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Sports and Fitness Photography with Carmen Morgan for Renew Houston

Fitness trainer Carmen Morgan, lit with a Profoto B-4 with a Plume Wafer 100 and a Lighttools grid.

Although we've been doing more commercial photography for the last decade or so, I've spent over 20 years doing sports photography – particularly sports portraits for magazines like The Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.  I also used to do all the covers for the Houston Chronicle's Health Magazine, but unfortunately, it went away a few years ago.

I was thrilled when I recently got the call from my friend, Features Managing Editor Melissa Aguilar to shoot for a new fitness product for the Chronicle titled “Renew Houston.”  The new section would be a reboot of the Health Mag, but as a broadsheet section with fitness and health tips.

Our first subject was the stunningly beautiful and fabulously fit  Carmen Morgan, a local certified fitness trainer with a ridiculous Instagram following of 620 THOUSAND followers. (@mytrainer carmen)  She also has her own iPhone app available in the App Store.

I'm really into concrete backgrounds lately, so rather than shooting Carmen in a gym or crossfit studio, we decided to work with some superb concrete architecture generously provided by the Cindy Lisica gallery.  Although we supplemented some of the photos with a Profoto B-4 strobe and Plume soft boxes, we shot many of the photos in the incredibly soft natural light tunnel at the gallery.

We sent Carmen through her paces in a couple of different outfits, all while Chronicle writer Joy Sewing interviewed Carmen about the keys to her success.  It was a great shoot with great people.  Hoping to hear more great things from Carmen in the future!

Carmen in her “Super Hero” outfit. Lit with a Plume Wafer 75 and a 30 degree Lighttools grid.

Carmen, lit with pure super soft natural light with my favorite concrete background.

Another available light portrait against the concrete – taken with a Canon 50mm/1.2 lens.

Houston Sports Photographer Robert Seale now in the Museum of Fine Arts Houston permanent collection

Nolan Ryan's fastball grip, Arlington, Texas, April 28, 2010.  © 2010 Robert Seale.

Each year, the Houston Center for Photography holds an extensive charity auction to benefit HCP and their various educational programs.  I was honored to be asked to donate a print to the auction, and even more honored to see it in the auction catalog alongside some of my heroes like Keith Carter, Herb Ritts, and Maggie Steber.  My print was purchased by Lisa Volpe, the Associate Curator, Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts and is now part of the museum's permanent collection.

The auction encompasses several individual events, including an exhibition, a tour of the exhibition with the fantastic former MFAH curator Anne Wilkes Tucker and Clint Willour, Curator Emeritus of the Galveston Arts Center and a major donor to the MFAH.  The auction culminates in a dinner/live auction at the Briar Club in Houston.

The print I donated was a simple black and white closeup of Nolan Ryan's fastball grip on a baseball.  It was taken during a 2010 session for Sports Illustrated….the actual assignment was to shoot Ryan with a group of young pitchers, but of course I wanted to maximize my time with him, so I also arranged an individual portrait of Nolan, and also the closeup of his hand, an obvious homage to the work of Charles Conlon.

Prior to Sports Illustrated, I worked at The Sporting News (known for many years as the “Bible of Baseball”) for over a decade, so I was aware of the work of pioneering baseball photographer Conlon (his photographs and negatives were part of the TSN archive when I worked there).

I had pitched (lol) a story on shooting closeups of the signature pitch grip of an array of Hall of Fame pitchers, but the story never took hold.  It was probably not a super original idea, but I thought it would have been interesting.  Portrait on one side of the layout – closeup of the pitch grip on the other side.   On this particular day, I was there for the pitching group photo, but story assignment or not, it seemed silly not to take advantage of the opportunity to document the closeup photo, since I had an audience with Ryan.  Years later, long after my tenure at TSN was over, I think another sports magazine finally published a story featuring the closeups of various pitchers grips, but not quite the way I envisioned it.

Anyway, it was exciting to watch the auction happen in real time, with curator Lisa Volpe and Clint Willour pairing up to win the auction and donate the print to the MFAH.  I am told it's the only piece they purchased at the auction this year.  I'm incredibly honored, and I hope to someday donate another photo worthy enough for the museum.

