Free Versus Free.

It's that time of the year again. The Austin director of the Kipp Schools would like me to donate time and energy to help them with their annual report. Their AR is one of their principal fund raising tools. We've done the last four, won some Addy Awards and some local awards and generally helped move their game forward. The Kipp schools are non-profit charter schools that serve an incredibly important function. They provide a top quality, college prep education for children with brains and talent who are underserved in public schools. According to a huge article in the New York Times the people who do the Kipp schools have achieved amazing results. Given the opportunity the kids excel. They match the test scores of kids from affluent neighborhoods. Amazing stuff.

The job will take a couple of days of shooting on location. A couple days of post processing and a few meetings. They would like me to donate my services and I will. I'll do it because it's an educational cause I believe in, the economy has provided me ample free time, and it's a nice showcase for my work. Does this mean that I believe in doing free work as a means of promotion? No.

I've been following a thread on the web wherein the original poster complained about Google asking professional (meaning established, working designers) to submit spec designs for material that would be used on various websites. If accepted there is no other payment than the implication that one's work would be seen by millions of viewers.

This follows on the heels of various posts on the web that contend the only way to break into New York's closed circle of fashion magazines is to offer to work for free. Many people rushed to protest this point of view. And there is a an obvious disconnection.

Supporters of the "work for free" theory suggest that it will bring in massive amounts of commissioned work at highly profitable rates. They further suggest that this the paradigm of the future for artists so we should stop whining and get with the program. They point to photographic luminaries such as Joe McNally and David Hobby as examples of people who are giving away their photo knowledge and prospering. And here's the disconnect: David and Joe have products to sell that are different than photo commissions. They are selling books, DVDs and workshops. Their rationed release of information, and Joe's scintillating stories from the field have as their goal to sell product. Their blogs are not aimed at clients, in fact, if we are to be honest our advertising clients have little interest or time to cruise photographer's blogs. So while David and Joe are prospering by offering free samples they are prospering by selling intellectual property through these vehicles and not art.

For large companies to leverage their reach and their resources to exploit and extract time, intellectual property and art from single person businesses by making vague insinuations about the value of exposure is unethical and immoral. Helping out your family or your favorite cause is part of our common pact with each other and with civilization. Helping a major corporation become wealthier by becoming a "scab", and a free one at that creates inertia that pushes artists further and further away from being able to survive financially in this world.

There are those who argue that they have no obligation to support artists. I agree. The market will decide which artist succeed financially and which will fail. But I would argue that a person supported by his or her profession who muddies the waters of the creative markets by placing the aggrandizement of their ego over the welfare of society in general and, by extension, the fate of the arts, is making choices that will make our culture coarser and less compassionate. I think that's sad. If you are good enough to do the work you should be paid for it in real currency.

Here are my ground rules for donating my services as a photographer: The cause must be good. The entity must be a non-profit. The use of my art must conform to best industry practices. The final piece should have a clear goal and a clear set of metrics with which to measure success.

If you are a full time doctor, lawyer, IT guy, etc. and you are giving work to corporations for free that they would otherwise pay for you are disrupting a system that supports imaginative thinking and creativity. That's all.

Remember when we all thought available light was so cool?

I still do. Styles ebb and flow but I think the prevailing style of lighting that was coincident with your initial development as a photographer makes a mark on some inner aesthetic part of your brain. The style of your nascent brush with art locks you on a certain pathway.

For many of us old enough to remember the general interest magazines like Life Magazine and Look Magazine; and certainly National Geographic Magazine, the look that "locked" us was the gorgeous and incredibly well executed "available light" imagery. Little wonder that most of us still lust for cameras like Leica rangefinders with their fast sharp prime optics. To work back in that milieu required physical talent as opposed to technical talent. One had to be able to recognize and respond to good light and bad light with flawless technique. If you worked with the ISO 200 speed film of the day you learned to stand still and calm the tremors of human existence in a way that image stabilization and ultra high ISO sensitivities in digital cameras don't really demand. (Not to worry, this is not a rant about digital versus film.....)

