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.

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.

How to Strike a Photo Set


Photo courtesy of Flashlight Photo Rental

Usually, when you hear the magic words, “That’s a wrap,” the assistant is eager to strike the set and get all the gear packed up. It’s probably been a long day and everyone is tired. Maybe there is an after party or a flight to catch. But, if you get any result after a strike, like the photo here, you are in too much of a hurry and not using your head. If you are a brand new assistant and it’s your first time on set, there are a few mulligans available for you. But if you’ve been around for a spell, stuff like this is kind of embarrassing… for you. The bottom line is to use some common sense. Safety and planning doesn’t end just because the shoot is over. In fact, the assistant is probably going to be one of the hardest working people on set after the strobes get powered down. Keep your cool and work smart and efficiently.

I usually start striking the set by powering down all the lighting. I will usually leave the camera and computer stuff for the photographer or digital tech, unless the photographer instructs me otherwise. They will probably be doing preliminary edits with the client anyway, so just stay out of their way. Just make sure the camera is attended to and safe from hitting the floor.

After powering down the strobes, I will pull as many power cords as possible. Just get them out of the way so you, or anyone else, can’t trip over them. Coil them properly, and stage them for packing. Coil up the head extensions and hang them on the stand. Remove any flags, V-flats, nets, and other grip that is taking up space. Just get all the cumbersome stuff off the set. Then, lower the light-stand stanchions and move all the light heads, on their stands, off to the side and out of the way. Leave the dirt on the stands, in case they get bumped. Remove power-packs, pocket-wizards, and other items and pack them away if you can. [Read more…]

How To Make Traveling as a Photo Assistant A Snap

Working as a photo assistant and traveling to a location shoot can be a lot of fun. I’ve had many, many opportunities to travel and work on location, and one thing that each has in common is that every one is different. Working with different photographers will inevitably lead to traveling to many different locations, working on various types of shoots, with many different types of people. So, I guess the other thing that all location shoots have in common is that they are hardly ever boring. But, it can also be a lot of work. If you like lugging gear, working your butt off from sunrise to sunset, overcoming adversity, dealing with weather and other uncertainties of the road–then assisting on location might be the life for you.

There is both an art and a business to traveling and photography. The photographer must know what the client expects from them. As a photo assistant, you must know what the photographer expects from you. If there is a producer, they will handle many of the minute details. But the photographer and assistant will need to be on the same page with concern to ad layouts, gear to bring or rent when arriving, job roles of everyone on the production, and catering to the client. Sometimes, the assistant will double as a mini-producer and handle, or assist, with such things as car rentals, hotel reservations, getting lunch, pulling permits, scouting, and scheduling. Making it all work takes resourcefulness, creativity, hard work, and many times, a lot of overtime.

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Booking Gigs, Scheduling Conflicts, Holds, And Photo Assistants On-Ice

Well, shoot! I’ve been crazy busy. Hardly enough time to think let alone get caught up, here, on the blog. My apologies for leaving you hanging. Being extra busy the last couple months has lead to some scheduling conflicts when booking shoots, so I thought this was a good opportunity to talk about them here on

Many freelance photo assistants may have one to five photographers who they always work with, almost exclusively. If you’re not there yet, no worries, you will get there. Lately, I’ve been working, a lot, out of town. Traveling, and just being generally busy, will easily complicate your schedule and make it difficult to always be available to the main core of photographers you work with. It’d be great if everyone was so busy that we could just book 3-5 days each week with the same photographer, but let’s face it, that’s probably not gonna happen–unless you are a full-time studio assistant. A good gig if you can get it, but that’s whole different topic for another time.

[Read more…]

Stills to Video Workshop for Photographers

DSLR Video Workshop

There is widespread buzz about digital SLR cameras that shoot HD video. Your clients may even already be requesting you to shoot video clips in addition to stills while on-set. What do you do?

Find out how to successfully capture video and audio, import and edit, export and distribute full HD video in this introductory workshop on moving from stills into motion.

This session will cover:

  • DSLR pros and cons
  • Necessary hardware and software
  • The camera setup
  • Successful audio capture
  • Storage and conversion of footage
  • Importing and editing
  • Output and delivery
  • External resources

Session starts at 6:30pm and will go through 9:00pm with time afterwards for questions, networking and drinks. Light refreshments and beverages will be served.

Session Details

When: May 18th, 2010. 6:30pm

Where: Studio 1414, MPLS, MN

Who: Photographers. Students. You.

