A great photograph is often said to be about the decisive moment (we’ve got Cartier-Bresson to thank for that): the magic of capturing something gloriously ephemeral forever, creating an image that represents the very essence of that moment. In reality, a great image is about a lot more than that: often, it’s the result extensive pre-production; painstakingly constructed shooting conditions; and deftly wielded software in post. Of course, that makes it no less valid – indeed, it’s something to be celebrated that photographers today have more possibilities than ever to realise their vision in exactly the way they want and need to, thanks to 21st century technology.
One man who knows this better than most is Perou, a photographer and director who’s shot pretty much everyone, from Will.I.Am to Tracey Emin, Dame Vivienne Westwood, Genesis P Orridge and pretty much every celebrity you’d care to list. Though he learned his craft on film, today he shoots using digital means, name checking Hasselblad, and edits in post using Photoshop and an EIZO ColorEdge monitor.
Perou works broadly in three different ways, depending on what he’s shooting and what the images will be used for. While more spontaneous shoots for bands or editorial projects will involve minimal pre-production, when he does pre-produce “either me or someone else will have drawn the image before it turns into a photograph,” he explains. “If it’s me, I do it very badly in a notebook, if someone else does it, it might be a composite of images or a very well illustrated picture.”
For advertising shoots, the process is far more controlled: an image will have been agreed on way in advance by the agency’s client, and signed off before the photograph has even been made. On those sort of projects, Perou often works with an onsite retoucher who has significant input on how best to shoot to get the best results retouching. Post-wise, “My Photoshop is pretty basic and if I need to do something elaborate I’ll employ a professional to do it better,” says Perou. “For a recent Anthony Joshua shoot we used a green screen so the background was completely CGI. I’m not gonna get into that.”
Perou enjoys the mixture of tightly orchestrated and spontaneous image-making: “Sometimes if I’m doing a photograph someone’s already made as an illustration it’s just a technical exercise in turning a painting into a photo,” he says. “For a fashion story or shooting bands I like to come up with the ideas first so I’m more of a creative director or art director for those shoots. I also like the thrill of turning up and making something from nothing… Put me together with a musician and you’ll get something totally different than if it was someone else – it’s about how we gel and spark, that’s the spontaneity and magic which I enjoy.”
While the photographer still deems the creative process as being predominantly something that happens in-camera, he says that the aforementioned “magic” isn’t dulled by digital means or post production, it’s simply “a different way of making the magic happen.” Having learned to shoot on film, he “tries to keep retouching to an absolute minimum,” usually only adjusting the colour and contrast in post: “I’m not moving items around or changing body shapes or ironing out creases in clothes or adding in the background. As much as possible is done in camera. My agent has said to me that my images would work just as well without Photoshop.”
The key to a great image is both in the technical skill in making it – that’s before, during and after the shutter clicks – and in a more abstract way, the sense of storytelling and drama inherent in a powerful image. “To be honest the tools aren’t relevant,” says Perou. “Images that mainly rely on Photoshop and CGI are becoming more like illustration than photography. They’re photo-real, but they’re illustrations made with pixels.”
He adds, “Whether it’s on film or a digital camera, whether you mess about with it or you don’t, it’s about a language and if the image is speaking to someone, then who cares how it was shot or put together.”
While the power of visual storytelling is age-old, the landscape has undeniably shifted beyond recognition with the advent of image-making software. That’s led to a sort of dichotomy where shooting on film is often romanticised or fetishised, and many are voicing concerns around software’s potential to homogenise photography aesthetics. Yet “craft” doesn’t mean analogue: craft and skill are broader than that, and happen at every stage of the creative process. Perou agrees that while there is a “danger” of homogenisation through digital “because we all shoot on the same digital camera and retouch in the same way,” he says the flip-side is in the fact that sameness isn’t just thanks to tech: “there’s a trend in art photography to shoot on film and as bleary and out of focus as possible, and everyone is homogenising that now. It’s important to have a unique voice as a photographer in the content, and it helps to have a unique style aesthetically.”
The issues around working digitally aren’t just in how images are made, of course, but in how they’re consumed. In order to try to maintain some consistency, Perou says that “When we first moved from supplying prints to supplying files on CDRs (then by FTP…now generally by We-transfer) we used to (have to) provide a match print for the repro house to match the digital file to. These days we all pretty much work to Adobe RGB1998 colour profile. I send RGB files but if my work is retouched by a professional retoucher for an ad company, they may request CMYK files and the retoucher will do the conversion and supply to profile.”
For magazines – an increasingly rare destination for his work these days – Perous says it’s rare for an image of his to end up looking different on the page to what he intended. “Obviously a magazine’s paper spec will change how my pictures print, but my images mainly only look ‘wrong’ when someone overlays headlines or text over them,” he says. “We don’t get into anybody’s colour profiles or print specs for magazines, but when I send work to be printed for exhibition, I do use the printer’s colour profiles and send them balanced prints.”
Much more likely now will be that most people will see one of his images on a phone screen. So how can you ensure your images look just as (or almost) as brilliant on a miniature screen as a vast print? “There’s no way of safeguarding against how one person’s phone is calibrated compared to another,” says Perou. “It’s not physically possible to worry about it. The reason I use EIZO is that if you’re supplying a photograph that you know is as perfect as it can be when you deliver it, and that it works across the widest range of phones and so on, then you know it’s the best it can be. If you send something that’s, say, got bad fringing on the magenta, then it’s off to a bad start, it’s already left of centre.
“I can’t control anyone else’s screen or calibration, so you have to put out the best you can and let everyone else mess it up down the line.”
EIZO are committed to the creation of great images, so have spent the last few years travelling around the world, meeting some of the best image makers in their field and finding out how they work and why colour is so vital when making something amazing. EIZO are also sponsors of the Zeitgeist award for breakthrough talent as part of CR’s Photography Annual
See more of Perou’s work here.