The Photographic Journal

Dave Jacobsen

Interview 009 • May 30th 2013


In talking to Dave, my biggest takeaway was that inspiration is cyclical in nature. Being inspired by someone’s work, and in turn producing work that may inspire others begins to spin a big beautiful web of creativity, thought, and iterative momentum.

The immense scale those connections form is one of the most intriguing aspects of our digital life. Communities speckle the Internet forming the backbone of inspiration. Tumblr, Flickr, Vimeo, Etsy, Dribbble, Behance, Cargo Collective…

30 years ago, you and I couldn't touch each other so readily. Today, connecting with like-minded folks has never been easier. We tend to take that reality for granted, but it really is something that should continually be celebrated, cherished, and even revered.

This interview has been edited for clarity and content.


Tell us about how you got involved with videography.

I always followed in my older brother’s footsteps as a kid, he’s thirteen years older than I am. When he wanted to be an architect, I wanted to be an architect. And then he started getting into film and photography, so I wanted to get into that too.

I remember he let me borrow his Hi-8 video camera. A little Sony. I just remember finding out on my own how to do a rack focus on this little statue of a rabbit my mom had, and my mind was just kind of blown. I had control over what somebody could see.

Interview 009: Dave Jacobsen for The Photographic Journal

From there, I took some classes at my high school which lead to taking all the classes I could there, moving into the advanced and independent classes. I just tried to soak up as much as I could. That kind of set my decision on where to go to college, to a place with a somewhat known film program.

All I had worked with up to that point was video. So I didn’t really go for the film program, since I didn’t know much about it. I went into the video program and just sort of went from there.

Were there any others that helped shape your path, aside from your brother?

In the industry you’re pushed by your peers just as much as you’re pushed by yourself. You see what other people doing and you want to do that – you want to surpass that. It’s almost like a friendly competition. I’m inspired by other artists and others hopefully get inspired by me. That’s something you always want to keep in the back of your head. That why you’re doing something that you think is great. You hope someone else sees it and thinks it’s great and expands on it.

Back in high school, my AV teacher was a huge push towards what I wanted to do. He always nurtured my craft and pushed me and didn’t just say Oh, that’s really great. He would have some sort of constructive criticism for me. But he knew what I was doing was going in right direction. He really let me experiment in his independent class.

He pushed me to submit to some film festivals, some of which I ended up winning. He just really kept pushing and he didn’t want me to stop. That along with my brother’s interest and being able to talk to him about cool ideas and the technology behind everything, just really helped.

Interview 009: Dave Jacobsen for The Photographic Journal

Who are folks that inspire you, in film or Photography?

I’m a huge Tarantino fan. I think it’s easy to relate anything motion wise to photography because you can take a still image from a film and look at its composition, its feel, and still understand it in a still world. I was always drawn more to the compositional part of photography and videography, versus the lighting, because it’s something I could see right away.

Tarantino, Stanley Kubrick – I feel that they were weird in a sense. They chose what to show to you, and also what not to show. Kubrick would hang on each of his shots for a long time. I feel like it’s important to connect to the audience. It’s important to draw them in. A lot can get done with nothing happening. I’ve always admired that.

The Daniels are crazy visionaries. A lot of their stuff happens in post, but they know how to see their complete vision beforehand. They are a perfect example of incredible visionaries in an ever changing digital world.

Where did you grow up, and where are you now?

I grew up in small town called St. Charles, Missouri, right outside of St. Louis. I lived there until I went to college in St. Louis, at Webster University. In college I realized that in order to make a living, I really had no choice but to move to Los Angeles. I could have stayed in Missouri, but it would have been a much slower pace because the market just really isn’t there.

That fall I moved out to L.A. and I’ve been here ever since. I really didn’t look anywhere else. I didn’t think about anything else.

Before the move, I had never really traveled. I wouldn’t say I was sheltered in Missouri, but moving from the Midwestern United States to East L.A. was pretty crazy. I did not like L.A. for about the first year that I lived here. I’m a very anxious and nervous person at heart. Moving away from the family, being in a whole different place, on my own overall was quite a different lifestyle.

