A lot of photographers struggle to find their ideal niche in photography, but for Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-based John Sterling Ruth (johnsterlingruth.com), being a commercial studio owner has been his goal almost since day one. Ruth, who began his career more than 25 years ago, got his first introduction to commercial shooting while working his way through school and has never really looked back. “While attending college in Philadelphia, I worked various jobs. One was assisting a photographer by the name of Joseph Mulligan,” says Ruth. “I learned a lot during that time, but felt I needed to start my own studio soon after graduation. Joe was the only photographer I worked with prior to opening my own studio.”
Ruth opened his first studio October 1988 in a warehouse in Allentown, Pennsylvania and then moved to a larger one in 1995. “I purchased my current property in Bethlehem and converted a 200-year-old barn into my 4,000 square-foot studio,” he says. “I have since made various renovations throughout the years, especially when I got into shooting motion four years ago, and needed an editing room.”
Among Ruth’s favorite photographic specialties is almost anything automotive—from sports cars rolling across the open desert to massive earth movers churning across construction sites. (The first floor of his studio was renovated to showcase one of Ruth’s other life passions: his motorcycle collection—see the photo below.) He also regularly shoots everything from classic guitars to travel destinations to food still life and medical products. Included among his very impressive list of clients are Olympus America Inc., Mack Trucks, Mitsubisi Fuso, Martin Guitar, Coca Cola, Crayola, Sprout, Johnson & Johnson, Master Card and Comcast—to name just a few. He is also a winner of the American Advertising Federation’s ADDY® award—among the most prestigious awards in advertising.
Like most commercial photographers Ruth has struggled through lean years and has had to build his client list one assignment at a time. “The early years were tough financially. Coming back to my home area after college gave me great family and friend support to open my first studio,” he says. “However, I was very young and half the age of most of my competition. At the time it was a conservative area and it took some time for the art directors to give me chance. It was difficult to break the relationships everyone had.” Within a few years, however, he started to build his own strong client relationships and today still has many of those first clients.
Ruth, an Olympus Visionary, recently spoke with writer Jeff Wignall about what it takes to keep a commercial studio moving forward, about his passion for a variety of different subjects and his recent expansion into video.
PPD: Based on your website, you seem to be the ultimate generalist. Do you like having a variety of assignments or is that something you do out of necessity?
JSR: I came out of college with a still life/product portfolio. Throughout the years I added people, lifestyle, food, automotive and now motion to my arsenal. I would have to say that I like having a variety of assignments. Every day is different and has its separate and different challenges. One day we can be on location shooting lifestyle in Puerto Rico, then on to shooting automotive in the California desert and then I’m back to the studio shooting products. It keeps it fresh and helps me mentally so I can dive into every project giving 100 percent.
PPD: Is there a particular type of shot or assignment that you enjoy the most?
JSR: I really love all assignments, but I would have to say shooting automotive subjects gives me the most exhilaration. All aspects of the auto shoots are exciting, from the weeks of pre-production, rigging and then the actual car-to-car shooting. Its constant problem solving, something I really enjoy.
PPD: What is the toughest part of running a commercial photography business these days?
JSR: Commercial studios have many tough aspects to overcome. I believe being a good business man is as important as being a good photographer. Knowing when and where to spend money on promotion, when to invest in a new piece of equipment, dealing with client relations and, of course, keeping your images fresh and current. Commercial photography is directly related with the economy. When the economy is flourishing and moving upward, the business is moving forward. When the economy struggles, companies’ marketing dollars get slashed and that has a direct impact on my budgets. This is when I have to be smart businessman and ride the wave.
PPD: Is most of your work done in the studio or on location?
JSR: At this point, I would say I shoot 50 percent in studio and 50 percent on location. As my career has taken me to larger and more global clients, we need to travel to locations on a more regular basis.
PPD: When you’re shooting on location, doing things like the auto shoots, are you working alone or do you bring a team with you?
