Quantrell Colbert used to be one of the best assistants in Atlanta. Now he’s one of the busiest photographers. Shooting a variety of editorial and film work, Quantrell (or Q as he’s known) has dove head first into the blossoming Georgia film industry. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions about his path, his choices and the importance of continuously working on your book.
Tell me a little bit about how you got started in photography
My father put a camera in my hands and it just kept rolling with me. I always had a liking to photography. I kept taking these photography classes and it came to a point, you know what, I’ll major in photography. I had taken all the courses and I was like, well, you gotta do something. That’s where I came from.
Are you originally from Atlanta?
I’m from Enid, Oklahoma. I went to the University of Central Oklahoma. After college, I got my book done, and I felt like I did not have what I needed to get out on my own. Their program there was geared more toward photojournalism and that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to shoot high end imagery. My book consisted of still life and people. By the time I graduated I was like, “What am I gonna do?” I could have gone and worked for the newspapers but photojournalism wasn’t for me. So I started to apply for different grad schools. I applied for RIT, Brooks Institute of Photography, I think Hallmark. And then I got a call from The Portfolio Center. That was the first notice I got and then I decided right then and there I was moving to Atlanta, Georgia and that was it. I got out of there. I mean I was gone.
So you took the first offer and ran with it?
Yes. When I got here, at the time, Ray Ellis was the instructor at Portfolio Center. I met with him and he sat down with me and looked at my work and, I mean exact words, he said, “Why do you want to come to school here?” And I was like, I think I need more training. I’m not exactly sure what I should or where I should go. He told me he had two options for me: “You can come to school here and waste another $50,000 dollars or you can get out and start assisting.” And I had no idea what assisting was because you really don’t have that in Oklahoma. It’s not a big photography state. It’s not like you’re in LA or Miami or New York or Chicago or Atlanta. So I said to myself, I have all these students loans and I don’t want to take out any more money. You know what, I’m just going to work for a few years. I had just moved here and I didn’t know anybody.
You moved and jumped right into assisting?
Not in the begining. I moved here in ’95 and I worked at Crown Camera Travel and then I got a job at E-6 Lab. At that time in 1996, the Olympics had just come through and film was still in. They were just touching on digital photography. E-6 was the spot where all the big photographers in Atlanta came to have their film developed and I was one of the techs there. Working there and having all the big guys coming in.
I’d been at E-6 for about three years and I knew it was not what I wanted to be doing. Yes, I was still shooting these little peon things for myself, but was I stepping up? So I got my book together and I went out banging on doors saying, “My name is Quantrell Colbert and I’d like to assist you.” I would call these guys every Saturday and leave a message on their answering machine. I wouldn’t call during the week but I’d always blow them up on the weekend. So on Monday they would come in and get my message. Finally the calls started coming in. The first major person who took me under his wing was Ernest Washington. I started working with a lot of the big photographers here and became a member of APA. By my fifth or sixth year assisting I was pretty much in high demand, one of the top two or three assistants here in town. I never had a point where I was slow. I was consistently busy.
I worked with Jeff Von Hoene for three years and during that time I was always working on my book. One day he told me, “Dude, you have access to the studio, but I never see you here using it.” And that’s what I really liked about Jeff was he really inspired me to shoot. He gave me a key to the place and man, I just shot and shot. I’d be in there every weekend with friends or whoever would let me take their portrait.
When did you realize it was time to move on?
I’ve always known in my heart that I wanted bigger and better things. I’ve never been complacent in my life. I always saw myself as going up and up and up. It came to a point where I was like, I don’t want to pick up equipment anymore. I don’t want to work for somebody else. And it had nothing to do with the photographers, with Ernest or Jeff or any of those guys. You just reach that point where you ask yourself, “Am I going to continue to be a squire or am I going to step out?”
That’s what I’ve always told the other assistants. When you’re assisting, you need to make sure you are working on your book.
When that point to move on came, I had my book ready, I been using Adbase, which I still use today, I’d been sending out promos left and right. Did I get a response from anybody? No, no response whatsoever. But I was prepared.
I started to receive little jobs here and there. That grew more and more and finally I had to stop assisting.
I know you do a fair amount of unit photography.
Yeah…right place, right time, and favor from the Lord. A friend of mine, Alfeo Dixon, approached me to do a gallery for him, a movie called Daddy’s Little Girls, which was a Tyler Perry movie. He brought me on set and I was assisting him on this gallery shoot, which was just on white paper. I was like, “This is cool, you’ve got all these celebrities and stars on set, it’s a really big production,” but I still didn’t know anything about this unit stuff. At that time, Alfeo wanted to move from unit stills to camera operator and in the union you can’t do both. He asked what I thought about doing unit and the first thing out of my mouth was, “How much does it pay?” —- because I was still working full time at Jeff’s place.
I first kind of turned my nose up at it but he needed me to cover for him on a job. So he brought me onto the set and let me use his sound blimp. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know the etiquette. I just hopped on the set. It was Tyler Perry’s Why Did I get Married? I came in and it just came naturally. Janet Jackson was there and Jill Scott and all these other people and I loved it. I was like, this is so frickin’ cool.
The thing about it was, Alfeo was trying to be done with it. He’d already opened doors for me. He said, “If you like this, I need someone to take over for me.” I needed my own blimp and equipment, because you can’t rent it here. So I jumped into it. I went out and purchased a blimp, a camera, a computer and within a year’s time, the equipment paid for itself. It really worked out. I was shooting unit, I was shooting editorial and I was just dabbling a little bit in assisting to get some icing on the cake.
