Bill Cahill is an LA-based award-winning advertising photographer specializing in product and liquids. One of the sought-after masters of his craft, Bill is called to shoot splashes, pours, bottles and high-end tabletop and conceptual product for a client list that includes Coca Cola International, Sprite International, Campbell’s V8, Tervis, Murad Cosmetics, Belkin Electronics, Sonicare, Dove Dishsoap and Proctor and Gamble among others.
I’ve had Bill on the short list of interviewees for quite a while and frequently check his site. Recently his name popped up in a Linkedin group discussion and I checked out his site again, saw some beautiful new work, a striking personal series of bug nests, and read on his blog that he had just signed with DS Reps and thought it would be a great time to talk with him.
This type of photography requires a rare dedication as it takes years to master and several days of preparation for each shoot. Throughout the interview, Bill repeatedly came back to how much he loves what he does, from working with clients to define the perfect splash that will capture the essence of their product to building custom splash rigs and pitch-perfect lighting setups to catch the unseen moment when a liquid splashes imperceptibly out of a bottle, container or flies through the air, full of expression.
I seem to be very fortunate to interview photographers who share a belief that there is enough for everyone, are inspired by competition rather than deterred, and who are happy to share their secrets. And Bill was no exception. He spoke candidly with POP about the evolution of liquid photography (the risk of getting electrocuted has apparently diminished), the process and equipment he uses, lighting set-ups, staying inspired and evolving his portfolio, and signing with a new rep after ten years with his first rep.
A big thank you to Bill for a fascinating peek into the world of liquid photography, a very entertaining interview and for sharing so much with POP.
POP: How did you build a specialization in liquids?
I came out of Art Center in the 90’s wanting to try liquids. There was no option at Art Center to learn about this, but I had a special interest. At the time, there were just a few photographers shooting liquids: Jack Andersen and Mark Laita in CA and a couple in NY. I was lucky enough to get a full time assisting job with Jack Andersen. I worked for him for almost five years.
We shot everything on film to begin with. When shooting liquids, the process is much different on film and digital—it’s quite a bit different to shoot on Polaroid and try to reproduce on film. It never turns out the same. We can achieve the perfect splash on Polaroid and to reproduce it exactly on film is near impossible, no matter how much we motorized and exactly reproduced the effect. Now because of the high quality digital capture, every frame can be used as a final image. Also the larger chip sizes in the digital backs have really helped as well. Now we have 80mp backs that we can back off a little further, gain more depth of field and still maintain lots of usable data.
One of my first large AD jobs was for BP, (yes, that BP). They came up with a clear gasoline that they wanted to market. This gasoline looked almost identical to water. The legal department at the AD agency insisted that we shoot the actual gasoline. The creative department insisted that we shoot on 8×10 transparency film. At this point in time, digital backs weren’t of extremely high quality and film was the preferred choice. Because this was gasoline we had to take precautions. We had the studio pressurized. This meant there was a bank of fans at one door pushing air in, and a bank of fans at another door pushing air out. This kept any fumes from building up. We all wore gas retardant suits and gloves. We hired a fire marshal to be on set to make sure we weren’t doing anything too stupid. Because of the nature of 8×10 film, we required a lot of light. 8 Broncolor Grafit packs on the background, a few overhead and few beneath. We had two custom acrylic tanks made for the shoot that the gasoline permanently destroyed. Luckily they survived the length of the shoot.
Over the last couple years, I have seen the number of photographers attempting to shoot liquids has exploded, some good, and some bad, but mostly very inspiring. I truly believe that there is room for everyone in the industry. The competition and creativity only inspire me to create better work.
POP: As technology evolves, so do creative options. Are art buyers and clients becoming more savvy and exploring liquids for new types of campaigns?
Yes, I’m working with more and more clients who have never shot liquids. It becomes a teaching process. I get several types of clients when it comes to liquids. Some clients come to me with specific comps that outline every splash and droplet. We can accomplish this, but with some experimentation, we often find alternatives that are more appealing. We also get the client that has a product and wants liquid splashing, but has no specific idea. This is great also, it allows me to experiment and introduce ideas they never thought of. It can be hard with liquids because what is in my head isn’t always what the client is thinking of.
