Keeping things interesting

The age-old saying that ‘variety is the spice of life’ rings true for photographer Simeon Patience, as he illustrates to Adrian Hatwell via some photographic commissions

No two jobs are ever the same, and few experience the true breadth of assignment diversity like a busy agency photographer. Demands of all shapes and sizes flow in from clients, demands which could see a photographer squirrelled away in a studio shooting hundreds of products one day, then hanging out of a helicopter to capture dramatic landscapes the next. From food to fashion, automobiles to awareness campaigns, the agency photographer has to be ready for it all. And Auckland photographer Simeon Patience wouldn’t have it any other way.

He is one of two photographers working at .99, one of the country’s top retail-specialist advertising agencies, and has enjoyed shooting the agency’s varied group of clients for seven years now. Starting off as a freelancer, his aim was always to break into advertising in some capacity, and the fast-paced, diverse nature of ad agency work continues to challenge and inspire him.

“Being able to tap into those advertising jobs is great, it’s where I always wanted to be. Being right in the thick of it is a really good opportunity.”

Two campaigns Patience recently shot make for a nice illustration of how different each job can be. One, a shoot for Genesis Energy, saw the photographer freely exploring a community space with the eye of a documentary photographer. The other, for Avis Car Rental, tasked him to deliver imagery within the client’s strict set of parameters. And the strength of both campaigns reveals a photographer who thrives equally in environments of freedom and constraint.

The Genesis Energy job took Patience to a community garden in the Hutt Valley, one of three community projects supported by the energy company that would be showcased as part of its Shine a Light campaign. As briefs go, it was very open.

“The art directors didn’t really have set imagery in mind other than the fact they wanted it to showcase the people that were really special to the project, and the community vibe. It was just, ‘Go for it; make it look good’.”

This gave the photographer the opportunity to roam the environment for three days, exploring in a way that isn’t often possible with the pace of commercial shooting. It also allowed him to connect with his favourite type of subject — people. In this case, a gang of enthusiastic children tending to their patch.

“It was nice to be able to get one-on-one time with the kids, or work with them in little groups — it was fun and games, they were so delightful. They were running around, having a good time, and you could see they were in their element.

“You could tell the garden was created for them, and they were really excited by it and learning so much.”

Although he had a freer hand to approach the assignment as he felt best, the photographer was still working with a client. After evenings in his hotel sorting through memory cards, grading, and selecting, Patience presented the client with images that they would review and use to guide the following shoot.

“They might point out an image they really like, and explain why they like it. That sets you off down another track,” the photographer explained. “They liked the honesty in the kids’ faces, something a little more powerful in their eyes, rather than just a laughing shot. Something really genuine.”

In pursuit of that genuineness, Patience worked with natural light, allowing him to move about the area easily, unencumbered by a bulky lighting kit. Luckily, the weather provided lots of beautiful, golden light during the shoot (that luck ran out during another leg of the campaign. Kaikoura was flat, grey, rainy, and miserable when they went out to shoot the marine protection group, Project Jonah).

In order to keep disturbance in the community garden to a minimum, it was decided the fewer crew on the shoot the better. To get the stills it was just Patience and an assistant on location, but the campaign also involved a television commercial, so despite best intentions there were still upwards of 30 people floating around. If the assembly encroached on the communal feel in any way, it certainly doesn’t show in the photographer’s breezy, intimate images.

A subsequent job for Avis Car Rental required a similarly naturalistic feel, but the shooting requirements varied considerably from the Genesis Energy shoot.

Avis wanted to create a set of images for a winter campaign that highlighted the adventurous possibilities of driving through the scenic South Island. Patience initially thought to handle it in conventional auto ad fashion, shooting a beautiful scene and the car separately. But not being an automobile brand, the rental company wasn’t interested in simply showing off the car, instead aiming to present the full road-trip experience. And that meant shooting everything for real.

“We had to get the cars looking real and they had to be real locations,” Patience said. “We could grade, but we couldn’t, say, photograph the car in one spot and then Photoshop it on top of a mountain. It was a tricky, refined shoot, we had to be really controlled.”

The client didn’t just want the cars and locations to look real, it wanted to show customers the proof. Each image would be accompanied by a geotagged link, so anyone could locate the exact spot the vehicle was shot on a map, and make it part of their travels if they wished.

And while a leisurely road trip through the southern wilds sounds amazing, a tight deadline meant location scouting and shooting were no holiday for the photographer. Patience had just one day to survey the suggested locations around Queenstown before selecting the areas he would shoot for the next three days.

And there would be no drifting around the environment this time, due to the nature of the job many of the creative decisions had been locked in ahead of time, providing the photographer with strict guidelines to be met, and constraints to work within.

“The locations were signed off before we went. The cars and the locations were matched and signed off before we went. The angle of the car was also signed off — they all look as if someone has come along and parked looking at the landscape, instead of facing into the camera.”

At each location Patience had to have the car in place and cleaned up, and his camera and tripod locked in place before dawn, ready for that moment the sunrise spills perfectly across the scene. Then there were additional shots as the light shifted through the day, before waiting for it to fade out at the end of the day, to get the sunset hero images. These were long days of anticipating the ideal lighting opportunities, with no guarantees.

“Cars are a tricky beast at the best of times. They are big reflective objects, and you have to get that right. You can plan all you like for certain things, then you get to a location and the complete opposite of what you thought can happen, with the light or the reflections on the vehicle.”

When nature needed a little nudge, the photographer used a couple of Profoto B1 lights to help the image pop. A relatively slim set-up, the flashes, along with all the other necessary electronics, were powered by a generator for the wilderness shoots. The photography equipment all acquitted itself well in the frosty conditions, but not all the gear was as well behaved.

“It was around minus seven degrees in Moke Lake, near Queenstown, and we were shooting one of the hero images. The laptop wouldn’t take on any new charge because it was too cold, it was plugged into a generator, but it was just staying at about 50  per cent. We were hoping it wouldn’t stop working. At one point it just shut down, but luckily it started right back up again.”

Despite harsh temperatures and temperamental equipment, the client ended up with a selection of arresting images that proudly display both the country’s natural beauty, and the photographer’s considerable prowess. And having clients who appreciate such craft is another reason Patience enjoys his work at the agency so much.

“They understand the parameters of photography, most of them understand what good images are and what bad images are. And it’s nice that they care about what images are going out and representing their brand.”

Despite being leagues apart in terms of execution, both the Genesis Energy and Avis Car Rental campaigns represent an industry lean towards authentic, natural imagery. It’s a trend that Patience attributes to a desire to connect and be honest with the audience, and something he’s clearly adept at delivering. But it’s a big ad world, and he knows there are also clients out there who are up for something a little more ‘crazy’ — and that’s yet another kind of challenge this busy photographer is keen to court.

“The weirdness still happens, it’s out there. And I’d like to be part of a bit more weirdness.”

Article originally appeared in The Photographer’s Mail 213 September-October 2016