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

Women in Construction Week

Women in Construction Week – Portraits

After all my years in business, it’s still thrilling to get an email inquiring about availability. And when that email request involves environmental portraiture on a construction site, I’m as happy as one can get. Well, maybe a perfect 300 score in bowling is better but not by much. (my best is 284)

Sunlight

Direct and sunny or diffused and soft, this ambient light is the light you work with. As my skilled brethren will attest, working early or late day is preferable, the sun angle relative to the subject lends itself easier to drama and emotion, characteristics that keep eyeballs looking. Overcast is OK too but ideally it’s a mixture of direct sunlight softened with a bit of atmosphere, cloudy bright if you will, that’s hands down my favorite to work with:

The Request

It has been and continues to be an awesome experience creating media with the right emotional tone and focus. One of my clients at Walsh sent the email and it was specific: portray women on the job in celebration of Women in Construction week. From a business perspective an SECP (self-employed creative professional) understands what makes them unique and strives to illustrate this at opportune times. For this assignment I did something different, a lighting technique mixing sun and artificial light in order to craft images that speak to empowerment:

The Speedlight

A speedlight, the flash unit for this type of work is set to be more powerful than, be equal to or less than the brightness of the ambient sun. Sunlight was clear bright so I set about altering the relationship between subject, color and environment. The resulting photography enhances the sense of distance between a close subject and a receding background. The blending point for the day was set at -1, lowering the intensity:

Conclusion

My attempts to light subjects with backlit sun and flash fill to heighten detail are not always practical: variables in these lively environments are many. The danger is real but I’m safe and always find ways to succeed:

To the women do not work in the field enduring dirt, loud noise and heavy machinery, we celebrate you as well. Among other responsibilities these women run offices, engineer plans, ensure safety and manage finance:

To see more of my work: impromptu and candid

As always thanks for reading.

Michael

Branding Your Company

The Bargain

I’m a bartering horse-trading kind of a guy so when I sense an opportunity to “transact a little business” I jump on it. It’s always no if you don’t try, the odds only go up from there, right? This was the case in 2014. As the official photographer I was wandering around our neighborhood documenting our biennial historic homes tour when I happened upon one of the vendors we invite to share their wares and expertise with our guests and homeowners: boutique teas, coffee, pastries, home repair businesses and the like. Scott Campbell the owner of Window Repair and Restoration is accommodating, affable and most important for me was interested in my proposal from the jump. His company works a lot in Pasadena due to its large number of historical homes. My 113 year-old home had 17 double-hung windows, painted shut with sash cords cut. Many of them were shut crooked and painted in place. Our drafty home had higher than-we-should-have energy bills.

Scott listened intently to my offer; I’d make a branding film in exchange for tuning-up my windows. In subsequent phone calls and emails, we struck an agreement.

The Process

As in all film production sites visits are necessary for developing shot lists. Understanding what goes on in the shop, meeting the on-camera employees and assessing the technical requirements for lighting and sound were crucial to this end. At my home it was measuring for the windows that needed rebuilding and looking for rot. Newer contemporary windows installed years earlier were to be replaced with custom built era-appropriate windows. In order to maximize the beauty of my garden for outside foreground shots we scheduled the work for spring. Ironically none of that footage made it into the film but here’s a  blooming shot:  

That’s part of film production however, not every shot makes the cut. It’s all about serving the story.

Just for fun though, here’s one motion control sequence that I couldn’t fit in:

Conclusion

The challenge was what to include that makes the case for Scott’s company as an efficient, friendly and professional service. As is my custom when I am unfamiliar with a process be it window tune-ups, assembly of a 60K closed die forging press (password is WM60KS) or light through stained glass, I’ve been fortunate to document I got plenty of coverage. Normally a job like the one Window Restoration and Repair did for me is a 2 days but they obliged my need to film certain tasks in specific ways in order to tell their story properly and this added a third day. What can I say I’m an artist!

Enjoy the film and thanks for reading.

Michael

CIDH Construction

December 6-7, 2019

Drilling All Night Long

An overview of the CIDH process for building a support for a trestle.One of the absolute joys of my life as a professional photographer is when I’m commissioned to photograph something I haven’t seen before. I arrived on this site at 7pm and left the following afternoon at 3:30. CIDH, (Cast in drill hole) is a process for drilling large diameter holes into the ground. As part of this process, drilling fluid is poured into the hole in copious amounts and multiple steel casings are assembled together into one long tube, (in this case 120′) and gradually twisted downwards by an oscillator. These steps keep the hole from collapsing onto itself. After drilling a rebar cage is guided into the hole. The one on this job weighed 78 tons and I was told this was medium sized! Finish off by filling with concrete and the base support is ready for its job. Commonly used as support for trestles when building bridges and elevated roadways, this one will be the base of support for a trestle in a streetcar system currently being built by Walsh in Orange County. This nighttime site visit had rain, wind, cranes, constant noise and the “Grabber”, the beast that scoops out 7 tons of material at a time. Loved all of it! In addition to the usual and customary progress photos, when I had time and the action called for it, I set up time-lapse cameras and videoed using a gimbal. Following are two scenes from the finished film:

The Oscillator

The Grabber

 

Progress Photos

A medium shot of the grabber rising out of the steel casing tube

Medium shot of man in manlift spraying drilling fluid into steel casing.