I think the look hooked us for several reasons: 1. The shots weren't set up. No one needed to show up with an army of assistants and cases full of lights and stands in order to do their work. That meant the photographer blended in and was not part of the production. Kind of reversing the Heisenberg theory of affective subliminal interaction. No "Heisenberg Compensator" was necessary. Subject reactions, unfettered by the persistent visual patter of flashes, was more real, less self conscious. 2. The need for "speed" in order to hand hold cameras led to the design, production and wide spread use of really fast lenses. Some of which are still competitive with the best on offer from Canon and Nikon. Leica had the f1 Noctilux. Canon had a 50mm f (point) .9 lens. Even my old Olympus Pen FT sported a 60mm 1.5 lens. Now we get excited about a constant aperture f2.8 zoom? Really? The upshot of the fast lenses is a wonderfully thin zone of focus that makes the in focus subject the nexus of all attention and intention. 3. The images weren't subjected to endless iterations of post production. Nothing existed to save a mediocre shot or a shot that just lacked intrinsic interest.

I loved opening up a fresh copy of Life Magazine. Not all the images were wonderful, compelling or even midly interesting but the ones that were had the power to rivet young eyes for ages.

The world has changed. People entering photography now feel the overarching desire or need to imprint a personal style on every image they shoot so many settle on a style that is often a hodge podge of imitative steals and compulsively imprint that style on every frame they shoot. The tools have become more of a message than the message itself.

In the last month I've pushed myself to up my game. To handhold better, to see better and to improve the craft. You'll think I'm nuts (and maybe many of your already do) but I've given up a 25 year coffee habit in the quest to handhold better and to have the patience to see stuff worth handholding a camera for. I'm meditating in hopes of getting clearer and clearer about what I want to photograph and why. And I'm getting down right reductivist about the gear I want to shoot with.

I figure that with a D700 and a 50mm 1.1.2 and a fast 85mm I should be able to do good, compelling people work at a higher level than I would if everything were lit. And I do find that I'm having to watch the light with a patience I never did before.

Even though part of my livelihood depends on selling books about using lights I'll be the first to admit that some subjects don't need to be lit. They repulse the attempt. Nothing beats perfect light and nature makes a lot of it.

The above shot was done for a hospital group and is nothing much. But it catches my eye because of its candid nature and the perfect balance of light and contrast. It reminds me that sometimes getting even more MINIMAL garners maximum results.

As I was thinking about our society's collective compulsion to embellish reality and photographers' compulsion to use light as style I came across a verse in the good ole Tao Ching (Stephen Mitchell Translation) that reads:

Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt. Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench. Care about other people's approval and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.


Summer Time Sloth

This Summer in Austin is off to a brutal start. We're on our third or fourth day of temperatures over 100 degrees (f). But we're not lucky like people who live is dry climates, our heat is usually accompanied by tons of humidity. Makes it seem all the more unbearable.

So my thoughts turn to swimming pools. Sure, you can spend your life in air conditioning but a good pool is a fabulous place to wile away a heat wave.

I photographed this pool a while ago. It was next to a really cool house, up on a hill in the western part of Austin, with a view that mainly consisted of cedar, oak and pecan trees. When I look at this image I'm reminded that sometimes good photography is more of a waiting game then a lighting challenge. I turned on the pool lights, got a glass of red wine and settled down in a chair to wait. Every once in a while I'd snap a photo to see what the balance between the pool lights and the landscape looked like. When we started getting close I put the wine down and started to pay attention. There's a few minutes when the balance is just perfect and it's good to be ready because it'll take at least another 24 hours until the scene looks just right again.....In the movie business they call it "magic hour" even though it only lasts for moments.

It was hot that day so I was trying to remember stuff like staying hydrated and keeping a handle on the location of my sunscreen. But if memory serves I used a Nikon D2x and a 12-24mm lens. We had a lighting plan if the existing stuff didn't work out but we never had to use it. Ran in a feature about pools in Tribeza Magazine.

It's almost seven p.m. and I've been backing up files to DVD's for hours. I'm shutting it all down and heading for my neighborhood pool. If everything works out well we'll run into friends there and have a beer or two as the night drops in and quiets everything down.

Hope you are staying cool.


It's all florescent all the time this week.....

For most of my career my friends and I lusted after the coolest lighting gear in the catalogs.  But then digital came along and the high ISO's (of late) coupled with the ability to white balance just about anything gave us license to make our own stuff.  And we have.  With a vengeance.

There are two kinds of lights I'm interested in right now and both of them are continuous.  I'm very interested to see what will be done with LED lights but wow! the prices are incredibly high right now.  I hope Murphy's Law smacks LED lighting with a big stick so I can actually afford a few square feet of cool light panels instead of weighing whether it would be wiser to drop the same kind of money into a new car.....(But what photographer could ever give up a Honda Element??).

