Evolving your style

An established photographer tells me that hiring a first assistant who can teach you new lighting techniques and then employing that new lighting on shoots along with your well established lighting gives clients the option to go with shots they didn’t expect from you and when they publish it… you’ve got a new look.

Thanks for the insight.

Attack of the Former First Assistants

There’s no better way to get started in this business than assisting a photographer and if you can get on with one of the big shots you are guaranteed an Ivy League Education and possibly… tons of verbal abuse. There is an art to barking out orders and whipping the assistants into a frenzy and when done properly it feels like something important is about to take place. Next to “napalm in the morning” I love the sight of an assistant in a fast trot coming over the horizon from the grip truck 5 miles away with 150 lbs. of gear and one of those ridiculous belts with shit hanging off everywhere hitting them in the legs and torso.

Every great photographer I’ve ever worked with has an amazing first assistant.

It seems like there’s a new wave of former first’s–there’s always a group roaming around but this one seems to be particularly large–who’ve recently made the leap from shooting like their old boss to defining their own body of work and they’re starting to get a lot of jobs. If you hire a photographer enough you get to know the first’s and when they finally make the break to go out on their own I always meet with them to look at their book. They deserve it.

Catalog Photographer Train Wreck

I know, I know, I shouldn’t be giving “The Shot” on VH1 (here) any “press” but it was free on itunes and now I’m hooked (I have a secret love of really bad photography). I think it’s more of a disservice to the young impressionable photographers who read this blog to not point out the fallacies and I can at least highlight the important lessons that can be learned and… oh hell, it’s such an effing disaster I can’t turn away.

Here’s some of the takeaway:

  • Russell James is a master at shooting swimwear with dappled sunset lighting so whoever’s gonna win this thing needs to get the assistants to light everything that way. Russell is the client here and has a certain taste in photography.
  • As long as your photos are good it doesn’t matter if you follow instructions. One team shot a dress twice but their photos were better so they still won. Yeah, follow the art direction but don’t let it get in the way of making good pictures first.
  • Talking about photography is really difficult so people tend to focus on shit they know something about. During the critique it was: Oh, that hair is horrible or that dress is awful or the position of her head is odd.
  • Fashion people love graphically strong images. Russell was hinting at this when discussing the big beautiful ship that no one took advantage of to create strong elements in the background.

When you’re given a bad situation and very little time to make something out of it people rely on instinct and that’s where experience comes into play (this is why you only hire veterans to shoot covers, it’s virtually guaranteed something will go wrong). If you threw Russell James into either of the situations presented in the first episode I’ll bet a million bucks he would recreate something that could be found in his book. That’s just how it works; no one is going to reinvent themselves in 5 minutes.

Unfortunately, that meant the wedding photographer just had to go and recreate a wedding scene. Come on man, time to step up, I’m pulling for you.

I got the photo assistants out of the credits because these guys are probably the only reason any of those photos even came close to working out: Adam Franzino, Doyle Leading, Tim O’Malley and Ben Tietge.

Advice From A Photographer

From the comments in the Catalog Photographer post. Solid.

Old Geezer Says:
Old Geezer here. I’m the older brother of Old Yeller. Funny how a post that started about a bad tv show ended up with a bunch of college students asking advice about their future. Well, pull up a chair, boys and girls, and let Old Geezer share some of his hard earned wisdom. I envision a list, of about a hundred items, and we’d have to stop at a hundred, because we’d never remember more than that. Anyone else over the age of forty can chime in too; I’m sure I won’t think of everything.

1. In college, learn as much tech stuff as you can. This will make you more valuable as an assistant. Don’t just be a navel gazer with a 5D.

2. In college, take business classes too. You don’t want to be one of those stoner kids that just reads and ponders life. You want to APPLY what you learned.

3. In college, take as many philosophy classes as you can. Try to think BIG. Try to care about the world. Try to get a grip on the big picture.

4. In college, take a year off and drive across the country, and camp along the way. Do it with good friends that are smart; not dumbasses that just want to get high. Bring some books. Bring some audio books if you can’t read.

5. Make sure and take some acid somewhere along the way. Preferably in Monument Valley or Canyonlands. I know that sounds dumb, but everybody needs to do that once or twice.

6. When you start assisting, consider putting away your cameras entirely for a few years, and concentrate on being a servant. Get into a servant mindspace. Be in a supportive role. Trust me, it helps. This is your time to be a giant sponge and learn as much as you can. It’s not your time to shoot. (Ok, maybe with your iphone, but nothing more serious than that).

7. Think how you can be most useful to a photographer. That will get you hired, and keep you getting hired.

8. Eliminate excess Drama from your life.

9. Live beneath your means. Keep things simple.

10. Be a good conversationalist. Be well read. No one wants to drive five hours with an assistant that doesn’t have anything to add to the conversation. And it better be better than how to make web galleries from Bridge, or something geeky like that.

