For about 38 years I was a ‘suit.’ A pure corporate guy whose career started at the bottom and worked its way to COO of a Fortune 100 company. But now having been a small business owner running a full time commercial photography firm I can safely say that even if I had the chance, I’d never go back. I say that I photograph just to meet people and it’s true. My camera is just a convenient excuse to meet and befriend other artists.
One of my clients is a symphony in Dallas, TX. And over the years I have become friends with many of the musicians in the orchestra along with people in Marketing, Development and many other departments. Just recently I was tasked by the VP of Marketing to create an image of 90 of the musicians in the lighting style of the Dutch Masters paintings.
While doing so the two co concertmasters, Alex and Nathan began fooling around during a toast by intertwining their glasses and arms like newlyweds! Of course the whole orchestra HOWLED with laughter and no photographer would pass up that decisive moment to capture it on film. Ah the blackmail leverage I now possess!
Then during the creation of another part of the marketing collateral I was asked to do a portrait of several of the senior members of the orchestra.
But during that time two of the video team from Genius House Media were there filming their version of James Cordin’s “Carpool Karaoke” by having Alex, Nathan, Erin, Lydia and Kara ride through Dallas playing their instruments. So often there’s friction between photographers and videographers, but in the case of Adam and Darren from Genius House, they feel more like just collaborative creatives. I so enjoy working along side them when our work intersects I just had to create a photo of them goofing around.
My whole point to this post is this; what good is life without the camaraderie and companionship of other creatives? Like I said, my camera is simply an excuse.
I have always believed that as a professional photographer I should always continue to pursue personal projects. Projects which have nothing to do with imagery I create commercially. I find that it helps expand my view of the world, beyond that which is just ‘pretty’ or pleasant to view. Gorgeous people in beautiful outfits are easy to shoot. I also believe that in our world of immediate gratification I needed to maintain projects which take time to develop and those which require collaboration.
In October 2015 I began a project titled “Our Perceptions, Ourselves.” A pictorial study about how each of us views our own appearance in contrast to how we are viewed by others. My thought was to try to find a forensic sketch artist who could draw a specific person and then have several different people describe that same person to the artist. I would then paint the actual subject’s face white and project each sketch onto their face and photograph them with each sketch. I thought it would be both unique and interesting by adding a third dimension to a 2D image even though I was converting it back to a 2D image. In addition it invests the subject in the drawn perceptions of how others view them. My plan is to have at least 12 individuals with three separate sketches, varying by age/race/gender.
This morning I was reading the March 2016 edition of the Professional Photographer’s Association (PPA) magazine article on portraiture. Before I began I thought to myself “Oh just another article on technical aspect of portraiture, lighting, posing, etc….yawn….” But as I read the article my mind was completely changed about its intent;
“I didn’t understand until later that it is all about the connection you make with your subjects.” he says. “My father understood that, and that’s why he was so beloved. He got to know his subjects and made portraits that were about them, not just pictures of them. It’s all about the harmonic resonance that you set up between yourself and the subject you’re about the portray.” – Arthur Levi Rainville
…”For Rainville, portrait photography boils down to two key elements: the art and the heart” – Jeff Kent, PPA
How wonderful to read an article about portraiture which matches my own view. I have always believed that a portrait, a great one, is a conspiracy between three people, the subject, the photographer and the viewer. I often see portraits that are technically very well done, but without any feeling. They are simply photographs of the person’s physical likeness, but contain nothing about the inner portion of the person. In my view the most important element.
And there are also photos I call ‘cheaters.’ These are the portraits of physically pretty women which primarily show them clad in skimpy outfits, revealing lots of tits and ass. Often they are shown with what they and the photographer feel are provocative expressions, which so often appear contrived or forced. Many people (especially men) feel it’s a great photo, but the reality is it’s much like having someone walk an American flag into a room to garner applause.
Yes light, pose, expression are all a large part of a great portrait. But those are simply the basics. All of those elements should accentuate the person’s soul, who they are in that moment and should never be the ‘star’ of the image. Technical knowledge and expertise is a given in portraiture. The part that is most critical to the image is to reveal who they are as people, their soul in the moment. Rainville’s style;
“To create a mansuesco portrait, Rainville schedules a planning session, during which he often spends more time with the client than during the actual portrait sitting.”
