The Right Side of the Fence

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A well-known photographer was once quoted as saying, “... a good photographer on the wrong side of the fence is a bad photographer." Maybe that's true, maybe not. However, if you extrapolate that thought, it can be interpreted to mean not only knowing how, when, and where to shoot, but when and where not to shoot, when to say something to a client and when to keep quiet. In short, sometimes it's better to be prudent than to be good.








Rule #1 - There's More to Photography than Taking Pictures

When I first started in this business, a neighbor heard that I was looking for freelance work and invited me to one of her company's functions, so I could see how their current photographer worked the room. I watched as an older man in a tux that didn't fit set up his shots. At one point, he was trying to get a shot of the principals, but was having trouble getting them to pose. Suddenly, he started yelling at everyone about how he was trying to do them a favor and how they weren't cooperating. I was mortified that he would talk to a paying client like that. Exit that shooter, and I was summarily hired to fill the void.

Knowing how to work with clients is just as important as knowing how to use your gear. In fact, if you don't know how to handle clients, work a job, and discreetly get the shots, your gear is useless.

My specialty has always been corporate public relations—grip and grin, special events, annual parties, awards ceremonies and the like. However, knowing how to successfully get winning images is a different story. When I work an event, I'm always on my horse shooting to get the photos I was hired to get. I don't schmooze with the guests, sit down, have a meal, clown around with the band, or hit on the waitresses. I'm there to shoot—period. As Spencer Tracy once said, “Remember your lines, and don't bump into the furniture.” Get the shots without being a pain to everyone.

Rule # 2 - Clients Don't Like Excuses

For PR work, I've found—in over 25 years of shooting—that most executives don't like having too many pictures taken of them. I limit myself to a few grab shots when they first enter the room shaking hands, along with whatever setups have been pre-arranged through whom I call a “trailer”—someone from the company assigned to point out the luminaries. More than that, I leave the suits alone. It's generally the invitees who like to pose, and that is where I get my best candids. Holiday parties and sales meetings are great, since everyone is generally festive and wants their image recorded, if for no other reason than to prove that politics is perception, i.e. to prove they were actually there. I like to shoot groups, since I stand a better chance of getting at least one shot of everyone—especially during huge affairs.

For small, down and dirty PR gigs, I take my shots and I'm out the door. In and out—no one gets hurt.

My money shots are usually at large soirees—when it's time for awards to be given out. Knowing where to stand without being overly obtrusive is also a learned skill, since you don't want to overshadow the moment when the recipient gets his plaque, or stand in front of table #1, where the chairman from Japan who has flown in to witness the event is sitting. I bracket and get out of the way.

If you can't get the shot in three quick bursts, you're doing something wrong. Move on and try to get the shot after the ceremony, during a quiet moment. Most people will accommodate you if you ask politely.

© Rockefeller Center

In the days when everyone used to shoot film (remember film?), I always brought five times as much as they told me I would need—and twice the equipment. One Christmas I was shooting a party with about 800 people, and had been asked to shoot color negative film. However, as the affair was winding down, the head of corporate communications came running over to the CEO and suggested we get some head shots of the recent promotees—but he wanted them shot on chromes (remember slides?). The guy was nervous since he knew I had been shooting color neg, and told the CEO that I probably wasn't prepared to shoot chromes. Calmly, the CEO said, “He's a pro. Of course he brought slide film.” Sure enough, I had been smart enough to stash a few rolls of Ektachrome in my bag, and we got the shots.

© Rockefeller Center

Table shots are always a difficult fare, and I like to get mine as early in the evening as possible, while the tables are still neat and the center pieces haven't been abused. Whenever possible, all my tables are shot before the first course is served. Once people start eating, they don't like to be disturbed. However, when necessary, I will take a deep breath and ask half the table to stand, generally leaving as many women seated as possible. No one likes table shots, but they are a necessary evil, and the bottom line is, that's what I'm being paid for.

Remember Rule #2 - Clients Don't Like Excuses. Again, it's another a way to get a shot of everyone so that no one feels slighted.

Dress and deportment are also part of the game. How many “go sees” have I been at where guys who were looking to get hired showed up for interviews in shorts, flip-flops or tank tops. Me? When it's corporate, it's strictly shirt and tie. The truth is, if you give ten photographers an assignment to take the same image—a bowl of fruit—chances are all the photos will look similar. So who gets the next job? The guy who plays the part and shows up with his prints the next morning at 8:00am, instead of the rest who straddle in at 11am.

Rule # 3 - Companies Like Enthusiasm

You may get hired for the first job, but it's the second job that the smart photographer shoots for. I always travel with at least two of everything, since Murphy's Law seems to have been invented for photographers. Gear fails. I know—I've been there. Incredibly, I've heard about too many photographers showing up at major functions with one camera and one lens. The word “Titanic” suddenly comes to mind.

One definition of a professional photographer is someone who makes a living taking pictures. A better definition is someone who not only knows how to shoot, but acts in a mature, interactive and cooperative way that leads to mutual trust and respect with the client. Being a wizard with Photoshop isn't the answer, and owning the latest gear doesn't always guarantee you the shot. Being on the right side of the fence—both physically and maturely—is a better ticket to a steady clientele.

Rule #4 – When You're Swimming in Corporate Waters, be a Well-Dressed and Good-Natured Shark

© Rockefeller Center