Here's a blog post from the original shoot in 2010.

 

The Definitive Guide to Starting a Successful Photography Business

Glamorous job? Not always…most of my days are spent sitting in front of a computer, not out on location shooting photos.

(UPDATED 12/19/2018 – originally published March 31, 2014)

I get a call almost every week from various photographers who are interested in starting a successful photography business.  Many are old photojournalism colleagues leaving their newspaper staff jobs (sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not…), some are college students nearing graduation, others are assistants who are ready to strike out on their own, and sometimes, they are advanced amateurs in other careers who I’ve met at a workshop.  All of them want the same thing….”I 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 speak to 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, a professional musician, or a priest… LOTS of people want to do this, and only a handful with total commitment 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.

Sorry to be negative, but I want to prepare you for the reality of working in this business, and I don't want to sugar-coat what the day-to-day routine is actually like.

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 6K a piece), a 400/2.8 (12K), a 300/2.8 (6K), all three zooms , 16-35/2.8, 24-70/2.8, and 70-200/2.8 (roughly 6K), and a new Mac laptop (3.5K).  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 40,000 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 40K 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 40K 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 photography business:

  1. You need great, original pictures with a consistent vision
  2. You need some serious money, as it is very expensive to start a photography business
  3. You need a healthy knowledge about LICENSING PHOTOGRAPHS and how to successfully 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.  This is particularly important with new post 2018 tax rules.

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.  I use Rob Haggart's excellent APhotoFolio platform, but there are other excellent choices including Photoshelter and Sitewelder, or just having someone build you  custom solution.

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 (AND PARTICIPATE IN) PHOTO PROFESSIONAL ORGANIZATIONS– My belief is that you should support as many of these organizations as you can afford.  They all help with lobbying efforts off photographic industry issues like copyright legislation.   They all have valuable education programs and resources.  They all have “Find a Photographer” type listings for members.  All have discounts for members.    You owe it to yourself and your colleagues to join and support our industry.

American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP):  Primarily for commercial corporate, advertising, and editorial photographers.

American Photographic Artists (APA):  Geared more toward high end commercial Advertising photographers.

Professional Photographers of America (PPA): A huge organization geared toward retail and wedding photographers.

National Press Photographers Association (NPPA): The organization for working photojournalists, both newspaper and magazine staff and freelance photographers, as well as broadcast television photojournalists.

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, or APA, go to seminars, read PDN, read the pricing and negotiating blog from APhotoEditor, study online resources for estimating jobs and writing licenses, learn about contracts, talk to colleagues, attend a photo business workshop.  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 Fotobiz, but some people get by with Quickbooks.  Others use custom Filemaker or Excel solutions.  I can no longer recommend BlinkBid due to lack of customer service support.

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.  C.O.D.B. ISN'T EVERYTHING – Many other photo business resources will mention that you should know your CODB (Cost Of Doing Business).  There is even a calculator available from the NPPA to add up your monthly list of overhead expenses:  mobile phone bill, studio rent, insurance costs, fuel, advertising/promotion, website costs, internet, etc.   In some circles, we call this OVERHEAD.  This is great information to have because it is a great reminder not to leave your home or studio for a job that pays less than your daily CODB number.  HOWEVER, it's not everything.  Run your business purely based on your CODB plus your desired profit, and you could be seriously leaving money on the table.  You have to have an understanding of your market, the usage and value of your photos, and know what the market will bear for a given assignment in your market.  Don't be the lowballer in town because you met your CODB plus a modest 1000.00 profit on a given assignment, when it could be the case that a given job routinely pays 10's of thousands for a particular usage.

21.  NETWORK WITH OTHER PHOTOGRAPHERS IN YOUR MARKET  – Don’t operate in a vacuum.  This is where the ASMP or APA 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.

IN SUMMARY:  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 (including reading the books I've outlined here), and put these steps into place, you'll be in a good position for your business to succeed.

Panoramic Portrait Photography for ExxonMobil Annual Report

Cover of the ExxonMobil Summary Annual Report.

I've been really fortunate to work with ExxonMobil on their annual report photography and other corporate photography for the last ten years or so.  It's a great gig, and I've been able to document photographs of people and assets for their shareholders all over the world.   I'm particularly proud of the work we did on this year's version.

