Beers With: Dave Hill

(Photo by Dave Hill)

Conceptual portrait photographer Dave Hill, of Nashville, has never won a photography award. Nor does he belong to any photographic organizations. So you have probably never heard of him.

(That's not him above. Dave has better pecs.)

I caught up with Dave via email for a little Q&A while he was in London recently. More from the guy who has the "Dave Hill Look" down better than almost anyone else, after the jump.

Dave Hill Q&A

Your lighting, shooting and post-production style is unique, and generates a lot of conversation among this site's readers. Is there really a definitive "Dave Hill Style," or are you more subject-driven in your approach to visualizing and lighting a photo?

Well, I'm not sure if there is a "style," but I do tend to light in similar ways, even if the audiences and subjects are totally different. I have definitely studied and used other people's lighting styles that have been around way before me.

My post production process, though always evolving, has become almost second nature to me. I'm pretty good at getting the Dave Hill look by now.  :-)  But of course, not every subject works with an 8 light setup. Recently, I've been playing around with fewer lights, not always insisting on rear lights, etc.  

(Photo by Dave Hill)

You are 28 years old. In just ten years you have gone from shooting local skateboarders to photographing some of the hottest people in the entertainment industry. How does that happen so fast? When you look back, do you see a moment when things really started to gel for you?

Haha. Actually, it seems like a long time coming really. Look how much Britney Spears has accomplished in the same amount of time?

I shot for my college paper for 4 years (UCLA Daily Bruin) and then worked at Loyola Marymount University as their full-time campus photographer, working mainly with film (medium format). I didn't really know any freelance photographers at the time and didn't really know what I was doing, lighting-wise. It wasn't until I packed my bags and moved to Nashville in 2003 that stuff started changing.

I was sick of shooting for a salary and decided I would shoot as much as possible on my own, while working random odd jobs (valet parking, video editing, etc). I got a lot of flak from some of the bigger photogs in Nashville for putting up signs for $100 artist promo shoots. I'm happy I did, though. Besides getting a ton of experience, I shot one band, with a guy who worked at EMI records. He liked my stuff, got me a meeting with the label, and it turned into a lot of jobs with Nashville records labels, and then nation-wide labels. During the $100 days, I also shot an indie musician who was friends with some guys at a Seattle design firm, then called Asterik Studio (now 

They saw my stuff, liked it, and started using me more and more. It helped that I was willing to build huge water tanks and massive sets for almost no budgets. With them, I really got to do some great photoshop-heavy compositing work. All in all,  I guess my $100 campaign really sparked things for my career (and just shooting a ton!).

Regarding your light, do you tend to design it before the fact in a given situation, or does it just evolve as you shoot and look at the results?

If the shoot involves a planned concept, I usually have a good idea of how I will light it before I arrive on set. Of course, sometimes stuff looks great in my head, I set the lights up, and then it looks like crap, so I have to play it cool and try another set up (acting confident in front of the art director the whole time, of course!)

For less-planned shoots, like most artist promo stuff, I just set up the lights on the fly. Funny thing is, the lighting setups for planned stuff and the last minute stuff usually come out pretty similar.

Your photos, although highly produced, are also very moment-oriented. You describe them as "cinematic." How to you create these moments? Is there a lot of pre-thinking and direct coaching involved, or is it more of an organic collaboration on the set?

For all of my bigger-budget shoots, the concepts are planned out in my head at least a few days before we shoot (sometimes much farther in advance). I did the packaging photos for Chris Brown's latest CD this past summer, and I had to come up with some concepts for him based on some movies he liked. I had a lot of fun coming up with image concepts, locations, etc and finally having the budget to pull them off (sports car, big plasma screens, baby Leopard, radio dishes, etc...kinda ridiculous!). 

I did an ad for Nationwide Insurance this past summer which also involved a ton of planning, and coaching on set. We had these poor high school kids jumping on trampolines and flying into mattresses all day. The image was accurately sketched out a few weeks before we started shooting. I really love spending lots of time on single images. I really hope to do even more stuff like that this year.

Clearly, your clients are hiring you with expectations of a certain look and feel to the photos you'll make. Do you think that expectation hems you in, of gives you the freedom to stretch?