I had two roommates that moved with me. The whole trip out to LA was pretty crazy. A U-Haul, three cars, and two dogs moving across the country. It was an adventure.

Interview 009: Dave Jacobsen for The Photographic Journal

We had been assured by the real estate lady in L.A. that we were moving into this brand new house that had been built, over near downtown or something. We had asked her Ok, we’re coming out there. Will it be ready?and she was like Absolutely. We got in at about 11pm on a Friday and she said that her mom would let us into the house, because it was a house behind a house.

We got there and house was not done. There were no steps to get up into the house and no plumbing. It was just not done.

So we had the three cars, a U-Haul, and 2 dogs but were in a place we really knew nothing about… We drove around for hours trying to find a hotel room and moved from hotel to hotel and to friends’ couches for about a week. We got lucky and found a house in East L.A. soon after that.

How much in what you do is innovating because of technology versus fulfilling a conceptual vision?

That’s tricky. I think they go hand in hand, only because when you are at the conceptual mode of saying Ok, I want to do this, if you know your capabilities, you can immediately say Ok, I can do that, no I can’t do that.

Technology can limit you, but it can also make you thrive. Saying We can’t do that is your last resort. You never want to be held back by technology. You always want to find some way around it, some way to get it done. A lot of times it’s not just a technology setback, it’s budget. You don’t have the money in order to achieve a certain vision. In that sense, your concepts can start to morph into a different creative. You may have an idea to do things one way, but in execution you find it’s not possible. So you adapt and change the plan, altering the concept as little as possible. In a beautiful world it comes out better than you ever could have thought.

Interview 009: Dave Jacobsen for The Photographic Journal

How have smaller, cheaper, SLR’s changed  videography?

It’s had a huge affect on my day to day. I made the switch from Nikon to Canon solely for that reason. The ability to not only shoot still shots, but also shoot high quality video with equipment that I own has changed the game. It enables me to shoot more, because it’s readily available. Here in my apartment I can get together with a few friends and bang out a video project at minimal cost, pumping out passion projects that I can use for promotion.

That being said, it’s kind of a bummer in the same sense, because there are bigger and better cameras out there. When people see the amazing results you can get with a 5D mmII or mkIII you tend to use the bigger and better cameras less often. I never want to get stuck being a DSLR shooter. I shoot a lot with these cameras and love it, but there are the setbacks where you’ll find yourself on a project saying I really wish I had a different camera, with different features.

We use Red Cameras on these features that I do. The quality is amazing, but it’s not always the most loved camera out here in L.A. among camera assistants. It’s not the most user friendly to say the least, but the images you can produce with it, for the cost difference, are simply amazing. To think there are features being shot on it, for a fraction of the cost of traditional equipment. Being less costly, it’s had a similar effect, putting that technology in the hands of more people who in turn can make more art.

Has the organization on video shoots with shot lists, concepting techniques, and working on teams affected how you approach still photography?

Kind of. When I approach a still shoot I do like to have a cohesive idea. I don’t like to have people waiting around on me, while I’m working. And that’s true on either type of shoot. Things have to move like a well oiled machine. No one can be waiting on one thing because time is literally money.

Where am I putting the lights? Where am I setting up? Etc. I don’t always have the luxury of a location scout, so a lot of it is finding out what we can do on that day. When I show up on a photoshoot I have some sort of idea of where I’m going to key from, where I’m going to place the subject, what kind of wardrobe they’ll be in, the feel of makeup… Sometimes you’ll be able to look through the person’s closet if you’re at their place, or if they bring lots of wardrobe changes. So you’re standing there saying, OK get into that and do your eyes like this, do your hair this way…

While they’re doing that I set up the lights, have a stand-in, or sometimes it’s myself with a timer. You just, you know, make it work.

Interview 009: Dave Jacobsen for The Photographic Journal

Going back to the team element, what does a typical day look like for you on a feature?

