Pro's Choice: The Portraiture Of Mark Katzman: Lifestyle On Location

Mark Katzman has been shooting professionally for over 25 years. Originally, he studied filmmaking at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In college, and for a short while thereafter, he found he could earn money by taking pictures of baseball teams.


Client: Purina
The client had decided in advance that they wanted an ad with flare. To limit the variables in a photo shoot involving a dog, Mark Katzman felt it best to fabricate the flare than to rely on circumstances, using strobe. Both the model and dog were cast for the ad. “Every Purina brand has a distinctive look and style. This brand emphasized the strong connection between dog and owner.” Sunlight lit the set, coming through a 12-foot silk directly overhead, with a California Sunbounce to give a little sparkle to the eyes. The flare was from a Dynalite head with warming gel aimed straight at the lens. (Creative Director: Renee Walsh; Agency: CheckMark.)
All Photos © Mark Katzman

But when sports photography did not prove viable as a full-time career, Katzman decided to expand his horizons, by assisting at an established studio. “While there I got my own clients, and that eventually led to a business partnership with the photographer I was working for, Scott Ferguson.” That studio partnership only recently came to an end.

Even though he shoots largely on location, Katzman owns a 15,000-square-foot studio housed in an historical rehab building. Occasionally, he’ll shoot assignments there. And this is where his entire production team calls home. That includes two other photographers, Paul Nordmann and Ashley Gieseking, his retoucher/digital tech Curt Von Diest, producer Scott Reed, and studio manager Hilary Skirboll. “And we have a video company, Spot Creative.”

Client: Advocate Health Care
“We were developing a branded image library for their healthcare network that emphasized the quality of life that could be achieved with good healthcare.” The woman in the shot was not a professional model but she did happen to live in that house. The house was scouted by a local production company and the homeowner seemed like a perfect fit for the demographic the agency was seeking. Katzman used the reflective wall from a neighboring house as the light source. (Creative Director: Tony Bonilla; Agency: HY Connect.)

Katzman shoots mostly in Los Angeles and Florida, but also takes on assignments that bring him to the far corners of the globe. “I just finished shooting for a book that focused on very remote villages in India.

“My favorite remote location is Bali. On assignment for Monsanto, I went to Sumatra. From there, we were supposed to go to China to shoot cotton farmers. At the last minute the Chinese government didn’t let us in. We had six days to kill, all our gear in hand, so we went to Bali.”

Client: Seaworld
“We were piggybacking with a film crew at SeaWorld in Orlando.” When it came time to shoot stills, there was still an enormous task at hand, beginning with tweaking the lighting with fill. “We locked the camera down so we could build the shot with the best pieces—mainly the shark. When everything was in place and we had choreographed the action, I started revving the talent up, getting them really excited. At that point I become a director and stage manager more than a photographer.” Katzman shot this with a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, with 35mm f/1.4 lens. (Agency: Momentum Worldwide.)

Camera Choices
Back in his film days, Katzman spent considerable time in the black-and-white darkroom, much of that time printing black-and-white portfolios for more established photographers in town. His first camera was an Olympus Pen half-frame camera. “Professionally I started with a Nikon FM and Hasselblad 500C, along with a Linhof 4x5.

“Now I use a Canon EOS-1D X. My favorite lens is a 70-200mm f/2.8L IS, followed by the 50mm f/1.4 and 35mm f/1.4. I also love the 100mm IS macro.” Katzman also owns a 45mm tilt-shift that he pulls out when “I am trying to make an interesting image from a plain subject and all else fails.”

Client: Bayer CropScience
Katzman shot this in northern Illinois, a short distance outside Chicago, following a very specific layout. This scene is supposed to represent a father and son (actually models) celebrating a great agricultural yield because they used this company’s products. “The key to this shot is capturing the moment of the two fist-bumping, implying a job well done. To do that you want them actually walking and interacting.” That required Katzman to shoot with a long lens and employ shallow depth of field. “Tracking focus becomes an issue. You have them repeat it over and over until you hit that sweet spot when you’ve nailed the shot.” Toward that end, he kicked the camera into overdrive, holding focus with Servo AF on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, with 70-200mm lens. (Art Director: Amy Stanec; Agency: Rhea + Kaiser.)

He adds: “I meter everything the same way. I use exposure compensation in the camera a lot.

And I work with the histogram after capture.”

When he needs the support, he brings out a Gitzo carbon-fiber tripod. “I shoot tethered to a MacBook Pro using Capture One for any jobs that do not require a ‘run and gun’ approach. It helps for checking focus, as well as to show the client what is going on.”

Katzman also owns a Leica M9 system. “I use that when I’m moving around a lot and traveling, and especially when I don’t have an assistant, and have to work quickly. It’s more personal.” His go-to lens for the M9 is the 50mm f/2.

Client: Advocate Health Care
The client wanted to balance the lifestyle shots they commissioned with portraits of physicians in a clinical setting. “Because this was an operating room, we had to get in and out very quickly.” Litepanels provided the key light on the surgeon, with bounced and umbrella light rounding out the picture. (Art Director: Chris Tomczak; Agency: HY Connect.)

Lighting Gear: Some Owned, Some Rented
“Lately I’ve been renting all my lighting gear. I used to own a Suburban that I’d fill with gear. Today, we get what we need when we get there.”

That’s not to say that Katzman does not own any lighting. In the studio, they use Broncolor. The rented location gear is Profoto. “When I need to bring my own lights to a location shoot, I bring Dynalites.” He continues: “Lately, I have been using Litepanels’ 1x1-foot LED panels. You can stack them together. I use them in hospitals and particularly in areas where there’s a lot of ambient light and I need a little kicker, or in tight rooms. They’re very thin and very light, and you can put them wherever you want.”

Katzman also owns 2K HMI lights. “The need for them is growing because we’re shooting a lot of video, and that gives us a continuous daylight-balanced source.”

Katzman’s favorite tool for lighting is a Chimera 6x6-foot frame. “You can attach all kinds of panels to it—diffusion of varying strengths, bounce panels. It’s extremely lightweight. I carry two of them and I do 90 percent of my lighting with these. You can set them on a table, or hold them, or suspend them from practically anything.” He also uses California Sunbounce collapsible reflectors.

Client: Washington University, St. Louis
This work began as a personal project, which was eventually published as a book, “Portraits of the Energy Impoverished.” “We were originally volunteering for the Foundation for Ecological Security in India.” That attracted the attention of Washington University, which supported a second trip. “It took two flights and several hours of driving to meet this woman. She led us into the woods to document her picking these beedi leaves, which they use for cigarettes. I chose the Leica M9 (with 50mm lens) for this work because of its low profile. It is less intimidating than a big D-SLR.”

Clients And Casting
Clients often provide a layout that outlines the parameters of the shot. The client usually selects the talent (models), but this may be a joint effort with Katzman. Even animals are cast, for example, for dog food ads. One client, Katzman noted, is very particular about the dogs they use in their ads. “The dog casting was more extensive than for the human model.” Animals arrive at a shoot with their trainers or wranglers.

Sometimes the casting involves real people. Katzman makes every effort to make nonprofessional models feel at ease on a set, as he does with professional talent. Of course, layfolk may require more direction and handholding, but that is where Katzman’s experience comes to the fore. One of his techniques is asking the subject to concentrate on their breathing. He’ll then catch them off guard with a quip or jolly laugh and they will react. “At that point it just becomes a matter of timing.”

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