The lights I can afford to play with right now are florescents and boy, are they fun.  The advantages?:

  1. If you buy individual units at a discount hardware store you can get them dirt cheap.
  2. If you want to make bigger banks you just buy a few more and lash em together.  They're easily scalable.
  3. You can cover your banks with any kind of diffusion material you'd like.
  4. When you're finished playing around with them you can use the individual lights as work lights around the house and (with and inverter) in your car.
  5. People don't blink like they do when they are anticipating the flash from strobes.
  6. The soft glow makes for a quieter and more intimate portrait session.
  7. They don't heat up your studio or location.
  8. They don't draw a lot of current.
  9. If you want to upgrade to Kino Flo color quality you can sub the  tubes for tubes from Kino.  About $30 a whack.
  10. The quality of light looks different than the stuff lots of other people are shooting.
I've got two different commercial fixtures that were designed to work with compact florescent bulbs.  The first is the Westcott TD-5.  It "only" holds five compacts but it works well and it's heavy duty enough to work with 150 watt halogen bulbs instead.

I also just picked up the Interfit Cool Lite 9 for a whopping $279.  It packs nine compact florescents into one spot, comes with a big, hard metal reflector and it's own small (40 inches?) octabank (which I'll never remove since it was so hard to attach.....) but it really puts out a bunch of light!  After decades of working with flash working with continuous lights is kind of refreshing.  You get a nice feel for how to light your photos when you see  the images evolve in real time.  It also makes a nice accent light at parties.

I'm having fun with mine.  

Caption:  Ben Tuck is holding up our latest creation.  We called it Kitchen Lux.  It's composed of four flo fixtures that were meant to be installed under  kitchen counters until we liberated them for a higher calling.  They are meticulously gaffer taped together and the bungee's are there to meet stringent OSHA standards for homemade lumen expellers.  Is that tracing paper on the front?  It's okay to try this at home.


More Stuff and Observations from the Hot Light Shoots

The photos are put up in a disjointed manner but that seems fairly apt after a week of random chance and relative chaos.  Since I last wrote I went back to Zachary Scott Theater for another round of shooting actors and patrons.  In the spirit of randomness, here are some of my observations looking at a shoot like this in the rear view mirror of post shoot dysphoria.  

No matter how many times you show a client an image on a tethered laptop or the high res LCD of a modern camera like a Nikon D700, when live models are involved they will keep asking for you to "shoot a few more frames of this", "Let's try that",  "What if he holds the juggling pins one inch higher or lower?", Etc.  It's all immaterial to the client.  They're looking for chance to provide them with the ultimate combination of expression, pose and animation and they subliminally or liminally understand the basic theories of quantity and random chance.  The client figures that if we "flip the coin" often enough eventually it will land perfectly on the edge and stay there, defying gravity and momentum.

What we understand as photographers is that the more high bit digital raw files we shoot the more cards we're going to fill up and the more files we'll have to color correct and convert for the client in anticipation of their final selection. No doubt someone will suggest that I should be shooting in Raw+Jpeg and just send the uncorrected jpegs to the client but I resist this for the same reason I resisted sending uncorrected proofs to clients.

Not all of them are savvy enough to understand how much can or will be done in  post production.  Some forget everything I've said to them about the workflow of making a selection and then telling me which selection so that I can do all the Photoshop magic. They sometimes just plug in a small jpeg, do their own destructive and rudimentary color correction (or destruction) and then send the whole piece out to the printer or onto the web and then blame the photographer for the ensuing chaos.

No, we do a global correction where possible and group corrections where necessary for the first pass.  And we give them big enough jpegs so they can scroll around and look for details that might be important to them and invisible to me.  Then, if they do stumble and throw the files at the printer, well, at least we'll be in the ballpark.

So, once all the files are delivered then the next shoe drops.  The client calls to complain about how many files there are and how long it will take to wade through them.  They ask, "Couldn't you just narrow all this down for us?"  When we narrow things down for them and present ten of the best shots from each set they invariably come back to us and want to know, "How much did you leave out?  We'd really like to see other options!"  And the whole mad circle starts again. 

The seeming lack of cost (the elimination of film and processing) is largely to blame for the ever escalating number of wedding images shot, variations of pose and expression shots, and just the sheer inability of clients to commit to a preconceived concept.  A target to shoot toward. If all the candy in a shop is free then they become like children and want to taste each candy to see how they like it.  And then they complain about the stomach ache.

This is not necessarily aimed at the Zachary Scott marketing staff because they do a pretty fine job of defining goals and they do their own exhaustive editing after the fact.  It's a rant aimed at clients in general since the days of digital dug in and made life less profitable and more like working in a cubicle for most photographers.