Sometimes the amount of time we have with the talent is limited to the time we have them in front of our lens. In those cases it’s up to me to research the person, to know what they like or what they don’t. Not in terms of photos, but in terms of life. And if nothing exists to research then my research must begin as soon as I meet the person. Engaging the person is more critical than snapping the shutter or figuring out the technical details of their shot. Those items should be second nature. By far the largest aspect of any portrait is trust. In the moments I have with anyone I must convey to them the fact that they can trust what I’m about to do. That their feelings are the most valuable elements in the session. What someone was born with from their parents has nothing to do with their portrait. It’s what they developed, who they are that separates a ‘nice’ portrait from a great portrait.
I study the work of Greg Heisler and Joey Lawrence because I feel their style of portraiture is something I strive to achieve one day. I strive to achieve a story in a single image whenever I embark on creating a portrait.
And if by chance you ever feel that as the photographer YOU are the most important person in the room, find another vocation. You simply don’t get it.
You may find this Musing ironic since I chose to include only a single portrait in this article about portraits.
I make my entire living photographing people. It’s what I love to do, because I love people. To date I estimate I’ve photographed over 1,000 faces of all ages and ethnicities. My preference is to photograph men simply because I find them more versatile in nature. What does that mean? I find that the majority of women only want a single dimension of their ‘appearance’ to be shot one way…for beauty. Men on the other hand are more open to be photographed as rugged, sad, angry or in a myriad of other ways besides ‘handsome.’
Today, Friday October 30 2015 is the day the last remaining gun store in San Francisco closes. My long time friend Steve Alcairo has been the store manager for the last six years. His staff has consisted primarily of former Armed Forces personnel and his client base is in large part members of the SFPD.
I created these portraits of his staff on the second to last day they were in operation to thank him for his friendship as well as his staff’s devotion to safe and legal sales in the area.
I have always liked the look of ringflash portraits. There have been several times in my career that I wished I had one. But because I find their use in my work so specialized I didn’t want to commit to purchasing a studio unit. My partner had tried several of the on camera flash types but I didn’t like their light output. So to replicate the look of a ringflash I often used my 86″ diffused parabolic reflector, stood directly in front of it and photographed the talent.
This small tutorial has little to nothing to do about camera gear. I’m on a bit of a rant these days about photo forums. The inane banter that goes on there does little to help photographers who wish to improve their craft. In most cases I find the loudmouths are have to be right trolls and there simply to be….right. At least in their own minds.
For seven years I taught men and women how to navigate their motorcycles around California racetracks. I’d hear similar things like “Oh if I buy these pipes/Powercommander/520 chain/blah blah blah it will make me faster.” Invariably those same individuals would leverage their credit cards to buy the latest titanium bits to lighten their bikes. Did their lap times fall….uh not much if at all and why? Because they’d rather BUY and brag about their gear than learn and practice. How about getting in better cardio shape and losing 15 pounds instead of spending thousands on titanium parts to save 5 pounds of sprung weight? How about listening and implementing what your instructor/coach is telling you instead of justifying why your BIKE is holding you down? Oh well….
So if you’re looking for the latest MTF chart or DxO results here, do yourself a favor and close this browser window now. Occasionally I may mention the type of camera I was using and WHY, but beyond that this article is all about improving your imagination and ability to improvise at will. And in my work, that’s what separates the men from the boys. (No offense to women, you often already practice those qualities…but like most things there are exceptions!) There’s a big difference between TAKING or CREATING a photo…
David Allen Cooper, Principal Horn – Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
David commissioned me for a two day portrait session and although he resides in Dallas, TX he agreed to travel to San Francisco along with his manager to conduct the session. I was free to completely art direct his imagery. His only request is that they were different than traditional symphonic musician portraits and conveyed a younger more relevant look.
I am easily bored. After falling in love with the light characteristics of a new modifier I want to move on, at least until I want the same look a specific modifier gives me. I like having different looks for my images and as such I often combine modifiers. In the images for Emma I wanted a more surreal or ethereal feel for her portraits so I combined a standard projector to fill in the background seamless with a variety of images. I found some of my cloud images read best for this session.
Today while I was conducting a commercial session I decided to run a quick test. I wanted to compare my work camera, the Canon 1DX using Sigma’s new Art 50mm Lens against my Fuji X100S with the TCL X100 teleconverter attached. Both images were shot using the same studio strobes and modifiers. Camera settings on both units was ISO 200, 1/160th shutter speed, f6.3. Obviously both focal lengths were 50mm.
For those who may be sneaky, I’ve removed the EXIF data. It’s quite remarkable what the little Fuji paired with the TCL X100 can do. After all it’s only about a $6,049.00 difference at suggested retail! Smile or no smile, which is which?
