Sometimes, Less is a Lot More

Medium SoftboxI was working on location this week, where we were doing some corporate portraiture. When I met the photographer outside the office building we were shooting in, he had just three bags — a  long case for stands and softboxes and umbrellas, a pelican case for a couple monoblocks, and his camera bag. I had never worked with this photographer before, so I wasn’t exactly sure what the game-plan was. Even though I had a basic idea of what our shoot would entail, I wasn’t completely dialed in on specifics. I never worry about this situation though, because usually, if the photographer hasn’t given you the run-down on the job or provided a production book or shot-list, it just means that there are only a couple nuts and bolts to tighten and things should be relatively easy. But, when I saw just the three bags I couldn’t help but asking myself if the photographer really needed an assistant for this job.

Well, of course, the answer is yes, he did. What I didn’t know was that the lobby area we were shooting in had very limited angles and looks, despite its large size. Not only were we doing basic environmental portraits, but also creating images that would fit into a layout. We had to be very crafty with the look and feel of these images so they didn’t look posed or contrived. The photographer opted for a simple two light set-up along with a sunbounce reflector. This allowed us more freedom to concentrate on a simple, elegant look, focusing on our backgrounds and talent, along with composition and angles. We had plenty of employees to photograph and two art-directors to keep happy at the same time. So, despite the seeming ease of this shoot, we definitely had our hands full. Even when I wasn’t busy, I was usually watching out for hall traffic so they wouldn’t knock into our background umbrella, while they had their face buried in their cell phone.

IMG_7539The lighting was technically simple, but not without some special tweaks. We used a Profoto D1 in a medium softbox as a key, angled a bit into a ten-foot ceiling, and set about 3/4 to talent. We rigged a small dull silver sunbounce reflector on the opposite fill side for talent. We did a lot of subtle feathering with our key and bounce to get a very natural look. The background was a small Profoto white umbrella that we kept partially closed to create a narrower, focused stream of light, filling dark background spaces or throwing a splash of light across a floor or wall. Having this simple lighting set-up allowed us the freedom to get the right angles for our compositions as they related to the backgrounds.

I have always believed in the less is more principle. It is not always applicable, but this was definitely one job that it was almost mandatory. It isn’t always ideal, depending on the shoot, and you almost always have to make some concessions. But, depending on your budget, shoot schedule, and location, you can usually make a very simple lighting set-up work great if you give it some careful consideration and planning.

Rangefinders Can Help You Be a Better Photographer

I’ve never really shot with a rangefinder. Oh sure, I’ve played around with one here and there. Made a few snaps with a friend’s or another photographer’s that I was working with. Rangefinders are cool. But, so expensive and kitschy… not really for me. I never really gave it too much more thought.

I recently stumbled on this video produced by Leica Camera. In the video Craig Semetko explains that using a rangefinder can really be beneficial to a photographer who is normally accustomed to shooting with only an SLR. Give it a watch and see if, like me, it gives you any ideas about how we learn, given our current circumstances. I really think this video has a lot more to offer than just how to shoot a camera!

7 Things to Help Establish Your Foundation as a Photo Assistant

Okay, here I am. Again. Back in sunny Los Angeles, ready once again to start writing up a storm on APhotoAssistant. Speaking of storms, right now I am watching an online webcam feed in Minneapolis on the U of M campus, where there are many students building snowmen and having snowball fights in the freshly fallen snow after the season’s first major snowstorm. It actually looks like they are having fun, but it is a cold reminder of why I travel to more temperate climes when winter rolls around. At least some people can tolerate the snow and cold. Well, I can tolerate it for the most part, since I lived there for most of my life. But, these days I just choose not to have to endure it for the five or six months that one is expected to deal with winter’s wrath in Minnesnowta.

Snow, anyway…

More and more these days, students and newbie photo assistants are asking me how to find work as a photo assistant. It’s usually along the lines of, “What am I doing wrong, because I just can’t find the assisting gigs I expected or want to do?” Or, it’s something like, “I’ve talked with so many photographers but, they all say they don’t have a lot of work right now, or that they already have a list of ten to fifteen assistants that they call when they have a shoot coming up. How will I ever get my foot in the door?”

