This week’s Questions with a Pro features Tracy Boulian and David Ahntholz who make up Tracy + David Stills and Motion.
Tracy + David Stills and Motion is a husband and wife photography and motion duo, based in Southern California. Both Tracy and David are former news photojournalists, who’ve pivoted into shooting lifestyle imagery for advertising and commercial clients, but continue to employ many of the skills they gained working as photojournalists. Their work is captivating, and here they outline the photo story aspect of their work, how they believe they benefit from their unique business arrangement, and how they approach projects as a team.
We asked: How did you decide to go into business full-time with your spouse? Please describe the dynamic of this working and personal life relationship.
Tracy and David said: We’re former news photojournalists who left our staff photography positions at newspapers about 8 years ago, and moved to Southern California to begin freelancing. We started out working separately for the first year here, taking editorial and commercial freelance jobs, but found that we were often working together in some capacity on our projects – often producing or planning them together, helping each other edit, or occasionally coming along with the other person on a shoot if it made sense. We’ve always had a very similar style to our work and we realized very quickly that we really enjoyed working together. We also completely trusted each other and knew we shared a similar work ethic, that we each had great strengths that complemented one another well, and that we could merge these strengths and share them with our clients to do even better work together. As we also started evolving into doing more video and motion about 7 years ago, and we started to capture both video and stills on the same set, we began feeling that it was an asset as well for the two of us to join forces, as one of us could direct and one could be the DP on a project (in addition to us both shooting stills), which kept everything very consistent.
Many people often say they couldn’t imagine working full time with their spouse, but now about 7 years into working together, we really couldn’t imagine doing this any other way. Our work is incredibly important to us, and we do find that creating a life/work balance is always a challenge – we pour so much into our work, that we’re often still thinking, talking about, and working on our projects when we’re technically supposed to be off. We do make sure we have a lot of activities and hobbies we like to do together outside of work as well, which really helps keep us connected personally so we aren’t simply business partners. We’re really fortunate that we can spend so much of our time together, and still love being with each other.
We asked: Do you find that you both approach projects in the same way? If so, do you find this to be beneficial to your business?
Tracy and David said: As we’re a team, people we’ve just met are often curious how we work together on set. They wonder if just one of us is the photographer/director, or if one is the photographer, and one is the director, but we are both equally experienced and work together to shoot and direct stories for our clients. We bring our clients two collaborators, two sets of eyes, potentially more image possibilities from a situation, and also consistency of vision across both stills and motion. Depending on the project, sometimes we are both shooting the same situation at the same time from different angles or lenses, sometimes one of us is shooting, with the other directing (and we usually pass the camera back and forth in this situation so both of us take turns shooting), sometimes we both shoot in different locations at the same time if the timeline is extremely tight, and sometimes one of us is focused on motion, while the other is focused on stills on the same set. We are very flexible with this and work in the way that best suits the client and the project. We find that this works extremely well for our business, and our clients love our team approach.
We also have a lot of meetings to discuss how best to approach projects, and love that we can brainstorm and talk out our ideas together. We’re usually on the same wavelength, and we’re always trying to come up with new and better ways to do things, and sometimes one of us will come up with something the other hadn’t thought of, and we’ll both run with that idea.
We asked: As a duo, how do you decide which projects to pursue? Do you each have your own personal work, or are all projects a combined effort?
Tracy and David said: We’re inspired by so many things around us, from beautiful places we’ve visited, to interesting people and places we’ve met and seen, to other photographers’ and artists’ work we’ve found and love. We’re always looking for new ways to tell stories, and are constantly working on self-assigned projects to stay inspired and to push ourselves to explore new directions in our work. We are former news photojournalists and spent years searching for interesting people and stories in our communities, so brainstorming and working on new project ideas is something that is second nature to us. We have so many ideas and we always wish there were just a few more hours in the day so we could pursue even more projects.
We have a very long list of project ideas that grows on a weekly basis, and at least one or more projects is always in process. We take time every few weeks to discuss new ideas and priorities, and then begin pursuing the projects together. Our personal projects are always a combined effort, and most often we are drawn to similar projects. When deciding what to pursue, we work to select ideas that we are both excited about before moving forward. We find that by having two sets of eyes and two minds working through ideas and projects, we can come up with something greater than what we’d do individually.
We asked: What skills from your past positions as photojournalists do you find yourselves utilizing in your current positions?
Tracy and David said: We left the newspaper photojournalism world about 8 years ago. While we love what we do now and haven’t looked back, we’ve always felt that our work as photojournalists was the best boot camp, where we problem solved every day, learned to constantly adapt and switch directions, and learned to work with people from all different walks of life. We became extremely adept at working in a fast-paced, ever-changing environment, thinking quickly, staying calm in stressful situations, and creating large libraries of images under seemingly impossible deadlines. These skills have been invaluable in our commercial work today. We also began working with motion when we were photojournalists, and fully embraced this way of thinking and seeing about 7 years ago. We continue to grow and learn as much as we can through experimentation, self-assigned projects and testing, and professional development and education, in order to work with clients to tell fresh, engaging stories. We are often told how easily we fit into situations and how comfortable we make people feel (probably something we learned from our photojournalism days), so that opens the door to a wide variety of interesting and unique situations. One of the things we’ve always loved about photography is how our cameras have opened so many doors for us – we’ve met so many interesting people, learned about and seen so many unique things, and have gained access to explore places that we otherwise wouldn’t know about.
We asked: Please describe the photo stories you produce. Why did you begin producing these photo stories?
Tracy and David said: We photograph a broad range of stories, but focus on creating images and stories that feel real. In regards to personal projects, we’ve pursued so many projects and stories in the past couple of years, from the creation of new active lifestyle imagery in Hawaii, to stories about a teenager getting her first car, to summer camp, to high school football. In general, we work to find an emotional hook in our stories – something that we can visually and creatively explore, that we can identify with and we think others will connect with.
We love using these projects to experiment and challenge ourselves to see and think differently, in order to constantly grow in our work, and then we take these new experiences and ideas and apply them to our work for our clients, to help them tell the best possible stories for their brands.