Interviewed by Sammie Saxon
Born and raised in Columbus, Georgia, Ben Cope received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Columbus State University in ceramic sculpture and photography. After graduation, Ben relocated to the West Coast. He attended the Brooks Institute in California before working in Los Angeles as a lighting technician with Briese L.A. While at Briese, now B2Pro, Ben worked closely with high level fashion and celebrity photographers, including Steven Klein, Mark Seliger, Mark Abrahams and others. Eventually, Ben found his way to New York City—he continued his fashion photography work with Klein and Seliger. Ben’s work grew a following and Bob Dixon, owner and founder of 7 Artist Management, offered to represent him. Today, Ben is still with 7AM.
Currently, Ben lives and works in Downtown Los Angeles, shooting primarily commercial advertising and editorial fashion. He also shoots album packaging for many leading artists. Over the past few years, Ben has had the opportunity to work with huge artists like Chris Brown, Carly Rae Jepsen, Hilary Duff, Selena Gomez and Brandon Boyd.
In the past year, Ben has taken his eye for lighting and composition and turned it towards directing music videos and fashion films. He’s directed commercials for Sephora, RCA and Lifetime Television. His fashion videos have been featured on international platforms such as Schon! Magazine and CLIENT Magazine, both out of the United Kingdom.
You graduated from Columbus State University with a BFA in ceramic sculpture and photography. What made you decide to move to Los Angeles? I was just trying to get out of Georgia. I wanted to move to New York, but it really didn’t work out that way. I never really thought about going to the West Coast until a friend called and said they needed a roommate and I was like “Where and how much?” Next thing I knew I was driving across the country on my way to Oakland. I just kind of worked my way down the coast and fell into a job in Los Angeles. It was never really my plan, but now I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
How did you become interested in photography? Why did you decide to make it a career?
My dad gave me a Nikon FG when I was a kid, but I was more interested in reading the manual and learning how the aperture and shutter speeds worked together. I was really into the technical side. It wasn’t until college that I really got interested in it. I just wanted to live in the darkroom and print images. I didn’t really realize I liked photographing people until later on, but looking back I guess I always felt like I wanted to capture a moment, an expression.
As far as the career side goes, I guess that was just the natural progression. Working nonstop for other photographers you get used to the life. Living out of a suitcase. Being in other countries for weeks sometimes. Never getting to sleep. Constantly moving and always having to be on point. I sure as hell wasn’t going from that to a 9 to 5. Working that hard for others made me want it for myself.
What inspires you? I’m inspired to capture that moment that you can’t ask for. I like to see how people move and I don’t want to direct them. I want them to exist in front the lens. I’ll follow them and grab the moment when I see it. It’s like a dance. That movement and interaction is what inspires me.
From the looks of your portfolio, you mainly focus on fashion and editorial photography. What else have you been pursuing? I’m kind of a nerd when it comes to the technical side of photography. So now that I feel like I know how most of it works, I have turned to directing a bit. I’m learning how to transfer my lighting and mood into motion, as well as how to develop a narrative. Creating a still image or a fashion story seems like second nature now. But turning that into motion, having it make sense, having it cut together and be cohesive, that is something that isn’t as natural to me. So I am focusing a lot on that side of things these days. There are way more moving parts to motion. And it’s way more intriguing to me.
How would you describe your style? Natural maybe? Caught moments? I don’t know. I kind of have to wear a lot of different hats. When I am shooting editorial, I can play around or switch things up. I can play loose and let things happen. On commercial advertising sets with art directors and clients, you have to be precise. But you also have to keep that “play it loose” card in your back pocket because sometimes you are able to switch it up on commercial jobs. I guess whatever my style is will come out in either type of job, even though visually they look completely different. Maybe my style has more to do with the interaction.
You have worked for many major brands and shot a lot of celebrities and musicians. Can you tell us about one of your most memorable times shooting? That’s tough. I think the most memorable times come when traveling with my team. I was doing a large key art project in Durango, Mexico and had a 10-hour layover in Mexico City on the way back. My assistant and I just jumped in a taxi and went into town. We wandered around grabbing drinks at random bars and trying different foods around the city. Those to me are the most memorable times—getting to explore places as I travel. Scouting random locations around L.A. and learning more about my city.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done to get the shot? I jumped a guard rail at a national park out in the desert and climbed up on a massive boulder once with my models—don’t tell their agents—to get a shot of them on the edge of a huge drop off. I had a BTS video team following us and one of my cameras was on a tripod filming it. The wind was so strong it blew over the tripod and my camera ate shit. Nobody died, though, so I guess it was worth it. You don’t think about the things you do to get the shot sometimes until after. Hanging off scissor lifts or ladders. An assistant holding your belt so you don’t fall off.