The answer to these types of questions can be many, and usually a combination of reasons. But, the bottom line is that when you are starting out in the photo industry as a photo assistant, there is going to be a huge learning curve in just about everything you do. So, unless someone in your family, or a close friend is already established as a photographer or other creative in the industry, you will have a great deal of hard work in front of you to build your foundation as a photo assistant. The nice thing about this, though, is that once you’ve begun really digging in, you will build momentum and it will carry you through, and things will become easier and easier once you have really started to get your bearings.

I have taken a few moments to put the following list together to help assistants who have the gumption to put forth the effort that will help you establish your place in the pecking order of photo assisting with the photographers you want to work with. Bear in mind that there is no real secret formula to this process, only that if you do the footwork and approach every situation with common sense and a bit of creative resourcefulness and hard work, you can succeed and begin making progress.

Persistence – when you are beginning to call on photographers to introduce yourself to them, you must be persistent, but without being a pest. Sending an email every two to four weeks is probably a good time frame to work with. Mail promotional postcards to the studio with well produced images, graphics, and copy to help get you noticed even more. Yes, photographers still love print! Pick up the phone and call the studio, from time to time, stating your interest to meet with the photographer in the hopes of assisting them sometime in the near future. Find out if they have been receiving your emails and postcards. The goal is to stay in front of them and on their welcome mat, but never give them any reason to sweep you under the rug.

Attitude – always be positive with a can-do attitude! Be pleasant, calm, and maintain discretion when in the company of those you aspire to work with. You should maintain a professional demeanor at all times. Don’t be over-eager or talk too much. Be confident, honest, and always be teachable. Don’t ever think your way is the only way or the right way. Ultimately, your personality will match, or compliment, the photographer’s personality you wish to work with. Once you have worked with a few studios you will begin to know your place and what is appropriate in those relationships.

Hard Work – you will need to motivate yourself and work hard, keeping your goals in mind. You might spend hours upon hours researching photographers work on their websites. You will undoubtedly need to develop well thought out ways to market yourself with a website/blog, emails, postcards, portfolios, etc. You might have a regular day or night job and pull double-duty in order to get your feet under you, which will allow you to take the photography leap, full-time. Whatever your situation, stay focused, have fun, and make it happen.

Network – join, attend and get involved with your local APA and ASMP chapters. If there is not one close to you, find a camera club that will keep your creative juices flowing in ways other than just taking photos. Look for ways to be helpful and assist other photographers in the camera club. You could even start your own group like The Crew Group to share your time, resources, and gear with others to work on projects and build your portfolio. Get to know the sales and rental people at your local camera store and rental houses. Find online groups on Linkedin and other sites that provide resources and ideas that you can use. Participate in photo workshops and festivals as a volunteer to meet new photographers and expand your mojo. I still do this, and love it!

Continue Learning – always remain teachable. I like learning, but I also tend to be slow to change with changing times. Photography has taught me to be flexible and more open to adapting to new techniques and workflows. I find that by keeping my eyes and ears open, and my mouth shut, I can gain the trust of others and learn something from them. Research online for new gear, owners manuals, lighting set-ups, and tricks-of-the-trade. Take a lighting workshop or attend an Assistant Training Workshop.

Patience – is the follow-up to persistence. Allow the proper time for things to fall into place, especially when you are just starting out. When I had trouble getting assisting gigs at first, I took a full-time night job which allowed me the time to continue marketing and meeting photographers, little by little, until I could establish some good rapport with them. Everyone has their own pace. And, in our fast-paced world today, many opportunities are lost in the shuffle, or the right opportunities take longer to be discovered. Stay focused, and don’t be too discouraged when things don’t seem to happen quick enough.

