It was an odd week for so many reasons. Most of the frisson came from client inadequacies but on the whole it was a week in which I worked in the pedestrian role of a commercial photographer and not wholey immune to their vague concepts of planning and action.
One project was started months ago. I was tasked with making portraits on location for a local marketing agency with three or four dozen employees. I'd meet them at a location downtown which we all agreed was both symbolic of Austin's progress but at the same time a location that looked quite nice as an out of focus background. When the weather permitted we'd schedule up people and photograph until the wind picked up then we'd wait and start again when the hair-raising breezes died back down.
The equipment required was minimal. I brought a camera and a lens in a small backpack. I packed a flash but decided that as long as we were photographing in "open shade" it was unnecessary and served mostly to weigh down my backpack so it didn't blow away in a renegade wind gust.
We must have hit some sort of stopping point that I can't quite remember but after photographing some 20 people the project seemed to come to a close. It was restarted with an email last week. But with clients there are always complications. Few of which are insurmountable but all of which are at least....annoying.
The client/agency wanted to finish out the photography of their staff and seemed motivated in the moment to proceed as quickly as I could schedule them. But, there were some changes to the program. Much as they liked the look of the past photographs, and the look of the out of focus location behind them, the powers that be at the agency decided that it was too "time intensive" to send people half way across town into a high traffic, high parking cost area and that they would prefer we find a location within a 60 second walk from their offices. Could I come over and scout?
I met with the creative director last Friday and we walked around the area near their offices. The flat, almost treeless, retail center next to which their building is nestled was not overflowing with visual opportunities. In fact, we almost simultaneously blurted out, "This is all crap. There's nothing here."
At that point I suggested that we do what many of my clients are doing this Summer and that would be to photograph each person in front of a neutral background and then drop them into a background that we all liked. A background that would match in spirit and flavor with the background we'd used in early Spring.
The promise is mostly that everyone could be photographed in the air conditioning of their nicely renovated offices, with no wind to muss up hair, no oppressive heat to provide a more than healthy glow (and trickles of sweat....) and no commute to and from work. The CD agreed on the spot and we walked back over to their offices to scout the interior space and make some plans.
We found a good spot on the first floor, in a large and open space with tall ceilings and just the right feel. We checked in with the office manager and traffic manager and "secured the location" for first thing the following Monday morning. I took note of the convenient ADA compatible ramp and sighed with relief. It would be an easy and straightforward process to make the initial portraits but would also take a bit more post production on the back end. I drove off thinking pleasant thoughts and anticipating several very pleasant weekend swims, interspersed with a bit of packing. Monday was set.
With the car loaded full of lighting gear, photo gear and a nice, collapsible cart I left the house Monday morning with ample time to get through traffic and arrive on time. I was very clear on Friday with the person who would communicate the program to the staff that I would need a half hour after my arrival to set up the lights and background. I would do the set up from eight until eight-thirty. We would start the sessions in earnest at eight thirty.
When I dragged the cart through the door one of the managers rushed up to me and said, "All our plans have changed." Never something I want to hear after locking everything down in advance. Seems there was a big meeting scheduled in the same spot as our initial scouting choice but no one seemed to actually know about it until that morning. This triggered a search for some sort of (vaguely) appropriate space we could use by way of a "plan B".
We ended up in a small office on the second floor at the end of a hallway where the air conditioning didn't really seem to reach. How small a space? Hmmmm. I don't know exactly. You could lay down in it and take a nap but you certainly weren't going to back up more than six or seven feet from your subject who, in turn couldn't be more than three or four feet in front of the roll of seamless paper I brought. And thank goodness I brought along a short roll of seamless since the 109 inch roll certainly wouldn't fit in amongst the furniture and bric-a-brac. We also lost that tall ceiling that was a valuable and much loved feature of the first floor location.
The 60 inch umbrella was a bit too big for the space but we made it work. The 42.5mm lens on the Panasonic GH6 was just barely short enough to get me the comp I wanted but it was a tight squeeze.
And of course there was no elevator so I carried the gear up the stairs and back down again. Ah well. It was over quickly and the people were nice. But it kind of set the stage for the other scheduled assignments in the week.
