12.05.2015

New learning for a new era in commercial photography. Speed, efficiency and new delivery tactics surrounding the actual shoot.


I was working on a commercial shoot in New Jersey last week. We were making portraits and photographs of the working facility. In the days of film we would have taken about six days to shoot what we got done in two days, and that's without the hindrance of assistants and an entourage. I thought I was doing everything in a "state of the art" fashion but I wasn't. I haven't been.

I'm not really talking about big changes to the actual photography (although I need to modernize there too) but about the whole method of moving through space and time with greater effectiveness.

When I learned about location shooting for clients we did things with lots and lots of gear and people. On an assignment to photograph a factory and the executive leadership team in the days of film we would show up at the curbside of the airport with cases and cases of gear and enough people to shepherd the gear through the travel process all the way to the client facility. Since we were wrangling slow film we needed big lights and lots of them. We also needed big stands for the lights, lots of extension cords, big light modifiers and stout tripods. A typical "old school" medium format film shoot on location might look like this, as far as inventory goes:

Large Tenba Air Case with two Hasselblad bodies, four lenses and six film backs. It would also include several Polaroid backs for the medium format cameras.

A second, equally large Tenba Air Case with duplicates of the gear resident in case one. This was our back-up system. You know, just in case. We had cameras fail much more often in film days than in the new age of digital. Usually it was something caused by a film misload or from being too fast in cycling the camera; either of which might cause the camera to lock up. In that case you could not remove the lens until a repair tech reset the camera.

We once had two fairly new Hasselblads bite the dust on one shoot for a client called, Builder's Square, but we finished the shoot on time because ---- yes --- we had packed three bodies. And we finished up with the third body. I was getting nervous because, in that situation, we had no more back-ups and a couple hours left to shoot.

We would have three Norman 2000 strobe packs and six heavy, metal flash heads packed across three stout cases. The strobe packs along weighed in a 32 pounds apiece so once ensconced in hard cases, along with two heads per case, each Anvil case weighed in somewhere north of eighty pounds.

We had cases with light stands and cases with soft boxes and umbrellas. We had cases with diffusion frames and we had cases with make up, and, in some cases, even a Mole Richardson fog machine.

Going out of town meant rounding up your first and regular second assistants and generally one more person to round out a team. Two people unpacked and set up lights while the third managed the film and Polaroids. Marking film was essential and took both practice and concentration.

To get to the airport we generally needed a Suburban or a full sized van. We'd roll up to the curbside check in and disgorge all of our stuff. One assistant would jump in the vehicle and head out to park it while the rest of us pushed the bags to the skeptical Skycaps. If we had the full contingent of bags and cases I'd already have a couple, or three, twenty dollar bills out and showing to tip with. Extravagant tipping nearly always assured that we'd get the stuff onto our flight without paying for overages or extra bags. Sixty bucks at the curb was a preventative for getting slammed with overweight and oversized luggage fees at the inside airline counters.

Once we got the photo crew to the target city one assistant would head out to fetch yet another huge rental vehicle and we'd pull our stuff off the carousels and climb aboard. Before smart phones we would have pulled out a map of the city and figured out a route to our destination by ---- reading a map.

The rental cars were expensive but necessary as our gear would never fit in one or two cabs. Just feeding everyone three meals a day was a chore.

So, this is the way I was trained and the way we operated through most of my tenure in the "golden age" of film.

Once we got to the locations and scouted we'd set up lights to overpower the ambient light and work maybe an hour and a half, or two hours, setting up, lighting and testing each shot. We were happy if we got eight to ten locations in the same set of buildings lit and shot in a day. It took time to shoot and evaluate Polaroids and then make the changes.

Since I learned this way I have been resilient to changing my methodologies entirely. As digital cameras have gotten better and better I've pared down everything, from the size of my lights to the number of back up cameras I bring. But now making shoots more efficient takes me beyond the realm of shooting and lighting. It's every part that needs modernized. Updated. Upgraded.

I packed smart on this trip. One carry-on roller case for the cameras, lenses and small flashes; two checked bags; one for clothes, and one for light stands+tripods+umbrellas.  All the cases are wheeled and stackable and I can handle all three by myself. No more need to bribe the SkyCaps (but I still do tip $5 a bag --- habit).

On the most recent trip the advertising agency made all the travel arrangements. I met up with my agency person at the baggage area at our destination and told him I was ready to head out to get our rental car. I presumed (habit) that we'd be doing the time tested car rental for our 30 mile trek. He smiled, fussed with his phone for a couple of seconds and said, "Our Uber car should be here in two minutes and forty five seconds." It was. We loaded our bags into someone's Toyota Rav 4 and they took us straight to the hotel in a city 30 miles away.  Lesson one: Uber and Lyft are very convenient, easy to use and easy to navigate. Why spend time in a shuttle headed to some dim and time wasting rental facility on the outskirts of the airports and stand in line waiting to transact for your car rental --- and being manipulated into paying for the insurance, etc?   Forty five minutes to an hour saved right there.

