Still life photographer
Ksenia Bolshakova is a still life photographer, owner of two photo studios, still life photography lecturer, who is also developing a store for still life photographers. Clients: Oriflame, Faberlic, Holika Holika, L’Etoile, Mac cosmetics, Beauty Bomb, Jagermeister, Kaspersky
Ksenia, tell us about your career path. What did you do before becoming a photographer?
I studied a hotel management, and when I was on my second year, I got a job in my profession in a large hotel. By the age of 20, it became unbearable being there, I was sitting at the counter and thinking, “Why am I wasting my life?” By that time, I already switched my studies to the distant learning programme “PR and advertising”.
I wanted to make advertisement and creatives, so, I found my place of a manager in an internet project. Then I fell with love in Moscow and moved there from St. Petersburg. He was a wedding photographer, and I started to help him and took a photographer side road quite quickly.
This is how my corporate experience ended at the age of 20. I felt scared to quit the stable job.
But to stay stuck in a dull routine was even more terrible. Just imagine that this the only you can have! That your job seems like serving a sentence. I was resented by the situation happening. This is definitely not my way. I will become a professional, will adore what I do and will make a good money. So, that came up to my mind at a time having no basis, no guarantees and no plan.
Why did you get interested in still life photography?
I saw prospects for business there, and also, I wanted to find an option to have more freedom. Wedding photographers wake up at 6 am during the whole summer period and go for shootings, and it is impossible to replace them. While shooting weddings of others, I missed a few of my friends’ weddings. It is good time for still life photographers though, and now they get a lot of work to do. You probably noticed that there are lots of good domestic brands have appeared in the last time, this is due to the dollar high rise, and more expensive import as an outcome.
How do you come up with ideas for photo shooting? Who and what do inspire you?
Pinterest, which is well-known by everyone, helps at the first stage. Customers, actually, have a pretty clear understanding of what they like or not, but they need some help to develop their ideas. We start from simple things, when we show two pictures, one is dark, another one is light, one is filled, another one is minimalistic, and they choose what they like. Thus, we come to mutual understanding, what the client wants to get as a result. Then we move on to the conceptual level, explaining what the brand wishes to convey to its audience. Based on this, we can plan more details, for example, if we deal with innovation, the hint of a laboratory may appear in the shot, if there is ecology topic, there is no need in bright colours or any kind of glass, it is more about stones and flowers.
The still life picture is read by two layers: external and conceptual. For instance, we had a photo shoot for Korean brand Holika Holika, and we had to shoot an expensive highlighter, and emphasise its value. As a result of our team brainstorming, we came up with an idea of space station, where this highlighter is ground into dust in a conveyor belt of pearls and pebbles. Then we created a sketch of approximate diagonal of the conveyor, the funnel needed, of where to put the beads and how the highlighter is scattered. After we gave all these to the set designer, so, she created this model on computer, it was agreed after some corrections, and then she assembled everything from the paper.
We show everything to our client at every stage of the process. This is our approach, where every picture is discussed in order to avoid such situations as the customer is not satisfied with anything.
In your opinion what kind of methods are considered as outdating and poor taste in still life photography?
Usually, it is a complex story of old-fashioned vision of colour and light, or vigorous blue that worked well in early 2000s. Basically, this is an old school, where they make an emphasis on the technical component, i.e., they set up the lights ideally, this is the fact, however, they completely miss the sense of style. These pictures do not contain any attracting details, storytelling, so, they cannot create a story, and play with texture and props. If the object appears in the shot, it is a headshot in most cases. It is from the category like “we have a knife, let’s put the cut tomato next to it”. For example, they cannot imagine the levitating knife so that only the cut feather would blow up in different directions. I general, the still life photographer, like any other one, should always stay up to date, as trends in this type of photography do not come spontaneously, they appear through the prism of modern fashion, art, so, practically from everywhere. All people from my team follow fashion designers, fashion magazines, because understanding of new trend colours, techniques and styles is stored in your subconscious when watching them.
Who do you consider as top still life photographers? Can you share to-see list for us?
Mitchell Feinberg, Maki Studio, David Lineton, Wilson Wong.
What else are you interested in apart from photo shooting?
I practice stop motion animation. Also, my second, if not the first, vocation is coaching, I implement it through my blog in many cases. In my life I always manage to encourage my friends to take risks and do something, I have a talent to inspire people, to push them and reveal their talents. It is my usual story when I hire a person as a manager, but he leaves as a videographer.
What would you advise a beginner to not spend money on?
