Stockxpert Contributor Profile: Brian and Vildan Chase

By Ben Kessler of the Network

Dateline: November 26, 2008
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Think you know what works in microstock? Brian and Vildan Chase, known as BVDC on the Stockxpert site, may make you re-think. Their portfolio is distinguished by surprising, idiosyncratic details that put an instantly recognizable personal stamp on nearly every image, even those that fit into familiar microstock genres such as spa photography. Those well-selected details fill the frame in their standout images, which display a more flamboyant creativity than most people would associate with microstock. Brian and Vildan's emphasis on artifice is justified by their scrupulous attention to the small stuff in each image.

Brian and Vildan were kind enough to answer my questions via e-mail about what it's like to be an innovative, successful family/studio.

Ben Kessler: Who are you outside of Stockxpert?

BVDC: BVDC is the husband-and-wife team of Brian and Vildan Chase. We are 44 and 42, respectively, and happily married for just over 20 years. We live in Las Vegas, Nevada.

How did you discover the microstock industry?

A very good friend of ours, already in the photography business, recommended we give it a try and sent us a referral. We took a few desert hikes together and he noticed I was a hobbyist photographer, never going anywhere without my Nikon D70, my first and now long-gone DSLR. He convinced my wife and me to expand our hobby into the microstock industry. Some of our very first uploads were taken in his studio.

Do you have any formal training in photography?

I have never taken any formal training. All of my skills come from reading, applying what I read, trial and error, and lots of practice. I've always been one of those people who reads operating manuals and isn't afraid of going through a pile of books to increase my knowledge. I obtained my first 35mm camera, an Argus, when I was about 15; it was old even then. Everything was manual and unforgiving. If I failed to figure out the relationships between aperture, shutter speed, depth of field, and ISO, I wasted film and my hard-earned money. I still believe this was the very best way to get started.

How long does it take you to produce an image from conception through to completion, on average?

It takes anywhere from six hours to a week. Sometimes we can go through our room full of photo 'stuff,' find what we want, setup, take pictures, and finish post processing in less than a day. Other times, like for holidays, artistic, or culinary pictures, coming up with an idea that is somehow different, finding all of the ingredients, props or materials, cooking, arranging, and rearranging can take a solid week of off-and-on effort to complete. A week sounds like a long time, but when you think of how far in advance you have to plan and work before the flash actually fires and the file transfer takes place, it's about right.

What's your process for generating ideas and inspiration?

Most of the ideas come from my wife who has a great imagination and the uncommon ability to take things from idea in her head to reality on the set. She literally goes shopping for ideas. Sitting on the clearance rack of every local discount store is the inspiration for our next shoot. I guess you could say one of her hobbies feeds the other.

I, on the other hand, am the one who figures out how to make her ideas and inspiration actually work for the camera. I have the abilities that allow me to figure out technical, mechanical, and electrical issues and the ability to just plain make things work. We complement each other in photography just like we do throughout the rest of our lives together.

We prefer not to look at the other contributors' photos to get ideas, opting instead for the free-association style to help us create something unique. One of her shopping trips resulted in a large bag of brightly colored wigs I'm sure no one else in Las Vegas wanted for anything. I didn't know what they were for, either, but knew she bought them for a good reason. That is how the Fire Girl shoot got started. She bought deeply discounted red, orange, and blue wigs (look for the blue one to come out soon as Mermaid Girl).

Sometimes, our starting plan is quite different from what we end up with, like Peacock Girl. My wife bought some rhinestones and used them for our daughter's make up. We tried the peacock feathers on a whim and liked the interesting result, proof that sometimes, you just have to go with the flow.

Click to view on Stockxpert

Is there an overarching principle or set of criteria that you employ when deciding which images to upload?

