Posts tagged photography

A Look Back, A Look Forward

Maine Cops
Image from Arrested: Stories Behind the Badge, published in 2018

It’s a sure bet you’ve been in this situation:

You’re going to work (doing great work, hopefully), meeting deadlines, producing stuff, maintaining systems and even getting your blog done on time.  You’re in the flow, which is good because things are happening, fast.

Then the new year approaches, and things slow down for the holidays. You emerge from your work coma, blinking like a cave fish suddenly exposed to sunlight, wondering what happened to the last 12 months and what year is it, anyway?

That’s what it’s like, being a solo creative professional.  You juggle a lot, and don’t always have time to stop and reflect.

That’s why I look forward to the small end-of-year break that allows me time to go back through the year that’s passed and to celebrate the wins and the misses (because it’s the misses that teach you to get better).

So, here is 2018,  by the numbers:

1 (small) oil tanker’s worth of coffee
4 photo assistants
5 stylists
5 states and all 16 of Maine’s counties
310 studio portraits
94 location assignments
2 broken strobe units
25 pounds, lost (and not rediscovered!)
1 book published:  Light Matters: A Photographer’s Guide to Lighting with Flash on Location
47 books read
1 personal project— Arrested: Stories Behind the Badge
321 days of meditation

Just reading that list makes me tired…but mostly it just makes me grateful.

More than the numbers, here are some lessons I learned, in no particular order:

  • Always use a packing list to prepare for location shoots, lest you forget a $1 battery that forces a scramble during a shoot.
  • Reusable cups from Starbucks are totally worth it.
  • Having a well-planned morning routine is the difference between a great day and a totally unproductive one.
  • There is such a thing as being too busy to accomplish anything of real value.
  • It’s never a good idea to leave your flash on top of your car when you pack for a shoot.
  • Better to focus on what you can control, not what you can’t.
  • I can live without bagels, bread and pasta.  Coffee?  Not so much.

Looking back, 2018 was a year of growth and learning and I’m grateful and proud to have had some incredible opportunities alongside some really cool creative partners and clients. It’s gratifying to go through the work I did last year just to see where my cameras have been and reconnect with the interesting people I get to photograph.

I look forward to sharing much of that work on this blog soon.   As fun as last year was, though, I have some big plans already in motion for this year and some exciting projects to share.

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to get to work.

Introducing: Light Matters

Light Matters


It’s been a very eventful week for me personally and professionally.  On October 2, I published my first book, Light Matters: A Photographer’s Guide to Lighting with Flash on Location .

Light Matters is more than the realization of a childhood dream to write and publish a book.   It’s my approach to lighting when on assignment, reduced to actionable tips.  Each suggestion is informed by my own experiences and, often, by my missteps and mistakes over 20-odd years as a shooter.

My working title for the book was simple: Move, Light, Shoot.  Purposeful experimentation keeps one from getting stuck and kicks creativity in the behind.   You can’t master flash—or anything else—without taking direct action, assessing the results, and adjusting your approach.

To that end, the guide is full of tips and practice exercises that any serious amateur or natural-light pro would find useful as they stretch their lighting muscles.

I write in the intro that I wish I had a book like  Light Matters in my camera bag when I was coming up.

Most photo book contain endless lighting diagrams, three-point lighting setups and exact recipes allowing readers to duplicate the example photographs.  I’d rather give readers tips that force them to think and tools to help them succeed.  A simple Google search will provide any number of lighting setups.  Few resources give you tips on shaping your shoot, dealing well with your clients and with the many inevitable issues that arise on location.

Above all I hope the guide is useful. That it prompts photographers to think and to stretch themselves. If it saves a photographer just a smidge of the grief that would have otherwise come to them, then I’ll be happy.

I’m so thankful to my group of advance readers–my Dream Team–comprised primarily of photographers I know and trust around the country. Their feedback helped shape the final product and made it shine.

I’m grateful that during its first week of publication, Light Matters reached #1 in two categories in the Kindle store. Mind blown.

