Pop photo: The commercial and fashion work of Caesar Lima
Dpreview interview: Caesar Lima by David Alexander Willis
Photos by Caesar Lima
Commercial portraitist and product photographer Caesar Lima is absolutely fascinated by imaging technologies. His earnest enthusiasm for photography and the business side of the market have helped the trendsetter stay one step ahead of his peers despite a difficult economy. An admitted tech addict, Lima was quick to adapt to emerging digital trends early on, which helped his studio rise over the last two decades to the forefront of conceptual advertising.
With clients like T-Mobile, Sony Pictures, Pioneer Electronics, Reebok, Walt Disney and many more, he has been named as one of the top product and advertising photographers in the world, and his high gloss commercial and portrait photography has won a number of awards over the years. Based in Los Angeles, his studio portfolio is fun and unique, and yet obsessively composed; a stylish collection of vibrant color schemes, minimalist graphic design, meticulous lighting and gorgeous women. More recently, however, Lima has continued to push himself outside of his comfort zone by embracing street photography through his year-long Project 365 series of images taken with several new camera systems like the Sony a7 II and the Leica Q.
When he’s not shooting, Lima is a PR machine. He’s active daily on a variety of social media outlets to keep his network of clients and fans updated on his work, and regularly kept a blog long before social media’s prominence. Despite his successes as a commercial photographer, he also submits his work compulsively to magazines, websites and contests, noting that it’s a goal for him as a photographer to win at least one award for his images each year.
Find out more about his work and tech interests, including his own dedicated Macintosh museum, by clicking through the slideshow and accompanying Q+A. To find out more about Lima’s work, visit www.caesarlima.com. Follow him on Behance, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Google+, Twitter and 500px.
You started your career in commercial work as an art director in São Paulo. Why did you transition to photography?
I always liked photography and since I’m a little impatient and wasn’t getting the shots I envisioned I decided to start shooting.
Was there a reason that you decided to establish your career in Los Angeles rather than Brazil?
Primarily because of the market. My wife had lived here before and on vacation to California I fell in love with the city, weather and the people. LA is such a big market for advertising and all the big agencies were here so a year later we decided to come back and live here.
What insight did working as an art director give you as a commercial photographer?
It gives me more ground because I know what my job is. At the end of the day I need to create an image that will generate attention to ‘sell’ the message; I’m telling a story visually. It helps me in dealing with the agency, creative people and also the client.
As an early adopter of digital technology, when did you first embrace digital photography and what was your system?
My first ‘digital’ system was a 4×5 back. It was a scanning back that I would attach to my 4×5 Sinar camera. Its quality was pretty good but worked only for stills. When Kodak released the DCS systems I jumped in immediately. I still remember when I bought a $27K body and asked my assistant to set up the new camera in the studio. 5 minutes later I heard a huge noise and I ran to the studio where I encountered my new camera in pieces on the floor… the insurance covered it but we had to wait another week to get a new camera.
Besides larger resolution and more advanced cameras, in your opinion how has the medium changed since then?
There were two types of impacts. When the professional system went digital it gave us the ability to have instant feedback – no more ‘roids! It was hard back then… we would shoot a Polaroid test which had nothing to do with the final image but it was a good way to check the composition. Then we’d shoot transparency film which had very little latitude. You had to be right on it – it was an art form – after you were done the film was sent to the local lab for a ‘snip test’ just to make sure that the exposure was perfect. We could push or pull 1/2 stop without a problem.
When these cameras got cheaper it really disrupted the market; everybody ‘became a photographer’. Some of the small/mid-size companies started building in-house studios and hiring kids to run it and sometimes they were not even a photographer, just graphic people that could run hardware/software pretty well. The same thing happened to desktop publishing and now it’s happening to video. But then people started realizing that it wasn’t the hardware that made the shot but the artist – cameras are only a tool.
Stepping through your recent work, I see shots from a Canon 5D, a Hasselblad H5D, an Olympus GM-1 as well as a Sony A7II, RX-1, an RX-100 III and even the new Leica Q. Many photographers prefer to stick with a system that they know; why do you enjoy experimenting with all of these different cameras and systems? What is your chosen setup for commercial clients and which do you prefer for personal work?
I love to experiment with technology. It’s ‘lab work’ for me but I’m more conservative at work. I use a Hasselblad H5D for studio beauty work and Canon 5D Mark III for fashion / lifestyle on location. As for my personal work, I really have been all over… the Sony RX-1 was in my opinion the best street camera ever built until Leica hit us with the Q, the most modern Leica. Simply amazing! I always carry my Q with me. Just recently I received an offer to use only one brand, but can’t mention the brand yet. We’ll see…
It’s clear that you have spent quite a bit of time establishing the Caesar Lima ‘brand’ of photography online, and yet you operate under several different names; Caesar Lima, Ginga Films, Puffybrain, Colorblind Unique and Pixelpasta. Would you step us through these alter egos and how they differ as outlets for your work?
