What’s in my Bag? – Houston Commercial Photographer Robert Seale

Commercial Photographer Robert Seale's Photo Bag

Anyone remember the old American Photographer magazine? I’m talking pre-American PHOTO, when the magazine had great long form feature stories on photographers. One of my favorite features was the “What’s in your camera bag?” double truck. As a young high school photographer, I loved seeing what everyone was using, and I loved the quirky stuff and homemade gadgets that photographers carried. I still vividly remember the features on Roger Ressmeyer, the late Brian Lanker, Jodi Cobb, and a host of others. I also remember an old Amphoto book on advertising photographer Al Satterwhite, that had several pages in the back with pictures of the contents of his cases. I loved seeing the actual gear he worked with, and how organized and thoughtful he was about packing it.

**Funny sidebar:  (One of the memories that sticks in my head from the old American Photographer was a story about famous nature photographer Art Wolfe.  He was operating in super cold polar conditions, and was frustrated with his Canon F-1 with motor drive (it froze and stopped working), so he ripped the body off the lens, tossed it into the icy water, grabbed another body and kept on shooting.  I was horrified!  He just chunked a 1000 dollar camera into the water!  Who would do that?  Holy crap!  I was shooting with a Canon AE-1 at the time, and an F-1 seemed like the most expensive object in the world.  My second thought was, “Wow, Art Wolfe is so successful he can AFFORD to throw away a thousand dollar camera!”)

Recently, I’ve noticed the genre has been resurrected in the form of photographer blog posts, and I still love seeing these articles and photos of “gear porn”. (Actually, my stuff is not so exotic these days….if Laforet is putting out gear-porn, mine probably barely qualifies as gear-Cinemax….).

I do lots of different types of assignments, from sports portraits for Sports Illustrated, to corporate annual reports for oil companies, CEO portraits for business magazines and companies, to advertising campaigns for hospitals, and we pack specific gear each time depending on the nature of the job.  There are times where you might need a 600mm/F4, or a medium format digital system, or a ton of Profoto lighting.  Most of the time though, this primary camera kit stays close to this setup shown below.   So here it is, the gear I typically travel with and some commentary on why I use what I use.

(CASE #1) Think Tank Airport International 2.0 – This is a great, slightly smaller version of the usual Think Tank rolling case. It has never failed me on numerous different international flights. The full size TT roller is large enough to raise some eyebrows at the sizing box, but this one always gets through. I’ve even had pretty good luck with it on some commuter airlines too. In fact, I like the bag so much I bought two of them!  I’ve always held that you shouldn’t ship everything you own on any flight, and that you should carry on at least enough gear to get started on the job and make some sort of picture.  We’ll start with the contents of my primary kit:

 

Commercial Photographer Robert Seale's Photo Bag

Camera bodies:

Two EOS 5D Mk 3’s, and one Canon EOS 1DX.   I used to carry two EOS1DS Mk III’s and a 1DX, but I’ve replaced both of the S bodies over the last year or so with the newest version of the 5D. I’ll be real honest. I have a love/hate thing going here: I love the quality of the files, and the increased dynamic range and high ISO capability of the 5D3 vs. my old DS Mk3 bodies…..BUT, ergonomically speaking, I MISS having a big, durable, real, weather sealed, substantial professional body in my hand.  I hate having to carry two chargers.  I also can’t for the life of me figure out why Canon moves critical buttons to different locations on these two bodies. For instance the button to light up the LCD display is on the far right on one, and the inside far left on the other. Madness! In addition to the form factor change, I really miss the 1/250 flash sync of my old professional bodies. I have grips on both of my 5D’s but it’s just not the same.

I love the EOS1DX. It may be one of the best cameras I’ve ever laid my hands on. The autofocus is awesome, low light sensitivity is incredible, and I love the fact that it is just perfect for me ergonomically. I’m not happy about the 18MP file size though, which I consider to be a slight step backwards (My Ds bodies were 21-something). I’m also really disappointed that Canon only bumped the 5D3 roughly 1MP. After waiting 4 years, I really expected to have something with a file size in the 26-36MP range. If the 1DX had a file size around 22MP (similar to the 5D), then I would use these exclusively.  I don’t necessarily need 12 FPS, but it’s nice.  I could live with 6 FPS and a bigger file.  My dream camera is something in a big well made, durable professional body form factor (like the 1DX) with a file size in the 30-40MP range, with 1/250 sync, and USB 3 connectivity….and it better get here soon!!!

**(Note about cameras – “It’s a black box with a hole in it!”   That was the standard quote from my colleague Dave Einsel every time someone starts the age old Canon vs. Nikon argument.  I’ve used both Nikon and Canon over the years and enjoyed using both.  I have good friends who are reps for both companies.  I started with Canon FD manual focus gear, switched to Nikon F4’s due to the fantastic capabilities of the SB-24 speedlight, and then back to Canon EOS stuff (autofocus!), and then back to the F5 (autofocus!), and have been shooting Canon since the 1V came out (2001 or 2002?).  I was a staff photographer for many years, so usually the switch was not my choice, and due to a change in what my newspaper/magazine was using for their company gear. I started my own business in 2006, and have stuck with Canon since then, but I’ll be honest, I came REALLY close to switching when the D800 came out. Both companies make wonderful cameras and lenses, and leapfrog each other every couple of years with new technology and capabilities. It really comes down to personal preference and what you can afford at the time you’re buying. Remember that while new cameras are cool……your gear is a tool, and although it’s there to help you solve problems easier, most of those problems really need to be solved in that most important piece of gear – your brain.)

Lenses:

Canon EF 24-105/4L – I actually have three of these. (Must have backups for your backups right?) It’s not a super expensive or exotic lens, and as silly as it sounds, it is my favorite Canon lens (and one of the reasons I’ve stayed with Canon despite the back and forth tech jumps with their rival Nikon). When I shot portraits with a Hasselblad (pre-2005), I carried around 40, 50, 80, 120, and 150mm lenses. With the conversion to 35mm, the 24-105 pretty much sums up that entire range. When you’re shooting celebrities, CEO’s, or famous athletes, any lens change or delay in the shoot to fumble around changing lenses could mean your subject ending it right there and walking away. With a 24-105 and a big CF card, I can keep the camera to my face and keep shooting without changing a lens. The IS comes in handy at times too.  Remember that it distorts quite a bit between 24 and 50, so it helps to use the lens profile correction in Lightroom with this one.

Commercial Photographer Robert Seale's Photo Bag

 

Canon EF 16-35/2.8L II – This lens is much improved over the first version.

Canon EF 70-200/2.8L II – Tack, tack sharp, but with IS it is rather heavy. I have an F4 version that I sometimes use in this slot.

Canon EF 24-70/2.8 II – This one is super tack sharp, and sometimes you need the wider 2.8 aperture. No IS like the 24-105/4L.

Canon 100/2.8L macro – One of the sharpest lenses I’ve ever used. This slot in my case rotates depending on the assignment. Sometimes I’ll swap the 100 for an 8-15, or a tilt shift.

Canon 1.4x III teleconverter – Sometimes necessary on the 70-200 if I don’t have longer lenses handy.

2 Pocketwizard Multimax wireless units – I have a bunch of these spread around various cases. I still carry a couple in the main case just in case we need to do something strange that the new Plus III’s won’t do.

2 Pocketwizard Plus III – For triggering from the camera hotshoe, I like to use these.

2 Canon 580 EX II speedlights – I rarely use these, but still carry them around. I know I can rig something up and still make a picture if my lighting gear gets lost on the plane, and there are situations where we hide them in the set to light a certain area. My wife has the cool new Canon 600 speedlights, but I haven’t upgraded mine yet.  If you’re buying new ones get the new 600 EX.

LPA Pocketwizard Cords for Profoto and the 580 speedlights. – these are in my lighting cases also, but I keep backups in case they get lost or we rent packs and they forget to include them.

** Funny story sidebar:  (Early on in my career, I was at NHL hockey star Joe Sakic’s house, in a little beachy area between Vancouver and Seattle – far from any civilization or camera stores. I set up my lights in his back yard, and to my horror, I realized I had somehow misplaced my sync cords. It was high noon, and available light was not a great option. Sakic’s wife got me their yellow pages (remember phone books?), and I called a local wedding photographer, who bailed me out by loaning me a cord. Sakic was patient and cool. (Hockey guys really are the best). I was incredibly embarrassed, but I consider it one of the greatest lessons I ever had. Always, always, always, pack redundantly. Have backups spread around in different cases. Things break, and you should always cover your ass in case something doesn’t arrive. If you are shipping gear, don’t put all your softboxes, or heads, or stands in the same case. You never know when one will turn up broken or missing.)

