Light Painting with A Photo Assistant

light paintingLast week I was on location with a photographer in Minneapolis. We went to a local manufacturer, with a set cart full of strobes and other gear, where we were shooting a new product for the client. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a layout to work with, so we were figuring it out as we shot. Luckily, we were working directly with the person from the marketing department who would be doing the layout. It’s not an approach that always works so well, especially if we are trying to be efficient, but this wasn’t that difficult. However, it did call for shooting a lot of extra looks, angles, close-ups, and different depths of field for coverage.

I’ve seen this happening more and more, with and without a layout, which can make for a long day. But, in this instance, it wasn’t too bad. It goes without saying, however, that many times when dealing with the client directly, without an agency art buyer/director, you definitely need to be prepared to shoot maximum coverage. This can actually be a good thing, though, and can really help the photographer look good to the client, and aid in building a solid relationship with them. If a photographer works well the client to get different looks of the captured image, maybe it will help the advertising and marketing people be better prepared in the future. But, during production, it makes the assistant and the photographer very valuable to that client.

Many of the shots we took were environmental, in order to tell the story. We were shooting a few of the client’s new industrial paint sprayers, both portable and fixed models. The client wanted establishing shots to give a sense of product placement. This meant that we were taking many wide-angle exposures, showing much of the spray room and other locations that these paint sprayers would be used within a factory setting.

Now, this article isn’t entitled Light Painting with A Photo Assistant because we were shooting paint sprayers. I’m talking about painting with light. You know, shooting a long exposure and painting the scene with light to expose your product, or subject. Maybe you can remember experimenting with light painting, back in school, where you would go out at night, expose a scene for the ambient light and then write words with a flashlight onto the film. The best example of painting with light, of course, is shooting fireworks. But, why the heck would we want to paint with light if we were shooting strobes on location?

Jill Greer, the photographer I was assisting, likes to travel as light as possible. This was a good thing since we were moving around in a large factory, and I am grateful to her for her style, as it tends to save me from having to lug around lots of unnecessary gear. Also, Jill loves her Lumedynes. So do I. We had only three Lumedynes and a couple Speedo heads, with a studio pack, in our location lighting arsenal. Some of the large areas we had to cover were beyond the scope of our lighting. Also, Jill’s style is to use shutter-drag. This worked real well on this job because we could set our strobes in the shadow areas, then dial them back a tiny bit, expose, pop the strobes, drag shutter, and use a flashlight to paint more light directly onto our hero product. This can really help the product to pop, creating a sort of a high dynamic range image, without using post-HDR processing. Another thing we did was to use gels to change the temperature of our flashlight, depending on the ambient light, for different effects.

This is why it’s important to have a flashlight with you. You never know when using a light painting technique will give you the perfect look that the client wants. We used an industrial Mag-Lite flashlight for the paint sprayers. But, it’s okay to have a smaller pen light too. Experiment with different flashlights and see what you like best. The Mag-Lite brand is great because you can focus them. I have worked with another photographer, in Los Angeles, who did light painting almost exclusively, especially for product photography. He had quite an elaborate system designed–using an 8×10 view camera, scaffolding, and a few shoe-boxes full of different flashlights. I assisted him this one time, shooting cell phones, but we shot them digitally with a Canon 1DsMII and a tilt-shift lens. We would have loved to done it with film, but processing and turn-around time was an issue since we were shooting about 50 different phones. Of course, the client needed it done yesterday! At any rate, we still got some sweet images, and the client was ecstatic.

Here’s a couple great resources on light painting to learn more:

A Photo Assistant’s Grip Kit

Do you have your own grip-kit? If not, you probably should.

When I first started assisting, it seemed unnatural for me to just show up to a studio, or on location, empty-handed. So, I decided to put some essential tools into a simple fanny-pack.

What should you put in your grip-kit? Here’s a list of what I have in my fanny-pack grip-kit:

•    Leatherman
•    Gaffers tape
•    AA batteries
•    Flashlight
•    Silk/microfiber cloth to clean lenses
•    Tape measure
•    Sharpie
•    Grip-gloves (for hot-lighs and cold weather)
•    Clothes pins/small A-clamps/bull-nose clips
•    2-3 plastic trash bags (to cover packs in foul weather)
•    A couple optical slaves
•    A couple 3-prong grounding adapters
•    A few patches of cinefoil
•    A few patches of spun-glass
•    Small gray card
•    Small bullet level
•    Lint roller
•    Blue modeling putty
•    Velcro cable-ties
•    A few band-aids
•    Ibuprofen/aspirin

I consider most of these items essential. But, of course, the contents of the grip-kit can include less, more, and different items based on your needs for a particular shoot. If I know I’m on location, I might bring a power strip, sunscreen, and other important items (warm clothes, towel) that are easily overlooked when packing for a particular trip across town or across country.

Maybe you wonder why you should bring a bunch of these items and tools with you when the photographer probably has all that stuff in their studio. One thing I’ve found is that tools and everyday usage items tend to get strewn about in the studio, on-set. If you haven’t worked at a studio in a while, you might not find everything where you had found it before. Or, maybe you will walk into a job, mid-shoot, after another assistant becomes unavailable on-set. If you’re on location, the answer should be obvious. It’s all about being pro-active and eliminate wasted time and frustrations. It also shows the photographer that you are mindful about being prepared.

What do you have in your grip-kit? Please leave a comment/suggestion about other important items to include in your photo assistant’s grip-kit.