Product Inluences - Steve Bronstein

Throughout his career, Steve Bronstein has provided visual solutions to his clients in a manner both credible and practical.  Whether it be a snow clogged road for Volkswagen, a pristine tropical beach for Coke, or an aerial view of the Kentucky Derby for Absolut, Steve has been able to produce these images effectively in the studio without the need, risk and expense of going on location.  He is often thought of as a special-effect photographer, although he prefers the term problem-solver.

Though reliant on the traditional techniques of prop making and large format photography, Steve has equally embraced the digital age.  He combines the best of both worlds, whether it involves a miniature set, cgi, or both.

Steve's work has been honored with many awards throughout this career, but is particularly well known for his work for Absolut Vodka.  He was the original photographer for the Clio and two-time Kelly award winning campaign and has produced well over 200 executions.

Parallels  in thought and style with Chris Collins, also of New York are uncanny. The model building is similar to Sandy Skoglund's approach.

Their are seemingly nods towards tilt-shift photography until you discover that Bronstein prefers to do all of his work in the studio. Very few of his images are taken on location. His attention to detail in lighting the models lean again towards Collins. However, he differs in that Collins will prefer to use real life (e.g. the frogs) whereas Bronstein is committed to still life. This may also explain part of the success of the Absolut 'City' marketing programme. A number of the images are included in the analysis that follows. Absolut had a big budget. They paid for a New York modeling company to recreate all of the cityscapes. Bronstein worked very closely with the modelers, working out exactly how light would fall, how the materials and surfaces would react. Bronstein acknowledged in an interview that he new the Absolut campaign would come to an end but declared "never have I been so suited to a project, it's going to be hard".

The success of the campaign can be measured in its impact on sales - at the start 3,000 cases per annum were being sold, by the end this had risen to 3,000,000 with over 40% market share. There's no surprise then that many 'blue chip' companies trailed a path to Bronstein's door.

Bronsetin's clients have included;
Absolut - American Express - AT&T - Bacardi - Bank of America - Black & Decker - British Airways - Budweiser - Burger King - Camel - Canon - Capital One - Chevron - Citibank - Coke - Continental Tires - Crown Royal - Disney - Evian - Ford - Frito Lay - Fuji - General Motors - HBO - Heineken - Hershey's - Hewlett Packard - Honda - IBM - Intel - Johnson & Johnson - Johnson Controls

The first set of images I have chosen are all miniature figures - representing perhaps similar lighting and set up issues that I face with the Subutteo product shoot.

A wonderfully cheeky shot. it made think about how I'd position the players for my Subutteo shoot. A top light creates vertical highlights on the soldier, moving our eye up and down the image (not across). The bright light on the background causes to look towards the centre. Shadows help to give depth and a 'grounding' to the image. The lighting is very soft, there's lots of detail in the dress and whilst we get strong highlights on the soldiers edges none of the colour is washed out.

A very tricky light set up for this one. We instantly know its a wedding cake. Yet the bride and bridegroom are not centre stage - the cake is!. The silky background lends a suggestion of quality. The ripples run down and 'through' the cake' they do not distract or lead us away. The light increases in strength as we move up the tiers of the cake. Th attention is on the first tier and its fine detail. Soft light here really reveals the texture - small shadows are created on that very fine details. Given that at least 4 lights have been used (above, 45 degrees, 220 degrees & 270 degrees) and I'm guessing a softbox on the 220, and snoots on the others(possibly a reflector for the 45 degrees). This based on the harshness of the light on the left and top, very soft on the bottom and soft on the right.

Another tricky lighting situation (that's why they're professionals Joe). Shadows inside the house, yet each room lit well. Great yellow lights from the lamps in each room. The bottom left corner has a lot of brightness and suggests rear lighting coming from that angle. The big shadow of the house in that corner also suggests the main subject lighting is coming from about 135 Degrees (see the tree shadows also). But lets not forget that the shadows could be drawn/painted in on this model. If we look at the shadows on the two shrubs to the right their short, sharp shadows suggest a spot light coming from close in. The shadow on the puppet holder on the roof (send a postcard to 'I must point out the technical name' at 6 It Makes No Difference Street) Supports this lighting theory. To keep the light in each room I'd suggest a soft box has been used at 180 degrees.

Simple yet fantastic. Collins would have loved this. It would seem Samsung didn't go for the 'make sure you can see all the buttons (thus functionality) approach but create (yes I'm summising here) the suggestion of high cinema quality pictures. The depth of field is interesting just enough to make out the word Samsung' but shallow enough for it to soften the appliance. I'd expect that the screen image has been photoshopped in. The sharpness of the screen image and the model car (with now other distractions) ensures that they're the two things we see. Our minds quickly conclude 'drive in cinema'. A soft light at the top (o degrees) lights up the surface and screen surround of the 'player' whilst a sharp light at 270 degrees to the car creates wonderful highlights on the car and 'dolls' hair whilst also creating shadows that give depth to the picture and sharp edges to the player.