Extra glasses – I have an extra set of glasses here, and in my briefcase. These may be the most important lenses in my bag, as I’m blind as a bat without them.

Wiha technical screwdrivers – I have these scattered in various cases and bags. They are handy to tighten lens mounts after a rough helicopter ride.

X-Rite ColorChecker Passport Color balance calibration target

Really Right stuff quick release plates – I use these on my cameras and my 70-200 to mount them on an Arca Swiss ballhead. They are expensive, but wonderfully machined pieces that make your life so much easier.

Kinesis CF Card Wallet – This large card wallet folds flat and holds 12 CF cards. I’ve used these for many years, and I actually like the size (though my assistants probably don’t). My theory is the small ThinkTank card wallets are wonderful, but so small that they can easily be misplaced, left on set, disappear in a jacket pocket, etc. This big thing from Kinesis is large enough to notice when it’s missing. I might walk into a restaurant and leave gear in the car, but hard drives and cards are always with us. ALWAYS!  You can replace gear easily with insurance, but you cannot replace the photos you just took.

SanDisk Extreme Pro Compact Flash card 32GB 160MB/s – I’ve replaced most of my cards with these, although I still have a few older 16 GB versions. I rotate cards and buy 2-4 new ones every 6-8 months or so.

Inova X2 Flashlight – I usually have at least one of these in my bag – sometimes more. I love flashlights and experimenting with different LED sources. Sometimes we light paint with these on long exposures, and they are always handy for packing up in the dark.

Petzl Zipka 2 headlamp – I have a bunch of these in various bags. They have a retractable cord on them that fits around your head or wrist. Very handy.

Extra lens/body caps – these get lost, so I try to have extras with us.

Revlon makeup compact mirror. – These are handy for helping subjects fix their hair/makeup, etc on set.

Lens cleaning cloth – My favorites are these large ones that Jody Grober gave me from Robert’s Distributors.

Domke wraps – I use these to wrap around the bodies to protect them in the case. I’ve always done this, and it keeps the LCD’s nice and pristine. I use black ones on the 5D’s and a red one on the 1DX so we can differentiate the bodies quickly….and because I’m a freak.

Nikon AN4B camera strap – I’m super weird and picky about camera straps. I LOATHE big obnoxious straps with giant lettering that come with the camera bodies these days. The AN4B is a simple thin black nylon strap, and I’ve used these for years. I don’t know what I’ll ever do if they quit making them. I use a similar strap from Canon on the 1DX body, mostly so I can quickly tell the cameras apart if I’m in a rush. It’s called a Canon L3 camera strap. They are gray/black, and just say Canon on them….very low key and thin. This is the same camera strap that originally shipped with the EOS1-V. From time to time, B&H still gets them in stock.

The RED FOLDER – Guys who’ve worked with me know what this is for. I keep model releases, property releases, etc. in a big red folder in the outside pocket of the roller bag. The idea is the same as the big Kinesis CF wallet. If it is big and red, it’s hard to miss. These are critical to doing a professional job, and with few exceptions, we get one from every person we shoot.

Commercial Photographer Robert Seale's Photo Bag

 

Customs forms (CBP 4455) – for foreign travel, I register all my gear at a US Customs office, have it inspected and signed. A Carnet is better, but more time consuming to get and to use. Having the gear registered in the US at least proves that you left with it, and are returning back to the US with the same stuff.  It won’t help you with a customs guy in Canada, but the US agents will be ok with it.  So far, this has worked well for me.

** Funny sidebar: (A few years ago, my buddy Chris Covatta, working for Upper Deck at the time, was traveling into Canada to shoot the Vancouver Grizzlies (remember them?  That went well, huh?).  The Canadian border agents see his plethora of camera gear, and detain him.  He was delayed for a while, and the conversation went something like this.  “So, you got a lot a camera stuff there, eh?  Isn’t there a Canadian who could do your job?”  Covatta came very close to saying:  ““Hell no!”  For a Canadian to shoot a sport, it must involve toothless bastards with sticks and little rubber object that hurts like hell when it hits you. They don’t have a clue about hoops!”  (ed. note:  These were Covatta’s words, not mine….I happen to like Canada.)  But he held off, paid a fee and was allowed in after someone with the team vouched for him.  I’ve been reminded of this several times during my own travels there.  Canada may be the most difficult border to cross – much worse than China or Saudi Arabia in my experience.

(CASE #2) – ThinkTank Airport International 2.0 (Part Deux!)

This roller has some auxiliary stuff that I don’t necessarily use on every trip. For instance, if I was shooting a simple business portrait across town, I probably wouldn’t take this with me. However, for international travel, or big corporate photography assignments on the road, this case usually goes with us.  I have a different packing philosophy here.  Instead of the normal dividers, I pack everything in small bags or sometimes a backpack, so we’ve got bags to work out of when we arrive.

Commercial Photographer Robert Seale's Photo Bag

 

Canon EF 300/2.8L IS – I used to use lots of big glass when I shot more sports action, but these days I’ve pared down the 400’s and 600’s to just a simple 300/2.8, and honestly, it rarely gets used. It does come in handy when you need it, and I often use a 1.4 converter on it. I might replace this one day with the Canon EF 200-400/4, but good grief, 12K for a lens I rarely use seems like a lot of money.

Funny, (yet informative) sidebar:  Current prices on long lenses….a Canon EF 600/4 is now 12,999.00.  A 400/2.8 is now 11,500.00. A 300/2.8 is now 7,299.00.  Quick math question….how many games do you need to shoot at  125.00 per game to pay for your big lens?  I’m not endorsing this rate – some publications pay better , but even major sports publications are still paying the same rates they paid in the 1980’s, when cameras and lenses were much cheaper than they are now. The salad days of card companies and other corporate clients shelling out 1-2K rates for sports action/game coverage are gone for the most part.  Most do not pay anywhere near what it would take to buy crazy exotic sports photographer gear and remain profitable.  Now, let’s do the math based on a 400/2.8.

400/2.8 = 11500.00…at 125.00 per game (what some “so-called wire services” are paying, believe it or not).  – that’s 92 games!…..just to buy ONE lens, not allowing anything for the multiple digital cameras, other lenses, laptop, cards, and PROFIT you should be making.

Canon TS-E 24/3.5L II Tilt shift – The new version of the Canon 24 tilt shift. Absolutely an incredible, sharp, sharp, sharp lens. I rarely use it, but it does come in handy for perspective control in tight spaces.

Canon EF 8-15/4L Fisheye – I replaced my fixed 15 fisheye with this one a couple of years ago. Again rarely used – but there’s really no substitute when you need it.

Canon 24-105/4L – A backup of the other go-to lens in Case #1.

Canon EF 50/2.8 Macro

Chargers for cameras – It pisses me off that i must carry two different types of chargers.  The 5D grip should have been designed to take 1DX type batteries.  Ugh.

Backup CF cards – I rotate the older cards to a ThinkTank card wallet, and keep them in another case, so we can continue working if the Kinesis wallet (God forbid!) were to get lost.  Backups!

More Wiha screwdrivers

More Petzl Zipka headlamps

Larrylight 8 LCD flashlights – these little nine dollar lights have a clip and magnet, and are fantastic for hiding in a set and mimicking computer screen light.

Funny sidebar:  We spent a day in a hospital once, hauling around a Rock and Roller cart full of lighting gear, and then used Larry Lights on every single picture.  I’m not sure my client knew what to think…..probably that I was a weirdo.

ThinkTank Speed Demon waist pack and Speed Changer side pouches – These give the assistant a way to carry extra stuff once we’re on location.

**Funny sidebar:  (The ThinkTank waist bag you see here is probably a collector’s item.  It has a Canon CPS logo on it and was given out to all the Super Bowl photographers at the 2005 Super Bowl in Jacksonville.  My friends and Think Tank founders Deanne Fitzmaurice, Kurt Rogers, and Doug Murdoch arranged for the generous swag and I’ve been using it ever since – and I’ve bought a TON of their other bags.  The party was notable, not only for the cool gift and weird menu (we had alligator as I recall), but for the fact that my wife and I  got to sit and dine with the legendary Neil Leifer.  Later that same year, Neil shared a photo position with my wife and a couple of other photographers at  the World Series in Houston, and sent her a signed print as a thank you for making room for him in the crowded space.  Neil is a class act.)

Sharpies – I still carry these, despite the fact that i no longer write on film canisters.

