Seeing and Capturing

“Don’t you like this portrait?” The Manager says as I set one of the wallet sized portraits to one side. “This is a really good portrait, if you don’t like it we might have problems.”

“It’s a duplicate pose.” I say as I sort through the stack of a couple of hundred portraits. “I already have the pose in my stack of ‘likes.’

“It’s the same pose, but it’s not the same kind of subject.” The Manger says. “We have to treat each subject as an individual, even if they are all getting the same exact pose.”

I’ve only worked for one Real Studio in the last 15 years-that is one studio that was a permanent location where I worked with the same group of people everyday.  I lasted there all of three months.  I was, at the start, completely out of my depth.

This Studio used medium format cameras-Hasselblads and Mamiyas.  They had four camera areas, dozens of sets and backgrounds, countless lights and light modifiers.  Their primary light sources were soft boxes-while the light modifier of choice for the Assembly Line Portrait is a cheap and easy to use umbrella.  And they all had that attitude that they knew everything-and I, of course, knew nothing.

As an Assembly Line Portrait photographer you setup the lights and them forget them.   You don’t worry about light ratios.  You don’t feather the light.  You don’t care about large light sources vs small light sources and you never run into terms like specularity or broad lighting.  I’ve meet Assembly Line Portrait photographers who have never heard the terms Landscape and Portrait used to describe how an image is oriented.

My three months at this Studio proved not to be all that different form any other Assembly Line Portrait Studio-as it turned out, they were even more of an Assembly Line than most of the other Companies I worked for.  They did Senior Portraits-which means High School Seniors.

There were four or five photographers working during the busy season.  We ran the kids from one room to another, each of us doing a set of three or four portraits which took only seconds to take.  The reason a Senior Portrait Session takes most of a day is that the kids have to change clothes and primp between Camera Rooms.

As the low man on the totem pole I got to sort through old paper work in the attic, make inventories of all the equipment, and vacuum the floors.  My job in the photography department was to snap the Yearbook picture-easily the dullest and least artist form of photo work this side of the DMV.  I did work the other rooms from time to time.  I knew most of the poses, though I did occasionally forget to reposition the lights or failed to get the body at the just the right angel for our demanding boss.

I learned that owning a Senior Studio was a good way to make a few million dollars a year, but that working for one was a good way to starve and go broke.  It’s all about the Contracts.  Once you have a Contract with a number of schools, the students have to go to your studio for their yearbook photo.  And while they are there, you do a couple of dozen other photos-just like every other Bait and Switch Assembly Line Portrait Outfit.

One of the things that really amazed me about this Studio was that they didn’t hire professional Sales people.  They had the High School kids who answered the phones and set up the appointments do the selling.  This is kind of mind boggling, but it made a certain amount of sense.  This Studio ran $700 averages and had Packages that went up to about $2500.  If people are forking over hundreds of dollars without the help of a real salesperson, why bother paying out commission to one?  Well, for one thing, what if you got a $1500 average instead of a $700 average?  Of course, that was pretty much the rub, the old bastard running the place was perfectly happy making a couple of million a year-why bother making four or five million?  Well, you could have paid your photographers a decent wage for one thing.

I have interviewed at a couple of other Real Studios from time to time.  These are not people who are impressed that I show up on time and can shot 50 sittings a day.  These are people that want me to have a Masters Degree in Photography and a full working knowledge of Photoshop, Painter, and whatever in house software they use to make Composites and do their Billing.  I am pretty good with Photoshop, but I have never used it at work and I know next to nothing about setting up Workflows.  And then they want to pay about half of what I make as An Assembly Portrait Photographer.

Oh yeah, and most ads for Portrait Photographers want Wedding Photographers-which is not one of my skillsets.

One of the things this Real Studio was big on was glamour posing.  They were especially fond of C poses and modified C poses and S poses.  These are poses where imaginary lines form the letter and give the image a certain dynamics.  I was never that good at capturing these images, at least, never as good as they wanted me to be.

So I was fired after diddling around for a few months.  Even now I still think I was the best portrait photographer working at that Studio.  When the people who worked there had their own portraits taken, they asked me to take them.  Then, as now, there was an odd kind of disconnect between what the Studio wanted and what the Customer wanted.    It was a classic case of It’s Our Way or the Highway-and I ended up on the Highway.

I still miss the equipment.  Cameras that worked, lights that worked, more props and toys than I had ever used before or since.  Because it was a Permanent Studio and you didn’t have to drag all that crap around all the time.  We still had problems with the equipment now and then, but it was easy enough to replace or repair-funny what all the money in the world can do for a Studio.

I would still like to work in a Real Studio again, but I think Assembly Line Portraits have ruined me for real work.  Not that my photography is not good enough, but that I could never again put up with someone standing behind me telling me what to do.

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