Giving Back as a Photographer

dog at shelter
I just don't like the dog behind bars look - Nhandler

If you’re a professional photographer, there are some charity projects that are definitely worth your time. If you’re working your way into the business, charity shoots can be a great way to build up your portfolio and get your name out there.

Consider Local Animal Shelters

This is one that’s almost always available. Having really attractive portraits for animals in the shelter will definitely increase adoptions. So many shelters are limited to a staff member with a point and shoot camera and many of them are sad looking animals under a harsh flash that look like animal felons behind bars. A few will have an actual background they use, but even that is rare.

Shelter photos are also a great way to gain experience working with animals, one of the most frustrating exercises in photography. After about 20 animals right in a row, you’ll be a master at knowing the precise microsecond to hit the shutter button. In animal photography practice will make perfect, or lead to psychosis, one of those. You’ll definitely know after a day if you’re cut out for animal pictures!

Pro Tips: Get the animals out of their cages and somewhere outside that looks more like a home atmosphere with real grass and scatter some toys around in the background. Use the best lighting setup that’s easily portable in the field. A leash in the picture is okay, and you can get inexpensive ones that are 20 or 30 feet long. Definitely better to have a leash in the photo than one of the animals getting away, unless you’re in a completely fenced area.

The idea is to get people to visualize the pet in their house, as opposed to a visual of some quivering animal in a kennel. The more fun the pet is having in the photos, the more likely they are to be adopted quickly.

Animal Rescue Facilities

If you’re thinking of something animal related, also consider animal rescue facilities, which seem to be chronically short of money. Some commercial quality promotional pictures can be a big boost to their fund raising activities.

Pro Tips: Be really careful about working around large animal rescues. It’s rare for one to be bothered by the flash, but some are scared of the camera. Many of these animals have been abused or neglected and may react unpredictably. Use a long lens and always make sure you have an exit. I try to keep a barrier between myself and the rescue animals at all times, especially if they’ve recently come to the shelter.

Picture Book Fund Raisers

Local zoos are catching on to this one. Buyers of season passes or those who make a donation to the zoo get a free photo book. Some zoos are even arranging special times for the photographers to get better shots than could normally be obtained from the normal traffic areas.

Pro Tips: Prepare to be amazed that you’ll be up against the top photographers in the area on charity projects like this. Don’t be discouraged if you get turned down the first year, or even the second and third. Even if you’ve been a pro working in the area for years, the competition is fierce. The one time I got accepted, I was surprised to be mixed in with some of the best known names in local photography, including one with National Geographic in his background. Everyone wants to be on the zoo credits, so don’t feel bad if you have to work your way up to this one.

City Walks

These are sometimes organized by city government to help promote the area to businesses thinking of relocating. In the old days cities and counties might have had a budget to pay photographers, but today not so much.

Making friends in city government is always helpful for those seeking to start a new business or expand their existing one. If they already know who you are because of your community involvement and efforts to promote the city, you may find your reception to be far warmer than someone off the street.

Pro Tips: They probably already have dozens of skyline photos, unless you can think of a really unique angle, skip those. Look for identifiable landmarks and places less traveled. The idea is to make the city look attractive to anyone considering opening a business. Think about your shots from the standpoint of a business person.

Being the volunteer photographer at charity events is a great way to get your name out there, especially if you can get in on the sponsor credits in exchange for service. Don’t get discouraged if you get turned down, you’ll likely find there are many photographers in the area with the same idea.

Essential Lighting Tools – Light Panels

Photoflex light panel kit
A Photoflex light panel kit - by Photoflex

I’m always skeptical of people calling themselves “natural light photographers” because what I hear in my head is “too cheap to rent a studio”.  That’s until they start pulling out bag after bag of light panels and reflectors.

To me that’s natural light only in the sense you’re utilizing the hydrogen ion key light positioned 93 million miles from subject.  Otherwise, it’s the best of both worlds when it comes to lighting.

Light panels are handy in many situations and are light enough to pack around without feeling like a pack mule.

In the old days if I needed to soften sunlight coming through an office window it would involve a roll of fabric and some gaffer tape.  That still works, but these days a couple light panels will do the job without the tape and are useful in more situations.

If you’re doing a shoot at the beach and it’s going to be past 9 am, you’ll likely be needing light panels and a reflector.

