The Complete Q&A with Fashion Photographer Roy Cox

Shot by Roy Cox with Multiblitz Studio Lighting Equipment
In February 2013, Roy Cox joined the Multiblitz Professional Team. We interviewed Roy about his approach to photography and how he got into it.

Roy getting ready with a Multiblitz Profilux 800Ws monolightAs a native of Baltimore, Maryland, Roy began his career as a fashion and advertising photographer in 2002. The same year, Roy opened his first studio in a commercial facility in Baltimore. Starting with portfolio and headshot work Roy’s name began to work its way throughout Maryland along with the surrounding states. In late 2004, Roy’s career took a significant leap forward when he landed his first commercial advertising campaign for Chevy Chase Bank.

I never imagined myself as a photographer and now I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.

Nearly 10 years later Roy’s work has been published in hundreds of magazines, seen on billboards and in newspapers. His work has been used by thousands of individual artists, musicians, models and commercial clients. Roy enjoys teaching photography students as well as providing internship outlets to many of the tri-state area college and universities. “It seemed that there was a lack of help and support for new photographers in the professional community, back when I started and I wanted to make sure that individuals had a place to learn and get real experience in this business.”

You can read about Roy’s gear list and his full bio at his Gallery Page.

How long have you been photographing and how did you get started?

I got started in photography shortly after heading to Mardi Gras in New Orleans back in 2002. There was such much culture and history in the New Orleans area that I wanted to photograph so I stopped into a pawn shop and purchased a used Nikon film camera and began taking black and white photographs during my vacation. I just couldn’t put the camera down. I think I shot like 60 rolls of film in only a few days and I knew that taking photos was something that I needed to make a big part of my life. Six months later I quit my job and opened my first small photo studio space in Baltimore. It was a big chance but I just knew I had to take a shot at this or I would regret it later.

When did your career as a photographer really pick up?

My first year was a bit slow, as expected, but around years 2-3 I started making some pretty good contacts in my field and I landed a contact at an advertising agency that contracted me for some fairly large commercial work. I had never really shot anything other than model portfolios and headshots, etc. at the time so I was really nervous and a bit unfamiliar with the medium format camera system that my clients wanted the ads shot in. I rented the camera system and practiced on it for a couple of days before the shoot but it helped me learn the camera and better prepare myself for the shoot. These first ads were for Chevy Chase Bank and everything went really well. Although I ate a good deal of my profit by renting the camera for two extra days before the shoot, it helped me prepare for what I believed to be my first big shot in this business. It worked! After shooting that I got a few more commercial jobs as well as a bunch of smaller shoots and it just started building up from there. Everyone gets really nervous on their first big shoot but you just have to tell yourself that if I don’t do this, someone else will and I may miss my chance and who knows when the next one will come around.

Tell us a little about your work and the motivation/inspiration behind it.

My entire style is based on experimentation. I was never really into looking at other people’s work other than to see who was out there in the big picture. I am actually glad that I didn’t have much money for gear when I first started because it forced me to take the one studio light I could afford and really work with it. I would keep a notebook with me at all times while I practiced and I would take my wife, who really was good about helping me practice on her, and just move her and this studio light around in different positions and start to really see how these strobes function. I would go into the building that my studio was in and shoot her in a hundred different places, using only one light and record all of the positions that I really liked. I would write down different things that I liked about the color of a shot or the texture of a certain wall or how my monolight would react if I laid it on the floor and shot it up towards her etc. Lots of people look to find their style by looking at what other people have shot and that’s great to get inspired but nothing can replace trigger time on that camera. You have to develop your style by shooting as much as you can and as often as you can and really getting to know your gear and how it reacts in different scenarios. You will find that after a while there is this certain thing that will always look the same about your photos. This is now your individual style starting to form. This is how I developed mine.

Are there any photographers who you would call influential to your work?

