Studio Z Unique Photography owner Steve Zavisa stands in the front of his studio, a renovated 19th Century farmhouse in Rutherford County.
A brief, two-minute trek down Asbury Lane off Medical Center Parkway yields a 19th Century, completely restored farmhouse nestled on some 40 acres of Rutherford County farmland.
To the left of a straight, gravel drive is a vintage, rusty flatbed pickup. On the right is a smallish barn, its wood weathered through the seasons. Sprawling throughout the green, plush lawn are century-old trees, each with its own character and charm. Flowerbeds and oversized rocks are strategically placed alongside antique table-and-chair sets, while old fashioned, single swings sway alongside.
Most noticeable is an impressive rock feature designed with three waterfalls and a 3,000-gallon pond completely stocked with fish.
Faux and real bridges cross from one section of the lawn to another, sometimes backing up to a thicket of trees. And behind the farmhouse is a small cove that lets in just the perfect amount of sunlight near a smokehouse as old as the home itself.
This picturesque setting has been designed to be just that – picturesque and perfect – for portraits to be taken by Steve Zavisa, owner of Studio Z Unique Photography.
“Everything you see out here wasn’t out here, except for the trees,” Zavisa said during a tour of the grounds.
He’s referring to four years ago, when he relocated his photography business to the farmhouse. A 20-year veteran of the photography industry, Zavisa launched his own business in 2004 after working with Glamour Shots and then several local photographers.
For two straight months he renovated the old farmhouse – inside, he has 2,500 square feet of studio space with 800 square feet filled with props upstairs, while outside lies five acres of portrait-perfect potential. A person who would normally have to travel to a dozen locations to access what Zavisa has created on one lot. He has even opened Studio Z’s space as a wedding venue.
“Renovations were completed four years ago … but now there’s trees and there’s shrubs, and we’ve got flower gardens that are mature,” Zavisa explained. “Then – talk about the whole year was like a December or January – there wasn’t grass, the trees were fine, but there were no flowers. You’ve got to walk before you can run. You’ve got to fill it up; you’ve got to find the places where you’re going to put your flower gardens. I came into just a field with a broken down old shack. Literally, it was abandoned for two years, so you can imagine.”
Zavisa is now enjoying the fruits of his labor.
“Four years ago, we were in business; we were ready to roll,” he remembers. “I was doing good, I was struggling for places (to shoot portraits), but now I’m not struggling for anything. I can go outside any time of day and have a blast.”
The photographer spoke of the difference between himself and “those people who just get a camera and put it on program and shoot 10,000 shots and give you 50 of them on a CD.” Zavisa said he brings value to the community by employing a staff and paying taxes to conduct his small business.
“I don’t want to sound negative, but the way I was introduced into this industry was with proper portrait lighting, proper portrait posing – all geared towards portrait work, not just a picture,” he said. “Nobody is going to buy a (picture) and put it over their mantle.”
But Zavisa’s clients do purchase his portraits – some of their children smiling and laughing, others of entire families – to hang throughout their homes. For this reason, Studio Z provides framing options, along with prints and photograph restoration.
Using his knowledge of photography and various camera settings, Zavisa can achieve a particular look while shooting what others can only achieve by using picture-editing programs after the fact.
“Knowledge of the lighting, of the shadows, of catching the lights in their eyes – there’s all that stuff to look for,” Zavisa said. “That’s part of a portrait. If you look at any of my portraits, you’ll see catch lights in their eyes. That’s all what I put in there, I don’t do it computer-enhanced.”
He highlighted one particular look desired by a lot of clients where everything in the background of a photo is blurred.
“People are doing that on the computer, but you can do it on the camera if you know what you’re doing,” Zavisa says. “I’m always switching my camera from manual to AV to TV, never on program, because I do everything off-camera flash-wise.”
Two decades of experience as a portrait photographer allows Zavisa to know exactly where his equipment should be, where his assistant should stand and how his subject should be posed.
And there’s a natural talent that comes along with Zavisa’s work. In five minutes of goofing around with children (and even adult) clients, they are completely at ease, which allows Zavisa to capture their true personality and beauty, not the nerves that can accompany a photo shoot, studio manager Laura Caffey explained.
She has been with Studio Z since its beginnings eight years ago and is still amazed by Zavisa every day.
“Early on, I saw a young person who had the ‘whole ball of wax,’” she said, explaining how Zavisa has a passion for working with people, namely children.
“He is just amazing with all ages, just absolutely amazing. They start having fun and forget about what they’re doing. They start acting like themselves, and that’s what you actually want to capture.”
Caffey said Zavisa creates everything as he goes along with each individual subject.
“It’s all in his head; he’s not following a routine,” she says. “It’s like he zeroes in on a subject’s personality, and from that, that’s where he goes.”
She noted parents who began working with Zavisa for prenatal portraits. They have since participated in the children’s club – storybook albums documenting a child’s life through portraits – and continued through their child’s high school graduation with senior portraits.
Zavisa calls himself a portrait photographer, not a picture photographer, and it keeps his clients coming back time after time.