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The way it used to be for commercial photographers was, once we shot the film, it was given to the agency and we never saw it again. It was very rare that you were involved at all in any of the postproduction. Which was fine sometimes, but sometimes the end result was different than the original intent. Now, because of the advances in technology, there has a niche has developed between photography and pre-press.
Instead of pre-press doing all the postproduction, today the photographer does postproduction on their own, or they hand it off to someone like GreenBox to do the work before it’s passed on to pre-press. One-way to look at it is: The budget is out there for retouching on every job, regardless of who does it. There’s nothing that doesn’t get touched by Photoshop these days. The question is, who is going to get paid to do that postproduction work?
If photographers want to do their own retouching, it’s a good skill to develop and I think it’s good to retain control up to the very last minute. But that only works if you’ve got the time and the deadline fits your schedule. When you get really busy, you end up thinking to yourself, “I’ve already shot this and sold it to the client; I want to do the retouching, but I don’t have the time to because I’ve got another shoot the next day.” And inevitably everyone wants everything delivered immediately, so you get to a point where you realize there is only so much you can handle. I’ve also heard stories about agencies getting burned by photographers who want to do their own retouching but are not really technically skilled with Photoshop and pre-press requirements. They deliver the file and then the agency has to source it out for someone else to fix.
Another option would be for the photographer to hire a freelancer, so the files can be worked on the next day while the photographer is shooting another job. That’s a possibility too. But again, then you’re relying on the availability of the freelancer. Typically if you find someone who understands what you want and how you like it, then you’re much more dependent on that person. If you call them up and say, “I need you to do this tomorrow,” and they’re booked for the next three days, then you might have to go to someone else whom you’ve never worked with before.
The third option is to have someone on staff full-time to do retouching, but then you have to be shooting enough to support that. Having someone in-house to do retouching is a great option for a photographer because the Photoshop work is a good second revenue stream, if you can find additional clients who only want retouching services.
The ebbs and flows for a postproduction studio run along the same lines as those for a photography studio. But when you’re a photographer specializing in a certain area, that’s the only source of income coming in, as opposed to this model with GreenBox, where we could be drawing from several sources. So even now when a lot of people are really slow, there’s always somebody working — and they need retouching services. That way you can becomes less dependent on just one circle of income.
If you’re going to start your own postproduction studio, it’s good to have a focus, an area that you specialize in, just as you should as a photographer. I’ve always felt that, if I were a client and I looked at someone’s portfolio and they had some fashion, they had some still life, they had some landscape, even if they’re all good, I really don’t have a clear picture of what they love, where their passion lies. But then I might interview someone else and they only have food — well it becomes obvious that person really likes doing food photography. And if I needed food photography done, I think I’d want to go to that person instead of someone who says, well, yeah, I do food photography too. And that directly translates to what we do at GreenBox Imaging.
No matter how photographers do it, I think it’s important that they always include retouching as a separate line item — I cannot stress this enough. Because no matter what you do with digital files, it takes time to process them and prepare them to be handed over to the client. Even simple processing, renaming, and organizing your images without any retouching can take some time. The big danger is if photographers include processing and retouching in their photography fee, clients start to think, why should I pay extra for it, it’s included. Just like anything else in business, it’s always a good idea to have it called out as separate charge, even if you’re doing it yourself.
Pricing for retouching can be all over the place, but it generally runs from $150 to $300 an hour from a postproduction house. In my experience, that is what agencies and design firms typically budget for retouching and postproduction services as part of a project. We try to look at it on a per-project basis and quote it that way, but in general if you go somewhere with your files, that’s the range that’s out there.
The client explains what they want and you try to estimate how many hours it will take as closely as possible. Sometimes that’s very difficult to do; you never know what’s going to happen down the line during the postproduction process. Maybe the designer goes through the image and gets it the way they want it and only then it gets passed on to the client. The client may say, “That looks great,” or they may have a bunch of changes, and those are the things that are unpredictable. All you can do is estimate as close as possible; then when we get to that point where we start running out of time, we notify the client and say, we have this much time left. The request you just sent is going to push us over, or it’s within the budget but anything after that we’ll need more hours added on. That’s all you can do, to keep the client informed of where they are money-wise and time-wise, and in the long run it only makes you more respectable as a postproduction studio.
We converted to digital capture in 1999, and were curious about color reproduction, image quality, and what we could do with retouching and compositing. Compositing seemed like a powerful tool to create new images from existing ones — about anything you could imagine, you could produce. I got really involved with Photoshop at the very beginning so that I could begin compositing new images. I was lucky enough to be invited to the first Photoshop Invitational sponsored by Adobe introducing Photoshop 1.0 in 1990. This was when I really realized the huge potential Photoshop had as a creative tool, and I knew that in the long term mastering this tool would be important for the success of my studio. Using Photoshop, as well as attending the conference got me more interested in color and color reproduction, and that’s when I really got involved with color management.