Feature days are twelve hours. How many scenes you do are dependent on the length, or how crazy the set up is. If there’s a lot of action it’s obviously going to take longer to shoot.

But you get there and you eat breakfast and you start building the camera in the morning. You get the camera out there as quickly as possible so they can start lining up a shot.

From there I pull focus. Basically I measure out from the camera, to the actors, and all the different places the camera or actors might move for every shot. Then, throughout said shot, I turn a knob and make sure the distance on the lens matches the actual distance from the camera to the actors, making any adjustments along the way. That’s the main skill of my position.

There’s a hierarchy on set. Basically on features I’m a 1st AC, which is First Assistant Camera. So I work with the Director of Photography. He tells me where he wants the camera with a specific lens. And he’ll start working with lighting while I set all of that up. There is also a 2nd AC, who assists me with the process as well.

We talk to our DIT, our Digital Imaging Technician, and work out the exposure, what kind of filters we need in front of the camera or if we need to add light into a scene.

Interview 009: Dave Jacobsen for The Photographic Journal

In looking at your Instagram, you have photo after photo of delicious artery-clogging americana, yet you’re a trim guy. I think it’s fair to say that you’re obsessed with Totino’s Pizza Rolls?

I’m so embarrassed from time to time when I look at my Instagram feed, or any of my social networking sites, really. I look back on it and I just say to myself I just eat way too much.

When I post a picture of food I just assume some people will hate me because it tends to be food you just can’t get on a day to day basis. But I think that’s why I post it.

When I travel on these jobs, you’re just always eating out. You’re in a hotel room, you’re in a condo, it doesn’t matter – you’re not cooking food for yourself. You’re always going out and it’s always prepared and presented to you as if it was the most important thing ever.

I think I picked it up from my wife Angela. She used to take photos of her food all the time and I had never done that before. In some ways it’s just become a major part of our culture together. It’s almost getting to the point that what I order is dictated by how good a picture of it will look.

The pizza rolls are definitely a comfort food for me. I don’t know at what point in my childhood I started eating pizza rolls. Pizza is my favorite food, and if you roll that into a little pocket of goodness, I don’t know, they just never let you down. I’ve never ever been like Ugh, these pizza rolls are horrible. They’re easy. I prefer the cheese, but I’m open to all kinds. We actually had pizza rolls at the wedding. They were a huge hit!

I think my favorite of your food shots had a bunch of pizza rolls, Cheetos, and a dollop of ranch… and that was breakfast.

I’m pretty well known for being a horrible eater. I’ve expanded my horizons honestly since moving to L.A. But I really eat a lot of fast food, pizza, and what most people would consider off of a kid’s menu. Chicken fingers, mac n’ cheese, etc.

I’m very glad that since I moved out here my culinary experiences have broadened exponentially. I enjoy cooking other things, things much healthier on a day to day basis, but there’s something to be said about comfort food. It’s just down and dirty and delicious.

I really believe that music and food are the easiest entryways into experiencing culture.

Definitely. I always try to eat local whenever I go. I want to eat what the people of a place eat. I don’t want any kind of watered down thing. I never considered myself an adventurous eater, but when I went to Jamaica we made sure to eat what the locals ate. We didn’t want just a hamburger.

We stayed at a villa this last time we were in Jamaica. We had ladies that would come into the kitchen for us and cook our meals. The first night they gave us just some tourist, kind of crappy food. We went into the kitchen the next morning as they were eating before they’d prepared anything for us. We asked them what they wanted to make us and they told us you know some eggs and ham… and we looked at their plates and told them if they could we’d love to eat what they were having.

I think that’s important because if you’re going to go through all of the trouble to be in a different place, when will you have the opportunity to try anything so different again?

Bloukrans Bridge Bungee Jump from dave jacobsen on Vimeo.


My favorite of your videos is that beautiful slow motion bungee-swan-dive off a bridge.

