9.21.2012

Anatomy of a recent job. Broken down and discussed.

A killer combination: The a77 with amazing low ISO DR Performance and high resolution coupled with a Zeiss 80mm Planar 2.8. Stopped down to f5.6 for nice portrait imaging.

I got a call from a client I'd worked with extensively in the past but who had fallen off the radar for the last ten years. She'd left the ad world to run a small design shop and had gone from a situation (large agency) where she had been commissioning photography frequently to a situation that called for no photography. I missed working with her because she was a great art director and very organized.  So I was very happily surprised to hear from her again. She'd modified her career trajectory a bit and was now the in-house marketing person for a statewide business.

She asked for a bid to go on a location, set up two different portrait shooting areas and then photograph 13 different executives.  I would be making a formal portrait in an interior conference room of each person and then we'd move to the exterior location and make individual portraits there. The executives would be on site for a meeting and one of the marketing people would be responsible for pulling them out of the meeting and delivering them to each location.

I estimated for the following:

One day of photography (I was pretty sure we'd only need to be on location from 7am to 1pm but a full day fee also covered pre-packing, testing and travel. And I was correct).

One day of assistance.

Two hours scouting to go and look at the location and make sure there was a good, safe place to shoot our exterior work and that the conference room we'd be assigned was both big enough, and could be cleared of tables and chairs so we'd have unobstructed working space.

Then I estimated a full day of post production. (this would actually be broken up between two half days. First I would ingest the raw files into Lightroom to label and catalog, adjust and the output as lower res jpeg files to create a web gallery for my Smugmug Pro account. Once the client chose images the second half day would be spent retouching and enhancing 26 images in a combination of PhotoShop and Portrait Professional). The finals would be delivered electronically.

The last step of the estimate was to factor in usage. The client was adamant that they wanted "unlimited" usage rights so we added that to our budget.

My regular assistant was committed on a long term project but she recommended a new assistant to me who worked out well.  We met in the parking lot of the location at 7:15 am (I was 15 minutes early and, happily, so was she...) and started loading up our heavy duty cart. It's amazing how much gear you need to bring to do a portrait correctly in two locations.

We set up the interior location first. The background was a nine foot roll of Savage Smoke Grey seamless paper. It was lit by a small Chimera softbox used close in with an Elinchrom D-Lite 4 IT monolight set minimum power.

I used a 42 inch Elinchrom Varistar to the left of camera as a main light and a 60 inch softlighter umbrella to the right as a fill light.  I added a gridded light from the background as an accent light.  I brought my own posing stool because I can't stand trying to use conference room chairs for portraits.  I also brought a half apple crate so the subjects could put a foot up on the box to help with posing.

Once we had the first location set up and tested we moved to a third floor bridge which gave us top cover all day long and allowed for views to the northeast and southwest throughout the day.  Since this was an exterior location I had no desire to run a 25 or 50 foot extension cord into a door and tape it down (high traffic area---potentially) so I used a Profoto 600B Acute battery powered flash into another 42 inch Varistar as my sole light here.  I depended on natural light for fill.  We anchored the light with two twenty pound sandbags and tested the crap out of the location before heading back downstairs to greet our first subject.

I brought along two sets of radio triggers and two tripods, as well as two cameras and two sets of lenses, just so I would not have to move any gear between sets as we worked. The idea was to do all the shots in one location first and then move to the second location for the rest of the shots but nothing ever works so smoothly in the real world. There's always someone who needs to leave early and needs to have both shots done one right after the other. But hey, part of good customer service means that we're ultimately flexible.  And with both systems up and running it was only a matter of heading up and down the stairs a few more times.

I've been testing portrait lenses lately and have really come to like the Hasselblad standard 80mm lens for several reasons. Mostly because it's just the right focal length for most portraits but also because it has a very nice out of focus look that it imparts to background.  At f5.6 the lens is critically sharp but not clinically sharp.  What I mean by that is that the lens shows the detail you want without beating the subject to death with the detail.  It feels like resolution rather than hard, crunchy, show-off-y sharpness.  Unless you want to crank up the clarity slider in PS and make everyone a dermatological nighmare....