Because we were early adopters of digital photography, it made sense for our studio to do simple digital retouching too. It also seemed like the perfect time to offer retouching to our clients, which we started in 2000. At first we had a person working full-time in the studio who focused only on Photoshop retouching. We would shoot one day and she would work on the files the next. Then, about a year and a half ago, we decided to split off a separate business, GreenBox Imaging, Inc. We found a building directly in back of our photo studio, moved everything over there, and made it into a separate corporation that is totally independent of Michael Lamotte Studios.
When we were considering whether GreenBox would make enough to justify being a separate company, we already knew it would since we were already doing it in-house profitably. One of the reasons we decided to split GreenBox off was because it was making enough money to support itself and make a profit. With some projects, the postproduction ends up costing more than the photography. Not because you did a bad job with the photographs, just because everyone is always trying to find a new way to see things; everybody is always pushing the envelope and using retouching as a solution. It’s also a great tool to help photographer solve problems like scale amd lighting that come up on set.
Up until now GreenBox Imaging hasn’t taken on many projects besides my own images because we wanted to get all the kinks out before we offered our services to others. That’s what we’re in the process of doing now. I hired another person, Ian Stone, who is doing the marketing and sales for GreenBox Imaging. We also have Colin Birdseye, our Photoshop artist, John William Lund, our color expert, and Gail, my wife, who is the CFO. Then we hire freelance Photoshop artists as we need them so we can be flexible; when it gets busy we just bring on more staff. We take pride in our staff and our ability to quickly adapt and serve our clients within their specified time constraints.
Our general workflow works like this: GreenBox gets instructions of what a client wants us to do. Colin may talk to the client first and see if he has any suggestions to improve the image. Then we do those corrections and we send them a JPG or proof and say, “This is the image with the corrections we discussed, and this is how it looks at this point.” That may be final or we may do additional corrections, based on what happens during that conversation with the client.
If we create a custom color profile of the prepress house’s proofing device, we can then predict their results, essentially emulating their printer so both outputs will match. The client then makes final comments from our proof, and once everyone approves it and signs off, we send the prepress house our custom CMYK file and our proof. Using our custom CMYK file, their first output on their proofing device should look pretty close to our proof, which everyone already approved. That’s a better scenario than sending an RGB file to prepress, then they have to separate it, turn it into CMYK, and try to make their output look like our approved output. That’s not the most efficient way to work; it’s just going to cost the client more money in the long run and take more time.
It’s a little difficult sometimes because technology has faded the lines between photographer, retouching, post production, and prepress; its sort of unclear where everybody’s responsibility stops. For me, the more control the photographer has over the image, the better. This way someone can’t take your image and change your original vision. Maybe you have a warm look to your image and you like that look, then a prepress retoucher decides, we should neutralize, the color is off. These are all reasons it pays to build an ongoing relationship with your retoucher, the prepress people, as well as your client. Once all of the components are in sync, it’s much easier to produce reliable, consistent, beautiful work and in a very cost-effective way. It also helps streamline the workflow to get the highest possible quality in the most efficient manner — something that GreenBox is always doing.
A big reason for a photographer or agency to work with a studio like GreenBox is that it’s a resource that’s always there, always consistent, always available and most importantly doing the highest quality work. You’re building a relationship where you know what your client likes and needs. And for smaller photo studios, it allows them to offer to their clients additional capabilities. They can shoot it, retouch it, and deliver CMYK files with approved reference prints — everything — with GreenBox’s help. So it can give a smaller photo studio the ability to look bigger, without putting up the money and staff to have that capability on their own.
We’re trying to create more of a boutique studio at GreenBox. We want to be a place that is more personal, not a huge place with a night shift where you’re not sure who’s working on your images and you’re getting inconsistent results from project to project. We want to keep our service focused and personal and really work with clients to get the best results possible. When you send something to a big place, they’re only going to do what you tell them to do. With GreenBox you’ll actually talk to the Photoshop artist, and if he or she has any ideas for ways to further improve your image, they will at least discuss that with the photographer or client. The other thing that sets GreenBox apart is our ability to help you develop a color-managed workflow that will deliver accurate results and save both you and your client time and money.
Having a food and prop stylist you work well with is extremely important. Usually when we’re interviewing a new stylist, they bring their portfolio in and we talk: What did you do on this? Oh, that looks good, what was your technique? Where did you get that item? Did you do the props? Sometimes food stylists do propping as well. Sometimes prop stylist do some easy food styling. Generally the way we operate with a new stylist is to suggest doing a portfolio shot together and see how we work together. That way we each get a portfolio piece. And then you have a better understanding of how they work and how well you work together and whether you communicate effectively. It’s like a test run.
