Ilya Terentyev is a lifestyle photographer who creates images full of wonderful emotions and beautiful scenery. Ilya shoots with all kinds of cameras and often creates his own prototypes to help him achieve the shots he is going for. I have had the pleasure of working together with Ilya and now I am very excited to share this interview with you.
How did you get started in photography?
My ex-girlfriend’s father was an official photographer in Kremlin, so at first I was fascinated by all the cameras he had. I was mesmerized by all of the buttons and pretty lenses. I remember checking all of the settings and switches and thinking to myself: “Wow, this stuff is amazing!” I didn’t think I would go into photography back then, I was just captivated by all the fancy equipment. That was back in my second year in university, which I finished with a degree in international business. Then after some time I became interested in stock photography and when I started making money with that it became my full time job.
Where are you based from?
I have been living in China for over 11 years now. I spent 10 years in Beijing, but now I’ve moved to Guangzhou to get my young child away from heavy pollution. So Guangzhou is my home now. It’s nice and warm here.
Do you travel for work?
I used to do that a lot. My wife would think we are going on vacation but it would be all work for me. But that has changed somewhat now; I am more relaxed these days. I used to shoot everything around me, but now I am doing a more targeted approach. This keeps my wife happy.
Would you then say that your style and themes have changed over time?
Yes, they absolutely have. I used to shoot everything I could. From apples on white background to random people on streets. But all of those shoots have been learning experiments for me. I’ve never had any formal training in photography and I never took any courses. So in order to learn the way camera settings work and some of the techniques I had to try out all the different scenarios I could. So in order to get a good feel of how equipment works and how light affects objects indoors and outdoors I had to shoot a lot of crap.
But now after 10 years of practicing I know exactly how various sensors would work with different lenses and which settings would give me the shot I’ve envisioned in my head. I would also say that after all these years of shooting I’ve developed my unique style. Previously, I would do a shoot and then look at some of the pictures at home and think to myself: “this shot came out pretty cool.” But these days I would actually have a vision in my mind of what exactly I am trying to achieve and I go out and shoot that specifically. Of course if a shoot doesn’t go according to my plan I don’t panic, I start to improvise.
So what do you focus on primarily these days?
I mainly shoot lifestyle photos and timelapse videos. For lifestyle shots I like to get people in their natural state, doing things they are comfortable with. And timelapses can be anything from sunsets over nature to fast paced city scenes.
Do you shoot these themes because that’s what sells the most as stock?
No I’ve never tailored my style to what sells best. I have always shot what I liked and then put it up for sale.
Let’s talk equipment now since I know it’s your favorite topic. Which camera do you use primarily now?
I have everything now except Nikon and Sony and I would’ve bought those as well if there was a good technical, functional or economical reason for it.
I know that you like to use medium format cameras and that you usually make a Frankenstein out of them to improve the quality of your shots. What is the most recent monster that you’ve built?
My latest creation is a Fujifilm GX680iii which I’ve built from several bodies. It’s even larger than the Mamiya RZ67 Pro iiD you’ve seen me with in New York. Both of these cameras are medium format units designed for film. Film by itself allows a certain room for error in focus due to its thickness, so both of these cameras are very tough to focus with when shooting with a digital back. In order for me to nail down the focus I have to place another digital camera with zoom on the waist level viewfinder of the medium format camera. These attachments create a bulky unit exceeding 24 lbs. But at least all these camera tortures allow me to have a super precise focus and a superb image quality.
Any normal person might ask me why am I bothering with all of these old and heavy cameras with no autofocus? My reasoning is simple – after dealing with digital SLRs for over 10 year I am at the point where I can see a difference between a 35mm equivalent and medium format shots. These old cameras are very sharp and they create unique images which differ from mainstream bodies. So while its cumbersome to deal with all of the weight, when I compare the shots between medium and 35mm formats, medium format wins every time.
Besides a camera, what do you take with you for each shoot?
The answer is simple. I take as much stuff with me as I can possibly carry. Sometimes I misjudge and then have to struggle the entire trip whether it’s a day or a month of shooting. Every time I worry, what if I need this little gizmo or that useful thing? During last year’s trip I had over 90 lbs on me. This year I had 66 lbs, so I am making a progress.
What kind of lighting do you use?
