Raise Your Hand

Shooting assignments for colleges, universities and private schools is something I enjoy a great deal; the locations are often photogenic and the people are always nice to work with. I've been fortunate over the last 4 or 5 yeas to work with Seton Hall Law School shooting portraits and facilities for marketing and web use. This year I was asked to photograph the commencement ceremonies. Shooting an event like graduation is pretty straight-forward, yet I always look to create a story in the picture, something that may resonate in a single shot what the day was all about; this image does that for me.

We had just heard an inspiring commencement address delivered by Theodore Wells, Jr., a highly respected litigation attorney, in which he recounted his early days of clerking under the Hon. Judge John Gibbons. Judge Gibbons advised the young Mr. Wells to "raise your hand" at any opportunity as doing so will give you experience and knowledge that would otherwise elude you in the course of your profession and your life. After the speech and while degrees were being awarded, I noticed a number of students waving to their families from the top of the steps after they received their diplomas and thought it would be a nice moment to capture. As I found a good position I noticed the stage lights shining behind them and the story came into focus.  The lights shown bright like the future of the new lawyers and this young man was raising his hand, ready for the opportunities that lay ahead.

Canon 5D Mark III, 24mm lens, 1/80th sec. at f4, ISO 800

Canon 5D Mark III, 24mm lens, 1/80th sec. at f4, ISO 800

Give More

A recent magazine assignment had me headed to the Morgan Stanley offices to photograph one of their gold traders. After taking the standard and expected portraits in the office, I finished what the job required. But I wasn't done yet. I wanted something more, something better. You see, I like giving clients more than what they expect and, selfishly, I like to do more for myself, too.

In all honesty, it starts in advance. I knew I wanted something more before I arrived on location; covering the basics was simply obligatory and my fail-safe. Knowing the area helps and I had this shot in mind as the top of the steps in Times Square would give me a good background. The next trick was to get the subject to give me the time I needed; that's where people skills are so important. Traders are very busy people and I was asking her to leave her office in the middle of the day; I explained my idea and enrolled her in helping me do more than a basic portrait. My excitement for what was possible got her excited and we grabbed the next elevator to the lobby. The big red staircase in Times Square is only steps from the office and after nicely asking some tourists to move, we did the shot and got her back to work.

The lighting was a simple off camera strobe with a small diffuser balanced to the daylight in order to clean up the shadows on her face.   Canon 5D Mark III, 24-70 zoom at 43mm, 1/40th sec at f9, ISO 160.

The lighting was a simple off camera strobe with a small diffuser balanced to the daylight in order to clean up the shadows on her face.   Canon 5D Mark III, 24-70 zoom at 43mm, 1/40th sec at f9, ISO 160.

Spring Time in New York

As a location photographer in New York City, I always have my eyes peeled for good subjects; Lord knows there is an endless number of great possibilities for images. This shot was what I call a "no-brainer".

How can you resist a shot of Big Bird in Central Park?

You know it's Spring when the birds return to Central Park.  185mm, f4 at 1/250th sec.

 

You'll Never Guess

As a corporate location photographer, I never know where I'll end up, and some of the places are surprising. Here's a portrait I shot recently of an executive with an alternative fuel company...but wait, before you read further, take a couple guesses where we're shooting; I'll continue below the image.

Shot with a Canon 5D Mark III, 20mm lens at f16, 1/320, ISO 320.

Shot with a Canon 5D Mark III, 20mm lens at f16, 1/320, ISO 320.

Did you guess?  Looks like Kansas, right?  Actually, we're standing on top of the what was once the largest landfill in the world, Fresh Kills, on Staten Island in New York City.  If you've read my blog before you know I'm a believer in planning but staying open to those magical, serendipitous moments that seem to happen on every photo shoot. This shoot was to cover a new truck that runs on DME, an alternative fuel that is much better for the environment than diesel fuel. The Department of Sanitation in New York City is testing this truck for potential roll-out in its fleet. We were wrapping up the morning shoot when our contact at DSNY said, "want to see something cool?" What self-respecting photographer can resist that line? We weren't scheduled to go to the top of the landfill, long reclaimed, covered with dirt and planted with grass. There's a view of Manhattan from the top but it was raining over the harbor and we couldn't see the city so I selected a location to photograph the truck against the horizon. The portrait wasn't scheduled but I didn't want to waste a good opportunity; as I was positioning the truck for a beauty shot I had John stand on the road where the truck was to be placed; I took two shots, then the truck rolled in.

