Working together

I have long advocated for collaboration between creatives. Because I'm a photographer I have always enjoyed working with other photographers. One of my top services as a photography business is actually NOT working behind the camera. It's helping other photographers with lighting and grip, and consulting or helping plan a shoot or production. You may not have the lights or other equipment to bid on or attempt a job. You may need a location, or you may just need some coaching; some brainstorming on how to tackle a shoot you haven't tried before. 

A few months ago, good friend and photographer Jola Wulf inquired about me helping her with a fairly large shoot. She had been contacted about shooting the stills for a dance studio, Dance Dynamics, in St. Charles. Jola is well versed in her style of portraiture and weddings, but she had never shot motion, dance in particular, and she didn't have any of the lighting she needed for this sort of indoor, in-the-dance-studio location shoot. We have worked together a few times before, she knows I have the equipment and knows I have the knowledge to lend a hand. She knows I like to collaborate too and love a challenge. Lighting dancers from around 7 yrs old through their teens (some 34 of them I think?) in a dance studio lined with mirrors on the wall having to freeze motion in air is definitely a challenge. There were action group poses and static group poses required and it all needed to be on a white background. 

Jola did all the camera work, and I handled the lighting and grip and helped out with a few pointers for her position during the image captures and lens selections. I think she did pretty darned good!

No question the lighting was a bit tricky, but many times it is. There are a lot of takes to get one "correct" image too so you shoot in a low continuous mode with your camera and you have to make sure your wireless trigger can send the signals fast enough to your lights which you hope can keep up with the 5-8 frames per second you need to capture the shot. Given the difference in height of the students, and some are floor poses instead of standing poses, the lights need to be moved to provide coverage. Lots of moving parts too with that many dancers covering 30+ "looks". 

I have the lights, and I know how to set them up which left Jola to concentrate on the shot. I covered the lighting, the positioning of them, the changes needed and coached her on where to be to get the best results. She did the rest. This is the way it should work folks. You can achieve so much working together. 

If you are a photographer and you are offered the possibility of a job, and its something that you would want to do but just have no experience, think about using my services (or someone else's) to help you out. Could be an opportunity to shoot dancers, or a very large wedding with huge formal imaging requirements, a large corporate group shot or any complicated shot telling a story. Think about getting help before saying no.

I'm not talking about "second shooter" duties, thats not something I do nor am I talking about renting you a light or two and sending you on your merry way. I don't rent equipment piecemeal. I will consider "partnering" and working as a photographer team but normal rates apply. If you are looking at your own concept shoot, or a real work proposal comes your way and you need someone to help produce the effort, then give me a call. Using me to help learn how to light coupled with my reasonable fees is a lot less cost then buying it all and hiring a consultant! Lets work together. 



Studios, the City and Building owners

Years ago when opening my first studio, there were a lot of vacant buildings in downtown Aurora. A good spot to open a studio. Why was I looking there? Aurora has not enjoyed an outstanding community reputation over the years. People questioned whether it was safe to be there. Well, I was part of a co-op prior to me going on my own full time. The co-op was in downtown Aurora, on Downer Place and it was a wonderful space for studio. I came to like the city, I appreciated its attempts to clean up, make it more palatable to the masses and somehow lots of artists were establishing roots. I think the cheaper rents also had a lot to do with it, along with a lot of vacant space. 

Since that time, the city of Aurora has continued its efforts to develop downtown. So much so that they started giving away empty buildings in need of repair and worked with banks to provide cheap loans, and grants fronting all this with "civic" investment groups hoping to marry the serious business owner/leasee's looking for space with those "new" owners and developers of the empty, free space. A lot of investors were attracted to Aurora because they envisioned growth, really good interest rates and free property. Taxes are relatively low too. They could flip properties and make a killing. What business owner/lessee's like myself started to experience were rapidly increasing leasing prices. Prospectors figured hey, with cheap loans and grants, lets charge 2x or 3x the old price and we can have the spaces occupied while reaping the benefits of low bank rates. Easy money. So developers developed. They seem to be bent on developing the spaces they are basically divided into parcels that can give them lots of units per square foot, but the spaces they create(d) are small, odd shaped and not conducive to what most businesses need. They aren't developing with business in mind; more for how many leases they can get.  So if they create several small spaces from a larger one, they can get four to five leases instead of a larger one. Small leases they think will be smaller payments and easier on businesses. More attractive. What isn't realized is many businesses need MORE space not less. Businesses want to expand, not contract. A business in the wrong space, won't be in business too long. So with development unchecked, Aurora is still very vacant. Years later and down the road, owners will still have vacant spaces and investments to rectify with the bank and they will complain to the city that they can't fill their empty spaces. No one wants them. They created closets and people wanted rooms. 