I have also run into clients who are very vague about what they want. They will only use descriptive words like energetic, vibrant, etc. That becomes more of a fishing game where you try to pull out what they want. Inevitably that takes extra time and experimentation. We all have different visions of what energetic and wet, and powerful and refreshing mean.
An example of a great client that knew what they wanted was a recent shoot in New York for a large food and beverage company. This is a very big company and they had a specific idea in mind but were very open to trying new things, thinking of ideas and looking at test images. The project evolved over the couple weeks before the shoot. We did a lot of testing beforehand to explore the ideas, and they responded by slightly changing their ideas based on my direction. This was a very collaborative and rewarding experience. Everything had to get approved through the layers of the corporation, but with a clear way forward, the company was receptive. After the testing we did in Los Angeles, we flew to New York and the project went off without a hitch. When this kind of collaboration happens, everybody wins.
POP: Is the trend towards authentic representation having any impact on liquid photography?
I love this kind of photography. But my work deals with idealized products and scenarios where pretty much nothing is real. For me, it’s all about the lighting and the art comes from making something look as good as it possibly can. My clients come to me because I create hero splashes and hero product photography that create this idealized world for the product. I don’t see that changing for me much.
POP: Do you ever talk about your process? For instance, how you shot the liquid shirt?
I don’t have any secrets and there’s no reason to as far as process goes. The process is a small part of image making. Students from Art Center come to me asking for help learning product photography and splashes because they have limited options for that at Art Center these days. I am happy to help in any way and show them how I do my work. We usually do this as an internship or independent study.
For the liquid shirt, I found a clear acrylic mannequin bust and started splashing water on it. When you splash liquid on something clear, the plastic disappears and leaves the shape of the object. If you have something clear you can turn it into liquid. Because the bust was large, we needed to do this in parts. We concentrated on the left sleeve for a while, then the abdomen, the neck, the right sleeve. For all my splash images, I use Broncolor packs and heads. These provide the greatest flexibility with flash duration and power. I rarely use soft boxes and opt for diffusion panels. Because liquids act as reflective surface, a diffusion panel offers a softer glow of light rather then a light with sharp edges. Retouching was a huge part of this shot. When we shot film, we got as much as we could in one shot. But now we get many pieces and combine them into one.
POP: Are you being asked more for ideas on treatments?
Yes, writing treatments has become a large part of my bidding process and allows me to explain the process as clearly as I can. I always find that clients are open to ideas within the treatment and appreciate the work that goes into it. With a project I did for V-8, we started our ideas with exploding bottles and huge splashes, but eventually it got simplified into a very beautiful ad campaign. I find that the clients for the large ad campaigns are the most open to new ideas and are the most willing to trust the photographer. They have a certain confidence and hire a photographer for their talents and let them use that talent. One of the things I like most about this process is coming into new projects with different personalities and ideas and working my way through and with these people. It is always an adventure.
POP: How much product work is going to CG?
This is a huge concern. Many cell phone companies don’t shoot anything any longer. They render everything for both print and broadcast. As a commercial photographer I need to keep this in mind and look for new avenues on how to use my talent. I have been talking to CGI artists about collaborations, trying out high-speed video, and things that I know will be essential in the near future.
With my work, I’ve made a conscious decision to bridge the gap between CG and traditional photography. I have given some of my work an illustrative feel and a look where you are not sure if its CG or photography. I have gotten good response from this and people are intrigued by the middle ground.
One of the problems with CG is that a lot of people who do CG are not artists and the ad agencies still want that special look of certain photographers. That is where there can be a collaboration with traditional photographers and CG artists.
