I was recently given my first assignment by Sky Sports magazine NZ (sadly it was for their last issue) to produce a portrait of Mark Gilbert, the US Ambassador to New Zealand. When I first got the assignment I was a little apprehensive, knowing that it would be quite a pressured assignment. But simultaneously I was also quietly excited about the possibilities for a great portrait. The US Ambassador is an ex-White Sox baseball player and the crux of the story, at least as far as my part was concerned, was to tell the amalgamated tale of a sportsman-turned-ambassador.
I had two weeks to arrange a suitable time for the shoot and plan details for the portrait. It is very easy for your imagination to run wild with ideas for portraits (or photo ideas in general for that matter), and this assignment was no exception. The embassy’s press officer and I discussed possibilities of how to visually tell this story. Based on these conversations and further discussions I had with the journalist writing the article and the magazine’s editor and art director, I imagined myriad such scenarios including:
Mark standing, resting against a large, plush desk in his office at the embassy, while gently leaning forwards resting both hands on top of a baseball bat. A shelf lined with books in the background, and dappled, golden afternoon sunlight streaming through a window.
At his home standing sideways-on to the camera, in front of a large mosaic of President Obama, a baseball bat resting on one shoulder, a catcher’s mitt resting in the other hand; cross-lit but with light shadows to create a subtle sense of drama.
Email conversations with the writer and the magazines editor and art director yielded more useful ideas for the theme of the shoot: Rolled-up sleeves CHECK. Casually leaning against desk CHECK. Pretending to take a swing at an invisible ball NO WAY (if you Google baseball portraits, this is probably one of the most common poses). Draping the American flag over one shoulder, or have it hanging in the back ground. CLICHÉ ALERT (or so I thought!).
To prepare for the assignment, I created a shot list of 4-5 variations of the shots I would like to use; from full-length shots to tight close-ups. I even tested the simple two-light set-up. When the day of the shoot arrived, I was nervous but prepared. All equipment was packed and ready. I’d taken the day off work so no time pressure there.
It took me ten minutes to have my equipment X-rayed at the security gate, handed over my iPhone (no phones or cameras allowed – at least they didn’t take this rule too seriously!). I then met the press officer and we entered the foyer of the main embassy building.
There we were confronted with an impenetrable wall of glass, with a US marine barely visible through all of that semi-transparent protection. Here I handed over my NZ drivers license (as a form of photo ID) in return for a clip-on ID badge. The marine, in all of his well-drilled-robot-like fashion, proceeded to instruct the press officer of the rules I MUST follow, all the while referring to me in the third person. I guess I was invisible through all of that toughened glass (must have been unable to see me due to internal reflection or something).
With a roll of her eyes, the press officer escorted me into their media briefing room where I was informed that this would be the sole location for the shoot. It was a featureless room of approximately four metres by four metres, stuffed with chairs, a lectern, tables, audio-visual equipment and other non-descript items for all your media briefing needs. Initially I was a bit panicked when I was told that this was it. More so when I was told that the Ambassador had an important guest arriving imminently and I would only have 20 minutes to do the portrait.
Luckily for me the media room had several backdrops (black/blue curtains were my background of choice), four LED panel lights and a spotlight mounted on rails attached to the ceiling, and most importantly, an AV tech that knew how to use them. They also had an American flag I could use as part of the background! All of this enabled me to mimic a studio-look to the portrait, and to hide the fact that we were in a featureless media briefing room.
With a handshake firm enough to cause a temporary disability in my trigger finger, the Ambassador greeted me, and we ‘shot the shit,’ as they say, and proceeded with the shoot. Mark had fun toying with me, pointing out the irony of an Englishman using imperial measurements to give directions……..can you just step back with your left foot a couple of inches……..
Explaining to the AV tech the look I was after and the lighting style I wanted to use (contrasty, cross/back-lighting on the subject, with a spotlight on the background) I managed to come away from this shoot with some reasonable portraits under the circumstances. Not quite what I had in mind originally, but the moral of this story is to always expect (and if you can plan for it) the unexpected!
Well not quite a tribute but a first attempt to emulate his style! Shot again using sheets of Ilford HP5 film, and for all but two of these portraits, using a 300W fake Kino Flo from Amazon (Limo Studio) continuous fluorescent light source, a reflector, and some black and white filters. Having just recently worked on a film set producing some film stills and witnessing how film makers use continuous lights, my next plan is to add a second light using a 300 or 600W Arri tungsten light. There seems to be no end in sight for accumulating photography equipment!
I was commissioned by Unlimited magazine to create a portrait of CEO Linc Gasking of New Zealand tech start-up 8i, who develop virtual reality systems and 3D technology. The assignment came in on a Friday and the shoot was scheduled for first thing on Monday, giving me the weekend to organise props for the shoot. As we were not permitted to photograph any of the actual technology, to visualise the story we decided to shoot the portrait in Wellington’s Opera House to create the impression of somebody watching a 3D movie at the cinema.
I managed to collect 10 pairs of 3D glasses from a film junky friend, and managed to blag some empty popcorn cartons and drinks containers from the kind folks at Reading Cinema for the other props. I glued a cardboard baffle into the popcorn carton to give the impression that the cartons were full of popcorn.
I was aware that I would only have a total of twenty minutes to shoot the images for the story as Linc had to rush off to a meeting at 9am. As the Opera House is a darkly lit environment, I had already visualised how I would light the image, so when I arrived it was just a question of quickly setting up the key light, and have a second light back-lighting the subject and the Opera House seating.