I will say though that shooting sixty or seventy people over the course of a week really helps you nail down what you like and what you dislike about your lighting and your camera.  In this case I have the vague wish that I'd shot everything with a Fuji S5 pro so I could use the "portrait film look" in jpeg instead of messing around with the D700 raw files.  My client and I certainly didn't need the higher resolution and we're both grown up enough to be able to use jpegs with confidence.  (Calm down, religiously raw shooters,  the color temperature never changed and neither did the exposure....).

I wish I'd just added an additional, very low powered light just to add a little bit of sparkle to the subjects' eyes.  That's about it.

Probably the most frustrating thing about a shoot like this is the communication concerning technical considerations.  We had a meeting and we shared photo examples with each other. They loved a very, very shallow depth of field technique that I'd used before with a modicum of success.  I was careful to explain how that shallow look worked and to let them know that perhaps just the nose, the eyes and the hairline would be in sharp focus.  They nodded knowingly and then came to the shoot with props for each actor to hold out in front of them. "Can you get both the prop and the actor in focus?"  Yes.  And lots of other stuff too. Compromise, compromise.  Well,  I did shoot samples without the props at an fstop or two wider........

Kudo's to the incredibly smart people at Precision Camera and Video in Austin, Texas.  
They put on the Austin Photo Expo and we got to hear great speakers like John Isaac, who is the advertising face of Olympus (and a great guy) as well as technical pros like Will Crockett from Smartshooter.com.  I gave an hour long demo on my favorite lighting style and (admits modestly) the entire room was filled with overflow out into the hallway.  And nobody bolted in the middle of the presentation.  

In addition to the seminars and demos all the heavy hitters of the camera world, Nikon, Sony, Canon, Oly, and all the lighting guys were there in force showing off their latest and greatest while the guys at Precision sold pieces right off the floor at great discounts.

Ending up by asking a favor: If you've read my second book,  Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Studio Photography,  and you liked it,  would you please consider posting a review of the book at Amazon.com?  It helps get the book into the hands of more people and my publisher really likes that idea.

If you read the book and you didn't like it you are probably really busy and don't have time to mess with writing a review.........

Till next time,  keep your CF cards well oiled and your clients well fed.

Best, Kirk


One of the least appreciated cameras of A.D. 2000+

Near the end of 2005 Sony announced and camera that spoke to me in a way most digital cameras had not.  It was called the Sony R-1 and it was the ultimate bridge camera (the step between "point and shoots" and DSLR's).  Around the same time I needed to buy a couple of Nikon D2x's so I didn't pry open the wallet and buy the R-1's when they first appeared.

By the time they circled back to my "radar" they were not selling well and were being discontinued so I bought two of them for around $500 each.  If you don't know about the Sony R1 let me fill you in.  Sony started with a variant of the same chip used in the Nikon D2x.  Not a stellar high ISO performer but a critically reviewed champ of the lower ISO's in terms of both sharpness and tonal nuance. So, if you are a low ISO shooter it's your kind of camera.  The chip was 10.2 megapixels and was sized just slightly smaller than a standard APS-C format chip.

The Sony R1, in some ways is just a big point and shoot in that it's lens is fixed on the camera and it has a feature that I've come to understand the value of-----an EVF.  Counterintuitive? Read on.  The Sony has a swiveling monitor that attaches to the top of the camera and can be used in many positions, including the "waist level" position.  But when shooting in bright sun or under stage lights, as in the photo above from the dress rehearsal of the play, "Love Janis" the EVF (electronic viewfinder) that mimics the traditional SLR viewfinder only with a little screen instead of an optical pipeline this camera really comes into its own.

Here's why, the finder image is a preview of what the final image will look like because it is being imaged through the lens and through the taking electronics.  For all intents and purposes it will look exactly the way you see it before you push the shutter button as after!  You could say that you are "pre-chimping" instead of post chimping which takes out one whole production step.

Now you bring the camera to your eye, check focus, see a perfect preview and then capture it. On the SLR you see an image, not stopped down, not in the final color, not with the final noise aspect, then you click the shutter, evaluate what you got, change some parameters and then try again until you either get what you wanted or you give up.  Hardly an optimal way of working.