I shoot quite a bit of non-liquid work. Actually the bulk of my work is non-liquid, but everyone thinks of me as a liquid guy. I shoot a fair amount of electronics, such as Western Digital hard drives. I shoot tires for Yokohama. I enjoy it all. My liquid work went from 25% of my portfolio to now 50% of my portfolio. Still when someone looks at my work they are drawn to the liquids. I am not sure if that says something about the strength of the liquids or a weakness in the product section. This has made me want to separate out my work into two books, but after talking to Deb Schwartz, we feel one really strong book that includes everything is better.
POP: How much of the liquid work is going to CG?
Not much currently, I have seen some, and it’s ok but usually not great. I feel it breathing down my neck though. There are a few pieces of software that are looking good for creating liquids in CGI. I am looking at exploring that arena, but I haven’t done anything yet.
POP: Can you walk me through the process of a liquid shoot, from getting the brief to the final shot?
Shooting liquids is quite a bit different than shooting everything else. There’s a level of patience that you need to shoot liquids. It takes a lot of testing. We may shoot three days for one splash shot. We recently did some work for Tervis who make insulated cups. The actual shoot was one or two days and there were maybe five days of testing to get to the place where we were ready to shoot.
When a bid request comes in, I study the provided comps and form an idea of what they want. There might be a few emails back and forth, then we set up a creative call. This is one of the most important things for me. The creative call allows me to get to know their creative, and it gives them a chance to know me. It is a great feeling when we click right off the bat and I know it will go well.
During the creative call we discuss all aspects of the photography, what it should look like, the lighting, everything. If they haven’t worked with moving liquids before I tell them how I usually work and what I do to get ready and how the shoot will go. We discuss testing. I tell them that for each splash, I usually need a couple days of testing, and building rigs, etc.
Before the shoot I like to experiment with the shot, and discover the different ways I can accomplish it. Before the shoot I send them test shots, showing them what we discussed and how I plan to accomplish the shoot. Most times there is a combination of retouching and straight photography. For example, if I shoot a bottle with a splash around it, I light the bottle and shoot it clean first—this acts as my base. I then work on the splash that will go around it. Inevitably there will be lighting changes from shooting the bottle to the splash. I then take the parts I need from the splash and place them around the hero clean bottle.
After the client has seen my process and the different options we have, we will usually have one more informal creative call. By then, the shoot has been scheduled and we are ready to go. For a large splash shot I have three assistants, and maybe two sets. We try to treat our clients well—we cook breakfast for them, have plenty of snacks, and try to make the shoot as fun as possible. I am very lucky. I have made friends out of most of my clients. We have a great time.
POP: What does a typical set look like as far as lighting and technical specs?
When I build a set for a splash shot, I start by just thinking about what angle and what kind of product it is I am going to shoot. If I am to shoot a transparant liquid, it’s much different lighting then an opaque liquid like milk. With water I start very basic, a large diffusion panel in the background with a soft box or two, or a couple heads with reflectors.
Before I get into lighting the product, I work on the effect and nail down what I want the splash to do and what angle to take. Once I can figure out the angle and the effect, then I can start the lighting process. I will typically use a wider lens like a 47mm. Because I use a large format camera, I use Schneider Digitar lenses. When I am creating an effect, I have to be able to time the capture correctly. What I generally use for this is a laser trigger. This shoots a laser beam across where the effect will take place. That laser is attached to a timer that can be controlled in milliseconds, that is attached to a pocket wizard which controls a strobe which is aimed at all my other stobe packs. By doing it this way, each time I do the effect, it captures it at the same moment in time. With the timer, I can dial that time forward or backwards.
After all this is figured out I generally send some test shots to my client. We discuss direction and proceed from there. If things are looking good, I continue to refine the effect and start adding in more lighting. Many times, I like sharp reflections with one soft edge. I will use large diffusion panels, then use flags to cut into the panels to create sharp edges. For a typical splash, glass and product shot I will use anywhere from 5 to 10 lights. This all depends on the complexity of the shot and what we want to accomplish.
When doing an image such as the Beefeater shot or the Giro helmet shots, I experimented on using wind to push the water around. So what I would do is have a small bucket on a pendulum that would throw the water in mid air. Then I would have a fan on top and a fan on bottom. When the wind hits the water, the water opens up and takes on different shapes. The trick is to capture the effect before the wind blows the water into pieces, which happens only milliseconds after the capture. You can see where the wind is grabbing the water.