We have a full studio and kitchen with a stove, oven, and refrigerators. We also have space for three freezers for the ice cream because we do a lot of ice cream. The ice cream is another whole specialty. There are food stylists who specialize in ice cream. It’s difficult and hard work because you have to scoop and shape all day. First the stylist takes a one-gallon or five-gallon tub and cuts it down the middle with a large cheese knife. Before they scoop, they can see where the variegates or fudge swirls are to see where the good spots are. Then they drag their scoop through that area to create a ball. But it’s a process of doing that over and over again until they get a good scoop. A stylist might get five balls that look good, but throw away 20.
One of our freezers is a dipping cabinet like the type one sees in an ice cream store. After scooping a ball with enough distribution and good texture, a “fluffy skirt” is built around it to make it appear freshly scooped. The client on set has approved both the ball and the skirt, which has been set on a piece of marble or in a bowl. The scoop returns to the dipping cabinet for a bit before it is brought on set and quickly photographed. The image is examined to determine if any modifications need to be made such as adding another chocolate chip or another swirl. There are some modifications that can be made on set while others can be accomplished through retouching.
We sometimes allow the ice cream to melt just a little bit to get the shot the client approves. During post production, melt drops are sometimes cloned on to the ice cream scoop in a place where it might look good that the ice cream is a little melty. That gives us more control over the look we’re trying to achieve. I always strive to give the most accurate and truthful representation of the product. Then, with the ice cream, we print out that version and give it to the art director or client to mark up: move that chip, lighten that area, add additional chips. Then we take the marked up sheet to GreenBox Imaging, the retouching part of our company. The image and comments shift back and forth between the design firm and GreenBox’s retoucher. When the retoucher feels the image is exactly how the design firm wants it, the retouched image is presented to the client for feedback. The fact that we were involved in the decisions from the beginning gives us an advantage in delivering exactly what the client wants.
The other key team members of my team are my studio manager, prop stylist, and photo and food stylist assistants. The studio manager is the backbone of the studio. He is responsible for booking, coordinating, organizing, receiving, shipping, processing, printing, documenting, trouble-shooting and client hosting — just to name a few of his responsibilities. I think it becomes apparent just how important your team is on complicated projects like this.
Let me walk you through one project we’re doing, a new frozen food product. To begin with, the designer called me and we talked about what the requirements were. This was for packaging, so she showed me the rough layout they had, the size of the package, and the area they needed for type and graphics. Then — this doesn’t always happen, but it’s good when it does — we did a test shoot. We were able to take one day with the food stylist and we tried to shoot as much as possible. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s just to get across the idea and see what works and what doesn’t work. What lighting or angle or props look good. There are so many combinations that have to work together. So we would work through that and then the designer would take those photos and create a couple different layouts to present to the client. And then, after long discussions, the client decided which direction they felt is best. And once that’s established we do it all over again. But this time we care much more about what it looks like. In this particular case we did two rounds of that. We did another round of shooting to establish what it was going to look like because they had a slight shift in what the prerequisites were.
On the production side, when we were actually doing the shoot, it meant coordinating, getting the product here, having freezer space, and having the right equipment to cook it. We had to figure out how best to do that. It’s sort of exploring how to get the most truthful representation of the product, trying to get the best out of it and still not lying about what the product is or looks like. We’re just trying to show it in its best light. The stylist in that particular case also had to work with the client to determine what side dishes they wanted. Do you want rice and a vegetable or a potato and a vegetable? What are the combinations? Or what garnishes can we use? What things can we put on it to make it look better? It’s a fine line; you don’t want it to look like it’s something that’s supposed to come with it.
Then there are the props. In this particular project we had to find the right plate to put it on to give it the right feel or atmosphere. If they want it to look casual, they want a certain kind of plate; if they want it to look upscale, it would be a different kind of plate. So there’s a whole process of figuring out, where do we want to position this? It’s a group effort. Ideally you want to have the actual product, the food, and the plates together under the lights and put it under the camera and see what works. You can’t really predict those things until you see them in context.