11. Keep your mouth shut around clients. Just be a good energy, but sure as hell, don’t offer ideas. The photographer has his own agenda, and he needs to work that out with the client.

12. Don’t be late for work. And if you are, call ahead and let the photographer know. Don’t just show up thirty minutes late, especially if it’s on the way to LaGuardia.

13. Be loyal.

14. Go beyond the call of duty.

15. Don’t order expensive drinks after the job, especially if it’s editorial. Be aware of the budget.

16. Turn off your fucking cell phone during the job. Fine to check messages during lunch, when it’s your time, but don’t be sending text messages to your girlfriend, even if nothing is going on in the job. Trust me, even though you’re not aware of it, there is something ALWAYS going on in the job.

17. Reread 16.

18. Be prompt when submitting Invoices. Don’t bitch about photographers always paying late, if you wait twenty days before you Invoice a job.

19. Be a sponge. Notice everything. Notice the way the photographer deals with the client. Notice the issues that the clients have, and be sensitive to these. You, as an assistant, are privy to a ton of valuable unspoken information; make the best use of it. Learn from it.

20. Travel out of the country as much as possible. Learn how other people live. Learn that America is not the center of the universe, and learn that you don’t need your cell phone 24 hours a day. Again, be a sponge, about how other people live.

21. Don’t show up hung over to a job. It’s just not cool. No matter how hard you worked the day before.

22. Dress well. Doesn’t have to be Prada, but try to look competent.

23. Learn your job. Learn the subtleties of a Profoto pack. Learn about the fuses in a Pro 7b. Try to learn CaptureOne, even just the basics of it. You are Support; try to know your craft. Even the geeky details. It’s the geeky details that’ll sometimes save a job. That’s when you’ll be the hero, and you’ll get an extra beer that night at dinner. (But don’t show up the next day hung over).

24. Go to the Times today, and read the Norman Mailer Obit. Try to create your life to be half as interesting as his life. If you do that, you’ll be fine.

25. Always order good Catering. That’s all the client really cares about. And make sure they get put up in a nice hotel.

26. Learn as much technical stuff as you can, because Rule Number One is, the client doesn’t really care about your vision of the world. They care about their vision. If you show one thing in your book, chances are, you’ll be called for something else. So have a good grab bag of tricks, for those days when you walk into a beige conference room, and have to shoot a fat guy on the corner of a desk.

That’s all that Old Geezer knows for now. Maybe someone older can write up another twenty-six.

Good luck with your careers, young people. God knows the world needs another photographer. With SVA and Art Center and the like cranking them out by the hundreds, soon we’ll have enough photographers to handle all those big budget jobs that we all turn down.


Handle your rent; handle your car. Handle your parking tickets. Nobody wants the Sheriff to show up in the middle of a job, with a bunch of parking tickets in his hand, asking to see the assistant. Don’t ask to leave early, “cause you gotta go pay your rent or your phone bill”. Handle all that stuff outside of work. Again, you are Support; you are not the star.

And I forgot the worst one, #27: Don’t approach the client to “show him your work sometime”. It’s the cardinal rule. If you’re there on the job as an assistant, then be in the assistant role. Every client will ask you if you shoot, because they don’t know what else to talk to you about at lunch, but trust me, they really don’t care. They might care a little bit, but they don’t want to see your book. The right way to do it is — Stop Assisting, then become a photographer. Don’t approach a client when you’re on somebody else’s job.

The Next Great Catalog Photographer

Victoria Secret is a catalog, ok. People who shoot women in bikinis, bras and panties for a living are not called fashion photographers.

Go (here) to watch the trailer. It was taking to long to load and bogging down the website so I removed.

Via, You Call This Photography? (here)

More on Style

When I think about a writer with individual style, Hunter S. Thompson comes to mind. That’s why I was floored when I read this:

He didn’t finish high school, but he taught himself to write. He retyped books by writers he admired – Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner – all the heavyweights. He said he wanted to get inside the rhythm of their language and find his own style. (source)


Copy the greats and then just add, “…two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half-full of cocaine and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… also, a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Beer, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls.” Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Martin Schoeller

I’ve never met anyone as loyal as Martin Schoeller (here). To the subject, his team of people, the client, his agent, his style, his goals, the print… everything. It’s more than just being a nice guy and delivering consistently good work there’s honesty and integrity, and a devotion to the craft, and an incredible work ethic that adds up to, well, loyalty.

There was a point in his career where he was thinking oh shit, this big head style is not going to define me but over the last couple years he’s decided the market forces are too great and produced a book and several gallery exhibits of big heads.