For us it's really pretty simple: do it right and always strive for perfection. From the very beginning, we decided to go for quality over quantity. Our reasoning is, we want users of our work to be impressed and come back time and again. With many thousands of contributors, the only way to make this happen is to give them a very good reason to return. We only upload what we believe is the very best we can do. After taking 300 to 400 pictures during a shoot, we go through them together, diligently picking out the best ones, checking carefully for depth of field, focus, lighting or composition problems. Once the photos are chosen, the tedious work begins with Photoshop to make the digital negatives into perfect pictures. Sure, this is an often-slow process, but we always get the personal satisfaction of knowing we did our best.

Where do you find your models? Do you select from among friends and family, hire professionals, or both?

My wife's feet and my daughter are our most frequent models. We do have a few other models, including my daughter's school friends, our friends and some family members. We enjoy our shoots with friends and family very much; being together makes a fun day for all of us. We usually cook and have lunch with our models and talk about the shoot while eating. Whenever we use other models, the pictures are used for the mutual benefit of all parties. In this, I mean we use some of the pictures for microstock while the kids, parents, or models get a bunch of high-quality free pictures for their time and effort.

I suppose my daughter now qualifies as a professional model, now that I think about it. She gets half of all sales from any picture she is in, minus 15% for taxes. This money goes directly to her college expense fund. She is a great asset since she can do almost any sport, dance, and play the piano. Also, while traveling around the world, we often happen upon people who volunteer to be in our photographs.

How much of your "art direction," on average, is done during the shoot, and how much is done through retouching, etc. on the computer?

A great deal of our "art direction" is done during the shoot, yet retouching is also a huge part of creating the perfect image. As a rule, if the picture isn't any good to begin with, no amount of Photoshopping can make it right. Yet, a good picture can be retouched into a great picture with the miracles of modern software. With enough time, you can open up blinked eyes, increase a smile, shave off pounds, clear pimples, and help out poor lighting. On the other hand, you can trust your light meter and with a few seconds of good direction, entice people to smile and take another shot if they blink. This is true for both people and inanimate objects; it is much faster to take a good picture than it is to fix a bad one on the computer.

A close-up photo such as Snow Girl requires careful makeup work. Do you do your own makeup?

When we started thinking about shoots like those in the Snow Girl series, we quickly realized the makeup required for a good shot was slightly out of our league. We found an amazing makeup artist here in Las Vegas named Liz Marhold. Any of our pictures you see with great makeup like Snow Girl, Mother Nature, Fire Girl, and others are representative of her professional work. She is even pictured in a few of our uploads practicing her craft. We discuss ideas and color themes a week or two prior to the shoot and let her do the rest. She amazes us every time; we have never been disappointed. My wife is now getting quite good at digital makeup and in the future we plan to try it on some of our shoots.

Click to view on Stockxpert

Spa imagery is a mainstay of microstock. How do you make your successful spa images stand out?

Vildan has a great eye for knowing what will look good and what people want that isn't already out there. I came to this realization one day when I was driving to a store here in Las Vegas and saw one of our pedicure pictures blown up to fit a ten-foot square storefront window. More than anything, this drove home the overarching principles of high quality and attention to detail. I doubt this picture would have made it to a store window with jagged toenails and dull colors. We try very hard to be original in our ideas and compositions. We pay close attention to every possible detail, from the color of flowers, towels, and candles to fixing the model's nails properly. We also try hard to ensure our work does not look the same as anyone else's work. Now we are finding that other submitters are copying our spa photos, so we even have to keep our new pictures different and original from our previous uploads.

Eating Healthy is one of your most praised and popular images. It also must have been more expensive than most of your work. How do you balance the cost of a shoot against its potential financial benefit?

For a picture like this the cost-benefit analysis is something better not thought about. For us, achieving the end result we are striving for is more important than the cost of the shoot. But to keep costs down, we make nearly all of our food items from scratch. Thankfully, everything tasted as good as it looked, giving us the chance to eat most of our investment.

