Category Blog

Changing Mood By Photographing Opposites

mood

Before I owned a studio full of lighting gear and travelled with assistants, I spent years as a photojournalist who owned little more than a Domke F-2 bag with two camera bodies.  When you boil things down, I’m a location photographer who happens to have a studio.

When on location, I often have to travel quickly, adjust on the fly and create visual gold out of thin air.   When it comes to using light, I’ve learned to work fast and to think in opposites.  More on that in a moment.  The advantages of also having a studio means that I can test and experiment with my lighting before going on scene, which is a huge plus.

A recent collaboration with Virginia, a local actress looking for theatrical images, demonstrates the idea of “opposites” well.  The challenge was to create a series of distinct looks in the studio in a relatively short period of time, relying only on lighting and a few key elements. As a mental exercise, I try to challenge myself to create looks that are visual “opposites”–i.e., if I photograph a scene heavily lit, then I’ll try one completely using natural light. If something is very dark toned, I’ll try one scenario that is all light or white tones. It’s a way of expressing something completely different even with the same subject and location.

My favorite image of the day was of Virginia wrapped in a flowing red scarf, blowing in the breeze. In the absence of the background, the red scarf gives life and movement to the image and I love how it turned out. Then there’s the quiet moment of Virginia, looking dark with warm, low-contrast tones. Contrast these with images where she is looks unflinchingly at the frame, a study in bright tones.

One space, a few elements, and deliberate lighting to help convey a different mood. Virginia knocked it out of the park.

 

mood

 

mood

 

 

Everything I Know I Learned From ASMP (and Spiderman)

asmp

This week I was honored to have my work and an interview published by the ASMP (American Society of Media Photographers) on their blog, Strictly Business.

I’ve been a member of the ASMP since 2007. That was a big year of transition for me, as I built my commercial and editorial business in a part of the country in which I was a relative newcomer. I had decided to quit my job as Assistant Managing Editor at the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, ending a 13-year career in newspapers. One month later, I did just that.  I had been a freelancer, a “stringer”, a staff photojournalist, a chief photographer and photo editor. I’d covered stories in places as varied as Hong Kong, Russia and Sedona, Arizona. I’d been embedded with troops in Iraq. I’d won lots of national and regional awards.

It was a complete and total blast.

Then, it was over.

Ultimately,  I left newspapers because I wanted to photograph and create content again.  I felt that doing so as an independent professional would give me greater flexibility, control and creative freedom to tell the types of visual stories that I wanted to tell.

Of course, with greater freedom comes greater responsibility, or so says Spider-Man.

As I contemplated building my new career, I knew I’d need help. Help to understand how businesses talk and what they need. Help to navigate the contracts and licensing that would keep me in business and my clients protected and happy. After a career in newspaper photojournalism, I knew two things about business: jack and squat. While I still have much to learn, I have a successful business working with brands I love–and it’s due in no small part to the tutelage and assistance of the ASMP and the help of many talented photographers.

Behind the Curtain with Maine Freemasons

Maine Freemasons

Having a camera is like having a Golden Ticket into the lives of others. It’s opened doors on people, experiences and places that otherwise I’d have never met, done or seen.

It’s an honor to be allowed into peoples’ lives, and it’s a trust that I hold very sacred. That’s why I was so excited that my camera recently opened another door: one that led to the Freemasons of Maine. I was chosen to produce an initial set of images for a website redesign the Grand Lodge of Maine has been planning for some time.

I should note that my sum of knowledge of fraternal organizations stems from brief visits to my father’s Elk Lodge as a kid and a long-ago viewing of the movie National Treasure.  I’m pretty sure neither qualify as research.   I was eager to meet real Masons and photograph some of the actual ceremonies in Portland’s gorgeous Masonic Temple.

Freemasonry has a long and storied history in Maine, with roots going back to the first lodge, chartered in Falmouth in 1762. Portland’s Triangle Lodge 1 still has their original charter, signed by Paul Revere in 1796 (yes, that Paul Revere).