Here's the beauty shot of the truck; the portrait of John was an added bonus!

Here's the beauty shot of the truck; the portrait of John was an added bonus!

Every Picture Tells a Story

It was Friday afternoon and I was editing images in my office, suddenly, an odd noise from outside the window startled my two cats who were sleeping on the filing cabinet next to my desk. When you live on the 5th floor of an apartment building in New York, you don't expect odd noises right outside your window, but a quick peek revealed a man painting the fire escape. I knew right away I had to take his picture.

Fire Escape Painter.  28mm lens 1/50th sec at f6.3ISO 400

Fire Escape Painter.  28mm lens 1/50th sec at f6.3ISO 400

Obviously, his paint-covered clothes and the brick red color of the primer paint caught my eye, but the most compelling reason to photograph this hard working man was the story in his face. It was clear that he's been working all day and was tired, but who was this man, how did he become a fire escape painter? I asked if he needed anything and in a heavily accented voice he said, "water". While he gulped two glasses of water I asked if I could take his picture, "English no good", he said, shaking his head. I picked up my camera and pointed from it to him and he said, "sure". I climbed out the window. There was no posing, no direction; I only took 5 shots. The painter just stood there, naturally, with an air of both pride and exhaustion.

I was proud too, proud that I didn't let the moment pass without creating a memorable interaction; it would have been easy to ignore him outside my window. Instead, I got to meet one of the many every day working people who make this great city run and to create a beautiful portrait at the same time. I made a 5x7 print of this shot and will give it to him next week when he finished the job.

 

Do Your Homework

I never did like homework, but I always made it a priority to get it done. I was reminded of that this week when I received a last minute call to shoot a portrait of two corporate executives. On the surface, it was a simple shoot; they needed a press release photo and had 30 minutes to spare. I was to meet them the next morning in the lobby of their hotel and do a "quick shot". Not knowing the hotel, and knowing how busy NY hotels are in the morning, I was leery. 

The budget didn't allow for location scouting but I needed to know what I was dealing with; seeing the location would make my life easier and boy, was I ever right. The boutique hotel was small, crowded and dark; there was no way I could shoot there. Luckily, the hotel is across the street from a park so I scouted that area, too. The forecast for the next morning was for rain, so I scouted another spot in the park that provided protection from the wind and weather. All in, I spent 20 minutes scouting.

After meeting the clients in the morning and having them easily see that shooting in the hotel lobby was out of the question, we went to the park and did our first shot; after a few frames it started drizzling so we quickly moved to the covered location. I set up a strobe with an umbrella and a background light, did a few test shots, then directed my subjects through a variety of poses and expressions; we finished in less than 10 minutes and headed back to the hotel in time for their meeting. Had I not done my homework on the location, I would have been left scrambling to find a suitable place to shoot; instead, being prepared showed the clients my level of service, professionalism and respect for their valuable time.

Scouting a covered location kept the clients out of the wind and rain, which obviously makes for a better image.      85mm lens, f4 at 1/40 sec.  ISO 320

Scouting a covered location kept the clients out of the wind and rain, which obviously makes for a better image.      85mm lens, f4 at 1/40 sec.  ISO 320

"I Promise Not To Get Your CEO Arrested"

It was the type of call I love to get, an assignment out of the blue to shoot a CEO for a magazine cover; but there were two challenges. The first challenge was the deadline, one week; the second challenge, the shoot was to be in the subway. We had hoped to piggy back with a construction crew using products developed by the company being featured in the magazine, a construction services company, but that option didn't pan out. My fall-back plan was to shoot on a subway platform; of course, that also has it's challenges.

