Tag Archives: Disney

5 Keys To Building Strong Environmental Portraits

René Zendejas

René Zendejas

I’m often asked what my criteria are when building my signature environmental portraits.

And they say it’s difficult to come up with ideas to blog about.


Here are they are in a particular order:
1)  Location
2)  Concept
(actually 1 and 2 are interchangeable)
3)  Clearly explaining the back story narrative with my subject
4)  Absolute confidence in my ability to come back with a keeper in terms of lighting angles, ratios, patterns, color, exposure values, posing, expression and gesture
5)  Keeping a 100% open mind during the post production process

To elaborate…

Roy E. Disney

Roy E. Disney

A good location is critically important to an environmental portrait. Duh. I ask myself: Is it accessible? What type of location is it? Industrial? Corporate? Residential? Natural? How large is the location? What is the available light quality and quantity? How can I supplement the available light? Is there power? Is it safe? When can I get access? You get the idea.

The concept…

If a portrait is commissioned, my client usually has an idea of where they want it done. That was the case with Roy Disney’s portrait. He asked me to create an image of him for use in the forward of his book: “Fantasia/2000: Visions Of Hope.” Roy made it clear that he did not want a regular head and shoulders portrait, that he was tired of seeing his face in close ups and he didn’t want to wear a jacket and tie. He also wanted the session to take place in his ceremonial office. This ceremonial office was built to look like the sorcerer’s hat Mickey Mouse wore in “Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to shoot there for his portrait. He gave me the baseline for his creative floor. My job was to build up from there. In this particular case the location drove the concept. You can read about how I use the concept of the “image hit” to propel my work in other ways by purchasing my book. I will send you an autographed copy for less than Amazon’s price but you have to contact me first.

A strong and flexible concept is important too. In the case of Sam Maloof, I wanted to build a portrait that combined his stature with wood in its’ raw state. Prior to my idea he was always photographed alone against a plain backdrop, working in his shop or sitting in one of his world famous Maloof Rockers. My idea was unique. I can’t always get to unique but with Sam and Roy I did. When I say flexible I mean that I go into a session with a very clear idea but I’m also open to the singular challenges a location presents and how my subject is feeling that particular day. Heck I can be in a mood too so we all have to stay frosty and work through whatever the session throws at us. For the record both men told me personally that these were their favorite portraits. Sweet.

Sam Maloof

Sam Maloof

The narrative….

I spend a lot of time thinking about the idea I wish to build: what is the story of this person? Of this photograph? Who’s in it? And why? What’s happening within the frame? What is the action? What is the gesture? Color? Lighting angles? Lighting sources? Contrast ratios? Props?  The location has a strong influence on these answers. The temperament of the subject influences my choices too. As I answer these questions, the story evolves. And as I flesh out the story I make sure the subject knows what’s in my mind and what part I’d like them to play in my vision.

Technical ability…

In 32 years of practicing the craft of photography as a self-employed creative professional, I’ve failed only twice to deliver results and that was very early in my career. I’m very good at what I do. I still get nervous though when I’m prepping for and immediately after a session has ended. I usually feel I messed up somehow and won’t be able to produce a photograph I’m proud to display. Don’t know why this is but I no longer fight it, I now go with the flow and know that I did it right every step of the way and in the end the image will be there. This is my philosophy: a successful photograph is a series of small decisions made correctly. I live by this credo.

Gere Kavanaugh

Gere Kavanaugh

The increased role post-production applications play in the creative process is controversial for a lot of my contemporaries (read old school dogs like me). They see it as a substitution for doing it right at the moment of exposure and post production is for lazy losers. I embrace post production. It’s foolish not to for it expands the possibilities of what can be done in all phases of building a better photograph. The usual suspects come into play for me: Photoshop, Lightroom and Bridge. I geek out on all three. I use them separately and together depending on whether or not I need to blend layers for my finish. Lightroom offers so many tools now that I have to come up with reasons to use Photoshop and Bridge.

Phoebe Bridgers

Phoebe Bridgers

It’s good to know the applications and how to light, etc. but truly without a strong vision or concept the photographs I build would be all technique without content. And I see enough of that already. Don’t you?

Captain Hurst

Captain Hurst

As always, thanks for reading.






Related Images:

Nap Time!