Sadly this was my last shoot for Unlimited magazine as they have now been absorbed by Fairfax Media’s Stuff website, who use staff photographers rather than commissioning freelancers. Shame really as I love doing this work as it can be very fun and challenging.
Several months ago I was commissioned to photograph Glenn Milnes of New Zealand software company Ike GPS. The company creates software that allows the accurate measurement of geographic features within a photograph taken from any smart phone. As the company had recently launched onto the New Zealand stock exchange, the angle for the story was floatation.
The magazine’s art director had arrange for the shoot to go ahead at Wellington Regional Aquatic Centre in Kilbirnie, and luckily for me, Glenn was pretty flexible time-wise meaning I could schedule this shoot in the evening after work. Below are some of the images from the shoot:
It’s been a while since I posted any of my recent freelance work, so it’s about time I caught up. Spotlight Reporting is a company specialising in software analytics for business, based in Petone, Wellington. I was commissioned by Unlimited to photograph CEO Richard Francis. These assignments can be tough when it comes to creating successful portraits as often there is very limited time with the sitter (as generally they are busy, working people) and generally there is little opportunity to plan ahead with the photographs you intend to make, and you never know what the location looks like before you walk into it. Thinking on your feet and using any available elements to enhance the portrait are the order of the day.
Luckily for me on this day, the afternoon sun was shinning brightly and when I arrived I noticed that the sun was shining through a slat-wood fence and would be perfect for creating a star-burst which would help illustrate the story of a company called Spotlight Reporting.
Freelancing as a photographer can be a competitive business, even more so in a small city like Wellington where the photography market is small, and where several local education institutions churn out photography graduates by the bus-load every year. In Wellington, everyone knows somebody who is a photographer. The recent changes in digital photography and multimedia platforms, combined with the massive quantity of digital imagery available, have cheapened the craft of photography in the view of image consumers. It is this latter point I would like to discuss.
In September I was commissioned by a local magazine called Capital, to produce a portrait of stage actor, Matt Landreth, at the St James theatre. The story was to be a profile piece about an “interesting local doing interesting things”. An excerpt from the original commissioning email is below (click on the image to enlarge):
I was given 15 minutes for the shoot, which included using locations on and around the stage, and using props and/or costumes which are part of the actors character. Only having 15 minutes to get the images, you generally have to work pretty fast to get a variety of different shots so the magazine has enough work to choose from when designing the layout for the magazine. This means shooting landscape and portrait formats, in full-body, half-body, head and shoulders, and environmental portraits in different locations around the theatre. Plus using both flash lit and ambient lighting to suit the magazines style. As you can imagine, 15 minutes is a challenging time-frame in which to get all these different shots.
Upon meeting Matt at the theatre, he suggests wearing the only costume piece he had available which was a set of bright red Devil’s horns. The issue at hand here becomes a creative one. Personally I like the horns. Below are some examples of the images I shot for the assignment:
The initial assignment brief (see above email excerpt) explicitly suggests the use of the stage, auditorium and costumes being available for the portrait. Upon reviewing the images, the feedback I received from the art director was: “I’ve got your shots of Matt too, thanks v much. Just wondering if there’s any shots of Matt without those horns? The photos are perfect, it’s just the horns really shattering the shot”.
There was no further communication between myself or the magazine regarding this issue.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion, however the mention of an unspecific costume is alluded to in the email. Whether the horns “shatter” the image is an aesthetic opinion and has no relation to the technical quality of the images I produced. If I had submitted technically flawed images (i.e. out of focus, blurred due to camera shake, poor colour balance, poor exposure), I could perhaps understand the response.
Having not liked the images I produced for this assignment due to a cosmetic element, the magazine decided not to publish the images for the article. Below is a screen shot of how the article was eventually published in the October issue:
As you can see, the location and style of the image used differs widely from the original brief. Just to make it clear, this isn’t my photo.
When taking on a freelance assignment for a magazine, payment for the work is made either one or two weeks after the assignment deadline, or one month after publication of the images, depending on the size of the magazine or publisher. It took several emails to the art director and editor (from whom I never received a response) and several phone calls over a three-month period to get my payment of NZ$50 (yes it is a substandard rate by magazine standards but sometimes it is the principle that matters) for this assignment. When I finally received a phone call from the editor regarding my payment, it was mentioned that there was a “problem” with the images taken at the theatre. I was eventually paid in early December for this assignment. In my opinion, this behaviour suggests that the magazine decided to withhold my payment because they chose not to use the images for the publication.
This is very poor behaviour for a magazine which relies on freelance contributors for its content and features many creative individuals in its pages. This kind of treatment shows how the photographic craft has been devalued by a saturated market, and it is exploitative of emerging creative professionals. Every other magazine would simply not employ a freelancer again if the aesthetic style didn’t quite match their taste. Every magazine assignment is an organic and evolving working relationship, and sometimes a photographer’s personal style won’t always suit the clients requirements – and this is fine and completely acceptable.
I have been hesitant regarding publishing this post. I finally decided to publish it because I believe it is important for other photographers (and other creative freelancers) to understand their rights when producing work, to know the value of your work and experience, and the lesson to be learned is to be persistent when dealing with conflicts such as this. It’s our right to be paid for the work we have produced on assignment – promptly and without having to repeatedly ask for it.
I’m glad that all other magazines I have worked for so far have shown a much more professional attitude in terms of how they deal with freelance contributors. And I’m also happy to say they are all returning clients 🙂
I’d be interested to hear about other photographers experiences and how they deal with these unfortunate issues when they arise.