When you begin to explore and understand the physics of photography, it’s a wonder you don’t hear about more engineers who are avid photographers. The end result of the practice of photography is art, but the practicality of the technology is all about science and engineering. Then we have Kenneth P. Volpe, who straddles those two disciplines to create impressive photography.
Volpe, a native of Northern New Jersey, has a Bachelor of Engineering degree and a Master of Engineering degree from Stevens Institute of Technology. A short talk with him reveals he knows what’s going on inside a camera, but that doesn’t mean he can’t create art with one. He actually reads the instruction booklets which come with photography gear, and he reads them closely.
“I think the inherent desire to learn a little bit more about the products I use has helped me over the years because it’s allowed me to use all facets of the products,” he explains. “Getting into tethering before tethering was commonplace; using all the advanced functions of the various gear is kind of cool. It allows you to be more creative and push the limits as compared to the average Joe, I guess.”
With photography as his hobby throughout childhood, he first shot with an Instamatic, and worked his way up to a 35mm film camera. He eventually headed to Stevens Institute of Technology for engineering, and later worked for three different engineering firms. Leaving the corporate ladder behind to start his own firm in the early ’90s, the business is still going today.
When he first started school, Volpe was an architectural major. “I have a lot of creative drawing background, so proportions and fluidity of an image, of a scene—that was all somewhat inherent in my abilities,” he says. “When I would pick up a camera and frame a picture, the proportion and the layout I would see through the viewfinder was second nature to me. It just made that easy. I took that innate sense and ran with it. I created some personal works.”
As Volpe’s hobby grew more serious, he found himself relying on his training as an engineer. His photographic series entitled “Rope Tricks” involves creativity and engineering. “In that series especially, light and precision management are employed everywhere,” he says. His site further states, “The strict attention to light and its use form the basis of all my photography work.”
Six years ago, his interest in photography had him heavily involved in many different online forums. He posted his photos, and feedback was favorable. Volpe’s friends and business associates urged him to charge for his photography. Soon, a new business to support his growing hobby was born: Transposure.
As creativity and a passion for fine art grew in Volpe, he stretched out via books and the Internet to educate himself on aspects of photography which intrigued him. Considering it a turning point in his development, Volpe explains, “I knew I had to move into studio gear and not just rely on camera in hand. At first, I got a low-line brand of studio light and quickly found they weren’t living up to my needs in terms of pushing the envelope with certain creative aspects I wanted to achieve. At that point, I decided—which was about the same time I founded the company—I really have to get serious about this. That’s when I looked on the market to see what is the best of the best. In my opinion, Profoto rose to the top of the heap. Little by little, I acquired quite a bit of Profoto gear. It has never failed me and I swear by it. I don’t mean to sound like an advertising agent, but it is the truth. I believe in getting the best tools available to me and using them to the fullest potential. When I saw what they were capable of, compared to the rest of the lot, it was a no-brainer.”
Initially, all the work Transposure started to get was editorial, with ninety percent on location. Without a controlled studio environment, he began to shape his gear to fit his location-based work. “I needed a portable setup. I needed reliability. The real passion I have is for capturing an image that tells a specific story about a specific subject. That’s very different from other aspects of photography. For instance, the three aspects of photography I am involved with in my business are editorial, commercial, and wedding photography. That is the interesting paradox. The commercial and editorial photography require a lot of planning, a specific need, and a specific final image, whereas wedding photography is more of a reactionary industry. It is a complete dichotomy. In one, you do all of your planning in order to get to the final time, where you have the final shoot. All of the pieces of the puzzle come together, and you finally get that click of that last image, which is the workable image. Whereas with a wedding, it is very reactionary. You can try to plan, you do some planning, but it doesn’t follow the same rules clearly as commercial and editorial.”
When pressed as to which type of photography he prefers, again his engineering background comes into play. “Without question, commercial and editorial,” he quickly answers. “I guess that goes back to my engineering background of doing all the research, getting all the knowledge, and then getting up a specific job or project.” The controlled photo shoot is preferable to the chaos of a wedding for this photographer.
Volpe is able to plan ahead with wedding locations and client expectations to make things run more smoothly. “I’ve tried to take some of the reactionary aspects out of weddings, like versing yourself in the location, understanding the client’s needs in advance so you can eliminate a number of surprises,” he says. “It helps. It helps quite a bit, actually, but it still doesn’t compare to the commercial end.”
Regardless of what kind of photography job Volpe is taking on, there are common denominators. “Knowing the basics—knowing the nature of light and knowing how to use the various modifiers to get the results you’re looking for—that’s the name of the game,” he says. “Whether you’re planning the shoot in advance and shooting a commercial or editorial shoot with controlled conditions, or whether you are shooting in a wedding environment, you have to decide what kind of light you’re going to use, whether that’s your studio lights on location or whether you’re going to use natural light or whatever. It’s understanding how that light’s going to fall on your subject and what kind of drama it’s going to create. Drama is a very important aspect in photography.”
Both the commercial and wedding sides of his business are growing at this moment, but Volpe sees the commercial aspect of his trade ramping up. He also sees himself running a few workshops in 2012, which was something he previously did, but has put on hold recently.
Being an engineer, it’s no surprise Volpe loves hardware and discussing all aspects of it. He’s knowledgable and enthusiastic when detailing what he uses across a spectrum of manufacturers. His cameras are a Canon 1Ds Mark III, with a 1Ds Mark II as backup. His lenses are Canon, with his collection running from a 17mm tilt shift all the way up to 600mm. He’s currently eyeing a Canon EOS-1D X and, for medium format, the Mamiya 645 system, which he will be testing and deciding upon a purchase this year.
His tripod is a Gitzo, and a Sekonic L-358 is his main light meter. “I used to have an older, bigger one, but it was really too cumbersome, and I never used the spot meter on that,” Volpe says. “I got rid of it and got the 358, which is much more manageable size-wise. Then I even got the L-308 just for quick, in-my-pocket type use.”
His lighting gear is Profoto. “The equipment I use is a D4 for most everything in the studio. Also, the D1, which I use both in the studio and on location, with a BatPac and a plethora of the modifiers of all sorts. I have completely endorsed the Profoto Air. I use that in both the Air Remote on the camera as well as the studio software on the laptop.”
Volpe’s wedding work looks like professional editorial shoots for any top magazine. To imagine this engineer’s brain quickly adapting to spontaneous movement of wedding guests is a contradiction in terms, but that’s what seems to happen. Across all subject matter, his exposures are richly saturated, and his compositions are compelling. From automotive shots to product photography to architectural documentation, Volpe presents clients with ultra-clean images they are looking for. They will never think about the science and engineering which went into every frame. Neither will the man who took them. He already knows how all that stuff works. He’s just looking for the right drama.
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