I guess if I had to pick certain photographers that gave me inspiration it would really come down to two guys. Frank Wartenburg, a German commercial photographer and Michael Thompson, an American beauty and fashion photographer. I was reading a book about photography in the library way back in the day when I first began and I saw this gritty, over saturated film print of a woman laying on the floor in a hotel room. Wartenburg shot it. The book was giving work samples to show how color can be manipulated in the processing of film and I was just blown away by this shot. I looked him up and really fell in love with his work. It basically made me say, “wow, I have a long way to!” but it really put a fire under me to practice even harder if I ever wanted to be in that league. Thompson is the king of fashion magazine covers. What he has accomplished has always be an inspiration to me. I always really admired his consistency in the work he has done and the quality of his editorials over years and years of work. I’ve been shooting for 10 years full-time and I know how difficult it can be to constantly deliver your highest standards of work, no matter what the project is or how I feel that day. People come to expect a certain standard from you after a while and its tough to always meet expectations every single time you shoot a project. Thompson never seems to drop his standards, even after turning out thousands of editorials and covers. Its pretty amazing and I hope to have that consistency in my work after 20 years.

What makes a good picture?

A great shot, in my opinion, is something that you as the photographer really love and feel and something that inspires others in some way.

Any tips for people wanting to improve their fashion shots?

As with other styles of photography, it’s all about what is in the shot. There is no amount of Photoshop, lighting or camera skills that can fix a poorly chosen model. The model is EVERYTHING. I always tell my clients that meet with me about doing a shoot to put their focus on finding the right model first. You would be surprised how many clients make the model this minor detail. We can get the very best of makeup artists, hair stylists and wardrobe stylists but it doesn’t matter if the model isn’t right for the shoot. If you are interested in shooting fashion and improving your fashion shoots then start with the model. If you start with a great model the rest will come together so much easier.

Describe a typical shoot.

I always begin a shoot by sitting down and talking to client. This allows me to get a good feel of what they want to accomplish and to make sure that their expectations are realistic and within their budget constraints. Its funny what people think we can accomplish in Photoshop (laughing). It’s also important to find out how they are going to use the images. This allows me to plan my overall composition needs and where text space might be needed on the photos, etc. After this we put our team and production elements in place by selecting the right makeup and hair artist, styling, location and/or set construction needs. I really believe that 80% of a shoot is done before the shoot ever starts.

How do you choose your models?

Many of the models I shoot are actually chosen by my clients and then sent to us for approval and in some cases we hire the models ourselves. Most of the models that we recommend to our clients are models that I have experience working with and that I know are capable of delivering the caliber of work that my client is expecting. When I hire models, this decision is always based on budget, experience and how their looks fit the project. Nowadays companies seem much more careful in selecting models. In todays’ commercial and fashion markets diversity is the name of the game. My clients are very careful in making sure the chosen models are relatable to their target audiences and not too ethnically one-sided.

What in your opinion makes a good model?

A really good model is one that is prepared for a shoot and willing to work hard during the shoot. When I’m doing commercial shoots I’m always really involved with clients so I don’t have much time to show the model how to do things. I want to be able to give them an outline of what’s going on and then have them fill in the blanks. There have been models that I worked with on several shoots that look great but we have to tell them every little thing we want them to do. To me good models will give their input and really put themselves out there to help us get the best shots possible.

What was the most challenging or satisfying photo shoot you have done?

I was hired by the C.I.A. to do an advertising campaign in Los Angeles a couple of years ago. We shot on the Universal Studios back lots right next to the set from Back to the Future. It was the entrance gates to the neighborhood Michael J. Fox’s character lived in. I remember we were there because the clients wanted our set to look like a small Italian neighborhood so they had this massive set built on the back lot. During the shoot there were people taking the Universal Studio tours on those little tram buses and they were coming past us and taking photos of us working. I could hear the tour guide saying “folks this is where lots of movies and photo shoots are staged and many of the big films you have watched, including Back to the Future were shot right here!” I remember looking over at one of my assistants and saying, “how did we get here?!” It was crazy and I will never forget those three nights of shooting. Also, last summer I was brought in to do the billboard shots for one of the Susan G. Komen Foundation campaigns. To be able to shoot foundations that actually said something to millions of people really was a monumental thing for me. It was quite a moving experience to say the least. We were honored to work with the foundation and with the breast-cancer survivors that modeled in the shots that day.

