Although he “didn’t touch a camera seriously until the age of around 20,” Tobias Schult has certainly made up for any lost time by becoming a successful and sought-after commercial photographer. Schult’s epiphany came in 2001 when he spent six months in the U.S. assisting his cousin, a professional photographer, and realized that he wanted to make this shared passion for photography his life’s work. To acquire the necessary skills, he abandoned his earlier idea of becoming a graphic designer and took on an apprenticeship in photography. He has been a freelance professional photographer since 2006 and was represented by an agent by the end of that year. Starting in 2013 his agent is now Hauser Fotografen, and he is well on his way to fulfilling his dream. Here is the story of his emergence as a successful professional, how he sees his creative process, and why he favors the Leica S-System for much of his work.
Q: The images in this commercial portfolio feature the actor Jürgen Vogel. Can you tell us a little about who the shoot was for, and the idea or inspiration behind it?
A: I shot Jürgen a couple of years ago for a portrait book for “Deutsche Krebshilfe”, a cancer project. Working with him was a blast and I wanted to do something else with him ever since. One of the magazines that I work for Provocateur asked me to shoot their new Covlus editorial.
Since Jürgen had just been featured in two new movies, he was the guy that we wanted to go for. We worked on the concept together and he really liked it. Jürgen is an exceptional actor—he can play anything—so I wanted to show him in a number of different roles. For the cover he jumped into a special agent character, wearing a tuxedo and holding a Molotov cocktail in his hand; a revolutionary for life. He has been heavily involved in martial arts for the past 15 years so I also cast him as a real fighter. He really impressed me being in such great shape—no chance to beat him in pull-ups!
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: Brilliant! Seriously though, it is commercial photography. Even my personal and editorial work has a commercial touch. I love fancy scenery as much as I love simplicity. I can spend weeks preparing a shoot, addressing every small detail in advance, while sometimes I just love to go out and shoot just to surprise myself.
Q: When did you know that you wanted to be a professional photographer?
A: I was always a very visual type of person. I loved to sketch and thought I might become a graphic designer one-day. When I applied at a design school, I was also asked to do a series of photographs for my application. I was 20 at the time and that marked the precise moment when I discovered photography as my tool and could reveal what my pencil couldn’t. Ever since I haven´t spent a minute thinking of any other profession.
Q: Did you go through with your application to design school or did you decide to study photography instead?
A: Since photography really knocked me off my feet when I discovered it, I obviously decided not to go to design school. I thought about studying photography but then decided to go for an apprenticeship in photography. Before my apprenticeship, I spent six months in the United States, learning from a mentor, my great cousin, who is a professional photographer himself and taught me more than the following years could teach me. I enjoyed my time there immensely because he was a photography maniac. Somebody who just fell in love with photography, it was just awesome. Talking about photography until early in the morning—that was all I could dream of back then.
Q: What do you think you learned from this experience with your cousin that has been the most helpful in your commercial career?
A: Love what you do, do what you love, and it is never going to feel like work!
Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?
A: I was offered to shoot a Freixenet campaign in Spain a couple of years ago. It was clear that it would be a quite stressful, intense and fast-moving assignment. Still, the client demanded big files. Since Leica seemed to me as if it was faster and more responsive than other digital medium-format solutions I thought, “Why not give it a try?” I ended up shooting the final image wide open at f/2.5 and could not believe the image quality. I had never experienced that when shooting a lens wide open. That´s how Leica got me. And yes, it was more handy than shooting with any other digital medium-format camera on this job.
I love working with the S-System. Ever since I discovered it I’ve been blown away by the quality of the lenses. With the M-System, I have only been playing around with personal stuff so far.
Q: There is an ironic, darkly humorous quality to your portraits of Jürgen Vogel. Do you agree, and what were you trying to achieve in creating them?
A: Sure, I agree and I’m glad you recognized it—I must have been on the right track. First of all, as I mentioned before, Jürgen is one of the rare actors that can truly express such a variety of characters and still be credible. He can be very funny (I was trying my best to keep up with that aspect); he can be tough, scary and a little weird. Since I knew these things from our previous work together, my main goal was to reveal all these different parts of his personality in one editorial. Secondly, the magazine, in this case the client, goes by the name of “provocateur”, so it made sense to me to come up with some provocative images!
Q: This image of Vogel in the warehouse space holding a Molotov cocktail has masterful composition and a compelling statement, and the lighting certainly contributes to its effectiveness. How did you light this picture and how did you come up with this idea?
A: Thank you. From the outset, when I came up with the concept, this image was already supposed to be my main shot, the image I wanted the editorial to lead off with-showing Jürgen in some kind of a special agent role with a tuxedo with a Molotov.
Flames of course are always an eye-catching element, but I also wanted the picture to look convincing. I think his expression is very thoughtful, even calm, not as you might expect, straight out aggressive. This gives the image more depth in my opinion.
The lighting on this one actually is quite simple. For Jürgen himself, all I used was a 150cm Octobox as my main light aiming it from the right without diffusion to get a little harshness. For that big hall I did need to use some extra location lighting as well.
Q: In the double picture, the image on the left is a full-length portrait showing Vogel in a tuxedo holding the Molotov cocktail from the bottom, with an emotionless, matter-of-fact expression on his face. For the image on the right you moved in closer, and he is holding the device in a more purposeful way as though he might be about to throw it, and he has a rather menacing expression. Did you put these images together to create a kind of cinematic effect, or was it something else entirely?
