A Showcase and Talk with Fashion Photographer Oliver Oetlli

“A fashion shooting is not a lot of work, it’s much more. Most people think you just take a model, put some clothes on and go shoot her in a cool club, or a park, or a toilet. And actually, yes that can work, too. My life is my inspiration. I want to live my life, not taking photos of it.”
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Pxleyes: Can you first tell us a bit about yourself, who is Oliver Oettli, what are your likes and dislikes, who did you work for and where did you publish?

Oliver: I’m a People Photographer from Switzerland. I’m in the business since 8 years, mostly working for companies in Switzerland and Europe. In the last year for example I worked for Swarovski, Swatch, Ernst & Young, Victorinox, Getty Images, Hublot as well as many smaller Swiss companies. I own a studio with around 150 square meters with a lot of equipment and an assistant. I don’t own him though, even when he may feel like I do, sometimes.

I like real photography – I don’t like Photoshop. Means I am very much about pure original photography. When I make a photo-shoot, I will always set the light, the model and the location as perfect as possible, even if it means that we need a lot of patience and time. For me, Photoshop is only used to adjust the colors, contrast and fix the skin. Sometimes we remove some dust or a spot on the floor, but that’s about it. I don’t do composing. I like emotions, I like real people. I think my clients like me because I’m honest and direct. I’m always correct and friendly, but I’m honest and I tell my client if I don’t agree with something. Not all people can handle this. Honesty is a hard thing in photography. I’m working for big companies that want to sell an image, a product and a lifestyle. I personally think it’s okay to make advertisement. It’s okay to sell a lifestyle and an image. I just don’t like to bullshit people. Sometimes I see advertisement pictures or TV Spots and I ask myself “my god, who made up this nonsense?”. I’m working in beauty, advertisement, fashion. I’m selling it. But I don’t want to fool people. Neither with my words, nor with my work.
Oliver Oetlli Fashion Photography Photo 1

Pxleyes: Do you have an education as a photographer and how did you get into the fashion world?

Oliver: I’m 100% self taught – that means I never went to a photo school, a workshop or even read a book about photography before I started my business. However, I would not do it the same way anymore if I could start again. It was an extremely hard time to learn everything by myself and I often wished I would at least have assisted a pro or get basic knowledge in a photography school before.

I finished college in Switzerland and instead of going to university, I started to work. After a few years (and several jobs) I lost my current position due to bad economy and simply didn’t find any job anymore. So after 1.5 years, I just had to do something or basically live on the street. So I started my own business as a photographer. Since I absolutely had to earn money with it immediately, I did not have the chance to make a school, building up experience and a portfolio or being an assistant for a while and get a network. All I had was an old Canon 10D, an even older plastic lens (must have been a 18-200mm or so) and Photoshop. No education, no network and no budget. I bought a black and a white backdrop, built it up in my living room and started out as a pro. How I got into the fashion world? I didn’t. Honestly, most of my fashion editorials are still personal projects. I make a living with business pictures, corporate shoots and advertisement. I consider fashion shootings my hobby. I have some fashion clients, designers and more and more magazines are interested in my pictures, but since I got to feed a family, this is more like a hobby. Fashion jobs are very poorly paid (if you’re not Rankin or Mario Testino) and most photographers use them for their own portfolio and to spread their names. I personally love to take fashion pictures and I’m constantly working on my portfolio and my network to get more fashion jobs. However, I made sure that if it doesn’t work, I can still make a living with my other clients. Setting up a fashion shoot must be a lot of work, can you tell us how this is done and how the process works from start to the final shoot? A fashion shooting is not a lot of work, its much more. Most people think you just take a model, put some clothes on and go shoot her in a cool club, or a park, or a toilet. And actually, yes that can work, too. However, if you have a clear idea of what you want, a client that wants to see his clothes in the best light and maybe a complicated set up, then your workflow will be slightly different. First you need to have an idea. Or your client comes to you with an idea. For example, I once had the idea to take pictures of fashion models in haute couture in the middle of the Mongolian desert. Later I thought it would be nice to put them in and around the traditional yurts (the tents / houses where Mongolian nomads live in) or even put them in the middle of a nomad family. So first of all I needed a partner on the location. I looked up Mongolian photographers and studios on the internet that looked professional so I could rent equipment there. Unfortunately, I barely found anyone – its just not a photo studio country. And if they were good enough, they for sure did not speak any English at all. After some weeks I found someone from a small studio that spoke English and agreed to help me organizing the shooting. Then I needed the client. Normally, you get the clients first, but since this was my own idea and my own project, I decided to find myself a client later that may like my idea. As it turned out, the Fashion Institute of Mongolia needed pictures for their newest collection. They were interested in the concept, paid for the models (Miss Mongolia 2009 and another professional model) and put them into breathtaking robes. Then we organized the photo team. We needed two make-up artists, one hair stylist, two assistants for light set up, two drivers for the busses and a translator since none spoke English – 11 people all in all. I was able to rent some (cheap Chinese) strobes together with some (cheap Chinese) soft boxes and a (cheap Chinese) beauty dish. We had to bring an electric generator since there seem to be no battery packs in Mongolia. Normally you also need a stylist. However, since we got the clothes from the fashion institute, they also organized all props and accessories for us. The only thing I brought from Switzerland was my camera and my laptop. Before you can actually start the shooting, you must pack. Besides the camera, laptop, strobes, reflectors, tripods and hard drives, you also have to bring food and drinks for everyone, boxes, tape, scissors, bags, umbrellas, extra gas, tape, money, gifts for the nomad children, chairs, batteries, cord, sandbags, a knife, tape, all sorts of tools and sunscreen. Did I say tape..? Always bring tape. Next step is the location. In a normal project, you will know your location beforehand and check it out weeks before the actual shooting. This is important, so you know what is waiting for you, maybe you need to change the location, prepare things or buy some props. Due to the lack of time we simply jumped in our cars and drove to the countryside. My Mongolian assistant said he knew some nomad families in this specific scenery that I had in mind. We drove several hundred kilometers away from everything where we finally found the perfect spot. Then comes the shooting itself. Prepare the light set up while the models get ready and then make the shooting. Repeat the same for all outfits and set ups until the models are moody, the sun is down and you’re dead tired. Shooting is finished and before you go home, you will back up your pictures on the laptop and an external hard drive. Do it. Always. Back in my studio I will analyse all pictures and make a selection of something between 5 and 15 shots that I will retouch (or let retouch). All other shots I will keep, but I will most likely never look at them anymore. One of the most important skills that you need as a photographer is making decisions. Decide for the best shots and stick to it. Show the best pictures and only those.
Oliver Oetlli Fashion Photography Photo 2

