Dabboo Ratnani

17 Aug

“I eat, breathe and sleep photography” – Dabboo Ratnani

Dabboo Ratnani is recognised as one of Bollywood’s most famous photographers that all of the top actors swear by. The skilled photographer has worked with all the biggies in the business, some of which include Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Hrithik Roshan, Aishwarya Rai and Preity Zinta. With much hard-work, determination and many photos sessions later, Dabboo has gained immense recognition over the years with the popularity of his annual calendar, movie stills and ad campaigns. He continues to work in film, magazines and in the advertising industry. Read on to see as ace photographer gives Roshni Magazine the lowdown on clicking the stars and his words of “clickdom” for aspiring photographers.

Why photography?
It was early in life, when chance came upon an amateur camera at home in my dad’s drawer and I picked it up. I was a gizmo guy not thinking about how serious photography would get for me and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Later on, I invested in the first SLR camera. I met a photographer and started assisting him after which there was no looking back. One thing led to another and before I knew it, I started doing film projects and ad campaigns and what not.

Start at the beginning. How did it all begin?

I assisted a photographer for four years. I didn’t take any photography courses because there were no good photography schools in India in the early 1990’s and it was too expensive for a middle class family like mine to afford to go to the UK. My ex-boss did a three year course and I told him it was too expensive for me. I also believed that the experience I would gain working with him would be better than learning from a school because a lot of what was taught at the school was not what I needed, such as film processing. I learnt everything I needed to on the job for about 4 years. I did my own photography outside of work and always got feedback from my boss.

What is your definition of Photography?
Photography runs in my bloodstream. I eat, breathe and sleep photography. I’m continuously thinking about photography—in a restaurant, with family, with light, everywhere. I need to continuously evolve and I cannot be stagnant. Photography is like an art and making money out of a business you love. Every time I see life, I incorporate it into my pictures. There’s no stopping. Any interesting composition can be incorporated into a picture. Even while driving on the road. The minute you feel stagnant, you may as well retire. If you’re bored of it, you can’t justify this profession as one of your own.

What are some of your biggest inspirations?
Life, movies, music, I am a continuous learner. I don’t want to think I’m big or I’ve achieved enough or I’m the best. My outlook to this job is that it is my first day at work everyday. I love doing something new everyday and I’m glad that’s what I do. I always put my 100% in everything I do.

What qualities do you think a good photographer should possess?
He should be good technically and have good cameras. He has to be technically sound. He should have all the updated equipment, good quality camera and lenses. He should also be patient, easy to work with, creative, in touch with fashion and need to be aware of what’s going around in the world. Very often, if he gets stagnated and doesn’t want to learn anymore and thinks he has achieved everything, it leads to the first steps of his downfall. Adapting and evolving is an important quality that a good photographer should also have.

What are the main technical aspects do you believe a photographer should look at when taking a picture?
The lighting is very essential because it ensure that the model or the celebrity looks good. This means knowing when to use hard, soft or natural light. The ambience that he creates in the frame is also very important as well as the composition. A photographer should also pay attention to the technique, such as the background; knowing when to use blurred or sharp focus.

The main highlight that people look forward to every year is your annual calendar which features all the top Bollywood stars. In 2007, your theme was water. However, in 2008 and 2009, you didn’t restrict yourself to any theme. Why is that?
2009 was my tenth calendar and only 2007 had a theme which was water. I didn’t get restricted in any way with water. The theme of water did not hold me back from being creative. The theme doesn’t become stronger than the photographer and it shouldn’t. I want the celebrities and my photography to stand out. There’s lots of stuff to do with water: from fun, to sexy to bold. The theme gets more prominence than the photography. If I had to choose wind, it wouldn’t give me enough satisfaction for the theme to stand out. The theme should not restrict me from being creative. As opposed to 24 actors I had 48 for 2009’s calendar, which enabled me to be creative with each and every one of them.