What kind of equipment do you use and what is your main set-up?

Camera Body: Canon 5D Mark II (everyday work), Hasselblad H3 w/ 40 MP Leaf Aptus II (large-scale and some billboard work)

Lens: Canon 24-70 mm 2.8, Canon 70-200 mm 2.8, Zeiss 105 medium, Zeiss 80 medium

Lighting Equipment: Multiblitz Profilux Plus 800 Ws and 400 Ws monolights, Multiblitz reflectors, grids and softboxes, Mathews scrims, bounce boards

Grip & Electric: Multiblitz Propac 2 portable power pack, Avenger & Mathews studio roller stands, Mathews c-stands, Avenger arms and grip heads, Mathews sandbags and stand weights

Cases and Bags: Pelican Hard Cases, Tamrac studio roller bag and stand bags

Memory: Lexar Pro CF Cards (Black and Yellow only) and Calvary & Glyth Drives

Filters: Only protective lens filters

At a shoot, what are your typical settings?

Aperture: I’m usually in the 2.8 – 6.0 range for beauty shots that are waist up and I’ll move to 6.0 – 11 for the full body fashion based shots. If I’m doing a shoot to where the subject will be composited onto another background then I’m always at the 9.0 or better on the aperture to be sure of a good clean edge.

Shutter: I usually stick around 80-125 for most everything. Every now and then I’ll go slower is I’m mixing ambient light with the monolights to let the ambient bleed in a bit.

ISO: I like grain so I try to stay push the ISO higher whenever I can. I actually try to degrade my imagery as much as possible in the camera, without over processing the color or contrast. I’ll go as low as I can on the ISO if clarity for a client is critical however. Anything that I can put my mark on will get dirtied up a bit though. I want my Canon to shoot more like my old Nikon F4.

White balance: I’m all over the place on my WB – I use the color in the camera to accent certain outfits or skin tones and I’m always on Manual Mode only! Rarely am I ever white balanced correctly. When I do anything that has to do with catalogue work I’m a bit closer to being color correct to ensure that the clothing being sold is accurate in color.

Format: Mostly JPEG only! I shoot high res JPEGS for everyone except Under Armour. All of my Under Armour ads or catalogs are done in RAW for their postproduction department but most everything else in done in JPEGS. I shoot for a finished image and don’t really need the RAW. These cameras shoot at such a gorgeous resolution nowadays that the JPEGS can even go to billboard without question. As a matter of fact I think the last billboard I did for United Way was a 150 dpi JPEG. Surprising huh!

How did you end up using Multiblitz Studio Lighting equipment?

A Multiblitz representative contacted us at the studio. They came by and demoed a few of their studio lights and modifiers and I fell in love with the built quality and overall design of the lights. I had been using Elinchrom for a really long time and rarely ever make changes to my lighting setup. If Elinchrom would discontinue a light I would buy what I was looking for from someone on eBay. The service that we received from Multiblitz was so good and genuine and their products really had something special about them. I knew it was finally time for a switch. Within a few days I had converted my entire operation over to Multiblitz Studio Lighting. It was one of the best decisions I have made in a while!

What do you do when you are not working?

My biggest passions are my wife, my dogs and my guitars. I’m a huge guitar fanatic and I spend most of my free time collecting, buying and playing them.

Talk about current projects and what are you planning on doing next.

Recently I have had the opportunity to shoot Manny Machado from the Baltimore Orioles which will actually be this very cool 3D billboard on interstate 95 for Under Armour and I just shot Jameel McClain from the Baltimore Ravens who just got back from New Orleans after winning the Super Bowl! I’m always excited to work with one of the Ravens considering I’m a huge fan and Baltimore is where I’m from and live. Go Ravens!