I have noticed that a very important feature is rarely getting any attention when camera specs are being discussed. I am talking about a sync speed. I won’t go into details but to those who don’t know what it is I’ll just say that the higher flash sync speed is the less flash units you actually need to achieve good lighting during daytime. For example: during my last photo trip I had four small off-brand flash units with me. If I were to achieve the same lighting with all Canon gear, I would’ve needed 24 flash units!
So another reason I use these monster medium format cameras is that they have a leaf shutter with a sync speed of 1/400 of a second. In comparison, Canon usually syncs at 1/200s – 1/250th. So that’s a one stop difference, meaning that when I use 10 Speedlites with Canon I would only need to use 5 Speedlites with my monster cameras to get the same light. However, if you don’t want to dive into the expensive world of medium cameras, there are small modern cameras out there with excellent sync speeds. For example: Fuji X100s or Sony RX1R. Those are compact camera (although pricey) which have a fixed lens but they produce excellent picture quality and because of the leaf shutter can sync at over 1/1000th of a second. I just came back from Thailand and I was shooting with Fuji X100s. I was really impressed how such a small camera can produce such outstanding images with just a few flash units. So with its sync speed I can shoot stuff Canon users can only dream of.
What do you think about Canon/Nikon high speed functions then?
I try to stay away from high speed sync function as much as possible because of the way it works. To those who don’t know I’ll briefly explain. Basically as the shutter curtain opens the sensor, the closing shutter follows very close behind (beyond 1/250th the entire sensor cannot be opened entirely). During this time high speed sync flash shoots multiple bursts to light up every new part of the sensor that opens up during the curtain crawl. I know it’s a bit tough to understand without visual representation but you’ll have to trust me that that’s what happens. So in essence, because a flash needs to shoot a lot of small strobes in quick succession its power is greatly reduced and now instead of being effective at 30 feet it’s only good at 3 feet. Plus high speed sync eats battery much quicker. And to top it off, high speed sync function is being used as another marketing term to get people to buy expensive brand Speedlites.
So then I’ll get back to my original question, which lights do you prefer using?
At the moment I really like Paul C. Buff™ Einstein™ E640 Flash Unit. If you combine it with their lithium Vagabond Mini™ battery it’s a really sweet kit. If I have space for it, it’s my first choice. Then if I have a very limited space and can only carry Speedlites, my next choice at the moment is Godox v850. It’s a very good and affordable unit. Instead of 4 AA batteries it uses a solid lithium battery, which in essence has four times the longevity of AA batteries. Plus, its recycling time is at around one second at full power and it’s also by the same company that put my “multiple flash” invention on a mass production scale.
I wanted to ask you about that setup, so this is a good moment for you to talk about it.
Most of the time I shoot without any assistance and I often need to adjust my flash a stop up or down. Since I am lazy I didn’t want to always run up to my lights and adjust them. A flash unit is not something you just turn on and forget. I always need to adjust its power to match the scene and settings I am shooting. And if you don’t have a remote control you always need to run up to your flash and adjust it. This can be very tiresome because flashes can be in multiple locations and far from your shooting position. There were options to use PocketWizard transceivers, but they cost around $250 per unit and that would only work with expensive branded Speedlites, since I sometimes use over 12 flashes for a scene, it was not a feasible option for me.
So I created my own setup with a rail that can hold 8 flashes at a time that can be mounted on a stand. I’ve also engineered a receiver that can control each unit’s or all units’ ratios remotely. This has made my work a whole lot easier and what’s more importantly, since I would fire all the flashes at the same time I had a lot of power at my fingertips for a fraction of the cost of the name brand products.
I was featured on Strobist blog (scroll down to “This Remote Flash Power Control Hack is Genius”) with my invention and since then Godox has started mass producing a similar setup. I consider myself a pioneer in this field and I am very happy that this technology is now being mass produced and that it can help a lot of photographers achieve their vision for a fraction of the cost.
When you shoot in a studio, do you use these same lights or do you have dedicated studio lights?
I’ve used to rent a studio for shoots, but I have decided that studio shooting is not for me. When there is a studio shoot the responsibilities are divided between photographer, models, makeup artist, stylist and so on. In this case I feel that photographer’s role is somewhat diminished.
I feel much better shooting real people outside of the studio doing things we all do in our lives. This is actually more complicated and I don’t have full control over scenes, but this does open up a whole world of possibilities for me. I compensate the lack of glamour and high end fashion with beautiful locations and sincere emotions. But to answer your questions when I shot in studio I used Elinchrom lights.