In January 2014 I photographed publicity imagery for Village Theatre‘s 2014-15 Season Brochure marketing materials. Some was done against seamless, others done on location. We were able to collaborate with the Company’s principles on concepts and messaging prior to beginning the shoot which made a huge difference in consistent messaging and impact. This was a wonderful experience of complete collaboration.
Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s 2014-15 Season Brochure
In order to put an entire marketing campaign together it first takes vision. The Marketing VP at Dallas Symphony Orchestra had a very specific vision for his 2014-15 Season Brochure. His concept was to carry a “Date Night” theme throughout his brochure, creating an experience which would attract new as well as existing patrons. He also wanted a theatrical and dream like quality to the individual performances, one that matched each symphonic piece.
Keep in mind that whenever you’re hired to create commercial imagery there is quite a bit at stake. Beyond your own reputation, there’s the talent, scheduling, venue logistics, graphics gurus, administrative help, travel, blah, blah blah. And although an Art Director may have a specific shot they have in their own minds, it’s up to the photographer to execute that vision, one that often only exists in the AD’s mind.
I’m always surprised how the majority of posts on photography forums focus primarily on ‘gear’ and ‘which is better.’ It’s as if most people are vapor locked on what type of gear they purchase rather than improving their own skills. Yes, we all wish to improve our craft in creating images and gear is a part of that equation, but the amount of effort and discussion seems to focus on the exact opposite of what would improve one’s own creation of photos. If the amount of effort on gear was placed into other areas, ah but I digress….
Like most photographers be they pro or amateur, all of us know the excitement of getting what we think is a great shot and the desire to share it as soon as possible. In this digital age that means displaying your work through some sort of social media or other form of immediate gratification.
But in the commercial photography world, immediate gratification takes a back seat to business needs and NDAs. So much of what we shoot commercially is shot with extended lead times to be of any value. Marketing materials are carefully planned months or in some cases years in advance. As such, once the shots are in the bag it’s up to the client to decide on the imagery’s strategic timing for public release. And because of that we’re not allowed to display those images on our own sites or through social media. And by the time the images are released publicly we’ve been on to other projects for months. Whenever I receive a client’s marketing materials, I’ve often forgot that I shot that session!
I have two separate client sessions in this article. One was for Dallas Symphony Orchestra and another was for Village Theatre’s publicity for Les Miserables.
Dallas Symphony’s Beets Campaign
The photos I display here were taken in July 2013 and released to the public in late Fall of 2013, about four months after I shot the “Beets Campaign” (Beethoven Festival) for Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Performances begin April 28 2014, almost 9 full months from when I originally shot the session.
About two months prior to the shoot, the VP of Marketing along with some of the Marketing staff and I began a conversation about the overall look, feel and messaging they wished to achieve with the imagery. Rather than presenting musician’s in tuxedos playing music, the VP wanted a much more ‘scandalous’ look, one that coincided with the public’s reaction to Beethoven’s music in that actual time period. When written and performed his music was actually quite scandalous to the audience of that time. Music is all about emotion and the VP wanted a reaction to his campaign that would evoke emotion…and boy it certainly did and in a very good way!
We agreed that on location sessions would be much more effective than shooting the talent in front of seamless and then dropping them into graphics treatments. On location (I refer to them as ‘onlo’) is my favorite type of publicity shooting. Why? Well it forces me to be creative in developing the imagery by not counting on graphics folks to make the imagery have production value. The right location with the right lighting has a richness that just can’t quite be replicated with graphics. Well at least that’s my opinion… Plus I have to be both patient and think quickly on my feet about what the client wants and how I will execute it. The client developed Mood Boards and sent them to me so we could begin discussions on exactly the mood we wished to create for the campaign.
Most non pros have the impression that commercial shooters are able to scout locations months or weeks in advance and carefully plan out the angles, lighting and time of day to shoot. For me that happens on rare occasions and when that happens it’s a true luxury. But in this case the VP simply said, “I’d like to shoot it over at the AT&T Center, I like the juxtapose of a modern building combined with period piece costumes we’re using. We can look around at the locations when you get here.” For all of these shots I had about ten minutes to scout each location around the building and then decide how I was going to light them and shoot them. Should I use natural light? Which camera will be the best for this job? If I need more contrast how many negative reflectors should I use? Do I want motion blur in the image, if so should I drag the shutter or use second curtain sync with a Speedlight? What gels if any do I need to match the ambient? Oh I’m shooting in front of windows, how will I place the light/reflectors/etc. so I don’t get reflections or bounce off the windows I don’t want? (No I’m not of the school that all those things can be ‘corrected’ in post. Getting it right in camera is my preferred method) ALL of these decisions are made quickly because we don’t often if ever have the luxury of time. If you’ve never been ‘the talent’ or the art director, try getting IN FRONT of the camera and you’ll see what YOU consider to be a short amount of time while you are making your adjustments can seem like an eternity to your subject.