With no time to get proper permits we agreed to shoot "guerilla style", late at night; I scouted numerous platforms around the city and decided to shoot at the Times Square Station and the 5th Avenue Station, two of the busiest platforms in the city.  The VP of Marketing for the company had his doubts, but I promised him I wouldn't get his CEO arrested.

We started the shoot at 10pm, but the platform was still crowded. We kept lighting gear to a minimum; my assistant held the strobe so we didn't need to use a light stand. I fully expected the police to kick us out after the first train passed but we were able to shoot for 30 minutes, trying different shots and different angles. No one bothered us except for a few tourists asking who the celebrity was or who we were shooting for.

True to my word, we managed to shoot this magazine cover at one of NYC's buisiest subway stations and not get arrested!   24mm lens, 1/20 sec at f5.6,  400 ISO

True to my word, we managed to shoot this magazine cover at one of NYC's buisiest subway stations and not get arrested!   24mm lens, 1/20 sec at f5.6,  400 ISO

Because I like to give editors choices, we planned on shooting at the 5th Avenue stop as well.  The late July temperatures, even at 11:00 at night, were stifling and being in the subway was worse. We had hand-held fans to keep our subject cool. The 5th Avenue shoot went off without interruption and we wrapped before midnight. The setup wasn't particularly difficult or time consuming, we kept it simple on purpose; most of the time was spent waiting for trains to come by so we could have movement in the background.

All in all, a successful, challenging and fun assignment with great results.

Also avoided arrest at the 5th Avenue Station!  24mm lens, 1/20 at f5.6, 500 ISO

Also avoided arrest at the 5th Avenue Station!  24mm lens, 1/20 at f5.6, 500 ISO

The CEO keeping cool with two hand-held fans. It was the hottest shoot I've ever been on but he managed to stay dry through the whole thing!

The CEO keeping cool with two hand-held fans. It was the hottest shoot I've ever been on but he managed to stay dry through the whole thing!

Magic Moment

Maybe it's the old Boy Scout in me, but I'm a firm believer in the motto, "Be Prepared". No where is that motto more important than in photography. We never know what will happen in the world around us so it's good to be ready just in case a magic moment happens; last week was a perfect example. I was in Jersey City, NJ shooting a corporate CEO portrait with the lower Manhattan skyline as the backdrop, we had a small window of opportunity but the weather was not cooperating. A huge summer thunderstorm rolled in rapidly from the west, complete with heavy rain and plenty of lightning; it was quite dramatic and we all took cover in a local Starbucks. It would have made sense to just abandon the shoot and try again another time, but the storm was moving so fast that I felt it might be worth waiting to see if the clouds parted in the west and gave us a nice sunset. While the gray skies and rain continued over NYC, the skies over NJ did break and the setting sun threw a golden light on the skyscrapers of New York.  We were shooting some portraits, using both 85mm and 135mm lenses, balancing the light with a strobe pop, warmed with an 81b gel, when I noticed a rainbow starting to form. In less than a minute a full rainbow--from river to harbor--framed lower Manhattan; I have never seen anything like it before. A portrait lens wouldn't be nearly wide enough to capture the scene, but luckily I was prepared for anything and grabbed my 17-40mm zoom. I interrupted the portrait shoot just long enough to shoot 3 frames of the rainbow before it started fading away; it all happened so fast and I was thrilled to have seen it and captured it. I'm so glad I was prepared to capture such a magic moment.

I was so happy to have a wide angle lens with me when this rainbow appeared!   Canon 5D Mark III, 17mm lens, 1/60th sec at f5.6 ISO 500.

I was so happy to have a wide angle lens with me when this rainbow appeared!   Canon 5D Mark III, 17mm lens, 1/60th sec at f5.6 ISO 500.

Think Ahead

I'm always thinking ahead; I suggest you do, too.
As primarily a location portrait photographer, I'm constantly looking for interesting backgrounds and walking around NYC always delivers, but you have to think ahead. Instead of trying to remember all the backgrounds or settings I see, I'll take a snapshot of whatever caught my attention and file it in a dedicated folder on my computer. Then, when I have a portrait subject to shoot, I can match the person to an interesting background and not have to go scouting each time.