Gaffer Tape – I’m picky about this too (Imagine that). I prefer the small core, Permacel 2-ply tape. It is superior to the big rolls of thin crap you find in most camera stores.  Sorry, but there’s no Amazon link for the good stuff.  Call Jody at Robert’s Distributors and tell him I sent you.  ;-)

Electronic cable release – I carry ones with a button, and another one with a Pocketwizard compatible miniphone jack

Filters – I didn’t put them in the pictures, but I own filters (Heliopan thin filters) for pretty much all the lenses. I hate using them, but I put them on if I know I’m going to a dusty or saltwater environment. I remember a quote from some bigshot photographer years ago who said something like – …”why would you put a 20 dollar piece of glass in front of a 2000 dollar piece of glass?” I buy nice filters, and they certainly aren’t 20 bucks, but that quote has always lingered in my mind.

Sensor cleaning kit – Sensor Swabs, cleaning fluid, and Arctic Butterfly gadget.  Note:  The pre-moistened, pre-packaged swabs are absolute crap.  Horrible.  don’t even try it.  Buy the dry ones and use the cleaning fluid.  Be careful though – did you know the TSA thinks the cleaning fluid is a hazardous substance?  No kidding.  I tried to FedX some once, but had to buy it locally.

**Funny sidebar:  (Does anyone else think “Arctic Butterfly” sounds like a sex toy rather than a piece of camera gear?

Me, (in airport security check line):  “So, it’s a little wand with a light brush on the end, that has a little battery powered motor that spins, and it’s for cleaning your camera sensor, and….”

TSA agent:  “Yeah……sure, buddy, suuuuuuuure it is…….whatever you say…….”)

 

The Definitive Guide to Starting a Successful Photography Business

Glamorous job?  Not really...most of my days are spent sitting in front of a computer, not frolicking in the pool shooting Miss USA.

Glamorous job? Not always…most of my days are spent sitting in front of a computer, not frolicking in the pool shooting Miss USA.

I get a call almost every week from various photographers:  old photojournalism colleagues leaving their newspaper staff jobs (sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not…), college students nearing graduation, assistants who are ready to strike out on their own, and sometimes, advanced amateurs in other careers who I’ve met at a workshop.  All of them want the same thing….”we want to do what you’re doing….you know, work full time as a commercial photographer.”

It happens often enough, and I’ve given the same advice so many times, that I thought it might be helpful to write it all down in one place, and along the way, dispel some misconceptions about what it’s really like to be a professional commercial photographer. I don’t mean for this to sound condescending in any way.  What follows is legitimate info for many who are just starting out, and if you find that any of it is below your experience or skill level, then feel free to move on.

Starting a photography business is tough.  When I’ve spoken with college students, I’ve told them not to pursue this if it’s only a passing interest, or something they think would be a cool job.  I tell them to pursue photography ONLY if you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else.  It sounds corny, but I often compare being a professional photographer to becoming an actor, or professional musician… LOTS of people want to do this, and only a handful make it in any successful way.

Ok, let’s assume the commitment level is there.  What is it really like to be a professional photographer in today’s world?

First, let’s dispel the notion that commercial photographers have a camera in their hands every day.  This will vary for individuals, and by season, but I would guess that I spend a good 75-80% of my working hours in front of a computer – not out shooting.  I consider that to be a pretty successful ratio.  No one starting out really thinks about it, but digital workflow, retouching, billing, marketing, pre-production, post-production, accounting, taxes, etc… and the plethora of general business paperwork takes up a ton of time.

Second, some basic economics about working for yourself in this business.  Let’s say you have a staff job at a newspaper, university, or company that pays you 65K a year, with company camera gear and computers, vacation time, insurance and 401K benefits.  You might want to seriously consider keeping that job.  You’ll need to more than double that figure in revenue to maintain that level of income for yourself.  Those with full time jobs who think this is just a fun, easy career often don’t consider all the various ways you’ll spend money as a commercial photographer.  It’s not just cameras and computers… you’ll need insurance (healthcare, liability insurance, and equipment insurance to name a few), retirement SEP contributions, accounting and legal fees, marketing expenses, website expenses, advertising expenses, digital storage expenses, office supplies, mobile and office phones, high speed internet, software upgrades (legitimate software… you can’t just steal it from the newspaper  or university anymore), really nice custom made portfolios, assistants, retouchers, sales tax, franchise tax, and enough reserve/cash flow to take jobs, pay everybody, and keep the place running while you wait around to get paid – sometimes for several months.

And, oh yeah, I’m not mentioning the fact that when working for yourself, you can kiss that 2-4 week paid vacation goodbye, and that you will spend every spare minute after hours, on your weekends, in your sleep, etc. obsessing about your business and thinking constantly about how to make it better.  A staffer can go home at 5 or on a weekend, disconnect, and enjoy their time off.  When you work for yourself – there is no time off… and every minute will be filled with worry.

Negative enough for you?  Sorry.  This stuff needs to be said… I’ll brighten up and get all cheery in a moment.

One of the biggest mistakes I see new freelancers making, particularly the former newspaper guys, is unrealistic gear purchases.  Many shooters, particularly those that spent a lot of time doing sports think they need to start their business with 3 of the fastest professional bodies (usually 6-7K a piece), a 400/2.8 (9-11K), a 300/2.8 (6-7K), all three zooms , 16-35/2.8, 24-70/2.8, and 70-200/2.8 (roughly 5K), and a new Mac laptop (3K).  After all, that’s what you used at the newspaper or university you worked for, right?  This is what the well-equipped photojournalist needs, right?

Ok, let’s think about this for a second.  That’s roughly 45,000 dollars – just for camera gear.  We haven’t even mentioned lighting, grip, cases, desktop computer, storage, printers, etc.  You haven’t designed a website yet, or paid for insurance, or any of the other previously mentioned things.  What kind of assignments will you do with said gear?  Shoot some football or basketball games?  For whom?

“I’ll just work for my local paper or an agency or a wire service…”    Think carefully about it.  There are predators out there waiting to take advantage of people who just want to go to games, news events, and be in on the action.  Their business models are built around having an endless supply of newbies to provide free (or almost free) content that they can turn around and sell.  If you’re one of the lucky ones, you’ll make 125.00 to 250.00 bucks for your effort (in many markets, there are people lining up to shoot games on spec/and/or for free).  When you do the math on how long a sporting event takes, getting there early, parking, shooting, editing, captioning and sending a ton of photos, leaving late, driving home, you’ll quickly see that the average fast food employee is pretty much kicking your ass. …and they didn’t have to invest 45K to buy their own French fry fryers, stoves, or spatulas.  They don’t have to wear a ridiculous fanny pack either.

Speaking of capital investment – that 45K in gear you bought can’t be amortized over 10-20 years like capital expenditures in some other business… it will need to all be replaced in 3-4 years, just like your computers… and as technology advances that cycle will continue for years to come.

This is tough for many former photojournalists to reconcile. Many have made their living this way forever, being at all the big news or sporting events, hanging out with their colleagues all carrying big giant lenses on monopods, credentials around their neck, etc.  To many, it becomes their identity, and it is difficult to reconcile that despite your years of experience, no one is going to pay you to go to the Super Bowl this year, or the Republican convention, or to the earthquake in Haiti.  It’s tough to tell someone who worked at a sports magazine, or a big metro newspaper that, yes, you can still make a good living in photography – it just may not be doing what you used to do.  Letting go of that identity is tough.  I know… it’s something I experienced myself.

The best piece of photo gear you'll ever buy.

The best piece of photo gear you’ll ever buy.

There are a few prerequisites to starting a successful photo business:  You need great, original pictures with a consistent vision ;  You need some serious money, as it is very expensive to start a photography business; You need a healthy knowledge about how to run a photography business.

(A client or two would help, too, but we’ll get to that later.)

The Top 5 Photography Books That You MUST Own

I can’t help with the first two… You’re really on your own there, but I’ve read a lot of business books, and several specifically about the photography business, self promotion, marketing for photographers, etc.,  so I can make these recommendations comfortably.

I’ve sent this list around to various friends in transition, students, and former assistants, and I can promise you, if you read all of these cover to cover, you’ll have a firm grasp on how your photography business should work, and a really good introduction to usage-based pricing, which is the cornerstone of what we do. (If you click on the titles below I have linked them to Amazon for you.)

The Real Business of Photography1.  The Real Business of Photography, Richard Weisgrau ; Allworth Press

One of the best books about photography business I’ve ever read, and really should be the first thing you read if you’re thinking about doing this for a living.  Weisgrau is a former ASMP (American Society of Media Photographers) executive director and he speaks intelligently about licensing photography, doing estimates, managing finances, etc.  A really great book.

Best Business Practices for Photographers2.  Best Business Practices for Photographers, John Harrington ; Course Technology

John runs the Photo Business News and Forum blog (www.photobusinessforum.blogspot.com) and has been a respected voice and frequent speaker in our industry.  If you’ve ever watched him dissect an estimate, and show how he turns a simple 500.00 job into a multi-thousand dollar job just by asking the right questions, it’s truly a thing of beauty.  His book has lots of actual examples of job estimates and email trails that show his process.  Very valuable stuff that few people are willing to share with their peers.