I'm not going to get into the lying and deceit that these developers trade in (not much anyway)  while courting you as their tenants. They will lead you on, knowing they are killing your business, but thats of little concern. They will try to change the agreement made into another agreement, the old bait and switch. Show one property, make a deal and then "oh wait, its going to take more time so take this one instead" while I work on the other - but don't expect a time line on when the property you wanted to build your business on, the one they "sold" you on, is to be ready. They have to get occupants, their grants depend on it, so they will lie to any extent to make it work. Happened to me four eleven months now. I'm finished with it. I'm finished with Aurora. I don't trust any of the owners and wouldn't occupy any of their properties if offered for free. Every property I tried to lease, four of them, are still vacant. My old studio is still vacant. But it was vacant for nine years prior to me being in it for three years. I think this vacant building thing is the future of Aurora. I hope I am wrong because I got to know several good business owners and people working on Aurora's behalf. I would like to see their efforts succeed but I'm not going to be part of it. I'm outta here. 

Whats ironic about all this is I was prepping for a major change to my business model. I had partners, more influx of cash and equipment. We proposed leasing TWO spaces within a year but we desperately needed one now. But that space we coveted, the one shown to us by the developer and pushed by him, that isn't going to happen. Because he got tied up with the city and their investment group and under contract he has to develop a new, different space because he has loans and grants to satisfy now. So we are out. Of course unless we want to pursue the space he is developing which isn't suitable for anything I can think of, let alone a photography studio. Great job by the investment team of Aurora. Shut out a business to create more empty space. 

I have no idea of when or where I will open a studio. I have a lot to think about. I am in business but my business model thrives on having a studio so I have to rethink everything. I'm working out of a space in my house - and thats not going to make it. I hope to have news someday but right now, I just am not hopeful. 

How I work

In talking to some people, and in reading what other photographers do in their "workflow" I thought it might be interesting to talk about how I do things. I'm considered a "pro" but to me there are varied definitions of "pro", I do practice photography full time though. For this article's purpose's, I'm going to assign a fairly liberal definition of a professional photographer as someone who is paid for their work, or commissioned for a project - paid or not. In truth, there is not a lot that separates a "pro" from a very serious amateur (I prefer "enthusiast"). Not in terms of drive or desire. Or even, often enough, work. In many cases it just comes down to confidence in yourself. Regardless, a pro must have a workflow or they risk looking circus like and very "unprofessional" in front of clients. 

This piece covers the way I do things. Its not the best way I imagine, its probably got some holes, actually I know it does but my way is a bit looser to allow for a lot "freelancing". I want flexibility. I can afford to be flexible where others may not. So please take that in mind. This piece is not about gear. You may read where I mention what I use but that is not a testimonial. Use what you have and what suits your style. The lights I use and the cameras I use are not really relevant to the article, but they are to me. They have shaped how I work they way I do and the gear was acquired to fit my way. You will have to adjust what I talk about to fit your equipment. It should be 100% transparent. I'm not doing a lot of wild crazy stuff. 

And that leads into a fairly common mistake when some goes full time and shoots professionally. They tend to use equipment they have and that equipment was purchased based on what they gleamed off the internet, from books, seminars and workshops. Or maybe friends. It wasn't workflow based. They bought based on what someone else says is their way. That may work for others, but it did not work for me. Part of my problem was, as I got into working and delivering, I discovered the things I read about; all the how-to stuff was wrong for me and the way I worked. It wasn't ALL wrong but enough was that I lost some time and money adjusting my preferences to fit how I liked to work.

I figure my workflow will be a moving target because I am a generalist when it comes to photography. I'm too stubborn to stick to one thing and make a living off it. I like to try many things and love a challenge. I do have boundaries, that is lines I color between. My lines though are sort of wide. This goes against the grain of conventional photography wisdom. If you believe in that conventional stuff. So now you understand why I have flexibility as a part of my workflow. 

Ok, here we go then. Finally.

I shoot events, red carpet shoot n' print gigs, products and catalog work, various projects, high end architecture and real estate, commercial advertising, industrial advertising, and I do portraits. These are the "genre" I have made money from. Portraits being the most nebulous because thats family's, headshots, senior high school and really any people based pictures. I love working with models in the studio but have yet to really make any "direct" money off that although its work that needs to be done. Why? Because it shows what I can do. It allows me to conceptualize and use the resulting images on my web page WHICH does lead to other business. I do have a fair amount of studio experience. But I do a lot of work on location. Every photographer does. Studios rock, and every photographer should be using one somehow. For me, its my lab. I figure things out there, information I use for paying gigs elsewhere. Its a place where I can control EVERYTHING. The right studio will allow for you to develop concepts and sets for pretty much any image type. Ever watch a movie? Better than 50% of it was shot in a studio. Usually closer to 80-90%. Did you pick up on my term, "right studio"? Thats key. It has to fit what you are doing so the first thing to help your workflow is finding the right location whether its in a studio or outdoors, or a place in between like a laundromat, or arcade, bar, etc. 