What gear do you take on your travels and why?

I basically have two types of packing setups for location shoots. One is the setup I carry when I have to bring my own gear and I must fly to the location and the other is the setup I use when I’m driving to a location. We always carry less gear on a flight and packing for flights is never easy. With security being what it is today you have to pack tightly and securely yet prepare for immediate inspection and be able to get items out of your grip bags if they need to inspect them right then and there. The cameras will always stay on my person, along with the memory, drives and lenses and the grip, lighting and power equipment gets checked of course. Nothing can weight over 100 pounds per bag and its tricky to pack the studio lights in a way that they are protected yet most things can fit in two or less bags. I’ve had some interesting airport experiences over the 20 or so times I’ve had to fly to a job. I always carry atlas three heads on location but I usually only take one softbox, 2 reflectors and 2 snoots. The key to location packing is being prepared for anything without bringing everything you own. It’s tricky! My studio manager always finds the closest photo equipment dealer nearest my location in every city I have shot in. You never know when you are going to have to run out and buy something or replace something that has just broken. Trust me it has happened.

Any equipment you wish you hadn’t bought?

That’s actually a great question! I purchased a ring flash by Alien Bees because they were the trend a while back and a beauty dish, which I thought I might get into using. I could never get the beauty dish setup to look like my style of lighting and the ring-flash sort of exploded after using it for about 2 weeks and I never got around to replacing it so those two things sort of collect dust now.

What kind of tools do you use for post processing? Explain your workflow!

Everything that is shot is dumped to a master Glyth or Calvary raid drive setup we have. After this we then drag it to a ghost drive for immediate backup. Then the files are burned as a third backup onto DVDs. The worst thing that can happen to a professional photographer is losing your client’s files. This happens to people more often than you could imagine and it’s an easy precaution. We are extremely serious about backing up files and this process has saved us more times than I care to mention! After we back everything up, all our standard, non-commercial shoots are processed into smaller low-res JPEGS that will be posted to our server to client access links. This allows my clients to make their selections for editing via the Internet. It also allows me to get them their link the very next day after the shoot. All of our bigger commercial shoots are usually dumped a 4th time to a client specific drive that will be sent directly to their graphics department. Most of our commercial clients do their own postproduction so they take the unedited files straight from the shoot. We actually have a full-time photo editor who has been with me for 9 years now. She’s does all of our in-house Photoshop and anything our clients cant or don’t want to do themselves. She’s amazing.

Among your works, which one is your favorite? Why?

That’s a really tough question! The work I did with Ray Lewis from the Baltimore Ravens in his home was a cool one for me. I was really happy with the way I captured him outside of the field. He is photographed a few times a week but never really for how he is as a regular guy, without the helmet, pads and eye black. Being able to shoot him inside of his home, in his car etc. was different for him and he loved the results! Another favorite of mine is the gigantic Weimaraner dog that I shot in a makeup chair in my studio. If you haven’t seen this is on my website and in my gallery on the Multiblitz page. I was shooting a guy who had the dog with him and I became fascinated with how trained this animal was. I was actually able to put him in the chair and dress him up. He was awesome! I have always loved the old William Wegman photos of the dogs and known does this better than him but it was sort of my nod to him and his style. It was one of the most fun shoots I have ever done.

What is the one thing you wish you knew when you started taking photos?

Because I’m completely self-taught, I never had a solid business foundation before starting this business. The biggest mistakes that I have made along the way, usually involved corporate matters or contract legalities and things like that. I really feel a solid business foundation would have made this easier in the beginning for me. I have had a bunch of interns over the last ten years and they always ask me about the business side of things. I really think they should be teaching the business of photography in photo programs. Its one of the most important things you can learn if you want to be a full-time professional and run your business smoothly.

Thank you for the interview Roy!

Visit Roy’s website here.

Like Roy Cox Photography on Facebook here.

Follow Roy Cox Photography on Twitter here.

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