Four PCB Einsteins used. One beauty dish to camera left, one Einstein to camera right in order to illuminate her hair and two key lights to camera right. Keeping reflections off the windows here was key.
Les Miserables Publicity
This publicity session was what I called my “First Date” with this client for publicity. I had been previously hired by them to shoot production of another performance, but had never been hired to do publicity. The Marketing Director had seen some of my onlo publicity imagery for other clients and thought it would be great to do one for their production of Les Miz. In this case we took a day to drive around the area to look for just the right setting. I knew that the location needed to replicate the script, stone walls, old wooden doors etc. As we drove around the area I found a couple of “OK” locations, but nothing that really floated by boat.
So I made a call to my partner back in the Bay Area. We normally work together, but since we were double booked (when you’re self employed I call that a ‘pretty girl problem!’) she was back home covering another client’s session. I asked her to get on the Web to look for an old church or rock quarry. In about ten minutes she called back and said “All of the churches close to you are modern and won’t do for what you’re looking for. I checked out a rock quarry very close to you on Google Earth. I can’t tell because the view is from their satellite shot straight down, but it looks like a a great possible for you. Here’s the address. Gotta run, heading to the client shoot, good luck.”
So the Marketing Director and I drove over to the rock quarry and I IMMEDIATELY fell in love with the venue. We spoke with the owner and he was more than willing to allow us to shoot there on the date we wanted for a couple of tickets to the performance. He even went on to say that if our date was when they were closed, he’d be happy to come in and open the place up for us.
So on the day of the shoot the weather was projected to be rain. The Marketing Director called me and said “Mark, what do we do if it rains, I’m nervous!?” I simply said, “If you can have three people there with umbrellas you don’t have to worry.” My plan was to have those three stand over my strobes with their umbrellas so that strobes and power packs were protected. I was actually hoping it would rain because I felt it would add to the ambient atmosphere of the shot and I’ve shot with my 1DX in full rain without a problem. On the day of the shoot, it did rain, but only lightly and the cloud cover was PERFECT for the session. For you gear heads I used PCB Einsteins and his Vagabond Mini power packs. Paul’s lighting is my preferred studio strobe equipment.
Being patient means KNOWING your equipment front to back, no matter what type of camera/lighting you’re using. Your client could care less if you’re using a Nikon, Canon, Fuji or other camera or whether you’re a Profoto fan or Uncle Bob’s strobe user. They could care less if you’re a full frame guy or gal, use a cropped sensor or not. The PICTURE tells the story and how well you know how to think on your feet, exhibit creativity on the run, keep the talent engaged and get a photo better than they ever imagined are elements that separate the men from the fan boys!
Whether you shoot for your entire income, are a ‘semi pro’ or just shoot for the pure enjoyment of the craft, be patient. For me that means taking the time to truly know your gear, all of it. Practice, read, experiment and have fun with what you already have. I get as much fun as the next guy when I want to buy something new. But the real difference is how I USE my gear, not what brand it is or its stats. To a client In the commercial world, you’re only as good as your last session. They’ve trusted me with their whole marketing campaign based on my shooting style and consistency in delivering a great product. Practice, know your existing gear and develop a body of work. One great shot leads to a second great shot. The difference between a good or nice shot and a great one is huge. And that comes only through forced patience.
I had the opportunity to photograph an emerging musician on location in Canada while it was snowing. Lit with a single speed light, ND filter enabled at ISO 200.
Publicity photography for Oakland School for the Arts – Dance Emphasis. These images feature seniors from their 2014 Class. This is my third year working with this remarkable company. They are choreographed and coached by Reginald-Ray Savage and Alison Hurley.
My X100S was utilized in a commercial shoot for Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s 2014 Beethoven Festival Banner (80 feet by 18 feet) which hangs on the side of their building. I chose to make the image with this camera due to its leaf shutter. This was shot with a studio strobe and a parabolic 51″ modifier at f11, 1/640 shutter speed to reduce the ambient light.
Mark Kitaoka Photographs has been contracted as the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s publicity and production photographer