Lessons Learned from Years of Location Photography
My Path To Building a Location Photography Business
From the time I was in middle school, I have always had an interest in photography, and some sort of camera at my disposal. When I was in middle school, my father owned a portrait studio in Woodburn, Oregon, and I had access to nice 35mm and medium format film cameras and equipment. While in middle school, and into high school, learned about photography from classes during the day, and assisted my father after school and on weekends with his business.
Throughout my high school years, I served as a photographer on the school newspaper and yearbook staffs, and was able to contribute photographs to the local newspapers from time to time. I began to understand a considerable amount about photography, but in addition, I learned a lot about location photography, or shooting away from the controlled conditions of a studio. The more I was able to photograph events and activities outside of the studio, the more I grew to appreciate and love location photography.
During my senior year, I had a few baseball players ask about purchasing prints of photos I had taken, and my life as a professional photographer took off. I shot everything I could, sold photos and saved up six hundred dollars. I stumbled upon an opportunity to purchase to Nikon F3 professional cameras, with lenses and motor drives from a Portland Trailblazer and spent my savings to get them. They were as beat up as any cameras I had seen, but the F3s were workhorses and made to withstand abuse, and I knew I could get several more years out of them. I added a couple of portable strobes to my arsenal and set out to photograph everything I could.
Over the next couple of years I inadvertently became a wedding photographer. While this was still location photography, it was not the exact kind of photography I intended to spend my time perfecting. Wedding photography was high-stress work that I didn’t always enjoy as brides and their families were often demanding. Many times I was given lists of cheesy photos the bride wanted, which took the creativity out of shooting. To top everything off, weddings are once-in-a-lifetime events (or should be, at least), and every moment of shooting is critical. However, wedding photography paid well, and at my busiest time I was shooting 20-26 weddings a year, which supplemented my day job well.
Eventually I retired from wedding photography and started a design and Internet development company. I quickly realized that most of my clients needed professional photography services, and it was during this time that I was able to finally put my location photography skills to use in the manner I desired. Everything I had learned and experienced from shooting in school, to sports photography, to shooting high-stress weddings had prepared me for professional business and event location photography.
Over the next decade or so, I photographed everything from kitchen products to automotive parts to musical instruments and Porsches. I photographed doctors, real estate professionals, teachers, and all manner of entrepreneurs. Clients such as national footwear manufacturers, automotive and motorcycle dealerships enlisted my services, and I photographed musicians in concert including John Mayer, DC Talk and Pomplamoose. While some clients also needed in-studio photography, the majority of my work was on location, where my skills and experience paid off in great success.
What I Understood and Learned about Photography
When I look back on the period of my life as a location photographer, I recognize a few key items. I started into photography because I had a simple love of taking photographs—of anything and everything. In the early 1980’s, when I started learning about photography, there were no digital cameras, and film and prints were precious commodities to an adolescent boy with no real budget. At that time, a roll of film was $3 to $6 per roll, depending on the format, and the local lab charged around $7 to process and print a roll of 24 photos. Ten dollars was an incredible amount of money to me when I was 12 years old, and I rarely had it, making every single image I snapped that much more precious.
Today, everyone has a camera in his or her pocket with current smartphone technology. Nobody thinks twice about taking a half a dozen “selfies” to get one they love, but to me, I had to carefully consider each photo and could feel a twinge of sadness as I watched the countdown (or count-up, depending on the camera) of frames I had left as I snapped them. Sometimes I would have a roll of film in my camera for weeks—weeks, to take 24 pictures. This is a concept that the current generation may never have to contend with, due to technology and unlimited storage and bandwith that is available. For me, the realization of the high value of this commodity translated to a more philosophical level.
As I grew in my understanding of photography, I recognized that not only did photography have a tangible fiscal value, to myself, and my eventual clients, but there was an emotional value as well. I first noticed this when baseball players loved the photos I took of them and asked to buy them. I was giving them something no one else could give them—a properly composed and lit photo, capturing them in a moment that made them look like professional players they admired in magazines or on baseball cards. I further recognized this phenomenon when brides picked up their images after their weddings and would often comment over and over, or even cry when they saw pictures they loved, and would treasure for life.
I also recognized that I loved being the one to be able to deliver that moment. As a business owner, of course I loved that I was delivering a product people would be happy to pay for, but as an artist I craved that connection of a deeper kind. These clients trusted me to record their events, and I had a burning desire to meet and exceed their expectations in terms of capturing unique moments in a way they would love and appreciate. These moments definitely provided a stroke to my ego, in addition to supplementing the bottom line of my business.
