Evolving your style

- - Photoshoot

An established photographer tells me that hiring a first assistant who can teach you new lighting techniques and then employing that new lighting on shoots along with your well established lighting gives clients the option to go with shots they didn’t expect from you and when they publish it… you’ve got a new look.

Thanks for the insight.

There Are 25 Comments On This Article.

  1. Hmmm borrowing tricks & things from your assistant, that they borrowed from another photographer. Would we do that…….

    errr I’m not going near that one.
    :)

  2. This happens more often than you would believe.

    During the 1980s as an assistant here in NYC, I belonged to a small assistant’s organization called the Round Table where meetings were held on the first Thursday of every month. It consisted of a small group of top, assistants which included the nephew of legendary photographer, Eve Arnold. The majority of the members were lighting specialist and were hired – and flown – all over the world for their lighting skills and prowess.

    I introduced lighting techniques to two photographers that I assisted. One celebrity photographergrew bored with his multi-umbrella lighting style so, I introduced him to the technique of bouncing two bare heads against two large reflector panels positioned on opposite sides – it was a hit. Another photographer who specialized in fashion interiors for Vogue – and only used tungsten lights – was filled with terror when assigned to photograph a portrait for another Vogue feature so; I introduced her to strobe lighting. I was charged with renting the equipment, arranging the setups and lights and even talking to, and positioning, the subject.

    This is a very common practice among some of the larger production shoots. Robert Mapplethorpe’s brother and assistant, Edward, was responsible for Robert’s trademark lighting technique.

  3. When I was assisting I spent ages working out how flourecent tubes worked (ballast & capacitors etc) so I could make a very individual kind of lighting I broke loads of tubes trying to hold them in superclamps bits of masking tape anything, also found there’s loads of different colours.

    I then went to work for a resonably well know photog who after asking how we achieved the look hired a bunch of Kino flo’s and It became his ‘style’ and still is far as I know. Don’t mind tho I’d rather move on than be stuck with one lighting set up.

  4. Didn’t Chris Buck say he hires great assistants and then asks them how to do things? Doesn’t change that he’s a good photographer with his own style.

    Why do people get so caught up in technique and not pay attention to what’s in front of the camera (ie: how you relate to the subject and what sort of reaction you pull from them)?

  5. My main assistant has worked with Chris. He said Chris gave him this important talk about how he doesn’t know how to light at all, or use his own gear, and that the assistant must be able to do EVERYTHING.

    When it came down to shooting, he said Chris knew exactly what he was doing technically speaking.

  6. “Why do people get so caught up in technique and not pay attention to what’s in front of the camera (ie: how you relate to the subject and what sort of reaction you pull from them)?”

    Historically, I always thought that was the role of the art or creative director. To hire a talented artikst that knew technique AND could capture the moment.

    And what happens to the photographer if the “right” crew is not available?

    I think a lot of this is just lazy talk, saying that it’s acceptable for a photographer not to understand the art and technique of their craft, as long as they know when to push the button as if there is something God like or magical about just pushing the button.

    We see this now more than ever and I guess it’s become an industry standard where someone that knows how to style hair, or knows somebody in the right hiring position can get comissioned for an important project, as long as they can accumulate enough naive crew to actually produce the job.

    To me it just doesn’t make sense.

    As a photographer, why would you want to be in this profession if you didn’t have a burning desire to create through your own thoughts and abilities?

    From the assistant level, why would you work for someone that you had to do their job for them? Where is the growth and learning potential in that?

    James Russell

  7. Take a look at Bruce Weber’s work – it’s not overly technical stuff, but you know immediately that it’s his work. Same goes for Terry. Or Araki for that matter. Or Ryan McGinley. The list goes on.

    Not to say that everything should be point and shoot, but technical ability isn’t everything… just look at the Bosnian guy on The Shot. Don’t call your models “male model” and “female model” unless you want them to look pissed off at you in every frame. People skills matter A LOT.

  8. Cameron Wittig

    A very important 3rd factor is your Photoshop skills. Think about Avedon’s printer: he had a HUGE hand in the look of Avedon’s photographs. Even if you are shooting film today; scanning, color work, and printing are just as important as the lighting. Today, my film on the light table rarely looks just like the final image. A negative is just a print waiting to happen, and you need to know how to make it look right.

    As an assistant I never gave lighting advice (I was busy being a sponge), but I showed a few very talented photographers, who had great lighting and people skills, how to do things in PS that influenced or changed the look of the final print.

  9. Hey James,

    Missed hooking up with you, Ann and Brian for dinner last month – was away on a portrait assignment.

    James said:

    “I think a lot of this is just lazy talk, saying that it’s acceptable for a photographer not to understand the art and technique of their craft, as long as they know when to push the button as if there is something God like or magical about just pushing the button.’