Cost: $95 per person

Sign up: HERE

Photo Assisting and Working With Animals

Recently, I’ve been working with an animal photographer, shooting cats and dogs. Mostly, we’ve been shooting auditions for upcoming jobs, but we’ve also done a few advertising and PR shoots involving lots of smaller dogs. We also shot with a Great Dane, and that was cool. Working with animals can be a lot of fun, but doing so comes with a new set of rules, no matter what type of animal that’s on-set.

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many differnet animal talent–including cows, pigs, horses, goats, and other farm-related animals. I’ve also been on location with wolves, monkeys, an orangutan, and even a large, brown black bear named Balou. Working with animals like a bear or wolf can be exciting, but it can also be very stressful… for people and the animal. Pet photography is one thing. Getting a bear or an orangutan to cooperate and do what the art director needs on command is another. Animals have personalities too, and sometimes they can wake up on the wrong side of the bed, just like you and me! I have a great deal of respect for the animal trainers, handlers, and photographers I’ve worked with over the years.

The biggest thing you need to be mindful of is how your presence and actions may affect the animal. Animals can be very sensitive, especially if they are in an unfamiliar place and around a lot of unfamiliar people and equipment. Many dogs are well adjusted to being on-set after a few auditions and proper training, but Bessie the dairy cow may not be too thrilled with a bunch of people running around and flashing strobes everywhere. Animal stress is your number one concern here. If you are working in direct contact with any animal, you need to be the animals friend (if possible) and help keep them at ease. Too many sudden, frantic movements and shouting will stress out any animal, and probably the art director, too. Always heed what the animal trainer tells you, and ask them questions if you are unsure about anything.

Most animals can tell if you are a threat to them or not. Luckily, I get along very well with most animals. Be confident and friendly toward them. This disposition is always favorable when you’re on-set or on location with any animal. If you’re not a pet owner or don’t consider yourself an animal person, just try to be as pleasant as possible when you’re near them. Don’t be afraid, because all animals can smell that fear, and it puts them on alert with you. Of course, cats can be cranky and sometimes don’t like strangers at all. In these situations, just do your job and let the animal handlers do they’re job, and everything will be cool.

Don’t go out of your way, while working, to pet the animal or be overly affectionate to it. Don’t call out its name or try to get its attention, unless instructed to. If everyone on-set is doing this, the animal gets excited and confused, and the animal trainer can lose control of the animal.

Make a connection with the animal when you arrive on-set, while the animal handler is present. Usually, this will happen at some point prior to getting things under way, anyway, so that everyone has a chance to meet the animal. This way, too, the animal handler becomes aware if the animal is upset toward anyone in particular, for any reason. This is when you need to be on your best behavior and follow instructions from the handler so you know what’s going on. Granted, this may not be so critical with a border collie, but you better be paying attention if you’re working with a wolf or some other animal that can gnaw at your thigh and pull your leg from your hip-socket! No sense getting mauled like Roy Horn.

On the lighter side, yet still very important, if you have any pet allergies, take a non-drowsy antihistamine before you arrive on-set. Don’t forget, because you allergy sufferers know how miserable you will be if you don’t take something. Even if you aren’t sure how you might react to a certain animals dander, it’s better to be safe than sorry. I am very sensitive to many dogs and cats, but I can manage it with an over-the-counter allergy medicine. If I forget to take it, life sucks for me that day. It’s kind of hard to download images off a CF card, or wrangle strobe heads and power packs when you’re sneezing all day. If you can’t avoid it, at least bring your own box of tissues. I get the super-soft kind, without the lotion. That lotion stuff comes off on your hands and consequently onto camera gear and laptops. Yuck!

No matter what sort of shoot you’re working on with animals on-set, there is definitely a different etiquette, or sense of awareness you’ll need to have. If you are working on your first-ever animal shoot, just keep your eyes and ears open, and listen to the direction of the animal handlers. After a few shoots you will be more comfortable and know better how to conduct yourself around many different animals. Some of my favorite shoots have been working with animals. It’s crazy awesome to walk on-set and shake hands with an orangutan or feed a 500-pound bear gummi bears from your mouth!

Photo Assistants Are You Ready For Anything and Everything?

A few weeks ago, early on a Saturday afternoon, I was sitting down to lunch with friends at a local restaurant, when I got a call from a local photographer. He asked if I was busy right then, and I told him I was just eating lunch. The caller manages Studio 1414, a rental studio in Minneapolis, and another photographer who had rented the space was a bit overwhelmed, and needed a hand. I told him that I’d be there in 30 minutes. I gobbled down my lunch, apologized to my friends for eating and running, and hustled over to the studio. I had no idea what the shoot was or what to expect when I got there.