The lens is easy to use on the front of a Sony a77 with a simple adapter.  You have to remember to use the stop down lever to lock in the shooting aperture. I focused at the taking aperture (usually 5.6) with the very, very convenient and well implemented focus peaking feature of the camera.  (This feature alone makes Sony cameras must haves for people who like to shoot with older, manual focus lenses).

Since I had only one adapter for Hasselblad lenses I used the Sony 85mm 2.8 lens for the exterior location photographs.

We carried along our make-up kit with various translucent powders, at least 13 brushes (sterilized with alcohol) and a fresh supply of hair combs, still in their packaging. We needed to "powder" most of the subjects to eliminate as much shine from their faces as possible. Our make-up kit includes a barber's drape to cover the subject's clothes and we used it on everyone since they were in dark suits for the most part.

I shoot between 25 and 50 shots of each person in each location and ended up with nearly 1200 frames for the day. During my initial post processing I eliminated about 60% of the frames in editing.

I dawned on me as I write this that the packing, moving, unpacking, repacking, moving, unpacking part of the process takes almost as long as our actual time shooting.  Someone once said that good location photography is 90% about re-arranging the furniture and I think they were right.

The process doesn't stop when we come back through the door of the studio. The lead/acid batteries for the Profoto Acute light should be recharged within a day from their use. The camera batteries go on the charger. There are DVD's to be burned. All the gear gets inspected, cleaned and replaced in the proper storage area. Invoices need to be written and a check sent to the assistant.  In the end, a seemingly simple shoot like this takes up the better part of two full days.  More if you are lazy and do things in spurts (guilty). And this is where photographers routinely lose money. They fail to bill for travel, post, packing and admin. time.  If we billed for every hour we spend on a shoot we make money.  If we let stuff slide or give time away we lower our rate per hour, mess up our margins and train clients to think that everything is included in one rate.

Kind of like going to an all inclusive resort with full open bar.  Tough to make money that way unless you're just making cheap drinks from watered down bottles....

I've delivered the galleries and I'm waiting for the selections to come back. The accounting is underway and I'm on to the next project.

I just thought I'd write about an assignment we just completed.  There's so much B.S. out there about what photographers actually do I thought you'd like to know pretty much exactly what we did on Weds. and part of Thurs.... It's a real world photo assignment from a smaller market.  I know we'd probably do this differently in NYC or LA but....















29 comments:

Libby said...

Years ago when I shot weddings I was having a soda at the bar and one of the groomsmen commented on how it must have been nice to just have to work Saturdays ;-)

Even in the film days, there was checking out locations etc. In fact on one job, the couple had requested that the formals be shot a public indoor garden about 25 miles away. The Thursday before the wedding, I said to myself that I had better take a run up there. I had not been there in a couple of years, When I got to the location, I found they had just closed to building and were ripping out all of the palms, exotic plants etc to ready the premises for a new tenant. Yeah I had fun explaining that one to the couple. I did hear of a couple of shooters who got burned and never went to check the premises.

So many of the New Pretenders think it's push a button and sell prints on smugmug and base their pricing an strategy around that. They're so dead wrong. Good post - it's real life.

RocketRick said...

Thanks, Kirk. It's good to be reminded that the photography business is really the Business of photography -- if you don't take care of the business part, you'll never be able to make a living doing the photography part.

I also really appreciate seeing these "behind the scenes" glimpses of your workflow.

Thanks for sharing!

David Liang said...

Awesome insight into your work Kirk. Quick question is the 25-50 shots per person average for Corporate photography, or were you adjusting to something surrounding the circumstances?

mshafik said...

These are my favorite type of posts, along with gear-mania and nerdness, thanks for giving the BTS version of what would seem as a straight job, requiring no more than a few props.

Mel said...