Pxleyes: How do you decide on the angle of a certain fashion shoot, do your clients come with special requests / ideas or do you usually suggest ideas?

Oliver: How do you decide on the angle of a certain fashion shoot, do your clients come with special requests / ideas or do you usually suggest ideas?

This is really completely different with every project. Sometimes the client actively asks me for idea and suggestions. I like it best when I’m a part of the concept team. Sometimes the client knows exactly what he wants, even tells me what focal length I should use. And this is what many photographers have problems with. Photographers are artists. I agree with this. But my client pays the bill. So it is one of the most important skills of a photographer to understand the clients wants and being able to put this into practice. You’re (almost) always welcome to make suggestions and to be creative within the limitations the client gives you, but in the end it’s the client that decides what he wants. If you can’t accept this, don’t do this job. When I make a personal project however, then I usually have a picture in mind and I work long and hard to make it look exactly the way I imagined it and then I usually can’t accept any compromise.
Oliver Oetlli Fashion Photography Photo 3

Pxleyes: How do you get the most out of your models, do you have ways to make them feel comfortable so in the end you get the photos you imagined before?

Oliver: I explain the idea of the shooting to the whole team, I tell the model what I’m expecting and I also give the model time to get used of the (often unfamiliar) situation. When a model understands what you want, that you know what you’re doing, when she feels guided but not pushed, then she will give her best. You have to give clear instructions and feedback immediately.

But actually, I’m just the way I am. I don’t play a role or try to impress anyone. Your team will feel when you’re honest. As a photographer, you’re the boss at the set. But you are also allowed to make mistakes. Nobody is perfect. And if I’m allowed to make a mistake, so is everyone else. Once. I also make sure that I only work with experienced models. I only work once or twice a year with newcomers that I picked myself for some reason. Working with experienced models makes your work much easier. You can tell an experienced model to “look arrogant” or “flirt with the camera”. You can’t ask that from your neighbor girl that never had pictures taken before. If you personally lack the experience, then I believe its really worth investing some money in a good model. If you already invested five days in the preparation, bought some clothes, rented a studio and plan to use the pictures for your portfolio, then it’s really worth taking an experienced model, instead of having a nervous newcomer in front of your camera.
Oliver Oetlli Fashion Photography Photo 4

Pxleyes: What has been your most memorable photo shoot, and why?

Oliver: This got to be that mentioned fashion shooting in Mongolia. It was not only a huge amount of work, it was also very difficult because of the different language and the cultural differences. I’m used of different cultures, I speak 4 languages, travel to Asia frequently and I’m even married to a Mongolian woman. But I will never forget how we were already 3 hours late for the photo-shoot because the make up artist didn’t show up and then my team decided to just walk away before we even left the city because “its lunch time now”.

There’s many shootings that I will remember. Usually, as soon as you leave the studio it often gets memorable. One day we were in an old luxury hotel taking the last shots before they tore it down. It was winter and the owner did not heat the hotel anymore. So it was a cosy minus 3 degrees inside. On the first set my model passed out from under cooling and even though she was able to go on, we had to cancel the shooting after a few hours. In Hong Kong we took another fashion shooting where we had a professional stuntman in a suit making a back flip off a trash can in the middle of Mong Kok. And our last fashion project involved 60 kilo of colored flour that we literally shot in our models face. Until this day we still find this powder in the corner of equipment bags or strobes.
Oliver Oetlli Fashion Photography Photo 5

Pxleyes: Do you have any advice for aspiring fashion photographers, what are the points to think about when preparing a shoot and what does give the best end results?

