The Doctor Is In

My good friend Vanessa is the office manager at a medical practice in Berkeley. A while back, she and her colleagues were nice enough to host an exhibition of my portraits in their very nice office. Recently, she called me because the medical practice was updating its website, and they needed a good group portrait of the doctors and of the whole office staff. They wanted something natural, photographed outdoors.

After some discussion about the project, we put a date on the calendar. Then I took some time on a day off the week before the shoot to search the area around their office for a suitable environment. I found an ideal location with a long bench, located only a block away.

On the day of the photo shoot, everyone was on time and followed the wardrobe guidelines–cool blue and gray tones to contrast against the warm earth tones at the location. They also brought their smiles and camaraderie, which made my job easier.

My lighting for this shot was pretty simple. I planned for a time of day when the building we were using as our backdrop shaded my subjects from direct sun, but provided nice diffuse bounced light from a building across the street. I brought a battery-powered flash, and set it up on a stand with an umbrella at camera left. Power was set to equal the ambient light, so the flash gave just a hint of contrast, filled shadows, and gave nice shape to everyone’s faces.

Here were the results, aided by a subtle wind-machine effect created by the natural breeze:

If you are in the East Bay and are looking for a great naturopathic doctor, contact the ladies at Berkeley Naturopathic.

NYC Street Photography

As I reviewed year-old images for my NYC Halloween blog post, a rush of memories came back about that and other trips to New York. It’s a cliche, but New York really is the greatest city in the world in many ways—including for street portraiture.

I had a lot of meetings while I was in New York last year at this time, and I was more focused on showing my images to magazine editors than on taking photos while I was there. Nevertheless, I did do some street photography with my (then new) Olympus E-PM1 camera. Compact and stealthy. Ideal for street photography.

Here are a few of my favorite street portraits, starting with a few more Halloween day shots:

And what would a street portrait series be without some people and animals (in this case, people interacting with their phones, with dogs looking on):

On a more serious note, Occupy Wall Street was in full swing in Fall of 2011, and people were camped out in freezing (literally) temperatures at the main encampment. It even snowed a couple of days before I took these pictures. I think this portrait of a man eating a meal from underneath a blanket says it all:

Where is Waldo’s bailout?

Finally, street portraiture is all about paying attention to the details that can anticipate a fleeting moment, or just lead you down a path you hadn’t planned for. One night, walking down Houston Street late in the evening, my eyes focused on an unusual flyer taped to a lamp post.

No person in the photo, but a portrait nonetheless, don’t you think?

NYC Halloween

This past week was Halloween, and also the time of a devastating freak storm along the East Coast. Both of these events reminded me of exactly one year ago when I was in New York City during the last week of October.

On the last weekend of October 2011 a freak snow storm coated New York City in a layer of snow that historians and meteorologists said was the first of its kind in the month of October since the Civil War. Yes, The Civil War!

On the first day of the storm, I was attending the PhotoPlus Expo (an annual photography trade show). Around mid-day, here is what I saw when I went outside to get some fresh air after being cooped up in the convention center for several hours:

And on my way back to my subway stop in the afternoon, the snow had stopped falling, but the sidewalks were covered. (That brown stuff is snow, just very dirty snow.):

That night, just before I went to sleep, I checked weather on my phone. Yup, freezing with snow. In October!

The next morning, a lot of the slush on the pavement started to melt, but evidence of the freak snow storm was still around for more than 24 hours.

Because it was still mid-Fall, the vast majority of trees still had a full set of leaves. Heavy snow packed on top of a canopy of leaves means a lot of downed branches.

As you can see from the photo above, a little chaos doesn’t stop New Yorkers from walking their dog or reading tweets on park benches. The destructive power of that storm didn’t equal Hurricane Sandy this year, but it was still a rare and powerful event.

During my week in NYC, I had a day off between the 3-day expo and a 3-day NYCFotoWorks portfolio review event that I was attending. That day off happened to be October 31st–Halloween! So as the last of the snow was melting, and people walked their dogs in Central Park amid fallen tree limbs, other strange juxtapositions started to appear…

A Storm Trooper taking a break to call his girlfriend:

Dr. Seuss characters commuting on the subway:

Pink bunnies walking the streets of the Lower East Side (out lookin’ for some tail??):

Bank robbers acting oddly unconcerned about being seen on the street:

I had never been outside California on Halloween before. New York, which is always a feast for the eyes and a gold mine for a street photographer, really pulled out all the stops for the holiday.