As a companion to the book, I’ve created two resources. One is the page on my site,, where I’ll be posting additional information about the book, downloadable excerpts and other resources as they come available. The other is a private Facebook group  Light Matters , set up to discuss the exercises and concepts in the book.

Please check out Light Matters on Amazon, and let me know what you think.

The state of (ME) sales tax and your photography business

Collection of sales tax is one of those things that photographers should be charging but may not be charging correctly.  This is because it can be hard to find information online, because each state approaches the issue differently and because as photographers we may (or may not) deal with things like prints, electronic image delivery, sitting fees, out of state clients and license and usage fees.  It can be very confusing.

I’ve directly contacted the state of Maine in the past to ask questions about sales tax, and have had many discussions with other local photographers including Kathleen Kelly, a Scarborough-based commercial photographer who has gotten answers from the state.    Recently I corresponded with a tax section manager, Peter,  from Maine Revenue Services regarding my most oft-seen scenarios.

His responses revealed a few surprises.  I’ll explain further, but must note that I’m not a lawyer or a tax professional.   You should hire a good CPA to handle your business taxes and if you have further questions, contact the state directly.

First, some things I already knew:   I don’t charge tax to my out-of-state clients, but I do to my in-state ones.  Sometimes I don’t charge tax as a separate line-item to clients in-state.  In these cases I’m still required to pay the state the appropriate state sales tax.  Electronic file delivery is considered a tangible product, just like a CD of images or a box of prints.  It’s taxable.

If you charge usage or license fees, however, it gets interesting.  If your license is unlimited in terms of time, then it’s subject to tax.  If your license is restricted to ten years or less, it’s not subject to state tax.  This is a recent decision on the part of the state of Maine to treat photography licensing like software licensing.  Note that they use a length of time (10 years), not type of use (brochures, web, etc) to define the restriction.

A couple of things to make sure of:  Make sure to apply sales tax to line items in your invoices.  Things like postage using common carriers (USPS, FedEx, UPS) are not taxable.  Reimbursed expenses aren’t either.

As always,  consult a professional when deciding how to approach state sales tax, and actively seek answers that pertain to your specific situation.  remember that just because you didn’t know the right way to go doesn’t make you immune from being held responsible by the state later.

Lose the gear and become a better photographer

[photoshelter-img width=’400′ height=’627′ i_id=’I0000EHrXNHkbRsc’ buy=’0′]
© Brian Fitzgerald
I love nothing more than getting a visit from the UPS fairy, bearing boxes of the latest gear or light modifier.

But with experience comes the realization that a great photograph has less—much less—to do with fancy gear or expensive equipment and much more to do with what’s going on with the person behind the camera.

In short, it ain’t about the tools you use.  It’s how you use them.

When I first learned how to use studio lights on location, I was so excited to bring out my lights and stands, position the subject, etc.   I would spend a lot of time worrying about details like exposure and light shaping and correspondingly less time engaging with my subject.  Invariably, the result looked technically sound but lacked soul.

On the other end of the scale were the seat-of-your-pants moments as a newspaper photojournalist.  With just two cameras, a couple of lenses and a flash I was able to focus on capturing the moment.  Sometimes the photos were grainy, or were shot in less than ideal lighting conditions, but the content and moment elevated them far beyond the realm of the average “pretty picture”.

Once I did a week-long assignment covering a wilderness teen camp–you know, the type of program where troubled, out-of-control teens are whisked away in the night to find themselves deep in the wild, learning discipline through hard work and routine for weeks or months on end.     This one was isolated in a remote area of high Arizona desert, and everything I needed was packed on my back for the daily marches to each night’s new camping spot.    Within an hour of hiking, I slipped while fording a river, dunking a camera, a lens and smashing another on a rock.   I shot everything for the next five days with a backup Nikon FM2, a 24mm and a 35-70mm lens while the wet gear rusted inside a plastic bag.

And the photos were great.  Limiting myself to a couple of lenses and  a single camera body helped me focus on getting the moment,  gave me less distracting choices and ended up helping me get a very strong photo story.   I also learned to start a fire with a bow and stick, but that’s another story.


Why hire a pro photographer?

