Focus on Photographers - Drake Busath

The Busath Studio and Gardens is a well-established installation for portrait and wedding photography in the Utah area and around the country.  Drake Busath, who currently runs the studio and the business Busath Studio and Gardens, continues the tradition of excellence in portrait and wedding photography that his father, Don, first started over 50 years ago.  Drake has been influenced by commercial photography and continues his legendary Italy workshops, thus expanding the style and breadth of the Busath business.  Drake is very busy in the photographic community, traveling around the world lecturing and presenting workshops to various groups.  He was kind enough to offer Pictureline readers some of his history on portrait photography.

BEGINNINGS IN PHOTOGRAPHY AND FAMILY
"I learned a lot about photography working for my Dad in Jr. High and High School.  He had me processing the black and white film and making black and white prints long before I ever picked up a camera.  In fact, the first camera I learned to use was a 5x7 view camera because I was making copy and restoration prints with it.  I remember having to bring almost every print out of the darkroom for critique, and that’s how I learned cropping and composition, proper exposure and contrast.  It was a great education, although it wasn’t all that exciting for a kid in high school.  The thing is though, that when I finally started to photograph, I recognized good and bad images quickly because of all that early training.

When I started into a career, I chose commercial and advertising work, mainly so that I could carve out a different niche for myself than my Dad’s portrait work.  I’m sure that influenced my style and helped me differentiate from Dad’s style.  Although I have to say that in the end, I decided that I liked working with people and private commissions better than with the agencies, and I found that I valued a lot of the same subtleties of portraiture that my Dad valued.  Maybe my work is a little less subtle though, because of the advertising interest."

PROGRESSION OF THE STUDIO
"I was an employee in the 80’s, a partner in the 90’s and have been the owner since 2000.  During the 90’s we grew a lot, and started acting like a "real business."  That’s not easy when your interest is primarily making good images.  I have to admit that our service at the back-end was a struggle as we grew and were doing 1500+ sessions every year, especially because we’ve always insisted on making our own prints.  Just imagine the details of all those orders, no two the same. The change to digital added more complication and expense in the late 90's not less.

Management has not been my strong suit. Building a team of talented people has been my only salvation.  We’re making better images now and delivering them at the same cost and twice as fast as 10 years ago.

We’ve become very much a team of photographers, each with our own specialties.  Dave Labrum, Miyo Strong, Laura Bruschke, Richard Busath, Carrie Ryan, Brittany Gray and Kim Driggs make up our crew."

CAMERAS AND EQUIPMENT
"I started with a 5x7 Deardorff wooden view camera.  That dates me, huh?  But really I began photographing weddings with a Mamiya RB 6x7, ten shots on a roll.  That was in 1981.  I was so happy to  finally get my own Hasselblad and start shooting 220 film with 24 shots per roll.  What a relief!  Imagine (with 2 film backs) getting off 48 shots before stopping to reload.  I used to have nightmares about running empty in the middle of a wedding ceremony and the camera back jamming.

We started scanning all our medium format film in-house early on, so we could use Photoshop, and slowly worked into digital capture.  It was a long torturous process because the cameras were so terrible!

When Canon came out with full frame digital I jumped on that and Canon’s high end camera has been our mainstay since (1Ds Mark III currently).  I have not bought into medium format because so much of our work is done in low light outdoors, and the noise at ISO 400 and 800 has nullified most of the benefit that medium format offered us.  I’m excited for the next generation of high-ISO capture 35mm cameras, but still long for medium format to answer that high-ISO call."

THE BUSATH BRAND AND AUTHENTICITY
"I think people are coming to us for a classic, understated portrait.  Our clients seem to understand that highly trendy and styled portraits are going to become an embarrassment in a few years.  The great advantage to working with a team of photographers is that we all have constant critique from the others, and of course, praise when we have a breakthrough.  If you’re working on your own, sometimes it’s hard to know if a new style is a good fit for you or not.  Just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s a style you should pursue.

An idea that guides our style is that the portraits we make should be relevant 10 years, 20 years, 50 years from now.  They should be expression-driven and lighting-driven. Those two things don’t seem to change, whereas filters, stylized clothing and backdrops do seem to date images very quickly.  Remember star filters and double exposures 20 years ago?  Remember over-done Photoshop gaussian blur 5-10 years ago?  We keep reminding ourselves to "stay out of the way."  By that I mean keep our technique from overpowering authentic expression and true story."

POST-PROCESSING
"I believe in keeping a low post-processing profile.  I believe that if someone looks at the image and comments on the post-processing technique, chances are that image will be dated and lose its value within 5-10 years.  If they comment on the lighting or the expression, the image will increase in value with time."

ADVICE FOR YOUNG PHOTOGRAPHERS
"Assisting a working photographer is definitely the best way to learn the portrait / wedding business.  Better yet, work with a few diverse professional photographers.  I’ve found though, that there are two kinds of assistants, those with their mind in neutral, waiting for instructions from the photographer and those who feel a responsibility to the image, as if their name is on this thing too.  The second kind can learn almost everything assisting, and then the step to being the photographer is a small one.  My personal advice for university students is to get educated in accounting if you want to be a portrait photographer... and maybe take some psychology classes!"

PRICES AND QUALITY
"Prices for wedding photography are definitely slipping nation-wide.  Young photographers desperate for clients and unknowledgeable about accounting are taking the profit out of the wedding photography industry as a whole.  Certainly, there are a few still getting a fair price, but they are spending all sorts of time and money to market and brand themselves, so there goes some of that profit that used to be retained.  The portrait side of things is a little more stable, at least for us.  Our portrait business has grown, but again because of extraordinary marketing efforts and innovation.  I have friends all across the US who are portrait photographers, and most are a little fearful about the future.  They’ve taken the hit from the economy and the digital revolution together like a one-two punch.

I’m very optimistic, however, because I’ve seen a lot of change in 30 years and our clients keep coming in the door."

Visit Drake's website, Vimeo Channel, and Italy Workshops.

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