    I definitely see your point here but it’s sort of a mixed bag; not always that extreme.

    The photographer/assistant relationship can, sometimes, be characterized as one of equilibrium in the sense that the end result can offer positive results: that is, if the photographer is open-minded enough, to the point, that he/she utilizes the assistant’s preexisting knowledge or skills of which they were hired in the first place.

    I don’t believe that any photographer who lacks any of the all-important skills – in some form or other – whether they be social, technical, creative, artistic or any associated attributes, will survive long in this profession.
    Funny now when I think about it but, many, many years ago I attended a lecture held by photographer, Hiro, back in Texas when, during the Q&A, someone asked him about his technique and how he did what he did. Hiro, with a straight face, replied: “I don’t know…I just push the button and it just happens”.

    I, on the other hand, just happened to know that he revolutionized a synchronized, computer-generated lighting system that was way ahead of it’s time for the early 1980s.

    He then jumped in his limo and sped away; probably with a huge smirk on his face.

  10. Yeah. Happened to me as an assistant.. Assistants that light the whole job with little or no instruction makes them the photographer.. minus taking the f’n pictures.
    Assholes lazy mther f’rs is what I think.

  11. dude: Love the last post. So many photographers are shooting boring “visually acceptable” pictures with their clever lighting as the subject itself. It all adds up to a bunch of white noise, along with Hollywood films, tv commercials, and corporate pop songs. I can’t think of a single picture I’ve ever seen in which production value actually enhanced the viewing experience. It just feels indulgent, masturbatory, and a little insulting, honestly.

    Reminds me of that scene in Irma Vep where the stylist is bitching about these grandiose, big-budget American productions and asks, “for what?”

  12. “Yeah. Happened to me as an assistant.. Assistants that light the whole job with little or no instruction makes them the photographer.. minus taking the f’n pictures. Assholes lazy mther f’rs is what I think.”

    Don’t agree with that, a picture is a bit like soup?
    None of the individual ingredients are too interesting on their own, but put them togther in just the right right way and you get an something amazing — or terrible!

    Same with picture making, a cook will want the best ingredients to give him better chances of coming up with something spectacular. A Photog should have his the best team on the case. Okay if you just turn up and press the tit then your lack of involvement is testamount to your towering drug fuelled ego trip (yup I’v worked for them too).
    I would be ashamed to put my name to anything I had so little involvment in. I would hazzard that anyone who could operate in that manner has lost his passion and curiosity.

  13. This really isn’t an issue, who set the lights up – big shoots are a production where a lot of people are involved, you may be shooting a band and someone has picked out the clothes, someone else did hair, someone make-up, lights are set etc. The photographer brings it together and decides whats working but a number of people are involved. The end viewer just sees the photograph but everyone involved knows who did what. And if you did your job well there are often the rewards, I’ve put together a crew and a band liked the person who did their hair so took them on tour to do it.
    Doing the job well can lead to other work, whoever you are on the shoot. But do it badly and……..

    You can see a fashion image and the sylist did their job, and hair is done etc. But they are not complaining that its the photographers name on the photography. The people who need to know do know who did what. Who set the lights up doesn’t matter as long as it works.

  14. Exactly my point about Chris Buck. I’ve met the guy and he’s funny as shit. Super nice guy and it shows in his photos. Not to mention I have no idea how he manages to get some of that stuff past the publicists. Wow holy shit is all I can say.

  15. “Don’t agree with that, a picture is a bit like soup?
    None of the individual ingredients are too interesting on their own, but put them togther in just the right right way and you get an something amazing — or terrible!”

    Isn’t that kind of like saying it doesn’t matter if the assistant cook put in all the ingredients, it’s the head Chef that just stirs the pot made the soup? Just saying.

  16. Hey A Photo Editor am I the only one that feels like contemporary photography all looks the same maybe thats a bad way of putting it, I guess what I am trying to get across is alot of the photography that I am seeing today envokes the same emotion in me. I can only assume you understand what I am talking about as what ever the current fad in the art side crosses over into the mainstream. I know this does not just happen in the photo world. Just a little constructive criticism I guess.

  17. the only problem to this is that the assistant made $300 bucks and the photographer $30,000…

    otherwise its all fun!

    Assistants!!! Don’t sell out!!

  18. re:Isn’t that kind of like saying it doesn’t matter if the assistant cook put in all the ingredients, it’s the head Chef that just stirs the pot made the soup? Just saying.


    I used to hear a friend of mine say the photographer he assisted didn’t even know how to use his cameras, etc.
    It made me think that I will never hire him as my assistant, because he is bitter and talking dirt about the guy he is working for.
    But most importantly, it made me think — if you, as the assistant, are the lighting master and photography expert, then why don’t you go get the job yourself instead of assisting a dunce?
    (This was 7 or 8 years ago, and he seems to still be struggling with getting his career off the ground…)