ASMP Professional Business Practices in Photography3. ASMP Professional Business Practices in Photography, American Society of Media Photographers – edited by Susan Carr (Seventh Edition) ; Allworth Press

Edited by the late Susan Carr, who really did so many things to educate and help her fellow photographers, this is the latest edition of ASMP’s business bible.  There are chapters on licensing, copyright, releases, paperwork, marketing, you name it.  A good overview of the commercial photography business.  I believe you still get one of these included in your membership when you join ASMP.

The Photographer’s Guide to Negotiating4. The Photographer’s Guide to Negotiating, Richard Weisgrau ; Allworth Press

Another book by Weisgrau, and really my favorite.  (You still have to read ALL of these, though – no shortcuts!).  He talks about negotiating tactics, how to present offers and counter offers, psychology, dealing with contracts, negotiating strategy, and includes some interviews with real world professionals who have been in business for years.

The Photographer’s Survival Guide5.  The Photographer’s Survival Guide, Suzane Sease and Amanda Sosa Stone; Amphoto Books

I’ve read a lot of books about marketing and self promotion, but this is easily the best and most useful.  Sease and Sosa Stone are both former art buyers, reps, and now consultants, who provide a ton of real world expertise to photography marketing and brand building.  They also discuss presentation, portfolios, promos, and even include a handy disc in the book with essential business and estimating forms you can use.

I can’t emphasize how important it is to study these books.  It amazes me how many people will invest 100k in their business buying the latest cameras and computers, but won’t take the time to study up on how the business works.  Don’t be the dork out there charging by the hour and giving away your copyright on every assignment.  It’s not supposed to work that way, and you’ll be doing all your colleagues a disservice if you fly blind into our chosen field.

All together, these books cost maybe 130 bucks…they really might be the most important pieces of equipment you ever buy.

Without a smart roadmap, your photography business could end up as roadkill.  (Photo by Chip Litherland)

Without a smart roadmap, your photography business could end up as roadkill. (Photo by Chip Litherland)

I have a note on my desk that I wrote down at an ASMP business seminar several years ago.  Detroit photographer Blake Discher, a super savvy business guy, was our speaker, and he said something incredibly simple that I’ll never forget.

“There are three steps to running a successful business:

  1. Create a unique value proposition.
  2. Ensure that you have a large enough addressable market.
  3. Make more money than you spend.”

Sounds simple right?  It is, but you would be shocked how many people don’t think about these simple steps.

Think about number one… What’s unique that separates you from all the other photographers in your market?  What skill or know-how do you have that’s totally you?  If you live in Denver, and you want to shoot outdoor/adventure sports, what makes you different?  There are 50 people already doing what you want to do in that market.  How will you stand out from the crowd?

Think about number two… Do you have a large enough addressable market to survive where you are?  I would love to shoot movie posters or fashion, but guess what – I live in Houston, and we don’t have any movie studios or fashion magazines here.  So that’s probably not a wise niche for me to choose.

You should really think about these first two, analyze your local market and competition, and consider your options carefully before hanging out your shingle.  Are you putting yourself in a realistic position to succeed?  If there’s a specific genre you want to shoot, and it doesn’t exist where you are, you may want to consider moving.

Number three is pretty obvious.

Anyway….those are the really simple steps.  Now I’m going to write about the nuts and bolts of starting up a photo business.  A lot of this is common sense and has been covered before.  Some of these are no brainers, but I’m going to throw them in anyway, just to be thorough.The

21 Tips for Starting your Photo Business

DISCLAIMER:  It would we wise to consult with your attorney or financial advisor:  I’m definitely not a lawyer or CPA, and I can’t even claim I stayed in a Holiday Inn Express last night either.

1.  SAVE A BOATLOAD OF CASH – Super important.  At a previous photo seminar I attended, the speaker said that you should have at least 6 months salary reserved before embarking on your own.  I think that’s a good guide, but bear in mind that your money isn’t just to buy cameras, computers, etc…You’ll need operating cash to do jobs, run the business and pay assistants while you’re getting off the ground.

2.  SET UP AN LLC OR S-CORP – Talk to your accountant about what makes the most sense for you in your state, but you definitely should be incorporated as soon as possible.  This will help you liability wise, and although you’ll have more paperwork to deal with, you’ll likely get to keep more of the money you make versus being just a sole proprietor.

3.  ENLIST PROFESSIONALS TO HELP YOU – You should have a CPA, a financial advisor, and a lawyer.  You will likely have the CPA on speed dial, contacting them throughout the year to file quarterly reports, sales tax, and pay estimated taxes.  Don’t be cheap and try to do this yourself.

4.  GET A SALES TAX NUMBER – State laws vary, and not all photo jobs are subject to sales tax, but in many states, you’ll be dealing with this all the time.  Don’t be the loser who tries to fly under the radar on this.  Operate your business like a grown up.  You might get wacked 5 years from now and find you owe your state a couple hundred thousand dollars.  That would suck.

5.  SEPARATE PERSONAL AND BUSINESS FINANCES – The first step here, after your corporation is set up, is to run to the bank and set up a business checking account.  Don’t operate your business out of your personal funds….you’ll be confused, and so will the IRS.

6.  BUY INSURANCE – If you’re lucky, you’ll have a spouse with healthcare insurance.  If not, that should be your first step.  Next, you need insurance for your business.  Make sure the policy is by a company that is used to dealing with professional photographers and their unique needs.  It should cover cameras and gear, rental gear, computers, provide shoot insurance for reshoots on botched jobs, rental studio coverage, lost portfolio coverage, and liability coverage.  Many buildings won’t let you set foot inside to do a shoot without proof of liability coverage.  ASMP is a good resource for this type of insurance.

7.  GET A BUSINESS CREDIT CARD – Another part of separating your personal and business finances.  This makes it much easier at the end of the year to see what you spent on gear, hotels, airline tickets, etc.  I recommend a business Amex, as the Membership Rewards program gives you points you can use toward all sorts of things, but any card where you can get points toward future spending will work well.

8.  ONLY BUY GEAR THAT MAKES YOU MONEY –  I mentioned the gear hoarding syndrome that many of us have a couple of posts back.  This is one of the areas that really sinks many photographers starting out.  It might be great to have a 600mm/f4 and 12 bodies, but you could probably do 85% of your jobs with one body and a 24-105mm lens and a small lighting kit.  Think before you buy.  Rent if you can, and ask yourself this question before giving B&H your Amex number:  “Will this piece of gear make me more money?”

9.  WORK ON YOUR WORKFLOW – Think about your archive 1, 5, even 10-20 years down the road and start with good workflow habits.  Learn to properly use Lightroom or Aperture and the correct file naming, organization, and back up system to protect your work.  Have a good computer system in place, with plenty of backup drives, and be disciplined.  If you’re new to Lightroom, Seth Resnick’s D-65 workshop is excellent.

10.  CREATE A WEBSITE AND EDIT RUTHLESSLY – This applies particularly to students and veteran newspaper guys in transition.  What you learned about portfolios up till now doesn’t really apply anymore.  In most cases, no one cares about your spot news or your sports action photos.  Figure out what you’re going after in your market, and edit down to a couple of niches.  Be ruthless in your edit.  No excuses.  Hire a consultant if you have to.

11.  CREATE A PHYSICAL PORTFOLIO – Depending on your market, showing up for a meeting with just an Ipad may not be enough.  There are ad agencies and design firms out there that are used to being blown away by incredible, expensive, custom made books.  We’re talking ink jet paper made from the saliva of free range fair trade South American wasps, and embossed leather from humpback whale foreskins.  Think about what your portfolio should look like, the market you’re after, and make sure it is consistent with the rest of your branding.  In short, it needs to be perfect.

12.  SETTLE ON YOUR BRANDING – Do you see IBM or Coca-Cola changing their logo every couple of weeks?  No.  You shouldn’t either.  Settle on a look, work with a good designer and make sure your branding is consistent across all platforms:  website, business cards, stationary, invoices, portfolios, promo cards, etc….and yes, you need all those things.

13.  NAME YOUR BUSINESS CORRECTLY –  My personal opinion –  but I think photographers should use their own name in the title of their business.  If you want to add “Photography” or “Images” or “Visuals”  or “Productions” to the official name, knock yourself out.  Know this though:  No client out there is going to remember “Hot-Shotz” or “Extreme Images” or “Ginger Snaps”  (I swear, this is not a joke….I met someone at a workshop who used that one – and you guessed it…..her name was Ginger).  They will remember you, Bob Smith, or whatever the hell your name is.  Then they’ll start googling you to look you up one day, because they’ve thrown all your promo cards in the trash without looking at them, and they won’t be able to find you.  Why?…..Because you named your business something generic.  Have you ever seen a coffee table book in the photo section of a bookstore with “Hot-Shotz” or something dorky like that?  No….you see Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Herb Ritts, Patrick Demarchelier, etc…see my point?

