A long time ago, I made a living as an illustrator. I made editorial illustrations for the interiors and covers of various magazines, like Time, the Atlantic, Travel & Leisure, Businessweek, New York Times, and many others. I then drew comic books for Marvel, DC, and Harris Comics, where one of my creator-owned properties became a short-lived TV series called Harsh Realm. From there, I worked in the feature film and video game industries as an artist, animator, and later as an art director. From this experience I developed drawing and painting skills that I regularly put to use as a photographer. I don’t discuss this much, nor advertise the fact, because to me it is natural to make a few sketches before a shoot. Recently, however, I ran into some people who happened to see some of the comps I’ve made and they thought they were very interesting.
I make comps quickly, rarely spending more than about ten minutes to make one, primarily because they are for my own use and don’t need to be at a presentation level of finish. That said, compared to the comps I saw when I (briefly) worked at Ted Bates Advertising in New York City, they are about the same level of finish as some of the looser, more stylized comps I saw there. Their finished, photo-real comps, on the other hand, were very different.
For my most recent shoot, I made four types of comps. They were:
1) Styling inventory. This sketch depicted rough images to represent all of the clothes I purchased for the shoot up to that point. I could have laid them out on my bed and taken a photo but the colors would have been wrong unless I brought up my lighting gear and made a significant effort to shoot it right. Making a comp was faster, more accurate color-wise, and fun to make.
2) Lighting concept. These sketches explored the look of the kind of lighting I wanted to use. They include information on: specific models, styling for the models, poses, and lighting effects. The primary goal of these images is to explore the lighting but to do that, a model, the styling, and a pose had to be present. For that reason, none of those factors are definitive in these sketches. The only thing I’m really looking at with these is the lighting. Of the models I was thinking of for the five sketches below, I only shot one of them on the day of the shoot. Her styling was different and so was her pose.
3) Styling. I did the styling in two stages. The first was to buy the non-cycling fitness wear, the second was to buy the cycling jerseys. The reason I did it like that is that the fitness wear could be bought at local stores but the cycling jerseys had to be purchased online. Therefore, there was a gap of a few days between receiving the garments. After I received the cycling jerseys in the mail, I made a set of new sketches where I imagined what each of the models would look like in the clothes I’d selected for the shoot. By this time I knew who the models would be, their sizes, and skin tones. That additional information was put into the styling comps, to yield a more accurate picture of what I could expect. For these sketches I only cared about styling, so the models are not posed in the sense that I didn’t expect to shoot them in poses anything like what I drew in the comps, nor did I put in any approximation of the lighting. After making these sketches, I decided that I needed a few more jerseys, so I found some and ordered them, then made a sketch where they are shown but not attached to any specific model.
4) Poses. I dislike making pose illustrations because I don’t like to lock myself into a specific mental image of what the model will do on camera. This is because most models are capable of doing any number of things that I wouldn’t think of but that look great on camera. If I try too hard to lock them into a predefined pose, I may miss out on better poses. The reason I made these sketches anyway is that I wanted to have some idea what I could ask them to do to start off the shoot. In other words, instead of saying, “Put your hand here, your knee there, and touch your nose with your ankle”, I can say, “Let’s start by having you jog in place.” At the same time, I put them in the clothes identified in the styling comps and with various lighting treatments. Of the poses in the images below, I shot seven of them but not always with the same model, styling, or lighting used in the comps.
Last, I made a schematic sketch of the lighting plan I had in mind, to give the studio. They could take it and start getting the lights set up before I arrived.
I put all of these images plus a few others into a PDF “deck” that I sent the modelling agencies and studio. This would give them an idea of what I wanted and how it would be achieved. Like every other time I’ve done this, the character of the comps is carried forward into the final images, the comps make the shoot go faster because I can use them to quickly decide on styling changes during the shoot, and can show the sketches to models for posing ideas and to the lighting assistant for lighting changes. The biggest difference between these sketches and the final photos, at least for me, is the intensity of the background color. Some are relatively close but most aren’t. This was due to a mixup regarding the kind of gels I wanted to use on the lights. I wanted color effects gels but they only had color correction gels. This meant that their gels either modified the color temperature of the light source to a neutral gray, or they added a very weak tint, even with several layers. To save time and money, I used two modeling lights to get yellow, blue seamless for blue, and two layers of red color correction gels to get salmon/pink. Because of this issue, I look forward to my next shoot, where I will be sure to have the right kind of gels on hand.