Cover of the ExxonMobil Financial and Operating Review.

Over that time, the books have been fairly consistent, with a vertical format layout, and often featuring traditional spreads of sprawling petrochemical complexes at dusk or at night.  Although there's always been quite a few people photos as well, this year was quite a departure in that the focus was completely on employee portraits.  The marching orders were to create panoramic portraits of employees utilizing technology in their work environment.  We've all seen the typical oil and gas photography, and it was fun to take it in a different direction and focus on the super smart people that make the company work.

Some spreads from the ExxonMobil Annual Report.

The format of the book was horizontal this time, to maximize the effect of the panoramic photos over a full two page horizontal format spread.  The layouts were also adorned with quotes from the employees and helpful stats about the company.  In the end, they used a mix of traditional environmental portraits, and some reportage working shots.

During our travels, we created most of the photographs with the 50 megapixel Canon EOS 5DS, and in several instances, we composited several frames to create the panos.  We carried Profoto lighting, using the B-2 and the B-4 extensively.  We also used some LED light panels on some of the photos.  The cover shots and spreads I photographed were taken at sites in Texas, New Mexico, Louisiana, Belgium, and Angola.

It was a break from the usual approach honed over many years, and was both a challenge and an honor to work on.  I ended up with both covers (Both the Summary Annual Report, and the F&O), and a number of spreads.  Hoping to do some more great content for them in the future.

(Ed. note:  although it says “2017 Annual Report”, it is actually released around May of the following year (2018) with figures from 2017, so it's really not as old as it looks…).

More examples of our panoramic portraiture below: 

 

Creating a football concussion Photo Illustration

I was commissioned recently to create an  photo illustration for Houston Methodist Hospital Foundation’s Annual Report  Photography for a story on concussions in high school football players.  This is a big issue not just for the NFL, but also in youth sports.

I think that originally we were just going to shoot a simple portrait of a young athlete in football gear, but after giving some thought to the issue, the art director and I collaborated on a few other more illustrative ideas.

A few years ago, I had photographed Matt Schaub, the Houston Texans quarterback at the time for Methodist's Leading Medicine publication.   We did a couple of different versions:  one was using a projected background created by a computer and an LCD projector of MRI brain scan imagery and another photo showing medical illustrations of nerve synapses in the brain.

I thought we might appropriate the brain projection idea, but add some other elements to it: a silhouette of a generic kid in a football helmet this time to keep the illustration anonymous; and a multiple exposure strobe effect to look like a violently shaking head.  Our art director helped us in researching a suitable stock photo of the brain that we could use in the projector.

After doing some testing in the studio (do we need a white helmet or black helmet, for instance?), and ordering some props (youth sized football helmet, jersey, and shoulder pads) we booked a young male model for the shoot.

(If we were truly going to be literal here, the concept probably should have been a brain bouncing around with multiple exposures/blur INSIDE a sharper helmet image, but I quickly decided that would have just been a blurry mess and would not have been as easy of a read as the brain inside a shaking helmet.)

This is an early shot, showing the strobe on the background (gelled orange), the projected image on the helmet foreground, but without the multiple exposure/multiple strobe on the background effect.

The key was to tripod the camera for the “brain exposure”, keeping it absolutely still for this exposure provided by the projector, and then with the shutter open, firing multiple strobe bursts (with strobe lighting the background seamless only) with the model's head in slightly different positions to show the silhouetted helmet with movement.  Although I liked the randomness of the head movement in each photo, we finally settled on zooming the lens smoothly and evenly to create the multiple strobe head images.

The intention was to do this just like the film days, creating the entire photo in camera, and we were successful with this for the most part.  Some of the images admittedly had some “unintended brain movement” from the long exposure of the projector (I think it was around 1/4 to 1/8 of a second), so we ended up retouching a couple of the selections with a “sharper brain” from another exposure.

Changing the color of the gel on the background strobe created some cool multi-colored silhouettes during multiple pops of the flash. I think it's especially interesting where the colors cross over and mix. Not a new idea, but fun to try nevertheless!

