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.

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.

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.

Set Etiquette Do’s and Dont’s

Today’s post is by guest blogger, assistant/photographer Justin Sullivan.

Set Etiquette

A lot has been said about the technical aspects of photo assisting in the past. But one topic that hasn’t been explored as much as it should be is how to behave on set. There are a lot of things that can be learned over time, after many mistakes. But here are some guidelines that could help you save a little face, and keep you getting hired back for more work (and hey, that’s what we all want).

Things to Do:

Address concerns QUIETLY with the photographer. If you’re the first assistant working with a top photographer, and something is awry (or you THINK it’s awry) get his attention and speak with him about it as soon as possible in low tones. Photographers’ relationships with their clients can take years to build. The last thing they need is to look like a big dummy because you noticed a rookie mistake and blabbed about it loudly. Anyone worth his salt will appreciate your decorum. [Read more…]

You Are Not A Dinosaur

Photo © Andrea Cole

As you know, APhotoAssistant is about photo assisting. In this respect, I usually discuss things here in a commercial sense. But, I’ve also been trying to exercise a more artistic muscle, with a non-competitive flair, these days. I recently ran across a friend of mine on Kickstarter who has assembled a group of photographers who have produced an interesting body of work that they will be exhibiting soon. They have drawn on a unique perspective as inspiration for their project, so I thought I would talk with my friend.

Tim White is relatively new to the medium of photography, having spent many years as a painter. He is an occasional contributor to B&W Magazine, and lives and works in Minneapolis, MN. His current images can be seen here.

APhotoAssistant (APA): Tim, please tell us about the exhibit you are helping to put together… “You Are Not A Dinosaur.” I was immediately curious when I saw the name.

Tim White (TW): It’s a quote from a short story entitled Dinosaur by Bruce Holland Rogers. In two paragraphs a man lives out his entire life. He starts as a kid rattling the house with dinosaur antics, then his imagination fades away as he makes practical, adult choices until senility lets him become a dinosaur again. So our show has these core themes of responsibility and loss, but the ambiguity works too–that maybe it compels people to look further into “what is this show, and why is it rebuking me?” [Read more…]

Chris Hollo: The Door Project

My friend and colleague, Chris Hollo, a photographer from Nashville, has been featured in aCurator, an online photo magazine which features large full-screen images showing the works of photographers from all over. Chris is a commercial shooter who does advertising, editorial, people, and music. He has worked with many Nashville acts, and is the official photographer for the Grand Ole Opry.

Chris’ recent The Door Project took about six months to complete principal photography, but, then nearly another six months to complete the post. Chris said it was a lot of fun, but was a good deal of work with props, styling, and wardrobe, too. After really soaking it up on his website, I think the best part about it is the way it illustrates all the various human interactions we can have, just at the front door of our homes. His humorous peek, and sometimes stark reality, has captured the quirky human element which we all come into contact with, from time-to-time.

Chris has also jumped into the blogosphere recently, and you can follow his progress here. Chris has a lot of experience in the photo industry and a great personality. It comes through in his writing.

Reasons to Take Photographs

As photographers, we might say we take photographs to earn a living… to make money. Others might say that we communicate or illustrate our client’s product in a way they want it presented. And, still other shooters may argue that photography is to document an event, news, or some special occasion.

But, what about all the other reasons to take a photograph? Think back to when you first picked up a camera and discovered the magic of freezing time and getting your film back from the lab. Or, maybe you processed the film and printed the negative yourself, and saw the image materialize in the developer. What was the motivation you discovered about taking the shot in the first place? What captured your love-affair with photography?

Here’s some of my early recollections of why I took photographs.

1.    To remember what the clouds in the sky looked like just before that big storm.
2.    To show my friends the first northern pike I caught.
3.    To show mom where we went on our summer boy scout trip.
4.    To show how crazy me and my brother were when we stuck grapes in our nostrils.
5.    To show grandma and grandpa where we went on our family vacation to the Black Hills.
6.    To show friends how enormous the road-side dinosaur was at the rest stop.
7.    To capture the warmth of a sandy beach with palm trees.
8.    To illustrate the rocky hike up the mountain in the heat of the desert.
9.    To show friends and family back home how insane the traffic is on Los Angeles freeways.
10.  To capture the magic of a beautiful sunset in the Boundary Waters.

Of course! We tell stories with our photography… whether we are working for a client, snapping graduating sons and daughters at commencement, or taking vacation photos of wild bears in Yellowstone. But, sometimes, we get caught up in the frantic craziness of everyday life and our passions, as professional photographers and creatives, get clouded a bit by all the deadlines, budgets, layouts, and last minute art direction changes. Take a few moments and travel back in your mind to when you first snapped the shutter….

Why do you take a picture? What are some of your special memories of photography, before you shot for money?