Wow am I refreshed! I just woke up from my mid-day nap and I’m ready to put in another 6 hours or so of work today. Those of us who are self-employed have a much easier time when it comes to managing out down time. Can you imagine taking a nap in an office environment? Oh yeah I know there’s always those energy drinks to bring us back from the sleepy time. Not me. I want a nap. Give my brain a bit of time to recharge. Absolutely necessary for the daily tasks that lay ahead: shooting, administration, marketing, networking events, blogging, client touches, etc. Years ago one of the divisions at Disney (a client since 1982) put a cot, table and lamp in an unused office so that it would be available for those who needed it. As far as I know it never was because it didn’t last long. There was a stigma attached that if you napped you were lazy or just not the right fit for the culture. Phooey I say! Let the naps begin!

I regularly awake between 4:30 and 6:00 am most mornings. I used to fight it and go back to sleep but not anymore. One of the advantages of getting older is you choose comfort over style. And my comfort level is to get up when my clock says so and begin another productive day of self-employment. I’ll nap five to six hours later for about an hour and then it’s off again to the races. This idea of napping goes back to another post I wrote about knowing the times of day and days of the week when you are best suited for specific tasks. You can read it here.

As I wrote in the “Know Your Rhythms” post, I am hyper-aware of what I need and when I need it. If I ignore the signals that I need a nap I will not function at the high level I need in order to fulfill demanding and relentless days. What you ask do I do if I have a full day ahead and no time for napping? I go to bed much earlier than usual and if need be, take a caffeine pill to stay awake. I try not to take the pill and will try to catch a cat nap if I can. I have no shame about my need for downtime, I embrace its’ refreshing, cathartic effects on my attitude. It’s contextual however and if I can, I can and if not, I don’t.

Oh well there’s always bed time…(:())




Social Media Doesn’t Trump Personal Relationships

Nature's Beauty & The Chance To Connect

I want to inform you about a surprising phenomenon that has increasingly repeated itself this year: new business opportunities are being generated not because of my web presence but because of my personal relationships. I’m online with a business website, this blog, LinkedIn, Facebook, Slideshare and Youtube and all of these together aren’t doing as much as my ability to personally connect with people and pitch my services. My website has a Google page rank of 4, which is almost unheard of for a single-person business, much less one run by a self-employed creative professional. (SECP) Google has a page rank of 7. Facebook is a 10. Being a 4 when most businesses my size are either 0 or 1 is a tremendous achievement. Rate your online presence.

Try as I might I cannot relate my online status directly to sales. What has translated into sales is phone calls, meetings, email, promos, posting to all of my social media outposts and connecting with people whenever I’m out and about, both professionally and socially.

Here are two examples: In November I was hired as the official photographer for a 3-day animation expo. During this assignment a client from Disney, (whom I had met briefly last year on a shoot) came up to me. We talked a bit about this and that, work, family and friends. During this friendly conversation I pitched her a little bit on what I’ve been working on but generally it was in a social context. A few weeks later I get a call from another person at Disney whom I’ve never met but who was referred to me by the Disney client mentioned earlier. The conversation turned into the project currently on my homepage. No social media required, just strong social skills.

Secondly a call came in from a client whom I have been friends with during and after his stint working for the mouse. He is now an independent producer and filmmaker and I’ve been doing unit work for him for on a few of his shows. These low budget shorts were fun to be a part of. I was helping him out as a friend and I wanted to practice using a new lighting idea. His newest gig has a decent budget for a photographer and who do you think he called?

It pays to connect in as many ways as possible but, don’t rely on social media alone. Especially for a creative business, we need to reach out in person as much as possible.

Good luck and Happy 2011!


Build Photographs, Don’t Take Pictures

DisneyToon Studios 2010

My mantra is, “I build photographs, I don’t take pictures.” It’s the way I sell my commercial photographic services today. And it’s working.

As a professional photographer I prepare for a shoot by considering the many demanding chores required before the first test image is exposed. For instance, I received a call (a referral, the best kind) from a new person working at  Disney. She represented DisneyToon Studios and they wanted a group portrait taken in front of the theatre on the studio lot. (It’s a gift when clients refer new business and it’s one great metric to gauge how your business is perceived in your marketplace!)

I must stop at this point a give a little back story. A year ago I did this group portrait for Disney. As part of my continuing marketing efforts, I reached out to the point person for this portrait in late October to inquire if there were any holiday-themed events coming up where they might need my services. I was referred to a new point person. I did my duty and introduced myself. A month later I’m working the CTN expo in Burbank and I run into the previous point person. We have a great chat and catch up a bit. So I’m fresh on her mind when the DisneyToon person asks her where to go for their group portrait. I’m convinced this is how the referral came to me and no one else. The lesson here is: you’re always in sales mode when you’re an (SECP) and every contact with a client (and for that matter, vendors) is an opportunity to burnish your reputation or damage it.

