Michael Rubenstein: A Constant Transition

Michael Rubenstein

Singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield of the indie band Waxahatchee.

Like a shark that can’t stop swimming, even to sleep, Michael Rubenstein is constantly moving forward. Trained as a photojournalist, he soon evolved into an advertising photographer, then a lifestyle shooter, and now a cinematographer and video director, as well. He approaches the discussion of his various professional interests with an implied shrug, as if he’s saying, “Of course, I’m always trying new things. Why aren’t you?”

Over the last several years, the thing Rubenstein has been trying—and succeeding at—is video production. As someone who’s always eager to grow creatively and professionally, he took full advantage way back when the Canon EOS 5D Mark II first integrated HD video capture, and he’s doing the same today with his arsenal of 4K-ready Sony cameras, including the a7R II, the a7S II, the a6300, the FS7 and, budget permitting, the F55. He shoots stills and video, sometimes on the same assignment, but always with the passion and dedication he has long brought to making world-class imagery.

“I’d say video is more of an addition than a transition,” he explains. “I probably do about 30 percent video, 70 percent still. And I’m pretty happy with that balance.”

As a graduate student studying documentary photography a decade ago, Rubenstein was already thinking about video as a means for visual storytelling. So when he added the capability to his professional offerings, it was less about following the crowd and more about expanding his personal creative opportunities in ways he’d been studying for a long time. He’s not oblivious to the fact that video makes good business sense, too, but in his evolutions, it’s always his passion that comes first.

“I think I just like doing it,” he says. “I don’t think it’s ever that I need to do this. I think, you know, I see different things happening in the space, and I see things that I’m interested in, and I try to see how the things that I’m interested in could be beneficial to my career. But I’m not just looking for things to shoot to make money. Otherwise, I would be shooting weddings or corporate portraits and headshots. Those things are great for other people, but I don’t enjoy them.

Michael Rubenstein
Rubenstein (left) on location in New York City with his mobile video-stabilizing rig.

“As a storyteller,” Rubenstein continues, “video is a great tool to have. We were originally putting soundtracks and audio interviews over still images, but I think over time that even more and more clients were saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to have a motion aspect to this campaign, can you shoot that, too?’ Or I would have clients like NBC News, who would say, ‘We’re going to send you out to do this story; can you shoot the motion side, as well?’ It got to the point where it was silly for me to say no since I was going anyway. Why wouldn’t I want to collect a little bit more of a paycheck?”

Rubenstein may have gotten his start as a photographer, and he may take on more still assignments than video, but in no way does he see himself as someone who’s just dabbling with video, nor does he see it as something to be casually pursued on the side. Whether he’s hired for stills or video, on a big project or a solo shoestring production, he prefers to dedicate himself to one thing at a time to ensure he’s delivering the ultimate quality to his clients every step of the way.

“On a lot of the advertising jobs that I’m doing,” he says, “I’m shooting stills, and a director and large crew are shooting the motion side of it. But for smaller jobs or for editorial, or for content jobs, social media jobs, it’s all in one. And it’s a lot. It really depends on what I’m doing. I like to shoot them at different times if it’s at all humanly possible. It’s obviously going to screw up your shot if you’re stopping to make still images in the middle of the shoot. Plus, it’s different equipment; it’s not just the camera anymore when you’re shooting video. I think you can see it in the product when you have someone who’s almost exclusively a photographer and they shoot a little bit of video. You don’t get as much camera movement. You get more of, like, a moving photograph, if that makes sense, with a lot of photographers doing video. I think as more and more photographers get in to shooting motion, they need to learn more about how to shoot motion. And we are. Slowly. It’s a lot of work. There’s a lot to learn. It’s an entirely new industry.”

Rubenstein got his start in video as a one-man band. His first projects were self-funded and intended to help him branch out in new directions. Many of his professional assignments were one-person jobs where he donned every hat. On larger productions, Rubenstein prefers to be director, but he goes back and forth between directing and DP. It depends on his clients’ needs, he says. And while he hasn’t run a huge motion picture crew, he’s undaunted by the prospect.

