Category Shop Talk

Have Studio, Will Travel

During my photojournalism career, my ‘office’ was my car, complete with police scanners, reporter’s notebooks, a Domke bag of gear and strobe lights in the trunk.    Now, as a commercial and editorial photographer, I’m based out of a studio in downtown Portland (far nicer than most newspapers I called home and with much more gear). 

I always imagined two types of photographers existed:  studio photographers, usually specializing in portrait or product photography, and location shooters, who travel to clients and whose studio is wherever they happen to be on assignment.  Wedding photographers, photojournalists and editorial shooters and architectural photographers are among those for whom an assignment is everywhere but, obviously, a studio. 

At heart, I’ll always be an editorial photographer—a storyteller— who is flexible enough to adjust to the changing circumstances of a location shoot but who uses flash and strobes fully, where appropriate.   Not a studio photographer, but a photographer with a studio. 

When I moved into my first studio over a decade ago, I figured it was mainly to store my gear outside of the home, where it was gradually taking over the basement.   I thought I’d meet clients there and that’s about it.  But, it turns out that my studio has remained busy because it gives my clients options.   When the weather or a location isn’t working out for us, or if we need absolute control over lighting, we have the studio.   

My studio now has become just one more tool in my bag and helps me to deliver another option to my clients.    I may miss the days when everything I owned could fit in a shoulder bag, but I’d much rather have the flexibility to choose the best approach for my clients—in studio or on location—instead of having my approach dictated by a lack of options.

On location, Old Orchard Beach, ME

 

Portland Maine Studio
Fitzgerald Photo Studio, downtown Portland.

 

Portland Maine Studio
Fitzgerald Photo Studio, downtown Portland.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five Ways to Rock Content Marketing (plus One)

If you’re responsible for marketing at your company (or one-person shop), one single word can induce sweating, bouts of self-doubt and even some wistful headshaking: content.  Since the online platforms for content delivery are so ubiquitous, it’s likely any bottleneck in producing consistent, high-quality (and brand-appropriate) content is on the production side (you), not on the delivery side.

So what’s your strategy when it comes to producing and sharing content?

Content isn’t just what you produce—writing (blogs, articles, white papers) and visuals (graphics, images, videos), but also those things you discover, curate and share.

The content you publish might be very slick and professionally-done. It might also utilize unedited smartphone photos, Instagram stories or short video snippets. This kind of grab-and-go visual content is raw, but also authentic, organic and real.

Both types can have a place in your content strategy.

A solid ongoing content approach may include targeted shoots to build up a library of appropriate imagery—of people, processes, places; of faces and evergreen details—that are on brand message. It also involves defining what sorts of ‘raw’ content should be considered, and the triggers and standards for that kind of content.It all starts with an editorial content calendar—whether in the form of a spreadsheet, a physical white board or an actual calendar (digital or physical). On this calendar are listed all of the planned blogs, articles, social media posts and other content planned for the next months or year.

Looking at a blank screen it can be overwhelming, thinking about how to proceed.  I start with the easy wins.  Here are some strategies that can help you produce great content consistently and take the stress out of the process. 

Recurring Content
This is the easiest to schedule. For me, it starts with my end of year wrap-up blog post. I also do a series of assignment showcases that celebrate completed recent projects—usually one a month—and so I just schedule those even if all I can write for some of them is “client highlight”.  I can fill in the specifics later. The important part is to fill out my editorial calendar so that I have content each week in the form of blogs and social media posts. For others, it might make sense to tie content to annual events or seasons, like the start of spring or baseball season.

Leverage others’ content
I don’t do all the content heavy lifting myself. I make sure I’m curating interesting content from others. This means commenting on social media posts, sharing content I find valuable, and even allowing guest posts on my sites and platforms.

Behind the Scenes
People love to see the unscripted ‘inner workings’ of an operation. This tends to be the ‘raw’ unpolished stuff. I try to have a stream of visual content that shows me and my team at work, or on location, as part of my mix. This is where some of the more creative, quirky or fun images can go. This is what Seth Godin might refer to as, “showing your scuffed shoes”. I schedule this as well in my calendar.

Evergreen Content
This is content that always stays fresh no matter the season. It can be a quick hit list of tips, a short how-to article or feature. These can be done ahead of time and sprinkled around where needed.  Brainstorm and produce this during your slower season and you’ll be ready no matter how busy things become later. 

Targeted Shoots
Custom, highly tactical content generation. Coming up with a shot list (including video) and executing with the idea of creating an image library good for specific uses.

