Shoot First

Commercial photographer Chris Zsarnay on the business of “creating images.”

By Ryan A. Smith

Photo by T Christian Gapen

A long exposure and a pair of strobes fired at intervals reveal two sides of photographer Chris Zsarnay, seen here in his Ventura studio. (No, the image wasn’t photoshopped.)


hris Zsarnay moved to Ventura 30 years ago to become a photographer. Since then, a degree from Brooks Institute and a natural sense for the business have combined with a lot of hard work and a flash of good fortune to make him one of Ventura County’s go-to studio magicians, a shooter known for his solid eye and razor-sharp technique. We recently asked Zsarnay to share his unique path into the ultra-competitive trade of commercial photography.

How did you go from an Air Force cook to a commercial photographer? I was in the Air Force in Ohio, where I met my wife. I always dreamed of being a photographer, and after we got out my wife asked me what it takes to become one. ‘I guess going to photography school,’ I said. Well, this was around 1984; there was no Internet, so I looked for leads in photography magazines.

What were your options at that point? There were the Art Centers, but I really didn’t want to go there. I considered RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) and Brooks Institute. My wife is from New York, and she told me, ‘We’re not going to Rochester, let’s go to California.’

So you packed up, moved to Ventura, and have never left? We really fell in love with Ventura. I went to Brooks from 1985-’88. We had no real plans to stay in California. We came here with no money, no place to live, just our cars. But we figured we’d give it a try. Now it’s 30 years later.

What was Brooks like in the mid-’80s? Fun! (Laughs.) Fun, hard, it was great. Ernie Brooks was still there. It was before the big corporation came in and took it all over. It was very family-oriented back then.

How many students were in your class? There were 60 of us at the beginning. There were maybe 300 or so running around the entire school. Out of 60, 20 of us graduated. As of today, I know maybe four or five of us who are still in the business.

In school, what was your plan, your dream, your goal? When I entered Brooks, I had no plan, no dream, no goal. I just wanted to be a working photographer of some sort. I didn’t know if I was going to shoot weddings, or work for a magazine…

What turned your focus to the commercial side? Actually, my wife met a Brooks graduate, Bill Hendricks, who was opening a studio in Ventura. He said he hired part-time assistants, and she told him I was at Brooks. I went by, spoke to Bill, and, in early ’86, started working as a commercial studio assistant. At that time, I had no idea what commercial photography was; I just wanted to help as much as I could. I ended up working for Bill full-time all the way through school, and after I graduated, I worked for him for two more years. Soon thereafter, he decided to sell the business, and that was my opportunity to take over his studio. The funny thing was, it took me about four months to convince myself that’s what I wanted to do, because I discovered commercial photography isn’t about photography. It is about business and marketing and advertising. The business side is 80 percent of it, photography 20.

What is unique about your commercial photography style? I’ve always specialized in lighting: interesting, inventive ways to make products look really good. In the early days, people hired me because I lit things so much differently than anybody else in the area. I try to differentiate myself. I don’t say that we ‘take pictures,’ I say we ‘create images.’ Anybody can take a picture. When we give an image to a client, it’s something they hired us to produce because they know they can’t do it themselves. We want to give them something exceptional.

What’s your favorite subject to shoot? It used to be my daughter. She was a professional skateboarder, so I traveled with her for about five years. I loved photographing her. If I had to do something creative on my own, I’d do more abstracts of something really old, something simple. But I really like to shoot things that pay us money (laughs). Those are the most fun.

If money wasn’t a factor, what would you shoot? I would have loved to shoot professional golf in the mid-1980s.

Ideally, would you shoot digital or film? Digital. It’s just so much easier. It’s funny, when we used to shoot film we really had to know what we were doing. It’s unfortunate that, over the years now, almost anybody can pick up a digital camera and get something decent. Before, you really needed to have the know-how, especially when shooting transparency film. You didn’t have latitude. You had to know the situation you were going into, which ISO film to use, if you had to push it or pull it, how to light and execute to create a really good image.

What’s good about working in Ventura? Smaller town. The weather. I like the environment here. One of the reasons I love Ventura is because it isn’t LA, but we are close enough to go down there if necessary. Nowadays, you can work anywhere. I have clients in New York, Texas, LA… Some I never meet or see.

Is it harder to get clients because you’re in a smaller market than New York, LA, or San Francisco? Maybe. But I’ve never had a problem. I have clients come up from LA and fly in from out of state. When they get here, they love it. They say, ‘Wow, you can actually work up here and make a living, and you don’t have to live in the city.’

More online at

An advertising image for Seminis Seed Company, this deceptively simple shot required just the right amount of glow and edge lighting to make it pop.

Short-duration high-speed strobes capture a lime and soda splash in an image created for a Brooks Institute photography and lighting demo.

Zsarnay shot this restored 1966 VW Beetle Cabriolet in Santa Paula at dusk, using multiple exposures and lighting techniques. The photo was then composited and light painted in Photoshop to obtain the desired effect.

Z Studios collaborated with Ventura’s Ray Hennessy, the former creative director of a successful ad agency, to create this image for Workrite Uniforms in Oxnard.

Working for Dan Glassman Professional Window Washing in Ventura, Zsarnay and his team captured this look by using the sun as a back light and filling the front with a strobe.


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