Getting back to this post…part of my sales strategy is to let my clients know the difference between me and my competition. I never phone it in, when I can I always do a site survey. I did this for this shoot. I brought a measuring tape, a ladder, a note pad, business cards and my camera for some test shots. After gathering the pertinent info, (taking measurements, shooting some test files, and planning for the lighting) we chatted a bit to get to know each other. After getting back to my office, I looked at my tests, made some calculations on how best to build this portrait. I got a rate from my assistant and my lab quoted the print costs. At this stage I developed my budget and sent it to my client.

We scheduled the shoot and it went well. Here are a few production shots:

Getting Everyone to Buy Into My Ideas

A View From My POV

The Sun Was Directly Shining Into My Lens

Starting To Break Down My Gear

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© Alliance—-OWN YOUR WORK!

The View From Our Campsite

This post is in response to a request by Jane Smith and the Copyright Alliance. All of us professional, commercial, fine and part-time creatives must endure to protect our creations. Not only is it a money issue but it is our sworn duty to look out for ourselves and others of our ilk. At the very least inform your supporters, clients and patrons the lay of the land when it comes to ownership, copyrights and licensing of creative work. You say you don’t know a thing about these topics? Shame on you! Get your fingers a’ typin’ and RESEARCH SO YOU ARE INFORMED! There is no excuse for not becoming familiar with these topics. If you don’t want to know about them then get a job and have someone else “take care” of you and yours. If you want to live on the outside, then protect your work and inform others! It’s our collective call to arms!

Many years ago I negotiated a licensing agreement with the Walt Disney Company. In 1998, Roy E. Disney commissioned me to create a portrait of him for the book “Fantasia/2000: Visions of Hope”. It appears on page seven and along with my customary and usual photo credit, the © also appears. That’s the power we own if we know how to wield it correctly. Many years later as I was writing my book, it wasn’t a problem using this photo in my discussion about my portrait work. All I needed was a model release from Roy, which he willingly signed in 2005.

All of my proposals and contract spell out the usage and ownership issues. My metadata also spells this out. And when I send my images to the Library of Congress for © registrations, it’s spelled out there too.

What are you all doing about this?

Related Images:

For Arts’ Sake, Own It!

Portrait of Tom Schumacher

Copyright Owners Unite!

The single biggest headache I’ve had (and continue to have) as a self-employed professional artist is getting across the idea to my clientele that I own MY artwork and that they are merely licensing the use of MY artwork for their purposes. If (and only if), I sign over MY copyrights to my clientele, do they then take “ownership” of MY artwork. Other than that act, we self-employed artists always own our work. Period. Easy concept to say. Easy concept to grasp. Hard concept to put into play.


I’ll give you my observations from listening to others talking about their various copyright ownership negotiations over the years: They were afraid of not getting the job. (reasonable) They were afraid of making the client mad. (again reasonable) They did not know they owned their own work. (WHAT? THERE IS NO EXCUSE FOR NOT KNOWING THAT!) When you work for yourself what do you have? An expectation of security? An expectation of enough money? An expectation of owning your own home? An expectation of having a comfortable after work life? An expectation of contentment? You get the idea.

You can have all of the above and more but you have to fight (negotiate) for it. Who can predict the future? (Can you predict future cash flow from the photos in your archive?) The US copyright law recognizes artists’ copyrights. Don’t let clients walk all over these rights. Clients do this because you let them. Stop it. Now. Fight (negotiate, explain, cajole) for what is yours by an act of law and by being the creator of YOUR art.

Artists by nature (intelligent design?) are right-brained (not hair-brained, not left-brained) and frequently back away from the tough task of being their own advocate when it comes to pricing and protecting their work. Another important hat we self-employed professional artists wear is that of educator. It is our job to ensure that our client base understands the copyright law and how it affects the price of professional photography. Engage in the work ethic of copyright ownership negotiation and you will enjoy many long-term self-employed professional artist benefits (positive cash flow being one).

For example (you knew one was coming, didn’t you?), in 1994 I was commissioned by The Walt Disney Company’s feature animation unit to photograph several hundred artists, administrators, technical support staff, drivers and executives who worked on Pocahontas. I was paid well for the project and one item of particular importance during the negotiations was physical ownership of MY film and copyrights. I explained why (see above) these two items were important to me. There were some tense moments but in the end I maintained my position. I am not in any way suggesting my client at the time (who to this day is a friend) was weak. Not at all. He was in a power position and could have gone to another provider. I was counting on my relationship with him, his intellect and my talents as a negotiator and portrait artist to win the contract. He won too in that he had selected a photographer who was a seasoned professional, who had completed dozens of previous assignments, who was going to help produce the project and who always delivered results. Everybody won that day. The book turned out well and all was good in the land of Disney.