Treat Photo Assisting as Your Business – because it is! When I started out I was pretty excited to be in business! I even started out using an assumed business name. But, as time wore on, I got lazy and a lot of administrative paperwork type stuff piled up on me. Thankfully, I got that worked out with help. Don’t be afraid to use a tax service or accountant. This will save you many headaches later on when you are too busy on set and don’t have the energy to stay on top of some of your administrative tasks. If you like doing this stuff yourself, go ahead and do it. But, remember to manage your time efficiently and balance your priorities. I try to schedule, hour-by-hour, my tasks when I am at my desk, so that I am at least making some progress on all the stuff that’s in the in box.

These are just some of the things that were going on, day-in and day-out, back when I started my photo assisting business. Of course, I still have to do a lot of this, even these days, but it’s second-nature to me, now. But, in the beginning, it can be a bit overwhelming and difficult to know if you are doing all the right things that will lead to getting some good work and starting to make an impression on the photography community. I remember always second-guessing myself and having doubts that would almost paralyze me. Then, I might have a good meeting with a photographer and get some work and things would be good. It can really be a roller-coaster ride, for sure!

The bottom-line is this: Be mindful of all these things, on a consistent basis, and show the photographers you want to work with that you are the real deal and deserve the opportunity you are asking for. Do your best to set your self up to get noticed. There’s a lot of competition, so you better suit up and show up. Otherwise, all your hard work and persistence is for nothing.

So, ask yourself… What would you have to do to walk into a studio for an interview and see one of your postcard mailers on the fridge?


What the Heck?

Where is APhotoAssistantI know, I know. It’s been forever since I’ve posted. I’ve received a few emails recently asking me, What the heck? Let’s just say I am on a much needed break from blogging.

During the past five months, I’ve traveled home to Minneapolis, from L.A., only to return back to L.A. a few months later. I still love everything about Minnie, except winter, even if it is as mild as it has been this winter. Los Angeles, too, has been warmer this season! I guess I’d have won, no matter where I spent my winter.

As you may have noticed, I’m currently working at expanding APhotoAssistant to include a directory listing for students and assistants. It probably won’t be anything as elaborate as PhotoCrew, but I hope to encourage everyone who signs up to participate and share with one another, so as to foster a real learning environment and help everyone to be the best photo assistant that they can be. When I started APhotoAssistant 3-1/2 years ago, I envisioned an active community of positive professionals where everyone was excited to work in a vibrant photo industry and to share experience, skills, and tips with one another to uphold a professional standard which would benefit all. At any rate, please take a moment to explore the Photo Assistants Directory page and sign on by listing your profile.

I am also hopeful to start implementing some more video into the content for the site. I have been working with more photographers, recently, who are shooting DSLR video and offering that as part of their service to their clients. With that came the idea to start delivering content for APhotoAssistant via video format. Actually, I intended to start this some time ago, but my workflow made it nearly impossible, then. I believe the time is now, or never… So, you can expect to see some video interviews with photographers, assistants, and other creatives. I also hope to feature some tips and tricks, and feature gear and pointers from other assistants.

By making some of these changes at APhotoAssistant, I may have interrupted some subscribers’ RSS feeds. If you want to be notified via email or your reader, I encourage you to resubscribe, just to make sure you will continue to be notified. Thanks!

Please Pardon The Mess…

Stuff may look unfamiliar and be in a bit of a disarray around here for a bit. I am currently looking at implementing some new features here at APhotoAssistant. I will update everyone with all the new goodies to come, as soon as I can get familiar with the new software and get things in order. Just to give you a hint of what’s on the way… APhotoAssistant is creating it’s own network. Stay tuned….

In the meantime, please poke around the articles.

12 Elements Portfolio Show

12 Elements Portfolio ShowLast night, I attended the Industry Preview for the MCTC Photography and Digital Imaging Fall 2011 Portfolio Show. The turnout for the first night of the show was awesome and the mood was quite festive and abuzz! I believe this is perhaps the third portfolio show to take place at Vine Arts Center, which allows the students to show their work in more of a real gallery setting, rather than within the confines of Minneapolis Community and Technical College. It definitely feels more professional, artsy, and fun… rather than the alternative.

