Recent Interview with Stephen Jensen - F3 Studios

Interview with Rock Photographer Stephen Jensen

About Stephen Jensen

Stephen Jensen is an award-winning entertainment art director, photographer, graphic designer and founder of F3 Studios in Crystal Lake, IL. Stephen is known mostly for his work in the music and entertainment industries on album covers and packaging, as well as designing guitar artwork for high-profile players. Recently, Stephen has added photography to his mixed bag of tricks, to an overwhelmingly positive response. Stephen has worked with and photographed such artists as Dimebag Darrell, Megadeth, Trivium, Alice Cooper, Static-X, Whiskey Falls, Dope, Hawthorne Heights, All American Rejects, HellYeah, and scores of other rock stars.

Q: The majority of your work tends to be in the music industry. How did that come about? Is it a double-edged sword to be known as a rock photographer?

SJ: I've always been into music and artwork. I just love looking at album artwork and cool rock posters. As a kid I would hang rock stars' photos and album covers on my walls. I also played in rock bands in high school and college. The connection between music and artwork has always interested me. So when I started F3 Studios, I wanted to focus part of my career on working with recording artists and bands, doing photos and album artwork. Over the years, I honed my craft and focused more on my passion for the music industry, working with musicians of many different levels and genres, and it slowly took over my business. It's always been what I've wanted to do.

I don't know that being known as a music industry photographer is necessarily a double-edged sword. I do get hired for other non-music photography because of my music photography. People hire me because they like the style, personality and energy of the music photography. It can certainly be brought into other types of photography. I've done photography for genres other than rock (blues, country, etc.) and I've done photography of models, portraiture, products, advertising, stills and all the other photography for album covers and projects that I work on. The only problem that I run into is people thinking of me ONLY as a photographer. I'm primarily an accomplished art director and a designer. I started doing my own photography to enhance my work. But many people don't know that I'm a one-stop shop. I can art direct the piece, shoot it, design it, and send it out for final output. But I run into the same issue with clients that I design for who don't realize that I also do the photography.

Q: Does the variance in energy from a live concert vs. a very posed photo shoot affect your work? How?

SJ: There are a lot of differences between shooting live and shooting posed shots. Energy is definitely one of them. Much of that can be attributed to the personality of the artist. Many of the artists I shoot are completely different people on stage than they are off stage. The key is finding the best way to bring out that stage persona. Every artist is different. I've shot artists that do amazing things on stage and I get killer shots of live, but when it comes to doing a posed shoot, they're real low key and not very comfortable. I've shot other artists who can turn it on like a light switch as soon as I lift up the camera, and it's just a matter of picking the best shot. I think that there's a certain level of confidence and trust that needs to be built up between the artist and me. I like to get to know the artist a little better before we shoot so that we're both more comfortable working together; it's more difficult with artists that I'm meeting for the first time who are unfamiliar with my work. The key is gaining their confidence as soon as possible to make them more comfortable. I typically do a few test shots and show them to the artist. When they see the shots and like where it's going, it's easier for them to put their game-face on. If I've worked with the artist previously, they get very comfortable with me and trust that I won't make them look stupid. They can get "into character" much easier. That also works the other way too... artists that I've shot in a posed shoot get to know me during the shoot and get comfortable with me. That works to my advantage in live situations, because when they see me in the crowd, they tend to play to my camera a bit more.

Q: Which work are you the most proud of in your career?

SJ: What I'm most proud of in the photography side of my career is being a part of the music industry legacy. Having been a fan of music all my life and having musician photos tacked to my walls as a kid, it's truly exciting to be able to contribute to that world. It blows my mind when I think that many of the artists that I'm working with and shooting are artists that I had hanging on my walls. What makes me the most proud is knowing that the artists I'm working with respect the work I do. There is nothing more satisfying than working with an artist whose work I know and respect and having them tell me that they are proud to have my work represent them and their career.

Q: With the music industry going toward online downloads, how does that affect your CD cover design workload?

SJ: First, there must be a distinction made between illegal online downloads and online downloads as a legal means of distributing music. I don't think that online downloads as a means of selling music has necessarily affected the work that I do. Music is still very much tied to visual media. I think that visuals will always be needed to help sell music and that there will always be fans like me that enjoy looking at the photos and album covers while listening to the music to help complete the experience. I still do a lot of album cover design that is printed. I'm excited by the possibility of where the music industry will go in regards to digital delivery, because you won't be restricted to what can and cannot be done on paper. The idea of making album covers and photographs interactive is intriguing, and would never have been doable as a printed piece.

