Paul Reiffer is truly a photographer who can say he knows most aspects of photography. Starting his professional career in front of the camera, modeling worldwide, he got to know which thoughts go through a model’s head. While always fascinated with photography, and a keen hobbyist, Paul managed to learn a bit from each of the great photographers he worked with throughout his modeling career. Gathering knowledge and techniques, Paul learned to create the images he wanted to capture. About five years ago, Paul decided to become a full-time fashion photographer, mainly shooting model portfolios and low-key commercial work. This was a perfect way into the photography industry for Paul. At the same time, he realized that his other passion would perfectly complement his photography skills: traveling.
Through a network of friends, colleagues and media contacts, Paul got started with commissioned work for some big names, and then decided to diversify -- not only would he shoot exclusive images for corporate clients, he would also travel the world and produce limited edition prints of scenes that he really loved, so that others could enjoy them too. Today he works professionally as a landscape and commercial photographer for both commercial clients and private individuals.
Last year, Paul took another big step, when he switched from 35mm DSLR to Phase One medium format camera system. Paul already shared a great text about why he made this choice, and what it meant to him (read it here), so we asked Paul to share a selection of his work. We received these beautiful cityscape captures shot in Shanghai, San Francisco, Hong Kong, and London. These represent Paul’s work perfectly. The images have been captured throughout the world, and sometimes Paul went more than the extra mile to get what he wanted. We asked Paul about the images and his cityscape work:
What is it about cities that fascinates you enough to specialize in cityscape photography?
Well, I grew up in a relatively small seaside town, and I remember a "trip to London" was always an exciting prospect at the time. Since then, I moved around the world quite a lot -- from Dublin, Ireland to San Francisco, California, to Shanghai, China (and a few places in between!) -- and started noticing that despite all of them being "cities" by definition, their character was always completely dynamic and unique.
To me, landscapes make for exciting shots as the weather means no two images are ever the same. With cities, the life within each metropolis means exactly the same thing occurs -- even a shot taken just five seconds after mine will still be different -- the feel, the light, the action, the place -- they're ever changing and evolving.
Have you ever arrived in a city and known exactly what shot you would like to take away from your visit, but unforeseen events made that shot impossible . . . and what did you do about it?
There's one shot of San Francisco that I've been trying to capture for about six years, and still never managed it! I must have visited the same spot about 25 times now, and always before sunrise (which hurts when you walk away with nothing). Sadly, the shot I want is so heavily reliant on specific weather that it's always going to be a risk, but this is rapidly becoming the stuff of nightmares...!
Besides that, I've had my fair share of unplanned events: Over-vigilant security guards, freak storms, US Government shut-downs, curfews in effect and even buildings (literally) missing! Each and every time though, the trick is to recognize when something is a lost cause (for this time, at least) and make the most of it. A long-exposure on fast moving clouds over a skyline can give a very different, but equally great, viewpoint where you'd originally planned to shoot a sunset. It’s all about pre-thinking for Plan B before you know if Plan A will work out.
Are all your cityscapes photographs of cities you know by heart? If not, how do you approach a project when you arrive to a completely unknown city?
Funnily (and embarrassingly) enough, it's taken me years to finally get around to shooting London this summer!
It's obviously easier to know the locations when you're in a city you know well, but sometimes that also means you miss that different angle as your brain can start to just play safe. If a city is completely unknown to me, tools like Google's satellite and street view are invaluable. And I make a lot of use of groups on Flickr to see if there is anything key I need to shoot. The photography community online, in general, is a really helpful group of people, and I try to make use of their past experiences when it comes to locations wherever possible.
That said, the challenge is to constantly try to find that different view. A lot of the time you'll come across the same composition, shot from the same spot, over and over again (and usually for good reason -- they look great) but the trick is to either look for a different angle or simply shoot that same view in a different, more creative, way.
Who do you reach out to, to find the right location to shoot from?
I've had the good fortune to find people either through my own social networks or via online groups who are always willing to help.
In fact, in the next month I'm heading to Kuala Lumpur and contacted a guy on Flickr who clearly knew his way around the city asking for any "hidden secrets". That's resulted in him collecting us from the airport, taking us to some of the more obscure (and restricted) areas to shoot and effectively running a full night-tour for me to capture the shots I want. I'm always amazed by the generosity of other photographers, and try to repay the favor whenever I can -- but that magical link you can sometimes find in an unknown city is invaluable.
Step by step, how do you address a new city?
First, you have to know what makes that city tick. There's no point in shooting crazy light streams up and down the River Thames in London -- it's not that kind of river. Likewise, shooting Shanghai's Pudong skyline looking all relaxed and calm won't work either. So I have to get the feel I'm going for fixed in my head and work from there. Some cities look great in the day, but I find I'm then more dependent on what the sky is doing, as an overcast shot is very rarely going to turn out exciting without any long exposure tricks. By nature of the fact that in most cities I want to show the vibe, electricity and color, I tend to aim for night or sunset shots first and then start looking at locations as well as similar views online. I make a point of never taking the images I used to research a location with me to the location. This prevents venturing too close to the same scene, but using them as planning tools. Shots from your planned viewpoint are essential before heading out. For high shots, you might need to plan to gain access to a building -- officially, or with some persuasion (both work) -- and that needs a bit of forward planning...
For a completely unknown city with no "leads", sometimes apps like TPE (for sunset/sunrise calculations) are invaluable and combining that with some of Google's tools mean you can always arrive prepared with a Plan A and a Plan B at all times of the day. I'll always have two plans -- one for a clear day (with sunset) and one for a stormy/rainy day. Some cities just don't work in the rain, but having a few days to shoot normally allows me time to absorb any weather glitches that can occur.
Has it ever been necessary for you to cross your own comfort zone to get the cityscape you wanted?
Yes, for sure!
I've been climbing up sliding sandbanks from restricted property in the dark before (with my memory card tucked into my underwear, just in case the people who asked me to move on went further than just asking me to leave!)
I've been chased from the rooftops of buildings -- despite having previously "brokered a deal" with a security guard.
I've had my camera and tripod dangling off the top of the 60th floor to get around a flashing red aircraft warning light.
I've even crouched in the middle of a 5-lane roundabout for four nights to get light streams running past me in Shanghai
None of these are advisable situations, I know, but sometimes, I just want to get that different angle and it comes at a price.
What is the most extreme situation you’ve put yourself in to achieve the image you wanted?
To be honest, while rooftops and cliff edges sound dangerous, the most concerning shot (safety-wise) was in Shanghai. I've seen some of the worst driving in the world here in Shanghai and that shot took four nights of standing on a hatched area with my camera on the ground as traffic streamed by. I just needed the right combination of lights.
When I say traffic was streaming by, I mean: Cars with no lights on; buses traveling the *wrong way* around the road; police cars driving INTO motorbikes (with no lights on). I even had one entire family stop their car opposite me ON the roundabout, bring out chairs, and watch me taking photos. It was a crazy few nights! Luckily, the odds were on my side, and I'm big enough to see before getting hit -- but yeah, that's not an experience I'd try again...! Behind the scenes images on the right is from this experience - during the capture of image 1.
Clearly, Paul is always going the whole nine yards to get the image he wants. After our Q&A session with Paul, he went to Kuala Lumpur, on the trip mentioned earlier. Like many times before, he was welcomed in a most generous way, and this trip also offered extreme situations taking Paul out of his comfort zone. Read it here.