I have many clients who hire us for targeted, planned shoots of content meant primarily for social media—these may be less polished, and include a mix of micro-video snippets and images that can be easily shared. Then they spread out these posts over the course of several months so they have plenty of content even during their busier times of year. If you plan ahead, these targeted shoots don’t have to be onerous, time consuming or costly—we strategize with our clients to come up with creative approaches that are fun and fit their brand, whether it’s a restaurant wanting ‘in-situ’ portraits of their dishes or a recycling company wanting “product” shots of the sometimes strange and unusual types of items that end up being processed in their facilities. Often, we help set the strategy that our client’s marketing teams can continue to do themselves in the future in a pinch.

Recommendations and favorites
Recommended lists of books. Favorite peices of software. Best blogs. Top resources for others in your industry. This is a fun way to share your knowledge with others and create a conversation. 

Having a balance of polished, high-value content as well as social media-focused content will keep your audience engaged and will help you be successful at actually maintaining the consistency needed to grow your audience.

Have questions about how to make this happen for you and your business? We build custom plans for our client partners and would be glad to discuss whether we’d be a good fit for yours.

Cinematic, environmental portraits

I love creating environmental portraits.  That’s good, because I make an awful lot of these as a commercial photographer.

One challenge when doing such location portraits is that the benefit—the environment, which can offer very cool, very visually striking contextual cues—can also be a severe liability.  Imagine showing up to a shoot to find you are limited to shooting portraits inside a tiny conference room with orange walls, or in the middle of summer using an interior of a steel shipping container (both are recent examples).

So what do you do when the environment detracts from,  instead of adds to, your portraits?

I opt to shoot portraits with very shallow depth of field, in order to throw my distracting backgrounds out of focus.  Then I carefully add in lights to create depth and color as needed. Given the time of day or the situation, this may require using ND (neutral density) filters or high-speed sync to achieve this look, but it’s worth the extra effort.

The results are tack-sharp portraits that pop from the soft background, minimizing the things I don’t want while giving a sort of cinematic feel that I love.

 

 

 

 

Images Matter, Now More than Ever

 

image library
The visuals that represent your brand can easily communicate your values, your assets, and what you offer. In the case of a community health clinic, it’s quality, human-centered healthcare where patients (no matter their age) feel empowered.

 

Building an image library is a top priority for any brand that wants to tell their story effectively and connect with their target audience.

You likely already know that quality, relevant, custom images are no longer a ‘nice to have’. Your content—specifically, your visual content—is your advertising.

In short: Your visuals are your brand.

The gatekeepers are gone and you—the independent businessperson, the marketing professional—are in charge of your own media channels.

Remember Spider-Man: With great power comes great responsibility.

All of the digital tools, many free or nearly so, are at your fingertips. Are you purposefully telling the story of your brand: what you do, why you do it, what sets you apart?  Or are you hoping that your haphazard efforts will cause others to automatically ‘get’ you?

If you’re using someone else’s images, words or campaigns, then you’re not telling your own unique story. You’re in the best position to do so.

Cutting through the Noise
People react and connect with authenticity. A stock image isn’t likely to make anyone sit up and take notice, but a real moment, whether shot on an iPhone or a Hasselblad that costs more than your car.

What you Need When you Need it
Content marketing is built on consistently delivering targeted content that is on-brand and on-message. Having an image library means you’ve always got good content that can work for your purposes. Without one, your marketing is going to be less consistent, less frequent and less impactful.

image library
A custom stock image, taken with your people and at your place of business, is specific to your brand.

Gives Structure and Meaning
Having a plan for your visuals and keeping your brand story in mind automatically provides a structure and gives purpose to your photo shoots. Instead of floundering you’ll be producing relevant content that’s meaningful to your brand and useful for the forseeable future.

What are your Seasons?
Every business has seasons. Periods of high or low volume. Cycles of growth and cycles of maintenance. Holidays. When are your seasons? When do you tend to get new clients, and why? When do you tend to be focused on new initiatives and what external events can you build content to match?

image library
Having a plan that extends for months or a year is helpful when targeting activities and processes to photograph before you miss them. Harvest only comes once a year.

Evergreen Content
A good image library has a mix of content which may include video as well as still images. Some is very specific for a campaign, a product, a season, or a person or team. Other images are more ‘evergreen’, meaning they can be used any time of year or perhaps for years to come. They are classic and timeless. Chief among these are……

….Details
Get lots of details. These are the visual metaphors that may punctuate a blog post or marketing piece in a more powerful way than can otherwise be done. These give a sense of your point but allow the audience to fill in the blanks. They aren’t specific to a person, a time, or a location and designers (web and print) love them because of their versatility and timelessness.
image library

Imperfect Shots and Unscripted Moments
I’m not suggesting that the only way you can build an image library is by hiring a professional photographer (like me or my ilk) or spending all of your time producing elaborate photo shoots. A carefully-managed, well thought-out campaign will include professionally-produced content where appropriate and will have a place for less-scripted, less technically perfect images taken by you, your staff, others in your organization, clients, or the public. Depending on your brand, this may be necessary. There should be a place for both.