The R1 is not as fast to shoot frame to frame as the traditional SLR's but it has a fast three shot burst rate that really works.  I use the side mounted focusing button rather than coupling focusing to the shutter button.  It works like this:  Bring the camera up to your eye, push the button on the left side of the camera and hold it there until you achieve focus lock.  Release the button and the focus stays right there until you change it.  If your subject isn't moving around and you're not moving you'll never have the kind of "shoot and hunt" experience that you get with even the latest high end cameras when the place you want to focus on falls between AF sensors.  I shot around 1200 shots at the dress rehearsal and post rehearsal set up shots and the marketing director who had to wade through and edit the take told me I missed about ten shots to focus or exposure errors.

So many people dismissed this camera because they didn't take the time to master the focus. Metering is just as good as a D300 or a D700.  The one glaring fault of this camera is the speed at which it processes raw files.  If you are a still life photographer it might just be bearable to shoot in raw but if you are a people shooter then Jpeg will be a standard.  Which is find because of the reasons I gave in one of the paragraphs above:  There really isn't any guess work or need for post processing if you can get accurate previews before you even punch the button.  The camera is a bit harder to master in some senses than rival DLSR's but there is a secret weapon that makes this camera stellar:

Planted right on the front is a big wonkin Carl Zeiss 24mm to 120mm zoom lens that reviewers from Michael Reichmann at Luminous Landscape and the folks at DPreview have described as fantastic and well worth the price of the entire camera.  How can this lens be so much better than the same kind of optics from Nikon and Canon?  Well, I'll admit that I don't understand the details of lens design but apparently lenses that don't have to be designed to ride far forward of an SLR's flipping mirror can be designed to a much higher level of correction.  And the results can and have been easily measured.  The lens is better.  It is the "L Glass Plus" of optics.

I've photographed architecture with these cameras and have had to use minimal correction even at f4 at 24mms.  At middle focal lengths it's on par with my recent model 5omm Leica Summicron.  It just plain works.  Add to this the things Sony excels at, like great batteries and battery life indicators and you've got a remarkable camera.  I've got two and I use them a lot. When the last one dies I'll be very sad.  True, something fun will take it's place but I'll be sad because if people had taken the time to use correctly the market would be full of them and good used copies would be rampant.

As with most great cameras discovered too late the R1's are on their way to cult status and the prices are rising every day.  If you want to play with an interactive EVF for not a lot of money you might want to look into the Canon SX10.  Same EVF set up along with the addition of Image Stabilization.

Reminds me of the Kodak SLRn.  That camera was capable of superb studio portrait files.  Too bad most people judged it on its high speed surveillance skills.  If they'd taken the time to get to know the strengths of that camera then Nikon enthusiasts would have been shooting full frame images years earlier.  I guess ease of use trumps quality.......


A muse is a wonderful thing. Every artist should have one.

I was sitting in a coffee shop between jobs when Lou walked in the door with a stack of books. The face of a Leonardo Da Vinci Angel and a feminine allure that was so powerful even a blind man over to one side of the shop stared when she walked in.

I was older than her by 12 years or so but I knew I had to photograph Lou or I would regret it.

I walked over, told her what I wanted and left her a card. On the back I'd put the number of a female art director at a major magazine who would vouch for my honor and good character. Then I stepped away and went on with my life.

Several days later Lou called and we set up the first of many sessions to photograph together. I believe that Lou is one of the most beautiful women I have ever met. She was totally at ease in front of the camera and brought a light hearted playfulness to every session we did. I was able to cast her in a big video project and she moved equally well in front of my older movie camera.

I've noticed that the current rage is to go through as many models as an up and coming photographer can book from Model Mayhem. But lost in this serial pursuit of glamour and trendy fashion is the need to develop more complex and balanced relationships if you want the depth of expression to satisfy. I worked with Lou frequently over a two year period and our professional interactions got better and better. I know I sound like a broken record but the success of a great portrait depends mostly on the collaborative rapport between the sitter and the photographer and there is no short cut for developing a real rapport.

As Avedon once said, "Scratch below the surface and if you are lucky you'll find more surface." I'm not sure what he meant but I translate it to mean that anything meaningful, hell, anything even interesting, requires a lot of digging and time.

What I've learned over the years is that finding a muse can add joy and energy to all your work. Your muse becomes the person who helps you test and grow your techniques and your skills. But finding a muse is like one of those Zen koans that gets the point across: The harder you look the less likely you'll find what you are a looking for.

I've had three people in my professional life who pushed my photography forward by being incredible subjects. They flow into and out of your life without notice but it is critical that you are able to perceive when a gift is being given you by the universe and you must have the courage to reach out and make contact.