Well, I learned back in school that it’s easier to explore a niche and if you can do more than one thing you need to ‘brand’ it differently so it becomes more memorable. Ginga is for my motion work, Puffybrain is for my personal work, Pixelpasta is my advertising blog and Colorblind Unique is my brand back home in Brazil. It’s so important to have a web presence these days you need to build your ‘tribe’ and give them interesting content. Forget about selling… people want stories, they want experiences, and photography is an amazing tool to do that.
What instigated Project 365 and what are you hoping to accomplish with the exercise? For someone who has been working successfully as an established commercial photographer for almost two decades now, do you feel that you still have more to learn?
Yes I do, there’s always something new to learn. Project 365 is like a gym for my eyes, it forces me to look and always be aware everywhere all the time. I always carry a couple of cameras with me everywhere I go, but this project is a bigger deal than I thought because you’re always ‘in-check’ and you have to deliver a great shot everyday. Plus it took me to the streets where I don’t have full control. I have to ‘still’ the moment, which is the opposite of the studio where I build the shot and control the light and subjects. It has been a great exercise and I highly recommend it.
Do you think it’s necessary in this day and age for photographers to be as aggressive as you are in getting your work out there to be successful as a commercial photographer? What are a few of the venues that you would most recommend?
It’s the only way. Years ago we would buy a spread on The Workbook / Black Book and that was it. Now you need to tell your story and embrace social media, and your story has to be real. Like I said before everybody wants the experience so the content needs to be interesting. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, 500px, PhotoServe, Behance, Youtube and Vimeo as well as a studio site and a blog may seem like overload, but you’ll get used to it. Plus when you’re talking and posting about something you have a passion for it, it doesn’t feel like work!
How has the nature of commercial photography changed over the last several years? Do you think the market will change again?
The combination of new mirrorless cameras and my project 365 kind of took me to unusual situations. Working on location mostly with available light forced me to master another medium, which is a pretty good exercise because I apply it to my lifestyle-fashion work. Today advertising is all about lifestyle, not about the actual product. It is how you feel when you use a specific product… I think it’s a softer way of selling, it’s more intelligent but you need to be clever, be visually appealing and almost subliminal.
I know from past discussions with you that your commercial shoots often included catering, entertainment and even hired DJs for your clientele. Has your approach to working with commercial clients changed at all as advertising budgets have tightened?
A little bit… Not only the budgets, but people are busier and sometimes clients can’t even make the shoot. More than once we’ve had to stream the entire shoot and share previews in a Dropbox folder. This way they can check out the live shoot remotely.
Our market is very sensitive; it reacts immediately. When the economy is good, we start getting requests for estimates, quotes… but when there’s bad news economically, it works the same way for photography. It is one of the first things people put on hold when they are trying to control their budgets.
Last time we spoke your studio was home to a fantastic mix of continuous lights, flashes and even a customized automated system of controllable Martin HMI lights with gobos and scrims. What kind of lighting do you find yourself employing most frequently these days? Do you have a preferred system for working in the studio versus location shoots?
I’ve been doing a lot of location work these days and I love mixing ambient light with flash. We use the Broncolor Move power pack which is very powerful and has an amazing battery life. There is a tendency in beauty/cosmetics work these days to avoid retouching. When that happens, the plan is to avoid artificial light 100%. By using only reflectors and diffusers, we can achieve an amazing super soft light which is perfect to avoid touch-ups of the skin.
In studio when shooting beauty and stylized fashion we do set-ups with 5-6 lights to achieve a very ‘dimensional’ image with deep shadows and very subtle backlights. Broncolor and Speedotron are still my choices. Sometimes I use HMIs so we can shoot video and stills at the same time without re-lighting. Plus the new camera sensors are so sensitive that we can shoot at super high ISOs without getting any noise or grain.
Have you seen a lot of changes from when you first started to work with digital photography in comparison to now? Not just in technology, but in the application of aesthetics and design?
Well this book is being written right now. It changes a little every day. The new sensors are surpassing film quality. The ability to shoot with low light is changing what we shoot and how we shoot. But cameras need to become more design-conscious and maybe a little more ergonometric. Shooting in studio with mirrorless cameras lets us preview it through HDMI connection, which is pretty good, no need for a computer.
Do you have any predictions for the future of our rather chaotic industry? As an enthusiastic technocrat, are there any new technologies or innovations that have you particularly excited for the future of photography?
We need faster in-camera storage please! We are shooting 50 megapixel images and these memory cards are so slow communicating with our computers that when we do a 3,000-picture fashion shoot, it’s a drag backing up and quickly previewing what was shot. Right now we shoot for print, and computer/TV screens require shooting a lot more in horizontal because of the medium that these images will be seen in.
I would love to see more multi-dimensional images in a kind of hologram format, not needing tangible screens to be displayed. But any major advancement in photography equipment will only happen if the technology is created in conjunction with the hardware to capture these images and the medium to display them.
From the Lisa to the Cube to the first iPod, has your personal museum of Macintosh computers continued to grow? How many models have you collected over the years?
Wow it keeps growing. I’m running out of room. I probably have around 60 pieces. I have also been collecting urban toys and I’m planning a second ‘Tech Museum’ for digital cameras only. I’m accepting donations already.