POP: What was liquid photography like ten years ago?
Liquid photography was a different world ten years ago. Most of it was shot on film, and it required much more planning. Simple things like having strobes fast enough to capture the action weren’t as available. Broncolor had some packs that would work, but a lot of photographers used Ascor Sun Guns. These packs were used a lot in WWII. They would put the packs up in a bomber and take aerial photographs with them.
They had some heads that could put out 40,000 watt seconds. These were individual power cells and you would plug one into the other into the other in order to change the power. There was no safety power dump—you were handling live power. A set of packs could weigh a thousand pounds and stack eight feet tall. We would roll these stacks around and could only plug in one head. The by-product of these heads being able to take so much power is the tubes were large, and a large tube is exactly what you need to get a fast flash duration. So some of these heads will flash at a 10,000th of a second or faster. Perfect for Splash photography.
Because we used Polaroid, we needed to make each effect as repeatable as possible. Back then we used motorized rigs much more then we do today. There is a great system called Berkey Systems. This is a set of rods and bearings and clamps that are perfect for making splash rigs from. We also use laser and sound triggers to trigger the strobes. We do the exact same thing today. A good maker of a laser trigger is Kapture Group. You can dial a laser trigger back and forth in milliseconds, allowing you to time your splash perfectly.
POP: With the tennis shoe shot, you are bringing motion to your product work. Was this a personal shot?
This was a personal shot. Honestly, I was inspired by cosmetic work. I have a larger presence in New York now and I want to expand my cosmetics and perfume work. I was playing with the idea of bursts of dry make up. When I started testing, I thought this could work well with a shoe and dirt. That is how this image evolved. People seem to like this image, but it’s hard to tell if work comes directly from it, its more a great addition to the portfolio.
POP: How do you differentiate from the other product and liquid photographers?
It’s tricky to come up with original ideas to shoot a bottle, to think of a new way to do it with new light and something that will catch people’s eye. There are so many great photographers out there. If an Art Director is looking for an amazing bottle photographer, there are a handful of people in the United States who can do it really well. That kind of competition is very tricky and I am always looking for ways to set myself apart.
For example, a couple of years ago I did a large project for Sprite worldwide. This shoot was to set the tone for a lot of the advertising Sprite would do in the following years. They were looking for something new that would highlight the new shape of the Sprite bottle. The Sprite bottle has dimples running down the side that mimic the bubbly taste of Sprite. I used 2 5 foot long Broncolor bar lights. I placed a long bar light along each side to make a thin light strip down the side of the bottle and highlight the dimples. At the time of the shoot I offered four examples of bottle lighting, this technique was the direction I hoped they would like, and they did. We used this technique as a running trend through all of Sprite images.
POP: You recently signed with Deb Schwartz.
I worked with a Rep for more than ten years. We had a good relationship. I had been with her for a long time and thought it was time to seek out something new and fresh. My old rep was bringing on different photographers that I didn’t feel strengthened the group. I strongly believe that the whole group of photographers under a Rep needs to be strong, that this is good for the reputation of the group and the clients know they will always get a quality product.
I put out the word and got some calls. Deborah Schwartz wrote me back, and we clicked right away. At first I didn’t think I would go with Deb because she was known as a lifestyle Rep, but after hearing her plan and why she does what she does, I started to get excited. Deborah Reps photographers whose work she personally likes, and she wanted to form a group of very good product photographers. I liked everything she had to say. I felt a new direction could take me further. I talked with a lot of clients and asked their opinion and everyone loves Deborah along with her associates, and think she’s one of the best reps out there which goes a long way. Deb has a great reputation in New York as well, which was something I was looking for. Deb seemed to be on the same page as me, and I feel that I can go a long ways with her and her group of talented photographers.
POP: How do you stay inspired creatively? You’re doing a new series of personal work.