After a time the magic may fade, the interest may dwindle or life may intrude and then you'll find you might have a period of time when no one seems as interesting. That's when you put your head down and work with what you learned. And the idea that someone else will come along to light the fuse of creativity is what keeps one engaged and moving forward.

At least that's how it has always worked for me.

Side note: Eye, Hand and Brain all work together. You find the right tool. You have the right mindset and you have to practice the intermix of the three spheres. Today is Sunday. Only crazy people go out into a heat wave (60th day in a row over 100F) and stumble around in the afternoon in downtown looking for images. And photographers. To stay fresh you have to practice. Practice looking, composing and taking. The more you practice the more automatic the process becomes. It would be nice to be so well practiced that the taking of an image becomes all one motion without the interruption of rational thought. Nice target to aim for.

Sometimes a photo is just a photo.

I'm temporarily leaving the contentious issues surrounding film use and digital dogma to just revel in the fun of shooting with just about any kind of camera. The image to the right was taken a few years ago on an Annual Report shoot for Southwest Water Company. It was done with a Fuji S2 camera and a Nikon 12-24mm zoom lens.

The assignment was pure fun. Essentially, the brief that the art director and I followed called for finding fun and artful images at waste water treatment plants across the southeastern U.S. Sure, we did the obligatory "project manager in a hard hat" and the "three engineers looking at plans" images. We even did the CEO portrait in front of a very high tech water treatment system. But the images I really loved were the ones of "Moonrises over the #1 tank" and nobly rusted apparatus kissed by the last rays of a crimson setting soon.

We got to a plant in Biloxi around 3pm and nothing seemed to click but then the sun started to set and the magic of mixed light and weird color balance ruled. We were like little kids who just discovered a box full of fireworks. The five or six days on the road were hot and long and tiring. We were still hauling around studio strobes in those days, just in case. That meant a lot more to carry.

But in recent memory it is the most satisfying project I can think of just because it was an journey of encouraged visual discovery. Kicking over rocks to find something wonderful underneath. Who would have thought that a trip to the waste water treatment plant would trump Maui or Monte Carlo? But here's the deal: a trip like this is all about looking and problem solving and inventing and it's more engaging than responding to some boring general concensus of naturally occurring beauty that's been postcarded to death. It's the real thing. The hidden infrastructure that makes our lives work. As photographers we're privileged in that we get to see the cogs and gears under the hood (bonnet) and better understand the interconnected nature of human existence.

Marketing note: My first book, Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Location Photography, is now available as a Kindle book for those of you with Kindles or with Kindle software loaded on your Apple iPod Touches and iPhones. Wow. I feel so 21st century......

What I want out of my assistant(s)!!!

What I want from my assistants and how to make it worthwhile for everyone.

By Kirk Tuck

This is an excerpt from my third book (due out in Sept. 2009) called The Handbook of Commercial Photography.  I'm posting it because I was asked by an assistant what I expected from them on a shoot and I thought it would be easier to give them a copy of this section.  If you think it's helpful you are welcome to use it personally.  I think it's great to let your assistants know what you expect and how to work.  I know that it made my shoot a pleasure today (THANK YOU, THAO!).

Optimum Photographic Education.  Assisting.

When it comes right down to it the best way to learn the profession is to assist or apprentice to a very good, very successful working photographer.  If you are lucky you’ll learn through osmosis how to engineer the workflow of a good shoot,  how to do or outsource the post production, the care and feeding of clients,  how and what to bill and how do the vital and continuous job of marketing.

Don’t get me wrong.  You should still read everything you can get your hands on,  and every free moment should be spent working on technique and style, but there are some intangible things that you’ll only learn from “on the job” training that will be invaluable in your career.

In some European countries there are still apprenticeships wherein a person wishing to learn a trade, craft or profession actually pays to learn from a master in the field.  Those days are long gone in the United States.  The closest you’ll get to the valuable assistant relationship is to sign on as an assistant to a working photographer.

Assisting at the most basic level.   

Here’s the truth about assisting working commercial photographers in the digital age:  You are being hired to do the repetitive “grunt” work of the business.  You aren’t being hired because you have a nice portfolio.  You aren’t being hired because the photographer feels a need to mentor new photographers.  You aren’t being hired to learn from the photographer (but if you pay attention you can’t help but learn a lot.….).  You are being hired to make the job of photography easier and more efficient for the photographer!