I really do feel a lot of pressure to keep progressing my style in the same direction (big composites, post, etc). Of course there are upsides and downsides to this. It's very rare that my clients aren't happy with their product since I rarely take too many chances (which is something I'm actively working to overcome!) They pretty much get what they expected. 

Recently, I've tried to tone down some of the post-processed look on a few assignments and the feedback I've gotten from the art directors is "great stuff! but can you add some of that "animated" look to the images?" So ya, we'll see how much I can grow and stretch this year... :-)  

You are shooting what many of the readers of this site would consider dream assignments. What would you consider a dream assignment?

I would love to shoot Zach Braft, Mandy Moore, and Clint Eastwood riding wild camels, with pursuing Arab militants in the deserts of Namibia for the cover of Vanity Fair, in promotion for their upcoming movie "The Desert Chronicles," directed by Steven Spielberg (of course I would shoot him for the sidebar). My wife would produce it, and all my friends would be there hanging out, assisting, etc.

Afterwards, we would explore for 2 months, shoot a lot of film, get stuck in the sand at least 4 times, then come home, and cash our checks. A month later, Universal would buy out all of the rights to the photos for their movie poster for $1,000,000.


Are you near the greater L.A. area? Be sure to stop by the Koos Art Center in Long Beach, to see Dave's work along with that of seven other photographers, in the show, Photo Pass: An Exhibit of Music Photography.

Related links:

:: Dave Hill's website
:: Official 'Dave Hill Look!' navel-gazing thread ::


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Blogger RobertKills said...

I think everyone has wanted this for a while...

You rule David... And Dave...

March 14, 2008 1:44 AM  
Anonymous Aleksphotography said...

I know him for a while, he's photos are awesome..., but you must realy see how much lightning-stobist stuf he have to create this awesome photos. :)

Best regards

March 14, 2008 6:36 AM  
Blogger Matt said...

Ha, this reminds me of an old "Kids in the Hall" sketch.
The song went "these are the Daves I know/I know/These are the Daves I know/Some of them are Davids/Most of them are daves/These are the Daves I know/I know/These are the Daves I know"

Good stuff, David & Dave

March 14, 2008 6:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks for posting this. Now on to my real question...

Am I the only one that doesn't like this style of over-processed imagery? Seeing it once is interesting. Seeing every image Dave Hill assembles have the same exact style gets boring very quickly. Can you say one-trick-pony?

March 14, 2008 8:00 AM  
Blogger christopherbautista said...

I'm glad you got to interview him. I had no idea he was 28, amazing!

March 14, 2008 9:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I used to check the Asterik site daily to see what great photography and design they would display.

Had no idea Dave was so young, now I feel really stupid.


March 14, 2008 9:46 AM  
Blogger Gary said...

You might be interested in this podcast interview with Dave: lightsource hill interview

March 14, 2008 11:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not that I am unappreciative of the interview and Davids story, I actually really enjoy it.

But Im surprised you/he didnt bring up the comments he had made on the podcast about how the small strobes that we strobist people use not working for real photo shoots.

March 14, 2008 11:28 AM  
Blogger Dean said...

Dave who?

..just kidding. ;)

Nice work to both Daves

March 14, 2008 11:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now let's sit back and watch all the idiots follow along like sheep and offer their own $100 promo. What a great profession (it once was).

March 14, 2008 12:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

... and the inevitable people bitching and moaning about them in the comments. Anonymously.

Hey, if that is how you start, that is how you start. And it seems to have been a good springboard for Dave.

March 14, 2008 1:56 PM  
Blogger Columbus Mix Xchange said...

I appreciate the article. Dave Hill is doing his thing and doing it very well. I have great respect for him as a business man and as a creative. People like him push me to keep trying. $100 is cheap but that doesn't take away other photographers games if you do what YOU do well. I think people go wrong in trying to fully emulate another persons style. Borrow and tweak and confidently make it your own. In ten years you may have an article on you on Strobist and you will be telling us your road to glory.

March 14, 2008 2:45 PM  
OpenID iacas said...

You know, I've always found that people - celebrities included - really don't like it when you mis-spell their name.