A team of pros, ready for battle

With so many quality digital cameras plus the enthusiasts willing to work for little or free, the question comes up a lot:  why should anyone hire a professional photographer?  In my mind, there are four major reasons I hire a professional to do anything, whether it’s building a web page to installing a window.  Can I do all of these things?  Yes, I can.  And, I have.   But, since we all can only do so much in the course of a day–and only become an expert in so many disciplines in our lifetimes, we are all forced to choose where to spend our efforts.    With 17 years’ experience as a professional photographer, I’ve clearly chosen mine.  Here, then, are the major reasons I counter such questions with:

You get what you pay for
What’s your expectation of the quality, timeliness and satisfaction of a job you give to a non-professional?  Probably it’s just good enough.   If that’s what you want, you should hire an amateur photographer.

Peace of Mind
When you hire a bonded, licensed electrician, you put your trust in their skills and mentally check out of the process so you can attend to other things.  You know it’ll be done right and that when you flip that light switch, the lights will come on.  You know if they don’t, you know who to talk to.   You don’t worry, fret or stress because the problem is being handled.   With a professional photographer, you may be excited and interested in the outcome, but you don’t have to worry that the images witll be of high quality, of consistent tone and feel…’ll have the confidence that you are getting the best effort and the best results.

Quality Consistency
Anyone can take a great photo–especially with the digital tools available today.    A photographer I know, a pro, once had two flashes go down on him during a night time wedding–shot during a hurricane, no less.   He sweated a bit, made adjustments, and the bride never knew the difference.  The photos?  If placed side-by-side with images from other weddings,  other pros would be hard-pressed to guess which one had technical difficulties.    A non-pro would have folded when faced with a daunting technical issue like this, and the wedding would have been in jeopardy.   With a pro, you are guaranteed quality good photos every time–not just once in a while.

The extra 10%
An established photographer once told a much younger version of myself that I should never just give the client what they asked for.  There had to be a way to come back with something more, something in addition….some value-add.   That way if an assignment didn’t develop in the way the client was expecting, I’d have provided them with something else they could still use.   Great advice.  I call this the extra 10%.   A professional photographer is always thinking about what they can do that the client could use, or needs.  They listen to the client to truly understand the problem and use their experience and skills to provide a solution the client can’t be expected to think of.  Because they hired you, a professional, to do so.  The 10% is what you demand of yourself, not what the clients expects of you.

It’s a relationship
Why develop a relationship with a professional?  Because who are you going to call when you need your drain unclogged on a Sunday morning over a holiday weekend–the plumber you’ve worked with for many years or someone you choose at random in the phone book?   I’m always getting calls from clients wanting images processed for an ad, cropped, or to have a DVD burned from a long-ago assignment.  They know that no matter what I’m doing or wherever I am in the world, I have the systems and help to get the answers and what they need done quickly.   That gets back to peace of mind.

We live in a world in which we are bombarded with choices and information.  The professional in any field stands as an anchor in a sea of chaos, ready to make sense of your needs and to provide you with the solutions you actually need.   Whether you’re looking for a photographer or plumber, a tax accountant or a Realtor, do your research, ask for personal references, and do yourself a favor.  Hire a pro, and get back to your life and work.


Microstock: why it’s good (and bad)

Many professional photographers complain about the growth of microstock in the past few years–inexpensive stock images (costing as little as one to five dollars) from companies like istockphoto, shutterstock and BigStockPhoto. These images on average cost pennies to dozens of dollars to use and have become standard for businesses and web designers who don’t want to commission original work for hundreds of dollars.

I don’t blame them.

Microstock has its place. Why spend a ton of money on something that you may want to change frequently, or that is part of a simple Powerpoint? Some of my business customers go through a process that starts with them doing their own photography, purchasing microstock and finally hiring a pro—that’s me— when they get busy or large enough that it makes sense to do so. I tell my clients that they should do what they can to save their money, and bring me in only when they have a big, tricky or big-splash campaign that needs to be done right. I’m part of the mix, and my client is being prudent. I like that.