Below are some of the final images from the shoot:
I would like to thank everyone involved for helping produce these images:
From Stetts Model Management: Ashley Stetts/agent, Chloe Corpuz/model, and Kathryn Avery/model
From Wilhelmina Models: Jay Tedder/agent, Topher DesPres/agent, Michael Lyden/agent, L.B. Charles/makeup and hair, Cynthia Thorne/model, and Danielle Wright/model
From Daylight Studios: Shari/studio manager, Louis/equipment manager, and Omare’/lighting assistant
Last year, I moved to a new house. In the back yard, we had a pool. When I first made an offer on the house, I didn’t even know it was there. The pool was covered, I didn’t see it right away, and made an offer anyway based on the house. The next day I discovered the pool. I had been wanting one for years, so I was very happy to suddenly have one even if it wasn’t intentional.
After we moved in but before our things arrived, a friend named Kim and his family wanted to come by for a summer visit. One of the things I wanted to do was celebrate the pool by taking a portrait of my friend and I jumping into the pool. My lighting gear was on a truck somewhere, forcing me to rely on natural light. I didn’t like that but pushed on regardless.
Shooting Kim wasn’t easy because I needed to catch fast motion with an uncertain focus point. The autofocus wasn’t fast enough to track him and the amount of light forced me to use a large aperture, which resulted in a very shallow depth of field. That meant we had to test the focus point first and train ourselves to click the shutter at exactly the right moment to catch it. Another problem is that I wanted his clothes to be dry, so I practiced by having his daughter jump in his place until we got the focus right, then Kim and I jumped in dry clothes while my daughter triggered the camera. We got it, which was good because we were too wet after the first try to get any more shots for a while.
A couple days ago, almost exactly a year after I shot Kim, another friend from Belgium, artist Neville Marcinkowski, came by for a few days. This time I had my lights but I didn’t have a stand-in for Neville. That meant that he had to do all the practice jumps himself, then dry off, get dressed, and jump for the final shot. If we missed, it would have been a problem.
The pose I wanted required Neville make a 180 degree twist in mid-air while jumping. This was more difficult to control and to master than Kim’s jump. Neville was getting tired after doing a number of these, so we decided that he was going to get dressed, do the final jump, and we would just nail it because we had to. Luckily, we did.
I’m happy with the end shot but there is one thing I’d like to change. There is some motion blur in all of the shots. With Kim, it was because of the lower shutter speed needed to catch the light. With Neville, it was the ambient light in the scene that illuminated him as he moved. My flash froze Neville’s motion but the ambient added a little motion trail. Because I shot on a 101 MP camera, it is easy to eliminate the blur by down-sizing the image. Later, I want to figure out how to eliminate the motion blur while illuminating the figure and the trees in the background evenly.
About three weeks ago I attended FotoWorks NY, an event designed to allow photographers to meet potential clients. For about two months prior to going, I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. My concern was that in my experience, feedback is most trustworthy when it is spontaneous and free. The event was not free. Depending on how many meetings you paid for, the event could cost as little as around five hundred dollars for four meetings, or thousands for the dozens of meetings that were possible. I wondered if the feedback received at this event would be the same as what I might expect if I met the art directors, photo editors, and art buyers at their place of business.
