On Assignment: Man on a Mission

Not all stoppers are over-the-top lighting tours de force. Some stop you with quiet, elegant confidence. Or great composition. Or a strong connection. Such is the case with photographer Bret Hartman's portrait of human rights activist Chad Griffin for The Washington Post.

Honestly, as an online reader I barely even notice The Post's print edition anymore. But sitting on the kitchen table, Hartman's section-front portrait stopped me in my tracks.

As an LA-based freelancer for The Washington Post, Hartman is always auditioning for the next assignment while he is shooting the current one. Which is very different than being a staffer. Here's what that's like.

At least between the regular waves of mass layoffs, newspaper staffers are fairly secure in their daily grind. Ironically, even more so in a bad economy. That's because if your DOP can't get a new hire if s/he fires you, you're as safe as the boss's uncle.

Not so the stringer, which is the industry term for a freelancer. Every assignment you shoot is also an audition for the next. So you always want to outdo what you did the last time. And that's exactly the work ethic that the 32-year-old Hartman brings to his regular work for The Post.

Adding to the pressure is the fact that you are stringing for a department full of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers—with more than a few having been repeat winners. So not only do you not wanna blow it, but you have to do something pretty cool to stand out.

The advantage is, if you are a hard worker you can probably get more time with your subject than the typical staffer busy with a 2- to 3-assignment day. Which is exactly what Hartman did while photographing activist Chad Griffin, who campaigns for marriage equality.

Says Hartman, of the assignment process:

I usually get a phone call from one of the photo editors, then I'm sent the assignment via email. The photo assignments from The Post are usually very detailed with background information from the writer and photo editors about the subject or subjects, and what they are specifically looking for from the shoot.

I then call the assigning editor to talk to him/her to make sure we are all on the same page. It also gives me a chance to bounce my ideas off of them. I always do my own research on the web too.

If I'm shooting a portrait I like to see what other photos have been shot before. It sometimes helps to see how the subject is in front of the camera. For this portrait my editor and I had talked about getting a good photo of him looking directly into the camera, so that he would really connect with the reader due to his new position with Human Rights Campaign. 

Hartman said he spent five hours with Griffin, which by all accounts is a luxurious amount of time that will definitely improve one's odds for a nice portrait. He did the more formal portraits first, at Griffin's home, then followed him into the office to shoot more candid stuff during meetings.

I thought the portrait itself was beautiful—very Arnold Newman, actually, with its meticulous geometric composition, lighting and attention to detail. Hartman talks about the evolution of this shot:

This photo evolved during my third setup. I was actually shooting head shots and 3/4 photos using the dark wall as my background. As I was finishing those, I stepped back to see if I was missing anything and I really liked what the books added to the photo.

It is kinda funny that earlier Chad had asked me to not show all the books on the table during the first setup because he thought it made him look messy. I told him, "No, just looks like you're moving to D.C." (Which he was, moving from Los Angeles to D.C. for the new job.)

I felt like the books showed his intelligence and gave the photo a intellectual feel. Chad killed it when it came to the body language, connection with me and the camera, and then ultimately the reader.

When shooting for publication, the photographer generally does not make the ultimate call on photo selection or even things like a final crop. Sure, they can't run it if you don't transmit it. But beyond that, everything is in play. Hartman goes on:

I'm not 100% behind the composition of the printed version of the photo. I actually shot it wider, with more room on the left of the frame putting him in the middle of the frame:

My editors decided to crop out the window on the left, ultimately making it a stronger photo. While I was shooting this I liked him in the center of the frame with the window on the left, and the books on the right framing him in a way. But while I was editing I also realized it was possibly stronger and less distracting to crop out the window.

In the end I decided to send the full-frame photo to my editors and they made the decision to crop it. A prime example of why photographers need editors. :)

Here's the photo as it ran, lede on the Style section front:


How it Was Made

If you look at Hartman's other work (links at bottom of the post) this photo is a little atypical. Hartman says he is really getting into shooting portraits lately. This was actually the first time he had ever used a beauty dish, and was experimenting as he went.

