To The Irreplaceable Photo Assistant

To The Irreplaceable Photo Assistant

When I was about 28 years old and struggling in a career where the most exciting part of my day was what was for lunch, I decided to distract myself with a few photography classes at Columbia College in Chicago. Soon after I was just getting into school, I lost my job.  Actually, I was fired and I do wear this like a badge of honor because it was a life changer.  After just a few days of footie pajamas and uninterrupted daytime TV, I made the executive and totally uninformed decision to become a Commercial Photographer. It seemed do-able and going in somewhat blindly but with plenty of optimism to keep me going, I started assisting.

I remember that first day like it was yesterday.  Architectural shoot.  Longest day ever especially considering I was used to an 8 hour day, ergo-dynamic chairs and an hour lunch. This was definitely an eye-opener and I knew that to be able to do this, I was going to have to work fast, work hard and work smart.

One of my first Assisting Promos…the tagline read, “I know how to support my Photographers!”

I stuck with assisting for a few years before I started moving into my own commercial photo jobs and it was the best experience I could have asked for. Granted, the days were always long, the physical demands were intense and having a degree in Psychology could have been a bonus but what I learned from working with some of Chicago’s best shooters was indispensable, their mentoring gracious and their continued friendship so appreciated.

So, with this, I say thank you to my most irreplaceable Photography Assistants. Without them, I could not do what I do.

The Irreplaceable Are:

1. Skillful luggers of equipment and heroes of traversing small hallways and freight elevators.

2. Guardians of exposure and protectors of memory cards.

3. Professional smilers and astute providers of calm when technology won’t play nice.

4. Exceptional mind readers as they know what their Photographer needs even before they need it.

5. Fabulous magicians that can make anything work with just a bit of Gaffers tape and a clamp.

6. Consistently in tune with the lighting, the camera, the subjects and the boss.

7. Discerning Psychologists and excellent readers of personalities.

8. Incredible navigators as sometimes getting to that loading dock on Lower Wacker Drive can cause panic in some Photographers.

9. Astute keepers of time, shrewd defenders of the Cliff Bars.

10. Fabulous companions, crack ’em-up comedians and really awesome friends.

My buddy and Assistant Whitney Hsieh.  He really should run for President but he’s too busy being the Photo guy.

Again, to all those emerging Photo Assistants out there: be on your game, keep hydrated, learn as much as you can and stay focused because your Photographer is only half as good without you!

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.

Chicago Corporate Photographer


-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.

Chicago Corporate Photographer


-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.

Chicago Corporate Photographer


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.

Chicago Corporate Photographer


-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.

Chicago Corporate Photographer

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.

Working from Home: The Good, The Bad, The Ambivalent – Part 2

Working from Home: The Good, The Bad, The Ambivalent – Part 2

In the last post, I covered the joys of working from home alongside a few of the issues that actually get in the way of getting your work done.  Yes, the convenience and flexibility is a treat however it can be a slippery slope as it is even easier to relish an incredibly immaculate house whilst in one’s sweatpants all day developing an increasing waist line and a slowly degenerating control of one’s social habits.

But even the rockstars of time-management have had to train themselves to resist the temptations of online shopping (that means you Amazon Prime) and the endless pit of non-information that is called the Huffington Post.  Granted this may not work for everyone and I have been down many paths, trying out different strategies in hopes that I might get to my home-office and knock out a blog post, finish processing an assignment, tweak my SEO,  follow-up on phone-calls and update my social media all in one eight hour stretch.   But it doesn’t work that way.  At least not for me.

So, being that 20% of what I do is actually behind the camera and the remainder of my work is in my office, I had to figure out a system that helps me to accomplish something without being overwhelmed and I think I finally nailed it.

1. Quit Fibbing

Last time I mentioned that I have a super-fast commute.  Bed to the kitchen for coffee and make my way to the office.  Years ago, as soon as I woke up and tamed my caffeine fix, I was working.  Or so I told myself.

Think about it.  In the 8 or 9 hours that we are at work how much time are we actually doing something that is productive?  According to Forbes, 46% of us spend time at work looking for a new job.    Seriously?  Kinda bold but ok.  And how much time is wasted on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter?  CNBC says that we spend 230,060 years on social media in a month….10 bucks says that the majority of this is while on the job.

So, those of us working from home have those same distractions and no one but ourselves are policing us.  What is a girl to do?