In July of this year, I get an email from a production company doing a documentary film on the history of Disney animation. They want to use a photo from the aforementioned Pocahontas portrait project. They had checked around the studio archives and research library and couldn’t find MY film anywhere. (Go figure!) So the producer (a former client) suggested they contact me. We discussed their desire to include MY image in their film. I asked them to send me a contract spelling out exactly how they intended to use MY photograph. I was able to negotiate a decent sum for the use of MY image. Because I kept ownership of MY work, I was able to use that leverage to get what I wanted while giving them what they desired. For me it was found money. For them it was a problem solved. Fifteen years after the fact, I was paid again for the use of MY photograph. A good reason to own your own artwork. You never know when that phone call or email will come. And when it does, you want to be prepared.

To be honest, I hate this part of the business but it goes with being a professional self-employed artist. And frankly some photographic assignments don’t require this negotiation. I decide on a case-by-case basis what’s worth fighting for. I learn by doing. Win some. Lose some. Break even on some. That is the reality. But keep at it and eventually you’ll arrive at a place where you’re able to secure these important rights when need be. That is the goal. The government gives these rights to YOU. Don’t give them away, don’t ignore them. They’re precious and need to be respected by YOU and in turn your clientele will respect them too.

Good luck to all of us.

Group Portraits and all that Schtick

600 people in front the the Feature Animation Building (FAB)

600 people in front the the Feature Animation Building (FAB)

So yesterday I photographed the 600+ people who work for Disney Animation Studios in Burbank. As some of you know, I was one of the main outside photographers doing business with The Walt Disney Company for close to 20 years. I sort of walked away from it in 2006 for a lot of reasons, my dad’s death, 9/11, my son, teaching and the list goes on. So I get a call the other day from a colleague who was actually  booked for the shoot but became unavailable when the client changed the date.  So he gave me a call. I was delighted and flattered to say the least. This type of photography is an art form for me, one I cultivate actively so it was tremendously gratifying when the client wrote me earlier today saying how much she loved the sample I sent over. The sample is the image posted for this entry.

I was helped by Peter Duffy, a colleague and former student, someone whom I look forward to helping when I can. Actually we have helped each other on a number of shoots. As a team we work very efficiently, professionally and have a lot of fun making photographs. He showed up with his 5D Mark II so I could take that baby out for a test spin. What a nice camera! I was stationed in a scissor-lift about fifteen feet up, shooting with a 24mm tilt-shift lens poked through a ring flash. I had to shoot at high noon due to the limited availability of the big three who run the division. My choice of course was to shoot early in the morning. We’re talking about artists here though, people who usually don’t like mornings, so probably only half would have showed. Late afternoon and they all would have been squinting, so noon it was. About thirty minutes prior to their arrival, the 600 or so made their way to the front of the building. Peter helped wrangle them into the three groupings I had designated. Using a bull horn it was a bit like wrangling cats. But he worked the crowd quite well. Give a bull dog a bull horn and that’s what you’d expect. Thanks Peter. The three executives came out and we were on!

I pumped 4000 watt seconds of power through the flash tube and it threw light all the way to the doors under the word “ANIMATION”. I shot at 1/100 @ f/13 @ 200 ISO and pulled f/7.1 as my fill. Impressive light and in my opinion (and experience with other group shots), a very efficient way to light a scene like this. As a variation I had them put on sunglasses and look slightly up at the sun. I had them wave and make funny faces. I had them tilt their chins up and then down. Incredibly almost all of the people participated. I was very pleased. I even did a little schtick (which I always prepare) to put them at ease and to break their thoughts as to what another group portrait in the sun was going to be like. I live for this type of opportunity.

I say it that way because the main thing bugging the client about their last photographer was that he did not direct them during the actual time he was making the exposures. A critical time to ignore your subjects, don’t you think? She related how they thought he was futzing with the camera while they waited for him to begin. Then he says he’s all through, thank you very much. I saw the photo, it left a lot to be desired. Like as many people as possible looking at the camera. Like as many people as possible smiling or at least paying attention to the photographer. At finally there was no attempt whatsoever to try and make the building come alive. It is a stand out facility, a piece of art. Why not treat it as such? After all magic is produced there.  My clients honor me when they commission my talents. I want to return the favor by honoring their work too. Pretty simple equation but  a lot of professional artists either don’t think like this or just plain forget.

