Jeff Berlin’s portfolio includes tear sheets from some of the world’s leading fashion magazines, rodeo and western portraits from across the American West, portraits of A-list celebrities, hands-on reviews of exotic aircraft, and travel images from around the globe. In addition to his work as a photographer, he is also a director, cinematographer, licensed pilot, certified scuba diver, writer, and editor. Over the years, he has created work in the air, on the sea, and nearly everywhere in between. His biography reads like a choose-your-own adventure, leaping from one exciting project to the next.
Over the years, Berlin’s clients have been as diverse as his interests, ranging from fashion accounts to rodeo and westerns, to airplane manufacturers. Working in partnership with Sony since 2012, he is among the longest-standing Sony Artisans and has had a front seat through its rise to prominence as a mirrorless camera powerhouse. His knowledge and experiences with Sony have followed him into his work as a cinematographer, where he shot a short fashion film for the launch of Sony's VENICE digital cinema camera in 2018.
It all started during a trip to Russia in his freshman year of college. Berlin, equipped with a Canon AE-1 Program set to automatic, began thinking about the creative possibilities of photography. After returning home, he enrolled in classes on photography and photo history—a subject he continues to use as a source of inspiration. As Berlin puts it, “It is important to know who came before you, what they did, and why they are still being talked about.” He took a gig assisting a fashion photographer, where he received the hands-on training necessary to produce a job and interact with clients, hair and makeup, and models. He adds, “I also learned set etiquette—something you can only learn from being on set.” In addition to learning the ropes of commercial photography, he used the opportunity to gain access to agency-represented models and began working on his own portfolio.
In the early 1990s, Berlin moved to Milan for three years and then to Paris for another three to establish himself in the fashion world overseas. According to Berlin, “The full-page fashion editorials in the well of magazines in America were shot by Avedon, Penn, Meisel, Lindbergh, Elgort—in order to get these stories as an emerging photographer you had to go to Europe.” Upon arriving, Berlin immersed himself in the culture around him and began creating new work.
As Berlin tells it, “In Vogue Italia there was a section that was kind of advertorial—it was as close as we were going to get to shooting full-page editorials as young photographers. The top young photographers in Milan were shooting these fashion stories.” It took some time for him to get his footing in the new environment. All the while he was honing his aesthetic and process. Berlin says, “I was shooting large format sheet film. Vogue Italia would give me six sheets per shot. So, I had six chances to get the shot. Anything more would cost me out of pocket. This taught me how to be even more deliberate and calculated.” This trait followed Berlin into the digital era. Over time, his fashion and beauty images would appear in magazines like Vogue Italia, Madame Figaro, British Elle, Miss Vogue, Vogue Pelle, and Jeune et Jolie, among others, and for commercial clients including L’Oreal, Estée Lauder, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Wella, and Bumble & Bumble.
Back in the United States, Berlin’s practice would grow to include celebrity portraiture. Says Berlin, “It was a natural progression, an evolution from my fashion and beauty work, and a lot of fun since celebrities bring another level of personality to the images compared to models.”
It was a job photographing celebrity aviators that would ultimately lead his practice into the sky. According to Berlin, “Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to do stuff with the airplane magazines.” He earned his pilot’s license in 1994 and started working his connections in the aviation industry. His first two articles appeared in a popular aviation magazine named AOPA Pilot, in 2004. After a few years of reviewing airplanes and contributing to a number of magazines, including Private Pilot, Private Air, and a few others, he became editor of Plane & Pilot and Pilot Journal and, later, PilotMag. Over the years, Berlin has flown many different aircraft, from a Piper Super Cub all the way to a Douglas DC-3, an F-16 fighter jet, the Piaggio Avanti turboprop, and, most often, the Cirrus SR22. He has twice flown a Daher TBM 850 across the Atlantic Ocean and once ferried a Cirrus SR22 from the factory in Minnesota to Sao Paulo, Brazil. His aviation images alternate between intimate POVs from the pilot’s seat to bird’s-eye views of aircraft in action.