We have a lot of plates and dishes and flatware in the studio, but usually the requirements are more specific than that. Usually it has to be a certain size, a certain color, it has to have a red band on it or something. So being a prop stylist is actually a very difficult job. People say, that sounds like fun, to go shopping with other people’s money — it’s not that easy. It’s usually very specific. A client might say, once I saw this plate that was green and it had little speckles around the edge and it was about seven inches in diameter. And I don’t know where I saw it, but I really like that one, find that. Or for this particular project, the plate had to be a certain size because, if the plate’s too big, it looks like the portion you get is too small. If it’s too small, the portion looks gigantic. So you’ve got to find that middle ground. It’s very difficult finding the exact fit that everybody likes. The other thing that happens is the client says, I saw this plate over at this store; then you go to get it and they don’t stock it anymore. Occasionally we actually have to have a plate made from scratch. We went to the model maker and it turns out they do that for Pottery Barn and stores like that. They design a model and do a plate for them, so it was no big deal for them to do it for us.
Working with food, you have a relatively small window of time to work in. Ice cream, for instance, is a really small window. But usually the longer anything sits out, it’s not good. It’s best to capture it as soon as possible. That’s why on the day of the shoot, if we didn’t do a test shot ahead of time, we would figure out the camera angle, the lighting, get it all set up and then the food stylist would make it all over again and make sure it looks really good the second time. The first version is sort of stand-in food so you don’t care if it sits out there for an hour because you’re just getting the composition and the lighting where you want it. Then when everything is set you bring in the fresh food and shoot it right away.
Once we have the image we like, we bring it to post-production. The thing that I think is interesting is, if you know you have that option of retouching you can use it as a tool for shooting. If there is this technical issue or, particularly in packaging, if there is a size problem. One project we did was a limited budget and they wanted to do it as efficiently as possible. So we shot the food for the front panel of the package and then the back of the package there was another photo of that same dish but it was pulled way back to leave room for the type. So instead of trying to shoot the main shot then pull back and shoot it again with more background, we shot it for the front and made sure everything looked good on the whole plate. Then at the end of the shoot we pulled back, set up that other shot, kept the camera angle exactly the same, then in post production we cut the food off the plate in the front shot and shrunk it down to fit on the plate that was on the back. So it’s an exact copy without having to shoot it twice. Because the food wouldn’t have lasted from one shot to the next. We would have had to make everything twice.
When I was taking classes at the Academy of Art, one of the photographers had a studio and they needed somebody to come in once a week and clean up. I thought that was a great opportunity to go see what happens in a real studio, so I took the job. And that sort of led into a full-time position as a first assistant with the photographer. I helped him build the studio from scratch, which was another great opportunity, to come into a raw space and turn it into a studio. He did mostly food and still life, and at the time he was one of the major photographers doing that kind of thing in San Francisco. He was from New York and after I had worked for him for another two years, he said, if you really want to be good you have to go to New York. You have to go become an assistant there. So I talked it over with my wife and we sold everything and packed up the car and drove to New York.
Again I was lucky; I got a job at a really good studio there. They did most of the major accounts, like Best Food, Shake ‘n Bake, and Jell-O…all the big accounts like that that were in New York at the time. I was a studio manager there and what was great was it was high volume, lots of work, and I got to experience lots of different situations and problems and how to solve them. So I worked with that photographer for a little over two years, then I decided I wanted to freelance. And I did work for some people, like Best Foods and Lipton Tea, but most of the people I saw said, your portfolio’s pretty good, you should be shooting, not assisting. So I started to do some jobs there.
Then I had to decide if I was going to stay there or come back. I didn’t particularly want to stay in New York. It was a great experience and I would highly recommend doing something like that, but I knew I didn’t want to live there forever, being from the West Coast. And the plan was always to come back, so we did. We were there for about 2 years, and we had planned to only go for a year. But we soon found out that was ridiculous. It takes a year just to feel like you live somewhere. We came back and I found a place on Mission Street where Bloomingdales is now. I had a studio there for eight years. Then I moved to my present location and opened up a new studio, bigger than the other. I had learned a lot from the other one as far as what did work and what didn’t work and planning the space.
I was always interested in how food and photography fit together. And I was always around food. My mother had a gourmet coffee store before that was really popular. My great grandfather was a chef at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. Then his son, my grandfather, was a chef at the Fairmont here in the ’20s. And his son, my father, he didn’t want him to get into the business because it was a way different business then. There weren’t chef superstars like there are now, and they probably didn’t get as much credit as they do now. So my dad made furniture. So food is indirectly in my blood. I like to cook and I like learning about food and wine and everything that goes along with it. Because I sort of think you have to be like that to be good at food photography, to have an understanding how it’s made and an appreciation.
But the most important quality you need as a food photographer is patience. I’m not sure there are things you need that are different from being a successful photographer in other areas, except probably just a passion for food. And I think there are usually two different personalities. You rarely see someone who is a great food photographer and a great people photographer. It’s two different temperaments. Like fashion photographers who are used to a really fast pace — this would drive them nuts.