14. WORK ON YOUR EMAIL ETIQUETTE – Being able to write well is as important than being able to take great pictures.  As a professional photographer, email may be the primary way that you interact with your clients.  You should project a friendly, easygoing but professional personality.  You should address every email to the person you’re writing (Don’t just send one word responses), and sign every email with your name.  Think about how irritated you get when a potential client emails you with one line that says, “what do you charge?”….and then signs the email with their first name, and no contact info because they haven’t bothered to set up their email signature properly.  Be a professional.  Set up a complete email signature that goes on every email (even on your phone) with your name, business name, phone numbers, website, and your email address listed in type that someone can click on (not an image file).  If a client is in their car, and their contacts are inaccessible, and hey have to search old emails to find you, you want to have all your information easily available for them to click on.

15.  JOIN ASMP – The American Society of Media Photographers provides education, guidance, lobbying, and business resources for commercial photographers.  You owe it to yourself and your colleagues to join.  You can also be listed on the ASMP Find a Photographer website, which is helpful, and probably the cheapest listing website for photographers out there.  You might also consider APA.

16.  EDUCATE YOURSELF ABOUT USAGE AND LICENSING –  You CAN do copyright buyouts, burn discs of entire shoots and hand over all your raws to the client, and you might survive for a little while this way, but you WON’T be in business for long.  This is not how professional photographers conduct business.  Read the books I mentioned earlier.  They will give you a good overview of usage based licensing.  Join ASMP, go to seminars, study online resources for estimating jobs and writing licenses, learn about contracts, talk to colleagues.  Learn about licensing and how it works in the different fields of editorial, corporate, and advertising.  Learn the language and key terms.  Learn the right questions to ask your clients before giving them estimates.  Run your business the right way, the ethical way, and don’t give away the store and sell out your colleagues.

17.  SET UP A PHOTOSHELTER ACCOUNT – This isn’t just for archiving, although it’s great for off-site backup that you can access through the web anywhere.  I handle all my client deliveries through Photoshelter.  You can give download access to specific people, and track what they’ve downloaded.  It’s much safer than using ftp.  You can also set up stock licensing and print sales. If you want to get an account, this link will take you there.

18.  USE INVOICING/ACCOUNTING SOFTWARE – I use BlinkBid, but some people get by with Quickbooks.  Others use custom Filemaker or Excel solutions.

19.  CREATE SOME GREAT “LEAVE BEHINDS” – Starting out, you may not have the funds for a full color, 48 page booklet, but you can easily print up some small runs of well designed postcards.  After you’ve shown your book to a potential client, it’s good to hand them a “leave behind” card with one of your signature photos to remember you by.

20.  NETWORK WITH OTHER PHOTOGRAPHERS IN YOUR MARKET  – Don’t operate in a vacuum.  This is where the ASMP membership comes in handy.  Social gatherings of photo organizations, or events like workshops, or Photo Expo are a great way to meet colleagues, develop friendships, and ask questions.  You might find out about a deadbeat client to avoid, or you might get an estimating or pricing question answered.  Not everyone will be as candid, but personally, I would rather help someone than have them underprice a valuable job because they are new to the game and screw it up for everyone.  You should always keep growing and keep learning.

21.  READ NUMBER 1 ON THIS LIST AGAIN.

If you are thinking of starting a successful photography business, know that it’s a tough road filled with long days of hard work and you’ll be up against ridiculously good competition.  Remember what I said earlier, only tackle this if you really can’t imagine yourself doing anything else.   I probably can’t change the way you see things, or change the work you produce, but if you have the goods, do your homework, and put these steps into place, you’ll be in a good position for your business to succeed.

Sports Illustrated cover shoot with San Antonio Spurs “Big Three”

The final cover treatment, designed by SI Creative director Chris Hercik.

With the NBA Conference playoffs nearing completion and the Spurs already a lock for the Finals, I got a call from Brad Smith, the Director of Photography at Sports Illustrated, asking if I could quickly get to San Antonio.   Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker rarely if ever pose together, but had reluctantly agreed to pose for an SI cover which would come out a couple of days later, to coordinate with the beginning of the finals.

Andrew Loehman, a great digital tech/assistant from Austin agreed to sacrifice his Sunday and help us out, and gathered additional gear from Taylor Jones of Texas Grip in Austin.  Loaded for bear, Andrew and his wife Chrissy met me in Austin early on a Sunday morning before Spurs practice to scout potential locations.

We knew we would have a mere 5 minutes with the Spurs “Big Three” so we wanted a location from which we could coax multiple looks.  Unfortunately, the Spurs Sunday practice was slated for their practice facility, not the arena where they normally play.  At the arena, setting up multiple backdrops and lights would be no problem, as there is ample space off the court, under the stands, in high bay loading docks, etc.

The practice facility, though very nice for basketball operations, had no such wide open spaces, and network crews had already commandeered the limited available real estate to shoot their NBA Finals introductions and promo spots for the upcoming TV broadcasts.

The original plan - note: we changed the V-flats out and just used the strips.

It had rained heavily that morning, so outside was not ideal either, although we had a cool corrugated metal wall picked out that would have worked well.  Then we saw it…next door to the facility, across a parking lot, was the world’s greatest parking garage!  It was the world’s greatest because it was empty and had a 12-14 foot high ceiling – which I’ve never seen before.  It would make a great studio.  With the help of Spurs PR man Tom James and Facility supervisor Julio Rodriguez, we were able to set up in the garage and prep for the shoot.  Power was at a premium, but Julio saved the day (and our bacon) by finding additional avenues and helping us run long cables across the parking lot.  We were all set.

Our lovely parking garage studio.....

Brad had mentioned how much they wanted a white background for the shot, so we elected to set up a big Matthews 12 x 12 as our backdrop.   We did this instead of just seamless, because it was much more stable in case a gust of wind came through the open garage.  We used the seamless for a white floor, and rolled it back to where the silk began.  It would require a minor retouch if we shot full length, but it was the safest solution.

Giving the art director options is always a good thing, so we set up our lights so that they could serve dual purposes.  Normally, we would set up large foamcore V-flats and stands with regular reflectors bounced into them to light the white background.  We decided instead to use two Plume Wafer 140 Medium strip banks to light the white silk from each side.  If I turned them off, we would get the same shot with a medium gray background.  Then, if they were turned back toward the subjects with Lighttools grids inside, we would get a rimlit version with a black background.  Andrew, with the generous help of his lovely wife Chrissy, would drop in a black 8 x 8 Westcott Scrim Jim to make sure the background went black.

So essentially, without moving our subjects, we got six different setups:

1. Boomed key, rimlit, gray background

2. Boomed key, rimlit, black background

3. Boomed key, rimlights off, white background

(reposition players in a row)

4. side key, white background

5. side key, gray background

6. side key, black background

We used two different key lights:  A Plume Wafer Hexoval 140 on a boom for most of the shoot, and then a Wafer Hexoval 180 on camera right for the final photo.  All of the lights were Profoto:  7A 2400’s for all but one light, which we had to substitute a 7B for when we ran out of power.

Chrissy filling in while we were testing our backlights.

We practiced several times and made careful calculations to determine the number of apple boxes each player would have to stand on to be in the appropriate position. We then choreographed the shoot, making several dry runs in sequence so we would be smooth when the players arrived.  We would start with the rimlit gray, then add the black 8 x 8 solid for the rimlit black, then flip the strips around 90 degrees and remove the grids for the all white background, and finishing with the sidelit big Hexoval shot…..all in five minutes!

The players arrived after practice and we actually got a rare smile out of Duncan, who is normally quite reserved.   His kids came with him, and after sharing photos with them on the camera lcd screen, they climbed on my back and were making bunny ears behind my head to get their dad to crack a smile.  It was a blast, although tough to keep horizons level when you’re being climbed like a tree.

I rushed back to Houston to file, (you know you’re in a serious rush when you pass both Bucee’s AND Luling City Market BBQ without stopping!)  SI Creative Director Chris Hercik whipped up an awesome cover within a few minutes of receiving the photos, using a cool spot-color silver treatment which went great with the black and silver unis.

The black background shot with rim lights.

The white background setup with a smiling Duncan.

Manu goofing off.......

The last shot with a Wafer Hex 180. We shot this with white, gray, and black backgrounds.