Oliver: In the beginning its important to get experience. Go out and shoot! A great model is a big help, but its not important when it’s about getting experience. Get to know the light, the camera and the world around you. Then go home and look at your pictures. Did you manage to get the result that you were going for? And if not, what is missing?

The longer I do this job, the longer the preparations seem to take. When I started out, shootings were all spontaneous and quickly done. The longer I’m in this business however, the more time I spend organizing, planning and preparing the shootings. A good (fashion) shooting is at all times very well prepared and organized. Before you start, you need a concept and an idea. Every picture has different elements (model, clothes, styling, make up, location, accessories, light …). Make a list of all elements and then find out what you need to do to get it right on the picture. And soon you will find out that it’s a lot of work. But you will also find it very relaxing and promising when you have it all set and ready to go before you take the first picture. The one and only advice that really matters is – think before you shoot. Think about your picture before you press the shutter. Is the model in the right pose? Is the light the right way? Is the framing correct? Learn to make sure your picture is good before you take it. Since digital photography most people only seem to take millions of pictures and then try to fix all this waste of storage space in Photoshop. You can’t fix a bad picture on the computer. And its also not worth it.
Oliver Oetlli Fashion Photography Photo 6

Pxleyes: What kind of equipment do you use in general for a fashion shoot?

Oliver: I use a camera, a model and light. Actually it does not matter at all what camera, what brand, what lens, what brand of light you use. Just make sure you know your equipment. Amateurs are going for lucky shots – once in a while everyone takes a good picture. Pros know how to set up the equipment to get exactly the result they planned.

For those that really want to know – I still mostly work with Nikon cameras (D4 or D800) and prime lenses (28mm, 50mm, 85mm etc). Always use prime lenses. First of all, the quality is much better then zoom lenses and more important, they force you to focus on the picture and to frame it right before you press the shutter. I use strobes from Elinchrom and Broncolor. I have a pretty big collection of strobes, battery packs and light shapers (soft boxes, beauty dishes, flags …). I have a lot of equipment because I want to make sure that I do at all times have the right tool at hand for my needs. I don’t want my creativity being limited by missing equipment. But honestly, you often need much less then what you think. Just don’t underestimate all the other tools you need on a photo-shoot like reflectors, tripods, clamps, triggers.. oh… and tape!
Oliver Oetlli Fashion Photography Photo 7

Pxleyes: What do you prefer: a studio setup where you can control everything or a photo-shoot outside in a busy street where anything can happen and why?

Oliver: When I do a personal project, I like a busy street just as much as a studio shoot. It gives a spontaneous touch to the set up. But when I work for a client, I like to have complete control over the situation. I’m being paid for a specific result and I can’t afford any doubts about what will happen during the day.

Oliver Oetlli Fashion Photography Photo 8

Pxleyes: Is it work or a hobby?

Oliver: Work. Sounds sad, but it is true. I’m so happy when I can come home on a weekend and not even think about holding a camera for the next 48 days. It used to be hobby but now its work and no matter how much I love photography, I want to see the world with my own eyes without a lens in front of my face.

I know many photographers that can’t stop taking pictures. My life is my inspiration. I want to live my life, not taking photos of it.
Oliver Oetlli Fashion Photography Photo 9

Pxleyes: Do you have your own style and how would you describe it?

Oliver: I always said I don’t an own style. My pictures are very different from each other, depending on the project and client. When I take pictures, the only thing I have in mind is to get the best possible result. But clients as well as my friends tell me that my pictures actually do look like “my work”.

I can’t tell. Its just… my pictures. Maybe my style is defined by what I consider “the best possible result”.
Oliver Oetlli Fashion Photography Photo 10

Pxleyes: Is there any post processing involved in your work, if so what software do you use and where lay the borders on what you would do in post processing?

Oliver: As mentioned before, I don’t do a lot of post processing. But of course that always depends on what you consider “a lot”.

All my pictures are retouched (on Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop). On business portraits we usually only fix the skin a bit and maybe remove dust or the bad dark circles around the eyes. On fashion pictures however, everything is allowed. For such cases, I work together with Ana-Maria Nedelea (red: Nanaris at www.pxleyes.com), which is a fantastic retoucher. She knows what I like and she makes sure that the photo does at all times look natural. I always say a photo must look as if it came directly out of the camera.
Website: oliver oettli

Author:

Rob is a graphic artist and moderator on www.pxleyes.com

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3 Responses:

  1. Kim says:

    I enjoyed reading this. A photographer relying on his skills and not a computer.
    To be Authentic never goes out of style ! :-)

    ( 2 years and 694 days ago )
  2. roshan says:

    you’re good artist……..

    ( 2 years and 656 days ago )
  3. atefeh says:

    so exciting…

    ( 2 years and 638 days ago )

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