The Masons still attract men—young and old—drawn by the many traditions and looking for camaraderie, connection and brotherhood.

You might not have suspected as much, looking at the Maine Masons website, which was in need of a redesign and new visuals. Most images they had showed members in tuxedos, wearing Masonic aprons in a formal lodge setting.  Although I did photograph some of these same things, one important part of the project I’ve done so far with them is a portrait series of Masons in Maine, both in and outside of the lodge setting.  Work is ongoing, but I’ve had a great time so far meeting with the members and learning about the organization–a peek behind the velvet curtain, so to speak.

What I found was a thriving group of individuals of all ages who are devoted to each other and to their community.  I plan to be able to add additional images soon.

Maine Freemasons

 

Maine Freemasons

 

 

Maine Freemasons

A Portrait Of Martin’s Point Healthcare

healthcare

I can’t think of any other industry that touches everyone’s lives at one point or another like the healthcare industry does.

Not surprising that one of the constant themes of my work over the years has been photographing doctors, nurses and first responders. As a journalist I covered endless procedures, including open-skull brain surgery, in-home hospice and spent nights at hospitals and with paramedic crews.

Now I work for agencies and healthcare providers directly, creating imagery that increasingly focuses on patients and on desired outcomes (instead of showing doctors, show the healthy lives enabled by quality healthcare). It’s a fun challenge. That’s why I was excited to take on a more editorial-style project about Martin’s Point, a Maine based care center located right on Casco Bay.

Instead of focusing on patients, I would focus on the “story” of Martin’s Point–a series of images that speaks to the experience of being there, the environment and the mood of the main clinic. I did photograph some procedures and patient care, but my focus was on the feel of the place, on the caring interactions of providers and even behind-the-scenes images of places where patients don’t normally go. A multi-faceted portrait of healthcare in Maine.

The project was a step back to my editorial roots and a lot of fun. Please check out the complete story on my site to see all of the images.

Workplaces, Work Faces

Faces of Work

Work.  It’s always been a big focus of my life and definitely a focus of my professional body of images.   I photograph people at work, doing work, and showcasing the results of their work.   Work—hopefully, meaningful work—gives our lives value and helps us get up in the morning, ready to put in long hours away from family, from home and from friends.  I’m fascinated by what drives people to give so much blood, sweat and tears to companies they own or companies they punch a clock for.

To me there’s no better lens through which to view our changing society than by photographing the work people do and how they do it.

This is one of my favorite portraits from the last year, part of a series of images (here and here) documenting the changing look and feel of the modern workplace.  It’s of Nate Tower, who leads marketing strategy efforts at Energy Circle, a marketing and technology company and one of the fastest-growing businesses in Maine in 2016.

Stay tuned to this blog for additional work that I’ll be rolling out throughout 2017, showcasing the interesting workplaces…and the people I find there.

 

Hiring a Professional Photographer? Read This First.

Hiring Professional Photographers

 

 

Last week I got a call from a potential client and discovered, upon hearing about their project, that I couldn’t help. Not directly, anyway: I suggested a couple other local photographers whose body of work matched their needs who I thought were a better fit, and wished them good luck.

It dawned on me that the client was calling me not because I was the perfect fit, but because I was a Professional Photographer who could handle any type of job involving a camera.

I walked away from that conversation realizing that those seeking professional photography are often uncertain which questions to ask photographers.  Any professional shooter worth their salt should be able to help clients ask the right questions, of course, but here are ten things to ask or consider next time you are in the market for a professional photographer that will increase the odds your experience will be good and your ultimate images, great.

Does their work fall into distinct and definable categories, or is it all over the place?