Outstanding write up, very informative. Interesting how the "work" of focusing on the subject and pressing the shutter release (what people think a photographer does all the time) turns out to be such a small part of any project. But without all the actions you described being done well your essential "work" would have been a wreak.

Glenn Harris said...

A nice change from all the gear talk and very informative without getting too detailed. Twenty to fifty shots per person for each location and the client was only going to select two of each person? Thanks for the post.

Kirk Tuck said...

David, I usually shoot too much. I tend to shoot upwards of 100+ images per person but I'm trying to edit tighter and throw away more frames that are essentially duplicates. I find that the more I shoot (up to a point) the more relaxed the sitter becomes and I keep thinking I should just throw away the first 25 or 30 shots. This week I was trying to shoot with more discipline. It comes in handy on those days when you are shooting lots of 24 megapixel raw shots...

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi Glenn, Even in the film days when we shot a really nice portrait for an ad, etc. we'd burn through 250 or 300 frames of 120mm film by trying different poses, expressions and lighting until we got just what we wanted. This isn't an exact science and sometimes you have to look at stuff in the camera and then move it around a couple times before it all gels. If you are used to taking only a hand full of shots it might be a good exercise to grab a model and try shooting until you've exhausted every permutation. It's a fun exercise.....if the model is interesting enough.

Terry Schmidbauer said...

Thanks for this write up Kirk! I've done a very similer shoot last winter and would love to do more of them in the future. I had my people stand and I think that may have been a rookie mistake. Although most people were of average height, I had one women who over 6 feet tall. It was real hard tring to get the camera at eye level or slightly above with me being a meager 5.6. So the main thing I took from your write up was to bring a stool next time.....yeah, I'm all about the gear!

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi Terry, I'm five foot eight inches tall so I know exactly what you are talking about. The one thing that always helps me out is an "apple box." If you aren't familiar with them it's just a wooden box made for the movie industry that's about about eight inches tall, stable, sturdy and simple. When confronted by one of the uncomfortably tall people that roam free in our society the apple box evens the playing field. It's also great to have an apple box for people to rest their feet on. Yeah, cheap gear.

Mister Ian said...

Thanks. Very helpful as usual. The makeup part must be tricky. Men likely want none and women are usually made up already. But everyone needs a bit to get the shine off particularly on the forehead. Is this your experience? And if you don't mind, what is a good powder brand to use?

Keith I. said...

Thank you for sharing this,kirk. It is a great insight and reminder of how important the details can be.

Anonymous said...

How much difference did you notice between the Sony 85mm f/2.8 and the Hasselblad/Zeiss 80mm f/2.8, with both stopped down to f/5.6?

Does running the file through PS and Portrait Perfect cancel any differences?

I know I do some lighting tricks that only myself and three other people can see. but I do it 'cuz it make me happy. And if I ain't happy, there is no reason to be doing the work.

c.d.embrey

Kirk Tuck said...

I only use Lancombe.... Just kidding. I tend to ask my make up person to come shop with me when we need to refresh our emergency kit. I just try to stay away from glitter for the men.....

We don't call it make up when we have men in the photo, we call it "shine killer" or photo powder. Even though we lived in macho Texas most executives are media savvy enough to know that they don't want to shine like a bowling ball. We get jokes but very, very little push back. And we're always able to spit out a list of well know captains of industry that we've "powdered" and that seems to help.

I always explain to CFO's: "The single hardest retouch to do in PhotoShop is getting rid of a hot spot in the middle of a forehead. Takes hours. And you know what we charge for THAT! Two minutes with some "shine killer" and a brush, multiplied by X number of subjects means I'm really saving your company some serious cash. Come to think of it, maybe we shouldn't powder anyone......" They get on board, pronto.

Kirk Tuck said...

I can see a bit of difference. Whether one is BETTER than the other is a whole other discussion. I'd be happy with either. But I sure like the feel of the bigger lens and I like that I HAVE to manually focus it. It falls squarely into the, "makes me happy" category.