To achieve his aerial shots, Berlin shoots while tethered into a camera ship equipped with an open door to shoot through while flying in close formation with his subject. Says Berlin, “I’m in the back shooting, talking over my headset with my pilot while either he or his spotter is communicating with the subject aircraft, telling them where to position themselves as I create the shot.” The process is an exercise in trust and expertise. “Air-to-air photography is fun but stressful. I’m thankful every time I land safely after doing it,” he adds. Among his upcoming aviation projects will be photographing a supersonic aircraft—an opportunity that will serve as his fourth time going supersonic.
It was Berlin’s connections in the aviation world that would lead to his next subject: the rodeo. Cirrus Aircraft approached Berlin to see if he wanted to fly a champion roper around the rodeo circuit for a week. The job coincided with Cowboy Christmas, the busiest time of the year for rodeo as competitors vie to score as many points as possible to qualify for the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. Berlin flew his roper to up to three rodeos a day, all around the United States. While on the circuit, he began photographing the cowboys, cowgirls, and people in attendance. Says Berlin, “It was never just about the action in the arena. I’m always drawn to the people.”
In the beginning, he used his Contax G2 rangefinder. He would later switch to Sony’s RX100 II and a7-series mirrorless cameras. According to Berlin, “They have a smaller footprint, which makes them less intimidating to people who are not so used to being in front of a camera. I’m able to capture more quiet moments by not throwing a big lens in my subject’s face.” Despite the informal approach, many of his rodeo portraits embody the refinement and sensibility of his fashion work, whether candid or posed.
When asked about photographing non-models, Berlin advises: “Keep your gear minimal. Be confident and build your subject’s confidence. Maintain a constant dialogue. Be specific with your direction. Your subject gets affirmation from the click of the shutter so don’t shoot in silent mode.” He has been profiled for his western photographs in American Cowboy, Cowboys & Indians, Reno Rodeo, and Wild West magazines.
In 2012, Berlin began creating films on a chance call from a producer friend asking if he wanted to direct and DP a fashion video for Norma Kamali. After agreeing to the project, he met up with an experienced industry friend, who gave him a crash course in cinematography over coffee. He assembled a team and got to work. Berlin says, “If you are a photographer, you are the Director, the DP, and the gaffer, and your assistants are your grips. Filmmaking is much more collaborative.” The experience led him to dive deeper into the art and craft of filmmaking. “It’s a different language that I’ve had to learn. It has been a journey,” he adds.
When Sony unveiled its VENICE 6K Digital Motion Picture Camera in 2018, Berlin was given the opportunity to create a short film demoing the camera’s capabilities. His piece, The Shoot, which provided a behind-the-scenes view of a fashion model’s experience at a photo shoot, ended up opening the camera’s launch event at the Cine Gear Expo.
The Shoot, short film for the launch of the Sony VENICE 6K Motion Picture Camera
Today, Berlin’s reel has grown to include music videos, narrative films, aerial footage, and underwater work. In 2018, he co-DP’d the narrative short, Stormchaser, which was awarded Best Cinematography at the Williamsburg Independent Film Festival, in 2019, and is continuing its rounds in the festival circuit. Reflecting on his career, Berlin gives the following advice: “One thing I always tell people is that they should follow their passions, as I have. Life is just too short. There are people packing boxes and loading trucks at Amazon warehouses right now, as I write this. That is what they are doing, all day, every day. Follow. Your. Passions. I’ve somehow navigated even making my passions collide. You can, too.”
What is your most-used Sony lens?
For fashion and portraits: Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM Lens
For aviation: Sony FE 24-70 f/2.8 GM Lens
What is your dream lens from Sony?
A 50mm f/0.95 or a 40mm f/1.4.
Zoom or prime?
For aviation, zoom. For portraits and fashion, prime.
Telephoto or wide-angle?
Studio or location?
One of my favorite things is to be in the studio. I’ve always loved walking into an empty room and making magic.