The days of the generalist photographer are gone. If a photographer shoots everything from landscape to product to family portraits to corporate work to weddings (all of them a very different clientele), then there is no obvious focus to their work. Look for a portfolio that shows depth in the type of imagery that you want or most need.  Chances are, if a situation or challenge comes up during the shoot, these expert specialists will have encountered it before and can quickly deal with it. (One side note: any experienced photographer, particularly those with editorial experience, really are trained as generalists and can do a variety of different types of work well….but they will typically separate this work into different websites.  For example, I have a headshot website in addition to my main website; others may have different portals for wedding work and corporate/commercial work.)

Does the photographer’s work speak to you?

Importantly, can you see it representing you or your brand? Beyond the ‘logical’ is the emotional.  Photography is primarily a non-literal, emotional medium that communicates mood and feeling.  At a gut level, a photographer’s work will pull you in and resonate with you (ideally).  When you think about your brand, what adjectives do you use to describe the mood and feel of your brand? If it’s contemporary, bold, and masculine, you’ll be looking for a different style of visuals than an organization wanting to emphasize teamwork, warmth, and fun.

Does their portfolio specifically represent your particular needs?

If you are a retailer and need beauty shots of your products, make sure the photographer has similar product work in their portfolio.   This seems obvious, but I get plenty of calls for people asking for elaborate product photography…yet I have none of that kind of work on my sites. If I were to agree to take on the work, my clients have no real proof or evidence that I can do the work they are paying me for.  They are gambling that I’m being above-board with them. If you are talking with a photographer who doesn’t have any (or maybe just a few) of the types of photography you are looking for on their site, ask them to provide you with additional samples of that type of work. Typically, I’ll provide a PDF mini-portfolio filled with the type of specific work a prospect is inquiring about so they can get a better sense for how I approach that type of job.

How active is the photographer on their platform(s)?

Are they constantly producing and showing new work? The frequency of work on a photographer’s blog or social media feed isn’t so important. What is important is that they are consistently, regularly showing new work. A busy photographer, passionate about creating visuals, is exactly the type of photographer you want to work with.

How responsive are they to your initial inquiry?

Most photographers operate as solo businesses and don’t have an office person answering the phones….so if you contact them and they don’t pick up the phone, it’s likely they are out on a shoot. That said, photographers are among the most tech-savvy, connected people out there. They will get your message and should respond to you quickly–certainly within 24 hours. In that and subsequent interactions, you want a photographer who is responsive, proactive and doesn’t have to be prodded.

Are they professional?

I’m not asking about whether they take amazing photographs.  What I’m getting at is this:  a professional photographer will treat what they do as a business.  They will have professional-looking estimates, invoices and materials.  They will be able to answer your questions.  Most of all, they will put your needs—the client or the potential client—first.  They do this by making you aware of potential issues with a planned shoot before it occurs, and will always have a backup plan.   What happens if you lose your images and need them resent to you, years down the road?  Do they have the relevant business insurance to protect you, your clients and the photographer?  What happens if a light explodes, or a camera breaks?  Most professionals have had to deal with these situations and much worse, and will be able to help you understand the “what-ifs”.  All you have to do is ask.

How does the photographer present themselves in public, whether in person or online?

Call up the photographer’s blog or website. Go onto their Linkedin profile, Instagram, Facebook Page and/or Twitter.  Are they professional on any of the channels that represent their brand? Do they complain about clients (crazy, but I see photographers do it all the time)? Do they complain about the lack of business, or overshare about personal difficulties (again, I see this all the time). I’m not saying the photographer can’t have personality online–they definitely should. What I’m suggesting is to look for red flags that show you that the person is not serious about what they do, is not focused or is having issues that you don’t want your brand associated with.

What kinds of questions do they ask?

Professional photographers don’t assume that you will show up with all of the answers they need to do their jobs without effort. They should ask you questions that help to flesh out what you need and when you need it, and to help them understand your brand and your short-, medium-, and long-term goals. Among the questions they may ask: what is your budget? How do you plan to use the images, and for how long? You should feel comfortable and listened to as they guide you towards a more complete understanding of the project at hand.

Are they recommended by others?