It all comes down to I love my job. I love to shoot everything, both products and personal work, I love to stay busy and keep my mind active. The key to most photography is to keep shooting. It’s additive and helps to keep me inspired. I use to spend every day experimenting with different ways to shoot bottles, and cans and liquids. Now I am finding more inspiration in truly personal work.
Advertising work is very hit and miss. I usually have a couple weeks off in between projects, so shooting personal work helps me keep my sanity. I am much happier when I am shooting. Ask my wife, I get grumpy when I haven’t shot for a week.
Staying inspired is always hard. I am always struggling with ideas. Now that I’m with Deb Schwartz, she is inspiring me to find personal work. This impacts my commercial work also. I recently did a trip to NY and met with a lot of art buyers/directors and they tend to like the personal work and projects that are more personal to me, like the liquid shirt. Art Buyers and Directors are creative and love to look at work that means something to the photographer.
I have a lot of different ideas. I’m starting to shoot the bug nests. It is very interesting visually and to see the difference between the types of nests is interesting. I wrote about this on my blog – at six my sister and I were trapped in a shed and disturbed a wasp nest and were stung several times. With the hive series, I’ve tried to show how pretty they are without trying to make something commercial. I wish I had an interesting story on how I find the nests, but there are an abundance of them on Ebay. I get wasp nests from China and Japan, and the Midwest. I shoot them in the studio suspended by a rod with a large light source. These are all abandoned nests, so I feel there is a creepy ominous look to these images.
In the past I was nervous to show personal work. Will people like it? But then I thought, I’m not going to lose any jobs over it. If they want me to shoot a bottle, they can see that I can shoot a bottle. It is what it is and I’ve gotten good response. It’s a fun project and I have a lot more planned. You start to get inspired and the floodgates open and you think of all these different ideas.
POP: Other photographers you admire?
I admire Martin Wonnacott in NY. Craig Cutler (architecture, product,people) who did this amazing project this past year where he did 52 personal projects in a year. I look at as much work as I can, and I am always delighted when I find someone I haven’t seen before.
POP: One might assume you do carefully targeted marketing for your liquid work. Is this the case?
Of course, we not only target liquids. But I have targeted people who work with beer and liquor. That is an important part of marketing. Last year I did a promotion where I brewed a custom beer and made a custom label and sent out 40 cases to ADs at agencies that had beer accounts. I got an amazing response, people called thanking me for such a creative promotion. Something like this helps me set myself apart and is something I can expand on in the future.
POP: Have you started shooting motion?
I have started shooting motion. I am interested in high speed HD video with cameras such as the Phantom. My work lends itself to motion and I see a heavy push for this in the future. It takes a long time to put together a proper motion reel and I won’t be showing it until it is perfect.
POP: You are teaching at Art Center. What advice do you give to young photographers? Are they even teaching product photography at Art Center any longer?
I have done a few independent studies and have been a guest instructor on a few classes. I very much enjoy teaching. Having assistants can be very much like teaching also, that is why I try to hire assistants who are interested in what I do. We both get something out of it .
Honestly I am annoyed at the direction the Art Center Photography program has taken. I am a purist and think Art Center should stick to Commercial photography. Art Center is teaching fewer and fewer actual photography classes. There are some great teachers there, but too few of them and not enough disciplines. If you want to shoot cars, you’re out of luck, liquids, out of luck, product, out of luck. Too bad really. Art Center has always been about working professionals teaching, that is simply not the case anymore.
I try to give students advice that will help them get work. I usually tell them to assist for at least three or four years (they hate to hear that). If the student isn’t getting the instruction he or she needs, I tell them to leave school and start assisting right away. I talk to many students every term who wish they could learn car photography or take more than the one available product offered. They will learn so much more on the job then they will at school. The students usually say they want the degree, but I tell them I haven’t once used my degree.
POP: As a kid, any favorite thing you built…and then of course blew up?
I was a huge Lego fan as a kid. This was before themed Lego sets. I just played with the blocks making large castles and bridges and houses out of Legos. I think the best part of building something was destroying it after.