Next up was a high tech product a bit smaller (but not by much) than a regulation bread box. I got the call from the client/engineer/CEO at the end of the day Monday and he was in a rush. A desperate rush to make some sort of publishing deadline so after swim practice the next day, Tuesday, (and after signing the requisite NDA that seems to accompany every prototype) I re-packed the Subaru and headed north of Round Rock, Texas to the lab.
I got there a bit before lunch and we found a (very) small conference room in which I could start setting up lights. We also chatted about the project and what they needed from the shoot. The client was excited because their prototype was supposed to arrive via Fedex delivery before noon. Once I had my lights roughly in place and my camera set the way I wanted it for this project we all started looking at our watches as one of the engineers started obsessively hitting the refresh on the Fedex delivery webpage --- but with no satisfaction or clarity. Someone offered me a diet Coke. I declined. I checked my email. Then I checked my texts.
Around 2:30 the client finally got a message from the supplier who was supposed to have sent the product. Seems it was sent to an office somewhere near San Jose, California and would NOT be arriving in the Austin area in time for me to immortalize it and for the client to then deliver the files under their stringent publishing deadline. We negotiated a "kill fee" as I disassembled the temporary studio, repacked it all and dragged the cart back to my car. "Ah!" I thought, "Just in time for the absolute worst rush hour in the central Texas corridor." And, par for the course, it took an hour and forty five minutes to get back to my idea of civilization. Most of the time spent going 5 mph in heavy traffic while the sun bore down relentlessly. Another wasted work day.
One of the calls I got during our adventure in patience at the tech company was from a hedge fund that had scheduled an executive photo shoot for their new CFO --- months in advance. It was to take place the next day. Wednesday. At their offices which are (thank God!) just a couple miles from my office in central Austin. Seems their CFO had a "schedule conflict" and we pushed the appointment back to next week. They graciously asked if there would be a fee for the last minute rescheduling and I skipped my usual client-centric, misplaced enthusiasm and just said, "Yes. Our CFO insists on it. It's a company policy for cancellations that occur in less than 24 hours before the shoot appointment."
They were very understanding. But why not? This is the kind of company where people might ask about your vacation. You might tell them you had a delayed flight on Southwest Airlines and their honest reaction might be: "Oh? You still fly commercial??"
It's good to get the cancellation fees but I was starting to feel like I was more valuable diligently not working than actually working for the week. But of course it never stops there.
Yesterday (Thursday) was yet another classic photographic assignment and also one scheduled far in advance. The client was a statewide association of attorneys. We were booked to go to one of my favorite downtown hotels, set up another temporary studio, make portraits of about 15 people against yet another neutral background with the plan of dropping the final selections into out-of-focus images of corporate-y looking backgrounds. I've put together an online catalog of about 500 potential backgrounds from which to choose. What could possibly go wrong?
I was scheduled to arrive at the valet parking stand at eleven thirty in the morning, go straight to the large and commodious conference room and spend an hour setting up the lighting and background. The agenda called for starting the portrait sessions at 12:30 pm. Having been bitten in the same week by changing client plans I arrived even earlier. I walked in with my cart loaded with gear at 10:45 and started setting up.
I was in the room hanging seamless background paper for about ten minutes before the first of a stream of people; some in full, dramatic make-up, others in suits that hadn't been worn in years, started coming through the door. Apparently no one got the agenda or everyone got the agenda but presumed they were immune from the temporal fine points of the process and could establish their own timelines.
Everyone was asked to come back at 11:30 at the earliest and we'd start photographing an hour before the "official" start time.
A memo had been sent out telling people that we were photographing in front of a white background and would be compositing the portrait image with a different background but one person, of course, showed up in a white jacket! Argh. I made a point about being light-handed with facial make-up but several people showed up with enough saturated base to cover a canvas. They weren't doing themselves any aesthetic favors....
We were supposed to have a hard stop at 2 pm for their board meeting but several people were "running late" and we had to extend my stay. A bit crunchy since I needed to get back to the office, drop off lots of gear, change clothes and get down to a book debut at the main public library by 5:30 pm. I hate cutting things tight. But the book is a photo collection of Gov. Ann Richards photographs and one of mine is included and runs a full page near the front of the book. I wanted to get reacquainted with the other photographers attending and also spend some time with the board members for the various foundations underwriting the book. Also, it never hurts to spend a few minutes with the wonderful people at Pentagram; the designers of the book and the earlier banner program I wrote about here last year.