If you found the photographer from a trusted friend or colleague who has actually used them or worked with them on a project, that’s a great recommendation. You might look at their LinkedIn profile to see what recommendations they have, or check their site for testimonials. It’s certainly appropriate to ask the photographer for references–past clients that you can contact. In my years of doing this professionally, I can’t remember one occasion where I’ve been asked for a reference, but given the investment people are making in my services, I would gladly provide them if asked. It would also make me feel that the client is a serious, committed partner in the process, invested in and committed to the best results….just like I am.

How do they communicate?

I’ve already mentioned responsiveness….but the styles of communication is important too. Most photographers I know are great communicators, but that said, some are more comfortable with males, others with females. Some work well with blue-collar workers and others in professional environments. Everyone’s different.  Suss out how they explain things to you.  Are they “loop closers”, pinning down times, details and proactively offering suggestions that can be answered simply in one email, or do they communicate in blurbs and blips, using open-ended questions or only direct answers that prolong your communications, require more emails or calls, or necessitate endless clarifications?  If communication is an issue at the outset of your collaboration, it will remain an issue….and will probably get worse.

Approach a photographer as you would with any relationship–with some preparation and asking the right questions—and I guarantee you’ll be happier with the process and the results.

It’s Always About the Subject

Dunham Group

 

The background as subject

One of the greatest tools in a location portrait photographer’s toolbox is the context provided by the shooting location. For example, a portrait of a person standing in a long hallway covered in glass windows.  The environment—the glass windows and long hallway—conveys potentially important information about the subject.  It also gives the final portrait mood—in this case it might be bright, open, cheery, confident, clean, modern and contemporary.  Obviously, the right background is extremely important to a portrait. It does a lot of work that propels the portrait or the image..or, conversely, can sink it. The “environment” part of an environmental portrait is so critical that I think of it as the second character in the room—equally important, in terms of attention and consideration, as the human subject in the frame.

 

Missing Context

Until it isn’t.

Backgrounds are very important, but photographers can’t always rely on having them. Often, the backgrounds convey the wrong information, give the wrong mood, or need to be mitigated and modified. Sometimes, the background is intentionally removed from the equation entirely.

This was the case with a recent shoot.  I worked with Maggie Hoople of East Shore Studio & Print on an ad campaign for NAI The Dunham Group, a large commercial real estate broker based in Portland, ME.  The ads would feature the owners of interesting Maine-based businesses who leased their commercial spaces with the Dunham Group’s help.  We’d done the same campaign previously, featuring solo individuals.  This time, each image would feature the two partners who ran each business.

Since these images would be used in a variety of ways from print ads to large displays at the airport, on buses and elsewhere, they would need to be photographed as full-body portraits on a white seamless paper background. I’d have to rely on really engaging with the subjects since the mood and emotion of each ad would have to come purely from them. The bright white background, though featureless and without context, still would convey a bright, optimistic, clean and modern look.

 

Fascinating Subjects

It was a fun shoot. Business owners are fascinating people, by nature optimistic, dynamic people who have a passion for what they do.  People like Kate and Steve Shaffer from Black Dinah Chocolatiers, Peter and Noah Bissel of Bissel Brothers Brewing, Heidi MacVane and Danielle Toolan of Greener Postures Yoga and Ben Waxman and Whitney Reynolds of American Roots. The shoot was an exercise in making them feel comfortable enough that they could forget about the background, and the lights, and the setting, and to focus instead on their accomplishments, their motivations and their business plans. Having two people in the frame provided a great opportunity for interactions, too, leading to serendipitous, unscripted moments, and key props and clothing helped give clues that the background couldn’t provide.

 

Backgrounds are nice…but it’s always about the subject

So without the context of a background, it’s an opportunity for photographers like me to dive in and go deeper with my subjects. Freed of obvious visuals, the challenge and the reward comes from telling a story through moments that change from second to second. To me, that’s what it means to be a photographer of people. It reminds me that even when there is an interesting background in the frame, the focus should always be on the people in front of the lens. The emotional impact of the portrait comes from them, and that will make an image fly or fail no matter the background.
Dunham Group

 

Dunham Group

 

 

Dunham Group

 

 

Why Hobbies Matter

Healthy Hobbies

 

I’ve always been terrible at hobbies.

