Gear is fun but it's what we do with it that counts.

 Kirk and the clients.  I'm praying hard that the carefully feathered umbrellas deliver photons to the back of the room.  Love the ladder.

I just wrote a review about the Olympus EPL2 and I'll admit it was fun to get back all the comments.  It was even more fun to get nearly 20,000 viewers in three days!  But concentrating on gear reviews sends a skewed message to readers who are beginning their journey in photography or for people who are contemplating leaving the warm safety and security of "real" jobs to try their hand at freelance photography.  I think everyone would love to believe that, by investing in the right camera and a magic lens, they would be able to enjoy success in the wild and woolly field of "professional" photography.  I wish it were true.  I've already spent tens of thousands of dollars on gear....I should be a millionaire by now.....I'll have to check with my CFO, maybe I already am.....but I doubt it.

As the antidote to the "big" review I thought I'd dissect the shoot done Monday after I posted the blog (yesterday) and came down from the fun of mass communications to the reality of the business on the ground.  Is that okay with you?

I had an assignment to photograph for one of the best clients I've worked with in a while.  They are a large medical practice here in Austin.  Their practice has nearly ten locations and almost 100 employees. Monday was the day of their annual meeting and they held it at a giant, local restaurant.  My job was to shoot candid shots of the meeting, set up, direct and shoot a group shot of 100 people and then reset on the fly and shoot seven different groups from the different offices with anywhere from 10 to 20 people in the groups.  Sounds easy, right?

Let's do the dissection.

The group shot was going to take place in a large room with a stage.  The lights would have to be at least twelve feet in the air, as far back from the front row as possible with 60 inch umbrellas to soften the light, and they'd have to be feathered just right to keep to much of light off the front row and put just enough light on the back row.  That also meant we'd need a lot more power than I'd be able to get out of conventional shoe mount flashes (sorry Strobist disciples...).  But the lights would have to be set up in a public area with traffic.

The smaller group shots could be done in the same area but with a canvas background and they'd have to be done right after the main group shot so we'd have to be quick because we had dozens and dozens of people waiting and we were between them and their unofficial happy hour.

I also needed a camera that would reliably handle the candid shots I also needed to take in the main meeting room.  And it was a bit of a nightmare in there, with light coming in from floor to ceiling, west facing window on one side of the room and a darkened area with a projector on the other.

So I just showed up and we shot, right?  Nope.

The main photo would commemorate the 40th anniversary of the practice so we were determined to do this job absolutely correctly.  That started with a scouting trip to the location a week out from the event.  Yes, we charge for that.  The client and I went thru every step of the upcoming meeting and we mapped out how we would handle the group, how they would be arranged, who would be sitting and who would be standing.  We worked with the venue to ascertain when we could have access to the room and what we needed in terms of seating, graphics on a large screen in the back of the room, and where to load in gear.

I decided I'd do the shot with two big umbrella lights so the night before the shoot I put two Profoto Acute 600b battery packs on the chargers after running a "set up and fire" test on both systems.  I wanted both system batteries charged and ready to go.  I also charged several extra batteries for the Canon 5Dmk2's I selected for the project.    Before I hit the rack I made a thorough list of everything I would need for the next day.  The next morning I went to early swim practice (7 am) so I'd have ample time to pack and organize.

I packed a collapsible ladder, two complete Profoto 600b systems  (six hundred watt seconds each, one head each) two sixty inch softlighter umbrellas.  Three twelve foot Manfrotto stands.  I brought along a Manfrotto Magic Arm and camera plate which I attached, in lieu of a tripod, to the top of the ladder with a Super Clamp.  That gave me a solid and stable shooting platform.  I packed two Canon 5Dmk2's and both a 24-105mm L zoom and the same complement of wide angle and telephoto prime lenses as back up.  I also brought a Sekonic 758 flash meter and a set of background stands.  I brought a laptop with the graphic for the background screen loaded on it and also the logo on a disk.  The final cargo that went into the Element was four twenty pound sand bags.

I was scheduled to arrive at the location at noon but, of course, I got there at 11:30.  You never know about traffic.  My assistant, Amy, arrived at 11:45 for a noon call.  She shares my view about traffic.  We had a brief discussion with my client and we decided that we really would like to have a white background behind the groups to make it easier to drop out the individual office shots.  I sent Amy on the one hour round trip to retrieve said background from the studio.  No sweat.  The giant group shot would happen at three and the smaller groups, the ones we needed the background for, would be after that.

