From the Back of the Pews: US Secretary of Labor Inspires

From the Back of the Pews: US Secretary of Labor Inspires

Author Robert McClory writes about the sole Catholic high-school open to Black students in the segregated south of Alabama and Mississippi during the 1940’s through the 60’s. From the Back of the Pews to the Head of the Class highlights through research and extensive interviews, how the Most Pure Heart of Mary High School worked to enable and empower all of their students even with their limited resources and while working against the laws that would keep the community divided along racial lines.  Despite the challenges, many students went on to become leaders in the church, the government, medicine and business.

One of these students was Dr. Alexis Herman.  For those unfamiliar, she has quite the resume.  Youngest Director of the Women’s Bureau in the history of the Labor Department serving under Jimmy Carter.  CEO of the Democratic National Committee by 1992.  The first African-American to head the U.S. Department of Labor where she served under Bill Clinton. Under her leadership, the nations’ unemployment rate reached a thirty year low of 3.9% by mid 2000.  She continues to advise corporations on the best practices for bringing diversity to the workplace as the Chair and CEO of New Ventures, LLC., in addition to serving on the board of several multi-national companies.

The great people at Dominican University in River Forest recently invited Dr. Herman to speak on campus, both about the book in which she wrote the foreword as well to illustrate the need for a new generation of leaders to further civil rights and they asked me to be their event photographer.

Dr. Herman remembered the time she spent with Coretta Scott King and Dr. King’s father whom she called “Daddy King.”

“When I asked ‘Daddy King’ what he wanted his son to be remembered by, he said ‘as an ‘A’ student of the world.’ He cared about the power of education,” Herman said. “Martin leaves a timeless legacy. He did not live to see social media, did not see television broadcast world events but he had a sense that advanced technology made for a smaller world. This is what happens when we harness the power of young people.”

She was fabulous.  Empowering.  Engaging.  Humble.  As I  photograph events regularly, I have myself trained to focus on my camera as opposed to the conversation.  In this case, I could not help but do both.


Something from Nothing: Interesting Portraits Anywhere

Something from Nothing: Interesting Portraits Anywhere

Occasionally, I walk into an assignment to do an environmental portrait for a magazine or an editorial headshot for a corporation and it is like a kid walking into a candy store with an unlimited amount of cash in their pocket. There are so many backgrounds to work with that include beautiful architecture, funky angles, cool lighting and of course stunning artwork. Just a little something to add dimension and interest to the shot while at the same time being relevant to the subject I am photographing.

But then again, there are a handful of cases when I go in to do a portrait and there is little to nothing that catches my eye and most certainly would not capture the attention of the reader. Thankfully, my mother always inspired me to make something from nothing. I always thought she was being obsessively frugal when she was unimpressed by the strong cases I could make in support of hooking me up with the newest whatever was cool at the time novelty but apparently she wanted me to have a little fun with the best toy that would always be available to me: my imagination.

I owe her. Big time. Especially when I consider all of the places I have walked into that initially seem like they have close to nothing to offer that would serve as an interesting background. But from a professional photographer’s perspective, there is no such thing as uninteresting. So, in honor of my mom, here are a few tips on how I make a little something from nothing.

1.) Change the way You Look At It
We are consistently looking at our environment at eye-level and the subject of primary importance is typically centered in our focal range. Instead, change it up and shoot from different angles while keeping the subject off-center.

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2.) Frame Using Foreground and Background
Using what is both in front of and behind the subject in super-soft focus helps to frame and direct the viewers attention to what is of primary importance in the shot. Especially using something relevant like a textbook for a portrait of a professor or student, even just a hint of it, adds more visual interest.

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3.) Experiment with Different Lighting Modifiers
Available light can leave much to be desired so I like having the option of completely creating and controlling this. This is where you get the contrast, the little bling that creates dimension. But lighting alone, even when done well, sometimes needs a kicker and this is where I use gels and cookies to create a little something where there was nothing.

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4.) Play around in Post

As a portrait Photographer, I do not like to take post-production too far as the end-product should accurately reflect what was done in-camera and match the style of the client whether that be a trade-magazine or corporation. However, playing around with vignetting, pushing the details in HDR or tweaking the curves for contrast are all fair game and these small enhancements can make a big difference and add to the visual style, content and interest of a portrait.

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So, no matter the space we are working with, there are always interesting visual elements that can be added through composition, lighting and post-production that bring a little bit more bling to each shot.  It just takes a little imagination.  Thanks, Mom.


5 Things I Learned Not To Do By Doing Them

5 Things I Learned Not To Do By Doing Them

I was going through one of my portfolios yesterday and came across many of the mistakes that I repeatedly made just starting off.  When I first decided I was going to make it in the business of professional photography, the best way for me to learn was by assisting established shooters, committing my equipment manuals to memory and shooting as much as possible.  Now with the wealth of hints, cues and tips available online, I thought I would throw in my 2 cents and save a few beginners from making the same mistakes I did!