The photographer rarely needs help deciding which lens to use or how to compose or expose a shot.  You won’t be collaborating in an “executive” sense.  What you will be doing a lot of is packing camera and lighting gear, light stands and cables into cases.  You will be tasked with getting those cases from the studio to the car.  From the car to the shooting location.  Once you reach a location your task will be to unpack and set up the various pieces of equipment that the photographer has indicated he would like to use.

Once the lights are set up according to the photographer’s instructions and all of the props have been wrangled into place a good assistant will step back and wait for further instructions.  After the shoot is completed the assistant will carefully pack all of the equipment back into the cases in the precise order prescribed by the photographer and will reverse the order of the paragraph above until all the gear is safely back in the studio and packed away.

It’s important to understand that the photographer is intent on the project at hand and will be planning, in his head, every step of the project before he walks in to begin the project.  Until the shoot is over there is no “good” time to ask curiosity questions about photography.  The appropriate time to ask questions is on the way back to the studio in the car.

Here is my list, garnered over twenty years, of the “do’s and don’t’s” of basic assisting for a commercial photographer:

1.  You are on the job to make life easier on the photographer.  Your mindset should be that of willing assistant.  If that means running out for coffee, cleaning mud off extension cables, cleaning the windows on a location or holding up a reflector you should do it without hesitation or argument.  Your need to learn always takes a back seat to your photographer’s needs.

2. Every photographer has their own way of packing gear to go on location or for storage in the studio.  Ask the photographer about their preferences and be sure that everything goes back in its place when packing.

3. There is always a dress code.  If you are shooting under the hot Texas sun on one of those 90% humidity days it will certainly be shorts and tee shirts.  If you are shooting on a client location your clothes need to echo those of the workers at the location  (In a corporate location an assistant might be in pressed Khakis and a Polo Shirt with a collar,  at a wedding, the same assistant would probably be dressed in black dress pants, a white button down shirt and a nice pair of lace up shoes.  If you are shooting hip hop artists you might be dressed in baggy jeans and track shoes).  The point is not to dress down, not to dress like a war correspondent if you’ll be working at a medical practice and never to embarrass your photographer.

4.  Be ready to “fall on a grenade” from time to time.  If there is a big mess up and you know it’s not your fault it might be politically savvy to take the blame if doing so makes your photographer look good.  Example:  Your photographer asks you to plug a bunch of lights into one circuit while you are setting up for an executive shoot in a factory.  Just as the marketing director shows up with the impatient executive in tow the circuit breaker trips for the outlet you’ve plugged the lights into.  The tension rises and the marketing director looks annoyed.  You might provide an out for the photographer by turning to him and saying, “Sorry about that.  I’ll re-rout some of the lights and get those breakers back on for you.”  Now he doesn’t look like a numbskull and if he’s a good person he’ll remember and reward your kindness.

5.  Never take your eyes off the gear while you are on an uncontrolled location.  When you are outside the studio working the photographer can’t keep his eye on the camera finder and his cases of gear at the same time.  It’s your job to make sure that no acquisitive bystanders make off with souvenirs of his expensive gear.  Both eyes on the gear, not on the attractive model.  If there’s no hired security you are security.

6.  In the studio:  Keep your eyes on the lights.  If your photographer’s set up includes complex lighting set ups including hair lights, background lights and accent lights you’ll need to check constantly to make sure that all of the lights are firing as they should.  Calmly tell the photographer if you detect a problem.

7.  Assisting is a very physical job.  You’ll be asked to corral heavy cases of gear up and down stairs, in an out of cars or trucks and onto carts.  You might also be tasked with standing near the photographer with a full camera bag over your shoulder, ready to hand him the next lens or other accessory as needed.  Make sure you are in good shape to handle this kind of activity.  Get lots of aerobic exercise.

8.  Don’t look at the models or portrait subjects while they’re being photographed.  Here’s the reason:  Most models and especially inexperienced subjects are always looking for direction and reassurance.  All of the direction should come from one source, the person responsible for realizing the vision of the photo shoot.  That person is the photographer.  If you make eye contact with the sitter then their attention is split between you and the photographer causing them to shift attention and eye contact from the camera/photographer to you and then back again.  It disrupts the rapport the photographer is working hard to build.  When the real shooting begins it’s best to step behind a scrim and keep your eyes on the things the photographer can’t, such as whether all the light heads are firing or not.  Whether the set is on fire and a host of other scenarios.