"This portrait was a very simple one-light setup and a little bit of fill," he said. "I used a 22" Beauty Dish on a 7b Profoto pack. I positioned the light to the right of the subject slightly above his head and angled down a bit. I feathered the dish off the subject towards the books to add a little light to the other room. I used the Silver side of a 5 in 1 [reflector] held by my trusty assistant Brian Lipps, to the left of the subject about 3 feet away to add a tiny bit of light to the other side."

As for the camera-awareness and subject interaction, Hartman pretty much let the assignment drive the process:

I had talked with my editor about the photo. We wanted a photo of him looking directly into the camera so that he would really connect with the reader.

So I simply explained to Chad what I was looking for while chatting before we started shooting and the rest was all him. He is a very confident, kinda, and very comfortable in front of the camera. Which I think comes across in this photo.

Bret Hartman is based out of Los Angeles and is a regular contributor to The AP, The LA Times, NBCUniversal and The Washington Post. You can see more of his work here.

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Blogger Stuart Mackenzie said...

And a stringer is?

August 30, 2012 6:31 AM  
Blogger Viktor Kadychenko said...

They might have cropped the wrong part, actually. There's a really hot spot on the right (part of the wall), which is very distracting, unlike the dim part of the image on the left. You're kind of torn between this hot spot and the guy's face. So in the end, they edited out a blank white space on the left, only to include even brighter white blank space on the right.

August 30, 2012 7:14 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


stringer = freelancer in newspaper terminology

August 30, 2012 11:38 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


The atypical crop totally makes the picture, IMO.

August 30, 2012 11:40 AM  
Blogger Brian McCarthy said...

Fantastic shot. I think the editors made the right decision on the crop as the window doesn't add to the story-telling of the photograph for me. The books, however, do and the way the wall divides him from them creates a really interesting tension/look.

Thanks for bringing this to our attention, David. I don't get The Post!

August 30, 2012 1:01 PM  
Blogger Rogier said...

I'm not feeling this one, composition-wise (though the light is nice). You can't have a photo with a fat white line going through it (the wall) without giving the split-second impression that there are TWO photos there, separated by white space. It's just...confusing.

August 30, 2012 1:49 PM  
Blogger Jhony Tato said...

nice ,like it

August 30, 2012 2:21 PM  
Blogger Nikon Coach said...

I had to read the post to make sure I wasn't looking at a diptych. Technically sound maybe...but this image doesn't quite work for me.

August 30, 2012 2:30 PM  
Blogger KlauSquare said...

Tension, yes, breaking rules, yes, but knowing why you break the rules and what you gain from it is the ultimate mastering of the craft.
I learn from this picture, that you should try to look for that which is beyond the obvious.

August 30, 2012 4:05 PM  
Blogger Nathan said...

I'm with David in that I think the "semi-diptych" actually works well, showing the guy and then a small snippet into his life.
I did also notice the hot spot on the room divider but that is really grasping at straws as far as criticising the image goes since it's you know, white already.

August 31, 2012 2:07 AM  
Blogger Scott Hillman said...

Unless the image has been flipped, the beauty dish is positioned on the subject's left side, not right, right?

August 31, 2012 3:27 AM  
Blogger Tim Biller said...

Great picture.

Washington freelances can afford assistants? Impressive.


August 31, 2012 1:16 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


As self-centered ego-centric photographers, for whom the whole world revolves around us, when we right side we generally mean "camera right".

August 31, 2012 4:30 PM  
Blogger Jessie Patterson said...

Mr. Hobby,
I think a guide to newspaper lingo would be handy. Perhaps in your copious amounts of free time, you could throw one together for us.

August 31, 2012 5:47 PM  
Blogger Reed said...

Tim Biller said...
Great picture.

Washington freelances can afford assistants? Impressive.

I hope this question isn't considered impolite or out of bounds - BUT...

What sort of fee would be charged by a "Stringer" for an assignment such as this?

I've had work published in the Washington Post, but it was given to them free as I was a "Pool" photographer of sorts...