Steve J said...

I must remember that one next time :)

Steve J said...

Hey, Kirk, everyone knows that portraits look best shot at F1.4.... ;)

Mister Ian said...

Thanks. Your customer relationship skills are humbling!

tomt said...

How do you track the subjects' names, or do you need to?

Kirk Tuck said...

Hey Tomt,

There are times when I need to track names and times I don't. Most single portraits I track by putting the person's name in the filename when I import into Lightroom but when we do a "cattle call" shoot we have various ways of keeping track. One way is to look at the frame number when you start and call it out to your assistant to jot down. "Hey, Sarah, write down 'Bob Smith' starting on DSC_0012!" Thanks".

When we do little kids we get them to write their names on a piece of paper and get them to hold their paper up to the camera for the first shot (also gives me something to white balance with in post... :-) ) but most of the time I don't really need to know. The client is ordering the frame from a gallery and the frame has a number attached. The client is, essentially, ordering by the numbers. As long as the client knows were good.

Sometimes the client gives us a chronological list of people by appointment and we check them off as they come in. If they move around we change the numbers. Then we can put each person in their own little gallery. And add the name to the gallery.

I guess it's different for every job. There are people we don't need to label because we routinely photography them and know them by sight. It's all over the map. The secret is to be able to put your hands on the file five or six years later.

David Liang said...

Interesting, I'm going to keep that in mind. Thank you.

Peter B said...

Love the expression "..modified her career trajectory." I guess she changed jobs?

Craig said...

Love it Kirk, thank you as always for your insight and easy-to-understand explanations. Could I ask what invoicing/billing software you're using if any. Perhaps you've designed your own? Thanks!

Kirk Tuck said...

Oh God. I hate that part. My bookkeeper uses Quick Books Pro. I think in a business where you are doing maybe 100 projects a year it's pretty easy to use a basic template to do your invoices. That, and a little handwritten "thank you" note. I look at what I bid, fill in the blanks, write a verbose description and mail a copy (or send a pdf if appropriate) to the client. I give a second copy to the bookkeeper. Then I'm done. I think invoicing software is.....not for me.

The favorite invoice I've ever received was from an incredibly creative and well known designer (this was back in my advertising days)... where everyone else was hell bent on itemizing everything in great detail his invoice was terse.

It said: "Illustration = $5,000" and that was it. That was a hell of a lot more fun than a boring, program generated invoice with five pages of weasel words on it.

Carlo Santin said...

Kirk, do you find digital to be a lot more convenient and easy to work with compared to what you had to do in the days of film? I imagine it would be, from pre-chimping with the evf's during the shoot to post-processing, I imagine these jobs are easier today than they would have been twenty years ago. I just shoot for fun so it's interesting to see this side of it...no different than running any other business, which is a skill completely apart from that of photography.

Kirk Tuck said...

It's quicker now but not easier. We had Polaroid to pre-chimp (and mark up) and when we finished shooting a job all the film went to the lab to be developed. No one really did their own retouching, that was sent out by the ad agencies. We shot, labbed, delivered and relaxed. Now we have to do every single step.

amy said...

Nice post! I never thought about all the background stuff that goes into photography...cool to have some insight now.

Jack said...

Great post. Sort of reminds me of the times (long ago) when I would play assistant for a photographer friend when he had location shoots. We never did anything with make up, however. I quickly learned then that I was not cut out for that kind of work--too many balls to keep in the air. I love reading about those who do it well by returning with all the equipment and good pictures, while keeping the clients happy, which often takes more than just good pictures.

jason gold said...

The whole way of the shoot was great!
It's a lot of work, especially portraits..sure looks easy..
The good thing about film was when it was exposed, one was done..sort of!
Today a photographer is responsible for everything. It's way harder but more satisfying. No horrible accidents at "Pro" labs..no retoucher gone nuts.. no lost slides, negatives or prints..
I am not a Team Player. This way more work, more joy.