After trudging through snow in October and seeing millions of New Yorkers with their freak flags flying, I couldn’t imaging things getting any more crazy or fantastic.

But they did.

By chance, I had found a hotel for my week in NYC that was located away from the madness of mid-town, and tucked away on a small street in Greenwhich Village. Little did I know when I booked my hotel, New York has a Halloween parade, and it runs down the major avenue in the Village just a block from the hotel! After getting inside and warming up for a bit after a freezing day outdoors (taking the pictures above, among other things), I headed out and experienced the icing on my freaky New York cake!

I’ll let the photos do the talking, but here are a few photos of the crowd and the insanity. (I’m just sure of the exact attendance at this event, but I’m pretty sure it was right around a bazillion.)

Keep in mind, the temperatures were still in the low 30s, and a lot of these knuckleheads were out in nothing but some pink fur, fishnets and a silly hat. Youza.

I had a much more low key Halloween this year at home in 65 degree California. But the occasion prompted me to dig up these photos from last year and recall the craziness that was. Go New York. Stay warm and safe as you recover from Hurricane Sandy!

Ask

Last week I had the opportunity to meet and photograph the executive team at Ask.com in Oakland, California. The popular search site and parent company of Dictionary.com is in the process of updating its corporate information webpage and executive profiles, which currently don’t include portraits.

Back in early August, I was referred to a Senior Marketing Manager at Ask by a mutual acquaintance. She liked the work on my just-released new website, and my bid was submitted and accepted after an email exchange and phone conversation about the project. We scheduled a date for later in the month to do the photography.

Between when she booked me and the shoot date, the number of executive to photograph grew from 8 to 11. Also during that time, the date got pushed—since that many busy executives automatically equals scheduling problems!

Finally, though, the revised shoot date arrived and everything went smoothly. Everyone arrived on time for their appointment, followed the wardrobe guidelines, and gave me their full attention during our time together. (With busy executives, it can be difficult to go three-for-three in these categories!). As an added bonus, the corporate culture was very relaxed and unpretentious, which was reflected in the easy interactions I had and the candid images I was able to create.

A few weeks before the shoot, I had asked to speak with the web design firm that was doing the layouts. It was good that I did, because found out during our pre-production call that the design called for a slightly unconventional off-center horizontal composition, with room for text in the negative space. They also wanted negative space on both sides, so they had the choice of framing subject left or right of center in the frame.

This creative direction had a big impact on my approach to the shoot. Luckily, I was able to set up in the company’s large main conference room, leaving plenty of room for a wide composition with plenty of background.

Here are a few sample images from the shoot:

During the first portrait session of the day, we got some great candid shots where a laugh or break in eye contact produced a more editorial looking image. I pointed these images out to the Marketing Manager, and we agreed that if we tried to capture a few of these type of shots for each person, they might have a great alternative portrait series for other uses within the company.

This moment was an example of how it is not just important to nail down the specs for the shoot in advance. It is equally important to look for and recognize additional opportunities to capitalize on the limited time with the company’s busy executives. In this case, we doubled the output from the shoot—more useful images for the client and more business for me—by tweaking our game plan on the fly.

Here are just a couple of the candid alternate shots:

In the end, everyone loved the candid portraits. In fact, they liked the idea of “off-beat” portraits so much, that they called me after the shoot to request full-on blooper shots. Now that’s an executive team with a sense of humor!

This was a fun and very rewarding project that went well from start to finish. It exemplified what I like about doing this type of portrait work: I got to meet a group of interesting, educated, high-achieving individuals from diverse backgrounds. In my conversations with them, I learned about things like the physics of skydiving and what it’s like to be born in Italy then growing up in Alaska. And I got to know a bit of the inner workings of a locally-based global brand.

Much thanks to my Marketing Manager contact for her great facilitation (and executive-wrangling). The new site featuring these images is not live yet, but I will update this post with a link when it is released!

Shooting Myself

When my new website (and this blog) went live on August 1, 2012, it required a headshot of yours truly for my “About” page. As I prepared the final draft of my website and filled my portfolios with image with relative ease, I struggled to find a suitable portrait of myself to accompany my bio.

Like most photographers, I am usually behind the camera and have a shortage of good portraits–candid or posed–from which to choose. The self-portrait that I had been using since August 1 was not ideal, and it has been on my to-do list ever since then to remedy this situation.

This past weekend I finally had a break in my busy schedule, and with the help of my girlfriend Jacklyn, I executed an idea had been percolating in my mind.