Less is More
I love crafted, long-form films and videos. The reality is, even if Martin Scorcese produced your video, if it’s longer than three minutes I’d have a hard time watching it. One minute would be better. In fact, video snippets are sometimes the best of all. These short blurbs may get more engagement than longer ones and can be easily done, leading to more consistent content over time. So do video…but keep it super short, as in this behind-the-scenes clip that shows one of the hazards in making custom wooden baseball bats:

 

Behind the Scenes
Show us visuals that takes us places we wouldn’t normally go.  Show us the secret sauce that makes it all work in your organization:  the team members, the interactions, the tools, the back warehouse.  Show us how the sausage is made, showing the care and the humanity that go into a great product or service.

image library
Another image from a custom baseball bat maker’s shop, where custom wooden ‘blanks’ line the walls, with hand-written notes on each one. This kind of detail tells a lot about the quality and care that goes into each finished product.

Faces, People!
People love to see other people. Show them faces. If you make a product or sell a service, show us the faces and lives of the people whose lives are improved by your brand. Show us what your brand means reflected in the faces of your fans, customers, clients, or even your team members.

image library

Keep it Real
If your job is to promote your brand or company, then you can get caught up in your product or service features. Instead, let your visuals show your people, your products, your brand, out in the real world. That’s the one the rest of us inhabit. Some brands seem to lend themselves to this sort of approach, like Nike, but even law firms, hospitals, and others can do this. They just may have to be a bit more creative and less obvious–exactly the criteria needed to create interest and connection.

Five Clicks: Tools for Keeping on Track

 

Being an independent photography professional or content creator is a great, amazing, beautiful thing.

Except when it isn’t.

When you first start as a photographer or designer, it’s like falling in love with a beautiful/handsome other person. Everything is great, and when you’re with that person, time seems to stand still.  Then you get married, and the relationship matures, and as wonderful as it is to spend time together, you also can’t help but notice that the dishes are piled up, the bills need to be paid and the in-laws are coming to visit, again.

If every day could be spent behind the lens while getting a ride with the Blue Angels or documenting a religious festival in the mountains of Catalonia, it would be like that spouse that never gets old, gets angry or challenges you in any way.  But the reality of marriage and of creative careers is that 80 percent of it is the ‘unsexy’ stuff—in the case of content creation it’s the production work, marketing and other tasks that keep the lights on—that makes the other 20 percent possible.

The problem is, it’s hard to stay focused and on track when the tasks are not so fun.  That’s why I love tools that make my job easier, are useful and help keep my animal brain on track. When my willpower or my resolve falters, I just let these pieces of software guide the way:

Activity Timer (iOS and Mac)
This is a very simple custom timer app that allows you to specify and save time blocks of custom length for various activities, and a custom “success” message. I know by experience that 90 minutes is about the longest I can focus on any given task, so most of my time sprints are anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour and a half. I have a stand-up desk and I use this tool to remind me to sit down and stand about every 20 minutes throughout my workday in front of the computer.

Trello (Web, Android, IOS, Mac, PC)
I’ve used Trello for at least 4 years. In that time, I’ve found other project management tools but the ‘kanban’ style visual drag-and-drop interface always brings me back. I use it to set up various ‘workflows’ relating to client work, my sales pipeline, and even for my editorial calendar. It’s great for collaborating between teams, too. Using this tool for my work ensures that I keep track of a lot of moving pieces in a consistent way.

Todoist (Web, Android, IOS, Mac, PC)
This is about the 1,000th ‘to do’ app I’ve tried, but at this point it’s won the award for longevity. It’s very simple to use and can interpret deadlines from text (i.e., ‘in two weeks’, or ‘next January 1’) easily. I use it all the time….and I like the way it gamifies item completion—the more you complete, the more ‘karma’ you earn and the more enlightened you become. One of these days, I’ll be a Grandmaster. But not today.

Routinist (iOS, Android soon)
I’m fascinated by the idea of creating good habits (and getting rid of negative ones) by ritualizing them into a routine that you perform daily until they become deeply ingrained. This little app helps create and define routines based on a sequence of actions and habits that, once triggered, run in sequence until they are complete. I’ve used this app to change the way I approach my morning routine.