We used a Canon 5DS, and tried it with two different methods:  leaving the shutter open and firing the Profoto strobe manually, and also with the multiple exposure feature engaged.  We also tried two different methods to create head movement:  having the model shake his head around during the multiple exposures; and also leaving the model still and zooming the lens during multiple exposures.

We even tried this with different gels on the background strobe, but in the end my favorite was a monochromatic look with just the brain projection in color.

Another example with different gels and changing the color balance.

I prefer this monochrome version with lots of exposures created by zooming the lens.

Guideposts cover shoot with Boston Marathon bombing survivor Rebekah Gregory

Rebekah Gregory, who was injured in the 2013 Boston Marathon explosion

I recently had an inspiring shoot with Boston Marathon bombing survivor Rebekah Gregory for Guideposts Magazine.

Gregory, then just 26, and her five year old son Noah were spectators standing only 3 feet away from the bombs near the finish line when the explosions went off on April 15, 2013 at the Boston Marathon.  Her legs absorbed a lot of the bomb’s impact and shielded her son, likely saving his life.

Gregory and her son were both injured, and spent time apart in two different hospitals.  After months of trying to rehabilitate and rebuild function in her injured leg, and scores of surgeries, she made the brave decision to amputate, and hasn’t looked back since.

A single mom at the time of the bombing, she’s since gotten married and had another child.  She recently wrote a book, “Taking my Life Back: My Story of Faith, Determination, and Surviving the Boston Marathon Bombing,” with co author Anthony Flacco.

Rebekah Gregory, who was injured in the 2013 Boston Marathon explosion, photographed with her family at her home in Texas.

We photographed her at her home, and part of the mandate for the Guideposts cover was a powerful portrait of her on white seamless.  Luckily, her home featured a garage with a giant ceiling, so we set up our “studio” in there.   We used a Plume Wafer Hexoval 140 boomed into the center, directly over the camera for the white background stuff. We used three Profoto B-4 battery powered lights as our light source (and we later added an Acute 600 Air also).   My good friend Misty Rockwell did a great job with makeup.

We did some “happy” smiling photos, but I really wanted her to look resilient, and was more drawn to those tough and strong poses.   Although it didn't make the cut, we created some really strong tight portraits with a classic fashion cover lighting setup of Rebekah in a cool gray workout fleece, and used a small, lower light source below the camera as well as the Hexoval over the camera to really make the eyes pop.

Rebekah Gregory, with her son Noah, who were both  injured in the 2013 Boston Marathon explosion.

We also made some environmental portraits of her with her son in the driveway, and a family photo in the back with her husband and new baby, but my favorite shot might be her son hugging her on the white seamless, both of them with their eyes closed.

Rebekah is a class act who is using her platform as a survivor of this horrific event to promote and encourage others.   You can’t spend time with her and not leave inspired to do better in your own life.

Rebekah Gregory, who was injured in the 2013 Boston Marathon explosion, photographed at her home in Texas.

Rebekah Gregory, with her son Noah who were both injured in the 2013 Boston Marathon explosion, at their home in Texas.

Robert Seale speaking at Asian American Journalists Association convention

I'll be speaking at the 2018 Asian American Journalists Association annual convention at the Marriott Marquis, 1777 Walker St, Houston, Texas, Room 2734.

In addition to the regularly scheduled lineup of writers, editors and TV correspondents, longtime AAJA member Darrell Miho has organized an additional educational curriculum for still photographers over the three day convention.  I'll be doing a lighting talk from 11:00-12:30 Friday, August 10th.

Here's the list of speakers and subjects for the still photo program:

Thursday, August 9

11:00am Lisa Krantz, San Antonio Express-News:   Photo Stories

4:00pm Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Minneapolis Star Tribune:    Images from the Rohingya Crisis

Friday, August 10

9:00am Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle :  Baseball and sports photography

11:00am Robert Seale, Houston Commercial photographer:   Lighting for Impact

2:00pm Laura Elizabeth Pohl, freelance photographer:A Long Separation. Families Divided by the Korean War

Saturday, August 11

3:00pm Chang W. Lee, New York Times:2018 Winter Olympics and Paralympics

4:30pm Portfolio Reviews/Photo Critiques

The Photo Hangouts are FREE to all AAJA18 attendees! If you're not attending the convention and interested in just attending the Photo Hangouts please call or text Darrell Miho at 626.975.6349 or email us at aajaphoto@gmail.com

Trade magazine covers for CDW

A recent cover of BizTech from a DNA testing lab.

