The full title for this article should be ‘GearTalk: with Jussi Hellsten, the hardest working man in photo business’. When I met up with him in the studio to do this interview, he had been up since 4am editing a commercial for a client, just so that he would not have to postpone our interview again. I think we moved the dates 4-5 times because of his crazy schedule and he just didn’t have the heart to do it to me any more. I wish I could say that it is unusual for Jussi to be so busy, but you’ll soon see as you read this article that the man has been stretching time for many years.
This could help explain why neither of us could remember how long it had been since we first met. It’s not that we couldn’t remember the meeting, because we both knew exactly where that had happened. It was more that, for both of us, the past has gone by in such a blur that the best we could do was agree that it was more than five years ago, less than eight. I had been looking for an editor for a fashion video test I was shooting and, as is his way, Jussi made himself available. Not that he had any spare time, he just wanted to do it, so he made the time. You get the picture.
Jussi was working then as a full-time editor, mainly on commercials, so it seemed like a reasonable starting point to ask the most basic of questions…
FHaB: How did you get into photography?
Jussi: It was actually my mother. About 14 years ago, I hadn’t got into the film school I’d wanted to go to and she went and found out about a one year photography course and got me to sign up for it. Maybe she just wanted me out of the house but it was the best thing. Getting my hands on a camera just triggered something in me and I started shooting a lot right away. When I got into film school the following year, I already knew that photography was something I wanted to do. It helped that there was a music course in the same college, always with loads of bands starting up wanting photos. I shot their PR photos, photos of their gigs…, anything and everything.
FHaB: How did that translate into finding work?
Jussi: If I had to choose one thing it would be getting the gig to shoot Flow Festival. I’d been in England as part of an exchange course for my film studies and took some extra photography courses. I kept on seeing all these photos of the UK nightlife and really liked how there was almost a tradition of photographing the club and music scene. Not just the bands, but the whole environment. When I came back to Finland, I got in contact with Flow and told them I wanted to shoot something like that for them and they loved the idea.
FHaB: Did your photography career take off straight from there?
Jussi: No, not really, but that was the start of it. I’ve shot there every year now for the last eight years. It’s rated one of the best music festivals in Europe, always full of people from the creative industries, the images are promoted widely… When clients started approaching me directly, I realised what a powerful tool it was for marketing, which then made me work even harder to make great pictures the following year. And it’s not just about the publicity. I remember after about the third year, the Managing Director of Flow gave the photographers a brief asking for images with a looser, more creative approach, not just images documenting the event but ones that included our own artistic self-expression. That was a definite turning point. I knew my gear well enough by then to no longer have to worry about things like getting the perfect histogram and all those other rules you hang onto when you’re unsure of yourself. I still remember the thrill I felt when I allowed that freedom of expression to enter my work. I think that not having come from a photography school background, I held on to the idea that the rules of photography dictated the process. Letting the creative urge out of its box, that’s when I started to develop my own style.
FHaB: A lot of people know you as a professional editor, working on many of the commercials we see on our screens every day. How have you managed to combine editing with your photography? Where do you find the time?
Jussi: At the beginning, I was working full-time as an editor. The only time I could shoot was in the evenings and weekends. Pretty much, all my spare time was taken up and eventually I had to make a decision. Luckily, the company I was editing for understood that photography was my thing and they were happy for me to go freelance. It didn’t mean that I worked any less time, it just meant I could swap my hours around to suit me better. If a photography job came in, then I could take it on. I soon learnt that I’m a morning person and my most productive editing time is between 5am-10am. I probably get as much done then as I do in a full day in the office. So, by 10am, I was ready for whatever came next.
FHaB: What did come next?
Jussi: I suppose that would have to be my Helsinki365 projects. The first one I did I think was about four years ago. Now that I had more time to myself, I wanted to develop a more consistent visual social media presence. I’d seen some 365 Projects, especially on Flickr, and decided to do my own one on Helsinki. I’m not originally from here and felt that I could bring a fresh outlook.
FHaB: Could you explain a bit more how you approached the project. Your use of social media is something that I’ve always been very impressed with and has definitely increased your profile, both within and also beyond our industry.