JSR: I always have a crew with me. Erik, who has worked with me for about 25 years, is always with me. At that point it really depends on the shoot. My still shoots max out at about 20 people on set. This would include all my stylists, assistants and managers that are needed to get whatever is needed to produce the final imagery. I try and keep my crews small. I would rather have a few people on my crew who are the best at their trade.
PPD: Were you an early convert to Olympus Mirrorless cameras?
JSR: I have been shooting with Olympus cameras for the past 12 years. I started shooting with the Mirrorless system as soon as they were released.
PPD: What Olympus cameras do you work with now?
JSR: I currently shoot with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and E-M5 Mark II.
PPD: Are you using them for still life work in the studio as well?
JSR: I do use the Olympus camera for studio work. The Olympus 40 MP High Resolution Shot works well for still life. That in combination with the sharp, well-constructed lens lineup helps render beautiful images.
PPD: Your location shots include a lot of extreme wide-angle shots. What lenses are you using for those shots?
JSR: My favorite wide angle lenses would be the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO, Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO and the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 8mm f/1.8 Fisheye PRO and the Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 12mm f/2.0.
PPD: Do you have a favorite wide-angle lens?
JSR: I love shooting with primes but if I had to carry one wide with me, it would have to be the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO. The M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO is also always on my camera. Great all around lens.
PPD: Your automotive “rolling” shots show cars and trucks in motion with perfectly sharp subjects and beautifully blurred backgrounds. Are those shots “real” or are you creating the effects in editing?
JSR: In all of my photography I try to do everything in camera as much as possible. Of course, retouching is now such a useful tool, but coming from the film days, I get great enjoyment in keeping the retouching to a minimum.
Regarding the rolling shots in my auto work, I achieve this in two different ways. In all instances the blurring is real. When we can get the vehicle moving at a decent speed I will shoot car-to-car. This all depends on the locations and the roads we choose to shoot on. The other technique involves rigging. Through various techniques we build and attach a rig to the subject vehicle in which the camera is mounted. Using this technique you do see rigging and it does require retouching the rig out of the final image. This allows you to achieve real blurs in areas that are difficult to achieve the fast moving feel. Again, all the blurs are real.
Both situations can become complicated. We need to get permits well in advance, shut the roads down and have police or traffic control companies get involved to control the traffic.
PPD: Many of the “rolling” shots appear to be made from other vehicles. Is that how they are made?
JSR: As I said, car-to-car is one way I can achieve our blurring road shots. This does involve a bit more of orchestration between me, my driver, the picture vehicle and traffic control or the police. There is also the danger factor with car-to-car shooting. I am strapped in, however, hanging out of the vehicle with the camera scraping the ground at high speeds creates complexity but also adds to the excitement. It is very important to have someone very capable not only driving the subject vehicle but to be driving the camera car, as well. You want that driver to be able to handle that vehicle under any circumstances.
PPD: Is there a significant difference between shooting big trucks as opposed to other automotive subjects?
JSR: Shooting big trucks is the same as shooting a car. Just everything is a much larger scale, which adds to the complexity. The client is looking to show the truck in different applications in order to give the potential buyer the best possible visual experience. This can range from a static beauty shot, to a running shot in the dirt making it look as tough as possible.
PPD: Many of the road photos are shot out West. How do you scout locations and how much time do you spend choosing them?
JSR: Yes, I Iike to shoot out West. The West offers really great light, open roads and many location options.
We start with the conceptual stage with the ad agency or company. What story are we trying to tell? This will help us determine what scenery is needed. I have multiple location scouts I work with around the country. Once we determine what is needed, I contact my location scout and we start the process. Pre-production is a very important time during the production. Good locations, good preparation equals a successful shoot. If time permits I will tech scout prior to permitting.
PPD: What exactly does the “tech scout” work entail?
JRS: Tech scout is when I arrive at the chosen location prior to the shoot day. This can range from a month in advance to the day before. This is when we will pick out our angles, especially for the first morning shot and also deal with any problems that might be on the location. I always want to iron out all possible issues before the shoot day so we can concentrate on creating the imagery.