When I was working as an illustrator, it was never difficult to arrange meetings with art directors. Certain people might be tough to get appointments with but others were more than willing to fill the gap in my schedule. Those meetings were free, which had the effect of making me trust the feedback more. With no fee paid to the art directors, they had no vested interest in making me happy. Now, in the post 9/11 world, I have found it is very difficult to get appointments with anyone to show my portfolio. This likely is also related to the advent of the Internet, which makes web-based portfolio viewing more convenient for art directors than arranging an in-person meeting. The problem with Internet portfolio reviews is that I had no idea how people react to my work. Sitting across a desk from an art director, it is very easy to get an impression from their facial expression, posture, how quickly they go through the portfolio, which images they linger on, what they say, and how they answer questions. On the Internet, they can look anonymously, leaving no opportunity for feedback.
Feedback is second only to cash as far as value to creative professionals are concerned. FotoWorks, I was told, was a venue where I could get the feedback I needed to tailor my portfolio to the needs of the kind of clients I wanted. On top of that, I would meet people I might not have met otherwise, some of whom might become clients. In the end, I decided to go. The reason is that the price of a dozen meetings at FotoWorks, as high as it seemed to me, was still less than the cost of travelling to New York City the four or five times it would take to meet the same number of people. With FotoWorks, I could get twenty meetings a day if I was so inclined, a near-impossibility if I tried to make the appointments on my own and had to travel from building to building between each meeting.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the streets of New York City, fair warning: Do not enter “29 West” in your car’s navigation unit in place of “West 29th Street”. I did, and had a very long drive as a result. It took me through Connecticut and left me out near LaGuardia airport on Long Island, with ten minutes to go before my first meeting. Luckily, they gave my spot to someone else and then I got the other guy’s spot when I arrived ten minutes late. This is to FotoWorks’ credit, because they were prepared for things like this. Throughout my time there, I saw this several times. An art buyer or photographer would be late or cancel but they quickly found substitutes and kept things moving.
Although I understood that FotoWorks NY was a portfolio review, I came away with a different impression. To me, a “review” is when someone examines a portfolio and provides constructive feedback. That did happen from time to time during the meetings I had but only as an incidental feature. The meetings more closely resembled the pitch meetings I’ve had with art directors. In those, the goal is to pitch my work to the art director so that they hire me on a future occasion. The difference between a review and a pitch is that the photographer would be expected to be more passive in a review, active in a pitch. Because I thought of the meetings as reviews, I was fairly passive in the first few meetings I had. I handed over the portfolio and waited for the feedback, which was slow in coming. Later, after having a few conversations with other photographers, I realized I should be pitching my work. That meant introducing myself, my work, the kinds of things I shoot, and my background as I narrated details of various shoots while the reviewer looked through my portfolio. My impression was that pitching was more effective than waiting for feedback, if for no other reason but that the reviewers seemed to expect it and were perplexed when they weren’t pitched to.
Meeting other photographers at FotoWorks was almost as useful as the meetings with art buyers. These happened between meetings, in a large room set aside for attendees while waiting for their appointment times. When I originally signed up, I wasn’t that keen on the sometimes long gaps between meetings. One such gap was three and a half hours long. To help pass the time, I brought my iPad and Apple pencil, with the intention of sketching while I waited. As it happened, I only had time to sketch one person, a photographer named Aladdin Ishmael, because the conversations with other photographers kept me too busy to concentrate on drawing.
Aladdin comments on the work of another photographer, displayed on an iPad
Because I made a sketch of Aladdin, he inquired about my other drawings. I showed him some of my dream journal sketches and a few of the comps I’ve made for photo shoots. Normally I do not show these to anyone but he seemed to think I should. There are a couple reasons I don’t show them but now I’m weighing whether my reasons outweigh Aladdin’s advice. For the record, the reasons are these: 1) I don’t want art buyers to get confused whether I am selling photography or illustration, 2) my sketches help me determine the elements I want in front of the camera but I rarely stick with the composition in the comp. That is, I’ll shoot the composition from the comp but almost always find another composition I like better. This happens because it is difficult to visualize all of the details of a location prior to visiting it in person. Once there, opportunities that would have been impossible to visualize before the fact are available to be shot. That said, the sketches are very handy for me because they give me a fair idea what resources I will need to get the shot I want, even if the composition does change on set.
