Photography: Barbara White
Photographers understandably put a huge amount of time and effort into their portfolios. They might not always do it right – a small, carefully-picked selection is usually more helpful than a bumper buffet, and the bio and personal work can tell an editor as much about the photographer as a tear sheet – but the sentiment is spot on.
Your portfolio tells potential clients what you can do, how you do it and, most importantly, how much they can rely on you to get the job done.
And this is where photographers have a real advantage. You might need professional help creating the website that will show off the portfolio but the images themselves you get to create. You don’t need to rely on anyone else to demonstrate your work.
That isn’t the case for other creative professions. Sculptors need the skills of photographers to light their work in the best way possible if they want to demonstrate their achievements while actors, famously, need headshots to send to casting agents, a regular line of business for photographers.
Five Years to Learn Lighting
Thespians though rarely present too much of a challenge. Their portraits are fairly simple. Much harder is shooting for interior designers.
It took Barbara White, a professional photographer who specializes in shooting architectural interiors, about five years to “get it.” Learning what good lighting is supposed to look like was the biggest challenge — and getting it right without ending up with overlighting or flat lighting took a while too.
“Never put a light near your camera,” she advises. “Have your shadows coming toward you, rather than away from you. Show dimension. Have highlights and shadows, but not freaky shadows.”
Barbara’s clients include architects and recently, a property developer for whom she shoots apartments, but most of her work comes from interior designers. They put the images she creates on their websites but they also use them in competitions, for advertising and as editorial images in magazines.
Initially, Barbara found her clients through cold calling but she later moved on to direct mail and now relies on referrals to bring in new designers. A bit of luck with her website has helped too.
“It somehow disappeared off of Google for about five years, and now is back on page one. I haven’t changed much of anything since it was on page one (for about five years) before… go figure.”
Getting into the profession was, perhaps, a little more straightforward. Barbara began photographing interiors while at college. A friend was a designer and allowed her to photograph her house, shoots that Barbara enjoyed more than the usual tabletop work. These days though, Barbara recommends that photographers looking to break into interior photography spend time assisting an experienced pro and attend classes and workshops such as those held in Santa Fe and Maine.
The benefits of this specialization are clear. Barbara charges $2,400 – $2,600 for between six and eight views, prices that are more than fair when you consider the amount of time involved in the shoot and the post-production as well as the value of the images to a designer. Even Barbara’s practice shots of her friend’s house turned out to be valuable. After the home was destroyed in a brush fire, Barbara’s images helped to persuade the insurance company to pay an additional $100 per square foot.
Money is not a Motivation
Shooting stage design though is a little tougher. The lighting challenges can be even more extreme and like sports photography, it’s important to know what you’re looking at when photographing during a rehearsal to get exactly the right moment. And like film photography, shooting a set while artists are performing in front of it, can involve all sorts of difficult restrictions. Dress rehearsals might be the best time to shoot without disturbing an audience but costumes aren’t always complete and some scenic elements may be missing.
Worse, while the photos still need to have perfect composition and tell a story, because the aim of the images is to describe the show rather than to help a designer win a job, money is rarely a motivation.
Richard Finkelstein, for example, a set designer and photographer, says that financial considerations are the last thing he thinks about when shooting a set. As a theatrical worker, in addition to creating shots for publicity and marketing, he also wants to record the process that went into creating a theatrical performance, especially as the set itself disappears once the curtain has fallen for the last time.
“In the visual arts, once an artist becomes great, we usually have a ton of sketches and other materials from which we can discern the process that led to their greatness,” Richard explains. “Here in the theatre world [that] has been lacking. It’s all about the final product with an audience. But to me the process that got the artists to that point is just as important, and perhaps more so.”
It’s a job that often falls to the set designer. Most of the commercial photos for Cats came from John Napier, the show’s scene and costume designer.
“This is usually not an accident,” says Richard. ” I designed a new off-Broadway musical a few years ago and they needed shots for press publication. I already had them! It makes finding this work easy.”
All of Richard’s clients reach him through word of mouth and he has worked as a designer with 90 percent of them. Volunteering, he says, is a good way to get your foot in the door, although being a participant is even better.
Pay may not be a motivation for shooting the work of set designers, but it does have one valuable advantage: it puts a photographer in close contact with actors – and they do pay for photography.