What I Learned as a Photo Assistant for Forbes
I was the first member of the photo team to arrive at the small loading dock tucked beneath the New York Public Library on West 40th Street. Nervous, but ready to make a good impression, I signed in, received my security badge and tried to appear as if I belonged there. I had never worked as a photo assistant before, bypassing it for a career in photojournalism and travel instead. A photo assistant's responsibilities are as varied as picking up coffee, setting up gear, and standing in as a test model. Essentially, a good assistant does whatever it takes to make the shoot a success. It's far from glamorous and you rarely are recognized for your efforts. Yet, the opportunity to work with portrait photographer Michael Prince, and be part of a Forbes magazine cover shoot was too good to pass up.
The morning started with an announcement from the Director of Photography. This was a top secret photo shoot with a strict no social media policy. As such, we were not permitted to show images or discuss the concepts with anyone until the issue hit the newsstand. I believe her exact words were "trust me, they'll find out so just don't do it." Considering the publication date was six months away, this was a big secret to keep.
When the van from Foto Care arrived with our rental gear, I knew it would be a physically demanding day. Tightly packed from floor to ceiling were dozens of awkward light stands and heavy cases of camera gear. We quickly hustled to empty the vehicle, loading the industrial sized freight elevator as efficiently as possible. The second assistant explained his motto, "work smarter not harder". We found a dolly to help support the burdensome weight. It took two trips to bring everything to the second floor hallway. From there, we opened packs and brought individual items into the studio. This included umbrellas, massive octabanks, softboxes, c-stands, booms, profoto power packs, broncolor lights, reflector boards, and and endless array of sandbags. With everything in the room, the set up process was underway.
You can never have enough J-hooks, and super clamps when working with studio lights. Not only can they keep wires neatly stowed, but you can actually hang the power packs on the hooks to counter balance the weight of the stand. Each knob was to be tightened "with the death grip" to ensure everything would be safe for the duration of the shoot. Finally, heavy sand bags were used to keep anything from falling over. Once lights were set in place, each leg was to be marked with gaffer tape on the floor with an X in the center. With three different sets in one room, the entire floor was eventually covered in tape. Still, these marks proved helpful when something needed to be temporarily moved.
With a shoot of this size, finding the necessary sources of electricity can be a challenge. To avoid any surges, each light had to be on its own circuit. To accomplish this, we needed 16 extension cords of various lengths, 25, 50, and 100 feet. Considering the maze of wires now strewn all over the building, it was necessary to gaffer tape them neatly to the floor. This kind of attention to detail makes a shoot more professional and quite frankly, safer.
You don't want people to trip over wires on the way into the studio. The oft-repeated phrase was to "feng shui it". Anything that looked out of place was to be organized. Empty boxes were removed from the hall and tucked into an empty storage area, food was cleared away, wires were hidden behind the set. The studio was now ready for test shots.
Michael was shooting tethered with his full frame Nikon D810 and the manual focus Zeiss Otus 55mm f1.4. Images were ingested into Capture One software, a Mac Pro tower, and displayed on a high resolution IPS monitor. This made it much easier to check critical focus and highlights and shadows as opposed to the camera's small LCD screen. Using Photoshop layers, we could actually place the magazine's cover template over the image to determine the best subject placement. The crew stood in as test models to help with this process. I imagined sitting in a rocking chair as an old man saying, "Did I ever tell you about the time I was on the cover of Forbes Magazine?" There was no time for daydreaming however as the real subjects started to make their way into the studio.
The Director walked each subject into the room and introduced them to Mr. Prince. To set them at ease, Michael made quick small talk asking questions like "where are you from originally?" In between dialogue, he would shoot, sometimes directing them into different poses. He asked them to cross their arms, look serious, smile, look towards the lights, and encouraged them with "Yes, that's your go-to smile right there!" Each subject's session lasted just a few brief minutes, but despite the fast pace, they were largely at-ease.
We had two backgrounds set up for the solo portraits, one a solid blue seamless roll, and the other was a custom built book shelf. Each individual portrait session took a few short minutes. Depending on the height of the person, we would make slight adjustments to the lights, always monitoring the results on the monitor. Hair and makeup were also on the set to adjust things as needed. A hair out of place or a crooked tie can affect the overall quality of the image. Rather than relying on photoshop, the goal was to get everything as close to perfect in the camera as possible.
At the end of day two, the moment had finally come for the cover shoot. The background was a massive custom built panel with hundreds of books screwed into wood and taped to an open page. This elaborate set would encompass all three pages of the pullout cover. The issue's theme was philanthropy in education. Each subject made significant strides to further the cause.
Most everyone involved would likely agree that the star of the session was none other than Malala Yousafzai. Although just 17 years old and of slight build, her presence is undeniably powerful. I nodded politely as she entered with her father. The magnitude of this young lady's courage is difficult to comprehend. As a vocal advocate of women's rights and education in Pakistan, she became a target of the Taliban. Despite being shot in the face and nearly dying, she made a miraculous recovery. Today, she shares her message with a global audience. She recently said, "Let us remember: One book, one pen, one child, and one teacher can change the world." She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, the youngest ever to receive the honor.
What took nearly a full day to set up, came down in less than ninety minutes. Fragile lights were carefully placed in the middle compartment of padded cases with the power supplies packed on each side for protection. With a $600 replacement cost, breaking bulbs was not an option. The set designers worked with equal efficiency, breaking down the entire background. Finally, it was time to wrap up the power cords. With several hundred feet of wires, this proved quite the task. I found a rhythm, quickly wrapping each extension cord around my arm. We were nearly done minus one last step, "the dummy check". This is a final walk through of the space to check that nothing is being left behind. Sure enough, we found a lone light stand resting behind a door. With this last piece stowed, the job was officially complete. You can get the issue here.