A: Basically both of the images were our two finals for the cover of the magazine. I urgently wanted a spin-off image, from my Molotov on-location series on the cover, which is why I shot them against a paper background in the studio. Finally we decided on the right shot, the one with the stronger, more aggressive expression. I was very happy about that decision, but when I put the two images right next to each other afterward, I suddenly recognized, that they go together really well—at least for my portfolio. In the left-hand image, he looks kind of nutty, with his little smile on his face, like an unpredictable psycho in his manic phase, while the second image shows how within a second that little grinning guy, could turn into a serious threat. And this is exactly how Jürgen would do it. I saw him joking around on the set and then suddenly switching to a maniacal role in the next second. Indeed this does scare some people but, at the same time, makes him a great actor.
A: The intention was the same as before—showing how much diversity a little bit of styling and a good actor can create. The image with the red pants was something I actually had planned differently. Originally I wanted to show him sitting in a huge birdcage (playing a little with his last name here, which means bird in German), but while shooting I realized that the images without the cage were a lot stronger than the ones with it. So less is sometimes more. Also, the weird styling as well as his passive aggressive smile on that image combined with the simple chair and the nasty fluorescent light from above made it the perfect picture. With this character he somehow reminded me of Robin Williams and the fanatic guy he played in “One Hour Photo.”
Even though Leica users usually don’t use Photoshop for traditional reasons, I do. In this case the guys from Sublime Post-production changed the greenish look to something warmer; although, it really didn’t look that sickly to begin with. The boxing image is also one of my favorites, mainly because it’s the one that probably gets the closest to Jürgen Vogel as he really is. Martial arts have been a major thing in his life and he has been into that for many, many years. The nice aspect about that is that we didn’t have to fake anything here. He was constantly moving and boxing..
Q: Your comments seem to indicate that your personal work shooting portraits and your commercial work in advertising form a continuum, and that you also regard commercial photography as a form of personal expression. Is this a correct assumption and can you tell us something more about how you see your creative process?
A: Commercial photography does not always allow for personal expression, although I am always trying to talk my clients into giving me a certain amount of creative space. I love it if an art director agrees to let me shoot exactly what they want and then come up with a second version, once we already have what they originally wanted. My second version of the shot is usually my own interpretation, and quite often it’s the one the client finally likes best.
To sum it up, to my mind, giving the photographer a certain creative tolerance is always going to be a major advantage when it comes to the final product.
Q: Which Leica S-System camera did you use for the Vogel portraits, and which are your favorite lenses? Are there any other characteristics of the Leica S2 or S that you find especially conducive to your commercial or personal work?
A: For this project, I used the S2. I haven’t had a chance to try the S so far. I don’t really have a favorite lens, but looking back I have to recognize that the two lenses I used most often were the Summarit S 35mm f/2.5 and the Summarit S 70mm f/2.5. However, this is simply because those focal lengths happened to fit very well for the perspective I most frequently show in my images. The reason I try to shoot with the Leica S-System as often as possible is, that for my personal work I just love image quality and the performance of the lenses, and for my commercial work I benefit from the fact that it still handles a lot like a 35mm DSLR, especially compared to other medium format digital systems. Plus I have never seen comparable image quality when shooting with a lens wide open.
Q: It is clear from your witty and humorous responses that you have an ironic sense of humor. Do you think that this is an essential underlying element in your work? And how does this affect your approach to your subjects and projects, especially commercial projects where satisfying the demands of clients is so important?
A: Irony is definitely is a big part of my character, and something I would love to see reflected in my work. It’s definitely a recurring element in my non-commercial work. I would love to see humor (in the best case, my humor) in my commercial work as well. I can even imagine being sought for ad campaigns that match my sense of humor, like an actor that gets a certain role that basically written for him. That’s one of my goals!
Q: Exactly what do you mean when you say that “even my free or editorial work has a commercial touch?” Isn’t there a large difference between “preparing for a shoot by addressing every small detail,” which is the mark of the successful commercial photographer, and “going out and shooting just to surprise myself,” which is the essence of spontaneity? Or can there be spontaneity and control at the same time?
A: First off, I didn’t mean to imply that those big-time planned projects, where every detail is there for a reason, apply to my commercial shots only. Actually the opposite is often the case. Very often you plan your free work just as much, doing pre-shots and so on. On the other hand, sometimes I just feel like going out with a camera, one assistant and one sun-bouncer and shoot in a very minimal and unplanned way, just focusing on the model in the environment and being open to whatever I see. It’s like being back when you started out taking pictures, really inhaling your visual surroundings, and this could well be the approach I take for commercial clients, especially those that want me to shoot lifestyle images. In such cases it’s very helpful to shoot in a minimalistic way. I like that!
Q: How do you see your work evolving, and do you see yourself exploring any other genres? Do you have any ideas for forthcoming personal or commercial projects you can talk about?
A: I feel pretty much tied to people photography and I really don’t see myself shooting any other genre. People photography offers me a wide range to play with. Styles and techniques change as time goes by but that’s a good thing. I like when a photographer’s work can be recognized by his or her style, but I don’t like when a photographer’s work doesn’t change at all for long periods. Personal growth is what is needed in everybody’s portfolio.
Even though my parents are pretty traditional, they always supported me when I discovered photography. They would have preferred me studying graphic design, and yes they were a little afraid when their son chose photographer as his profession, but looking back now, they are very proud.
Thank you for your time, Tobias!
– Leica Internet Team
Learn more about Tobias on his website and Facebook page.