Before Amy left we loaded the cases, ladder and other materiel onto our cart and dragged it in the and unloaded it.  I did as much as I could in terms of setting up but the room wouldn't really be fully available to us until two o'clock.  I grabbed a camera, set the ISO to 2500 and headed into the main meeting room for candid shots.  I love shooting events.  You have a temporary license to get close in and shoot people without feeling self conscious.

When Amy returned we set up our main lights for the big group.  We put forty pounds of sandbags on each of the two stands and also used the strobe boxes as ballasts.  Using the Profoto's at their full 600 watts per unit, bouncing into the 60 inch umbrellas, I was able to set an exposure of f11.5 throughout the room at full power, based on an ISO of 320.  And that's an ISO I know to be optimum with the 5D cameras.  Once we were set and we measured every row with an incident flash meter I double checked that the radio slaves were banging and that every component had fresh batteries.  I attached  our other camera to the top of the ladder with the Magic Arm and locked in a  good composition.  Then I went back to shooting candids as Amy stood guard over the set up.

Right at 3pm the meeting broke and the people flowed into my shooting space light the rushing tide.  If you are shy and retiring this is not the kind of job you'll want to tackle.  I needed to get 100 people into position quickly so I could make this shot work before the crowd lost it's positive energy.  I can get very loud.  And I did.  We moved all the people into position and then dealt with the stragglers.  I got onto the ladder and fine tuned the crowd from the shooting position.  Amy's job was to make sure both boxes were firing and nothing technically failed.  My job was to get people to focus their energy to the front of the room and not blink, scratch, nervously joke with the person next to them, etc. until we had a couple fo perfect shots in the can.

I chose the battery powered Profotos because I've shot big groups before and the last thing I wanted to do was to string long extension cords across the crowded floor and take the chance that someone would trip over one and bring the whole shoot to a quick and liability laden halt.  But the tradeoff is that at full power they take four or five seconds to recycle.  That's where the photographer's playful banter comes in handy.

Before I announced the successful end of the big shot I made sure to remind the people in the smaller groups that they would need to stay close by while Amy and I added a background and reset our lights.  We moved a white background onto the shooting stage and then manhandled the sandbagged lights into  new positions.  The background was up, the lights positioned and powered down a bit in less than three minutes.  Amy stood in for the meter reading and then I called the first group in.  Two minutes and ten exposures later we were on to the next.  We kept up the pace and within twenty minutes all the groups had been shot and kidded around with.

At this juncture I'll mention what you can obviously see in the photographs of me on the ladder.  I am wearing a suit and a tie and a pressed dress shirt.  (I did take my jacket off to unload the car......)
Why?  Because we, as photographers, always moan about money and budgets and the fact that people don't take what we do seriously.  Well, it's hardly a surprise when so many of our "profession"  dress like roadies or starving artists or musicians that people think our reward is our "artistic" satisfaction and our alternative lifestyles.  The suit (or coat and tie)  reassures my marketing directors that we mean business and, for most people we photograph, it means we operate in the same strata as the people who run the companies they work for .

I work as an equal with my clients.  Not as an employee.  And most of the people who actually sign the checks dress professionally and, whether it's a conscious decision or not, the way you dress is a clue about where you are in the pecking order.  Asking for top fees?  Dress like it!

I shook hands with the partners and officers and then Amy and I packed up our gear and wheeled it back out to the noble Honda Element.  We got back to the studio and broke everything out of the travel cases, made sure we didn't leave any crucial elements behind, and then stuck the battery powered strobe packs and camera batteries on the chargers.

After Amy left I sat at the computer and ingested all of the files by category, backed them up to a second drive and started editing.  By dinner I'd done a quick but good edit and I started the file conversion to web gallery small jpeg files.  After dinner I started uploads to two different galleries and the went about checking and packing all the gear I would need for the next day's shoot.  A totally different shoot.  This one on location at one of the practice's offices.  I did NOT wear a suit for that one.  I wore a dark grey sport coat, white button down and a slim, burgundy tie.  And the client was better dressed than I.

Once the client chooses images for the website and ads I'll spend some time working with my retoucher so she knows what the client and I want, and then, upon delivery,  I'll make one more set of back up files  and get my billing out the door.  And that's the anatomy of yesterday's shoot.

Did stuff go wrong?  You bet.  I left the studio without my wallet.  Amy got it for me when she went back for the background.  I wish the room had been bigger so I could have shot from further back, etc, etc.  But it all went pretty much according to plan and that's what good clients pay for.  Dress up.  Tomorrow should be your "A" game.
Kirk on a ladder trying to levitate the crowd.