When Ikon Model, LeVey needed a new headshot I knew exactly the background I would use to compliment her natural beauty and Native American look; I wanted an earthy tone but one that would contrast with her dark hair. Two weeks earlier I had seen just such a background--an old rusted door--and added it to my file. The shoot went smoothly, using north-facing available light and a natural reflector from the light-colored ground.

So think ahead and keep track of the great backgrounds and locations you see every day.

85mm lens, 1/25o sec at f5.6, ISO 200

85mm lens, 1/25o sec at f5.6, ISO 200

 

 

 

 

Something Out of Nothing

Not every location is gorgeous; not every location even offers a good background for portraits; in fact, more often than not, location photographers have to work hard to make something out of nothing. I recently found myself in that situation while shooting portraits for a financial client in lower Manhattan. The first challenge was only being allowed to shoot in a small corner of the office lobby; it was very limited. But with a little ingenuity and by moving some furniture, I was able to find an angle that used the space outside of my restricted area. I was able to stay where they wanted me to, but by using the lobby itself as the background I could get the look I wanted without taking up too much room. Yes, it was tight quarters for shooting, but in the end, the final shot is all that matters.

Limited space doesn't have to mean limiting your portrait options. I loved the way the light was streaming through the window in the background and used that as an element to offset my subject.   ISO 50, 85mm lens f2.8 at 1/60th sec.

Limited space doesn't have to mean limiting your portrait options. I loved the way the light was streaming through the window in the background and used that as an element to offset my subject.   ISO 50, 85mm lens f2.8 at 1/60th sec.

Keep Your Eyes Peeled

Part of my job as a "people on location photographer" (as I like to bill myself), is to be aware of my surroundings when I'm shooting. But as you can imagine, it's hard to turn that awareness off and I find myself constantly seeing photo opportunities, whether on the job or not. This is a good thing, as I get to experience the world in a constant state of discovery or unfolding--I never know what I'll see next and I like that.

For example, I was in Washington, DC last month, talking to Congressmen on Capitol Hill about copyright reform; it's one of the roles I play as Co-Chairman of APA/NY, a trade organization that supports photographers and the business of photography (Google it, then join--you really should join if you're a photographer). As I was walking between floors in the Rayburn House Office Building, I noticed how beautiful the stairway was. I walked all the way to the top floor of the stairwell and snapped a few shots, but I needed a focal point; I needed a person.

As would happen, a Capitol Hill Police officer saw me and stopped to question why I was loitering in the stairwell. I'm glad I had a digital camera so I could show him on the screen what I was doing and why I was waiting for the right person wearing the right clothes to walk in the right spot. Officer Patrick (he asked me not to use his last name) was suspicious--that's his job--but he was also curious and willing to see the same old thing in a fresh way. As he left me he said, "I've been working in this building for 5 years and I've never noticed how beautiful the stairs were". His comment made my day and reminded me of what a gift photographers are; we see the world in unique ways and get to share our vision and our passion with others every day. So keep your eyes peeled, you never know when or where you'll see your next photo op--or whose way of seeing the world around them you may change.

Lumix LX-100, 16mm lens, 1/125th sec at f2.8 ISO 800

Lumix LX-100, 16mm lens, 1/125th sec at f2.8 ISO 800

A Love of Locations

Part of what I love about being a location photographer is not knowing what you might have to work with when you first step into a new space. It's a unique skill to look at the space and immediately assess what might work and what to avoid when creating the images you need to take. As I am a portrait artist, it's an even bigger challenge to combine the person, what they do and the particular location into a cohesive image that both shows the person and communicates the client's message--all while creating a great looking image.