Jussi: 365 Projects take up a lot of time so you have to have good reasons for doing them. For me, there was the obvious marketing angle, where people would be able to regularly see my work. Having the word ‘Helsinki’ in the title certainly made it relevant for several other interested parties too, if not to share the material, then at least to follow and become aware of my work. But, just as importantly, forcing yourself to go out there and take pictures every day teaches you a great deal about how to look at the world in a visual way, I suppose to stay focused on what’s around you. Deciding on the camera was relatively easy. I needed something I could carry around with me everywhere and which also had great image IQ. So I bought the Leica M9 and two Zeiss lenses, a 35mm and a 50mm.
FHaB: That’s expensive gear! How could you afford it.
Jussi: Well, I couldn’t afford the Leica lenses, that’s for sure, not then, anyway. But I had a pretty simple rule – the money I earned editing went to my living expenses and the money I earned taking photos went straight into buying gear. And the M9 was great for something like Helsinki365. My only regret with the first Helsinki365 was that I didn’t push myself enough creatively.
FHaB: What do you mean? You took some great pictures for it.
Jussi: Thanks. I just mean that, because it was a personal project, I never had to push myself out of my comfort zone. Like I never went up and approached a stranger and asked to take their picture. When the opportunity came around to do the second Helsinki365 project, I made sure this was not going to happen again and signed up for a street photography workshop in Stockholm. It was called iN-PUBLiC and they had these great street photographers mentoring us, Matt Stuart, Blake Andrews and David Solomons. They were merciless, sending us out on the streets every day to shoot strangers, without even asking them. It’s amazing how quickly you become comfortable doing it.
FHaB: How did the second Helsinki365 project differ from the first?
Jussi: It was much more structured, especially since this time I had a client on board. Visit Helsinki, a company run by the City of Helsinki, had seen my first project and we spent, on and off, about five months discussing what material would be best to suit their needs. When the project started, they would send me a wish list of what they needed, sometimes a specific event, but often just a mood word, like ‘autumn’, or ‘sauna’. There were no specific demands and I spent a lot of time researching my own ideas, going to about 5-10 sites a day to check on stuff happening in the future. Facebook was actually really great, checking out what events my friends were going to… My schedule became so well planned that I rarely ended up wandering around looking for something to photograph. I had somewhere I needed to get to and I had a photo that needed to be made.
FHaB: And did you have any trouble getting people to agree to being photographed?
Jussi: During the whole project, only one person said that they didn’t want their photo taken. I had business cards with my name and the website for Helsinki365 printed up and I handed them out to everyone I photographed so they knew where to go and see their photo. I also needed to get model release forms signed so, instead of carrying loads of loose papers, I had a book printed up with the release forms printed inside. These little details, and having the city of Helsinki as the client, made the whole process look very professional and it went very smoothly.
FHaB: I noticed that you also had an affiliation with Leica at around that time. How did that come about?
Jussi: It wasn’t directly with Leica but with Foka, the Finnish distributor for Leica. I first got to know Foka when I bought the M9 and I went to see them again when I signed up for the Street photography course in Stockholm. I knew Leica was just launching the M240 and talked to Foka about using their demo model to get some good PR for them. After I came back to Helsinki, I ended up selling the M9 and buying the M240. The M9 was a lovely camera but I’d always had a problem with how it struggled in low light / high ISO situations, situations that I often found myself in. The M240 was just much better dealing with it. By that time, I had a good relationship with Foka and they were seeing the work I was producing for the Helsinki365 projects. When the Leica T was due to be launched, they approached me about doing a blog using the new camera, so we came up with the Leica T blog ‘All the Light’. Since I was already doing a similar thing for Helsinki365, I could often use different images from the same location to suit each blog. It wasn’t a problem for either client as the whole point was to reach the widest audience. There’s nothing wrong with exclusivity but, with social media, sharing is better.
FHaB: This summer there seemed to be quite a few posts from exotic locations. Is that something that you see yourself doing more of?
Jussi: Yeah, I’m not really sure how that happened, I just suddenly had clients who needed me to shoot abroad. I don’t know if there’ll be lots more of it and I’m not actively pursuing travel gigs. I enjoy them, but then I also enjoy being in a dark room editing for several hours. I suppose as long as there’s a balance between the two extremes, I’m happy.