Like most commercial photographers, we do a lot of work that is not necessarily viewable by the general public.  Even though the work might be viewed by thousands of people, it's not something you might see on a billboard or on the magazine rack at Barnes and Noble.  This B2B corporate photography work can take many forms: a multimedia presentation within a corporation, an annual report to a corporation's shareholders, a sales brochure, or in some cases a specifically targeted magazine with a carefully chosen audience.  These are called “trade magazines” in the photography business, and they often lead to fun and interesting assignments.

CDW has been producing a group of these magazines for quite some time, and I've been fortunate to shoot for them quite a bit.  Their technology solutions business is targeted to education, business, government, and healthcare customers, so they have a magazine for each industry titled (logically enough) EdTech, BizTech, StateTech, and HealthTech.

Over the years, I've been able to create cool environmental portraits of doctors, cops, and business executives.  I wanted to share a couple of covers from some recent issues of the magazines.

For BizTech, we photographed a high tech DNA testing facility.  The place was just as you would expect, a slightly mundane lab with lots of test tube vials being sorted by techs in lab coats, but with few good photo opportunities, as most of the techs were working at tables facing a wall.   Ugh!  I became fascinated by a large machine on one end of the lab…..it was a big blocky thing, but had a window looking through to either side.  Inside were vials in banks on both sides, and in the center was a little robot arm, doing it's thing – retrieving vials according to an automated program and moving them to be tested.  I decided it would make a cool photo if we could get some light inside, but it proved fairly difficult.  We ended up placing the subject on one side of the machine, booming a small strip bank above the machine, and then cross lighting the vials from each side in VERY tight quarters (with a slight green gel added), which also outlined the subject from behind.  It was really tricky, since I was shooting through a window on the other side and trying to avoid window fog and condensation on the glass.

For the StateTech cover, we photographed local constable Alan Rosen for a story on body cameras.  (It just so happened that our PR guy for the job was a former colleague, the famous Houston Chronicle political writer and generally great guy Alan Bernstein!)  We picked an abandoned building with lots of character not far from my studio in downtown Houston and shot several setups with Rosen and a group of his deputies all showcasing their new body cameras.  Most of the shots were horizontals and intended for an inside spread, but towards the end of the shoot, I remembered one of my old editor's mantras:  “No matter what you're doing, no matter what the assignment is, ALWAYS GET A HEADSHOT!”  That voice haunts me some days, but it's really good advice.  Your assignment might be to shoot a panoramic cityscape with an architect in the foreground, or an athlete in his home, or whatever – but remember that you'll be the designer's best friend if you give them a tight portrait they can run on page 3 or 4 of an article, or on a table of contents page, or in this case, if the story budget changes and your story ends up on the cover!

A recent cover of Constable Alan Rosen for StateTech.

Robert Seale featured in new ASMP collateral

One of the new ASMP postcards (Photo by Robert Seale)

This is definitely one of those Wayne and Garth “I'm not worthy…” moments,  The American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) have featured me, Houston commercial photographer Robert Seale, in their new collateral pieces (brochures and postcards).  Wow!

The American Society of Media Photographers is the premier trade association for the world’s most respected photographers. ASMP is the leader in promoting photographers’ rights, providing education in better business practices, producing business publications for photographers, and helping to connect clients with professional photographers. ASMP, founded in 1944, has nearly 7,000 members and 39 chapters.  ASMP's “Find a Photographer” feature on the national ASMP website is a wonderful tool for connecting photo editors and art buyers with photographers in a given area.  Despite the word “media” in the title ASMP is not a press photographers organization.  ASMP members are typically commercial photographers who work in advertising photography, corporate photography, as well as those who shoot for magazines.