I wanted a candid but well lit and composed portrait. I locked in a great highrise apartment location with a kitchen bar counter extending in front of a living area with a big bank of windows. I liked the openness of the space. I also had a recently-acquired lighting tool that created beautiful sunny light, which would be perfect for sculpting the light on my face without clashing with the lighting of the surrounding environment.

I sketched out how I would compose and light my portrait using my location and lighting to best advantage:

Then on Sunday, I assembled my lighting kit and headed over to the location. I set up, framed the shot, tweaked the lighting, and had Jacklyn operate the camera (and keep me laughing). I tethered the camera to a laptop with the screen facing toward me, so I could look over every 5-10 frames and see how things were looking.

Here is the winning shot, which was just placed on to the “About” page on my main website:


Some changes were made to the set-up on the fly, but if you compare the finished product to my sketch, you’ll see that the result pretty closely matches the original concept. My fancy new lighting tool reproduced sunlight well, and I am happy with the end result.

Even though I conceived of this as a self-portrait, it’s probably more appropriate to call it a co-portrait. Jacklyn was instrumental in framing and focusing, and had the all-important task of loosening up the uptight subject!

(Whew, glad that’s over. Now back to my comfort zone behind the camera for at least a year!)

Food, Shelter, Clothing…Headshot

A quality headshot has become an essential component of a business professional’s toolkit. LinkedIn and Facebook profiles are as informative to employers as a resume, and they are often the real first impression that an applicant makes, before the interview itself. And whether employers admit it or not, the profile photo that sits front and center makes a huge impression from which interview decisions are made.

The era of cell phone cameras combined with the emergence of social media sites like Facebook around 2005 created a “snapshot aesthetic”. At that time, my experience was that many people suddenly threw 50 years of headshot wisdom out the window and fixated on the new funky snapshot ideal. Suddenly, few people wanted to invest in a professional headshot. Snapshots were seen as more hip, more personal, and more unique.

More recently, though, many of my clients have come to the realization that a quality headshot is like a fine tailored suit–it isn’t the most trendy or hip attire, but it projects quality and professionalism. And ultimately, that is usually what gets the job.

By last year, most people seemed to have picked up on the fact that the basic ingredients if a good impression remain unchanged in the social media era–a well-written resume, showing up on time, a sharp suit…and if you are going to have a headshot, make it a quality headshot.

I have found that the first people to emerge from the snapshot fixation and realize the value of a quality profile photo are the ones who had first embraced snapshots: early-career professionals, 5-10 years into their career. They are young and social media savvy, but have been in the workplace long enough to see what best impresses and emulates those that the top of the corporate food chain. They are individuals who have established their career in the first few years, but now want to elevate their personal brand to get the kind of job that will pay a Bay Area mortgage in the coming years.

A recent MBA graduate, seeking a mid-level management position:

A young professional looking to change industries:

Young professionals are not the only ones who are realizing the value of a professional headshot for the web. Many of my clients are senior executives who have had a professional headshot for years, but want to update their image to stay current and avoid looking dated.

The president of a medium-sized consulting company in San Francisco. He came in for a more formal portrait for his company, but asked me to also shoot a more informal portrait for social media:

An independent personal and career development consultant. She wanted to project earnest professionalism, but with candid posing and environment:

I still get conservative traditional headshot requests for certain industries, but both that style and the do-it-yourself-snapshot-with-a-cell-phone approach seem to be less and less popular as social media comes of age.

The shift in aesthetic was strong enough over the past two years that it prompted me to revamp my corporate headshot portfolio and my whole website earlier this Summer. To my surprise and pleasure, my business has picked up considerably as I have focused in on the new contemporary headshot.

I love helping professionals focus and elevate their personal brand through a headshot. It is a more powerful tool than ever…and it costs a lot less than a nice suit.

Amateur Car Photography

Last year, I said goodbye to my beloved but aging Volkswagen, and upgraded to a more practical work vehicle for hauling gear around to location shoots (which I find myself doing more and more these days). After some shopping around, I settled on a Subaru Forester. In the year and change that I have owned it, I have nothing but good things to say about it. Great car.

One surprise benefit of my Subaru is that the dirtier I get it and the farther off-the-beaten-path I take it, the more it looks like a perfectly styled Subaru commercial! Below are two shots I took of it this Summer on two trips to different locations in the Sierras. It defies logic, but my Subaru sparkles more when it is peppered with mud and dirt, and parked in a remote location. It’s like a dog wagging its tail after emerging from a muddy romp, as if to say “Yes, Master! More! More! This is my idea of a good time!

