Even though Thom Milkovic’s mother and grandfather were photographers, and he had a love for it himself, he wasn’t much interested in studying the craft formally. Originally from upstate New York, he took photography classes in the SUNY system, but ultimately left. “I rebelled during that stage,” he says. “I needed something a little bit more instant. The gratification just wasn’t there, at least back in those times.”
An accomplished photographer with a variety of Web sites showcasing different genres of work, Milkovic has built a team capable of executing work in areas both beyond and complimentary to photography, including interactive design, brand development, and creative direction. Photography, however, has been his primary creative outlet, and one wonders what his former Photography professors would say if they connected Milkovic’s accomplished work with their former student whom they didn’t inspire quickly enough.
Interestingly, technology helped push the family practice back into his hands. Originally wanting to be a National Geographic photographer, Milkovic feels photography is in his blood, “but I just couldn’t get by the whole technicality of the camera itself,” he explains. “Even though I was exposed to that, I just couldn’t grasp it, so photography’s been an on?and?off, love?hate relationship I’ve had for a number of years until it turned digital. For whatever reason, my brain and what I do works far better with digital than with a Canon analog.”
Crediting the emergence of good DSLRs from Nikon as both inspirational and practical to his shooting style, Milkovic began building a collection of gear. As his equipment got better, he got more serious about his art. He also started blending interactive work with his photography, which, in turn, fed his passion for creating stronger photography.
With his years of client service experience, Milkovic and his team have three distinct photography brands and a technology brand addressing the undeniable fact large advertising agencies are dying. “It’s not going to be as big and as monstrous a force that used to exist many years ago,” he says. “Things are going to become smaller and condensed and so forth.” Envisioning smaller boutique agencies which “get it,” Milkovic has positioned himself for the future. He sees photographers who can contribute to a larger concept as being infinitely more valuable than a slow-moving army that is the ad agency of Madison Avenue past.
Another problem Milkovic sees in the old agency model is multi-talented creatives who fall into a certain niche, with their superiors and colleagues never allowing them to be utilized outside that niche. This is a sorry practice, he feels. “I know a lot of photographers who are extremely smart,” he says. “As a matter of fact, I know photographers who are programmers, photographers who are writers and other talents and so forth. I think photography’s just one mechanism to communicate. Blending that in with a smaller design agency or blending it in with being a part of that entire creative process—I think we’re going to see that more and more moving forward. “I think photographers are going to have to be a little bit more—this is just my opinion, of course—a little bit more involved with the creative process, and have a say so and contribute into shaping the message that should go out. They should really be a part of it a little bit deeper than they are today.”
Milkovic has no illusions about the current marketplace for photographers. With his long professional multi-discipline experience, he feels he has a bit of an advantage over photographers solely concentrating on photography. “I’m trying to use photography as a core messaging system to get a story across, and then all the other technologies support that,” he says.
Technology now enables photographers to save the day, or the shot, as it were. “I do not know how many times I messed up a shot but I could easily fix it because I shot it in RAW,” Milkovic explains. “I can go into postproduction and in a few minutes I got it all fixed. With Photoshop, if you know what you are doing, you can totally change the photo and the shape of it. You can construct it to be whatever it is you want it to be.”
The ultimate message, though, is the story the client wants to tell, and Milkovic doesn’t lose sight of this golden rule. “It is about the story, across the board, between all the medias,” he says. “How it communicates, what it wants to communicate, and I feel photography plays such an important role moving forward because it’s that old saying, ‘a picture is a thousand words.’”
The story can be told in multiple formats, of course. Weighing in on the difference between still photography and video, Milkovic has formed his own analysis. “For us, moving a thousand miles per hour every single day ourselves, getting a glimpse of a photo is far more effective in a commercial in an advertising space than a video would be on the Web. Because we subliminally capture that story within our mind as we see that, we might get it so long as the story comes across effectively, and is shaped properly in that picture. Where a picture takes three seconds to really, fully understand it because it’s really more of a metaphor, versus a video which is very popular, I’d say, these days on the Web. It takes about 30 seconds for you to get it, maybe 10, 15, but photography’s still faster. The story you can tell in a shot. I guess that’s also why on the digital end of things, the post?work and all that other kind of stuff that we do, we love shaping the picture. It’s a different type of photography these days. In my mind and in my team’s mind, it’s more about telling the story.”
With a mother who was a wedding photographer, Milkovic never thought he would attempt weddings himself. Technology has provided a new lease on the old practice, and has enabled him a unique approach, now copied by many other shooters. “If you look at a wedding shot by shot for all the usual quality issues, they’re properly exposed, they’re done well, but it’s how it’s all pieced together at the very end of it: the wedding album itself, the online experience, the interactive experience we’re providing,” he says. “We’re one of the first photographers delivering a fully interactive Web site to our brides and grooms which allow them to see their experience differently. We take a portrait of them and their portrait is actually moving, even though it’s a still image, we’re applying interactive elements, such as motions on the screen. We’re making the pictures somewhat come alive. You feel like there’s motion and there’s music and there’s an experience almost as if you’ve popped a DVD into your DVD player, and it’s all coming up online now. They can share that with all their family.”
Milkovic combines an almost documentary film approach to this genre of his photography, counting on a compelling emotional connection to once again unfold the experience of the wedding before his clients and all who took part in the wedding. The result has been an overwhelmingly positive response from clients and potential clients.
Arming his studio with a large amount of gear, Milkovic shoots a Nikon D700, a Nikon D3S and a Canon EOS 5D Mark II. For certain product shots, he sometimes rents a Nikon D3X. Although the majority of their stills and video are shot with Nikon and Canon gear, the studio will rent a Phase One or Hasselblad the rare times those are needed. As always, the job and story he’s trying to tell dictates what gear he brings to the project.
Milkovic regularly uses six PocketWizard Plus II units. “We clip them on the strobes and use the directly on Speedlights, as well,” he says. “I love PocketWizards. I can rave about them all day, but they do one thing and they do it very well.”
Profoto plays a prominent role across the different genres of photography and storytelling Milkovic and his team create. They typically use two Profoto Acute2 1200 Generators, up to four Acute2 heads, a Profoto Softbox 3 foot Octa, a Profoto Softbox 4×6 foot, a Profoto Softbox 2×2 foot, and a Profoto StripLight Small. “Regarding the Profotos, we use them for our high-end projects and when we don’t want to spend time in post,” Milkovic explains. “The Acute2 system has been pulled out on many shoots to date, but I’ve been using D1 500 Air’s more often because they’re lighter and more compact. Overall, the most obvious difference Profoto offers is the flash cycle speed, and the color temperature accuracy is perfect every time. No more futzing around in Lightroom to match exposure and white balance from shot to shot. The Profotos have always given us reliable and consistent light, hands down.”
With his emphasis on concept and storytelling, Milkovic and team stand poised to satisfy clients for many years to come. His attention to detail and quality make him a photographer worth following. Explore Milkovic’s sites below for insight into what storytelling in photography is all about.
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