Close-up image of the teeth of the grabber.

Overview shot of the rebar cage being lifted into the hole

Medium shot of the last of the rebar cage sliding into the hole.I appreciate large job sites because the camaraderie displayed by the workforce is humorous, direct and real. It’s appealing frankly. Being a sole proprietor means I spend a lot of time alone so I have to get my fix when I can. Construction workers are accommodating in this way. During downtime I chat with them about how they got into the business and why they stay. I especially like to hear about the work they perform if it’s a specialty. For some the family business is how they got in, for some get recruited at job fairs and some just like trucks and dirt, like me. It’s fascinating and I’m lucky to be part of their community even if it’s sporadic and short-lived.

Trucks, dirt and image making, what could be better!

Thanks for reading.

Michael

PS: 5 years ago I time-lapsed a similar CIDH process for the Port of Long Beach. I set up cameras and left them in place for the duration. Footage was edited by the client. Still a pretty cool video.

THE CONSTRUCTION WORKER TEAM

Quality Week is the time when Walsh employees working on projects across the US gather and get recognized for their hard work, safety regimens and team play. From newbies to seasoned veterans, they gather, socialize, talk shop and if it so happens, (as in the case of the OC Streetcar project I’m on) free coffee, doughnuts, hard hats and t-shirts. (I’m gluten free but I got everything else!)

The ceremony isn’t long as they still had a full workday ahead but the idea of bringing the team together to celebrate, cajole and support each other under the direction of the Project Manager Rick Felkins is a good thing. Engaging their fellow employees is an exercise in friendship and competition. Gift card awards were given the top team for safety, efficiency, cleanliness and organization.

And then it was time for me to do my usual progress photography circuit, documenting the work since my last site visit. And lo and behold who do I come across first, two members of the winning team. These affable two seemed to enjoy their work and each others company. Brothers in arms.

 What I appreciate about doing work like this is I’m part of the team. Their team. Temporarily of course but on the team nonetheless. I have my own uniform. Referred to as PPE, (personal protective equipment) I have hard hats, head lamps, ear protection, eye protection, breathing mask, orange vests, gloves, knee pads and steel-toed boots. In my car I keep my fall protection harness and extra glasses, gloves and masks. All I need now is a number the back of my vest so fans know who I am. LOL!

Hope I never get traded.

Thanks for reading.

Michael

Commonalities Between Construction Progress & Street Photography

men installing yellow concrete block

I had occasion to listen to a conversation between Bob Patterson of Street Photography magazine and Julia Dean, the founder of the Los Angeles Center for Photography. I work as adjunct faculty at LACP so I was keenly interested in knowing more about Julia’s background as a street photographer. I wasn’t disappointed. Inspired in fact as I came to realize the commonalities between the genre  Julia and many others work in and what I do: construction progress photography.

From Wikipedia: ‘Street’ simply refers to a place where human activity can be seen, a place to observe and capture “social interaction”. The subject can even be absent of any people and can be that of object or environment where an object projects a human character or an environment is decidedly human. Framing and timing are key aspects of the craft, with the aim of creating images at a decisive or poignant moment.

Now what I do doesn’t exactly have a pure “social  interaction” but the camaraderie of fellow workers is relevant and present when I’m on a project site. I’m always trying to capture the “decisive moment” of a particular activity, it’s the essence of what I do and what street shooting is. We are bonded together.

Hope you enjoy our chat: Michael e. Stern on Street Photography Magazine

 

 

REMOVE – REPAINT – RESEAL

The Gig

Loyola Marymount University, an NCAA D1 school in Westchester, CA hired me to provide time-lapse and live-action footage for a marketing video they’ve put together to share with students, alumni and benefactors about the school’s rebranding mission. It’d been a little over a decade since their gymnasium floor was last tended to. As part of the rebranding campaign LMU had a new logo designed and launched a marketing campaign to get the word out. Capturing the contractor resurfacing 14,000 square feet of gym floor was my part. I competed against 2 other providers but was chosen for my motion-control time-lapse expertise. Thank you LMU!

The Set Up

Industrial work is a messy, noisy process, so we work to minimize these aspects and emphasize the beauty of the unfinished. To that end, my team and I installed two static time-lapse camera systems and made 4 site visits on specific days to capture sanding, stencil application, painting, buffing and clear coat application. Using motion control time-lapse tools, gimbals for floating video footage and strategically mounted GoPros, we produced clean compositions while clearly defining the narrative.