9.  Don’t volunteer advice or opinions unless requested.  All humans are remarkably suggestible.  I remember to this day a photo shoot I did in Houston, Texas over twelve years ago.  My favorite assistant was unavailable so I called up a rather well known assist who was highly recommended by several national level photographers.  This assistant had worked all over the world for about ten years and had assisted several real photographic legends.  I was setting up an environmental portrait in a board room and I asked him to set up light for me.  I  left the room to go and scout a second location.  When I returned he had set up the lights in slightly different locations and had used different light modifiers than I would have used.  He also had “just a few” suggestions to “make the shot better”.

I started a thought process that went something like this:  “Well, I’ve always lit these kinds of shots with a bigger softbox and I’ve always placed my main light a lot further to one side, but I know that ”Bob” has worked for “so and so” from New York and “so and so” from London so maybe he’s reflecting the lighting he’s learned from those masters.  Maybe I’m doing this all wrong.…….”  Needless to say, my confidence was shot and I started second guessing myself at every turn.  By the time we got back to Austin I was just hoping something would turn out on the film that my client would be able to use.  Needless to say, even though he was a hard worker and knew the nuts and bolts of photography at least as well as I did I was never keen to use him again.  I want people around me in the service of my vision, not for the extension of another photographer’s vision.  If your photographer is in charge he will tell you exactly what he wants.

10.  Never talk about the client’s business.  Nothing will kill your relationship (and future referrals) with your photographer quicker than divulging the information you’ve learned about your photographer’s business to his clients or competitors.  You may be standing around a factory waiting for a shot of an assembly line worker to happen when someone asks you a question about the photographer’s fee.  You blurt out, “He’s really good!  He’s charging $2,500 a day!!!  That person may go back and tell everyone he works with on the assembly line, including the employee that your photographer just spent ten minutes convincing to be in the shot,  and to sign a model release in exchange for a ”token” $10 modeling fee.  All of a sudden he might not feel so well disposed about modeling for someone who charges more in a day than he might take home in a month.  

If you want to learn all about your photographer’s best practices, as well as the little nuts and bolts that hold the business together, he’ll need to trust you to safeguard his confidences.  It’s in your best interest to have a mutually trustworthy relationship.  

11.  Never show up late.  Never.  Call if it is unavoidable.   Better yet show up early.

12.  Get a good night’s sleep.  The photographer is paying you for a certain level of performance.  It’s not fair to them if you’ve been out drinking and dancing all night long and you stumble in for an early morning call exhausted and hung over.….

(photo: coffee cup.tif) (caption):  Photographers want to work with someone who’s easy to get along with.  If you bitch about going out to get coffee you’ll miss the whole point of assisting.

Getting the most out of the relationship: If your long term goal is to become a successful photographer and you’ve been lucky enough to start working with a good, established shooter you’ll want to make the most out of your experiences with him or her.  Acknowledging that half the job description is taking care of the equipment you’ll need to make sure that you know how (and when) to operate all of the gear your photographer uses.  Ask your photographer to show you how he packs his cameras, how he packs his lighting equipment and how everything works.  If the equipment is new to you it might be good to make a list of the gear you’ll be shepherding and then go online and study the owner’s manuals.

I guarantee that your photographer would much rather take an hour or so to run you through the process than take a chance that you’ll inadvertently destroy an expensive piece of gear in the middle of an important assignment.


Hot Light Shoot at Zach Scott Theater. With Espy.

So.  I've been talking about hot lights lately and I decided to grab my Canon G9 and take it with me to do a time lapse video showing a headshot session I did with an actor named Espy for the 2009-2010 season brochure.  I didn't put any sound in.  It lasts about a minute and covers about 18 minutes of shooting.  

The scrim to the left of the frame is a white 72 by 72 inch two stop silk.  The light on the extreme left is a Profoto Protungsten fixture with a 1,000 watt lamp.  I try to keep Espy angled into the lamp but I also have a convenient white fill to the right.  It's a white/black reversible panel on a Chimera frame.  The background is a custom gray canvas 9 feet wide.  It's lit with a Desisti 300 watt spotlight.  The spot of light is there for separation.  And to create a halo around the actor.

The people who keep walking into the back of the scene near me and the camera are the marketing director, the theater's creative director, the make up person and the art director.  We shot three people yesterday, three today and we'll shoot another 12 over the weekend.

I'm using hot lights so I can shoot as fast as I want to without worry about recycle time.  We're also using the same set to do videos for web promotion after I shoot each person.  Tomorrow I'll post a final shot from this shoot.  One of our goals was to get very shallow depth of field.  I think, with a 105mm f2 were right there.

Hope this works and I hope it's fun!  Here's a photo of Espy as an example from our shoot!