I made it with time to spare which was good since I had to park pretty far away and it was about 103° as I trudged across the shimmering caramel consistency blacktop desert of downtown to the packed reception at the CookBook Cafe.
Our family tradition has it that Thursdays are "pizza" days. It's a routine we started with our advertising agency back in the "Golden Age of" advertising days and continued through all the years with Ben -- and even beyond. But when I got home we decided it was too hot to sit around and eat pizza. We defaulted to whatever was on hand.
I'd just gotten a deliciously soft brie cheese the day before and a baguette. I toasted a few slabs of bread, spread some Dijon mustard on one slice, lightly drizzled some mango infused honey, and made an ample brie sandwich for myself. We collaborated on a mixed green salad with Kalamata olives sprinkled around, and avocado on top. I washed it all down with a couple glasses of nice Cabernet Sauvignon from some California vineyard that has a label on which the wine is called, "Educated Guess." I should have remembered to re-pack the gear before the second glass of wine because I had yet another shoot scheduled for the next day photographing seafood. (Today).
Yet another advertising shoot and one featuring the guest appearance of one of the my very favorite art directors. After swim practice and with yet another permutation/selection of photo and lighting gear, I left the house early enough to stop at the Epoch Coffee location in central Austin for a cafe au lait. The AD and I both arrived at our location ten minutes early which seems to be a tradition lost amongst more recent generations.
We stepped into a famous Austin seafood restaurant and seafood wholesaler right at 9 am with me dragging the wonderful, back-saving and reliable cart full of photo industry wonderment. We were propping and lighting a big handful of fresh caught jumbo shrimp, on top of a bed of ice, for use in a double truck magazine ad and for use on various seafood association websites.
The AD and I have worked together for about 30 years and we've collaborated on so many projects that we seem to have done away with the need for much discussion and mostly communicate now through shrugs, grunts and telepathy. We tried a bunch of different options and finally got what he wanted. The ad campaign has a tight deadline so I went straight back to the office, imported the files, did a bit of good post production and then sent him big files via FTP. And that's it. Done for the week. It feels like most of next week will be filled with post production from this week's jobs --- and also a fun episode of billing.
GEAR. For every single engagement this week I used the same basic lighting kit, only changing between big umbrellas and soft boxes as each job required. The basic kit is comprised of three Godox AD200 Pro electronic flash units. A radio trigger for the same. A combination of bare tubes and round heads. And a collections of lightweight, aluminum light stands for support. Today, for the first time in my career, I dropped and broke a flash tube. Maybe it's a sign that I'm over the hill.... Probably just a random sign of momentary clumsiness.
The Godox lights are reasonably powerful. The batteries last for hundreds of flashes. The radio triggers have been 100% reliable across all the cameras I use with them. Everything packs down into a small package. There are adapters that allow the use of Bowens speed rings. They don't cost an arm and a leg.
I shot both portrait assignments with the new GH6 camera fitted with the new (to me, Thanks F.G.!) Panasonic/Leica 42.5mm f1.2 lens. Mostly at f4.0. It focuses quickly and accurately with face detect AF and the files look really great.
The food shoot today was one of those projects where you aren't sure of all the potential uses of the images so we thought it would make sense to switch gears, camera-wise, and pull out the bigger stuff. We used the Leica SL2 along with its companion lens, the 24-90mm f2.8-4.0 Vario Elmarit lens. Is that system sharp? Amazingly so. It's a bigger combination to haul around but did well in its inaugural voyage in the Gitzo 30L photo back pack.
I ended the day as I started the week. Mostly baffled by clients and their basic lack of organizational skills. The exception being today's fun food shoot. All good on that front.
Throughout the week I was able to make it to all but one of my scheduled swim practices. Who in their right mind would ever want to miss coach Jenn's Thursday Individual Medley practice??? 3,000 yards of mixed strokes (including nearly everyones' nemesis, Butterfly) banged out in an hour. That'll get your pulse rate up.
This would have been tallied as a "lightweight" week back a few years ago. It seems busy to me now. I guess I've gotten spoiled.
Hope you are staying cool, dry, relaxed and happy. It's a weird enough Summer.... Just wanted to check in with the VSL folks.