The Sound

Ambient sound is an important part of film work and for my work no less so. My motto: keep ambient work sounds low unless there’s a point to hearing it above the music. This minimizes competing sounds, but you’ll still hear something if the music volume dips to low. I employ this technique to keep the visual and audio connections tight.

Lately I’ve been using jazz music for my work as I’m a big fan of the genre. For time-lapse and video combo films, this can be a huge ask. The usual time-lapse music leaves me wanting, but it takes awhile to get the music right. I sample many, many tracks before landing on the right piece. And after the right music is cut into the timeline, then it’s time to rework many of the edits so they cut to the beat of the music. It’s a wonderfully engaging process and one that I enjoy as a project nears completion!

I strive to get my films under 3 minutes but sometimes as in this case, they clock in longer. But at 4:02, the film flows and before you know it, it’s done. That’s the ultimate goal, to watch a film, enjoy the narrative and not be aware of the time because it just flows.

Thanks for reading.

Michael

 

You Get What You Wait For

trucks pouring concrete at job site. Early morning and late ngith lighting

Opportunity

18 hours of continuous pouring. 1350 concrete trucks. 8 pumping trucks. Middle of the night through sun rise. A target rich environment.

AWESOMENESS!

I had the job. It was mine. We agreed on the price. The scope of work. The deadline. I had sent in the insurance certificate, the W-9 and deposit request. Just had to wait for final approval from upstairs. Then like a fart in the wind, it was gone. Poof. Disappointed? Most certainly. But when big business decisions like this don’t go my way, I don’t get crushed, I get motivated. And as a self-employed creative professional, I play the long game and endeavor get out something of every situation that nourishes my business, my life or my soul. After 40 years, I’m good at it.

You see, I’d been given a diagram of the construction site as part of the cost estimating process. And that triggered my visual game plan for how I was going to document this amazing, landscape altering concrete pour. And I still wanted to execute it. It’s what I do, paid for or not. Of course it’s always better to get paid, but us creative souls have to create. It’s especially cathartic for me. There was no way I was going to sleep in!

In this instance I was limited in accessing the site from the public spaces along the perimeter. But art thrives on limitations. And I’m always up for that challenge.

Without promise or obligation from the client, I drove to the location and captured the process that played out before me. When the sun was about 15% above the horizon, it was time to leave with my photographic treasures.

See more of my progress photographs here.

Thanks for reading.

Michael

8 REASONS WHY THIS IS A GREAT PROGRESS PHOTOGRAPH!

You work hard to build something to exacting standards that is solid and long-lasting.

So do I:

I’m known for producing high quality and creative job site photographs.  My approach is much more than just taking pictures with a smart device. As great as smart devices are they cannot compete with the challenging light, color and contrast issues inherent on a job site. I build photographs with a professional approach. To exacting standards. Solid. Long-lasting.

This Photograph is Very Good

I want clients to know the why behind my work. Why the time of day matters, why the lens matters, why the file format matters and why the editing process matters. The techniques I’ve refined over the years contribute to successfully building project photographs.

Here’s why:

Continue reading »

Related Images:

Beauty In The Unfinished

Light, Line & Texture

This is how I see the world. Not really that big a deal, most visual artists view the world this way.
But as a professional photographer and small business owner, it’s crucial that I define this for you.
Specializing in producing construction progress photography suits me well because I’m a laborer at heart.

Grading

The commonality in all construction projects is what I appreciate most: the project below grade, at grade and above grade.
Within this commonality lie the stunning variations I appreciate and photograph:

Pasadena Public Works Conctruction photo at the original Forum in Inglewood, CA Weber Metals Faclity

Variations In The Field

My commitment to every contract produces construction progress photographs that have clear points of view, ensuring that proper PPE is worn at all times, safety best practices are on display, shadows and highlights have appropriate details, color is interesting, and that vertical and horizontal lines make sense.

To achieve the best perspective for any construction photograph I use a variety of camera angles and heights. When appropriate, I deliver in vertical, square and horizontal formats, each photograph cropped to its’ best proportions.

At Grade

Ground level view of rebar tying
welder kneeling while arc welding
Standing

sunrise over building with American flag waving in wind

Below Grade

underground look of trench shoring being installed

Horizontal

concrete pouring roadway on bridge

Up

Looking up to heavy lift crane

A gantry helps lift an 11-ton ring up into the ceiling

Down

looking down at a concrete pour

view from catwalk inside a building

My work is hand-crafted and done to the highest technical standards.

I love this work. It’s fun, challenging and I’m grateful each and every time I’m hired by you.

My trusted collaborators!

Thanks for reading.

Michael