After the shot was over I waited 20 minutes (in the scissor-lift bucket, in the sun) for people to clear out, I shot a bracket of three additional exposures, normal, +1 and -1 for the HDR portion of this project. I generated my HDR background plate and after a few duplicate layers here and there, a few blend modes here and there, a little burning and dodging, I was ready to drop in the shot of the people. Add a stock cloud image and there you have it, a nice portrait of nice people. Oy! such fun!

Here is the original shot. It took a bit of time to achieve the final result but my client is very happy indeed.

The camera original

The camera original

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That Kevin Bacon Thing

Take Me in Your Arms

Take Me in Your Arms

Professional photographers and most artists are by nature, pack rats. Objects we find interesting, we save. For me in particular I have also saved props and products left behind by clients after shoots. As most of my business has been in the entertainment industry, I have a lot of Hollywood related stuff.

2009 is the year I begin relieving myself of as much of this stuff as possible. I began collecting stuff from shoots because I thought someday it might be worth more to someone else than to me. I’ve enjoyed having this stuff around, especially when my son was very little and all things fascinated him. Those times are over. Time to reclaim closet space, attic space and file cabinet space.

So how did I begin? eBay of course. I ran my first auction two weeks ago and sold some unique Disney plush to a collector in New York. During our discussion trying to figure out the best way to ship these large, bulky items cross country, we began talking about Disney and my professional relationship with them from 1982-2001. Turns out we know some of the same people at Disney. In fact one of his best friends was also one of my best clients. This is the Kevin Bacon thing, you know six degrees of separation and all that. It’s a small world after all. Sorry couldn’t resist.

One last thing. This person is a producer who will be in LA next week for the Grammy’s. He’s going to stop by my home prior for a brief visit and to pick up Victor and Hugo, two of the gargoyles from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But he is also going to look over my vast collection of other stuff from the Disney years. Who knows what else might appeal to him?

See ya!

Making Photographic Portraits

Michael Eisner, former CEO of The Walt Disney Company and someone I worked with on three occasions.

Michael Eisner, former CEO of The Walt Disney Company and someone I worked with on three occasions.

I am writing my first book on the creative process of artists. It will be titled “Build A Better Photograph: A Disciplined Approach to Creativity.” It will be out in 2009.  This will most likely be my Ricki Lee Jones moment.

In 1979 Ms. Jones released an album called “Chuck E’s in Love.” It was the culmination of her long and under-the-radar career singing in joints and other small venues. The album was a smash. It’s still one of my favorite albums. Her follow up “Pirates.” Was not. Why? My theory is everything she had went into that first album. It said all she had to say. This is not a knock, her work is terrific. Just not a lot of it. Her output was limited but no less impressive. I am so glad she released the album. Thank you Ricki Lee Jones.

The book I am writing is the culmination of my career. This may be the only book I ever write. I’m making the most of it. Twenty eight years as a professional photographer, I’ve learned a few things about creativity and working for oneself. I’ve had a great ride. Had some great clients. I am sharing as much as possible in my book but obviously cannot include all experiences. Who’d want to read that? However I will from time to time write additional experiences here as an on going adjunct to the book.

First up are a few thoughts about photographing people for professional head-shot uses. I’ve worked with hundreds of professional sales reps, corporate directors and the like. I would like to share my protocol when working with these folks. This protocol came about as most camera time with professionals is usually limited to thirty minutes. Fifteen to twenty is the norm in fact. Working fast and being a professional goes without saying. Are you ready?

Have great interpersonal skills. This will make it easier for them to trust you. When speaking to your subject be very articulate. And don’t mumble. Clearly explain before the session begins what your expectations are and how you will direct them during the session. Believe me, they want to be told what to do. Present yourself well, meaning have good manners, dress well and maintain good hygiene. Some of this sounds all to obvious but you’d be surprised what I’ve seen in my career, on both sides of the camera. Sometimes people smell. Sometimes they have breath so strong it could have dissolved the chrome plating off a trailer hitch. I’ve brushed off dandruff, removed gum and retouched food stuck in teeth.

Early on I developed a series of hand signals to help my subjects move, turn and tilt their heads in relationship to their bodies. This often worked better than just speaking turn right or turn left as they often turned the opposite way I intended.

OK that’s it for now. Good shooting everyone!