Sameer Belvalkar’s marketing background stands him in good stead in his flourishing career as a commercial photographer
What first drew you to the camera?
Fifteen years ago I wanted to prove to my younger sister that I could click better pictures than her! We always had DSLR cameras lying at home because my dad was fond of electronics. Those were film cameras and I would like to emphasize that I started off on film – I don’t belong to the digital generation. My sister used to go on treks and excursions and she would always click pictures and I would ridicule her pictures. One fine day she gave up and put the camera down. That was my opportunity to start clicking pictures! I had no idea then I was taking the first step towards a career in photography!
Was it easy to break into the world of commercial photography?
The journey after then has been very exciting but difficult at the same time. Generally this is a field where everybody needs a big brother or mentor to push you or recommend you. I had none but decided to try anyway. I quit my job as a graphic designer/web designer and picked up the camera to see if I could make a career in this field. My family freaked out but they were very supportive when they realized I felt so strongly about it. A large part of my success today is because I took the risk of giving up my job and plunged into photography.
I began as a press photographer, shooting fallen trees, traffic jams, and page-3 parties for a newspaper based in Pune. This did not last long since I was in a hurry – I am a very impatient person, and all I knew was that I wanted to be up there. But it took time. I believe that slow growth is real growth, and after slogging for 10-15 years I feel that my foundations are very strong. I was soon bored of press photography and wanted something that was creatively more challenging, so I began to freelance for some magazines. My first pictures to be published were holiday shots in a magazine in Goa. I got paid for it as well as received picture credits, and this motivated me. I began clicking pictures for various other magazines like Femina and Verve. I got the opportunity to shoot stills for movies like Jodha Akbar and My Name Is Khan but I found advertising and fashion photography more interesting so I continued with that.
I believe there are two ways to be a photographer: assist a renowned and experienced photographer or get a degree from abroad and start practicing photography. I am a self-taught photographer – I did not have the money to go abroad and wasn’t able to get a spot with an established photographer. I subscribed to a lot of photography magazines and books instead.
How did you get your first film project?
I was assisting a big photographer in Mumbai and when the production team of Jodha Akbar was starting the movie, they got in touch with him to do the still photography. However the photographer was very busy and couldn’t take up the project so he recommended me and that’s how I landed up shooting stills for Jodha Akbar. After that getting other big projects was easy since I had a big blockbuster to my credit.
How do you prepare for a photo shoot?
A lot of variables are involved in a photo shoot. Casting is a major factor – you have to find the right kind of models to suit the vision of the client or the advertising agency you are working with. It’s a team effort – choosing the right models, selecting the look you want to give those models, the location, and the correct hair and makeup people, and fashion stylist. It is very important for a photographer to understand the client’s vision. There is a whole process involved when it comes to casting models. Then we work on mood boards, styling references, and posing references so that whatever I have in my mind is conveyed to my team. We use visual references to get everyone on the same page. After the shoot we do the editing and retouching. Although we do minimal editing – probably 10-15% or less – we have to take into consideration the time involved. We fix a deadline and work backwards to deliver pictures on time.
Do you enjoy working with celebrities?
My experience of working with celebrities has been extremely good. I have never seen them throwing tantrums or not being cooperative. As a photographer, my job is to make them look good, so whatever hurdles they want to throw in my way would only affect the end result. I think shooting with celebrities is much easier than working with models since they know how to pose, and are used to facing the camera.
Can you recall your most memorable projects?
Working on Jodha Akbar was a very memorable experience for me. My life completely changed – as a person, as a human, and as a photographer. It was a very intensive schedule and I was shooting Aishwaria Rai and Hrithik Roshan so it couldn’t get bigger than that. Working with an Oscar nominated director made me feel that I had arrived! Jodha Akbar was really exciting in a lot of ways – understanding the entire moving making procedure, understanding how the cameras work and hundreds of people working together in synergy.
