Tools of The Trade

“What kind of camera do you use?” The man says as he walks up to the camera and peers at it through his glasses. “A Nikon?”

“Yeah, it’s a D70, a good camera.  I like it.”

“What f-stop do you use?” He asks as he tried to see around the bundle of cables and covers that encase the camera.

“Don’t know.  Whatever the preset from Corporate was when they sent it out.”

“It’s not your equipment?” The mas asks in mild surprise.

“Nope.  It all belongs to The Company.”

Watching TV and the Movies you’d think that every Pro Photographer in the world owns a Hassleblad,  tons of equipment, and works in a Studio the size of a small industrialized nation.  Reading the Pro Mags like Rangerfinder and Professional Photographer, photographers are sold the bill of goods that they really need a couple of dozen lights, backgrounds, modifiers, several camera bodies, and a nice assortment of lenses in order to just get by.

Try telling that to a discount photography company with a couple of hundred photographers to be equipped and maintained.

I’ve worked with photo equipment that I wouldn’t stop and pick up off the curb before the trash collector got to it.  Cameras twenty years out of date and newer models held together with duct tape.  Power packs one flash away from having the capacitor blowing and ringing through the air like a shotgun blast.  Lighting umbrellas held together with more duct tape and twist ties.  Stools and light stands that were once black, but which now have an interesting Post Modern look with faded and flaked off finishes-they no longer work the way they were designed to either.

When I started out, the weapon of choice for all Assembly Line Portrait Photographers was the ZII.  This work horse of a camera shot 70mm long roll film and you could shoot all day without having to change a hundred foot roll of film.  This camera was designed to be used all day, everyday.  It had an eyepiece that was on a swivel on the side of the camera-so that you just looked into it and saw the view-screen in a small mirror.  You could use a ZII all day without knocking yourself out.  The tripod had a little crank to adjust the height and there was a little lever in the back that adjusted the camera’s tilt up and down.

Damn, I miss using a ZII.

The ZII is a dinosaur, an all but forgotten relic of by gone days.  We all use right off the shelf prosumer cameras now.   Five to ten megapixel cameras with familiar names like Nikon, Olympus, or Cannon.  I don’t know of any Assembly Line Portrait companies using Hassleblads or Roleiflexes.   Or even the high end models from Nikon, Olympus, or Cannon.

The result is that the Assembly Line Portrait Photographer that used to spend an easy day looking down into an ergonomically designed viewfinder, now spends their day crouched behind an SLR camera on a tripod and squinting through that tiny rectangle to compose those rapid fire portraits.

This is bad for the back, bad for the eyes, and makes getting that perfect shot a lot harder.  The good news is that you never have to change film-just burn CDs.

Some places I have worked didn’t bother with the expense of a tripod.  There you have to handhold a five pound camera while trying to choocy coo a baby into smiling and then capturing that nanosecond smile while moving the camera and framing the image.  That’s more work than I ever like to do.

With the exception of the ZII, none of these Portable Studios were designed to be Portable.  We carry around cameras, computers, printers, varied and sundry electronic equipment that was never meant to be setup and tore down on a daily basis-and it is more often than not, a daily basis.

Then we are all surprised when the jury rigged setup mysteriously breaks down from time to time.  I guess the real surprise is that they don’t break down as often as they could.  Dedicated software, special setups for capturing the image, special setups for tripping the lights, special setups for getting the images to the Passers once you take them.

The Instant Preview is the biggest change in the way Assembly Line Portraits are sold.  Gone are the days of waiting two or three weeks to see the images, you see them now, and if you don’t like them-you can have them retaken.

The Studio I use now is a hundred times better than the one I used on those Big Box shoots when I first started, but it still only uses four lights and usually only three backgrounds.   This is simple stuff, a couple of umbrellas, and a couple of light heads with small reflectors.

And with this we are expected to make images that rival the best you can get anywhere-and, amazingly, there are even times that we do make great images.

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