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.

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.

[Read more…]

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…]

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!

20 Useful Resources & Blogs for New Assistants & Emerging Photographers

I have assembled some of the top blogs from my Bloglines Feed that I read to stay on top of what everyone else is doing and talking about in the photo industry. The list is in no particular order, and serves only as a representation of some of the content I like and find useful. I hope you do too!

A Photo Editor
A Photo Editor (APE) is Rob Haggart, the former Director of Photography for Men’s Journal and Outside Magazine.

Burns Auto Parts
Internationally-known creative/marketing consultant Leslie Burns (-Dell’Acqua) has been working in the creative industries since 1992. With experience on both sides of the fence, Leslie brings an analytical mind, quick wit, and depth of knowledge to all her work. Specializing in working with commercial photographers, particularly those who shoot for advertising, design, corporate, and editorial clients, she has been offering her expertise for many years. She started Burns Auto Parts in 1999 (where has the time gone?) and since that time has helped photographers with everything from email promo subject lines to portfolio edits to full on marketing plans. For more information, check out the Burns Auto Parts site.

Heather Morton, Art Buyer
Heather Morton is a freelance Art Buyer based in Toronto, Canada

Stobist, David Hobby
Here, you’ll find everything you need to know about how to more effectively use your small speedlights. There are more than 1,000 articles about lighting. Over two million photographers from around the world have learned small-flash lighting techniques from this site. We’re thinking you can, too.

Chase Jarvis

Seattle-based commercial advertising photographer.

Annual Report Photographer, David Tejada
This Blog is for commercial photographer David Tejada. David shoots assignment photography for fortune 500 companies worldwide. He has specialized in annual reports, corporate brochures, editorial and advertising work for 26 years.

ASMPproAdvice: For Student & Emerging Photographers
Yahoo groups forum where students and emerging photographers can discuss issues and seek answers to questions related to commercial photography from established, experienced working professionals.

Yahoo groups forum: A network of advertising photographers, hosted by Advertising Photographers of America.

Yahoo groups forum: a network of advertising and stock photographers wishing to discuss self-contained digital capture (small and medium format), film scanners (for those scanning both old and new work), digital workflow (including required specialized software for digital capture), delivery standards, and billing issues.

Joe McNally
The thoughts, notions, and ideas here come from thirty years in the field as a shooter. Twenty plus on the road for National Geographic. LIFE staffer. Sports Illustrated contractor. 54 countries. 50 states.

Digital Photography School
Discover how to use your digital camera with our Digital Photography Tips. We are a community of photographers of all experience levels who come together to learn, share and grow in our understanding of photography.

Pro Photo Resource is an online community and resource for professional level photographers and amateurs serious about the business of photography. ProPhotoResource serves as an information hub for anyone who is or aspires to be a professional photographer. At we are as serious about creating a professional level community as you are about the craft of your photography.

Photo News Today
A smattering of daily news about everything photography.

The online community for the photo industry.

1 Pro Photo
New York based photo community with blog, forum, and industry listings.

LightSource Studio Photography
Helpful lighting tutorials and much more.

Lighting Essentials for Photographers
This site is devoted to photography, and photographic lighting in specific. We want to feature items that photographers of all kinds will be interested in. Tutorials, online workshops, assignments, fun shoots, show-n-tell and more. We will present lighting information and lighting tools from DIY to the top-of-the-line pro gear.

A daily blog covering the Los Angeles photo scene.

Photo Focus, Scott Bourne
Photofocus is not a blog per se. Instead, it is an online magazine about photography. We publish several times each day, with the intent of informing, entertaining and educating people who are interested in photography.

Black Star Rising
This is a group blog featuring articles to educate professional photographers, aspiring pros, and photography buyers alike. Our stories offer advice and viewpoints on the art and business of photography, based on the personal experiences of our contributors. We give our bloggers the freedom to write about issues of interest to them.

Cold Weather Shooting Tips

Shooting out in the snow can be enjoyable as long as you're prepared.

Now that Christmas has come and gone, winter has definitely set in. And with it comes a whole new set of challenges with outdoor photography, out in the snow and cold. Things like condensation, fogging, exposure compensation for snow, and frostbite are all big concerns when shooting out in freezing temperatures. But there’s a few simple things you can do to make sure that your shooting goes well when you’re out in the elements.

The number one problem is the cold. It will cause your camera and lenses (anything really) to condense moisture, when coming in from a cold outdoor environment to the warmth of indoors. This condensation inside your camera can be fatal! Many camera repairs can be attributed to the build-up of moisture inside a camera. Even with today’s ultra-modern materials that tout weather-proof bodies, moisture can still form inside your camera because of condensation.

Sweaty Cameras?
To prevent condensation from forming inside your camera, place your camera inside an air-tight plastic bag when you are done shooting outside in the cold. Leave you’re lens on. A one gallon-size, or larger, freezer bag works well. Then pack your camera back into your bag. If you have other sensitive gear you are worried about, you can place them into smaller plastic bags. This trick is also a good practice for laptops and any other critical electronic gear that you might use out in the field in cold weather. I think CF cards, USB, and firewire cords can benefit too. Just remember that everything will start sweating when you go from a cold environment quickly back into a warm environment.