Michael Rubenstein

“I did some behind-the-scenes stills of a big crew the other day, and they looked like they were having fun,” he says. “It’s different. There are different pressures, different conversations that need to happen. You’ve got studios breathing down your neck, and you have expectations for financial deliveries and whatnot. It’s a little bit different, but it doesn’t change the fact that when a client trusts me with their production or their advertisement or their editorial piece, I’m going to put just as much effort into it, I like to think, that someone like Steven Spielberg would put into something like Star Wars. With whatever resources I have, I try to make the best piece that I can make. And the cool thing about being Spielberg is, there are tons of people to deal with all the bull. You say, ‘I want this to happen,’ and then 50 people underneath you make it happen.”

So are there differences in the way Rubenstein feels about big-budget productions compared to smaller assignments? Absolutely. But he chooses to see them as inspiring rather than daunting—just another opportunity for growth, creatively and professionally.

“I go out for NBC News, at times,” he says, “and I’m literally running three cameras and audio at the same time. Trial by fire. Just me. One-man crew. You learn. You make your mistakes, you learn how to fix them, and hopefully you have kind bosses, kind editors.

“I mean, look,” he says, “if you were in a new city that you’d never been in with your camera, it’s a lot different than just walking around your neighborhood, right? There’s lots of new stuff to shoot, there are things you haven’t seen before, you get kind of excited about it, at least I do, in a way that I don’t get super-excited about walking around my block in the city. I also think that maybe any trepidation someone feels about expanding projects or making them bigger comes from just not having done it before. And I think that the great thing about video is, there are tons of people out there—ACs and DPs and producers and people who have been working in the industry forever—who are happy to work with you and know their jobs. So as your production starts to get bigger, picking the right crew and relying on your experienced crew who are great at their jobs is more and more important. Give up a little bit of control.”

Taking his hands off the camera has been a bit challenging for Rubenstein, but he’s getting used to it. After all, he says, if you have the right setup with a monitor, in a way you’re still looking at the camera.

“It’s hard for me,” he says, “but I’m getting better at it. Just imagine it as a much bigger camera with another person in between. The AC on my last job actually turned to me in the middle of the job and was like, ‘Look, I’m here to carry the camera so you don’t have to, so let me do my job, please. Give it to me right now.’”

Michael Rubenstein

One of the major benefits of moving from one-man productions to working with larger crews is having a second set (or more) of professionally trained eyes focused on getting the best shot.

“Your DP will do the things you ask them to do,” he explains, “but I also find that I get some of my best footage for a shoot when I let my DP go and just shoot what they want to shoot. You want to hope that you pick somebody who has the eye that you want and the skills that you want. And, if for some reason they don’t see it the way you want them to, you can always ask them to shoot it your way, and you’ll have a couple of different takes.”

Whether he’s working alone or with a crew, Rubenstein’s forte is telling stories about real people doing real things. It’s a look advertisers and editorial clients alike are into.

“Or mostly real people doing real things,” he says. “That’s what I like to do, and I would definitely say that’s my sweet spot. It’s what I shoot for stills, and it ends up in what I shoot for motion a lot of the time. The difference is that, for stills, I’m not looking for an arc, I don’t have a specific story I’m trying to tell, there’s no interview, there’s no audio, with scenes I know I need to get. When I’m going to shoot a video, there’s a lot more pre-production work that goes into it than when I shoot stills. Not that there’s none for stills, but you know, I’m going to make a storyboard and I’m going to think about my story arc, and I’m going to write a script.”

Adds Rubenstein, “Either way, you’re producing something that’s hopefully going to keep someone’s attention for two-and-a-half minutes or two-and-a-half hours, depending on what you’re making. But, yeah, if you ask me what I think when I’m going to make a short film or produce an ad, the first thing I’m thinking about is story. And the second thing I’m thinking about is light and location. I still want it to be beautiful, and I still want it to look right. So I need to think about those things, and then the first thing I’m thinking about is the story—why is it interesting and why does it matter?”

See more of Michael Rubenstein’s work at mrubenstein.com