I enjoyed visiting with all the students and faculty, and checking out the show. What impressed me the most is how well the students are branding themselves with their business cards, postcards, and nick-knacks used for their promotions and marketing.student branding I just don’t recall this being a big deal when I went to MCTC, but maybe I missed something then, as I was working graveyard hours to put myself through college. At any rate, the Fall 2011 grads had many impressive images framed on the walls and bound in beautiful books. Oh, and the books were sweet! I know we didn’t have these great book printing and binding companies when I was in school. The 12 Elements crew did an awesome job of using some great resources to help show off their work.

I must admit, I have become a big advocate of students and their work in the past few years. The photo industry has always been a tough racket. And especially tough these days, with never-ending technology advances in digital photography, and with the troubled economy. Students really need to be on their A-game to have, perhaps, even a chance at some success in the photography industry. The faculty at MCTC’s Photography and Digital Imaging program, headed by Jack Mader, really do a bang-up job getting these students prepared for the photo world.

The 12 Elements show runs Nov. 29 thru Dec. 3 at Vine Arts Center (Ivy Building for the Arts) in Minneapolis.

To Meter, or Not to Meter

Sekonic L-358 light meterI’m a rather easy-going guy–easy to get along with, open-minded, always teachable, and willing to try new things. But one thing that drives me absolutely nuts is when I meet an assistant who doesn’t know or understand how to read and meter light. Just how do you actually know what the light will look like in your image? And, if you tell me we will see it on-screen, no big deal I’m going to send you home and never hire you again! Well, maybe I won’t do that, but I know a few photographers who might. The bottom line is that as an assistant, you have to understand light, inside and out. And looking at it on-screen just isn’t good enough (in my book) unless you’ve been shooting for 20+ years and can find your way around a darkroom with the safe-light off.

I’ve worked with plenty of shooters who really don’t use meters anymore. This is usually because they have been shooting the same types of subjects, over and over, under the same lighting conditions, with the same gear, and in the same space, for years and years. Okay, I get it. Tell me where to set the lights and what the power settings and light modifiers are and chances are we will get dang close to what they expect. If you are a new assistant, however, you will never really learn lighting this way. The chances are good that such a photographer started their photo career with film and using meters. Then, as they transitioned to digital, they became so completely tuned in to the differences and similarities between film and digital, and how it related to their lighting preferences, that they could light and relight their setups blind-folded. I can almost guarantee that a student, fresh out of school, will not be able to duplicate such a workflow. It takes years of practice–lighting, metering, adjusting, seeing the results on film/screen, readjusting, and so on.

Knowing light is absolutely crucial to communicate the client’s message in the image. I’m talking about the physical qualities and the emotional nuances of light. Careful, critical study of all types of light will greatly increase one’s ability to re-create a specific light, on-set, when called to do so. The use of a light meter will give you good starting points when designing a lighting layout. Knowing the intensity, direction, and color temperature of the light will create a more definitive picture in your mind about the light, even before you see the first image. The ability to create a specific type of light quickly and efficiently based on the client’s needs is paramount for a good photo assistant, lighting designer, and photographer. Another factor to consider here is lighting for video, as more and more photographers are turning to video capture with DSLR’s. Consider what has happened to Vincent LaForet’s career.

I understand that digital has made parts of our lives as photographers easier. But, I also subscribe to the fact that maintaining as much control over the shoot on-set, prior to post, is what makes a true professional. Controlling your light, of course, is a big part of that. Competency with a light meter and lighting a shot or set will free up the photographer to work more closely with the art director and client. Knowing how your light will look even before the first test image is shot not only makes the shoot go smoother, but it will make the editing process, on-set for the art director and in-post for the retoucher, much easier. I’ve yet been unable to accomplish any of this without using a light meter.

gels, diffusion, cto, ctb, frost, nd, neutral densityWhenever I’m on set as a first assistant, I will usually have a clear idea of what the lighting direction will be for each shot. I will pre-visualize what the lighting set-ups will be, where the lights will be hitting, what modifiers I’ll use, and what the power of each light will be in relation to one another. Metering each light individually will tell me almost precisely what it’s doing, at least in power and direction. When I use a light meter, I can at least take much of the guess-work out of the equation. If I’m mixing light sources or require a balanced color temperature on set, I’ll meter for that, too.