In the studio you can assemble equipment and leave it for use in the next gig or concept. But location work means portable and I came to find that I do a lot of that. I use lights outdoors too so that used to mean cords and generators or struggle with speed lights; nowadays there are wonderful battery powered strobes so I can easily deliver 1200 w/s of power outside at high noon and make the bright sun my bitch. I really only need about 500-600 w/s (watt/seconds) to do it usually. Sometimes I can get away with 200 w/s. Watt/seconds are a measurement of the power of a flash or strobe. I use a mix of speed lights and strobes in my work. Consider that a new speed light may produce 60 w/s of power (I'm being generous here, many only do 45-50 w/s). As in all things, power drops with age. 

When I do events and some red carpet work, its usually of the "run and gun" type. I'm moving and clicking. Somewhat similar to weddings. This means highly portable lights, usually speed lights. I have been through the "Strobist" phase, and I have countless books about off camera lighting. I am a believer in off camera lighting. Love it. But truth is, you cannot run and gun and get the shots you need to get paid running around with a speed light on a lightstand or with an assistant holding one on a stick. Sometimes the assistant thing works, but not often. I love soft light too. And yes you should use modifiers on your speed lights but try putting a softbox on a speed light on your camera and working an event with 200 to 1000 people and see how long it stays in place. If you have time to setup a "station" or area and can roll people through it, then yes. Set up a couple of stands, with lights (I usually go with my smaller strobes vs. speed lights) and have fun. I do this too but you will have to be able to take a group shot, or a celeb shots with others and you will still need a run and gun setup. These run and gun setups are the only time I advocate for TTL flash metering. You just don't have time to set the variables...well you do sometimes, but its far easier to use TTL. You will get more payday shots. So for events, I use two cameras, one with a close lens and one with a medium to far lens. Usually zooms. Check that, always zooms. Because. I use speed lights on each. I'm in TTL. I use Magmod attachments to diffuse light. But I have a black foam thing on each camera to flag the light or not, depending. I tend to bounce light to soften it more than anything and if you bounce in the right direction, the light is much more natural. You will be surprised to find you can bounce light off any number of surfaces. Just don't bounce off brightly colored surfaces. Don't scoff at that tiny white card that slides out of a speed light either. Its saved me countless times. I don't have time to work with gels much unless the lighting is really crap, so I do have a 1/2 CTO and CTB gel for the Magmods somewhere on my person to help with white balance. I don't usually work with a camera bag, its too cumbersome. I wear clothing with pockets. I use cameras with enough battery power to shoot for 3 hours before swapping batteries. I use the top of the line Godox Li-On V860ii flash units on camera. They have their own lithium-ion battery packs. No AA's required thankfully. You get 500-600 pops from a charge and never have to change out batteries during a gig plus your recycle time is very short. I do carry a Fujifilm X-500 and Godox tt350-f speed light but thats for backup or special purpose effects. In my car I have two cheap Amazon LED square lights which can work for some things but honestly, I use them like a flash light to find stuff in the dark. For cameras at events like this, I have two Fujifilm X-T2's with battery grips (three total batteries) because they are very light weight (I started out using Nikon D4s and D800 or D750 and having shoulder and back pain for a week) and take exceptional JPG's. I shoot JPG for many events. If candids are requested, I use a Fujifilm X100t or mostly, my Fujifilm X-Pro2 and a 16mm or 23mm f/1.4 lens. If there is a red carpet station with set lights, those are usually Godox AD200's with larger umbrellas and diffusers or 36" to 48" soft boxes. I can just snap a camera onto a tripod and I'm ready to go. All my cameras have ARCA-Swiss compatible plates for tripod and monopod mounting. 

In the rare case where I work a wedding, I work similarly. If a church allows me to, I will set up lights with stands inside. I often still use my light atop the camera with the set lights. For set lighting locations with stands I will probably swap in a AD600 in place of the 200's, especially in large rooms. Bigger space to light, larger groups and I use a medium format for much of this work which means shooting at f/8 or 11 due to sensor size.I need the power. All my lights run off battery power. No cords. Ever. Yay. I use AD600's for large corporate gigs with groups but also rely on those cool ultra portable and very powerful AD200's with bare bulb config. I cannot tell you how useful this little speed light sized flash is. With an S bracket I can snap on ANY modifier such as hard metal reflectors, or soft boxes. Godox makes a AD-B2 bracket that holds one or two AD200's so you can double up the power but one light usually works fine. Again, it takes a Bowens S modifier. I use Godox because I can use the same triggers across the board. The equipment is very well made, and its extremely reasonably priced. I did use Profoto but the equipment selection was lacking, and the cost was three times more if they had a similar product. 