“I'm not worthy!….” – sandwiched in with some big names inside the new ASMP brochure (cover photography by the great Stephen Wilkes)

These pieces are distributed by mail and also as handouts at professional photography seminars, workshops, and events as recruiting tools.  I'm humbled and honored to featured alongside some of the most notable photographers in our profession past and present, including many virtual mentors who continue to inspire my work today, like Richard Avedon, Dan Winters, Arnold Newman, Mark Seliger, Herb Ritts, Albert Watson, Joe McNally, Pete Turner, Jay Maisel, Gregory Heisler, Walter Iooss, and a host of others.

An inside spread in the brochure (photo by Robert Seale)

Major thanks to our executive director Tom Kennedy, a former Director of Photography at National Geographic, and a major force in the photo world, who continues to represent our organization and who leads the fight for working photographers every day.

Chuck Norris put me in a headlock!

Actor and martial artist Chuck Norris on the family's Lone Wolf Ranch in Navasota, Texas.

When the Boogeyman goes to sleep at night, he checks his closet for Chuck Norris.

There is no theory of evolution. Just a list of animals Chuck Norris allows to live.

Chuck Norris has counted to infinity – twice.

There is no chin behind Chuck Norris' beard.  There is only another fist.

I've loved reading these “Chuck Norris Facts” for years.  It was pretty awesome when we actually got to meet the man in person recently when we photographed Norris and his lovely wife Gena for Houstonia magazine.

Actor and martial artist Chuck Norris and his wife, Gena Norris, have developed a new private-label bottled water manufacturing company called CForce Bottling Company on the family's Lone Wolf Ranch in Navasota, Texas.

Part of the hook for the story was that Gena had recently fired up a full blown water bottling plant on their giant ranch property near Navasota to bottle water from the natural aquifer they found on their property.  The plant is a state of the art facility and there is a charity component to their H2O endeavor.  You can read more about it in the Houstonia story here.

Since we were there in sort of the middle of the afternoon on a sunlit partly cloudy day, we needed a big light and lots of power for the outdoor shots.  We used a Profoto B-4 and a Plume Hexoval 180 for most of the outdoor shots.

Although we shot the bottling plant and did lots of still life shots of water bottles, the highlight for me was getting to make a cool environmental portrait of the former Walker Texas Ranger star and Gena on his awesome Texas ranch.  We also shot in their horse stables, which had amazing light.  Gena was a professional model, and the two of them together have a lifetime of experience in front of the camera and were just wonderful subjects to photograph.  I don't think I've ever dealt with two nicer, more accommodating people.

Actor and martial artist Chuck Norris in beautiful natural light in the horse stables on his Texas ranch.

Actor and martial artist Chuck Norris in the horse stables at his Texas ranch.

I couldn't resist taking a romantic silhouette of Chuck Norris and his wife, Gena in the horse stable.

As we were loading the gear back into our vehicle, he came back out of the house and gave everyone in the crew a paperback copy of a Chuck Norris Facts book.  I think he gets a big kick out of the cult hero status from all these “facts.”

Before we departed, Norris was telling us a story about going to Iraq to visit troops there.  He was standing at the front of a long line of soldiers eager to meet him, shaking hands, posing for photos, signing autographs and such.  When one of the soldiers (who was a particularly big strong guy) got to the front for his turn, the conversation went like this:

Soldier:  “Ok, kick me in the chest!”

Chuck: “I'm not going to kick you in the chest…”

Soldier:  “No, really, I want you to roundhouse kick me in the chest!”

Chuck:  “Come on, I'm not going to kick you in the chest.”

The soldier wouldn't let up, and was just dying to go back to the barracks and tell all his buddies that he survived a Chuck Norris roundhouse kick to the chest…..the line was starting to grumble from the delay.

Finally, Norris quickly grabbed the soldier, and in one quick motion the (at the time) 70 year old martial arts veteran spun him around backwards and put him in a choke hold and dropped the big guy to the floor like a sack of potatoes.

At this point all the other military guys standing in the autograph line, full grown men trained in combat, were yelling like little kids, “Put me in a choke hold too!  Put me in a choke hold too!”

Of course….after hearing this story, what do you think I did?

“Put me in a choke hold!  Put me in a choke hold!”

Here's the layout of the article by (then) Houstonia art director Tanyia Johnson. She has an excellent eye for design, and I'm forever in her debt for sending me on such a cool assignment!