I just returned from a shoot in Vegas and I had 50 days for pre-production. That gave us plenty of time for my scout to give me and my client many options to choose from. It really varies on how long we have to find and secure our locations. I would say anywhere from two to eight weeks.
PPD: You seem to work a lot on location at the edges or end of the day. The lighting is beautiful, but you have such a short time to work, how do you manage those shots?
JSR: It is all in the planning. The light before the sun comes up and just after it sets is golden. The morning is the difficult set up. You are getting ready in the dark. The sun comes up fast so you need to be ready. This is where a tech scout helps, so you know where your first shot/angle will be. Of course when the sun just comes up over the horizon, this gives you other opportunities. We shoot all day. Of course when the sun is high it is not as flattering, so we either go in to open shade or shoot interiors.
PPD: Tell me about the Route 66 series. Was that done as a self assignment or for a client?
JSR: The Route 66 shoot was for an Olympus campaign. It was a great shoot. It was shot in Amboy, California at Roy’s Cafe on Route 66. I was there a few years prior doing a truck shoot so I was aware of the spot.I was pleasantly surprised when I sent my scout out we found that they did some work on renovating the old motel. Although the rooms are abandoned, it had some fresh paint on the outside.
The goal of this shoot was to shoot every lens that Olympus had in its lineup. When working on the concept and listening to the needs of the client, I was able to combine some of my favorite subjects: people (lifestyle shooting), cars and west coast/desert. I’m huge fan of autos and motorcycles. I brought the vintage machines from my LA supplier. Amboy is in the middle of nowhere. It was somewhat of a logistical nightmare. But the location was worth it and rendered a nice series for Olympus.
PPD: Were you shooting that series for multiple days or was it a single day?
JSR: I arrived one-and-a-half days prior to the shoot to get everything ready. The shoot itself was for two days. We exited the next afternoon after the transporters picked up the last of my picture cars.
PPD: Your outdoor people shots seem to have a nice balance of sunlight and flash. Are you using on-camera flash?
JSR: I actually never use flash on my subjects outside. When shooting people the only fill light I use is a bounce card. I feel this gives you the most natural feeling.
PPD: Let’s talk about your still life work. You’ve done a lot of work for Martin Guitars. Are you also a musician?
JSR: Yes, Martin Guitars has been a great client of mine for over 25 years. They really have become a big part of the studio. Actually before I decided to go off to college for photography, my dreams were to become a rock star. I was a drummer for many years and then was a lead singer prior to college. For some reason at the age of 18 I decided that wasn't the life for me. Being able to shoot the guitars and shoot the musicians that play these beautiful instruments, keeps me close to the music industry. Only behind the scenes, just how I like it.
PPD: Do you art direct the guitar shots yourself or are you following layouts?
JSR: In most cases I direct the shots myself. Once in a while I need to follow a certain layout so I will work with an art director. Thankfully Martin trusts me with my decisions. I just finished putting together a documentary for Martin Guitar, Ballad of the Dreadnought, so check that out in the coming months.
PPD: How is the market these days for a commercial generalist?
JSR: Things have been pretty good. After 28 years I have seen some ups and downs in the market. Currently it’s been pretty stable for the last few years. But you constantly have to be reinventing yourself and never become stagnant.
PPD: Like a lot of photographers you’ve recently begun expanding into video shooting and production, how big a part of your business has that become?
JSR: Video has become a growing part of the studio. I would say in four years it has grown to 30-40% of the business. Initially I thought it would only be used as an addition on my still shoots, which we do often, giving my clients a video component of the still production. But it has now moved into complete video production. Everything from shooting, editing, music, VO recording and color grading.
PPD: Do you have any advice for young photographers that want to take that route?
JSR: If you think you are going to have a 40 hour work week don't bother getting into this kind of photography. It’s a 24/7 commitment. Very demanding but equally rewarding. Make sure you work just as hard on your business skills as much as you do on photography skills. Never burn a bridge. You never know when it could come back to haunt you. And last, you must give every assignment 100-percent.