2 in 1, or: my visual Gemini life

My work for the last few years has developed this neat-o split personality. I do portraits and I do reportage. Sometimes I get to do that for the same assignment which is to me very cool.

I do a lot of business profiles and to me it’s important to not only make the head dude/dude-ette look cool but also, if at all possible to show the people who work there who don’t wear the fancy suits. When you realize that the big guy that you are photographing has maybe ten minutes to spend with you, ya need organization and the ability to make a lot happen in no time with no fuss. That’s when I drag in all the cases of lights and stands and impressive looking stuff. I make a plan which usually consists of  2-3 different looks in one general area so that I can be as efficient as possible. I usually figure that I really only have five minutes to get “John Bigbooty, President of Megacorp, with their new SuperWidget XL2”. Once that is done I pack up all the gee-whiz stuff and go light and mobile: one body and usually just my 24-70 which which to head back to the engineering lab where they are hard at work developing the SuperWidget XL2 PLUS.

I love these assignments as they very clearly represent my two selves: the lighting it just right meticulous me and the freewheeling “screw the technicals – this is neat-o!” me.

Case in point: I did photos at a Denver company called MMLocal who is making waves with their small batch and rather artisan pickles. It’s run by two friends who are super dudes and they were a lot of fun to shoot for the five or so minutes that I could pry them away from running their quickly growing company. BTW I really lucked out here. They look a bit a like, dressed alike that day so I make the shot sorta monochromatic by shooting them against the side of their big galvanized cooler where they ferment their sauerkraut. Made their brightly colored product stand out.


Then I headed to the production facility and got this shot of one of their guys putting in a batch of pickles into the steamer for canning. Moody!


Case #2. It’s a small world and I was sent to shoot my buddies at Renegade Brewing once again. Brian O’Connor their founder and head brewmeister is a heck of-a guy but with a big expansion under way is the “one armed paper hanger”.

Renegade 1

Then it was back to shoot the pirates in the brewhouse making the end result of Brian’s master plans.

Renegade 2

I love these gigs. It works all of my brain and forces me to be as creative as possible in the shortest amount of time. My head often hurts at the end of the day but I like it that way.

My new little friend – read as: a personal touch

I'm not much of an ego kinda guy so I really don't like "tooting my horn". Thus marketing myself is always tough when I'm not meeting someone in person. It just feels, well, impersonal and that puts me off. So I have been thinking of some way to make my meager attempts to get new business more personal and more like, well, me. Sending out postcards and e-mailers really has a mass produced feel to me. I mean if you are going to print out, say, 500 identical cards with the same image on them how do you get around the cookie cutter aspect of it? Well you can, as I do, write a note directly to the person. That's cool but writing 200+ little notes reminds me of some kind of penal sentence rather than some form of human outreach.

But the little things matter. Editor who gets something like this knows that even if the image isn't quite what they are looking for you took the time to pick up a pen and jot something down.

Even a: "Hey there Mr. Gill. Loved the April issue. That feature on autism was amazing. Would love to work for you. Cheers!" let's them know their work and that you are paying attention. It's the little things. You aren't going to get that from a service that mails postcards from your database. Nope.

But the rub is: I have to hand write them and my handwriting has been called many things except for "elegant". Scribble, chicken scratches, not-so-short-hand, a total mess, illegible … that kind of thing. So when I'm writing out my cards I'm printing so slowly and concentrating so hard that it not only takes me a very long time to write out a few sentences but after a dozen or so cards my hand is cramping and I need a nap. Well maybe not that bad but still!

So enter "Diana".

Little friend

I picked her up today. She's a little green Royal model "Diana" from the early 1960's and came complete with the neat brown leather clam shell travel case. Twenty bux! I'm going to do my next promo deal-y on her. It will be just as personal as doing it by hand but might give people the idea that I am eccentric. A plus! Artists are supposed to be quirky right? Most importantly they will be able to read what I'm sending. Super bonus with that.

When I get my next promo going I'll post it here. Should be fun.

