PRO TALK: Douglas Sonders – Commercial Photographer
Written by Amanda Quintenz-Fiedler
Washington D.C. based commercial photographer Douglas Sonders was named one of D.C.’s top 25 creatives of 2010, has been profiled in Photo District News as well as other publications, and has a client list including behemoths such as Apple, Discovery Channel, Ford Motor Company, Time Magazine, and National Geographic. All of this he has accomplished since graduating from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2004 and all by the age of 30.
His success has been helped by the fact that Sonders knew what he wanted to be from the time he was a child. His two loves were working on cars with his father and picking up a camera. “They were the only things that really, naturally put a smile on my face,” he explains. And he followed that interest, all the way to RIT, where he received a degree in photography and learned how to master a technically demanding craft.
After graduating with a tool belt full of well-honed skills, he elected to travel around the country as the photographer for a top 40 touring rock band. He was with them behind the scenes, in the bus, backstage, and everywhere that he could make an image documenting their existence. Through the experience, he started to make connections in the industry across the nation and strove to work at maintaining and growing those into a career. “Photography was a great opportunity to get into places I normally couldn’t,” he explains. “So I used that. It was more of a lifestyle and a chance to capture more so than trying to plan out exactly my style and my content. That would come years later.”
After the tour, he set out to create a portfolio of the images he wanted to be hired for. He started to produce technically superior images with crisp lighting and vastly prepared setups. As his personal portfolio grew, so did his client base, full of art directors and commercial clients that wanted exactly the style and feel of the images he was creating for himself. Though relatively new into the industry when he started to land bigger clients, Sonders’ photography was centered around elaborate lighting set-ups where his competition wasn’t using as much. “I’m very passionate about my lighting. I can do a lot with one or two lights, as long as they’re powerful. I like to overpower the ambient light by using really powerful strobes,” says Sonders. “I’ve spent a lot of my time refining my skill, becoming the best shooter I can be. So I will take time to light these set-ups to make it look cool,” he explains. “A lot of my work people see and say ‘oh, this looks post-produced,’ but a lot of it is really trying to get as much in camera because I was trained traditionally at RIT.”
Though he is very careful about controlling his lighting, he does not limit himself to a studio lifestyle. He travels with an extensive lighting kit and evaluates each ambient scene he’s working in to visualize what he needs to get the final images for which he’s known. “I love shooting on location because I love playing with pre-existing structure and ambient lighting and molding the lighting or adapting with it based on the type of vibe I’d like to accomplish. Sometimes that means using a lot of lighting, and sometimes that means just doing some cool natural light with a diffuser and a reflector and that’s it.” His flexibility and skill allow him to evolve and create his signature style while keeping his clients happy.
He also focuses on keeping his passion alive and well, crafting personal projects that revolve around his love of famous cars throughout filmic history through a personal series named “The Unicorn Project” or a “geektrip” documentary of driving across the U.S. in a rare factory-turbocharged DeLorean. His most recent project has been dedicated to men and their facial hair, using a specific lighting set-up and post-production process to accentuate the texture and personality of a variety of soup catchers. “For this beard portrait, I lit it a certain way, but I played with my Nik Software Silver Efex Pro tools to get the right color, contrast, and texture I wanted. I did a few quick sample portraits early on before I started because I wanted everything to look consistent,” he explains. “I knew in post it would look a lot different because I would be applying certain black and white filters in a certain way.”
With everything he produces, Sonders is very deliberate about how he shoots his images, with careful and trained attention to what he will be adjusting. “If I shoot something, I know I have full intention to do a polarizing filter on the sky in post using Nik Software Color Efex Pro tools. Or I’m going to do a slight high-pass or go to Viveza and do a slight increase in structure, that I’m going to dodge and burn aspects of the sky or the car or somebody’s face or hand – so I definitely shoot with full attention knowing I’m not going to play around. I look at it and already know ‘okay, this is exactly what I’m going to do in post when I get back to the computer.’”
To achieve his style, Sonders relies heavily on a variety of Nik Software tools. He experiments with new looks and processes while at the same time approaching specific images with a certain post production protocol in mind. The techniques that he applies have been added to his repertoire of traditionally trained photographic skills, and he gladly shares that information in his blog or in any other venue where his knowledge might help others. “I’m not afraid to share. I feel like if you’re afraid to share, then you’re afraid to innovate. There’s always someone younger and more creative than you that will stomp over you and look at your pictures and figure out what you do anyway. So you might as well make a little money and keep in touch and friendly with the community by sharing a little bit of what you do.” So Sonders continues to contribute and innovate, keeping up with his own passions and explaining the processes he uses to others. All while demonstrating technical mastery, a solid work ethic, and keeping his clients and his followers continually invested in his own personal style.
You can learn more about Sonders’ photography and his process at his blog www.sondersphotography.com/blog/ or view his upcoming video workshops at KelbyTraining.com.