Jeremy Lin portraits for Sports Illustrated

Jeremy Lin posing for a high flying pass on his first day back in Houston. This photo was featured as a double truck in Sports Illustrated. © 2012 Robert Seale

As Jeremy Lin was in the process of inking his deal with the Houston Rockets last week, I got a call from Sports Illustrated.  Often in sports, when a star player is traded to another team, there is a big fancy press conference to introduce the player to the media.  Usually the player stands at a podium with the new owner, professes his love for the new city and holds up a freshly minted jersey with his name on the back.  Interviews follow with all the local media outlets:  radio stations, TV stations, teenage sports bloggers, and typically, the surviving newspaper in town.

What most people don’t see, is the behind the scenes photo shoots.  Put together in a rush, the sleepy player gets herded to multiple locations throughout the building to pose for the NBA, a magazine or two, the local paper, and a host of team sponsor PSA’s.  It’s a challenging situation, very similar to “media day” shoots that we all engage in during preseason training camps. Each photographer or news outlet gets the player for a couple of minutes and they produce the best sports portrait they can.

After I hung up with the SI photo editor, I immediately called my good friend, Rockets photographer Bill Baptist, who I knew would be doing the same gig for the NBA.  I found out that we were scheduled to be on one half of the practice court, since the other half was being used for the press conference setup.  Billy had to do two large setups, so he generously offered to have our shoot moved to the empty arena floor.  I quickly jumped at the chance and agreed that a larger room would be beneficial for all of us.  This way, we wouldn’t be crossing cords or competing for space.  Plus, the last time Billy and I were that close together, I’m pretty sure he kicked my ass at tennis.

Stellar assistant Nathan Lindstrom and I showed up to the Toyota Center the next morning with a ton of gear, and made our way to the main arena floor.  An empty arena makes a great photo studio, but unfortunately, it really was empty:  as in, no floor!  Since the arena hosts a different event almost every night, the wood basketball floor was in storage – along with the basketball goals, etc.

With the help of some friendly folks at the arena, we were able to get one of the basketball goals rolled out onto the empty concrete floor.  I figured that, even if the floor didn’t show, we could at least utilize the goal as a background element for context.

We put together lighting setups in two locations:  A wide angle view with the goal in the background, backlit on both sides with Profoto 8A’s and  large Chimera gridded softboxes.  We used a Plume Wafer Hexoval 180 as the main light near the camera.

On the other setup, we put together a seamless paper backdrop with two different lighting setups:  a three light setup with two Plume Wafer 100’s with Lighttools grids, and a Profoto Beauty dish on a boom just above the camera.  The other setup was another Wafer Hexoval 180 to the right of the camera.  We used three Profoto Acute 600’s for power on the seamless setup.

Lin showed up in a brand new red Rockets uni and made his way to our set.  After shaking his hand and welcoming him to Texas, we quickly put him through both seamless lighting setups, and then standing and dribbling poses on the backlit concrete floor setup.

Part of Lin’s appeal is his status as a young, springy, high-flying point guard.  He looked great flying through the air, going to he hoop, and passing in mid air to his Knicks teammates during the a few months of “Linsanity” last season.  At the end of the shoot, I asked Lin how his knee was feeling.

He said it felt great.

Great enough to jump on a concrete floor?

Sure, he said.

Ok then, let’s do it.

I placed the camera, a Canon EOS1DS Mk III on the floor, and proceeded to shoot Lin leaping straight in the air with the basketball goal in the background.  He looked great – our only minor tweak being that of changing his hand positions during the jump.  At the end of the shoot, I handed him a towel, shook his hand and said thanks.  I looked down at my watch and a mere 12 minutes had passed.

He left the arena soon after and was mobbed……not by New York paparazzi, but by mouth-watering Houston real estate agents, eager to spend at least some of his 25 million bucks.

 

Robert Seale Featured in Digital SLR Magazine

The opening spread in the Nov. 2011 issue of Digital SLR

Yep, you guessed it – the second spread…

I’m featured in the November 2011 issue of Digital SLR magazine, a photo magazine published by Dennis Publishing in the UK.  It’s available at most camera stores, Barnes and Noble and fine bookstores/magazine shops everywhere.

Daniel Lezano did a great job with the article, and translated a few of my quotes to add Brit-speak (“brilliant, kit, flashgun”), but other than that it’s pretty much what I said.  Big thanks to them for asking me to be a part of it.

Here’s the text from Daniel’s article:

When the leading US sports publications  are looking  for someone to add energy and impact to portraits, it’s the Texas-based photographer Robert Seale that gets the nod.  He explains to Daniel Lezano the  techniques he uses to capture his  Portraits in Action:

“I’ve been actIvely Involved with photography for all of my adult life. Having studied photography and interned on a newspaper as a photojournalist, I later joined The Sporting News, where I worked for ten years as a staff photographer. there were three of us covering the whole country, shooting major professional sporting events, including the World Series, Superbowl and college sports, although around a third of the time was spent shooting portraits for magazine covers.

In 2006, I left to start my own business, working for magazines like Sports Illustrated, as well as ad agencies and design firms, then later shooting for large companies, like oil firms.  “As much as I enjoyed shooting live sports, taking portraits was always more fun. this was especially true after 9/11, when the added security meant it became more difficult travelling into stadiums with the large amounts of camera kit required to shoot major events.  “the two disciplines are very different. With the portrait shoots, I obviously have far more interaction with the subject. I’ll usually have time to prepare in advance for a shoot, being provided with an outline or thesis of the article. often, though, I’ll fly to some city not knowing what the location will look like and what’s needed and I’ll sit on the flight planning out the possibilities. That’s where the newspaper experience comes in, because if you do assignments for a newspaper, you get thrust into situations where you have to think on your feet and come up with ideas that work without much pre-planning. I obviously much prefer knowing a little about what’s needed in advance, as being able to read the story or speak with the reporter lets me add some context to my ideas for the shoot.

“Perhaps the biggest difference to action portraits over live sports is the ability to control how a subject is lit. I learned lighting techniques through a combination of studying – both at university, and on my own – I have bookshelves full of photo books – and practice. When I worked on the newspaper, I would volunteer for various studio assignments, such as one to support a story on wedding dresses, so that I could get better at lighting. It gradually developed from using a small number of flashguns to using studioflash with various types of light modifiers. My current lighting kit consists of a number of mains and battery-operated Profoto heads.  “one of the techniques I enjoy using to add the element of motion to my sports portraits is to set a slow shutter speed with flash to capture a little subject blur. The vast majority of photographers often try to use rear-curtain sync to capture the effect of movement. the problem is, if you use rear-curtain sync, you can’t control what part of the picture is stopped because you never quite know when the shutter is about to close, causing the flash to fire. To get around this problem, I’ve developed a method that allows me to use first-curtain sync. What I do is pre-focus on a spot and have the subject jump in place.  Even if they appear to be running in the image, they’re actually jumping straight up in the air. I coach them on the body position and what their legs should be doing, what facial expression to have and anything else important.  Then what I do is fire the flash at the apex of the jump and as they come up, a silhouetted blur is recorded on the bottom of their feet that makes so it look as if he is leaping.  The key advantage of this method is that I can choose exactly the moment I want the flash to fire.

“The number of heads I use really depends on the type of shoot and the location. Much of my lighting set-ups are relatively simple and use between one and three heads, but I do sometimes use four or six heads when the need arises. If you look closely, you can usually work out the number of heads used, for instance, images where the subject’s outline is highlighted are usually the result of using two back lights and one or two front lights.  “On most of my shoots, I’ll only have one assistant, and then I’m fortunate that if it’s a bigger budget job, we can hire more. Sometimes I have a digital technician and a couple of assistants, but it really depends on the budget. If it’s an editorial shoot for a magazine, then it’s one or two assistants and me, but if it is for advertising, it may well be two assistants, a digital technician and a make-up artist.

I often use Plume softboxes, which are made in Colorado, and I regularly use grids from a Canadian firm called Lighttools, which are great for limiting the direction of the light spill.  “When I used to shoot film, I was meticulous with my flash metering and used a handheld flash meter. but after a time, I got good at judging exposures without metering and would only use a flash meter to double-check. I use one now when I’m doing really critical things, like trying to balance two backlights or using a technical white background, but often when it’s outside, we will just go with what we are seeing on the camera or computer screen, which we use as a digital ‘Polaroid’.

“I use a Canon EOS-1dS MkIII for portraits and an EOS-1d MkIv for anything requiring a motordriven sequence and find their lcd monitors to be fairly accurate. I’ve an extensive set of Canon lenses, including the 16-35mm, 24-105mm, 70-200mm f/2.8 and 300mm.  If I need an extreme wide-angle then the 16-35mm is brilliant, but the 24-105mm is my main choice for portraits as it offers such a useful range.”