Location portrait of an architect in a SoHo loft building.  46mm lens, 1/30 sec. at f3.5. ISO 100

Location portrait of an architect in a SoHo loft building.  46mm lens, 1/30 sec. at f3.5. ISO 100

Keep Trying New Things

It's Thanksgiving time and I must say, I am very thankful and grateful to be busy with my work and to have clients that trust me to handle their important assignments. But when I get a few free moments, I like to try new things. Lately I've had some ideas for shooting portraits but needed to work out possible lighting scenarios; it's not practical to get businessmen to help me test set ups (and my wife is tired of helping), so I use models and exchange images for their patience and professionalism. This set up, combining a softbox and a beauty dish, produces a pure white background and a crisp, flattering light on the face; I like the tight crop and the negative space on the side. I may have to substitute an umbrella or softbox for the beauty dish when photographing non-models as the light might be a bit strong for "regular faces". It's sometimes tough to get clients to accept lighting setups like this,  but I keep trying new things because it generates new ideas, new knowledge and new possibilities for creative problem-solving on behalf of my clients.

Canon5D Mark III, 85mm lens, 1/200 sec at f11, ISO 100

Canon5D Mark III, 85mm lens, 1/200 sec at f11, ISO 100

A Fickle Lover

I love available light. I love the way it illuminates, morphs and changes. You might think shooting in this light would be easy, but available light is like a fickle lover, caressing you and pleasing you in one moment, then frustrating the hell out of you the next.

As a location photographer, every shot I take starts with available light; I am constantly attuned to the quality of light, its direction and source. I watch how the light plays across a scene or a face, whether it's strong, soft or somewhere in between. Oftentimes, in fact, most of the time, the available light is only the beginning and I use my own lighting equipment to supplement or strengthen the light that is there, careful to preserve the natural feeling of the existing light.  But when the available light is just right, it's magical. This photo, taken for an architectural firm in downtown New York, is a perfect example; the windows in the SoHo loft space were at least 9 feet tall and covered the entire east wall of the loft; the sky was milky-white overcast but still directional and wrapped around the subjects face beautifully. Nothing else was needed to make a beautiful portrait; the fickle lover was good to me.

Available light photograph of James, shot for a NYC architectural firm. 70mm lens, f2.81/125th sec, ISO 640

Available light photograph of James, shot for a NYC architectural firm. 70mm lens, f2.81/125th sec, ISO 640

Big Guy, Small Space

As a corporate location photographer in New York City, I shoot a lot of portraits in offices all over town; I've worked in some of the biggest penthouse offices you can imagine and then last week, I worked in the smallest space I've ever had to use for shooting portraits. No joke, the tiny conference room was probably 6'x10'. And you know what? I still shot some nice images.

The big downtown financial firm needed some new portraits of key advisers to update the company website and use as LinkedIn profiles but they forgot to book a space for me; luckily, this tiny conference room had a window facing the hallway, which gave me 4 more feet to use as a background. I knew no one would believe me about the size of the space so I took a shot from the hallway looking in the door.

There was so little room in this space that it limited my options for setting up the shot. I pushed the desk to one side, which left 18 inches for me to squeeze into and shoot; you can see my umbrella and tripod are back as far as they can go.

There was so little room in this space that it limited my options for setting up the shot. I pushed the desk to one side, which left 18 inches for me to squeeze into and shoot; you can see my umbrella and tripod are back as far as they can go.

85mm, f2.8 at 1/80 sec. ISO 100

85mm, f2.8 at 1/80 sec. ISO 100

In the end, it doesn't matter how cramped or uncomfortable you are taking the picture, even if it means squeezing a 6'4", 225 lbs man into a tiny corner; all that matters is the results.

Key Light and a Kicker

Creating images can be done in many different ways, but in the end, it's all about the light. Some people go to create lengths to control every inch of light in their compositions, using a dozen lights or more to shoot a still life. Many more photographers shoot available light only and also produce beautiful work. I fall somewhere in the middle. I like to let the natural or ambient light be the star, even if I have to use strobes to recreate and enhance that natural light. In this photo of Olga, the bartender at Amata Restaurant on East 56th Street, I wanted to capture her warm friendliness, which, not surprisingly, was also the feel of the bar and the feel of the light coming from the front windows. But there wasn't quite enough light for taking a good image and the shadows built rapidly behind her into darkness at the other end of the bar. I solved the problem with a simple two light set up, a key light and a kicker.  The key light, off camera to the left and slightly raised, created a beautiful light for Olga and added some spark to the bottles behind her. The other end of the bar was lit by bouncing a strobe into the white ceiling, but powered down enough so as not to over-light the scene. A somewhat slow shutter speed let enough ambient light in to keep the shot feeling warm and real. We were done in about 10 minutes and Olga was back to serving her customers.

