Three Questions for Dan Saelinger

Three Questions for Dan Saelinger

In recent years Art Director's Club 2009 "Young Gun" winner Dan Saelinger has become the go-to guy for bold, dynamic and above all smart conceptual work. This year alone his shots have appeared in publications as varied as Men's Health, Ladies Home Journal, Field & Stream, Fast Company, Prevention, Popular Mechanics, Proto, and AARP to name a few...I managed to grab a few minutes with him during his insanely busy shooting schedule to chat about the life of a conceptual photographer, the brave new world of shooting video and how to work with ever shrinking editorial budgets.

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NJ: You and I worked together on some pretty fun projects back when I was the art director of Field & Stream, most were conceptual but in the early days you shot some pretty dynamic still life work as well. In recent years you've really become the go-to guy for the conceptual photography; was this always your plan and do you find it a more rewarding genre of photography?
D.S: I've been quite fortunate to have found myself working as a conceptual photographer.  In college I idolized photographers like Hugh Kretschmer, Mark Hooper, and Frederik Broden. Initially starting out I was hired for the standard still life fair, and as happy as I was to be working it was never all that creatively fulfilling. During my first couple years shooting I was getting handed assignments that had more of a conceptual bent, and that work slowly started appearing in my book, then roughly two years ago I made an official switch from still life guy to conceptual shooter. I did an image for photo director Amy Berkley and you guys at Field & Stream back in 2007 of a guy with a deer head silhouette shaved into the back of his head for a feature titled "Big Buck Boot Camp" this proved to be the break-out image that marked the turning point from still-life into conceptual. It was the image that got clients to look at my work in a new way.

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Yeah I do find it rewarding. The most rewarding part of shooting conceptually for a client is that you are brought in early on in the creative process. You're generating ideas, not just being handed objects to shoot. Often I'm given a transcript or headlines and asked to find a visual solution. Sometimes clients have a pretty good idea of what they'd like and I need to make it a reality. Either way it usually involves a sketching process where I provide a handful of solutions that we could translate into images. It's not uncommon to go through multiple rounds of sketches and revisions. After a sketch is approved it's really about having a good crew to make things happen. I have a couple of favorite stylists I like to work with including Wendy Schelah, Laurie Raab, Megan Caponetto, and Lauren Shields.  We have to build and make some crazy props and sets, a couple months back Megan built us a room entirely painted and upholstered in a television test pattern for a story on 3D television for Popular Mechanics.


For the September issue of Money magazine photo director Ryan Cadiz asked me to come up with a couple images for a feature. I was given the text "simple and positive, expressing that the investments that we suggest are alive and active and vibrant as compared to the dry, black & white world of safe allocations." The end product was a four image feature that consisted of environments of all grey tones with some item or aspect that was gold, each dealing with a different investment theory.


Another recent favorite was a cover for IEEE Spectrum for photo editor Randi Silberman. Randi gave me the headline "Water vs Electricity." We went with a concept of a light bulb exploding with water that involved some very high speed strobes, a pellet gun, sound trigger, and 100 bulbs filled with water. Needless to say there was lots of mess and lots of fun.

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NJ: In the "motion" section of your website you showcase some of your  awesome "moving photography." Clearly it's a side of your work that you're investing a lot of time in and taking very seriously. Is having the ability to shoot video becoming a necessity for photographers nowadays (a way to embrace editorial work on the iPad/web)?
DS: There's no doubt that in order to stay relevant as a photographer you've got to have video in your repertoire.  Between iPads and websites, video is a game-changer for our industry. All of the photo editors I'm talking to are expecting their photographers to have the ability to shoot video along with stills on a moment's notice. We just launched a motion section on my site a week ago that was about a year in the making. I went to school to become a photographer, I trained to shoot stills, and video was never part of the plan. Needless to say it's been a bit of a interesting transition for many of us.  

When I started seeing the trend emerge last year from a few of the very early adopters we quickly started experimenting at my studio, researching the equipment, and learning the software. I felt that if we weren't up and running full steam by this fall we'd miss the boat. I also realized quickly that clients weren't going to be able to afford some of the astronomical costs associated with video. So we've spent our time learning how to handle everything in-house from filming to editing. We've been shooting with both the Red One and with the 5D Mark II and editing in Premier Pro and After Effects. In the past couple months we've done a couple videos for Fast Company, Popular Mechanics, and a test for Prevention as well as some personal pieces. The videos have ranged from a traditional narrative, to product featurettes, to instructional, to moving photographs.

Magazines seem still very much trying to figure out how video fits in with their individual projects and stylistic approach, so everything is in flux. The challenge for photographers is really bringing something new to the table. There are already a ton of guys out there who have been shooting incredible video for years. As outsiders looking in on a medium we have the chance to approach video in new ways, find new solutions, and that's very exciting.

NJ:'s business?
DS: Last year was a rough one for all of us. It was bunker down and hope for the best.  Fortunately this year the industry seems to have been reinvigorated. In fact I've had my best year yet.  Things have definitely changed though, and I would hate to be fresh out of school trying to break into the industry. Budgets have been stretched incredibly thin, we are all being asked to do more for less. Video has added a whole new level of complexity to the mix and we are largely expected to provide motion in addition to stills for less than we were charging for stills a couple years back. But that's just where we are. I see my friends and colleagues in publishing making the same sacrifices so it's hard to complain. We are all doing what we have to do to stay competitive. And while the days of highly paid super star photographers may be waning its still one hell of a business to work in.

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