Streak CRM (Web, IOS, Android)
This software is a CRM (which stands for “customer relationship management” tool) which is a fancy way of saying that it is used for sales, projects, leads, and anything else related to your clients.  It’s capable of far more.  I use it to do project management, sales and client pipelines in situations where most communications are email conversation-based. First I define the stages of a pipeline and also set up email templates for some of the stages. I then create a box for each new client/story/item/lead and move it through each stage of the pipeline until done. It saves me a lot of time but more importantly, Streak is a powerful way to stay consistent on predefined processes built around email. In fact, it’s designed to be used exclusively with gmail, and it operates inside your email browser.   If you’re a gmail or Google apps user, Streak is worth checking out.  It’s particularly powerful for teams, including editors, journalists and bloggers. It allows you to schedule and track emails as well.

I hope you enjoy these tools—and more importantly, find them useful for keeping your own messy business life on track. Hopefully, that unsexy stuff just got a little more sexy.

My Five: Awesome Mobile Apps For Photographers

In ‘My Five’ I write about five tools, tips, books or other resources I’m excited about sharing.  Enjoy!

More and more these days, I run my business on the go—from my phone, specifically.

These are a few of the iOS phone apps that I use on a regular basis in my photography business:

Photo Editing

mobile apps

Snapseed by Google – Perfect for quick edits of iPhone images before posting on social media. Is quick, intuitive and does a great job. The price—free—is nice too.

 

 

 

Location Scouting

mobile appsMap a Pic – Great for establishing a digital archive of scouted locations, especially for a landscape or portrait photographer looking to have a ready catalog of possible shoot locations. It also gives ‘sun insights’ that provide precise times for dawn, golden hour, night, etc. Note: the developer’s site appears to be down, but the app in the Apple App Store has been recently updated.

 

 

mobile appsSun Seeker  – This is a very cool app that shows you the sun’s position in the sky at any location and any time of day in the future. The useful part is that you can point your phone at a scene and an overlay will appear over the live view, showing you the path the sun will take through the sky.

 

 

 

Timers, remote releases

mobile appsCam Ranger – One of my favorite tools for triggering my camera remotely, doing time exposures and multiple exposures. Using my phone, I can change my camera settings, including ISO, and trigger remotely, then view the images on my phone. It’s a great, complete, versatile triggering solution especially useful for landscape, wildlife, architecture and real estate photographers. The app is free, but the Cam Ranger device will set you back a couple hundred bucks.

 

 

General/Workflow

mobile appsToo many to list here, but I’ll mention one: Evernote Evernote is a free app with a paid subscription option. It allows me to take notes, but I use it to create lighting recipes for repeat clients, to create packing lists for shoots, for keeping track of projects, contacts, write blog posts and to compile information I’m researching. This app is probably my most indispensable daily-use app.

 

 

You’ve probably got some go-to apps as well for your creative or photography work.  What are your favorites?

 

Check out my work at my Fitzgerald Photo website or on Inspire Maine.

Light modifiers: why shape does (and doesn’t) matter

Light_modifiers_by_Brian_Fitzgerald_h
What’s better:   a light modifier with a square shape, or one with a circular shape?This question is one I’ve thought about a lot.  I’m guessing most other photographers have, too .   If you’ve shopped for light modifiers you’ve encountered a bazillion light mods that fall predominantly into just two types:  round or square (or rectangular).  Round modifiers would include things like  umbrellas, octaboxes and beauty dishes.  Square or rectangular-shaped modifiers are things like softboxes, reflectors, scrims and light panels.

Photo gear and marketing hype go hand in hand.   But there are just a couple of factors that determine which shape of modifier I’ll choose for a shoot.   Number one is the effect of the catchlight in my subject’s eyes.  I prefer a round catchlight—maybe just a subconscious preference for a light source shaped like the sun.   If I were simulating an open doorway or the light from a window, a softbox would be my choice instead.

There are a bunch of other considerations when choosing a modifier that are partly determined by the shape of the modifier but also by the material and construction of the modifier itself.   I may decide I want directional lighting, with harsh, defined areas of light and shadow. Or, I may opt for a soft, diffuse, enveloping quality of light that wraps around my subject.   This has less to do with the shape of the modifier than by the size of the modifier relative to the subject (larger=softer light).

For me, the shape only becomes a deciding factor when I want to control the light precisely and thus I might use a square softbox rather than an umbrella because I want the light to have a more defined fall-off or edge.

My favorite light-mod, especially on location: the beauty dish. © Brian Fitzgerald

You can find many descriptions elsewhere of the effects of different light modifiers, but I like this resource from light manufacturer Paul C. Buff that clearly shows the effects of various different light mods.

Who needs a light meter?

