How I Got That Shot: David Prince’s Colorful Collages

October 14, 2014

By Holly Stuart Hughes


A personal image Prince shot in his studio using window light. It was made as part of a series he assigned himself to explore different colors using simple props he bought or pulled from his own collection.

Client: Town & Country
Still-life photographer David Prince experiments constantly. He often adapts the compositions and techniques that he explores in his test images to his assignment work for editorial and commercial images. In one self-assigned series that he assembled and shot in the morning before beginning work on assignments in his studio, Prince created images based around a different color.
“I never had an idea of what I was going to do, I’d just say ‘Today it’s gold, or it’s purple, or it’s gray.’” He would shop at an art supply store near his New York studio, buying thread, lengths of string, elastic bands—anything he could find in a single color. He then gave himself an hour to assemble and shoot a single still life using the items he had just bought and any objects he had on hand that fit the day’s color palette. The objects he used ranged from the mundane—a packet of artificial sweetener, a tape measure—to works of art he had collected.
By limiting the amount of time he gave himself to arrange and shoot each image, he ensured that he couldn’t overthink his compositions: “It’s about combining the unexpected without thinking, and reacting to shapes and forms.” Over the course of ten days in his studio, he created ten still lifes. “It’s a good thing to do because it forces you into problem-solving and quickly putting things together,” he explains. “That’s what being a commercial photographer is: You’re often photographing things that aren’t your choice, and you have a short amount of time to make something compelling.”
On an assignment for Town & Country to photograph expensive, gold-embellished handbags, he created a similar assemblage of items, incorporating the luxury items the client had supplied with a variety of objects from his studio and home that would complement the gold tones in the handbags. He shot the assignment with the same camera and lens he used for his test shots, and chose a light source that mimicked the window light in his studio that had illuminated his color-palette experiments.
The Town & Country assignment called for Prince to shoot luxurious handbags adorned with gold hardware and metallic elements. In discussing ideas for the shot with the client, he recalls, “The most important thing was to show the sheen and a sense of luxury.” He suggested creating a collage of elements around the bags. Working with stylist Hilary Robertson, he composed an arrangement of props. Prince decided to incorporate a Pablo Picasso bowl from his own ceramics collection into the shot. Like many of his favorite items, the bowl has appeared in several of his photos. “I said that it would be great to put that in, because it’s another reference to France and to fashion and to the world,” the photographer recalls.
As in the compositions he creates for his test shots, “I tend to put things down intuitively,” he says. “Within a couple of captures, we’ll have something, and then I just tweak it.”
When it comes to choosing lights, Prince says he tends to go on streaks, using only strobes or only softboxes for days at a time. To capture the sheen of the metallic elements, Prince chose to use a single small HMI light, an ARRI 575w fresnel light kit. “I tend to simplify as much as possible. There are times when I’ll use 16 lights,” but in this case, he says, “The HMI light made the most sense because it’s the most controllable directional light source.” He placed it on a stand about four feet from the tabletop arrangement, so it raked the light across the top. He chose to use two fill cards to bounce light into the darkest areas of shadow, though he notes that he likes the realism shadows can lend to an image.
In regards to working with the HMI, “I felt it would give me the most pop and the most saturation and the most richness,” he says, adding, “It imitates natural light.” During the color palette tests that inspired the Town & Country composition, Prince had been using only the light from an east-facing window in his studio. In those pictures, the only control he had over the light was to draw the window shade or reposition the table. “If it was overcast, I’d move the table to the window. If it was bright and sunny, I’d move the table away.”
Prince shot both the handbags and his color compositions with a tethered Phase One 645DF and an 80mm lens. Prince, his client and his digital tech, Levi Miller, huddle around the monitor to preview shots on set.
After choosing two to three favorite images, Prince and his digital tech will tweak contrast and color values. Prince likes to edit on set, he says, “so the client is walking out with whatever they need.” When he and Miller are working on an editorial shoot like the Town & Country assignment, Prince says he likes to make sure the final, retouched image captures the spontaneity of his personal work. In guiding his digital tech, he says, “I have comments about what’s right or wrong.” The advice Prince often gives his digital tech is advice he follows himself: “Don’t overthink it.”
David Prince will teach a seminar titled “Visual Vocabulary: The Making of a Still Life Photographer” on October 31 at the PhotoPlus Expo and Conference. Details at