I’ve always been a continuity buff when watching TV and movies. It first started out when I would catch wardrobe malfunctions and camera angles. But then, as my awareness increased, I started detecting subtleties and shifts in lighting–colors, direction, and quality. That, in turn, started me thinking about how lighting, just like music and sound effects, can create emotions for a desired effect or reaction. Study Film Noir and other classic films by Hitchcock and Welles. Even in black & white you can feel anxiety with contrast, fear in deep shadows, movement with lighting direction, and so on. I love to study light in film. Watch the HBO series, Six Feet Under, especially the first two seasons… the lighting freaking rocks! Most people watch TV and film for the story or the character. But, when you really dissect the lighting, music, and camera movements you can really begin to understand how these elements really support the story and character.

The same is true for the talent, product, and environment in a still photograph. There are zillions of images in magazines, online, signage and billboards. Look at them critically and objectively. Ask what the emotions are that are being illustrated. How is this being achieved with light–color, direction, how many lights are being used, what are the sources, what is each one doing, and how is each one being modified? Think about how a different composition might change the mood, and how the light should change with such modifications. Consider what went through the photographer’s or art director’s mind as the layouts were discussed in pre-production. Study lighting diagrams in lighting books and really understand how much can be done with just a few simple tools. Check out Guess the Lighting.

The following is a passage from Wikipedia: The word “photograph” was coined in 1839 by Sir John Herschel and is based on the Greek (phos), meaning “light”, and (graphê), meaning “drawing, writing,” together meaning “drawing with light.”

Once we draw, or paint with light, you will need a light meter to see what you drew!

Actual light meter operations are outside the scope of this article, as I intended it. Perhaps I will do another article, or video, in the future for some how-to instruction with light meters. There are many resources online, however. One of the best I’ve found is Sekonic. I would say that the best light meter to know for still photography is the Sekonic L-358. Rent one and learn it! Also, know and understand how to use gels and diffusion to color correct and control light output. Two good resources are Lee Filters and Rosco.

What are some of your experiences working with photographers, with and without meters? What are some of the situations you find yourself in where you aren’t using a meter, and why? Please talk about some of your experience in the comments.

APhotoAssistant is Back in the Saddle

Many thanks to Jack Mader, Photography Dept. Instructor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, in Minneapolis, for having me out to his photo assisting class this past Tuesday to share with the students. I was part of a four-person panel of MCTC photography alumni who shared experience, stories, tips, and advice for students who are starting to work in the photo industry as photo assistants. I participated along-side Anna Rajdl, Roxanne Kajrum, and John Haynes.

Jack’s a great teacher and we had a great forum with his class. Very informal, but a real good sharing and Q & A session. We talked about everything from how to find assisting work, to what is expected of an assistant, to questions about filing taxes as a self-employed photo assistant and photographer. Here is a breakdown of the meeting:

  • Introductions
  • Experience
  • Beginning as a photo assistant
  • Becoming a digitech
  • Transitioning into photographer
  • Mishaps, horror stories
  • What to do
  • What not to do
  • Tech/Gear/Software
  • Etiquette
  • Working relationships/networking

This year’s Fall Portfolio Show for the MCTC Photography Program Students is entitled Elements and will be taking place Nov. 29 thru Dec. 3. Please mark your calendars. More info soon!

Now, I know it’s been a spell since my last entry here at If you follow me on facebook or twitter you may have figured out that I was in Los Angeles for the spring and summer, working. While this opportunity gave me much opportunity to write new material for the blog, I simply was so busy that I just did not have the time. My apologies to those of you I left hanging. After the speaking engagement at MCTC, I decided it was high time to get back on my writing horse. I aim to relate some of this summer’s experiences, and others, in the near future.

So, here I am… again.

I am hoping to make some improvements to real soon, both in content and design. If you have any thoughts or ideas about what you want to see, read, or know about, please send me an email. I am open to all ideas and concerns.

If you have any questions about assisting, photography, or my services, again, please give me a holler.