Working Within The Limits of Our Equipment

I’m in the Big Box Store and it’s about thirty minutes before opening time.  A woman looks around, spots me, and heads over.

“Hi, I called the 800 Number and they told me you could work me in if I showed up before you opened.  There will be about twenty of us in the picture.”

“Twenty?” I say and look over at my six foot wide, eight foot tall background.  I then look at my fixed focus camera and smile. “I’m sorry, but it’s not possible for me take a portrait of twenty people here.”

“But the 800 Number said you would take our picture.  They said you just needed a little more time to get us set up.”

“It’s not possible for me to take a portrait of twenty people on a six foot background.”

“But the lady said. . .so your not even going to try?”

I suppress a laugh.  “No, Mame, I am not even going to try.”

Most people don’t realize, or care,what goes into making a Portrait.  They don’t know the difference between Richard Avedon’s Studio and my Assembly Line Portrait studio.

That image on the cover of Vogue or Sports Illustrated is not straight out of the camera.  So even if I can duplicate the pose, I will not be able to duplicate the image-and in most cases, will not be able to duplicate the lighting either.

My first Assembly Line Portrait Studio sat on a six foot by nine foot rug with a set of four 6 foot backgrounds at one end and a camera on a fixed position at the other end.  This setup was designed to take baby pictures-or up to six adults, provided they were on the thin side.  So basically anything other than a small child presented a challenge and most groups larger than a family of four were SOL.

The next place I worked was a big step up on the equipment front and I had the greatest freedom and access to lights and light modifiers of any place I have ever worked.  This company was run by a couple of people who didn’t really know anything about portraits, but they did know it made them money.

Photo equipment salesmen loved these two.  They would order everything from soft boxes to 60 inch umbrellas to beauty dishes to snoots and grids.  Of course, none of them knew what to do with them once they had them.  So there was a roomful of toys for me to play with.  I only worked there a year-but I easily took some of my best portraits while I was there.

My current Assembly Line Portrait Studio has an eight foot background and a ten foot background, but I can make it much longer if I need to.  A group of Twenty would be no problem for me today.  My largest group on an 8 foot background was 22 people.  It was still a tight fit, but you could see everyone’s face.  And yes, you can choose that one for the Freebie.

I have two umbrellas for main and fill lights, a small background light, and a hair light on a boom.  I have about twenty colored gels to change the tone and mood of the background.  I adjust the intensity of the lights by moving around.  I can do full length shots to tight close ups, but most people only come prepared for a bust shot.

With this limited arsenal, I can create something close to art.  But I still pine away for a handful of other tools.  I would like a small spotlight with a Fresnel lens and a set of cookies to project patterns behind the subjects.  I also have a lust for a Lens Baby, which allows for a controlled soft focus effect.  I also miss the days when I got to use a Pocket Wizard and wasn’t tied down to a tripod with a dozen wires.

But the Assembly Line Portrait Photographer works with what he is given, because it isn’t really my studio and I don’t have the money to buy toys for myself.

Of course, if someone wanted me to test their Products in the field, I would be more than happy to oblige.

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