How do you decide on the concepts for your calendar every year?
It depends on how I feel. How I want the calendar to look the following year. I usually start planning 6 months in advance and start shooting 3 months before the release of the calendar. 2008 was a bit grungier. 2007 was water. It has a lot to do with how I feel at that time. I try to show actors in concepts in which they have not been seen before. If they looked sexy one year, they should look different the following year, maybe cute or fun. It should also work for the celebrity. I also prefer taking more candid moments than studio shots and try to tell a story with every picture I take.

2009 saw the production and the launch of your tenth calendar which featured 48 Bollywood celebrities altogether, which is probably a first for any photographer worldwide to accomplish. How did you do it?
Being my tenth calendar, I wanted to make it something larger, something nobody has done before. So I was initially thinking of couples or individuals. I only exposed the idea on the day of the launch. The actors didn’t know I had 48 top actors in one calendar. I thought getting couples was too boring in terms of posing and it had the possibility of being repetitive. Getting 48 of them separately could enable me to show variety in angles, expression and a different mood from what they’ve done before. Having 2 pictures on one was difficult enough, but I also had to think of how does one incorporate 4 pictures in one month for 12 months. This was the brainchild of my wife, Manisha and me. We both knew we wanted to do something different from previous years.

On average, how long does each photo shoot last?
In general, it depends on how many outfits we need for each model. It usually takes four hours indoors and eight hours outdoors. It also depends on the lighting and setting. For the calendars, it could take between four minutes to five hours. For example, in one of Hrithik [Roshan]’s photo shoots, the tattoo artist took 4 hours to draw his tattoo, but Hrithik sat patiently throughout the whole thing. But it really depends. Usually, Shahrukh [Khan] or Mr. [Amitabh] Bachchan don’t take more than five minutes for a picture. So yeah, it could take five minutes to five hours for a photo shoot.

How do you prepare the models or actors for their shoot?
I try and do a meeting with them beforehand so they know what they’re doing and can conceptualise. If there’s no time to meet, I email or SMS some ideas to them and then I sit with the dress designers and the make up artists. We decide amongst ourselves what we’re going to do in order to make them look different. Sometimes, we shoot something to do with their next release. We also allow the celebrities to see their clothes beforehand. I also go to the location and check it out in order to understand the look and feel of the setting.

Movie stills, magazines, ad campaigns and now calendars. What next?
Very much something in photography. I’m not planning to deviate from this profession because I’m thoroughly enjoying it. I shoot 25 days a month. Until I get bored of it, I won’t think of getting out of it. I’ve started doing a lot of ad campaigns with actors.  But I might try something along the lines of conceptual photography. I’ve never done wildlife before, so I might try that as well.

If not a photographer, what would you be and why?
I love music. So probably a DJ or something to do with that. Music is a passion. I’ve collected music since I was in school. Every time my brother and I would travel, we would collect and share our music with each other.

Who is your favorite actor and actress to work with and why?
Each has their own character and feel which is why I don’t really have a particular favourite. I try and incorporate all of them in my calendar. Everyday is different for me. Everyday I work with a different actor and try and do something different for the both of us. But if I had to pick amongst the actors, probably Hrithik, Shah Rukh, Mr. Bachchan and Abhishek [Bachchan] and amongst the actresses, Aishwarya [Rai Bachchan], Kareena [Kapoor] and Preity [Zinta].

Any last words to your fans or people who are looking for a career in photography?
Don’t get into this profession for the glamour. It’s very creative and it’s like an art which you’re making money out of. It should be a complete passion otherwise you can’t justify the job. It takes a lot to be a photographer. You have to be evolving, creative and consistent. Consistency is very important because you can’t deliver one great job and not continue. You have to keep getting better and keep pushing yourself to do so. The annual calendar is for myself and I keep pushing myself to do better because I know I can. You have to know you’re going to get better with time. The outlook has to be passionate and has to be in the bloodstream of the photographer.

~ Dimple Motwani
(August 2009)

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