FhaB: How is the editing fitting in to your schedule at the moment?
Jussi: It all came to a head about a year ago. The company I’d been doing the freelance editing for got taken over and the new owners wanted me to accept a full-time position there. I stressed about what to do for a bit but then I went ahead and set myself up as my own limited company. Once I’d made the decision, I felt fantastic. I no longer have the security of working for someone else but it seems that my own business is strong enough to stand on its own.
FHaB: So, what does the future hold for you? Any new projects that you’re getting excited about?
Jussi: Video seems to be becoming a larger part of my work. I’d never really seen myself as wanting to do more than edit the material but, when the craze for shooting video on the Canon 5D happened, I kept on being asked to shoot video too. Now I would say I’m comfortable shooting in either medium. Shooting both stills and video has its complications because the transition from one to the other is not seamless. The visual language is not the same and clients need to be careful of expecting the same situation to work for both. The message conveyed by a series of moving images cannot be captured in a single image, at least not always. I did a job for Novelle about a year ago, where I shots the stills, the video and also did the editing. It worked out great because the ideas for each were kept separate, even though they were shot at the same location.
FHaB: You’ve become the ‘Complete Package’!
Jussi: The years of editing has definitely helped. I generally know how the edit is going to go together before I shoot so I know what it is I need to capture. It saves time and allows me to concentrate on what’s important in a shot. Once I’ve locked down the music for the video, which sets the tempo and influences the clip sequence, I’m good to go. I think video production is something that I’m going to end up doing a lot more of. I’ve actually just ordered the new Red Raven and looking forward to shooting with it when it comes out.
FHaB: You like your gear.
Jussi: I do. But I do sell stuff too. I just sold my Leica M240 last week. Now that I’ve finished doing the Helsinki365 projects, I wasn’t using it much anymore and felt I couldn’t justify keeping it. Doesn’t mean I don’t miss it though.
FHaB: I saw it wasn’t in your bag. Now might be a good time to start going through what you do have in there.
Jussi: Sure. I just want to say that for every job I do, the bag gets packed a little differently. This is the one I put together today to show what I might take away with me if I was going on a trip to shoot stills and video on-the-go.
Think Tank Streetwalker Harddrive Camera Bag (from Studio Varustamo)
Jussi: I like a lot of Think Tanks bags and this the one that comes on expeditions with me. I also have a smaller Billingham bag for when I need less gear with me.
FHaB: I have to admit, I also own about 5-6 Think Tank bags, each one different enough to justify me buying it. Or so I keep telling myself.
Canon 5D MkIII (from Verkkokauppa)
Jussi: This is my go-to camera for stills. I just bought the Sony A7RII but haven’t got comfortable enough with it yet for it to make it into the work bag. The 5DMk3 does all that I need it to do for now.
FHaB: I actually swapped out all my Canon gear a few days ago for all-new Sony gear. I’ve shot Canon most of my professional life, at least digitally, so it’s a big change. With this FHaB project coming up, it felt like the right time to change. Let’s see what happens…
Sony A7S (from Verkkokauppa)
Jussi: I’ve been shooting a lot of video with this camera and you can get some beautiful images from it. My only problem is with the internal 8 bit 4:2:0 codec which can break up quite easily if you’re not careful when grading. I know you can add an external recorder but then that defeats the purpose of the camera. I like to use it on the Zacuto Marauder rig and keep it small.
FHaB: Are you going to upgrade to the Sony A7SII?
Jussi: Probably not. I think the Red Raven is going to suit my production needs better so I’m going to go that direction.
Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG ‘Art’ lens (from Verkkokauppa)
Jussi: I’m a big fan of the Sigma ‘Art’ series and actually swapped out most of my Canon prime lenses for them. They’re not all in the bag today but they’re fantastic, so sharp. I’d say the 35mm lives on the camera probably 70% of the time. I think it’s how I view the world.
Canon 85mm f/1.8
Jussi: I’m not sure where I bought this lens. An 85mm is usually described as a portrait lens but I shoot most of my portraits with either a 50mm or a 135mm. I use the 85mm when I’m struggling to get a location to work for me on the 35mm; there’s too much information coming into the image and I need to narrow the field of view, blur out the background details… that kind of thing.