I would definitely like to mention about my first cover shoot for Filmfare magazine with Kareena Kapoor and Ajay Devgan. I couldn’t believe I was shooting with two big stars for such a big magazine! I have also shot for IPL campaigns with cricketers, which was a totally different ball game. Something even more exciting was shooting for pro-kabbadi. It’s a very rudimentary sport and players have been picked up from small villages around India. Bringing them into a comfort zone, helping them face the camera, briefing them for the shoot, and breaking the language barrier was a big challenge.
Every shoot has been memorable in a way but some have really helped me grow, they really took a lot out of me. At every shoot I am a different person, the logistics and planning of every shoot are different, and the takeaway and what I gift to the shoot is different.
Have you ever had an epiphany shot?
There was a time when I used to plan shoots down to the last stage but once I reached the location, something would take over – and things would happen completely differently from what I had planned. The lighting, the model’s body language, styling, the lenses that I use – everything would just fall together differently from what I had planned and that is an epiphany for me! It is a feeling that something has taken over and I am not in charge but something is happening through me. This is how most of my shoots are – by now I have a feeling about which shoots are going to be favorable and which shoots won’t.
What inspires you?
I draw inspiration from everything around me – that’s why my pictures look very real. Suppose I am at home and sunlight falls on the dining table – that’s the inspiration for me that day and I try to replicate that lighting on my shoot that day. I am a very keen observer and of course my profession is all about seeing and observing. What I don’t have has to be supplemented with lights, reflectors, cutter, etc. but I have often realized that whatever kind of light source I need is pretty much always there – I just try to see it and enhance it. I also draw inspiration from movies – a lot of subconscious learning happens from there.
How do balance your personal work with professional assignments?
It’s very difficult because I am pretty much flooded with work! I would love to shoot for myself and I am constantly clicking pictures of things that inspire me, to use as references. But being a commercial photographer and being in demand to a certain level, personal work always becomes a second priority. I am not happy about that. I am very avid traveler and biker so whenever I get some free time, I go on two-three day jaunts. A lot of learning and observation happens during travel.
Has it been a challenging career to pursue so far?
The challenge is grabbing assignments without having a big brother in the industry. The challenge is to keep the client amused for him to come back to me again. The challenge is to meet the deadlines, for every shoot to be better than the previous one. Earlier in my career, people have ridiculed my work, they literally laughed, throwing my pictures in the dustbin and I was in tears. There were times that I decided never to touch the camera again but when you hit rock bottom the only way go is upwards. I have seen that rock bottom a couple of times and over time I have grown stronger and more determined. Every day, every shoot is a challenge.
What would you advise someone keen on pursuing photography professionally?
It’s most difficult to pursue photography as a career because the competition out there is cut throat. If you have a go-getter spirit and think that you can experiment for one year of your life and see if the career is going somewhere, only then should you walk on that road. There is less demand and a lot of supply, so think twice before picking up the camera. It’s a very investment intensive choice – you have to keep upgrading technologies. I also feel that people these days are relying too much on editing. There is a thin line between a photographer and an editor, so you have to decide what you want to be. If you are adding light that was not there during the shoot then you have failed as a photographer. Do as much as you can during the shoot – it should be 90-95% shoot and hardly 5% editing. Shoot a variety of pictures – black and whites, saturated pictures, high-key, low-key, one-point lighting, two-point lighting – every picture should be different from the others. You should do some referencing. Follow some photographers and use them as inspiration – take one of their pictures and try to get the same effect with the least amount of editing. For me, there is great pride in seeing that my raw pictures and edited pictures are 90-98% the same. If you can achieve that then you are on the right track. Also, what sets a photographer apart is how you compose your pictures. Learning to ‘see’ is very important. To ‘imagine’ is another important aspect – framing your shot in certain way is something which is unique to each individual.
Photography is not just about clicking pictures. An ideal photographer or good photographer is a concept. When I am grooming photographers in my workshop, I tell them that communication, the way they walk, dress, their overall conduct, command over the language, how they adapt to different situations, or strike a rapport with people are all very important. In fact I put more emphasis on communication and marketing skills than photography because when you can get the work only then can you shoot it. A photographer who is perceptive, who articulates, understands the client’s vision and has good interpersonal skills will tend to get more work than one who has average interpersonal skills but great photography skills.
This article was originally published in POOL 103.
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