Collecting stamps, ok…collecting anything, woodworking, gardening….I just never seemed to have the time or inclination. I’ve just plain sucked at engaging in so-called “leisure activities”: watching the big game on Sunday (I hate watching sports on TV), playing golf or tennis on the weekends, Thursday night bowling. I like to work and I like to create. Since I essentially am my business, it’s pretty hard to separate work from the personal areas of my life. Lines blur. My tendency would be to work and be with my family, and to not have time for anything else.

That’s not a badge of honor.  It’s a recipe for burnout, in both a creative and a very real sense. So starting a couple of years ago, I made a real effort to create time away from my business and away from my camera so I could begin to enjoy other interests.  As a result, I now have a daily practice of meditation. I started writing every day (my challenge this year is to write 1000 words every day). I play the guitar—not well, but getting better daily—a dream I’ve had since I was little. I read a lot, 25 or so books a year. I also take lots of walks and hikes, since being out in nature is a pretty critical part of my renewal and rejuvenation.

I’ve found that it can’t just be about photography, or business, or work, as much as I enjoy those things. I’m certainly not “balanced” on a daily basis, but now I find that taking the time to engage in other activities makes everything else smoother, better, more sustainable.  I’m less stressed and more engaged in all areas of my life as a result.

I’ve learned that what inspires us as creatives isn’t always the work we’re assigned to do. Inspiration comes from many places—from our relationships, from the creative work we take on ‘for fun’ and, of course, from the play—er, hobbies—we engage in.

 

My Quora Story: and the Power of Incremental Action

Quora

 

I was a little late to the party. If not late, then, a late bloomer.

Quora is a social network of sorts—a question—and-answer platform whose slogan is, “The best answer for any question.”  Founded back in 2010, it includes luminaries such as Barack Obama to Dilbert comic creator Scott Adams to UC Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller and many, many others who meet to answer questions about specific topics at which they have expertise or a unique point of view.

It’s been described as the platform for geeks—not surprising, since it started back in Silicon Valley—that skews male, and tech.

There are a lot of photographers, journalists and others using the platform to gain answers to extreme hypothetical questions they have “What would happen if I poured a huge bucket of water on our sun” to the more mundane, “What advice can you give an 18-year-old” to topical: “What is your reaction to Trump winning the US election.”

My buddy Scott turned me on to the platform a few years ago, but I just set it aside and checked in from time to time. I enjoyed lurking, but wouldn’t commit the time to actually answering questions.

Then, last year, I had a surgery that waylaid me for about a month at the beginning of the year. I started surfing Quora, and found that I had a lot of questions that I could give answers to. My background is both as a print and photo-journalist, and I love to write.   It seemed a natural fit. I had only three unwritten rules: One, I wouldn’t ‘tag team’ on a topic, just parroting what others had already answered. In other words, I had to actually have helpful information and a point of view so that I could add to the discourse and not add to the noise. Two, I wouldn’t answer lazy questions that could have been answered just by the questioner taking two seconds to type it into Google: “How much does a Nikon whatever cost new?”  Three, I would answer no questions from people listing themselves as “anonymous” unless the question itself actually called for anonymity.

If I put myself out there in a consistent way—daily—that incremental efforts would produce exponential results.

With that as a start, and with less than 4,000 total views back in January of 2016, I started to read, choose and answer questions to the best of my ability. I thought it would be cool if I could get to 100,000 views by the end of the year.

Imagine my surprise when, on Dec. 31, 2016, my views ended up north of 300,000. Along the way, I learned a profound truth: if I put myself out there in a consistent way—daily—that incremental efforts would produce exponential results. This was not an effort related to my commercial photography business, or any desire to launch a bigger platform. It was just a daily, quiet way to share and engage a larger audience with my own experiences and point of view.