Who would you like to work with most? I like working with musicians a lot. They are performers. Its fun to let them lose themselves and be expressive. Let them dance and move and flow with them. Recently, I was in Atlanta shooting a Lifetime TV ad for ‘The Rap Game.’ My legs were sore for a week after the shoot. Five young rappers all dancing and moving and rapping along to songs while I follow along and grab the moments. It’s a lot of fun. I love energetic shoots like that.
Can you tell us about an average photo shoot for you? I don’t think there is any such thing as an average shoot. They all kind of have a life of their own. It depends on the setting. If I am in the corner of a sound stage waiting on talent, or backstage at a show, [then] it’s all different. Being in a big studio like Milk or Siren has an energy to it. Being in my own studio is low key and chill. You never know how it’s going to be until you’re on set.
Coincidentally Columbus’s Maggie Laine (now a Victoria’s Secret Model) found herself in front of your camera in L.A. How did you make the connection that you were both from Columbus?
That was for one of my former clients, UNIF. They always liked finding new talent and mentioned they were flying this new girl in from Georgia. When we were on set she said where she was from and I was a little dumbfounded. It’s always funny to meet people from your hometown on the other side of the country.
What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned so far in your career? That nothing is ever for real until the check is signed. I’ve been up for so many jobs that could be career changing, or whatever, and you get your hopes up and [then] it goes to someone else. I’ve learned to not care anymore because its just the nature of the industry.
What is the best advice that you’ve ever received? Whether it be on art, photography or life in general… I always remember my dad telling me as a kid “Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise”. I think about that more as my career grows. Making sure I’m good is the most important thing. If I take care of myself then everything else will fall in line. There are a lot of things a person can get into in L.A., and I have been to my share of all night parties and clubs and fashion events and blah blah blah. But it’s always the same people doing the same things. So I’ve learned to take my dad’s advice and stay in most of the time so I am ready to walk on set and be confident in what I have to do.
How hard is it being a working photographer in L.A.? In the beginning it’s tough, especially now that everyone has a camera and thinks they are a photographer. I feel lucky to have made it as far as I have. If you put time into anything, stay diligent and constantly work to be better, eventually you’ll get to where you’re wanting to go.
If you had a chance to live a completely different life, what would you choose to do? I doubt I would change anything. I’m pretty happy with where I’m headed.
What’s on your gear list? (cameras, lenses, editing software etc) That would be a long list. My main camera is a Hasselblad H5X with a Phase One IQ250 digi back. My kit has an 80, 100, 120 and 150mm lens set. I mostly work in Capture One for digital capture and processing and finishing in Photoshop. I keep a pretty complete equipment package in my studio as well. I own a decent amount of grip and lighting modifiers so I can be ready to roll out to any job and I try to keep my equipment rentals to a minimum.
Within your photography do you prefer to work with natural light, artificial light, or both?
I like both. I don’t like to manipulate natural light when I am shooting on location generally. I like to work in the environment and see what the light is doing and use it to my benefit. I also love lighting in studio and trying different things. It’s always fun to experiment with weird sources and see what they do. I’m always trying to rig up some weird lighting source or wire some lights together to see what I get. I feel comfortable in either situation, natural light on location or in studio with different lighting setups. Most of the time I like to keep it simple though. Let the image speak for itself without overthinking the light. I’m always a fan of a basic medium white Profoto umbrella collapsed so it doesn’t spread too much. That or a Westcott para umbrella with diffusion.
How was it working with and photographing the one and only Snoop Dog? All 45 seconds of my time shooting Snoop was interesting. I didn’t really have the time to think about it. In high pressure situations like that you just have to act and get the shot. He came off exactly as who you would imagine he would be. After the shoot I spoke with him for a minute and he seemed like a genuinely nice guy. It was definitely a good experience.
Any words of wisdom to offer anyone just getting into photography? Work your ass off because nothing will be handed to you. Just like a former photographer I used to assist would say, “You are only as good as your last job.”