September 01, 2010 — Picture this: a convoy of more than 15 vehicles crammed full of producers, location scouts, digital techs, assistants (and assistants to assistants), stylist teams, caterers, models, prop builders, grips and camera equipment. A mobile digital darkroom, too. Major Hollywood production? Nah. Just Pete Barrett and crew heading out for a typical location shoot.
And if the shoot promises to be a tough one, tough-to-please agency creatives know that Barrett—as he has been doing for years—is the go-to guy who’ll bring it home. His clients have included AT&T, Budweiser, Ford, Heineken, Kodak, Corona, Merck, Royal Caribbean, United, Miami Tourism, New Balance, State Farm—and the list goes on. Awards for his creative work are legion. He’s a photographer’s photographer and if there’s a job he can’t handle, it hasn’t been put out for bid yet.
Barrett, 41, was born in New York but raised in Maine and then Florida. He realized early that “photography is like having a license to explore worlds and areas you might normally never experience.” Now he specializes in “big production” location commercial and advertising photography, splitting his time between Florida in the winter and Maine in the summer. Here’s what he has to say:
Arthur Bleich: Why photography?
Pete Barrett: I was always attracted to the arts and capturing images, but I cannot draw to save my life. I understand perspective but it does not translate to my hand. It’s like trying to sign someone else’s signature—it’s impossible for me. But I can see images and capture them with a camera. It’s my way of creative expression—you might say it stirs my soup.
AB: What soups have you been stirring lately?
PB: [One of my last assignments] I spent taking a picture of a bike in various locations for a national bank. Sounds dull, and it could have been, but we had a blast finding ways to make it cool and light it in a way that was very different from what the client was used to. It was something different for me, and I welcomed the opportunity to do something new. In the last two months I have shot Renaissance people, pirates, motocross, several bike campaigns, some stuff for a bank, a rock band, underwater shots of swimmers, a guy breakdancing and kids skating in a skateboard park.
AB: That’s a lot of different stuff.
PB: It’s always something different and I love that. It keeps it from getting boring. If you get bored, go shoot something you like. Shoot enough of it and someone will pay you to shoot more of it. Or they will love the style that you shot and have you shoot something totally different in that style—even better! What better way to make a living than doing something that excites you like that?
AB: Your favorite subjects?
PB: Ask me now what my favorite subject is and you will get a different answer than if you asked me the same question a year ago. Right now I’d have to say sports or advertising jobs that illustrate a concept. I’ve been actively working on new sports work lately. Breathing a little life into the sports book. You have to keep updating it or it tends to get stale.
AB: Have you changed any of your lighting or shooting techniques?
PB: I’m working in more of a dramatic lighting style now. Using more strobes on location, whereas some of the older sports stuff was more natural light. Much of my work nowadays, especially the advertising stuff, is a composite of many different shots. We will take the best of this person and the best of that person and the best this or that—even changing out heads or body parts—to make the perfect frame.
AB: I hear some old pros spinning in their graves.
PB: Well, some may say this sounds like cheating, but I am not hired to make art, we are hired to create a perfect image that illustrates a concept or evokes a feeling. We also have to do this within a set time frame and within a budget, so sometimes it is easier and more cost-effective to create certain things in post, rather than just beating a dead horse trying to accomplish it in one frame. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying just shoot the heck out of it and fix it in post. I work very hard to get it as complete as possible within one frame, but sometimes someone in the shot has missed the mark or this one looks great in this frame and that one in that frame. Sometimes we will shoot each person independently. The bottom line is that final killer image—how you arrive there
AB: Speaking of bottom lines, has digital imaging been good or bad for business?
PB: On the business end, it opened many more opportunities to make money. Now, instead of paying a lab, we can do the work in-house and charge for these services. Doing postproduction in-house opened a new profit center. This certainly came in handy as the economy shifted. Times have changed and things evolve. You have to evolve with them or die.
AB: With which cameras do you usually shoot?
PB: I work in both 35mm and medium format. For 35mm I use Canons—a 1Ds Mark III, a 5D Mark II and a 1D Mark IV. For medium format we rent. I usually will use the Phase One P45 or a P65 depending on how big the images will be used. For the most part, the P45 is more than enough and allows me the speed I need to shoot without having to constantly wait for the camera to process the file through the buffer.
AB: What about lighting?