These are just snapshots (one taken with a point & shoot camera, the other with an iPhone). But to my eye these images are indeed remarkably similar to the elaborately styled “real” Subaru photos I see on billboards and in print ads.

Truth in advertising? You be the judge. Here is an older Subaru Forester print ad from the ’90s (borrowed from the annals of history housed on the internet):

Take the Road Less Traveled (And Make Sure You Have a Camera With You!)

A common photography truism is that the fanciest camera in the world is no good if you don’t have it with you when you need it.

Another less often mentioned truism about “getting the shot” is that sometimes you have to mix things up to see what’s right in front of you with a clearer perspective.

I am a life-long Bay Area resident. This Summer my girlfriend and I trained for a century bike ride (100 miles). Training for this took us all over the East Bay (and beyond), and I am seeing my own environment in a new way from a bicycle. I’ve noticed houses on side-streets that I never would have seen if I was in my car on the main thoroughfare. I’ve seen major landmarks, like our famous bridges, from new angles. And I’ve gone out at times of day when light strikes things differently than if I was just doing my typical routine.

This experience has reminded me that it’s worth shaking up the normal routine as an artist. Take the road less traveled, and have that camera ready (even if it’s attached to a phone) for when something interesting comes along.

The following photo was taken with my iPhone while on a sunset ride along the Bay Trail, near the Richmond Marina. A fog bank rolled in and mixed with the bright setting sun to create interesting silhouettes. Cropping and color/contrast adjustments made in Photoshop. (Click on image to view large.)

SFIF Post-Script: Musings on Creative Risk-Taking

This is my last of several blog posts about doing portraits at the San Francisco Improv Festival in August. But in case you are wondering if this is turning into an improv blog instead of a photography blog, this entry is really about pursuing personal projects (as a photographer or any sort of creative person).

I am passionate about photography, and about portraiture in particular. I am also passionate about improv theater. My Improvisors project was born out of a desire to combine my passions, and also do a personal project that gave back to the people I was photographing. (Many improvisors are struggling actors who desperately need professional-grade headshots.)

By the time the SFIF rolled around in August, my project was well under way, and I saw it as an opportunity to double-down on my win-win project idea. After all, the SFIF is organized by, of and for the improv community. Another win-win. It may seem, then, like the collaboration was a no-brainer and that it was destined to produce great results from the start.

Not so. There were lots of obstacles along the way.

Firstly, I was in the early stages of defining and executing my project concept when the SFIF appeared on the horizon. I had to really work to narrow the scope, create a presentation and make the appropriate contacts to pitch my idea. This wasn’t easy. On the other hand, it was a great motivator. Deadlines and a critical audience provide great incentive to work hard and get focused.

Secondly, the SFIF is an all-volunteer run event. By the time I came calling with my portrait idea, the unpaid producers of the event already had a long list of to-dos that were far more integral to the Fest than my project. To their credit, they made time to hear me out and bought into the idea, recognizing that it blended well with the mission of the Fest.

Even after everything was lined up in principle, schedules had to be made, event calendars had to be analyzed to see which dates would work best, tight schedules had to be made, then re-made as things changed, and headliners had to be found, contacted, and sold on participating during their very limited time in San Francisco (some folks had planes landing just hours before the went on stage!).

Finally, once all of the contacts got made, dates picked, schedules locked in, etc, I still had the task of executing the plan successfully. This was a personal project with no budget for crew. I would have 200+ lbs of equipment to pack, transport, move through a back entrance, and set up in a confined back-stage area. I had mere minutes to unpack and set up very complex lighting that had to perfectly match prior and later lighting set-ups. I would have to shoot quickly with no assistants to make lighting or tech adjustments, and then pack up and do everything in reverse less than 90 minutes after I arrived to let performers prepare for the arriving audience!

And then do it all again several more times during the week…

All the planning, selling the project, contacting prospective subjects, locking down schedules, packing, planning and executing had to get done quickly, AND there was no guarantee that anyone would show up!

Of course I had locked in a few people who were almost certain to be there. But schedules were shifting left and right until the last minute, and the bulk of the people I hoped to photograph (non-headliners, workshop participants, etc) weren’t locked in at all. I wasn’t sure if 1 person would show up, or 100. Or zero.

Here is where I get to the point of this blog post:

If you are a creative professional, identify what you are passionate about and create work that fulfills it. And take risks in pursuit of those goals. Fortune favors the bold, and you are likely to be rewarded for your efforts.