AC/DC as a lesson in photography

I was having lunch with my buddy Peter … everyone say “Hi


He is the guitarist and singer in two cool bands
Shimmersound and Quitters Anonymous. We got talking about the creative process,
as we often do, and he said something that really made me think. He said “Look
at AC/DC, they have great songs and all that but when you really listen to them
there is a total lack of ego there. At no time is anyone getting in the other
players way. Nobody is trying to show off and that is so rare.”

Photographers, like any working artist, wants to be allowed
to do their thing. We want to be the author of our work and don’t want to
sacrifice our grand and noble “artistic integrity” whatever that is. Lots of us
tend to do work that is in some way self serving. We are married to a technique we are fond
of, a process/look that we think is special, subject matter that we think has
more merit than others, whatever. You know the type. Maybe he can't possibly shoot without his ring light or has to do lots and lots of post processing. Nothing else will do.

Now I have said before that our work should
make ourselves artistically happy in the long run and I will always stand by
that. However it’s amazing how many photographers are tough to work with. We
can be demanding divas and petulant children and I don’t understand why these
folks get work.

I was just talking to an editor yesterday who let me know
that the image that I shot for the cover was being replaced by another image of
mine from the shoot. Seems that some editors didn’t “get it”. My reaction: why
should I care; I’m still on the cover so why freak out? I know that some
photographers would. Yeah the initial image was way cooler and the one they are
going to use is much more straight forward and to me rather boring in
comparison but I’m not offended by the switch and why should I be?

As I see it, when I’m hired I’m part of a team and my job is
to bring back to the client what they need with as little trouble as possible. Keep
it simple stupid, right? But I hear about other photogs who simply have to
bring a big entourage to the set or have specific demands on trifles such as
the snacks to be delivered during the lunch break and I just shake my head. How
does that kind of attitude effect the subject? Do they enjoy that kind of
energy coming from their photographer and does that help them relax and make
better photos? Eh!

Personally I try to make the process of making photos as
simple and fun as possible. I see myself as a problem solver and never want to
be adding to the stress. Hotel booked up? I’ll sleep in a tent. It’s raining? I’ll
do the shoot indoors. Subject having a rough day? I’ll work fast and make it
fun somehow. That’s my job.

It’s not about me. Ever. Yeah I have concepts and a style
and all that but it all has to work for the end result: a photo that makes the
client want to hire me again and to make an image that is fair to the subject.
I want the process to be invisible and for me to be just a dude that the
subject is hanging out with and not some pompous and demanding jerk. As such I
love to work with stylists and editors who are all about the artistry and not
the artist.

I did a quick and easy shoot this morning with a guy who has
been photographed quite a bit. I was walking the subject out of the studio he
said something to the effect that of all the photographers that he’s worked
with I was the easiest and most fun. That’s exactly what I want them to
experience: a fun time making some photos with nothing, especially me, getting in the way.

Something old something new

My wife and I don’t quite belong in this era. She loves
vintage fashion and often gets lost in the costumes of period movies. While we
are watching a film like Gosford Park,
that takes place in 1932, I can hear her thinking “Oooo! I want that dress and
that one and wow I love that hat!”. As for me I love to tell people that “I’m
totally 80’s … like 1480’s!” meaning that I love to explore and if I were
living in those times I’d be on a ship or land expedition trying to find out
what’s “over there”.


Meanwhile back at the ranch … the editor wanted to do a
piece on the resurgence of vintage clothing. Lots of places are selling
expensive remakes of classic looks but her idea was that we would do actual
pieces from a great local vintage shop. Their store is broken up by decade: 30’s
over here, 50’s over there … of course my wife fell in love with the joint. I
decided that it would be cool to shoot the outfits in a manner that was similar
to how they did fashion in each era that the clothes were from. This is tough
as there were dozens of great photographers from each era along with some whose
work, like say Penn or Avedon, spanned many decades. Still there were common
visual themes to each. I spent quite a bit of time sitting on the couch with
the wife researching this and of course she kept saying “Ooo … now THAT’S a
skirt!” Consequently I now know more about historic fashion photography than I
ever thought that I would. It was interesting to see how the technology of the
day changed both what the photographers could do and how they worked with their
new toys. Complicated lighting of outdoor subjects just wasn’t possible before
modern powerful strobes so the location fashion shoots before the 50’s was
natural light. Even into the 60’s they didn’t light the heck out of things –
that came in the 70’s and especially the 80’s. The color palette was also
different as film stocks changed.