If you are going for sincere emotions, how do you choose your models?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t actually shoot that often so I have the luxury of time to choose my models. Since I mostly shoot lifestyle, I like to choose models that look natural. I don’t like to shoot models that show signs on anorexia. I like to shoot real people in their natural environments that are not afraid to show emotions. For example: I find it difficult to work with my wife because she has a modeling background and as soon as she sees a camera pointed at her she gets into beautiful poses. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great and I don’t want to underestimate the value of that, but since I shoot lifestyle I actually don’t want people to get into classical positions. I was very happy with the models you booked for us in New York. They were very professional. I love models who don’t notice the cameras around them, but at the same time can follow my requests. My guidance is different from studio photographers. I was never the person to give super detailed orders on how to tilt a head half an inch or move a shoulder a few degrees to the right. The way I usually operate is I explain the scene models should act out and then shoot them as they go through all the motions.
How do you find your models?
In United States the best place for me to find models is Model Mayhem. But I’ve discover it the hard way that it only works best in large metropolitan areas such as New York or Los Angeles. These places have a very large pool of models who are interested in following this career path. You can always find a professional for a reasonable rate in these areas. But as soon as you move into more rural areas this changes radically. You can end up going for a high rate for people who don’t know what they are doing and more than likely not even show up.
Outside of United States I actually like to approach people on the street and just offer them to participate in a shoot. You might ask me what I usually offer them in return. Since I make money on the end product I have no problem offering money for their services. I know many stock photographers offer time for print but I am confident in my work and I know it will pay off in the end. Although I might sometimes offer prints for their modeling, but if that doesn’t work I always offer good rates for their work. I also like to give the final product to models to use as promotional material, but at least when I am paying them I don’t feel rushed to retouch images and send it to them.
Can you talk a bit about the props?
I am a big fan of vintage vehicles. Mostly because I just like the style of old cars and motorcycles, but also because they no longer hold a copyright, which is important for stock photography. I spend a lot of time looking for a good car or a motorcycle or something interesting to get models occupied. I usually offer monetary compensation for using these props, but I also like to give them final images when they are ready.
How do you plan your shoots?
First I look for a great location. I spend a lot of time scouting for locations. I have to physically scout my locations. Whether I am in a city or on an island I will walk or rent a vehicle and scout as much as I possibly can. While I am doing that I also pay attention to where and when the sun is at these locations, since you can’t turn it on or off at your will. Weather forecast is also very important. Whether it’s sunny or rain, I want to be prepared and have the right props for it.
Once I have the location and the scene figured out I look for the right models for the job. This approach to planning had always paid off in the end. The more time I spend on location scouting the better the end product.
Tell me about your post-processing.
I believe that post-processing is 50% of photographers work. And I completely disagree with people who don’t use editing tools and say that it’s cheating. I spend a lot of time on post-processing. But I think each person has to develop their own workflow, something that works best for them. While I still think you should watch how other people do it, just simply coping the process will not benefit you at the end. So I will not go over the details of my editing. But I do want to say that it’s very important to keep researching different techniques and trying to understand all of the editing concepts. So you can combine these techniques and create your unique style. The source I would recommend is CreativeLive.com. Even if I think I know what the person is teaching I will still watch until the end and will always find a thing or two I didn’t know before.
Do you have any fears that can ruin a shoot for you?
The short answer is no. I usually welcome challenges and like a diver I always have backups for my equipment. I know something will always go wrong, whether it’s a little or a major thing, problems will arise and you have to be ready for it. It’s all about how you approach your problem. If you get hysterical every time you have a problem you are not a professional. But if people around you don’t even notice that there was a problem, then you are a true master.
What do you think about the photo industry at the moment and where do you see it going in the future?
I believe this is the golden age of photography. This is the time where even a cell phone that’s always with you can produce good images. Previously there used to be a technical and educational barrier to entry in photography. You had to learn all the functions then become an apprentice to an established photographer, then save up for a very expensive equipment and only then definitely see if you have the talent for it. Nowadays, however, I am very happy to say that people who don’t have the time or finances to pursue this career can just try out any camera to see if they have the artistic vision. This breeds a whole new generation of people who are not necessarily good with figuring out all the technical details but who have amazing artistic visions and make it into reality with the help of technology. I know this creates competition but in our business competition created amazing works and this also makes me become a better photographer.
If you could choose a super power what would it be?
I would choose immortality but with an option to cancel it when I choose to do so.