2007 is when they passed that tax incentive to shoot movies here and when they did that, Atlanta exploded. Now we have our fair share of productions being shot here. As we speak, I’m shooting on four different shows. One is a sitcom, House of Payne. I’m also shooting The Vampire Diaries, I’m working on an episodic called Single Ladies and I’m working on another episodic called Teen Wolf. Those are four different projects that are keeping me busy five days out of the week.
Unit photography seems like a different beast. Can you talk about joining a union?
Getting into a union is easy. You just pay $4000 dollars and send in a resume and you’re in. Here’s the beast part: getting the work. If you don’t know anybody in the industry who can bring you on set, then you have no way in. It’s who you know. Alfeo brought me on. You can apply to join a union, but they won’t let you in now unless you’re already working. So how do you get in? Somebody refers you.
There’s a lot that goes into shooting unit photography. It’s not just showing up on set and all of a sudden you’re really cool. There’s etiquette, there is knowing where to be, where not to be, paying attention to what’s going on and paying attention to what’s in the scene. You have to stay out of eye lines. There’s a lot going on that you have to know.
When I started, Alfeo threw me to the wolves. I first got in there and I made mistakes and I still make mistakes but at the end of the day, the client is happy. Am I good at it? I think I’m pretty good at it. Am I still learning? I’m learning every single time because every movie is different. Every set is different. Every actor is different. You could be having the best day of your life and because the actor is not feeling it, they can just tell you to leave. They can say, “We don’t don’t want to be photographed today,” even if that’s your assignment.
The actors have the final say?
Yes. Not all actors are like that. We all have a job to do. I’m hired by NBC or Warner Bros. or Sony or Lifetime. I’m hired by the executives to go shoot the assignment. If the actors are acting funny, if they’re like, “You’re in my eye line” or “I’m just not feeling it today” or “I don’t want you to take my picture today” you can’t take it personally. I’ll go back and call my photo editors and tell them, “The actors don’t want to be photographed today. Thank you for paying my full time rate today. And I’m out. Peace.” That’s what the union does for you. They take care of my rate, make sure that I’m getting paid what I should be getting paid. The moment I step on the set I’m guaranteed a certain amount of hours, no less than a days wage.
That’s just how the games rolls. Some people are all about it. I work on some sets and they can’t get enough of me taking their picture. I work on other sets where you have to be so cautious about what your doing. I do my best to get in there, get the shots and get out.
What kind of equipment do you bring on set?
Here’s your basic needs. You need a sound blimp. It’s a box, like a silencer. There’s only one person who makes them. It’s in North Hollywood, his name is Mark Jacobson. A kit will run you about $1500. You put your camera, I use a 5D Mark 2, inside this box and close it up. It looks like an old antique camera. There’s not a person I don’t walk by who doesn’t look at it and say, “What is that? Is it an antique camera?” It looks like a square box with a tube coming out with two buttons.
When I come on set, I have both of my blimps, two Canon cameras and I use a 24-70 and 70-200 lens. I bring an Apple computer, because I’m usually shooting and downloading files quickly. And that’s about all I bring. Some of the big boys have huge kits they bring. I bring as little as possible. When we’re done with a scene I can move over to the next scene, I don’t have to lug a cart. I bring my computer and my two cameras and I’m good to go.
Is your work with unit what lead to doing the Tyler Perry movie posters?
That was a blessing. Tyler Perry Studios does everything in house. It is a controlled environment. Say for instance I was shooting pictures for Warner Bros or MGM. A lot of the time they will hire Ockenfels or Art Streiber or some huge name photographer to come in there and shoot the posters. They would never have a unit photographer do that. They have a $100 million dollar budget and they want a big name photographer. Does that mean I can’t shoot a movie poster? No, I could shoot movie posters all day long.
I was shooting Tyler Perry’s stuff and [the producers] asked if I could shoot a gallery for them. I didn’t know too much about galleries but I knew tons about lighting and I was like, sure. My first big poster for them was Madea Goes to Jail. I shot a gallery and I didn’t know what they were going to do with it. They also had me do this mugshot of Mr. Perry in four different characters. I didn’t think too much about it, but the next thing you know it’s plastered all over the United States. It’s all over Georgia, these mugshots of him in the Madea character. And I’m like, “Shut…your…mouth!” I literally pulled over my car and I stopped and got out and I looked at. I said, “Praise God. You have got to be kidding me.” I think I went home and blasted everybody with an email. I was so happy. I was so stoked.
I’m not on staff over at Tyler Perry Studios, but I’m pretty much the go-to-guy for their photography. Those posters have led to other posters. People see that and know I’ve done that before and are calling me to do more posters. But you have to start somewhere.
You’ve been here for almost 15 years. Has your outlook on the industry here changed?
As a photographer, I think as you continue to promote yourself, you have new bodies or work and do exceptional work to the point where people want to hire you. I think if you’re a great photographer and you do exceptional work I think you’ll always have the clients you need not just to sustain yourself but have a thriving business.
I’m speaking for myself, not anyone else in Atlanta. I know in terms of unit photography, it’s exploded for me. Because it’s gone well for me, I’ve had access to these stars which has allowed my book to grow and is allowing me to get more advertising jobs and editorial jobs because I’ve already shot these actors. When these [art buyers] see this work, and see where you’re located at, then they want to use you.
I’m still a young buck, some of these guys have been working for 30 years. I’m just going to plug away and advertise and see where it takes me.