PB: I use Dynalites, Profotos and Broncolor strobes for the most part. I own a ton of Dynalites and they are lightweight, reliable, inexpensive and extremely durable. For more critical work where I need more specific control, I use the Profotos and Broncolors. Profoto has much better light-shaping tools. Their ring flash with a 7B battery is awesome, but if I need really fast recycling with a lot of power, I’ll use the 3200 W/s Broncolor. It is wicked fast and has lots of control. We also occasionally will work with HMIs [hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide lights].
AB: Many of your images require compositing. Do you do that yourself?
PB: I do a lot of my own retouching using Photoshop CS4, CS5 and a lot of plug-ins. Everything from building complex composites to anatomical changes to color palette exploration and tonal grading.
AB: The Miami mural shot [above] looks very complex—a dozen or so separate images at least. How did you find the time to shoot and also handle the intricate compositing?
PB: On the Miami Tourism campaign I partnered with Michael Kerbow from Skeleton Digital Art Studio to create the composite. I also work with several other high-end retouchers because there are times when deadlines require us to turn them around faster than we can or perhaps there are specific tasks on a particular job where they are more experienced than I may be. Like a photographer, each retoucher has his or her own style and strengths. Who I use depends on what the image is and the look we are going for.
AB: What are the obstacles you had to overcome as you grew
PB: Learning not to let the jobs that got away get you down—especially the jobs that were perfect for you and you really wanted. Stuff happens; it is not personal and you can’t internalize it or believe you did something wrong or that your work sucks. Sometimes it has nothing to do with you, as the creative direction may have changed. Other times it may be a money thing and they go with the cheaper guy. Sometimes the other shooter’s work was just more appropriate in their eyes. Sometimes you may have just put your foot in your mouth and bungled it, or not done enough to sell yourself or make them believe you are the only one to shoot this job. Regardless of the reason, you lost the gig. You have to treat it like water on a duck’s back and move on or it will kill you. Keep your eye on the ball and other jobs will come along.
AB: What’s a typical day at the office?
PB: My assistant and I will work on things from marketing, which can involve sending out email campaigns to updating various Web portfolios to printing up new portfolios for my reps. I also work with my reps to negotiate and estimate jobs, and I write job treatments, which explain to the client my understanding of a pending job and how I might approach it. I also try to spend a little time brainstorming, thinking of potential images that I’d like to produce. We then go through the motions of beginning production to make those images happen.
AB: By “thinking of potential images” do you mean personal projects?
PB: Yes, though I have not always been as faithful to this, as it is hard to do when you get really busy. But whenever we can, we try to plan and shoot new personal work. It keeps the creative muscles strong. Every time I go a long time without shooting personal work I get creatively depressed and get such a block. Creating new work always stirs interest and gets me new work. When you can play with a subject and shoot it just for the fun of it is generally when you make your best work.
AB: Speaking of shooting for fun, you’ve made some stunning images with your iPhone that you’ve posted at tinyurl.com/2c98fhl. Has that had an impact on your professional work?
PB: Absolutely. In fact, many of my new images that I create now with traditional pro digital cameras are starting to have that same look and feel. We are doing more and more work that has funky textures or retro looks incorporated into them. When you start to capture images a certain way, you start to see images in that style or look, and you then find a way to translate that into whatever medium you are shooting in. The iPhone photos are great but they are very small. But we can accomplish similar looks using the big cameras and a lot of careful post work as well.
AB: Finally, what advice do you have for aspiring professionals?
PB: Don’t do it unless you love it. It is an incredibly difficult business to make a good living in. There is lots of competition out there. Keep shooting. Keep shooting. Keep shooting. Market yourself like your life depended on it. Shoot what you love and the money will come. Show potential clients what you want to shoot because most of them are literal and will hire you to shoot what they see in your book. Learn the business from people who are successful and whose work you respect. Don’t be afraid to take chances. Join trade groups like APA, ASMP, PPA and WPPI, and network with other photographers. Be active in your photo community. Learn the value of your images and how to negotiate win-win situations for you and your clients. Collaboration is key. Surround yourself and work with the very best people you can. Budget your money wisely. Get good insurance. Have fun.
Pete Barrett’s Web site is www.petebarrett.com. His photo blog is pete
barrettphoto.blogspot.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arthur H. Bleich (email@example.com) is a photographer, writer, and educator who lives in Miami. He does assignments for major publications both in the U.S. and abroad, and conducts digital photography workshop cruises. Visit his Digital PhotoCorner at www.dpcorner.com and his workshop cruise site at www.