Insights and ideas from Andy Mahr
Raising the bar, every time
Award-winning photographer Andy Mahr’s work is varied with big clients including Chick-fil-A and the U.S. Marine Corps. With a background as an art director and creative director, he goes beyond the photography and considers the concepts of shoots as well. An athlete himself, Mahr has been trusted by clients such as Gatorade, NFL, and Russell Athletic among others, allowing him to photograph many professional athletes like Carmelo Anthony, Hope Solo, Tom Lehman, and many Olympians. Mahr mostly shoots on location and has been lucky to have the opportunity to capture the lives of people who live in amazing places. Here, Mahr offers us a glimpse into how his background as an art director helped him develop his own photography style and aesthetic.
Photoshop.com: Which piece of equipment couldn’t you live without and why?
Andy Mahr: Obviously, my cameras—but beyond that, every piece of equipment is just as important as the next, from the lenses to lighting equipment down to the software I use to process, develop, and craft my images. They all come together to help me. At home in Helotes, Texas, I have a small office that I share with my black lab, Major. It’s outfitted with a couple of computers, a scanner, a printer, and archiving hardware for backup.
Photoshop.com: Was there a defining moment when you knew it was time to change roles from art director to photographer, or was it a gradual transition?
Andy Mahr: There were epiphanies and slower transitions happening all at the same time. While getting a BFA in graphic design, I took a photography course and hated it. But a few years later, once I became an art director and started going on productions, I saw how much fun photography was. Literally, one day I told my wife that I wanted to change careers and I haven't looked back since. Of course, it took a few years to develop a portfolio and get a few shoots under my belt before I made the transition to a full-time photographer.
Photoshop.com: How has your background as an art director influenced your work as a photographer?
Andy Mahr: My background as an art director taught me to absorb the world. Photography, painting, film, music, architecture, design, motion graphics, product design, street art, guerrilla marketing—I draw inspiration from any form of art that evokes an emotion. I spent a total of 13 years as an art director and creative director. As an agency creative, you learn to pay attention not only to the way things look and sound but also to the theories and concepts that surround our lives, both from artistic and business standpoints. I saw the ad business from a completely different side than what most photographers see and I have a real appreciation for what creatives and clients go through to bring ideas to fruition. It was during those years that I started developing my own unique style, look, and aesthetic.
Photoshop.com: What role does Adobe® Photoshop® Lightroom® software play in your photography process?
Andy Mahr: I apologize if I’m being blunt, but if it weren't for Lightroom, I'd be hosed. From developing a look, to cataloging, to creating web galleries, Lightroom is the engine of my business.
Photoshop.com: What are your favorite features in Photoshop Lightroom 4?
Andy Mahr: With each new release of Lightroom, the process has been elevated. But, I would have to say the new highlight and shadow recovery is my favorite. I have more control over whites and shadows and because of that, I can make photos look nicer. I can more easily and quickly build web-based photo books, too. If a client needs a file, I can search for it and find it quickly. It’s an amazing tool, from both creative and workflow standpoints. I also love presets. I’ve got a large variety of presets loaded in, so I can click through them. Right on the spot, I can show a client what a photo will look like with an adjustment versus what comes straight out of the camera. I have also experimented with the book creation module so that I can more easily create portfolios without a lot of effort.
Photoshop.com: Your photos have a very consistent recognizable style. How would you describe it, and how did you develop the look?
Andy Mahr: I'm hesitant to say there is a “look” per se but rather there is a new bar that I try to leap over for every shoot. The Chick-fil-A calendar involved heavy compositing and I shot from the hip for The United States Marine Corps. Even though both were completely different shoots and concepts, they reached a new level for me. Regardless of the project, that standard has developed, evolved, and risen over the years and will continue to do so.
Photoshop.com: How did you create the result in the photo for Autolite spark plugs?
Andy Mahr: I try and keep things simple. A good percentage of my images only require a few color moves, sharpening, general clean up, maybe adding clouds if necessary, and so on.
This particular shot required more compositing in Photoshop than usual. The idea is that Autolite spark plugs make your engine mightier and more efficient, which is why the engine is much larger and popping out of the hood. We started by attaching a camera rig to the front of the car. From there, we did a couple test runs. When the lighting was just right, I used my medium-format Hassleblad with an exposure of about one second and we rolled the car by pushing it at a very slow and smooth speed. We used motion blur simulation software to blur out the background even more. We then took a clean engine in studio and shot it to match the background angle, color temperature, and lighting. In Photoshop, we cut out the hood and dropped in the engine to the size it is now to create the final desired concept. In the end, we only used two main images, the car and the engine.
Photoshop.com: Describe a favorite photo you’ve shot and what grabs you about it.
Andy Mahr: Wow, that’s a tough question. I have favorite images I've shot on assignment working with art directors. I also have some favorites I shot for personal assignments. But, I guess I always come back to my first love. It is an image of Hico Stadium in Texas. It was for a six-man football tournament sponsored by Dr. Pepper. It was really the first image I shot where I thought, “Hey, I could do this for a living.” I sat in the bleachers for about three hours. My camera was locked down and the sky/lighting kept changing every 10 minutes. I think I ended up choosing one of the later images. It really taught me patience and what landscape and sports photography are all about.
Photoshop.com: What is the most challenging part of shooting sports photography?
Andy Mahr: Being at the right place at the right time is key. As a former athlete, playing tennis and other sports throughout my life, I try to capture the right moves and get the best lighting and timing. I need to get shots where the athlete looks natural and elegant. Working with them as people, I’ve found that the better shots are not planned. The more comfortable and unplanned shots often come out best.
Photoshop.com: What is your favorite on-location shoot and why?
Andy Mahr: I've been really lucky to go to some pretty amazing and varied places. I’ve shot in Africa, on dangerous oil rigs on the North Sea off the coast of Norway where the people are proud to give a lot back to their country, in gold mines in Elko Nevada, and in Hawaii. There are so many interesting places and so many different ways people live their lives. The Masai tribes in Africa live in mud huts right next to their livestock. In Hawaii, there is a different sensibility and an incredible zest for life. The people I met would pick breakfast off fruit trees. I can’t say enough about how cool it is to see how different people live.
Photoshop.com: How do you help the people relax during a photo shoot?
Andy Mahr: I try to let them be who they are and try not to force too much direction on them. Most of the people are doing what they naturally do and are very comfortable doing so. I find sometimes you get better shots when people are not camera aware. It’s not really much more complicated than that.
Andy Mahr's Polaroid 3 preset