Luckily he doesn’t have one.



9th On The List

I had a big shoot a little while back that was so last minute and on the weekend that I went through 8 photographers who said no. When I brought the editor the film he said “what happened to your first choice?” Well, lets see, you dump a huge assignment on me Thursday night for Saturday morning and everyone told me to go to hell except this guy.

Truth is I keep pretty tight lists of photographers and it’s not like this guy was my 8th worse choice it just wasn’t my first choice of styles for the shot. I usually have 3-4 photographers I love for a certain style picked out for a shoot when I start making calls. A couple I’ve worked with before, one who’s emerging and one who’s yet to accept an assignment. If that grouping doesn’t work out I’ll move on to other styles. I have to keep in mind all the different photography going in the issue so I don’t get repetitive with the styles.

Here’s the kicker, when I think I’ve nailed the approach on a subject but then have to switch it because the people I like aren’t available it sometimes turns out better than expected. So, I always wonder if I couldn’t just pull names out of a goddam hat.

Don’t answer that.

My Photo Blog Links Page

I abandoned making a comprehensive links sidebar because Andrew Hetherington (Jackanory) already has one (here) and I just go there if I want to browse photo blogs.

As a bonus he’s got a post up today about NY/LA vs local talent.

Aliens Work at Getty

My proof:




“Finding the right image just got easier,” because we have giant effing eyeballs.

Anton Corbijn Talk

Daniel Boud (here) left a comment on my Anton Corbijn post with audio (here) of Anton talking about his work.

The highlight is his love of imperfection in photography and how, as someone who wants to achieve perfection, he needs to use techniques that force imperfection. He shoots handheld with leicas and likes to print full frame so you see everything that is not right with the image and that’s the perfect way to make a picture. Awesome.

Here’s an old interview that says the same thing (here)

NYC Photo Snobbery

Oddly, I found this yesterday in a book I’m reading and it’s very appropriate for the comments on the post from yesterday. The nut graph (love that editor term) is at the bottom but it’s a doozy.

From “The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

… consider the effect of the first music recording, and invention that introduced a great deal of injustice. Our ability to reproduce and repeat performances allows me to listen on my laptop to hours of background music of the pianist Vladimir Horowitz (now extremely dead) performing Rachmaninoff’s Preludes, instead of to the local Russian émigré musician (still living), who is now reduced to giving piano lessons to generally untalented children for close to minimum wage. Horowitz, though dead, is putting the poor man out of business. I would rather listen to Vladimir Horowitz or Arthur Rubinstein for $10.99 a CD than pay $9.99 for one by some unknown (but very talented) graduate of the Julliard School or the Prague Conservatory. If you ask me why I select Horowitz, I will answer that it is because of the order, rhythm, or passion, when in fact there are probably a legion of people I have never heard about, and will never hear about–those who did not make it to the stage, but who might play just as well.


Furthermore, I believe that the big transition in social life came not with the gramophone, but when someone had the great but unjust idea to invent the alphabet, thus allowing us to store information and reproduce it. It accelerated further when another inventor had the even more dangerous and iniquitous notion of starting a printing press, thus promoting texts across boundaries and triggering what ultimately grew into a winner take-all ecology. Now, what was so unjust about the spread of books? The alphabet allowed stories and ideas to be replicated with high fidelity and without limit, without any additional expenditure of energy on the author’s part for the subsequent performances. He didn’t even have to be alive for them–death is often a good career move for an author. This implies that those who, for some reason, start getting some attention can quickly reach more minds than others and displace the competitors from the bookshelves. In the days of bards and troubadours, everyone had an audience. A storyteller, like a baker or a coppersmith, had a market, and the assurance that no one from far away could dislodge him from his territory. Today, a few take almost everything; the rest next to nothing.

By the same mechanism, the advent of the cinema displaced neighborhood actors, putting the small guys out of business. But there is a difference. In pursuits that have a technical component, like being a pianist or a brain surgeon, talent is easy to ascertain, with subjective opinion playing a relatively small part. The inequity comes when someone perceived as being marginally better gets the whole pie.

In the arts–say the cinema–things are far more vicious. What we call “talent” generally comes from success, rather than its opposite. A great deal of empiricism has been done on the subject, most notably by Art DeVany, and insightful and original thinker who single mindedly studied wild uncertainty in the movies. He showed that, sadly, much of what we ascribe to skills is an after-the-fact attribution. The movie makes the actor, he claims–and a large dose of nonliner luck makes the movie.

The success of movies depends severely on contagions (Egads, I had to look that word up: The spread of a behavior pattern, attitude, or emotion from person to person or group to group through suggestion, propaganda, rumor, or imitation). Such contagions do not just apply to the movies: they seem to affect a wide range of cultural products. It is hard for us to accept that people do not fall in love with works of art only for their own sake, but also in order to feel that they belong to a community. By imitating, we get closer to others–that is, other imitators. It fights solitude.