When I arrived at the studio, there were about 20 dogs of all shapes and sizes in the front room–Jack Russells, Border Collies, terriers, retrievers, even some beagles. The dogs and owners were a little anxious. When I walked into the studio, everyone was happy to see me. I knew the photographer, Barbara O’Brien, from a shoot a couple years back. She also operates The Animal Connection, her normal gig for the past 20-plus years, where she has provided animal talent for photography. She told me the assistant she normally uses was unavailable that day, and decided she would try to do it all herself. Unfortunately, she got in over her head real quick. I told her not to worry, and just tell me what she needed me to do and how I can help her best. She quickly explained that the shoot that day was just a straightforward casting call for a dog, for a retail ad. The lighting was already set, so we quickly determined our process and workflow and got the first dog onto the set in about ten minutes.

Believe it, or not, this is quite common, especially these days. Budgets are tight, turnaround time is short, and photographers are trying to do everything themselves… and then all hell breaks loose. If you think this photography gig is a cake-walk, well, I got news for you. You gotta be on top of your game, ready to do anything and everything, so that when you get a call like this and the photographer asks, “How soon can you get here?,” you are ready to tackle whatever task is at hand when you walk through the studio doors and onto the set. I’ve seen things go to hell-in-a-hand-basket even when there is adequate crew and equipment. Sometimes it’s just the nature of a photo shoot. Other times, Murphy’s law comes into play or some minor catastrophe causes a delay in production. When things go sour, take it with a grain of salt, keep your cool, and be a problem-solver. That’s why the photographer called you. When you find yourself working with someone new, just as I did, ask them directly what they expect of you. Let them know if you aren’t familiar with a piece of gear or software that they’re using. Getting a quick tutorial before starting is better than when you’re in the middle of the shoot and realize that you’re in over your head. Listen to directions, communicate, and take action. Make sure everyone involved is on the same page.

In my situation, it was imperative that we got going quickly, as the dogs were being stressed and the trainers were getting impatient. Once we got the first few dogs photographed, we were up to speed and the rest of the day went pretty well. I adjusted lighting, as necessary. I kept an eye on the photographer’s camera settings, as she was moving around quite a bit, and sometimes the aperture was accidentally bumped. I downloaded CF cards into Lightroom and checked focus and made backup copies onto an external drive. I think we shot 40-50 dogs in the next three hours. We kept the dogs happy and had lots of fun with them and their owners. We even finished on time! Quite miraculous when you consider we were two hours behind schedule when I arrived at the studio! I was happy, the photographer was happy. Now, I have a new client that I can expect to get lots more work from real soon.

When I find myself working in a new studio, or on-location, I take a little time to get familiar with my surroundings. If I don’t have that time, I just remain calm, but keep my eyes and ears open extra-wide and make an extra effort to make mental notes about who, what, where, how, and why. Who is doing what? What, exactly, is my role? Where is the main power? Where’s the fire-extinguishers? What will the photographer need next? Where is the grip gear? Where is there a first-aid kit? Is the client comfortable or need anything? Where are the emergency exits? Where are the restrooms? Where is there a broom and a mop? Are there any dangerous situations around me? What can I do to make things safer? Are cords secure and taped down? Are there sand-bags on light-stands and equipment that need to be secured? Be pro-active and find what needs to be done, instead of having to be told. This will go a long way for you, especially when you walk onto a set in mid-stride and help pick-up the pieces.

When things go wrong, and they will, make a mental note of these things. As a photo assistant, ask yourself how the problems could have been avoided. Or, talk with the photographer or first assistant, after the shoot. Maybe the photographer had camera or lighting gear you were unfamiliar with. Go home and download the user manual from the manufacturer and study it. Rent a pack and a couple heads, or, ask the photographer if you can come in the following day to help clean-up a little and work with some of the unfamiliar equipment. Maybe you didn’t understand the lighting set-up. Learn more about the lighting scheme that was being used by researching online or in books at the library. Were you familiar with the digital back and software being used? Learn the capture software and the workflow techniques that were used so you can step-in if necessary. You can find almost everything you need to learn online these days. Search YouTube for videos of lighting techniques and practice on your own. Search for other blogs about lighting, gear, and software. Use magazine tear-sheets to dissect a lighting scheme. Join a local camera club or community photo center, and learn from, and teach, others.

I cannot stress enough about continued self-education. As an assistant, you should always be learning something new from every shoot you work on. This will help insure that you are ready for anything and everything. Until you can get oodles of experience, the more you know, the better you can do your job, and the more call-backs you will get.