March 14, 2008 3:14 PM  
Blogger Zach said...

Thanks so much for the write up, it's great to get inside these people's heads.

March 14, 2008 5:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting look with the post production. I agree sometimes it looks a bit much, and used on every timage. But what sort of PP routines has DH used for this look? How much of it is his lighting style and how much his PP style?

March 14, 2008 8:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've known Dave for 25 years, he beings my cousin. The one thing I thing beyond anything else that has added to the success of his career is that he gets things done. In a business where so many things can come up and potentialy through a wrench in the gears of a shoot, Dave really knows how to make things happen. I remember once when to get a shoot just right he had to order over 50 taxidermied crows to do a purticular shoot(one of them still hangs in my little brothers bedroom.) If I have learned anything from Dave, its that giving up and accepting things as impossible won't get you far in life.

Congrats of the interview Dave,

March 14, 2008 9:49 PM  
Blogger lilcrazyfuzzy said...

Thanks for posting DH, that surely was an interesting read!

March 15, 2008 3:21 AM  
Anonymous Yaniv Eliash said...

Amazing, Amazing and more Amazing.
I love the concept, I love the results.

Well worth it.

Yaniv Eliash

March 15, 2008 4:27 PM  
Blogger Abe said...

wow, great read. If I ever ran into him that I would go crazy with questions and questions haha

March 15, 2008 8:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

His work is pretty garish, and it will just die out in a few years along with this over-processing fad. I love photoshop, but his photos lack creativity, and when they rely only on they ugly HDR look, they won't have much of a lasting appeal.

March 21, 2008 12:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Photojournalists might keep in mind that some commercial shoots might pay one year of an average newspaper photographer's salary or more for a one day shoot and licensing. Who cares if the look gets old eventually? Dave will have moved on to another look by them.

March 22, 2008 11:04 AM  
Blogger James said...

who is dave hill ;)

March 25, 2008 1:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is not photography.

March 27, 2008 10:59 PM  
Blogger Ken said...

never mind the jealousy thinly disguised as naysaying.

if you end up with a picture, it IS photography. jerry uelsmann got a lot of flak too... lol.

kudos to those who think outside the box and try new things.

March 31, 2008 10:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

a combining form meaning “light”

a combining form denoting a process or form of drawing, writing, representing, recording, describing, etc., or an art or science concerned with such a process

Photography does not mean, using a camera, to expose film, and make prints... it is recording images by use of light.

broaden your mind fella...

April 24, 2008 1:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Typical of gearhead photographers getting all hung up on the look--aka what photoshop can do--and completely overlooking the subject matter, which is the real essence of the work. An interesting idea well planned and executed. Any fool could run a Photoshop macro to get "the look" but if your subject/concept sucks and was poorly executed then the end result will be a sharper and more contrast-y version of suck. Photoshop is a tool, not a substitute for your brain. Dave Hill clearly knows how to use both well, end of story.

July 03, 2008 1:45 AM  
Blogger -=UnkleLuc=- said...

I like this post.. dave hills work really inspires me..

September 01, 2008 12:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have nothing but respect and admiration for Dave Hill. What is more desirable that developing your own unique style and catching the attention of big budget advertisers - and at such a young age. He is obviously a very smart and hard working guy. And based on the videos posted on his website, knows how to have fun while working. However, the desire to capture the "Dave Hill" look totally misses the point. Keep in mind that very distinct looks like his tend to have a relatively short shelf life and can look dated in short order. How good is Dave Hill? The answer to that question will be a direct function of how he is able to evolve and maintain the attention of advertising budgets. My guess is that Dave will do just fine in this regard. As for those photographers that are chasing after his style, I recommend that they focus on developing their own unique style. As we all know, the work produced by "Next Dave Hill" won't look anything like Dave Hill.

September 03, 2008 9:51 AM  
Anonymous Joe said...

Agreed. Like it or not (I like it, for the record), you really have to admire him. Everyone talks a great game about 'style' and finding your stylistic niche. He went out, completely off the wall and different than anyone else out there, and made something that is so distinctively 'him' that the style is NAMED after him.

Imagine if we were all so ballsy.

December 16, 2008 9:38 PM  

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