To see more of Robert Seale’s brilliant portraits, visit:

www.robertseale.com. To view his lighting blog, visit:

www.robertsealeblog.com

The cover. Not my photo, but in case you’re looking for the issue…

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Robert Seale shoots Eadward Muybridge homage

Trevor Bauer's pitching motion, in an Eadward Muybridge style grid.

Trevor Bauer, a pitching prodigy from UCLA, recently drafted third in the 2011 MLB draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks, is known for his unconventional pitching motion and training philosophy.  He’s been compared to another wildly successful, yet undersized pitcher: Tim Lincecum of the SF Giants, who generates torque by rotating his hips, arms and legs in a whip-like motion, allowing him to pitch as fast as some of his taller, more muscle-bound counterparts in the major leagues.

When I originally got the call to shoot Bauer for Sports Illustrated, the photo editor, Nate Gordon and I discussed shooting a stroboscopic sequence on a black background, much like the work of Life Magazine photographer Gjon Mili.   I had done this type of shot before, in fact my first cover for the Sporting News was a stroboscopic photo of Mets pitcher Pete Harnisch.

My first Sporting News cover: circa 1996.

I first learned about Mili and his work during college.  I took about 27 hours of art history classes  (is that enough for a third major?).   The most memorable one was my mentor, Dr. Michael Roach‘s “History of Photography” class.  Presented chronologically, each class featured a wonderful slide show and biographical talk about pioneering photographers.  Each day we would tackle the work of two-three new photographers, and it was really great to go out and shoot later in the day, channeling the styles you had absorbed by osmosis that morning and trying to emulate that photographer’s look in your own photographs.

It’s great to formulate and grow your own style, but I think it’s equally important to know the history of our craft, learn all those techniques, and have them in your toolbox for when you’re called upon to provide a specific look.

In addition to Mili, one of those early photographers that Dr. Roach introduced us to was the pioneering motion sequence photographer Eadward Muybridge.  Muybridge, using a series of cameras triggered in sequence, put together grids of individual photographs featuring motion studies of humans, horses, and other animals.  There’s not an animator or artist who doesn’t own a dog eared copy of Muybridge’s “The Human Figure in Motion”, first published in 1907.

Anyway, I mentioned I had also been wanting to try a Muybridge homage, and perhaps Bauer’s motion was a good chance to explore the idea.  Nate liked the idea, and after pitching it to Director of Photography Steve Fine, gave me the go ahead to put the shoot together.  One wrinkle in this was that Bauer had not yet been signed to a contract by the diamondbacks at the time of our shoot.  That meant that we had to literally scour the country to piece together a Diamondbacks uniform from several different vendors for him on short notice.

Bauer’s pitching coach Ron Wolforth, helped us find a nearby high school gym to set up the sets for both shots.  Assistant Nathan Lindstrom morphed into a master set builder for this one, designing and erecting a huge plywood wall, that we painted a neutral gray.  We used white tape for the larger grids and chalk pencils for the smaller lines between the grids, and set up the wall in the gym.

Next to that, we erected essentially a cube of black 20 x 20 overheads.  For the Mili shot, it was important that Bauer be rim lit from behind in a pitch black environment.  We used two Plume Wafer 100’s with Lighttools grids to accomplish this, and then added a third light to put a little more light on Bauer’s profile.

For the Muybridge shot, we took off the grids, and lit the set essentially from the front with the lights at 45 degree angles to the wall.  Muybridge’s shots were lit with sunlight, and there were often imperfections and shadows on the walls of his photos, so we didn’t want to make the lighting too slick or neat.  We were going for authenticity.  Both setups were lit with Profoto 8A‘s.

The Bauer pitching sequence shot in our black 20 x 20 "cube."

We monitored the shoot with a tethered Mac laptop, so we could keep track of sequences and make sure we had all the different body positions needed to put together the Muybridge grid.  With stroboscopic photos of a baseball pitch, you can’t fire the strobe more than 3-4 times, or the picture turns into a big busy mess.  for this reason, we actually shot the photo as a stroboscopic sequence, and also separately with individual photos, which could then be pieced together into a panoramic sequence by a retoucher.

Although the Muybridge homage photo ran in color in the magazine, I actually prefer it in sepia tone, which I think better evokes the mood of his pioneering work in photography.

http://vimeo.com/26410832

(Assistants Nathan Lindstrom and Todd Spoth really busted their tails on this, and Todd put together a great Go-Pro time lapse of the shoot.)

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Joel Osteen Portraits for USA Weekend

Osteen, lit from overhead with a Wafer Hexoval 140.

I recently photographed Joel Osteen, a popular televangelist and the pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas for the cover of USA Weekend. Lakewood Church is the largest congregation in the country, with over 43,000 worshippers attending every week. Osteen also writes books, including his New York Times Bestseller, Your Best Life Now.

Joel’s wife, Victoria, is a co-pastor of the church. I photographed her previously for a health magazine cover story. I met Joel briefly during that shoot, when I asked them to join their kids on a trampoline at their home. They were really great sports. Both are both super nice people and great photographic subjects.

Lakewood renovated the 16,000 seat Compaq Center, the Houston Rockets former arena (known earlier as The Summit), and holds several church services there each week.

The cover shot.

As part of the assignment, I was also assigned to shoot an actual church service at Lakewood, and this made for a great scouting trip. It was great being able to witness the service, watch Joel and Victoria’s mannerisms, and study the lighting looks and locations available in the building for our portrait shoot later that week.

For the cover shot, we scouted an area in the church with a plain, warm wall (no need for a seamless this time), and set up one background light to create a gradient “glow” behind Osteen. We then lit him with two lights set up in a corner lighting pattern.  Our warm background was changed to a bright purple in post (the story was running Easter weekend…).  Before we finished,  I turned off half of the corner setup and just used a boom light over his head.  It made a dramatic photo that turned out to be my favorite frame from the shoot.

Though I knew it might not be simple enough for the cover, I knew it was important to try to capture the size of the church in some of the photos. We set up another very simple setup on the stage inside the auditorium of the church: a Plume Wafer 100 with a 30 degree Lighttools grid. I had the lighting guys from the church bring up the lights over the audience and turn on a follow spot for us, high in the catwalks. At first the spots weren’t showing well, so we asked the lighting director to fog the room for about an hour before the shoot, so that the smoky haze would make the spotlight beams show up in the background.

The stage setup, photographed with one Wafer 100 with a 30 degree grid.

It was interesting to be in the building again where I photographed so many Rockets games, including both their championship runs in 94 and 95. I spent many an hour hanging remote cameras and strobe packs on those same catwalks we were now using to light up a portrait of a preacher.

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“Fly like a butterfly…”

Ernest H. Cockrell with a glass butterfly display in the foreground.

As a corporate photographer, I’m called upon to do executive portraits of  CEO’s and local business leaders.  Ernest H. Cockrell is a longtime Texas energy business executive  who is also very well known in his hometown of Houston for his philanthropy.  Over the years he’s given millions of dollars to a number of causes, notably the University of Texas (his alma mater), and the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Most Houstonians recognize the Cockrell name from the namesake Cockrell Buterfly Center, a giant glass annex to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, built several years ago containing a tropical butterfly habitat, rain forest, a 50 foot tall waterfall, and thousands of butterflies.   After receiving a commision to photograph Mr. Cockrell for the University of Texas, I decided that this would be the perfect location for his portrait.

He had very little time on this particular day, and one of the things I’m very proud of, is being able to create several different scenarios in the same location without making the subject wait around on us to move lights and change our setup.

Although I fully planned on shooting him in the rain forest habitat, hoping to get a few butterflies in the picture, I quickly found another area in the children’s educational center of the museum, adjacent to the rain forest that offered some interesting but challenging visual possibilities.

We had a very limited amount of time (about 15 minutes), so I chose an area where we could get several shots in one location.  A large wooden display inside the educational area contained  2 large vertical pieces of glass which contained a static display of  butterflies who had generously donated their bodies to science.  The space was tight, with interactive displays for kids, a weird corner wall behind the display, and built in stools for children everywhere.  I thought that we might be able to light the butterflies, and shoot through the glass, placing our subject’s face on the other side of the glass wall.

After tinkering with the lighting and composition, we decided to backlight the butterflies from each side behind the glass, and we maneuvered a Plume Wafer 75 with a Lighttools 30 degree grid into place outside of the visible frame as the subject main light to reduce spill onto the glass.  We used grids on the two backlights (a 20 and 30 degree, as I recall), and the left backlight conveniently served as a hair-light for Mr. Cockrell.  Rosco cinefoil was used to gobo the backlights and prevent flare.  The background was a corner wall, and was very close, so my assistant, Nathan Lindstrom was put in charge of holding a 6 x 6 black felt Scrim Jim in place behind our subject to give us a nice black background behind the multi-colored butterflies.