Well, this girl has found that the best way to avoid the traps of the endless chasm known as the internet is to give in.  Yes, that is my strategy.  Alarm goes off, take my dog Charlie out, hook him up with some kibble, get my coffee and go immerse myself in the trappings of all things social media related and the latest news  until I can take no more.  This process usually lasts midway through my second cup of coffee when I am finding that what should be making me feel intellectually superior has made me into somewhat of a schlub.  My brain feels lazy as it maneuvers between the hot topics in Washington D.C. to the latest celeb baby-bump photos as one can only read so much of The New York Times.  And then, I am done.  Yep. Put the kabbosh on that as I am thoroughly over it and am now mildly depressed that I cannot get that 3 minutes and 7 seconds back that I spent on YouTube learning how to open a can of tuna sans can-opener.

Chicago Corporate Photographer

The key is I just don’t try to fool myself anymore.  I do my splurge and then once I get this out of my system it is go time.  I close all of the programs that are unrelated to the work I have previously laid out for myself the night before this includes FaceTime, e-mail, Skype, my internet browser and finally turn my phone to mute.  Works like a charm for at least two hours of solid, impress myself, productivity.

2. Put On Pants

This brings me to point number 2 from the last post regarding distractions in general.  So, once you get the compulsive surfing out of your system, how do you keep from succumbing to the treat that is Target on a Tuesday?  And what about the fact that your kitchen floor hasn’t seen a mop in two weeks, you haven’t returned your mothers’ phone calls and you’re down to the last roll of toilet paper?

Might I suggest putting on pants?  Yes, sweats are God’s gift to comfort however they are more conducive to binge watching the entire first season of Orange is the New Black accompanied by a Costco-sized box of Raisinets and Jimmy John’s on speed-dial.  Even better, before you put on said pants, get moving.  Yes, get-up and get out.  Your gym misses you.  The out of doors misses you.  There is nothing like 45 minutes on the Gazelle to make one ultra-focused and able to sit in one place for as long as it takes to finally get something that matters done.  Finally, when there is little energy left for anything that requires more than lifting a finger, get yourself into something that is less than embarrassing for public and you might find that the focus comes a little easier.

Chicago Corporate Photographer

3. Clock-Out

When there is no difference between being at home and being at work, it is beyond easy to allow the two mindsets  mold into one.  The only thing that has prevented this for me is making a schedule, actually more like a list of what needs to be done that following day…and stick to it.  It’s one thing to be constantly working, thinking I can get to things later since I am always in the office…nope, that is called procrastination.   Once it’s all done, step away slowly, take pause and decide to be done.  Seriously, unless you are searching for the Higgs-Boson particle, the work day does need to have an ending.

Chicago Corporate Photographer

4. English as a Second Language

This is the toughest one.  I can go for hours without talking to anyone and it gets super easy to make it in a 24-hour habit.  Having said close to nothing all day besides “sit, stay and good boy,”  English starts to feel like a second language.  But there is hope, not a cure but at least a buffer.  Maybe we don’t actually have to talk to anyone but if we are in the vicinity of a live-conversation, it can be contagious.

Pack  up your things and head-out to a coffee-shop, cafe, diner, your call.  Initially, the chatter can be slightly distracting but in some cases listening in on another conversation can  do wonders for your self-esteem especially when you are audience to a first-date over raspberry scones and an extra-hot caramel macchiato.   Really, just being in the company of others is an excellent deterrent for denigrating social skills.

And if eaves dropping doesn’t appeal to you as a remedy, you might consider any of the kazillion networking groups that are available, especially those geared towards the self-employed.  Check out your local Chamber of Commerce or visit Meet-Up which has a host of offerings for just about everyone.  Best yet, start your own show….yes, a weekly get-together with that one friend you have that is in the same boat and can relate to the beauty and the challenges of being your own boss, administrative assistant, janitor and IT Department.

Granted there is a never-ending list of ideas to combat the challenges that working from home brings with it but now it is time to follow my own advice as I have yet to entertain to my online “news” obsession, am still milking that second cup of coffee and am feeling a bout of restless leg-syndrome coming on as all of the above is easier said than done!

Getting it Done: The Key is Speed

Getting it Done: The Key is Speed

I do love a challenge.  One of the more frequent questions I am asked when showing my portfolio to a potential client, scheduling a corporate photography shoot and often while setting up my lighting is “how much time do you need?”  The key is speed as the majority of the people I photograph have little time to spare for their portrait.  It is also not uncommon to walk into an assignment having been told prior that we have a half-hour with the CEO and just as we are about to start, the sky has fallen and the apocalypse is around the corner.   That precious half-hour can turn quickly into a matter of minutes and still we have to get it done.  It is not unlike being in the driver’s seat and hearing “are we there yet, are we there yet?”

If I have an hour to set-up, I will use it.  If I have 5 minutes to set-up, I will work it.  It’s a matter of planning, anticipating and more than anything…intuition which comes from plenty of experience.