Location head shots require one AD200, a bracket, a Cheetahstand 34" Quick release octa softbox or Cheetahstand 24" Lantern softbox and a triangular reflector mounted to a swivel bracket. This is for indoors. Outdoors, for any shot really, I tend to use hard metal reflectors because they are portable and unfazed by the wind. My army of metal reflectors is growing. I find so many uses for them. I use a long throw 45 deg, medium throw 65 deg, standard 7" and this 14" "hubcap" looking reflector. I'm looking at adding others. The 14" flat like hubcap on a AD600 fired into a very large parabolic umbrella with diffuser cover produces a fantastic soft yet directional light. I have a few other "soft" modifiers which act like hard reflectors but fold up. They buck the wind well but not as good. I also use a couple of shoot thru umbrellas. 

For real estate its one AD200, usually with this mushroom looking sphere that spits light out in 180 degrees. I do use the fresnel head sometimes to direct light and often a speed light or two at very low power to offer accent. I'm going to start using more shoot thru umbrellas in some situations. For pure real estate shots, I can work with a AD200 and the bulb or fresnel head but for indoors design studio work where you have to emphasize a design or specific type of lighting, its much trickier. I will use all sorts of stuff to work with the mixed ambient light I encounter. I also get a lot of shadows to deal with. 

In the studio I have a lot of options available for making and modifying light. I use continuous LED lights, AC and battery powered strobes, speed lights and of course natural light. I have everything from 8' parabolic circular soft boxes to 40x60" "window light" rectangular soft boxes. I have numerous scrims, v-flats, and sofas chairs, tables, etc. I could set up beaucoup lights and modifiers to light a set, but I try and use the minimum I can. I actually work this way all the time. The best light is natural light. Always. But its so rare to get the right natural light when you want it, so I have to adjust my light to mimic or match it, or even blend with it. The Sun is one light, so I try to stay with one light where possible. Clouds, dirt, dust, and moisture diffuse the suns light so I will diffuse my light accordingly. The Sun's light is bounced off a lot of stuff - trees, buildings, glass windows, cars, trucks, sidewalks, etc. I use hand held or stand mounted reflectors to bounce light too. You have to "read" the light in a scene and work out how you want the scene to look, then decide how to build up or take away light to make your image work. I use large translucent umbrellas outdoors to shield a subject from harsh light. I use cardboard, or other scrims to block light. Some times you take light away, some times you add light and some times you do both. You always have to watch your shadows and light direction to make it look right. The human eye will pick up on any strange looking lighting very quickly. Horror films rely on odd lighting to make such an impression. I do use lights with gels for effects, and to mimic certain types of lighting. Some times you get a really great look when you blow out a background, or darken it to add mystery. Keep the shadows and direction right and go where your creativity takes you. 

Obviously, in between these broad strokes of my workflow, there are the little things that matter. Things like gray cards and color checkers for use in white balance and color balance. I always try and set a custom white balance when I can. It makes things easier on the post processing side. When I use AA's (I do need them still), I make sure they are charged and I discard old ones. Always keep your batteries topped off. Use alkaline batteries in your remote triggers, those triggers thrive on 1.5v not the 1.2v of rechargeables. Have real gaffers tape on hand and a roll of masking tape. Bring a flashlight, nice small LED ones for a few bucks work well. I carry make up touch up for models, and always have a few bottles of water tucked away in the car when on location. Bring model and property releases and use them. Have business cards and pass them out. I like to work with a contract which at the very least needs to be an email and in it I like to state that this email functions as an agreement between the parties. If you are a pro, this goes without saying because otherwise you are just a person with a camera, not a photographer. CHARGE for your work and charge appropriately. The business side is also huge. More than I can get into here but you have to sit with your client and establish expectations. Minimum. For location work, I do a tremendous amount of scouting. 

So thats pretty much it in a nutshell. You need to find a way to streamline your work to be able to work quickly and efficiently both behind the lens and in front of the computer. This covers me behind the lens, maybe I will tackle the in front of computer piece later. There is no right way to work. There is no check list or settings you can be given to make you successful. Its stupid to ask what camera settings or lighting settings are used because they are all dependent on location, subject, season, time of day and pretty much anything else you can think of. There is only YOUR way to work. It has to be developed by you. There are no shortcuts or easy ways to do this. You have to put in the time, figure things out and enjoy the challenge.