Hand_Meter_Fitzgerald

 

Back in the film days, a light meter was the most ubiquitous piece of equipment found in the bag of any respectable photographer.  For years I carried a Gossen Luna Star Pro, which measured ambient and strobe light as well.   It served me faithfully until finally, a duct-tape-covered horror with parts hastily soldered back together, it gave up the ghost.

I never replaced it.

I can’t remember the last time I’ve used (or really needed to use) a light meter.   Plenty of professionals use them still—in particular in situations where proper exposure is critical, such as studio and product shoots.   There are times when having one would make my life easier, perhaps…..But I’ll admit it: I don’t use hand-held light meters.  The closest I get is using the built-in meter in my DSLR camera.   It serves me well as a starting point when measuring light in reflected light situations.

The built-in meter of a DSLR camera does the best job when the subject is uniformly lit and comprised of tones with a medium reflective value.   But let’s be honest—how often is that the case?   More likely, you’re photographing someone in a dark coat in the snow, or someone in a white T-shirt with dark woods or a shadowy doorway behind them.  These are situations that will seriously fool with your built-in sensor and give incorrect exposure readings.

That’s why so many photographers use a gray card to determine exposure.    A gray card is nothing more than a piece of fabric or cardboard that has a gray surface on one side and usually a white surface on the other.   The gray side reflects 18% of the light that hits it.   Your camera’s meter is calibrated to view a gray card as a neutral (middle) tone, halfway been white and black.   Thus if you take a meter reading while pointing your camera at a gray card, you’ll get a reading that you can then apply to your real subject under the same lighting conditions.     Next time you’re shooting a person standing in the middle of a snowy field, whip out your gray card, point your lens at the card (filling the frame with the card) and take a reading.   Then manually set your camera to match those same settings, recompose your shot with your actual subject, and fire away.  You may not get a perfect exposure, but you’ll be close in most situations.

What do you do if you don’t have a gray card, or if you’re in the middle of a location where it’s difficult to use one?   Easy.   That’s when I use my tried-and-true photojournalist trick:   I stick out my hand, palm upturned and fingers together, and use that as my gray card.   The skin on your hand isn’t gray, but it will provide a reading close to the proper exposure.   I’ve found that opening up my exposure by a half or full stop produces great results.

Showcase: Portland Pirates Ad Campaign

A few months ago I had the fun duty of shooting a series of images for an ad campaign for the Portland Pirates hockey club.  The campaign, “A Pirate’s Life for Me”, features former Pirates players and current junior Pirates in split-view, in street clothes and in their hockey gear, game faces on.   I worked with the crew at Pulp & Wire to create the images, which I photographed in my downtown Portland photo studio.   I love how completely the demeanor and look of each player changed so dramatically once the pads and helmets went on.  I asked Pirates CEO and former player Brad Church, bottom, to show his game face during the session and he clearly had no problems doing that.  I’m just glad I wasn’t a player on the opposing team.

 

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Introducing: The Main(e) Light Workshop

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I’m proud to announce the dates for my first-ever Main(e) Light Workshops .    This workshop series is focused on an area that many photographers struggle with:  using electronic flash on location.  It’s my attempt to cut through the hype around specific gear and to teach the skills that photographers can put to immediate use when creating portfolio work or meeting a deadline for a paying client.   It’s practical, it’s hands-on and it’s set up to allow (encourage) tangential topics—how best to approach assignments for clients, how to organize and optimize your workflow, etc.— as they come up in relation to the work.  But let’s not kid ourselves: the work is first and foremost.

 

The first workshop, Speedlight Bootcamp, is built around the off-camera flashes that today can cost as much as a decent studio head.   The second is on location (in a very cool Maine setting) and combines a variety of studio and off-camera flashes with ambient (mostly sun) light to create spectacular effects.   For that one, we’ll roll with the weather and take a studied, and at times seat-of-the-pants approach to lighting to produce amazing images.

 

The Main(e) Light Workshop has been in the works for a year or more.  In a way,  I’ve been preparing for it my whole career.  I learned from a great many others in my field when I started out in journalism.  From Tim Rogers to Paul O’Neill to Brad Armstrong (to many others), I’ve learned about being patient, how to really connect with people and how to read light.  This workshop is my chance to help others succeed and grow in much the same way.   I’ve taught other seminars over the years, but never an intensive set of workshops quite like the Main(e) Light Workshop.  My plan is for each photographer to leave with the tools they need to create interesting portraits with the gear they can afford.   It may take years to master electronic light, but this workshop will give anyone a big boost in the right direction.

So please check out the lineup.  Tell me what you think, ask me questions.  And if you sign up, welcome.  It’s going to be a great ride.

 

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