Another bit of fun from Bronstein. Whilst the red and white of the teeth represent the Kit Kat wrapper the brand owners still want the product to take centre stage. In the first picture the stick of chocolate moves away from us left to right just as our mind likes to see (the opposite direction just wouldn't work). A top light, perhaps a snoot with a diffuser creates a nice soft spot of light right above the word Kat. Lights at say 175 and 300 degrees given the front edge definition and the the left side depth. Thus all three surfaces contrast beautifully to give  the 3D effect. The same technique (albeit from different positions) is used in the second image. You can bet they're plastic bars of chocolate too!

There's not a lot too this duck. Clearly created with those sad eyes and downward turning mouth, with a transparent tear added at the design stage. Notice how most of the right hand side of the duck is in shadow, except for the strong highlights on the beak and more subtly between the eyes and on the chest.  Big bold lights on the left cheek and wing. A wide open spot from the left (possibly barn doors). Light hasn't spilled on to the surface and photoshop has probably been used to gradient out the background. The stronger shadow has been cast by the light. The reflections on the beak suggest a smaller, but sharp, light from about 45 degrees. A textured surface has soaked up the reflection helping to give depth to an otherwise very shallow image.

It's hard to believe that that water is solid. The light in the sky behind the boat pulls our attention through the image. The left side (as we look) which is Starboard for any salty sea dogs who still love the shipping forecast (I do, Fair Isle, Viking, Forties, North Westerly veering Northerly,  4 or 5, rain later, good becoming poor). Right where was I, oh yes Rockall, Malin.....STOP.
See what a good picture can do. Nice light on the bow suggests lighting at about 225 degrees with a soft box. This is repeated on both sides towards the stern (I'm not giving up now). Looks like spots with diffusers. No hard reflections just enough to bring our attention to where it needs to be. Notice that the Bridge and funnels are in 'shade' giving that bow real focus and creating a real sense of depth - when in truth the model may be nor more than 36 inches long and completely hollow with nothing existing behind what we can see.

A sequence of shots follows, telling a great story of desire (even at a time of giving!). The reflections suggest lighting at 235 degrees. With nice dark shadows (look at that black to the lower left). The big challenge here was creating exact replications of the models and lighting in the second shot. Another shallow image that requires depth giving to it. A great choice of background that soaks up the light, strong shadows a surface with lots of lines of grain running across the image (because were looking left to right). Does that extra light on the left hand model give it prominence over the right hand one?). The tree is pushed back so that it adds to the seasonal theme but does draw attention.

Humour again. Like the silk earlier the antique wood brings quality to the image. As doe the gold teeth in a crystal brandy glass. The watch face is well lit, probably from the same light that gives a highlight off of the front of the desk, and requests our attention. Another sharp light to the left side gives shape and depth. Interestingly the diamonds in the necklace have not been encouraged to shine, thus suggesting a supporting role. The strong light at the stem of the glass and in to the bowl say look here first. A solid black background helps to give depth to and shape to the glass.

The Absolut Campaign
“The Absolut ads are very hard-edged, not moody, so we had to be very accurate with detail,” says photographer Steve Bronstein, “They generally have a lot of depth of field, so everything in them has to be good."

In the fifth shot of this sequence you can see an example of the modeling, scale, lighting and set up that was used. Enjoy the images and look close, and closer still - yep they're still scaled models. New Jersey feels like a tilt shift, Miami like a mix of model and reality (when it's all model), Louisville like a standard Aeriel shot that get taken by budding entrepreneurs worldwide (we were offered one of our house). The view is perhaps more common following the advent of google earth. It is still a scale model - yep you can almost see the horses coming out for the Kentucky Derby! Strangely the Hamptons I can believe is a model, something about the angle of the boardwalk methinks.

Enjoy the sequence and I'll see you on the fifth!

Blow me are they really florescent blue lights? There's a lot of light being created beneath the table (that goes to the inside of the 'buildings'. Notice how its allow to spill out - None of the area outside of the table will be in the shot and I guess the surrounding surfaces aren't too reflective. Look how small those spots are. Bowens 500 watt aren't going to do that job are they. I can see my problem lighting the subutteo pitch realistically arising. From the set up it looks like the shooting angles will be from the right and between the strip lamps and also perhaps from the front - crop it with your fingers or some pieces of paper, you can see it works.


Has he finally done a location shot? We can probably bet that this is a scale model too! The shelving and strip lights draw us in to the central theme. A wonderful Eiffel Tower built from products. A highly polished surface for the reflections to help give depth and reality to the image. A strong sharp light (look at the tower legs shadows) coming from the left 'aisle'. This light also hits the back wall. A light from the front slightly angled towards the left shelving. There doesn't appear to be any lighting behind the tower, which combines with the back wall light to give depth.

Now its only because such a full scale flying contraption doesn't exist ) does it? that we now this is a model. this light is coming at about 225 degrees and gives a realistic impression of apron lighting (yep I worked at an airport and I know it's called an apron, clever me). Great lighting on the ground and great shadows from and on the plane add to the realism and give depth. Nice lighting in the lower sky suggests dusk (it could be dawn but I'll go for dusk). 'Red sky at night, Birkenhead's on fire.'

Beautiful. the rain is lit, patchy light on the surface and the helicopter suggesting squally rain. That nice big shadow breaks up the foreground and suggest some kind of airport tower/building. That reflection at the middle front says 'wet' otherwise we might just have texture.

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