture the moment, using available light to preserve the mood.”

Building Composites
Markku’s locations take him to a desolate desert one day, a busy boutique the next. The same essential gear follows him everywhere. In addition to his cameras and lenses, Markku also travels with a 27-inch iMac on assignment—anywhere in the world. “When shooting with clients on set, whatever the location, they love viewing the images on the big screen. Having a computer on hand allows me to spontaneously and effortlessly build my own comps—something I’m known for and which clients appreciate.” He shoots tethered when the situation allows.

“I normally deliver a job to the client within a week or two of the shoot. What we deliver are high-res native Photoshop-layered files, so the client is able to move things around if needed. So, let’s say there’s a person featured in the shot. I may shoot that as a separate layer so the client has the option to reposition him or her in the composite image to accommodate ad copy or different size ads. I generate the high-res layered comps myself and hand that off to a digital retoucher. It’s always good to have a second pair of eyes on a project.”

“I was on assignment in Kiev, and after spending two days scouting and shooting, that left me one day to explore the city and work on a personal project. My producer and I came upon this monument near the airport, and, with my producer as interpreter, engaged this young man to model for me because I liked his look.” Markku intentionally bought him an ill-fitting suit for this available light shot (with a Canon 5D), making the man almost Chaplinesque in demeanor. “Our model appreciated the humor.”

To see more of Markku’s work, visit