The space between the glass panes was quite wide, and reflections around the butterflies were an issue, so much so, that I toyed with retouching reflections in post.  I finally settled on leaving the photograph as it was originally shot, after deciding that the reflections actually added a feeling of motion to the picture – almost as if we had used a slow flash sync with actual moving butterflies. (“Yeah….I meant to do that….”)

The second shot with the butterfly shadows on the wall.

The second picture was created by utilizing a small section of our cramped corner wall.  We set up another light with a snoot to narrow the flash to a very small beam, and placed it about 20 feet away from the glass, at a slight angle to the wall.  This created a pattern of distorted butterfly shadows on the background.  We turned off our background lights from the last picture, and removed the black Scrim Jim from the set.

We had Mr. Cockrell step about 2 feet to the side to get him away from the snoot spotlight which was creating our background, and we moved his Wafer 75 main light over a few feet to keep him (but not the background) lit correctly with the small softbox.  I then moved about 90 degrees and shot towards the wall, creating the shadow picture.  We did all this in about 10 minutes, utilizing our remaining 5 minutes just outside the nearby doors in the rain forest habitat where a third setup with a Profoto 7B was waiting.

Photographing baseball legend Nolan Ryan

Rangers President Nolan Ryan in Arlington.

For almost 11 years, I shot lots of baseball.  As one of three photographers at The Sporting News (the nation’s oldest national sports magazine, founded in 1886), I was lucky to be among the few photojournalists to attend and cover the World Series each and every year.

As a freelancer, I don’t get the opportunity to shoot baseball games much anymore, although I still shoot a lot of sports portraits.  I thought I would use the Texas Rangers first ever appearance in the Fall Classic to show off some portraits I did earlier this year of one of my favorite sports icons.

Nolan Ryan is now the President of the Texas Rangers, the last team for whom he pitched before his retirement in 1993 after a stunning 27 seasons in the major leagues.  In addition to his 6th and 7th no-hitters,  Ryan had another famous moment as a Texas Ranger.  In 1993, just before his retirement, Robin Ventura charged the mound on Ryan, who was easily old enough to be his father.  Ryan made quick work of Ventura, putting him into a steer-hold with his left arm and pummeling him with his right.  Two of my sports photography colleagues, Linda Kaye, and Brad Loper, got great photos of the altercation.  I’m not sure why, but I loved that moment:  it was awesome to see an old scrappy Texas cowboy holding his own against a young punk.  For better or worse, this forever tainted my view of Ventura, and solidified what I already knew:  Nolan Ryan is a badass.

As a kid growing up near Houston, I occasionally had the opportunity to attend games at the Astrodome.   Ryan’s pitching prowess was the main attraction on those teams in the early 80’s, although, I must admit I was probably equally impressed with the Astros massive Lite-brite scoreboard (hey, I was a kid…).  One of my early baseball memories was of sneaking out of class and hiding out in the band hall to watch Ryan pitch in the 1986 NLCS with my high school band director, who was a big Astros fan.

Earlier this season, I shot a group portrait of Ryan, Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux, and the Rangers pitching staff for Sports Illustrated.  The highlight for me, was taking a quick opportunity after the shoot to take a few frames of Ryan alone.  I photographed him with a long lens, looking down the row of archways at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.  We hid a Profoto 7b behind one of the archways  with a Plume Wafer 75 equipped with a Lighttools 30-degree grid (to contain the light on Ryan’s face and upper body without too much spillage on the scene).  Although I don’t use gels much anymore, we also used the old tungsten film trick here, setting the EOS1Ds Mark III to tungsten to add a Rangers blue cast to the scene, and then adding  a 1 1/4 CTO gel to the strobe to filter Ryan’s face back to warmish daylight.  At the end of the session, I asked Nolan to show me his famous fastball grip.

Best of luck to Ryan and his Rangers in the upcoming Series.

Nolan's fastball grip: The hand that struck out 5714.

All Hands on Deck: Photographing a kayak in motion

The final image of Brad Pennington speeding through the water.

Recently, I worked  with champion marathon kayaker Brad Pennington.  I’ve shot many athletes in my career……and many are absolute tops in their respective sports, but you have to be completely blown away by a 43-year-old guy who set a course record in the Yukon River Quest by paddling (yes, paddling) his super skinny racing kayak 460 miles in 44 hours, 14 minutes.

Most people think kayaking is all about having giant shoulders and arms, but in fact, it engages the core muscles more than most people would realize.  If you sat in Brad’s boat, you would turn over almost immediately and fall into the water.  My assistant, Nathan Lindstrom, a very agile and athletic guy, who rock climbs regularly,  had a pretty hard time keeping the boat upright, and he ended up in the drink.  Brad offered me a chance to sit in the tippy vessel as well, but I politely declined.

I planned on photographing him paddling towards the camera, in motion, with a slow shutter speed capturing some movement in the background.  I had done a similar picture with a bicyclist at a velodrome before, with the camera attached to the bicycle: rider frozen with strobe, but with the background completely blurred in motion.

Our first attempt. (Photo by Todd Spoth)

I talked to Brad about mounting a camera on his kayak, with a wide angle pointed back at him.  I made arrangements to rent an SPL surf housing and a Canon 5D MkII for the shot (we decided that a Canon EOS1DsMarkIII would be too heavy and unstable.  Assistants Todd Spoth and Nathan Lindstrom drilled a hole in one of Brad’s older kayaks, and we then mounted a small ballhead to the bow and attached the housing/camera.

We set up our lighting equipment on another boat (a party barge, with a large flat deck), and had Brad follow us, slightly off to one side.  although the lighting worked great, and the Pocketwizard Multimax triggered everything perfectly (inside the housing), what we found was, that the top of the kayak was just too thin to support everything in a stable manner.  The thin hull, although mounted securely to the ballhead, still allowed the mounted camera and housing to buckle like a plastic bottle, allowing the camera to flop back and forth.  Brad makes constant adjustments, using his balance (and core muscles) to keep the kayak upright.  With a slow shutter speed, this resulted in a lot of undesirable side-to-side motion blur, rather than the linear motion blur we were hoping for.  There were some good frames, but again, it was not the picture I had originally envisioned.  While I had the housing, I tried some other “waterline” shots with Brad and his kayak.

Waterline shot of Brad Pennington taken with an SPL surf housing.

It was clear that we needed to somehow have the kayak and camera on the same platform, moving at the same speed through the water.

I decided to reshoot on another day.  In the interim, we explored building a camera rig for the kayak, almost like a Hollywood style car shot, but eventually we settled on strapping the kayak to the barge using nylon webbing and rubber pads to provide friction and to protect the hull.

After trying in vain to secure Brad’s kayak to the barge (there was no way to do it without scratching or otherwise damaging the kayak), we finally realized that we could essentially tow him through the water with very little effort.  Because there were no eyelets or holes to tie a line to, Nathan laid down on the stern of the barge and held on to Brad’s kayak as we towed him through the water.   Brad paddled some, but mostly to keep himself balanced and upright, as Nathan held the bow in place, between the pontoons of the barge.  As strange and low tech as this sounds, it worked quite well.

Torn from one of Leonardo’s notebooks, obviously.

Our light source, a Profoto 7B, with a Plume Wafer 100, was mounted on the deck of the barge, off to the side opposite the kayak.   We tried out a new product from Lighttools, the company that makes Soft Egg Crate fabric grids for softboxes.  We used a 30 degree grid in the Wafer 100, to limit spill and concentrate most of the light on Brad instead of the kayak and water……not an unusual setup, but this time, we added a Lighttools Stretch Frame.  The Stretch Frame, consists of collapsible poles covered in velcro, which mount inside the softbox, providing a rigid frame for the grid.  This eliminates sag, and keeps the openings in the grid fully stretched open, which was critical on a moving, windy boat deck.  I was skeptical when I first heard about these, but they actually work really well, and are now a permanent part of my lighting kit.

I mounted my camera to the railing of the barge with a Bogen superclamp and ballhead, directly over Nathan’s head, but eventually switched to a handheld shot so that I could manually keep Brad’s head in the center of the frame while we were moving.  although I normally wouldn’t have done this, I zoomed the 16-35mm lens ever so slightly to accentuate the motion of Brad coming toward the camera.

The lesson here:  Despite the best laid plans, renting expensive equipment, hiring extra assistants, etc…..sometimes the simplest solution is the right solution.

Portrait of Brad, taken with a Plume Hexoval 180, (rimlight courtesy of the Sun).

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