Advertising and commercial photographer Francesco Zerilli got his first paid job as a teenager and has never looked back. Today, his stunning still life images are used by some of the biggest names in the jewellery, watch and automotive markets. Francesco reveals the art behind taking great still shots – and explains why personal work is as important as paid work.
When Francesco Zerilli was only eight or nine, he knew he was going to be a photographer. But what he didn’t know was how quickly that dream would become a reality, because when Francesco was only sixteen, he got his first professional job. “A local printer needed some shots of candy packaging, but couldn’t find a local photographer,” recalls Francesco, “I offered to take them. I went home, set up some reflectors from my window – I didn’t have any lights – and took the shots. I got paid really good money and became very excited about becoming a professional photographer.”
Since then, Francesco has become a highly successful advertising and commercial photographer, as well as one of the leading jewellery and watch photographers. His clients include, 3M, Swatch, Rolex, Ford, General Motors, Rebecca Gioielli and Unilever.
Francesco was born in Palermo, Sicily in 1961 and soon gravitated towards photography. As a teenager, he devoured photography books, and after leaving high school, moved to Milan to become a full-time professional photographer, “I was getting work with agencies and doing some advertising, fashion and still life photography,” says Francesco. At the age of nineteen, he did his military service, and soon became his regiment’s official photographer (“It was a really good job. I had my own driver and didn’t have to do morning parade.”).
After military service, Francesco resumed his photography career in Milan and also spent some of the time studying communication sciences at Bologna University. “I never graduated,” says Francesco, “but a great university professor got me interested in object surfaces and textures, and that drew me to still life.”
When Francesco was twenty-two, he decided to move back to Palermo, “There were no commercial studios in Palermo, and so agencies often hired photographers from elsewhere I. figured I could be a big-shot in Palermo with my own studio.” Although Francesco had plenty of work, he had one big problem – he wasn’t getting paid for much of it. “I would receive post-dated cheques for six months in advance. I was getting fed up,” he says. But then, fate intervened. Francesco met an American student, Angie, who was studying Italian. They started seeing each other, and when Angie returned to her home in Detroit, Michigan in 1985, she invited Francesco over.
“I was planning to stay for a couple of months, but when I arrived, Angie had got me a job in a studio in Detroit that specialised in cars. I stayed in that job for about a year, and then opened my own studio, and I’ve lived in the US ever since.” He also married Angie, and they are still together today.
Francesco explains why still life is his passion. “I’m not normally a controlling person, but as a photographer, I like to be in 100% control,” he says, “you start with a studio with zero light and you control everything – the lighting, the texture, the angle of the light and how it touches the surfaces. That makes it perfect for great photographs and great lines. It’s great for communicating the aspects of the surfaces.” Francesco says photography is, “Communication with light. Writers use words; I use photons. The job of a commercial photographer is to convey the design of an object and use light to bring out its beauty.”
Francesco was quick to see the potential of the digital darkroom, and around 1990, invested in a $24,000 system that included an Apple Mac II FX and the first version of Photoshop. “I could see that computers could give me even more control,” says Francesco. Sadly, he was ahead of his time, “The computer had as much power as an iPhone, but the biggest problem was that no one could read the disks! So we had to transfer the digital images back to film. I ended up selling the system, although things improved a few years later.”
In 1995, Francesco began building up an impressive portfolio of jewellery and watch photography, “Other photographers were turning down the work because it was difficult,” says Francesco, “but it taught me so much. In fact, I think they should teach jewellery photography to anyone who wants to do still life, because once you can shoot jewellery, you can shoot anything. Car photography is hard, but jewellery photography is even harder. Cars are reflective and translucent, but with jewellery, you have the same problems, only in miniature.”
Francesco’s equipment includes a large collection of Leica macro lenses, and he uses a Leica M9 camera for outdoor work and a Leica S2 for studio work, “Cameras are less important,” says Francesco, “because all they do is record the information that’s on the other side of the lens.” He uses continuous lighting system consisting of Arri lighting with a Fresnel lens, “It gives any surface a beautiful look, even if it’s reflected or passing through silk to soften the light. The quality of light is superior and it’s easier to see the results than with strobe lighting.”
“When you shoot a watch or a piece of jewellery, you are not shooting the object – you’re shooting the set, because everything is reflected onto the object,” explains Francesco, “If you shine light directly into a diamond, all you get is a small dot of light. You always bounce the light so it gets reflected into it.” Many still images are composites, he adds, “Sometimes you shoot in parts. For example, with a diamond ring, you might shoot the diamond with a spotlight to make it bright, and the gold band with reflective light, and then put the two shots together.”
Francesco has strong views on the way photographers are categorised: “Photographers are divided into fashion, still life, commercial and so on, and that’s wrong,” he insists, “why can’t a fashion photographer also take portraits?” He believes photographers should be grouped more like writers, “You have photographers who do non-fiction – like photo-journalists, war photographers and landscape photographers. Then there are the fiction guys like me and fashion photographers, who don’t care about reality! The third group are illustrative photographers, such as those who work with CGI.”
Over the past few years, Francesco has been getting into conceptual photography, an area he believes will grow, “Fewer companies are making things – they don’t have products, they have services. And to express what they’re selling is a lot harder than shooting products.”
“I believe photography is about talent, taste and style and you can’t really teach that,” says Francesco, “You can teach different techniques, but it’s how you use those techniques to communicate to people that’s the hardest part, and that’s where the talent comes in.” He’s also critical of some photography courses, “The ones that teach you how to shoot with a camera are useless, especially now cameras are fairly automatic and all you have to do is push a button.” He’s also not impressed with the idea that anyone can be photographer, “A lot of people think that all they need is a camera to be photographer. I tell them; ‘buy a pencil, so you can be a writer too!’”
Francesco believes in giving something back to the community and teaches photography at a local college a couple of hours a week. He also does pro bono work for various charities and non-profit organisations including, the Red Cross, Salvation Army, Michigan Conventions & Visitors Bureau, and Henry Ford Hospitals. Today, he works in a 5000 square-foot studio in Royal Oak, Michigan, although most of his work is done around the rest of the US and Europe.
“Every photographer should be in stock photography,” says Francesco, “because it’s a great way of getting your work syndicated. Why have all that work sitting on your hard drive – why not use it?”He also believes that, “It’s important to shoot every day, either on a job or personal work. Personal work is very important for a photographer in order to be successful, because it helps you come up with new ideas and new visuals that nobody has thought of before – they generate ideas for original work.”
Originality is key adds Francesco, “That’s how you get the big jobs from clients – when you are doing work that nobody else has done. I like to shoot things that fascinate me, because it makes me a better communicator with a camera.”www.francescozerilli.com