On the Job: College Catalog Cover

Lenore Alford for the College of Marin

Even after putting  30 years in at the media factory, I still like getting the cover. It must be an ego thing, because it certainly isn’t the money.

This is Lenore Alford, an organist, conductor and generally all-around smart woman. I photographed her for the College of Marin, where is she teaching a class on Nadia Boulanger and the American School of musical composition in Paris — heady stuff, indeed. The college needed a a tall vertical for its community education catalog cover and Alford was the perfect subject.

The picture was made in the Mill Valley living room of one of Alford’s friends.  The piano, a baby grand, was crammed into the corner and up against a set of large, bright windows that flooded the room with morning sunlight.

I didn’t want to shoot into the windows, fearing the backlight, so at first I tried shooting away from them and toward the wall behind the piano, lighting Alford with a ProFoto D4 head into a small box. The background, though was too messy to put type into and I couldn’t blur it because I couldn’t get her far enough away from the wall.

So, I embraced the windows, deciding to blow them out and use their avalanche of light for the background. I changed Alford’s  position, took down the ProFoto, and set up a Nikon SB800 on a boom, attached a small softbox, turned the power way down (about 1/16th) and inched the light to within two feet of her head. The sunlight provided fill and tossed in some rim light as a bonus.

There is nothing technically complicated about this picture or, dare I say, artistically unique, but it is something that’s part of my daily life in my third or fourth or fight career (who’s counting, anyhow?) and might be interesting to those of you who wonder what photographers who aren’t Annie Leibowitz or Chase Jarvis do all day.

The hardest part of the shot was deciding on the lighting, not once but twice, and making those changes while Alford, the art director and the homeowners looked on — and making everyone feel not only like I knew what I was doing but that were being included in something fun.

The whole thing, from walking in the door with the gear to  schlepping it back down the drive to my car took less than an hour, a normal shoot here in the shallow end of the photography pool.

On the Job: Community College

College of Marin students YouTube is awash with behind-the-scenes videos of famous photographers like Annie Liebowitz and other high-end shooters doing magazine or fashion shoots. The videos show gobs of equipment and small armies of camera assistants, stylists and make-up artists. With all these people scurrying about, usually to an up-tempo soundtrack, the viewer is given a sense that each of these photographers’ images — and by extension the magazines who pay them — is a production of grand artistic and financial scale.

The everyday reality for most photographers (Liebowitz included) is quite different. Although I do hire assistants and stylists for some jobs, many others consist just of my primary crew: Me.

The picture, shot for the cover of the College of Marin’s latest class catalogue is a good example.

The image started with a call from the college’s communication director. We had worked together a few times before. She needed a picture of several students in one of the school’s new medical programs and wanted to use the emergency room sign at a local hospital for a backdrop. She also needed the photo taken the following day. And at mid-day — the only time everyone was available.

I responded with a photographer’s two most important words: No problem.

I drove by the hospital for look-see. Awful. Cluttered background everywhere, and all but one of the emergency room signs were in parking lots.

The next day, the communication director and I met at the hospital, walked the area together and chose this spot, the only one I thought would work. What you see here is just a few feet of sidewalk. On either side is an array of pipes.

I set up one light in a round softbox, snooted another on the sign, gave direction to the students and started shooting. I’d stop every few frames to move them a bit, add or remove a prop, take off the white jackets, put them back on and adjust the light (which is only about 3 or 4 inches out of the frame.)

I made this frame about halfway through 20 minutes of shooting them as a group. I then did individual shots of each.

Later, after the college chose the shot it wanted from a set of proofs I put online for them, I worked up the image extensively in Photoshop — lots of skin smoothing and cleanup, about an hour in all.

This was not a big job, but it was a satisfying one. A good client needed a photo in a hurry. I overcame a horrible location with some selective framing and light. And the college was happy with the results. A good day’s work for a working photographer.