Another item that became apparent to me was that certain types of location photography jobs appealed to me more than others. Early on I felt compelled to take any paying job because at the very least, I was making money doing what I loved. However, after the second year of shooting more than twenty weddings a year, I began to plan my exit from wedding photography. I was matching the monthly income of my day job, but I was dreading every Saturday that I had an event booked. Because I hated the thought of losing that income, I continued to accept deposits for another year when I finally realized I needed a break. By the end of the third year I had stopped accepting deposits from anyone other than close friends or family, or special customers I felt deserved my attention.
This move away from wedding photography was scary because of the loss of income, but I felt a heavy burden lifted from me heart when I was able to tell people that I no longer photographed weddings. As my design business took off, I began to feel my passion return for photography that I had felt in my earlier days, as I began to book sessions for less stressful clients, and more creative and interesting subjects.
Specific Techniques, Skills and Concepts Used to Grow My Location Photography Business
As I built a photography business, I mastered basic photographic techniques. I could write an entire series about the technical aspects of photography, but those are only a portion of what I specifically learned about location photography. However, in order to break creative rules, you have to first understand them, so I diligently studied and learned how to work with natural light and strobe lights both. I learned how to manipulate light with reflectors and umbrellas and tucked lighting ratios away into my brain until they were second nature. I discovered when to use a shallow aperture to throw a background out of focus, and how to push film to properly expose film depending on the motion of subject or availability of natural light. I explored the rule of thirds for composition and proper placement of subjects in a photographic frame for the highest impact, and developed a love for photographing subject matter in the most interesting manner that was appropriate for the session.
With solid photographic technical skills under my belt, I also understood the rarity of each location assignment. When I photographed a ribbon cutting ceremony, I recognized it would be the only first time that business opened in that city. When John Mayer played the Roseland Theater in Portland, I knew I was taking pictures of the only first time for this budding young artist, and also knew he might not ever play in such a small and intimate venue again. When I took a camera to a friends wedding in Texas where I was only a guest, I stayed out of the way of the hired photographer and looked to capture a few intimate moments when he wasn’t clearly shooting the couple. Knowing them as friends, I was able to snap some un-posed images of them alone and with special people in their lives. Later, the bride told me that the dozen casual photos I had taken represented them and the day more than the hundreds of photos they paid dearly for. I wasn’t even on assignment, but this event reminded me that because each event is so precious and unique to the client, capturing fewer impactful photos is more important than hundreds that don’t speak to the customer.
Because I wanted to deliver those types of images that would have meaning to the client, I uncovered the overall feel the customer desired. In my early days of location photography, I would show up at the date and time of location, set up and get to work photographing the event or subjects. I had decent success in delivering a final product to the customer using this technique. As time went on, I began to spend more time interviewing not just the person responsible for hiring, but also the subjects I would photography. I asked for just a few minutes with each person, via a phone call or email to ask a few questions about who they were, who their customers saw them as, and how they’d like to be perceived. I also asked to reach out to customers and other stakeholders, when appropriate, to get feedback as well. Rather than simply lining a row of doctors up against a sterile white wall, I would take them to more relaxed or natural locations if they or their customers saw them as more approachable than other doctors. I would also capture them in more casual attire, leaving behind the typical doctor’s lab-coat and stethoscope around the neck image. This collaborative process allowed for clients and stakeholders to have input into how they felt they the subject should be represented, which led to a more accurate final image for the customer.
In addition to understanding the final look desired, I developed a process to draw out the personality of the subject. Most photography subjects are not professional models, and often it shows in their photographs. There is a natural tendency for people to stiffen up, stare directly into a camera, lose all expression, and get a deer-in-the-headlights look in their eyes. My son refers to this as “looking like people in the olden days, when they had no emotion.” In addition to giving pointers on attired to bring to a shoot, and discussing personal topics until the subject loosened up, I also spent time talking about this phenomenon of looking almost scared in posed photos. I asked subjects to relax their eyes, and in fact, to almost close them down just a bit, as if they were trying to focus on something really tiny on my lens, or just beyond me. Today, photographers have the luxury of showing a client a few instant samples, but most 35mm film cameras didn’t have any way to do this. When I was using my medium format camera, I had a Polaroid back that could give some instant feedback, but more often than not, the subject and I would have to stand side by side next to a mirror or car window to practice not looking scared. More recently, I’ve heard professional photographer Peter Hurley, author of call this look “The Squinch”—which is something between squinting and scrunching the subject’s eyes and face. Try it, the results are really amazing! The Headshot
Lastly, I learned to always be prepared for whatever might happen. One of the beautiful things about location photography is that you never know what you’re going to get. One of the scariest parts of location photography is that you never know what you’re going to get, but you still have to be able to deliver the product. I’ve arrived at outdoor locations to find a sunny forecast had turned to thunderstorms, and I’ve been to weddings where all my shooting time was erased by a bride so very late to her own big day. Once, I was photographing actors at a local theater with a two-light setup and the lead actress was not happy with any of the preview images and began to cry. She started to run off to the side and pulled one of my light stands down with her foot, shattering my strobe into a million pieces on the floor. I didn’t have a backup, and I had another dozen or so cast members to photograph. I quickly found a sheet of plywood and some white paint backstage, and with permission painted a quick large reflector. I changed the angle of the main light, pumped up the output and reflected back the main light into the other side of the subject. It wasn’t an exact mimic of the lighting setup I started with, but close enough to deliver satisfactory images to the director in the time we had scheduled.
