Calling John Sterling Ruth a perpetual motion machine may be an exaggeration. But it’s a small one.
Standing in his massive, 4,000-square foot commercial studio, which he renovated from a 200-year-old barn he rescued in 1995, he explains he’s been hard to pin down for an interview because of his work and travel schedule. “I’ve been called a workaholic, and I suppose I can’t deny that,” the 50-year-old admits with a wry smile. “I’ve always been a 24/7 kind of photographer.”
He’s rarely taken more than five days of vacation a year over the past three decades. And until three years ago, when he and his wife moved from their farmhouse closer to his Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, studio, he would usually return to work after dinner. “I don’t do that much anymore,” he says. “And I know I finally made the right decision. I look at my daughter, who is now 10 years old and think, Where did that 10 years go?”
Though he now has more of a home life, the award-winning photographer is still busy—shooting, traveling, editing, and running a thriving commercial photography business that boasts prestigious clients including Volvo Trucks, American Express, Mastercard, Comcast, Coca-Cola, and Crayola. With nearly half of his assignments requiring location work, he’s often on the road.
“Let’s see,” he says as he leans back in an office chair and begins to run through last month’s assignments. “We were in Costa Rica doing a five-day adventure and lifestyle shoot for Olympus. Then off to Dallas to photograph trucks for Mack Trucks. Then back to the studio to edit and shoot assignments for Martin Guitar and BASF.” He pauses to catch his breath and adds, “Oh yeah, we also went to Florida” to photograph children and families at Orlando’s Crayola Experience in Orlando.
Ruth explains that one reason he never tires of his work is this non-stop variety. Although he’s become well-known and in-demand for his niche as a truck and automobile photographer, he’s never let himself be pigeonholed. “The variety keeps me fresh,” he says. “One day I may be rappelling down waterfalls and surfing in Costa Rica on a shoot, a week later I am lighting a complex product shot in my studio, and then it’s off somewhere to photograph models and trucks. It’s never boring and always a challenge.”
There’s another reason it’s never dull: He’s added video to his photographic arsenal and now regularly shoots “motion,” as he terms it, as well as stills for the majority of clients. “I say ‘motion’ because I don’t look at myself as a video guy. I approach my motion work the same way I do my still work: It is as if I am shooting moving stills. You have to know how to compose a shot and get it right in the camera.”
Although he was uncertain about the demand for video when he started offering it some six years ago, it’s grown remarkably. “I started slowly, wondering if motion would take off like digital did years ago. I bought a couple DSLR video cameras, some continuous lighting equipment, and taught myself and my team [he has a full-time crew of three, including his wife, Lisa, and longtime right-hand man Erik Nelson] to produce videos.”
Over the past six years video has become an increasingly important part of his work, and today it accounts for nearly half his sales revenue. That’s up from 30 percent just a few years ago. “We started out making short videos, then graduated to longer pieces, then commercial-length productions,” says Ruth. His most ambitious project, the 37-minute documentary “Ballad of the Dreadnought,” celebrates the 100-year history of the famous Martin guitar.
After running a successful photography studio for nearly three decades, John Sterling Ruth shares advice:
Don’t be a prima donna. Believe this: Clients can live without you.
Be as good at business as photography. It’s not easy being an entrepreneur.
Give 100 percent, 100 percent of the time. Treat every client the same.
Be a team player. Negotiate with clients when necessary.
Be willing to try new things. Video now accounts for half his revenue.
He’s added a full-time video editor to his team and now boasts a full editing suite and $400,000 of video equipment, including everything from video cameras to drones to stabilizers to dollies. “It’s a major investment but has really paid off,” says Ruth. Clients are attracted by the idea of getting both still photography and video on the same assignment. “We are using the same locations, the same models, the same support staff,” he says. “That helps keep costs down and is important when clients want their still and motion offerings to have the same look.” Depending on the nature of the job, Ruth may employ up to 30 people on an assignment, including location scouts, models, stylists, makeup artists, prop people, security, and more.
Clients have used Ruth’s videos as television advertisements, on YouTube, websites, blogs, and Facebook, as in-house promotions, and for all manner of merchandising. “Looking back, when I was considering adding motion, I remember wondering if clients were going to say, No. You are a still guy, why would we hire you for video? But they didn’t,” he says.
Dick Boak, director of special projects at C.F. Martin and Co., a client of Ruth’s for almost three decades, put it this way: “John brings the same creativity to his video work that he does to his still photography. He’s a multitalented artist who always delivers 100 percent.”
It’s no surprise that a photographer who so often talks about motion finds automotive and truck photography the most exhilarating. “I love being around cars and trucks and motorcycles,” says Ruth as he shows off his classic 1955 Thunderbird and his museum-quality collection of vintage motorcycles, displayed in his studio. When asked to pick a favorite bike, he hesitates and finally admits, “That’s impossible. But my 1912 Harley or 1912 Indian would be right up there.” He pauses again, “And there’s the Ducati; that’s very rare. Or the 1923 Indian Chief with a sidecar.” He laughs and adds, “Don’t make me pick!”
A recent project for Mack Trucks sums up Ruth’s automotive zeal. He was working on a closed highway to get a shot of a truck in motion—the blurred “rolling” shot for which he’s become famous. “I’m hanging out the back of a car just a few inches off the road and we’re doing 70 miles per hour,” says Ruth. “There’s the roar of the engines, the road whistling by, and my adrenaline is pumping big time as I’m looking for the perfect shot. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Robert Kiener is a writer in Vermont.