That was test footage for a contest that Shock Top put on called The Final Challenge. Their premise was If you could do one thing before the world ended, what would you do? They picked the winners and this one girl wanted to jump off the highest bungee jump in the world. So they hired me and a director, and we went and documented it. We made a short piece out of their experience: The build up, the actual event, and the decompression of the experience.

My jump was to test the different angles of the GoPro’s that we could potentially get. Not everyone who jumped had nearly as many cameras on them as I did. We had five GoPro’s and I put them all on in different angles. We were worried about cameras moving and didn’t know what would happen to the cameras at that velocity – how the results would look and how the slow motion would translate.

With traveling you’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of landscape time-lapse photography. It’s sort of a hybrid between still and motion…

My experience with time-lapse is it begins with luck and then as you add more experience you start to have a better understanding. I guess I saw some time lapses online and was attracted to them. I thought it was another thing I could explore. It’s my curious nature to see something being done and thinkCan I do that as well?

On the technical side, it all depends on what you want to convey. If you want to see people jittering around you’ll use a fast shutter speed that literally freezes them in place. But if you want a fluid motion then you’ll use a longer shutter in order to get that kind of blur happening. If that’s happening during the day then you might need to add an ND filter or some other technique to block light. There’s a lot of thought that goes into trying to get a certain kind of motion in a time-lapse piece. How staccato do you want the motion? Do you want to see detail in what’s happening?

How does your home life factor into maintaining creativity and drive?

My parents were extremely sad to see me move out here, for obvious reasons – but they’ve always encouraged me to do what I want to do. Years ago it wasn’t very profitable and they never once said You need to do something else. I think that my family, my friends, my wife… they see my images and see that I’m passionate about them. I hope my passion is inspiring to them. They’re always excited to see what I have going on. What kind of images I’ve created lately, and how I did it. Everyone is very supportive in a very curious way.

The issues with maintaining creativity or drive can lie just in yourself. I have problems with that sometimes because I feel like anybody can do certain stuff that I do. It makes me very curious when someone sees me do something in Photoshop and they just don’t understand how I did it. I’ve been doing it long enough now that it’s just second nature for me. It’s something that really has become a trained skill that required a lot of experience to achieve. At times, I feel like if things are very obvious to me, then it should be very obvious to everybody else. But I’m my own worst critic. I publish an image but really won’t be satisfied with it, while so many other people are.

Interview 009: Dave Jacobsen for The Photographic Journal

Dave and McKayla Maroney at an Adidas photo shoot.

Can you remember a personal turning point?

My first photoshoot. When I graduated college, my parents bought me a Nikon D50 SLR. I took my best friend Kiley around St Louis and was just likeDo you want to take some photos? I don’t know what I’m doing but we both love fashion.

I just remember going through the photos that night and being super pleased. And kind of not believing that I created them. That was right before I moved to L.A. So when I came out I just sort of kept going. From that one photoshoot I knew that I had the ability to create images that I could be pleased with.

What are you trying to communicate in your work?

That’s almost my main problem. I tell myself in many ways I haven’t found a market for my photography. I like portraiture. I think a face says a lot. But I don’t see how anybody else would want to buy a portrait of somebody else that they don’t know. So, I have a hard time finding motivation.

But for people who look at my photos, I want them to ask questions. If it’s just a portrait I want them to want to know who that person is. I don’t expect them to look at anything technical about it.

Interview 009: Dave Jacobsen for The Photographic Journal

Interview 009: Dave Jacobsen for The Photographic Journal

What’s next for you?

I keep saying I want to focus more on my still photography, and I’m finding it easier and easier to say that. I need to create. I’m always searching for my next image. I’m adding more lights, and getting new lenses, adding new tools to my arsenal where I can experiment with light. I just need to create. It’s as simple as that.

I’ve recently made a bigger shift back to film. The disciplined form of shooting feels much more meaningful than snapping hundreds of digital photos. A lot of my work happens in post, but there is just a freer nature that comes with film.

Hopefully that leads to editorial photography, bigger fashion shoots, and just trying to get my images out there.

Interview 009: Dave Jacobsen for The Photographic Journal