Remember, when shooting at the beach, it can help a lot to cut some old tennis balls to fit over the feet of your panel, tripod and reflector stands.  You’ll also need some bags to make sandbags to weigh down the base if the wind picks up.

For those of you with the time and talent to make them yourself, light panels are an easy weekend DIY project.  PVC is cheap and you can always use an inexpensive shower curtain and a bag of clamps to hold it in place.  The only reason I like the aluminum frames better is PVC can get brittle over time and if you clamp down on the grip jaw you can break it.

For more information on using light panels:

5 Awesome Lighting Hacks

If you’ve ever been in a professional studio you were likely blown away by the sheer volume of lighting equipment and were maybe a bit depressed when you thought about what it all must have cost. And my friends in the video business are even more annoying with their envy-inducing rigs like Skylight Balloon Lights.  I fell like The Joker in the Batman movie asking where they get all those marvelous toys. Still, even with the collection of lighting equipment available, I’ll still turn to low-cost lighting hacks in a pinch and there are one or two I use regularly because I don’t need the expensive rigs enough to justify the cost.

A quick and inexpressive way defuse your flash - photo by Duncanc

Milk Jug Diffuser

One that’s been around a while that doesn’t miss is the Milk Jug Diffuser, also called the Milk Jug Ring Light.All you need is a gallon plastic milk jug and a pair of scissors or razor knife.  Cut out one side of a milk jug, and at the narrower end cut a hole the just slightly smaller than your lens filter.Fit it on the end of your lens and the milk jug should stick up high enough to act as a diffuser for your on camera flash.  It looks funky, but works.  I’ve also taken a shorter piece of milk jug material and taped it over the end of my hand-held flash with gaffer tape.

Complete DIY instructions here.

Chinese Lanterns

I’ve used Chinese lanterns in both video and still photography shoots and they make a really interesting diffuser.  They’re big enough inside to work if you need to put foil on one side, and you can point your flash up, down or away from the subject and get a different effect.  They’re very light, easy to move around, you can even hang them from the ceiling and hang the flash unit from the metal frame inside.

chinese lantern
Expensive softbox or $2 Chinese lantern? You decide.

They come in a variety of shapes, colors and rib designs.  Even the big ones are fairly inexpensive.  If it gets wrecked on set, no one is going to lose sleep over it.

Do keep in mind they are not fire proof, so don’t go putting halogens or hot lights inside.

Another great feature of Chinese lanterns are they come with an internal wire support you can gaffer tape to the light stand.

So, you can spend $600 on an Octobank or $2 on a paper lantern, get a very similar effect and be able to run it up as high as your light stands will go.  I don’t have my soft banks anymore, but still carry my paper lanterns around.

The $35 Beauty Dish

A Fong diffuser
A Fong Diffuser

With a Fong diffuser, an aluminum foil turkey pan and some gaffer tape you can make a beauty dish.

Cut a hole in the middle of the turkey pan and fit the diffuser through it, tape if necessary to hold it in place.  Foil or gaffer tape over the end of the diffuser and blaze away.  Results are surprisingly good.

Complete DIY instructions here.  For as often as I really need a beauty dish, I’ll risk looking a little low rent.

Shop Lights

Craig Brewer made his first full-length movie called Hustle & Flow with nothing but shop lights and a handful of photo bulbs.  Anytime we get separated at the hardware store, my wife knows right where to find me.  I’ll be in the section with the shop lights.

I’ve used halogen shop lights on photo shoots and video sets as both primary lighting and for lighting background elements.  I carry a set in the truck anytime I’m headed out for a shoot.

Shop lights
Shops lights my favorite cheap lighting hack - photo by Joe Kras

Sometimes the temperature is off, but nothing I haven’t been able to correct with $20 worth of gel filters from Adorama and a handful of clothespins.

The new LED shop lights are the right temperature and don’t out nearly as much heat.  Perfect for when you need a shadow fill or colored gel for a background effect.

The Foamcore Strip Light

I think everyone has seen this one before, but it’s worth repeating.  A little harder to put together because you need a glue gun and a space to work, but it really makes a nice strip light.  Almost as good as any of the commercial units I’ve used.  If you take your time and put them together neatly, a lot of people won’t even notice you made them yourself!

Great instructions here.

Got a favorite lighting hack you use?  Share it with us in the comments.