Exploding Xbox with Dan Saelinger

How did you become a photographer? Describe your career development?

Around the age of sixteen I finagled an internship at my local newspaper’s photo department for a school program that allowed you to spend part of your day outside the classroom.  I had always been an art room kid, and this was a way to try something career oriented in the arts.  I was hooked day one.  That same summer I took on a part time job with a local portrait photographer who was kind of enough to pass on an old Hasselblad 501 series camera.  That sealed the deal, my senior year I enrolled at Penn State University in the photo program.

While in college I had summer internships at both Jane and Rolling Stone magazine and that’s when I realized I wanted to photograph for magazines. After graduation I came to New York and did a brief stint as an intern for James Porto, an amazing conceptual photographer. At the end of the internship I realized how unprepared for the city I was and decided I wanted to attend Grad School. I packed up and moved south to Georgia to attend the Savannah College of Art and Design.

In Savannah I focused intensely and spent two years with the goal of creating a portfolio that I could come to back to New York with and launch my career. I initially found work as a retoucher for Ilan Rubin, which was an immensely valuable experience and really shaped the way I handle post production on my own work to this day. While retouching I was promoting my work and sending my book around to magazines and agencies. In a few months I had caught a couple breaks landing some assignments and signing to an agency.

o More specifically, was there one or more life changing moments that helped you move to the next level and become the photographer that you are now? Perhaps a big break, a perfect mentor, a movie, a mystical moment?

Photography more than most other professions seems to really rely on both working extremely hard and on catching a break now and then. You won’t get anywhere if you aren’t out there every day trying to be better, promoting your work and growing as an artist. I’ve spent the past 5 years building my client list shoot by shoot, but I’ve also been fortunate enough to have had a couple of breaks.

One of my very first assignments came from photo editor Amy Berkley at Field & Stream magazine. She took a huge chance on hiring me so early on and we have been working together almost monthly ever since. Shooting for Field & Stream has opened a ton of doors with other clients. They garner a lot of attention for pushing the envelope with photography and design. It’s also been immensely valuable to have a photo editor so supportive of my work that I can turn to for honest advice and critique.

o How do you learn your techniques?

I had never spent much time assisting, just on a handful of jobs, and I really regret that. I think it’s an invaluable way to gain an immense amount of knowledge and a library of lighting techniques. Since I didn’t go that route I’ve just tried to keep trying new things and experiment regularly. I try not to worry about emulating other photographers too much as I think you really need to find your own unique vision for lighting. Clients hire you because you can bring something special to the table, not shoot just like someone else.

o Who are your photo heroes? Or who has inspired your career?

Frederik Broden, Mark Hooper, Giblin & James, and Dan Winters (for his still life) have probably made the biggest marks on my career. These are the guys I wanted to shoot like when I was in college. They are the reason I’ve worked to become a conceptual photographer.

o What is the worst part about doing what you do?

The competition. As photographers we are constantly competing for assignments, competing in contests, competing to be the best. It can be very tiring. It’s a necessary evil as it’s the competition that drives the work to be better. You just can’t ever sit back and be comfortable because there is always someone else working harder biting at your heels.

o What is the best part?

Creating something from imagination. Building an entire world for the camera’s lens and perfecting it for a single moment only to tear it all down and start the process all over again. Every day is different; every shoot has its own parameters and pieces. You are continually solving puzzles. It really never gets boring. I love the collaboration between photographer, stylists, photo editor, art director, models, and assistants. You have all of these incredibly talented people doing all these very specific things that all come together to create this single moment to photograph. I feel so incredibly fortunate to be the one triggering the shutter.

• Learning from the Pro

o What are we going to shoot today?

We are shooting Xbox controllers and consoles exploding in Brooklyn for Fortune Magazine.

o How did you learn how to do what you are about to show us?

Researching and trial and error. Doing something like this allows little room for error. So we make sure we understand the technique to capture high speed motion for stepping on set. Fortunately I’ve had the opportunity over the years to better perfect my approach. Testing before hand is a must.

o What tools are you using to make this image?

I’m shooting with a Hasselblad 501 with a Phase One p45 digital back tethered to a capture station is always my camera set up of choice. In this situation particularly I need a camera where I can lock the mirror and leave the shutter open. Shutter speed has no bearing, as the flash duration of my lights are doing all of the work.

For lighting we have Four Scoro A4S packs with six 1600 watt Pulso lamps hooked up. One of the heads is rigged off to the right of the set shooting through a 4×4 ¼ inch translucent plexi, matte one side, glossy the other that serves as the main source light. Normally I’m very exacting with my light, but in this situation we need to work broader as the explosions are organic and unpredictable. The other five heads are all equipped with large or medium grids and are used to light are background and give edge lights to the subject.

In order to capture the explosions at precise moments we used a laser trigger system made by Kapture Group. Basically you project a laser beam across the path of where you expect the explosion to cross, when something breaks that line the laser sends a signal to a IR emitter that then triggers the lights, instantly freezing the precise moment for the camera. To further fine tune you can actually adjust the delay of the trigger in milliseconds.

Finally since we were dealing with potent pyrotechnics in New York City we enlisted the services of J&M Special Effects. They had a trained technician on set that would rig each piece with explosives and then detonate them on queue.

o Why did you choose these tools?

This shoot was all about the lights doing the work. I needed something that could freeze motion at extremely high speeds and allowed a full range of control. They needed to be reliable, we only had a few takes for each device, so I couldn’t afford miss-fires or errors.

o What features of the equipment that you use make it easier to do your job?

The precise flash duration control you get from the Scoro packs has no comparison. I can dial in an exact flash duration time, know exactly how much power I’m getting and have no doubts I have the speed I need. I see the numbers on the pack. Also when you are shooting fast, color temperature inconsistency can be an issue. The Scoro packs have eliminated that problem.

o Did you use competing products in the past? What made you change?

I’ve come from a still life background, so exacting control over lighting has always been a key issue for me. I’ve used other brands in the past and when it time to purchase new packs last year tested out a range of equipment. I found the Scoro packs unmatched in their ability to offer a huge range of possibilities with exact lighting control. The three independent outputs with ability to adjust within tenth of a stop increments gives me the ability to get exactly what I want on set without compromise.

Dan Saelinger
Dan Saelinger