1. Shooting in JPG

I totally understand that professional photojournalists, with the need for quick turnaround, probably shoot primarily in JPG.  But for a commercial photographer who has a little more time to play with, RAW is a must.  When shooting in JPG, the camera applies it’s own sharpening, white balance, saturation and contrast which you have little to no control over.  Shooting RAW on the other hand, allows the photographer to control all of these options in post-production on top of the fact that there is no image compression.

In addition to the basic principles you can play around with in Photoshop RAW, there are several other dialogue boxes behind this one that allow for adjustments like vignetting and spot-dusting for those of us who have a less than pristinely clean sensor.

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-My confidant and assistant pal Whitney.  Lugger of gear, comedian and fine human being.

2. Freaked Out by Flash

First, I completely tried to avoid it as I was using a camera with a built-in pop-up flash.  The results were frightening: flat, harsh and typically over or under-exposed.  But then I picked up a Canon off-camera flash and the heavens opened.  There are so many cool things you can do with an external flash and the controls are very simple to use.  Also, there are several modifiers and gels that you can pick-up that can create different affects like adding warmth to the photo.  Even more fun if you want to get real serious is to use several speedlights simultaneously, say for your main light and then as a hair-light.

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-Not a photo of mine as I no longer do this.  Thanks you, World Wide Web.

3. Never Backing Up

Yes, one would think I would know better but it really was when I just started.  I was upgrading to a new operating system and who knows what happened but I wiped out my external hard-drive with all of my work on it.  Yep, gone.  I ended up taking the drive in for a recovery and after a huge-investment and not even 50% of my work recovered, I vowed that would never happen again.

So, here is my recommendation.  Back-up and back-up again. Whether it is photographs, documents or e-mails, if you are on a Mac, get yourself a 1TB external hard-drive and use Time Machine.  I would bet that PC’s have a similar option as well.  Second thing, back-up all of your files off-cite.   Many of the online back-up servers have different options so you will have to look around to see what works best for you and your budget.  Backblaze has worked great for me.  I have it backing up my files whenever I import anything new to my desktop, it has an unlimited storage option and will also back-up external hard-drives which for me is a must.

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4. Choosing the Wrong Gear

First, I was Nikkon.  Then I went to Canon as they seemed to be running ahead of the curve as digital was just starting to take off.

Then, for a little while I had a studio so I was using these enormous power-packs that weigh 30 pounds a piece and the lights themselves are about 8 or 9 lbs.  Now, with the studio days over and being on the move as a corporate and editorial photographer, i.e. location shooter, the weight of those packs (30 lbs x 3 packs plus light heads) was going to be the death of both myself and my assistants.

I have since moved to more mobile units called the Speedotron Force series which I absolutely love.  They are compact, lighter, have fast recycle times and are as sturdy as my other system.  Needless to say, I wish I had more foresight to consider what I might be doing down the line when I initially purchased the bulky power-packs and heads so if you know anyone looking for some studio lighting, have them jingle me.

But maybe even more important are the choices of lenses.  Starting out, I was under the delusion that a 24-200 would do the trick for everything and I would not have to worry about changing lenses.  But once you start getting into apertures, image-stabilization modes and optics, it soon becomes apparent that each lens serves a very different purpose.  I use my wide angle for group shots and to bring funky angles and composition to an editorial photograph.  The 70-200 L series is awesome for a shallow depth of field on corporate portraits and lifestyle photos.  So, if you are really serious about creating awesome images, hold off on buying until you can buy the best glass  that you need now as well as down the line.

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-This is from way back in the day when I actually could lift my air cases.

5. Speeding Through It

I used to get super-nervous before every assignment, like can’t sleep, check to make sure I set the alarm 12 times kind of nervous.  Surprisingly though, I could always keep my cool (and yes, I still do) on the job.  Now, the anxiety has been replaced with planning and excitement thanks to experience.  But way back when, I would rush myself through the process of shooting especially when I had an audience.

There are so many things to pay attention to in addition to F-stops and ISO’s.  Even with my assistants who act as my “lookout”, I am still checking that the tie is straight for the corporate head shot, the lighting is dead-on for the editorial portrait and now when I am asked “can we just add something real quick?” I ask for the details before I just nod and submissively answer yes, just to make sure that not only can we do it but we can do it right.

When it comes down to it, the final product, whether it is a flower or a financial officer, reflects back on me.  I always ask myself if there is anything else that I can do to make the images better in-camera.  And if  I know I have nailed the details, only then it is time to shoot away.

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That’s my 2 cents, a humbling admission of guilt that I offer in hopes that the emerging photographers of tomorrow will avoid those same mistakes I made years ago.