But when I hear about 5 hour shoots, assistants, ProFoto strobes, not to mention the pre-production time involved I wonder what the budget and/or cost for an assignment such as this is?

Are there any sorts of "Standard" fees or is this purely negotiable from one photog to the next.

Just curious...

PS - I too thin the Photo editor made a great choice in the cropping

August 31, 2012 10:10 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Generally, that is pretty variable -- who is shooting, how complex, expenses, time, etc. Newspaper generally have an assignment rate and a day rate, for instance. But that's often just a starting point pending variables as described above.

August 31, 2012 11:15 PM  
Blogger Stuart Little said...

Love the composition and the crop. Really not impressed with the hot spot. I could not resist taking the image into Photoshop to see how it would look when toned down.

The image gets much stronger when you make the subject the main point of interest for your eyes then the books in the other room become the second point. It just needs a little refinement IMO.

September 01, 2012 4:04 AM  
Blogger StyleQuotient said...

I find it so funny that some people don't like the photo and find the white wall "confusing". It's a great photo, with great tones and feel. One of the nicest corporate portraits I've seen in a while.

Great job to the photographer.

To those who don't like it... you have questionable taste and your nitpicking of the traditional semantics is quite trite to say the least. Rules were made to be broken. :)

September 01, 2012 7:28 PM  
Blogger Myron said...

The white post is very cool in the finial newspaper print appearing as 2 images. The window may have been weird on the dark side of the face. I'm not sure if a generic office window would add anything; probably better to have the person emphasized in a portrait. Very cool, very artsy on the newsprint edition.

September 01, 2012 10:20 PM  
Blogger SeverianPT said...

I think he needs a little more space on the left. I think i would have made an attempt to photoshop some of the window away to make a little room

September 02, 2012 8:18 AM  
Blogger Oliver Rathonyi - Reusz said...

I think I understand from Bret's comment, that even though he thought it should be wider, he was happy with the photo editor's choice with the final crop. IMO, it's the final crop that makes the image a "stopper." I find the strange balance a little unsettling and it makes me want to look at the image again and again.

September 02, 2012 12:17 PM  
Blogger Vladimir said...

You don't photoshop window out with newspapers.

September 03, 2012 3:22 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

I am a stringer/freelancer for NY papers. Everything from the NY times to small bi-weekly papers. I'm not claiming to be great, just saying I know,the rules of the game. I love this photo. It is crafted, honest, and strong. We are bound by journalistic ethics not to photoshop work that appears in print. To the arm chair photogs dissing this shot, when was the last time some of the best photo editors in the world put you on the front page of a section? Spend less time on the Internet and more time photographing and you too can have the pleasure of having your work torn apart by the bold and anonymous.

September 05, 2012 10:29 PM  
Blogger Barry said...

I have to agree with Mike, albeit from an armchair myself. Also remember the intent of the photo was to appear in a print NEWSPAPER. A quick look at David's pic of the newspaper shows the "hot spot" and overall brightness is much different than the pic on your monitor.

Great pic. Really cool story of getting the safe stuff in the can and then pushing out.

I wonder how often the "safe" gets used vs. the "pushes."

September 06, 2012 9:40 AM  
Blogger Bret Hartman said...

Thank you everyone for the comments! It's always good to hear what other people think of my work.

September 07, 2012 2:43 PM  
Blogger AlunMauve said...

I think the final edit works really well on the page. Look carefully; the white line of the dividing wall is enhanced by the text layout above and below the picture and by the width of the white space between the picture and the text to the left That block of text to the left works with the books on the right to bring the subject back to centre of frame, when looking at the paga as a whole.

Great 'toging, great editing in my humble opinion.

September 11, 2012 7:11 AM  
Blogger Jill Evans said...

Very late to the party, however, I think this photo works just as much because of color as it does for composition. The overall palate is is cool neutral with pops of color; the burgundy of the seat, purple tie and a few reds in the books. These move the eye around. But ultimately you are drawn to the warmth of the face.

September 17, 2012 1:30 PM  

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