When you return to the warmth of your studio, home, or car, remove the camera from your bag so the moisture doesn’t sweat into your bag or other gear. I also try to have a few thick towels with me that I can use to help dry everything with, when we get back inside. Once the camera has acclimated back to room temperature, you can remove it from the bag. If you can’t wrap all your gear that you are worried about getting damaged (strobe heads, power packs, etc.) due to condensation, you can always minimize the threat by gradually warming the gear, slowly. Just remember that the real bad condensation happens when you quickly introduce the gear to a warm room after being out in the cold for an extended period of time.

Warm and Toasty
The second issue with winter, and I’m sure you’ve figured this out by now, is that the cold will reduce and drain your battery power quickly. This is especially true for camera batteries and battery power packs for strobe gear. Even you’re little digital point & shoot and Speedlights are at risk with AA batteries. Tucking your pocket camera in your coat pocket may be fine, but you still risk the condensation issue I mentioned previously. With a larger SLR the rule of habit has been to kind of keep it nuzzled close to you and halfway zipped into the front of your parka, hopefully saving some battery life. But, you are still risking condensation from your body heat. By warming your camera inside your jacket after a sequence of shots, your camera is more or less constantly in and out of the cold. The near best solution to save your expensive SLR from condensation is to keep the camera batteries warm rather than your camera. Keep an ample supply of freshly charged camera batteries tucked in your coat pocket. Use hand warmers nestled in with your batteries in your camera bag if you are out hiking in the cold. I’ve even heard of people using a hot baked potato for a battery and hand warmer. After the shoot you can have a warm snack to recharge yourself!

The alternative to camera batteries is to use the AC adapter for your camera if you are near an AC power source. Make sure you have some heavily insulated extension cords with adequate length. Another helpful tool may be an anti-fog eyepiece for your SLR. I know that both Canon and Nikon make an anti-fog eyepiece for some models.

You Got Jumper Cables?
With battery packs, well there really isn’t much you can do to keep them warm, short of keeping them in the car or a nearby building and using head extensions. Of course you decrease your output with every extension you add. I’ve heard of elaborate rigs using technology similar to automobile battery warmers, but this really isn’t practical in most shooting situations. The only real solution is to have lots of extra batteries on hand, keep them warm, and change them out as needed. Don’t forget to have enough chargers with you to recharge the batteries as soon as they are depleted. There’s nothing worse than a shoot coming to a grinding halt because you’re waiting for batteries to charge. And always charge the batteries inside where it’s warm. A cold battery doesn’t recharge very well!

Another note about battery packs and strobe packs. I always like to have a heavy-duty trash bag along to cover the pack. If it should start to snow or rain, you will be so happy you have these items in your grip kit. If your working with snow on the ground, definitely protect the pack from contact with the snow. In a pinch, use a floor-mat from the car (make sure it’s dry), or a tarp, or some other good insulting base for the pack to sit on. A rubber drip tray from a sink dish rack works excellent! Not only will this insulate the pack a little from the cold snow, but will prevent dirt and rust from getting into the pack itself.

Dress Appropriately
Most body heat is lost through your head. Always have a knit or wool cap with you, even if you think it’s too warm. The weather can change suddenly, and trudging through the snow a half-mile back to the car to get your hat will more than likely cause you to lose the shot of the century! Well, perhaps not, but why risk it? For gloves, I like to use what I call a wool glitten. They are the hunting gloves with exposed fingers, but also have a mitten that flips on and off like a convertible top. Very handy (pun intended).

Dress in layers. You can always remove a layer if you are too warm. Wear a wicking undershirt and long-johns. It’s pretty much the same principle as getting condensation in your camera. The wicking underwear will keep perspiration away from your skin and keep you from getting chilled. Your footwear should be whatever it takes to keep your feet warm and dry for whatever weather you will be in. In real cold weather, wool socks are best with a silk liner.

Snow Exposure
The reflective meter in your camera will always be fooled reading snow. Use a hand-held incident meter to get a feel for how snow affects your camera’s meter and compensate accordingly. As a general rule of thumb, over-expose a snowy-scene one or two stops in bright sun, and one-half to one and one-half stops in a cloudy snow-covered scene.

If you are shooting during a snowfall, cover your camera and lens with a baseball cap, with the bill over the lens. You can also use an old flannel-shirt, or other button or zip-up top, and place it over the camera and your head, like a dark cloth. This is very helpful in bright sun to help see through the view-finder better, and also to see the image on-screen. Use an ND filter to help protect your glass when its windy and snowing, and to better control your depth-of-field in bright snow. If it’s snowing heavily, bring and umbrella. Use your lens-shade, unless you’re using on-camera flash, and experiment with different shutter speeds to get the desired snowfall effect you are looking for. You can find some more good tips for snow exposure-compensation here.

Give some careful thought and mindful consideration for your cold-weather shoots and you will be warm and successful out in the snow and cold. Consider all the situations you might encounter–do your pre-pro, make a check-list, and be safe, rather than sorry. Take the time to make sure your gear and your body are well protected from anything that old-man winter can throw at you.