Sigma 24-105mm f/4 DG lens (from Verkkokauppa)
Jussi: This is not my favourite lens but sometimes you need a lens in busy situations that will cover a lot of ground. I don’t always have time to swap lenses on a camera and this does a great job for what I need it to do. I respect what it does for me but I’ll never love it. I like to shoot wide open and this lens makes my images a little less like what I want them to look. But it definitely makes it into the bag, which tells you that it has its place.
Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC (from Digitarvike)
Jussi: This is another Art lens, designed for an APS-C sensor, the equivalent of a 28-50mm in full-frame. It lives on the Sony A7S as I mainly shoot video with the camera in cropped mode, especially when hand holding. Rolling shutter / Jello can be a problem when moving with the camera and it’s a lot easier to control when cropped. The lens has a constant f/1.8 throughout the zoom range so it’s still easy to get beautiful bokeh.
Metabones Smart Adapter (Mark IV)
Jussi: The Metabones adapters are getting better and better. Now that they have the USB ports, you can upgrade the firmware when new stuff comes along. My Sigma lenses weren’t supported when they first came out but Metabones got a firmware update out fast and now the lenses and the camera communicate great. I wouldn’t say the auto-focusing is as good as with native lenses, but it’s getting there.
Rode Video Mic X (from Verkkokauppa)
Jussi: This is a broadcast quality stereo mic that does a great job on top of the camera and allows me to get the best quality sound of my surroundings when I’m working with the camera.
Other bits and pieces:
Leatherman – never go anywhere without one.
SD/CF cards – I have two separate wallets for my cards, so I can keep stuff organised, know which cards are formatted for what, which ones are used… And I have my contact details on each one, just in case you get unlucky.
First Aid Kit – I carry two separate mini kits, one for quick repair when on the go, like plasters for your blisters after being on your feet all day, or painkillers for whatever reason. Then the second kit has the bits that are not needed so often but you’re glad you have them when you do. Usually when there’s a bit more blood.
Hard Drives – I always have two with me for backup, one with the gear and one somewhere else. It never goes wrong until it goes wrong, best to be safe.
Black Notebook – I like to make notes; thoughts, plans, ideas, they all go into the little black book. I find it’s better than trying to keep them in my head, going round and round. Put them in the book, deal with them later.
Business cards – I meet a lot of different people all the time, sometimes for only a short time. A business card avoids wasting time.
FHaB: I know you need to rush to your next thing. It’d be great to hear a little about your workflow when you’re shooting stills and video…
Jussi: For stills, I import and auto backup through Photo Mechanic. It’s used a lot by sports, news and event photographers because it’s so fast. I use it to rename, add copyright and other metadata, and to make selections. I then do most of the processing of an image through Lightroom. I have some tonal presets that I may use to send a batch of lores images to a client for the selection stage. When an image has been selected, I stay in Lightroom if possible, doing the tonal adjustments, sharpening, adding grain. I then have export presets, one for the 16 bit hires and others for the lores versions to be used on social media platforms. Occasionally, I have to go into Photoshop to fix a few things but I try to avoid it, more because I like to keep the pictures ‘real’ and it keeps me more honest if I don’t go there.
For video, I have two hard drives for an active job, one fast one for working on-the-go, the other one for daily backup. When a job is completed I archive the whole job onto two other drives, one of which is off-site. I edit with Premier and am really enjoying the addition of the Lumetri Color panel; it makes grading a video as easy or as subtle as I want it to be. For music, I often use Universal and can find most of what I need for a reasonable price. And check out Freesound, if you need to add some particular ambient sounds. And for the final export, I use Media Encoder, which has my presets for all the social media platforms, and a Master copy that I would then send out to Spotgate, if the video is going to broadcast.
FHaB: Well, Jussi, I know I’ve kept you a lot longer than expected. It’s hard to stop talking about stuff we love to do. Thank-you for coming in and giving up some of your valuable time. I hope anyone who reads this finds something useful. If anyone out there has any thoughts or questions, let me know in the comments section and I’ll see if I can get an answer for you, preferably the right one. There’s also a list of Jussi’s social media links below to help you keep in touch with what he’s up to… Enjoy!