In my case, all of the above planning and execution paid off. I planned it all out and showed up each day with all that gear, set up and then waited. On the first day no one showed up until the last 20 minutes. But then I got an amazing set of portraits in that 20 minutes; more than I expected for the whole night!

Other days, I got tons of folks showing up to participate. People who had only seen a Facebook post or overheard through a friend showed up, got in line, and waited patiently to give of their time. Some of the headliners I most wanted to photograph were unconfirmed until the last moment. But in the end, I photographed every single person (except one) who I had on my wish list. Awesome.

I’m not wired to leap off cliffs without looking. There is a fine line between bold and crazy. But I lept with this project. And even though it goes against my nature, I’m smart enough to recognize that boldness/craziness is what art needs sometimes to succeed. It was a good lesson for me, and one I encourage other creative people to learn by doing as well.

Fortune favors the bold. Be bold.

***

Full Disclosure: I did have the generous and MUCH APPRECIATED help of my girlfriend, Jacklyn, who came with me on several of the dates to watch/park my car during loading and unloading, and to provide general support. She also took some great behind-the-scenes photos (including the opening image at the top of this post, and in this earlier post). Here is Jacklyn sitting with David Razowsky (an avid photographer himself), looking through BTS photos:

Improv Teachers & Students

My last blog entries were from the early part of the San Francisco Improv Festival, where I was photographing performers. I went back for a couple more days of shooting portraits and got some great stuff, but then I got slammed with a series of major jobs, and had no time to sort through much less blog about my SFIF portraits.

I’m happy to report that things are slowly getting back under control, and I’ve had some time to go through my images.

Some of the improvisors shown below are the people who first got me excited about shooting at the Fest. They are people who I have taken improv workshops with myself and/or seen performing on stage. They are some of the best. They came to headline some nights at the Fest, and I was lucky enough to have a few minutes of their time back stage to make portraits for my Improvisors series.

Without further ado, here is the product of the second half of my week at SFIF!

David Razowsky is a a veteran, based in L.A. I took a workshop with him two years ago that helped me break through to a new level in my own performing. I have experienced him as a great teacher, who can be unvarnished with both praise and criticism. My kind of guy. He’s also a phenomenal performer, as he proved yet again during SFIF. He performed a two-person show with local Bay Area improvisor Rachel Hamilton, who I also had the opportunity to photograph.

David is unafraid to dial any emotion up to eleven, as evidenced here:

I have to say, though, that despite his deep well of impish energy, my experience just talking with him is more as a calm, sophisticated and supremely confident man:

Now here is Rachel, preferring dialed-up-to-eleven over calm and sophisticated:

And of course a couple of images of them acting silly together (my first multi-person Improvisors portrait):

One of my best group experiences with improv was at the first ever Improv Summer Camp in 2011. It was an old-school sleep-away camp with cabins filled with bunk beds, nature activities, and a whole bunch of improv workshops, all taking place in a beautiful ocean-side location on the central California coast. Camp ImprovUtopia, as it’s called, is the brainchild of founder and director Nick Armstrong.

It had been a while since Camp, so it was great to see Nick again at SFIF, performing with not one but two L.A.-based troupes that were invited to the Fest!

A face I’ve seen Nick make more than a few times:

Nick role-playing as his father:

On my final day at SFIF, I came in with fingers crossed that I would be able to catch the great Susan Messing of Annoyance Theater in Chicago. She was teaching a morning workshop and then performing as the closing night headliner. To my delight, she appeared on set after her workshop and gave generously of her time.

All improvisors are personalities, but Susan is a personality among personalities. She did not disappoint in front of the camera. This is my favorite image, showing her characteristic intensity (and also displaying a novel way of flipping the bird!):

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, David Razowsky showed up to teach his afternoon workshop, and old friends were reunited:

Speaking of workshops, one of my goals while photographing at SFIF was to catch workshop participants–people from all over the Bay Area improv scene–who I might not have found otherwise.

I had some great volunteers, and got fantastic portraits. Here are my favorites:

All in all, the San Francisco Improv Festival was a huge success. I was able to meet and photograph so many great people, and spend time with some of the greats. It is a real perk of being a photographer that, if you pursue work that inspires you, you really get to enjoy what you do. My Improvisors project is limited in scope for now, but it’s coming along great and I hope to grow it and create a gallery exhibition and/or book at some point down the road.

Thanks again to Jamie, Chris, Cassidy & Jill for helping to facilitate my work at SFIF!