The Quick Hit Construction Portrait

For me the job of photographing people, project sites and machinery is play disguised as work. Construction is intense, tedious and dangerous. But it’s enjoyable to document it and the people who build America. I tip my hardhat to them, but for safeties sake, I’ll keep it on.

I really dig my job.

My respect for these folks is so immense that one of my core missions during a site visit is to photograph them in their environment. Always on the lookout for portrait opportunities (I call them quick hitters) these sessions last anywhere from 30 seconds to 4 minutes. These people are busy, on a schedule and I don’t wish to interrupt their work longer than necessary.

Obstacles Overcome

The first challenge in setting up a quick hit portrait is assessing light, color and contrast. The second is gaining trust. We must develop trust straight away or the session becomes strained. I’m on top of the tech side: lens focused, exposure set and depth of field calculated, so that’s a non-issue. It comes down to authentic enthusiasm for the photograph on both sides. Sometimes we’re good from the jump, our true selves are in the open and I record the moment in hi-res data. (more about this later) Sometimes it doesn’t easily happen so I turn on the after burners: jocularity makes an appearance and they come around. It’s been my experience that these folks are eager to work with a professional photographer when in their PPE and on the job. For many it’s the first time they’ll have a high-quality on-the-job portrait to show to loved ones. I’m glad to oblige.

Iconic images are the goal – a picture worth a thousand words type. In post the magic happens: values adjusted, color harnessed, clarity achieved and a prized photograph is ready to publish. (this is where that hi-res data plays its’ part) Company and employee alike get to share the bounty.

I build photographs, I don’t take pictures

To give you an idea of how rough looking camera files can be, I present the original raw file:
Female construction worker smiling with arms crossedThe emotion is good but the rest of this image looks like a mistake. Knowing how my camera spreads highlight and shadow detail across the histogram in all lighting scenarios, and knowing what the ideal mix of highlight and shadow detail should be is my first technical step.

The second technical step: crop, tone and colorize:
Female construction worker smiling with arms crossedThis is certainly an acceptable photograph and given where it began, it’s pretty good…but it wasn’t where I wanted it to be technically and artistically.

The last steps involve finessing the tech side while adding to the artistic aspects to produce a completed image in color, tone and authenticity:

Female construction worker smiling with arms crossed
Shannon McQueen, a safety officer for Walsh Shea Corridor Contractors at the Crenshaw Line

What’s Next

Once I’m sure I have an authentic image recorded properly, I’m on to the next task of my site visit: progress photos, some time-lapse and maybe if I’m lucky, another quick hitter.

Thanks for reading.


Michael Stern

My work depicts, appreciates and honors the people who build. Their specialized equipment and stunning challenges are marvels I behold and get paid to interpret. Hope you enjoy this site.
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