These Techniques Transfer Over to Other Creative Areas in Life Too!
In my current position as Marketing Manager for a health care company, I rarely get to use my photography skills beyond some snapshots for a social media post here and there. However, I get to use the knowledge I gained from being a location photographer on a more regular basis, when we bring professional photographers in for shoots of our executives, employees and events. These experiences allow me to be a more informed client, who can help our vendors deliver a product that is in line with our goals for these sessions.
When I first started in my role, our CFO had already engaged with an external marketing firm who had an in-house photographer. The week I started my position, they walked around with a list of photos and shot for the majority of the day, including taking headshots of our executive team. When the photos came back the response of our CEO summed up the overall reaction best when he said, “I look like a used car salesman.” Not the image an up and coming health care company wants to portray. Eventually I was able to bring in a photographer I had worked with in the past to try to capture the feel of our company better.
I first explained how I liked some of the samples she had produced on her website of more relaxed, contemporary looking executives. I mentioned how she had used a shallow depth of field to give a softer feel and make the subject the focus in the foreground. I also explained how I liked her choice of color balancing in the images, with a more washed out, high-contrast look. Additionally, I pointed out that I would be some of these images for impact area photos on our website, and that I needed the subject in the lower third of one side so I could use the upper two thirds of the other side for headlines, text and hyperlinks. My knowledge in these technical areas took out some of the guesswork for her in how to compose and expose these images.
I also chatted with the photographer before the shoot to let her know we had already had a session, and our team didn’t love the final product. Since our company was already 16 years old at the time of the shoot, it wasn’t a first go-around for anyone on the team, but it was a first time for me to lead the charge in my role as marketing director. Since I knew she was able to understand the importance of getting it right the first time, I was able to speak freely about what we did and didn’t love, and what I felt needed to happen to have a successful experience, including asking her for rushed proofing services and giving us access to all the images for one flat rate. She was able to connect with the importance of this first effort on my part to demonstrate that I could convey the culture of our company through these photos, and she essentially agreed to do whatever it took to help me succeed.
Although I had a pretty good idea of what the final product should look like, I still took time to casually interview each executive to make sure we were all on the same page as to the feel we were attempting to portray through our images. They all agreed they wanted to be more approachable in their photos and less stuffy. I showed them a few samples so we could agree on visually on they type of look we all liked, and it even spurred my CFO to go track down a shirt very similar to one he saw in the samples. Most importantly this made a second photo shoot seem less like drudgery and something to be excited about instead. The executives looked forward to the possibility of looking cool and hip, instead of cold, stark and unapproachable.
Because a few of the executives carefully mentioned wanting to look cooler than they did previously, I walked through my old method of preparing them for a photo shoot. In a group email I made suggestions for some clothing choices, and repeated the things we agreed upon as goals for our photo shoot. Individually, I asked each executive which sample photos stood out to them, and why. In each case I was able to point out something that reduced the stiff or frightened look they had seen in the photos from the previous shoot. I also explained the concept of “the squinch,” and while each one laughed when I told them about it, they all remembered some version of it when their time came to be photographed.
The day of the shoot, even though I wasn’t the photographer doing the work, I tossed a few things in my car—my own camera gear, a video camera, a few extension cords, duct tape, grip clamps, and a few other small items. I knew our photographer was a professional, but I also knew that if something could go wrong on a location shoot, it would. As it turns out, nearly everything went off without a hitch, but there was one bump with one of the sets. The charcoal-colored backdrop that my CFO requested, after seeing it in the sample photographs, tore before the shoot and wouldn’t hang properly. I attempted to help the photographer reposition the backdrop a few times, but it kept hanging in a way that made it look wrinkled and sloppy in the background. I ran out to my car, grabbed my extra clamps and we were able to tighten up the backdrop by pulling it taught, and then clamping it at every point where we had pulled it. The backdrop then looked the way it was supposed to in the final photos.
In the end, the photographer returned just a handful of photos of each executive, along with the other batch of location photos of our employees in their environment. Each of the executive headshot photos captured perfectly the natural feeling of the person who was the subject, and everyone agreed the shoot had been a success. The photos would later go into a newly designed website and additional marketing materials, and in every case they accurately portrayed the people, the culture and the feel of our company. Even though I was not the person releasing the shutter, the knowledge, skills and experiences I gained through my time as a location photographer have allowed me to continue to deliver creative products that match a level of excellence I am proud of.