For instance, there are still life table and light cube, both of which are produced by marketers, not by photographers. Let’s take a light cube, which is positioned for shadowless photo shooting, but as a result you get faded and no contrast photo, whereas you can achieve much better results without using it. In case of a still life table, it is the first thing which beginners buy, but they do not realize that it’s bulky and useless in fact, having the price range from 4,000 to 90,000 RUB.
Probably only a still life photographer can understand another still life photographer. What kind of products does your store sell?
Yes, that’s true. Now there is practically nothing on the market that might be useful for still life photographers, so, I literally sell those products that I created in due time, because I could not find any alternatives. Backdrops of my production are tough, moisterproof, oil resistant, do not have any glare or texture. I have not seen same quality backdrops on the market. We also have small shooting tables, which we call “kozliki”. There are also some problems with them on the market, they are unstable and have small handle for height adjustment. As I also could not find any them, therefore I turned to a furniture company, we drew up the project, manufactured it, then I have used it for more than a year before started to sell such products.
How was your 2020? What did you do during the quarantine?
It began weird, I felt something wrong, I closed the studio, sent everyone home, made some staff cuts, someone was fired, also took equipment home to be able to work from there. Electrozavod was closed in a week, but we were paying the full rent but could not even come into our studio. We coped with it only because continued working from home. We still had clients, and some other came whose model shootings were cancelled, so, they had to do still life ones. Thus, while others, especially wedding photographers, had no work, we managed to make money. In June, when the quarantine was stopped, the half of the Electrozavod started to move out, especially the photo studios that missed the part of the shooting season, but still had to pay rent, and due to the summer, which is not the season time, it was not clear what will happen next. Then I noticed that one man was selling his studio, so I bought it. That became my second business. It was a risk, but it paid off. So, the year was productive, however, I started to feel the burnout in December.
Do you know what that is? How do you cope with this?
It is easy for me to work, but the main problem is to catch the moment when I am overworking. Before the burnout there is a period when you cannot stop. Everything turns out cool, all is going well, your brain is on drive, but your body gives you a prompt, your energy disappearing. If you do not notice this sign, the psyche wakes up, and you feel disgusted with what you normally love. By the end of January, I finally admitted that I had a burnout, so, I realized that I need an immediate rest, otherwise, I will not be able to continue working. I honestly told everything to my clients and went to Turkey for 12 days. I just slept there, walked along the beach… And it worked.
What would be your advice or pep talk to other photographers?
Firstly, invest in self education, count the money via the time profile. You can go your way for a long time. Having no experience, a man will never notice the details, in which the devil himself, whereas experienced person will point it out. This applies to everything, so, now I try to invest to learnt something new. I need to learn marketing, therefore I will take a course, where everything is clear and in the case. I will not gather any free scattered information on the Internet. All, photography, team building, sales, writing skills, project management, is known by anyone who can teach you.
Secondly, you should start taking money for your work straight away. I often look at the profiles of those, who ask how to promote themselves and where to find first customers. They usually say, “I’m just learning”, “newbie photographer”, “cheap still life shooting”, or “picture starting from 30 RUB” in their bio… Thus, the customer understands it like this person is not confident. I will try, but do not promise you anything. I am not ready to take the responsibility for the result, so I can work almost for free instead (hope you appreciate it and will thank me forever). It looks like such photographer initially underestimates the client’s expectations. This depressing feeling of need attracts freeloaders spontaneously.
I have a method which allows you to overcome your fears. It’s called a “gran method”. Do you know what the advantage of elderly people is? They do not care about others’ opinion and have nothing to lose. So, you need to sit down and imagine yourself of age 85 in front of you.
My gran is daring and sarcastic. We have the following dialogues, “I will fail!” — “doesn’t matter, everyone who will see your fail will die in this century”, “what if nothing will work?” — ‘it usually works, just do it”, “I’m scared to look ridiculous” — “you’re too serious, make it look easy”.
Third, you have to stop humiliating yourself. We all have different potential, so, how you will realize yours depends on you and your environment. Many live at the lower limit of their potential just because they are afraid of something. It is important to distinguish your and others thoughts, kick out the critics from your head, work as best as you can, and to not forget that you need money for the right balance of investing resources and getting them back. Money is a form of the world feedback, everything you do is right, and you can move forward in the same direction.
Interviewers Daria Maksimova, Julia Dyakova
Translator Anastasia Ageenko
Respondent Ksenia Bolshakova, Instagram @kse.bolshakova
Special for OSSMA, Issue: March, 2021