Microstock is useful but it has its drawbacks too. That image of a bunch of business types interacting might be nice looking and may perfectly illustrate an ad for your conference room space rentals. But you have no control of who else uses that image. It might also perfectly illustrate the meeting space of your competitor, who decides they want to use it as well. Or it may illustrate the types of clientele an upscale escort service wants to attract and show up in some places you don’t want to associate with your brand.

My suggestion? When you decide to use a piece of stock for your primary web or marketing materials, do a search to see who else is using it. An exciting service is called and if you upload an image it’ll scour the web to find where else that image is published.

The image above, sold on istockphoto for less than $10, is being used for 236 different sites around the world (see screenshots below). Interesting to note that a dozen or more companies use this same image on their “about us” pages. Wouldn’t it be better to actually show your people?

Another alternative is to hire a professional to do your work. It may cost a bit more, but the image will be totally unique—the highest value in a world of cheap copies—just like your brand. It’s yours. It’ll feature your work or your team.

Whichever way you go, it’s worth your time to go in with eyes wide open.

Make your photo files immortal

What is a DNG file? Should I shoot RAW? I hear questions like these all the time from photographers and friends. It’s confusing out there, with each camera manufacturer using a different, proprietary type of RAW file. Sometimes the file type changes between cameras of the same manufacturer. How do you ensure that your files are readable years down the road, when that format may be obsolete (many have already come and gone)?

The best answer right now is the Adobe-sponsored format .DNG (Digital Negative). This is a standard supported by Lightroom, Aperture, Adobe Bridge, Photo Mechanic and many other image browsers, catalogs and PIEware. It’s not yet universally supported by the major digital camera manufacturers, but it’s probably just a matter of time before that happens.

It’s a good idea, if you shoot RAW–to either save the original RAW images and then convert your take to DNG, or to convert immediately to DNG and save those as originals (which they technically are). Most professional image browsing software will convert proprietary RAW files to .DNG during the image ingestion process–that is, as the software copies the images from your digital media card and deposits them on a hard drive. If you don’t have a browser software that does this for you, you can download a .DNG converter from Adobe.

For ultimate forward-backward compatibility, add .DNG file conversion to your workflow. Your future self will thank you.

Copyright registration: why it matters

Misconceptions abound when it comes to copyright of intellectual property, especially photography. Photographers typically think that they automatically own the copyright to their work and thus are protected when their images are used without permission. This sense of security–while based in fact–is somewhat misplaced.

A comprehensive discussion of copyright law is a topic for another time. Suffice to say that there are many reasons why professional photographers (those making a living at photography and want to continue to do so in the future) should copyright their work: One is that the most you can collect for a copyright infringement is the value of the image itself if the image has not been registered with the US Copyright Office. If a registered work is infringed upon, lawyers fees and statutory damages may be collected. Two, having registered work gives the copyright holder protection and leverage when negotiating disputes with publishers of their work. This can help with resolving slow- or non-paying customer issues.

It’s recommended that any photographer copyright their work prior to distribution or publication. Clients who purchase copyright from photographers (the so-called ‘buy-out’) should consider registering the work they own as well. To find out more about why copyright registration is important, check out the explanation posted on the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP). It’s easy to register electronically at the US Copyright office. Lastly, there’s a great tutorial for photographers on the ASMP site on registering photography work online.

Reach for branding success

“Branding” is one of those words that seem to be applied to everything, and with good reason. Every bit of text, every graphic, every image that conveys both positive and negative information about your company or your person is affecting your ‘brand’.

Are you still using that two-year-old portrait to represent you or your business? Worse, are you a brand fanatic when it comes to your website and printed materials but have a Facebook page featuring you holding a beer at last July’s block party?

Now more than ever, brands need to be professional and consistently applied. You need to look your best wherever on the Internet that Google directs your potential clients–and competitors.

Any business or individual wanting to have an immediate, positive impact to their branding should analyze their brand’s visual footprint around the internet and then devise a plan to prop up the places where their brand might show some wear. This process can be as simple as getting an updated portrait or other images that gets systematically applied.

Several of our clients update their portraits up to six times a year, keeping things fresh, professional and always new.  While that may not be your cup of tea,  revisiting your visuals annually or every other year is a good idea.