This then, are my top five posts (in terms of total views) for the entire year of 2016. I hope you enjoy:

  1.  What is the best photography tip you can teach me?
  2. What is the best thing to do in your 20s?
  3. What are some amazing historical photos?
  4. If a policeman tells me I can’t film him, am I required to “obey a policeman’s lawful order”?
  5. What is the best photo ever taken of you and why do you think it’s the best?   (Ironically, I don’t enjoy having my picture taken…but I do love this one).

 

Have a Monkey Mind? Here’s How I Tamed Mine.

Monkey Mind
Light graces the simple lines of a field hat and woven sandals, hung for later use, at a temple on Kurama Mountain, northeast of Kyoto. This is what I expected to find in Japan.  ©Brian Fitzgerald

This month marks 19 years since I got off a bus and walked into a low-slung complex hugging the wooded hills northwest of Kyoto, Japan, not far from Mizuho town. The Dhamma Bhanu is (still) a meditation center and retreat for those studying Vipassana meditation—a technique taught by S.N. Goenka and his followers around the world.

At the time, I had only the barest of reference points for what this ‘Vipassana’ (pronounced, vi-PAS-uh-nuh) stuff even was. A buddy of mine, a fellow English teacher at the school we worked at in Osaka, had done the same retreat I was about to—with trepidation—embark upon. I remember him telling me that it was transformational and life-changing: a ten-day stretch of constant meditation and instruction. A crucial part of the retreat was the vow of silence to occur beginning the morning of the first full day. No talking, no whispering, no making unnecessary noise until the final morning, nine days later. My friend described the intense emotion welling up inside him as he ‘broke through’ internal mental barriers and blockages, and experienced bouts of uncontrollable sobbing at several points. His arms or legs would sometimes move on their own accord. It was intense and it was difficult.

Ten days of silence, with the chance of uncontrolled emotional outbursts and sudden, spontaneous physical moments of my body? Naturally, I signed up for the course immediately. I was teaching English to Japanese students, was living in one of the most populous urban centers in the world, and a ten-day break from the world, just past Christmas, seemed perfect.

Monkey Mind
Instead this is what I usually saw while living in Japan.  A Japanese street musician wails on his keyboard organ on a pedestrian walkway near Osaka Station in Osaka, Japan. In any large Japanese city, buskers are a common sight–playing for spare change, themselves, or a few minutes of glory. © Brian Fitzgerald

I liked the concept of meditation but only thought of it in passing. This way, I’d make up for lost time—cut to the front of the line, figuratively speaking—and would jump-start something that seemed a lot more real to me after living in Japan and Korea for more than two years.

Obviously, that mindset proved I was far from ready to be successful at meditation, which involves sitting in one place, starting at a wall, focusing the breath and the mind, and (at least in my case) being incredibly uncomfortable as my body screamed in pain and my mind jolted from one thought to the next. The epitome of what Buddhist masters call, the “monkey mind”.

I made it through the ten-day retreat. Through the hours of meditation and the hour-long seatings of “strong determination” when we were challenged to move not a muscle for the duration. Through the long days of complete, unbroken, silence.

It was amazing. I won’t go into the teachings of Vipasanna, or the technique—I’m not really qualified to do that. Suffice to say that it started something that, now 19 years later, I’ve finally incorprated into my daily habitual practice. I no longer employ the Vipassana method, but instead use the NSR technique, derived from TM (transcendental meditation). My mind still behaves like a monkey. But I’ve found that as a small business owner and creative with a family, that the daily practice of meditation forms a foundation that pays incalculable dividends. It helps me practice awareness, focus, and forces me, for some long minutes or an hour, to simply ‘be’, without a goal, and without agenda. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve habitually done. It’s not fun. But it continues to help me stronger and more centered as I go about my day.

Monkey Mind
And this is what I looked like when I tried to learn most things Japanese. I don’t think she’s doing that right. © Brian Fitzgerald