We did this shoot for a few different reasons: first and foremost, just because we wanted to and it was fun, and second, to add some variety to our portfolio. We figured this would be one of those pictures that would draw potential buyers to our portfolio but be pretty unlikely to sell much. In microstock, getting people interested in our work and keeping them interested is a great accomplishment and something we are always working on. To our surprise, it also sells fairly well.

Click to view on Stockxpert

In addition to the food and spa shots, you create images that are perhaps a little more evocative and less straightforward than most on Stockxpert. How was Live Painting made?

We are always looking for new ideas and interesting ways to keep our work fresh for us and interesting for the viewer of our portfolio. This particular picture got its start while cleaning the garage. My wife encountered an old, empty frame and immediately started thinking of what good use it could be put to. Of course, a photo shoot was the first thing to pop into her mind. After coming up with the concept as a family, about a week later, we headed north from Las Vegas and turned off on a dirt road headed to nowhere in hopes of finding a good place to shoot; this is the place we found. The weather was just cloudy, cold, and dreary enough to make things look a bit ominous in the background, while at the same time bright enough for interesting shadows. To be honest, this picture worked because everything fell into place just right. It even made it to the cover of a novel, more proof that you never know where this journey will take you. The only thing we needed was some wind. Next time I will bring an inverter and a fan to create my own.

Click to view on Stockxpert

How much preparation was involved in the indoor studio shoot that resulted in Scent of Nature, among others?

This series of pictures really was a lot of work to pull off. It was a concept shoot to see how far we could go with turning ideas that are clear in your mind's eye into real scenes and photos. All of the flowers were alive, some in pots, some picked and bought just before the shoot. Most of the greenery came from our backyard. Much of it had to be picked within a few hours and some just a few minutes before the shoot to stay looking fresh. We bought fresh sod for the floor and used a mirror under the water lilies to emulate the look of a pond. Our miracle-working makeup artist did a great job of ignoring our frenzied activity to get her job done. This was an exhausting and rewarding experience for all of us, which made us all feel like we accomplished something quite positive in the end.

As a side note: one thing we discovered that you can't see is ladybugs are not very cooperative. We bought several hundred of them in a package, expecting them to walk around on the flowers or anything green. Amazingly enough, they all took off and flew around the studio in search of lights. Luckily, the ladybugs did have an attraction to several herbs, as seen in some close-ups posted a few days later. We also discovered that our daughter and any bugs, even cute ones, don't get along.

Click to view on Stockxpert

Has the current economic situation affected your microstock strategy for the coming months?

Absolutely not! If anything, the microstock business should be picking up in this bad economy. Economy-minded buyers out there in businessland should be extremely pleased to get high-quality photos for just a few dollars, and often even less. I don't know what it costs to hire a photographer and studio to take pictures of a model's feet in a bed of shiny rocks or a seemingly random arrangement of blueberries for your grocery store advertisement, but I am willing to bet it is much more than what we routinely make in the microstock biz. I am not complaining, just putting things in perspective; microstock photos are a great deal for the buyer in any economy! They are also a great deal for a home-based businessperson like me with no desire to work with individual customers and their demands or the pressures of meeting a deadline. In fact, November 2008 is shaping up to be my best month so far.

Can you give us a preview of your upcoming uploads?

My wife and I have been taking Photoshop and Illustrator classes at the local college here in Vegas. With the knowledge we are gaining, we plan to work to expand our horizons with vectors and more manipulated images in the near future. We will definitely still continue to produce artistic images as we have in the past because we immensely enjoy them and they bring us together as a family. Our next shoot will be of a three-month-old baby girl. We will also focus more on doing "microstock style" photos such as business and spa photos. I will be investing more in my equipment, like buying high-end strobes, for example. With the number of contributors joining the microstock business every day, equipment will make the difference for those of us who are nearly equal in our ability to create a good image.

To see more of Brian and Vildan Chase's work, visit their portfolio on the site.

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