After Monday's shoot, and all the wrap up and post production, I clicked off the lights and headed for home.  All of fifteen steps away.  I said goodnight to Ben and, as Belinda worked on designing a website for one of her clients I cracked open the laptop that's dedicated to writing books and got back to work on the fifth book.  The due date is fast approaching.  By 2 am the house was quiet, I'd hit my 2000 word goal and I crept off to bed.  In five hours I'd be back in the pool, and then doing some variation of this day all over again.


mshafik said...

That was a really interesting insight, so thanks for that. I love reading your articles and thoughts.

I have been a long time reader but never commented, until now. You must have been in a real hurry (maybe sleepy?), it's my first time to spot spelling or word mistakes, so I am not commenting to be a smart-ass, but I think you moderate your comments so I just wanted to get your attention to this point and say hi. :-)

BTW, I really respect your swimming habits.

François said...

Hi Kirk,
very instructive,thanks for sharing.
By the way, levitate the crowd does not seem to be the hardest part !

Dave Elfering Photography said...

While I value your hardware insights, these articles are the true bread & butter. I appreciate them because I sort of visualize myself managing potential situations and that is truly helpful. This is part of what I valued in the Commercial Photography Handbook as well. To me gear reviews are akin to giving someone fish, but allowing us to benefit from your professional experience is more about teaching someone HOW to fish. Today's hot camera is tomorrow's Ebay fodder but professional acumen is by far more valuable.

Dave Elfering Photography said...

PS - This looks like the set from the old TV show Cheers.

Dave Jenkins said...

You do all this on five hours of sleep and then go swimming? You're a better man than I am, Kirk. (Younger, too!)

Blake said...

"whether it's a conscious decision or not, the way you dress is a clue about where you are in the pecking order"

so true, Kirk. men, especially, have forgotten how to dress well.

Anonymous said...

I'm just waiting to watch the blow back from the cargo shorts, track shoes, black t-shirt, fishing vest crowd. You once said guys wearing vests looked like Walmart greeters. How true. Man up out there. Dress like you deserve it.

Alan Fairley said...

Another excellent "how-to" post (i.e., how to do your stuff like a real professional). Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge with us.

FrankG said...

I think everyone who has a passion for photography has a hard time ignoring a camera review. Procuring a new piece of hardware is generally within reach for most of us and all that it requires is a credit card. The stories you tell about how you conduct a portrait session or how your team produces a shoot for a customer are priceless lessons on the reality of the business of photography. Thank you for all you are doing.

David Ingram said...

Great info! I would be very nervous standing high on a ladder speaking to a crowd of docs!

You might want to invest in a white lab coat identifying yourself as Dr. Photon.

Archer Sully said...

As usual Kirk, excellent advice. Professionalism and preparation pays dividends every time. A good suit really is anyone's most important piece of gear ;-).

Clay said...

Great to see you emphasising the dressing appropriately for the situation. Seems to be something regularly forgotten.

Mel said...

Excellent on-the-job article covering the behind the scene aspects. You do a great job of balancing the gear reviews with the practical use of the gear.


Ed Lara said...

Thanks, Kirk, for another good read. While I came to find your blog because of your equipment reviews, your stories from the real world of professional photography and reflections on staying true to a personal artistic vision have been a source of great insight and inspiration. I am always impressed by the level of discipline you apply to your client shoots, however large or small. In my twenty+ years on the client side I've really only seen this level of thoroughness on big TV ad shoots, very rarely on shoots or print or web.

Chris said...

I always enjoy reading about your shoots and how you prep and handle them. I'm wondering why you used the Profoto system instead of the Elinchrom Ranger?

Curt Schimmels said...

You look quite dapper on the ladder!

Living in California for the last 17 years has spoiled me to an extent as this is, for the most part, a place were work dress codes are casual. Having said that, I truly appreciate your points with regard to professionalism. I have an artist friend down in Florida who can rarely be found in his studio in anything other than a t-shirt and baggy shorts. However, I have gone with him to galleries where he was on display, and he always dressed in nice slacks and a sports coat. His belief was the same as yours. If you want to be taken seriously, act the part.

I am a bit curious about your workflow for an assignment like this. What type of editing do you do for group shots, given the intricacy of such a shot?

kirk tuck said...

Curt, great question about workflow. I have a wonderful client and they trust me to go thru the 30 frames we shot and find the best one. That said, if I find the two or three decision makers look better in other shots I have no hesitation in having my retoucher grab the best heads and moving them into the best group. I'll also pick the best image for each of the smaller groups and polish that before delivery.

Other clients might want to see everything but I'll still try to narrow the choices down for them to the best three or four....