The lovely Olga, bartender at Amata Restaurant.  28mm lens, f4 at 1/20th sec., ISO 800.

The lovely Olga, bartender at Amata Restaurant.  28mm lens, f4 at 1/20th sec., ISO 800.

Light Wall

You can find great light anywhere, you just need to be observant, aware and willing to see things differently. This portrait is a case in point.

I was at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) today to see a contemporary art installation by artist Alfredo Jaar. Jaar constructed a path of total darkness which wound around corners and through black walled hallways; turning the last corner, the viewer is struck by a dazzlingly bright 10'x18' wall of light. After so much darkness, the wall seemed even bigger than it was and the light was so bright you had to squint. That was it. The artwork is not terribly remarkable, although I'm sure I missed the symbolism as I usually do with contemporary art. But there was something about that light. While looking directly at the light wall was bothersome, the light it emitted was incredibly beautiful.  I stood for 5 minutes just watching peoples faces as they turned the corner. The corners and the walls created an abstract set of lines and shades of gray depending on how the light spilled over the wall. I knew I had to photograph this set up and found a willing young man from Portugal to pose for me.

While everyone else saw only the harshness of the bright light and turned away, covering their eyes, I saw the beauty such a big light source created.  35mm lens, f4.5 at 1/40th sec. ISO 500


While everyone else saw only the harshness of the bright light and turned away, covering their eyes, I saw the beauty such a big light source created.  35mm lens, f4.5 at 1/40th sec. ISO 500

Hard & Soft

There are many ways to light a portrait. Lighting a portrait depends on multiple factors: the person themselves, the mood you want to set, the final use of the photo or what your client requests. At the extremes are very hard light and extremely soft light. Hard light is bright and direct, think of the big, blazing ball of fire as the sun sets. Soft light is diffuse and even, think of a totally overcast sky at mid-morning.

Most of my commercial portraits are shot indoors and I use a variety of tools to create whatever light I want for my subject--hard, soft or anywhere in between. The soft light in this shot of the model is a fairly complicated studio setup but works for this beauty/fashion image; the hard light of this editorial portrait of a University professor is from one simple strobe head and a 7" reflector.  Whether simple or complex, the trick is to match the quality of the light you want to use with the type of portrait you want to shoot.  It's all about the light.  Determine the light you want to create then consider your options, hard, soft or somewhere in between.

Simplicity

Sometimes--most times--simplicity is key.  This portrait was shot in the side courtyard between two buildings; it was an overcast day and I thought the light was even enough for a nice shot.  But the sun came out and created bothersome shadows and highlights.  Geez, it was supposed to be a quick and easy shot.

Final image, 85mm lens, f2.8 at 1/100th sec. ISO 400

Final image, 85mm lens, f2.8 at 1/100th sec. ISO 400

I could have pulled out a strobe and popped a nice soft umbrella light in this gentleman's face, but that would diminish the natural feel of the shot and location.  As simplicity is my first go-to in most situations, I opted for a simple white diffuser panel placed just out of frame over his head. The light is natural, believable and soft enough to even out the shadows and remove the hot spot on his forehead.  This simple fix helped me keep the shoot on schedule with a quick, easy, and beautiful image.

Location Basics

Shooting people on location is my joy, but it's not without its challenges.  I like to keep it real, as well as simple, when faced with location shots because I want to maintain the "feeling" of the light that is already there.  This image, of a Duke University graduate working with elementary school children, was shot to a very specific dimension to fit the layout designed by the art director.  By strategically adding light to the existing light, I could control the overall look inside the frame while letting the subjects interact and forget that I was even shooting, my favorite way of capturing "real" moments, even if they are set up and controlled.

Canon 5D Mark II, ISO 125, f5.6 at 1/100 sec. 24mm lens.

Canon 5D Mark II, ISO 125, f5.6 at 1/100 sec. 24mm lens.