On the other hand, the illegal music downloads have affected my workload in that the artists cannot afford to stay in business and release albums if people are not buying them. The music industry is constantly changing, and many artists do not survive when major changes are made. Illegal downloads make it so that some of the fans' favorite artists who can no longer afford to survive. A lot of the artists I enjoy are smaller, independent artists and independent record labels who can no longer afford to even make records. Many small independent artists think that downloads help their career and to a certain extent, they do. But those same artists are looking to take it to the next level.

The problem is that the independent labels they would normally work with are either not in business anymore, or are even more particular with what they are looking for because they need to find a talent that's marketable to the masses so they can make money and stay in business. Too many independent artists forget that it's a "music business" and not a music giveaway... and there's no such thing as being in business and not making money. They have another word for that, and it's called a "hobby." There has never been a rock star hobbyist.

Q: Does the composition of print ads for the music industry differ greatly from general consumer product layout work?

SJ: Well, I think the composition of print ads across all industries differs greatly because the products differ greatly, but the overall idea remains the same... for example, I tend to do a lot of photography and ads for guitar companies. The goal is usually the same... make sure the artist looks recognizable to the fans, make sure the guitar looks good, and make sure the logo can be read on the headstock of the guitar. If all those things fall into place, it's just a matter of executing a great shot. That pleases the guitar company. But there's something else that I look for when shooting and designing a music industry ad. Having been a fan that tore those cool photos and ads out of magazines to hang on my walls, I want the ad to look like something that a fan of that particular artist would immediately tear out of the mag and hang on their wall. So, pleasing the artist, portraying the image that they want and giving the fans what they want is very important to me.

Q: What has been the most shocking situation you've had to endure during a photo shoot in the music industry? How did you handle it?

SJ: I've been in the music industry for quite a while, so nothing shocks me. I have to be ready for anything, because anything can and usually will happen. I tend to stay pretty cool under any photo circumstance. Perhaps the thing that most people would find shocking is just how normal the job is and the people are.

Q: Describe the ultimate Stephen Jensen dream project.

SJ: I want to keep growing my portfolio of great work and eventually put together a book of my rock photography and one book of my album cover and music industry work.

Q: What do you shoot with? Which software do you use? Are you self-taught or formally educated?

SJ: My main camera is a Nikon D200 Digital. I also use Tokina Lenses (12-24mm F4, 28-80mm F2.8, and 80-200mm F2.8).

For photography, my main software is Adobe Photoshop CS3 Adobe Bridge CS3, and Adobe Lightroom 1.0. For my design work, I also use Adobe Illustrator CS3, Adobe InDesign CS3, Adobe Flash CS3, Adobe GoLive CS2, and Adobe Acrobat 8 Professional.

I am both self-taught and formally educated. I have an AA in Fine Arts and a BA in Graphic Design and Photography. I was originally a photography major in college but switched halfway through to graphic design. This was still during the days of film and I just had no patience for the darkroom. I did enjoy the results of getting great prints and experimenting with different chemicals to achieve different results. I also thought that my work was pretty average as far as photography went, and thought that I was better suited as a designer. There were not many digital classes being offered when I was in college, so most of my computer skills were self-taught. I focused on art history, theory, commercial design, corporate design, typography, and painting.

After college, I worked at a service bureau, which is where I taught myself the ins and outs of working with the different software. I then worked as a package designer for a major food company for five years before starting out on my own as a freelancer. As a package designer and freelance art director, I would art direct many photographers on different photo shoots. My photography background helped out a bit, as I knew how to light the set exactly the way I wanted and also knew a lot of the technical photo skills that I needed. It was like having two photographers on set at all times. Eventually, when digital photography got better and more affordable, I purchased a Nikon D100. I used it with another photographer on an album cover photo shoot and was blown away by the quality and the way that it changed my entire workflow. I eventually decided to do my own photography again just a couple of years ago. I wanted the photography to be an extension of my design work, and add to what I was already offering my clients. With a strong base of clients for my design work, it was easy to introduce photography to the mix.

Q: What is the most important lesson a freelance photographer should learn before going out on their own?

SJ: I find that a lot of people starting their own businesses lack focus. Decide what kind of work you want to do and be the best at that work. I always knew that I wanted to do photography and design for the music industry. I loved album cover art, band and live photography, and other entertainment-based design. I focused the work that I do on that passion. I'm looking forward to not just making a dent on the music industry and photo world, but also leaving a scar that will be there forever.

Stephen's work can be viewed here: &

Wed 10/10/2007 9:51 AM