There is that added plus of keeping one’s cool as well.  Personally, I am not a big fan of having my photograph taken which probably explains why I am happiest when behind the camera.  But really, I empathize.  When people are being photographed they are in the spotlight and not everyone is a fan of being the center of attention.  It is super important to be chill, to be comforting, to be confident as my subjects’ will always reflect where I am at.  Just like a party, when you meet that socially awkward guy that is hiding behind his Manhattan and a plate of sautéed  shrimp with a chile cilantro rub (or if you are at a gathering with me…it’s more likely a Heineken and pigs in a blanket), he makes you a little nervous, right?

We all feed off of one another and dispositions, even if they are momentary, they are still contagious.   In order to capture the real moments and make our clients not only act natural but feel natural, I consistently remind myself that that our subjects are not the only people featured in these portraits….we are in them, too.

A Short Review of Photographic Copyright

A Short Review of Photographic Copyright

As a Chicago Corporate Photographer, I get to work on some interesting assignments.  Awhile back, I had the chance to shoot for an aviation company that was looking rebrand their website and marketing collateral.  We spent the day in their warehouse facility in Chicago photographing their product line as well as several scenarios that illustrated their the efficiency of their maintenance and customer response capabilities.  Both the Creative and Marketing Directors were super excited with the images we produced and I began to incorporate some of the shots into my marketing materials, including postcards and e-mail blasts.

Soon after, I received an e-mail from the Marketing Director who had received one of these postcards saying that I was not authorized to use the images in any of my collateral as they owned the copyright.  Of course, I immediately pulled up our agreement to review the terms and finding that this was not the case, decided I needed to do a little bit of educating on photography copyright and usage terms.

It really comes down to this…..when you hire a photographer, you are not buying the images they produce rather you are renting them.

Chicago Commercial Photographer

As copyright continues to be a hot and very misunderstood topic, with the internet making it easier to infringe, here are a few things to keep in mind when hiring a commercial photographer. (Source PPA).

  • Copyright is a property right.
  • Just because you buy a print does not mean you have purchased the copyright.
  • Professional photographers are the smallest of small copyright holders.
  • Under the Federal Copyright Act of 1976, photographs are protected by copyright from the moment of creation.
  • Photographers have the exclusive right to reproduce their photographs (right to control the making of copies).
  • Unless you have permission from the photographer, you can’t copy, distribute (no scanning and sending them to others), publicly display (no putting them online), or create derivative works from photographs.
  • A photographer can easily create over 20,000 separate pieces of intellectual property annually.
  • Professional photographers are dependent on their ability to control the reproduction of the photographs they create.
  • It affects their income and the livelihood of their families.
  • Even small levels of infringement—copying a photo without permission—can have a devastating impact on a photographer’s ability to make a living.
  • Copyright infringements—reproducing photos without permission—can result in civil and criminal penalties.

When I am gathering information from potential clients for estimating, one of the essential questions I consistently ask is “How will the photos be used?”  For my editorial and magazine assignments, the usage is typically one-time print publication with concurrent web usage.  However, in the case of corporate photography assignments, the terms of use vary greatly.  With that in mind, one of the best usage explanations I have come across was written by the former Director of Photography for Men’s Journal.  The article is extensive and includes a glossary of terminology that is useful when deciding on the budget range you have to work with as well as how to negotiate where and for how long the images you produce can be used for.

Eight Tips on Selecting a Commercial Photographer

Your business is your livelihood and so much more, so being meticulous about your choice in a commercial or editorial photographer is a necessity. You trust someone to help you create your brand, so you definitely want someone confident and experienced.

When you interview a potential photographer for your corporate or commercial photography, you can learn a lot by asking just a few questions. Help yourself out by browsing through the tips below, before you select your photographer.

  • Browse through his or her portfolio, even if they’re well-known or highly-recommended. You must be sure you like their shooting style before moving further.
  • If you like what you see, set up a portfolio showing, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
  • Observe his or her behavior, is your potential photographer’s attitude professional?
  • Ask if your photographer has previously shot an assignment similar to the one you requested. Hiring a general photographer isn’t a bad thing, especially since some are versatile and quite talented. However, when it comes to commercial photography, you want to look for someone who specializes in this field, as there are many things to consider with each shot.
  • Notice the photographer’s plan; see if he or she asks the right questions. These questions will show whether or not your photographer is prepared for your session and requests. It shouldn’t be a one-way interview. Your photographer should ask you a myriad of questions as well.
  • Pay attention to your photographer’s priority. Some photographers may address  concerns by saying “we can fix that during post-processing”. While post-processing does touch up and fix some photos, nothing replaces a perfect shot in the perfect location done right in the camera.
  • Ask about his or her backup plan. Every seasoned photographer will have back-up equipment in the case of camera failure and other technical issues.
  • Do your research! Read reviews and ask previous clients if they were satisfied with your photographer’s work.