Any time we wanted to go someplace; to a restaurant, the client's facility or back to the hotel we used Uber. When we needed to have something picked up and brought over to the shoot we didn't need to send anyone, the agency person could tap on his phone and get someone from Favor (an app) to pick up that prop from whatever store and deliver it over to us directly. We looked for local restaurants with an app and read the reviews on another app.

At one point during the shoot I realized that I really did want my agency client to look at test shots for each of the executives we were photographing, before and during each person's session to make sure I was on the right track. Also, a second set of eyes is great for catching errors and omissions. I would ask my agency guy to come over and look at the screen on the back of the camera. He was happy to do so but when we were flying home we were discussing the camera apps available to both control cameras and also look at images as we shoot. I won't go out on location again until after I've picked up a new iPad Air2 with a Retina screen and loaded and mastered the software needed to shoot live with Nikon, Olympus and Panasonic cameras. What could be better than having my client sitting in a comfy chair with a cup of coffee in one hand and an iPad in the other, watching my back? And making sure he's getting what he needs for his designs and templates.

I think I'd also feel better having a neutral device to proof the images for exposure as well.

When we talked about file delivery I mentioned that we had a lot of stuff to move around and I'd be able to put it all on a 32 gigabyte memory stick and drop it by when I finished with post processing. He hemmed a bit and then told me he didn't really like getting physical product anymore and wondered if I could send it via FTP. I do that a lot with smaller jobs but I thought clients would want the stuff on a stick for back up and what not. But younger art directors are used to pulling things down from the cloud whenever they want it, wherever they are. Fortunately, one of my service providers, Smugmug, recently instituted a new unlimited download service and I can load everything up there.

In the actual photographic world I think many younger clients are no longer expecting the "ultimate" file, they are expecting good, right sized files. We were looking at a few of the files I'd shot on the Panasonic fz1000 instead of the full frame Nikon. In one situations I'd shot some stuff at ISO 1600 and I was worried about the noise. My client watched me blowing stuff up to 100%, laughed, and said, "We'll never use it that big." He liked what he saw on the screen and had strong idea of exactly how he would use the work.

Our oft-repeated patterns of shooting, delivering and even managing our photographic adventures tend to get stuck at whatever time strata we felt most comfortable in. That's why so many photographers in my age cohort are always pursuing the ultimately sharp or noise free camera. But we do ourselves a disservice if we feel like we need a supersonic jetliner like the Concord for a quick commuter flight or a Nikon D810 or Sony A7R2 camera for a headshot for a website. We're making our own lives and careers harder by aiming at targets that really don't exist anymore; at the expense of new methodologies that work well for a new business paradigm.

I am often asked by older photographers why in the world I would choose to buy a bridge camera when I have a couple of full frame cameras. In their minds that ultimate file equals the badge of a real professional. But my younger clients (and almost all of them are younger than me now) never even think about the old pecking order of cameras or even if we are shooting with a traditional camera. Their concern is centered around the look and feel of the image. Is the angle right? Does it feel right? Will it work across a website splash page? Can we ramp up the saturation? Is the file malleable?

At no time did my art director bat an eye at the battery powered speed lights I was using on his project. And a few years ago I could have sworn that pros only used Profoto strobes or Elinchrom Strobes.  He was more impressed with the compactness with which we packed and the results we were getting from shot to shot. That, and how the smaller package allowed us to move much quicker and get more usable shots.

I have been a bit backward, rejecting cellphone based apps for my conventional cameras. I have hewed to parking my own car in the parking garage at he airport even though a crowdsourced cab would be much less costly and much more efficient. I've let my past way of doing things cloud my ability to embrace ways of working that would be less arduous for me and easier for my clients. And this cuts to the heart of business. While we want to be artists we must deliver what the aggregated client base wants. There are few 60 year old art directors  to cater my services to. The  demographic of the clients I've worked with this year is about 80% female and the average age is about 32 years old. They have much, much different expectations for photography at every turn than we had or have at this point in our careers.

We seem intent on creating perfection while fast sharing is more vital to them. We seem to like our lighting and focus locked down whereas they enjoy accidents, happenstance and unplanned moments. They value fast movement and portability over "shock and awe" resolution and optimal technical results. But most importantly they love the idea of collaboration instead of one person acting as the lone wolf artist.

We have a choice. We can stick in our comfortable rut and work for a tiny and ever diminishing set of clientele who share our generational proclivities or we can learn from the younger people around us and embrace the change. I guarantee you that only one course of action will give you any hope to ensure your continued embrace and enjoyment of commerce, and of getting paid.

Deliver on DVDs? Not likely. Not anymore.

If you are a working pro I would be interested in what kinds of new technologies you are bringing to your work. Please share in the comments. Thanks, Kirk