I seem to be getting a lot of these last minute shoots lately and I have to say it really puts a kink in my style. I’m more of a “sleep on it overnight and let it marinate a little” than, “see how fast I can make an assignment” type of photo editor.

The biggest problem (besides the fact we’re a magazine not a goddam newspaper) is 75% of the photographers I want to use are already unavailable. If that’s not enough the editor can’t seem to decide if it’s going to be a small or big feature so I’m left in the lurch on what kind of money to spend on this. The kicker is that the subject will be a moving target, traveling between two locations, none of which happens to be LA or NYC.

After reading the writers pitch I decide I want a photographer who can make a strong emotional portrait who is also a photojournalist for some of the fast paced stuff I foresee.

Now, the budget needs to get worked out and normally, I would go all out to get the right photographer for the job because this story has legs and I don’t want to look like an ass if the writer lands the story of the year and my photos totally blow.

I’m gonna play it safe though because the CFO is watching me. It’s the beginning of the year and we’re still negotiating the page rates. If I can find someone I like who’s available in NYC that doesn’t need an assistant and massive equipment budget then I’ll fly them otherwise I’ll check my lists and see who I like at the starting or ending points.

Hope I don’t roll snake eyes.

Name Your Price 2

The the temporary bridge between where we are now and free is officially “Name Your Own Price”. Paste magazine is giving out subscriptions for NYOP (here).

Comments Welcome

A quick shout out to all the commenter’s who add their valuable insight and expertise to my posts. Your contribution to this process cannot be overstated. I visit many blogs daily where the comments amount to nice, wow and shut up asshole.

Your presence makes this website work.

Thanks: Mark Tucker, dude , Bruce DeBoer , Olivier Laude, myles, john mcd., Russell Kaye, Cameron Davidson, Bernd Gruber, Christopher Bush, Red, myles, The Jackanory, avs, John Loomis, Lewis, chris floyd, Mark Harmel, George Fulton, all the anon’s and many, many more…

The Best Photo Didn’t Win

Sometimes, I feel satisfied knowing I assigned and then you shot the perfect image even though it’s not the one that will run in the magazine.

For whatever reason I was overruled because it didn’t fit the design or was similar in composition to other images in the issue or the overruling party didn’t feel the same way about it that I did. And so, it will never be seen by the millions of readers or enter into the permanent archive of published works.

Knowing that it exists is enough for me.

Kurt Markus told me recently over beers that satisfaction in photography comes from making the best image you can, printing it as well as you can and moving on to the next one.

When I make the final print order I sometimes include it anyway.

Retouching: The Head Pop

I’m all for a head pop or a leg or arm or whatever needs poppin’ as long as it’s from the same photo session who cares and really who can tell when the head in an image is replaced with a head from 5 min. later so you can get the correct facial expression.Retouching is so ubiquitous in photography anymore and really we’ve been doing it forever–I mean check this out (here), you will shit your pants when you see all the images that have been altered over the years–that I really don’t care about switching body parts to get a killer cover that will sell on the newsstand.

But, when you’re the New York Times Magazine and you have a photo alteration policy like this:

Photography and Images. Images in our pages that purport to depict reality must be genuine in every way. No people or objects may be added, rearranged, reversed, distorted or removed from a scene (except for the recognized practice of cropping to omit extraneous outer portions). Adjustments of color or gray scale should be limited to those minimally necessary for clear and accurate reproduction, analogous to the “burning” and “dodging” that formerly took place in darkroom processing of images. Pictures of news situations must not be posed. In the cases of collages, montages, portraits, fashion or home design illustrations, fanciful contrived situations and demonstrations of how a device is used, our intervention should be unmistakable to the reader, and unmistakably free of intent to deceive. Captions and credits should further acknowledge our intervention if the slightest doubt is possible. The design director, a masthead editor or the news desk should be consulted on doubtful cases or proposals for exceptions. Source (here)

and then you clearly run a photo on Steve Nash on the cover (here) that is so perfect if you didn’t pop his head you popped the arm or leg or ball or all of the above:


I’m going to call you out on it.

Finlay Mackay feel free to tell me I’m wrong and I’ll eat crow.

Correction: It appears I’m wrong about Finlay Mackay retouching the image of Steve Nash according to a commenter who I believe was on set when the image was taken.

Fact is I’m a bit jealous at how perfect it is and probably prone to arm and head and leg poppin’ my lazy ass self instead of getting Nash to do 200 goddam takes. My hat is off to you Finlay. Lucky for me my readers have provided a recipe for Crow that I may substitute with pigeon for convenience sake.