How I Got That Shot: John Keatley’s Postproduction Wizardry for GreenRubino

May 28, 2015

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Client: Food Lifeline

Ad agency: GreenRubino

Creative team: Joe Quatrone, Torin Daniels, Dennis Budell (art direction)

Client: Washington Wine

Ad agency: GreenRubino

Creative team: Joe Quatrone, Dennis Budell (art direction, design)

John Keatley is known for crafting conceptual, highly stylized and polished imagery, but he also wants his images to convey a genuine moment. “Clients talk a lot about the emotion in my work,” he says. “They come back to me for the feeling I draw out of people.” When he is planning a shoot that relies on compositing in postproduction, he pays as much attention to the nuances of a subject’s expression or body language as he does to the technical issues. “It’s the little details that make the difference between an image working or not working,” he says. 

Two recent ad campaigns he shot for the Seattle ad agency GreenRubino put his planning and problem-solving to use in different ways. The campaign for Food Lifeline, a charity in Washington that fights hunger by working with grocery stores, restaurants and food manufacturers to bring surplus food to families in need, communicates a serious issue in a playful way. “We were trying to show people that there is wasted food and there’s an opportunity to do something with it,” Keatley explains. Each ad shows a kid interacting with some food under the tagline, “Finding homes for food in need.” As Keatley notes, “The message was, ‘This food needs a good home,’ not, ‘These people are hungry.’” 

For a campaign for the Washington State Wine Commission, Keatley photographed actor and comedian Greg Proops in the character of The Recommendeur, a wine snob touting the state’s varietals. “I love photographing comedians,” Keatley notes. The image appeared in store displays and in an app that was loaded on an iPad shipped in a wooden wine crate to about 100 food editors, bloggers and sommeliers. The campaign was Keatley’s first assignment for GreenRubino. In describing the look he wanted, associate creative director Dennis Budell referenced personal work in Keatley’s portfolio, such as his deadpan portrait of musician Macklemore posing in front of an oil painting. “I tend to do a lot of humor,” Keatley says, “but I don’t hit people over the head with a joke.” 


The concept of the Food Lifeline ad was a challenge to illustrate. 

Keatley explains, “The trick in production was how to make the food look human, without making it look creepy.” The creatives, the client and Keatley considered using CGI or hiring a model-maker before they decided to create the illusion through retouching: Keatley would take images of arms and legs that would be composited with a piece of fruit in postproduction.

Keatley worked with hair and makeup stylist Cara Aeschliman on the campaign. He first photographed a boy wearing a superhero costume, directing him to imagine that an oversized apple was beside him in the studio. If he had tried photographing the boy and an apple together in the same shot, Keatley says, “The apple would have been the size of the boy’s shoe.” He not only needed to create the illusion that the child and the food were in the same space, but he also wanted to show a relationship between them: “How are they connected or playing together?” Keatley coached the boy through various actions and poses, including jumping and wrestling with the imaginary food. After trying a few poses and actions, Keatley noted, “It worked better having him posing victoriously. I said, ‘Just point down at the ground.’” 

Keatley then photographed the boy in a t-shirt and shorts, to get close-up shots of his limbs.

Directing kids requires “understanding their limits, understanding the importance of distraction—like games or conversation,” says Keatley. He adds that he’s become a better director of child models since he became a father. 

While the challenge of the Food Lifeline campaign was about striking the right tone and mood, the challenge on the Washington Wine ad, Keatley says, “was more about production and resources and making what we had on hand work for us.” The shoot took place in Los Angeles during awards season, so studios were booked and rental houses were buzzing. Keatley’s crew included stylist Kristie Gamer. They decided to set up the shoot in a hotel suite, hanging seamless on stands. When they couldn’t find an appropriately elegant chair to rent, they borrowed one from the hotel. 

Keatley notes, “When I’m shooting Greg, my time is limited and my focus is on trying to get his expression right.” He waited until he had finished working with Proops to spend time shooting other elements, like the glass with swirling wine in it. When he returned to his studio in Seattle, he photographed the elements he needed to create a complete environment: a rug, the back of a chair and some plywood walls which would provide the background in the finished image. 


For the shot of the boy and the apple, Keatley needed the lighting to be dramatic but without any distracting shadows, to make sure the photo could be read easily. Keatley also wanted to create a sense of depth behind the boy to compensate for shooting on seamless, he says. “So we used a large but harder light source to create definition as well as a nice wrap.” 

For his key light, he used a Profoto head on an Acute 2400-watt pack in a Profoto Octabank. The Octabank was placed on a five-foot high stand behind the photographer’s right shoulder. For fill, he placed a 7-foot softbox behind his camera and to the left. 

When it was time to photograph the apple, Keatley moved in closer, but used the same lights at the same angle so the shadows and highlights were consistent in all the elements of the shot. 

For the portrait of Proops, he used a smaller keylight, creating sharp fall off. A beauty dish with a grid at camera right was hitting the subject’s face. A 7-foot softbox at camera left, about 15 feet from the subject, provided fill. A medium softbox was placed above and behind the subject, to keep his hair and shoulders from fading into darkness. 


For the Food Lifeline shoot, Keatley turned to a Hasselblad H5D-40, shooting tethered. He photographed the boy with a 50mm lens, and switched to an 80mm to shoot close-ups of the apple. He shot handheld when photographing the boy, to be able to follow the boy’s action and emotion. 

When he photographed each piece of the Washington State Wine ad, however, he worked on a tripod. That helped him when he was directing Proops. “The benefit for me is that I could interact with him a little bit more, leaning forward while taking photos.” 


Postproduction on both ads was handled by Giant Squid. Once Keatley had selected the elements he liked and discussed his selection with the agency, he sent the images to the retouchers. On the Food Lifeline ad, the shadows behind the boy and apple were lengthened, and the seamless was colored to match Food Lifeline’s branding. The retouchers took Keatley’s image files of the boy’s arms and legs, shrank them to scale, added some texture to resemble the skin on an apple, and added them to the fruit. In the finished ad, the apple appears to be playing along with the boy. 

Retouching on the Washington State Wine ad included extending the back of the chair, adding the environmental elements Keatley had shot in his studio, and making color corrections. Keatley and the agency reviewed Giant Squid’s comps, sent notes, and checked each revision. 

“I’m a perfectionist,” Keatley says. “That’s about making sure you do your best on every little detail.”