On left, a comp and the finished photograph, on right, a comp based on a scene in my dream journal
FotoWorks was a three day event. Originally, my meetings were scheduled on each of the three days. That raised the possibility that it might be a good idea to get a hotel for two nights. I had wanted all of the meetings on the same day but that was impossible because some of the people I wanted to meet with weren’t scheduled to be present on more than one of the three days. Luckily, my one meeting scheduled for the second day was cancelled and replaced with a meeting on the first day, so I only had to be there for two days instead of three. For that reason, I just drove down twice. At the event, I discovered that I could still buy meetings, and the prices were lower after the event started than they were in advance. For that reason, I added quite a few extra meetings to my schedule. In the end, I saw twelve people for a little less than a thousand dollars.
My first meeting was with an art buyer from Saatchi and Saatchi. She was paging through my book when she stopped at my most recent shoot, featuring a couple of models wearing cycling jerseys. She liked the look, saying, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that before.” I was glad to hear it, though I wasn’t sure how many more shoots I was likely to do that were like it. I like to shoot athletes and sports-related themes but the shoot this art buyer responded to was a beauty shoot. I did it at the suggestion of a makeup artist I knew. I agreed but was hesitant because it was outside my specialty. To make myself more comfortable, I put the models in cycling jerseys and golf shirts, so there would be some connection to sports. Listening to the feedback from this one art buyer, I started fantasizing about hiring out a studio in New York to do a fancier version of the same shoot, something that would have been difficult to arrange at my home studio. However, her feedback conflicted with everyone else.
Bora Fona and Kennah Shoemaker from the “Jersey Girls” beauty shoot
Although the beauty shots were well-received, the most consistent feedback was that I should concentrate of shoots with athletes, real athletes, not fit models dressed in sportswear. Secondly, my environmental portraits were worth pitching as well. This meant removing fashion and beauty shots from my portfolio. The rationale was that the athlete and environmental portraits were stronger than the rest. I am happy to do that (and have done it), though with a little regret because there are aspects of beauty and fashion photography that I find very inspiring on a creative level. The reason in both cases is that I like the creative challenge of making something simple, a figure and a background, into something interesting and different. Pablo Picasso is an amazing artist to me, primarily because of how much variety he managed to get out of the simple combination of one model, usually nude, and a relatively plain background. Henri Matisse was almost as prolific with the amount of variety found in his compositions, though in later years he relied on fairly complicated patterns. Both exemplify the challenges of beauty and fashion photography, as well as the satisfying result. In my case, although I like Picasso’s work a great deal, the patterns and textures found in fashion fascinate me much as the patterns in ornate textiles served as Matisse’s inspiration.
Three of the most popular images from the event: Meghan Merlino at Crossfit 845, David Ollivierse at the Floyd Patterson Boxing Club, and Brianna’s Basement founder Rich Engle
During the meetings, I was surprised when some of the reviewers started talking about real assignments they thought I might be appropriate for at their company. Two suggested photo shoots related to some of the images in my portfolio. All of the suggestions were either athlete-related or environmental portraits. We’ll see how it goes but at the time it felt like I may have found a few clients. After the show I’ve heard from four of them but only one was contacting me about a specific project. The rest just asked that I keep in touch.
The main takeaway I got from Fotoworks was that I needed to totally re-edit my portfolio. The portfolio I showed had about 30 in-game basketball shots, 15 athlete portraits, 10 non-athlete portraits, and 10 fashion and beauty shots. The new portfolio would have to be about evenly split between Athlete portraits and environmental portraits. I decided to take out the in-game basketball shots because, although I like them, they don’t represent most of my work. Instead, I added some portraits of basketball players that I did outside of games. It took my almost three weeks to go through all my images, edit them into a new portfolio, and prepare all the images for printing. With that done, I am taking a break to write this. Next, I need to plan some more shoots while summer is still here. It’s easier to set up shoots outside in good weather and I don’t want to waste it!