So my idea was to make each shot a kind of homage to how
things were photographed then and that meant a bit of post processing as well. We
were doing 40s-80s and all of that was done of film and the early years were
done on large format. So I ended up putting each image into a film frame and
processing the image to match the era.  This was pretty fun project. 

40's. Totally ambient light not even a reflector. We got lucky with the lighting here even though I had lots of strobes and reflectors and such just in case.

50's Two lights here. I put my 60" shoot through umbrella way up at the ceiling of the studio to act as a base light for our model and the gray seamless while a small softbox is high and pointed down at camera right. I'm on a ladder above her while my assistant is holding a subtractive card just out of the frame at camera left.



60's. We went with "mod" not hippy 60's as per my request. I wanted that bright look that they used then. Again two lights. A strobe with a 40 degree grid very high at the background to produce the gradation and a medium softbox at camera right.

70's. I wanted the whole over warm with sun streak "Foster Grant" thing here. Getting the sun to splash over her was tough since I didn't want to make it too pronounced. Ambient with a reflector. There were guys playing frisbee just out of the view of the camera here and they certainly gave us the "Wha-tha?"


80's I wanted to allude to the self absorbed aspect of that decade as well as the self destructiveness. When I was getting the mirrors for the shoot the lady at the craft store asked me if I wanted them in bubble wrap to keep them safe. "Oh no," I said "I'm going to smash them in a few minutes anyway". Ha! One light here a medium softbox at camera left and a reflector at camera right.


In the dark


This is from a shoot I did that was made possible by few things.

1) A great subject. Vivian is a great gal with a stunning look. She was superb to work with and was perfect for the modern urban look we were going for.

2) PocketWizards. This was done with two strobes but one was very much behind me and there was no easy way to trigger them with my beloved Nikon CLS system. The Wizards make the "you gotta be kidding me!" totally possible.

3) Willingness to risk. While I was setting this up, in an alley just steps away from a very busy street where lots of evening revelers going to and from clubs I heard one person with a camera say something like "that won't work. It's too dark" Ha! I used the darkness as a low fill light and let my two strobes do all the work.

The setup is pretty simple: I had an SB-800 up about 10 feet on a stand to my left and behind me about ten feet using a Zoot Snoot to create the spot of light on her. I had another SB-800 low and parallel to the wall giving separation to her legs. That was handled by my Voice Activate Light stand named Kim. I used my workhorse Nikon AF-S 28-70mm f/2.8 @ f/5.6 on my Nikon D700 set to ISO 200 for 1/8th of a sec. Like this:
Vivian diagram
I triggered the strobes with my PocketWizards. Once we wound Vivian up good and tight the rest was a total snap. I really think that it's so much easier to light things when you don't have to crazily overpower the ambient. These strobe in the dark situations are to me far more interesting than just finding a way to overpower the sun. Besides, without a day lit scene to work with you can do more with lights and make the photo look "natural" because in dark situations we are use to seeing dim light being reflected by all kinds of surfaces and light sources. In this case I made the light on the stand similar to a street light and the low light the reflection of something else.

Hang around

I'm not sure who first said it but it's totally true. "If you hang around one spot long enough, something interesting will happen". I was at the local home and garden show a while back and knew that something a bit odd was going to happen at the flower sale area. Oh yeah don't 'cha know it – it's just the most bizarre thing in the world (not). So I was just sitting there surrounded by all these potted flowers in bags when this lady walked up and started sticking her head into the flower bags to smell them. I didn't see any others doing this so the frame was easy to make. I think it's funny but then everyone says that "He ain't right in the head".

Home and Garden

Technicals: Nikon D700, ISO 200, 1/8th sec. Nikon AF-D 24mm @ f/8.