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BEST OF 2012, Michael Casey
Wellesley, MA
Project: Images from new book, The Best Homes from This Old House, a compilation of ten years worth of completed architectural projects from this popular show.

© Michael Casey

© Michael Casey

Michael Casey offers up a comprehensive look at a decade’s worth of completed architectural projects from the popular show This Old House. “Kevin O’Connor, the show’s host, gave me full access to each home, allowing time to study the spaces and providing invaluable insights,” Casey explains. “Because of this, I was able to think through the shots and plan well. On shoot days, we were always challenged by time constraints, coupled with leapfrogging other crews after similar shots. But with patience, diplomacy and a fantastic crew, we successfully walked away after each stop.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Michael Casey: Six years.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

MC: Six years.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

MC: Architecture and interiors, portraits, travel and commercial photography.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable professional tool?

MC: My relationship skills.

ASMP: What piece (or pieces) of gear could you not do without?

MC: My Nikon D3 and D3S. They give me the confidence to do anything.

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers and their work?

MC: Before I started Casey Photography, I was a teacher, worked in politics, and spent 12 years in advertising. From these experiences, I learned important skills — patience, strategic thinking, branding, creativity, and people skills — that I transferred to my business, my approach and my work. When I begin an assignment, I am very thorough. I spend a lot of time preparing. I like to have a meaningful conversation with the client to determine needs, understand brand and strategy goals, learn about the audience, the competition, the budget and timing. With this information, I can better determine my team and figure out travel and gear. Then I create my estimate. I always scout my jobs to determine travel time and the space in which I am working.

Once on set, I set up and test everything, take the time to make introductions, do a walk-through, and get everyone — client, crew, talent — comfortable before I even pick up my camera. I want everyone at the same starting point as me so that we can move ahead together. Time is always against me on a shoot and I don’t want to lose any of it. Once the shooting begins, that’s the easy part. I want to be focused on my subject, my model and the space in front of me. I don’t want to worry about things on the periphery.

I work to make the entire experience positive for everyone and the client always appreciates this.

ASMP: Your recent book, The Best Homes from This Old House, showcases the completed homes from the hit television show. The show’s host, Kevin O’Connor, asked you to photograph the project. Why did he choose you specifically? Had you worked together in the past? What was O’Connor’s inspiration for the book?

MC: Kevin and I are friends from Holy Cross College. In 2003, when Kevin was named the new host of “This Old House” (TOH), he had no experience working in television or on-camera. Early on, Kevin turned to me for advice about creative and production issues because he valued my advertising background. From his start on the show, Kevin thought about making a book and was regularly considering ideas. In his travels, he repeatedly engaged with viewers who were curious to know how the last project ended up looking. Kevin realized people wanted more. Soon he discovered that nothing had ever been published that showcased the finished TOH projects, and he realized he had his book idea.

He turned to me to help shape it. Using a recently finished project, Kevin asked me to assist him in photographing it. I was happy to help a friend and didn’t assume that I would be his partner on this effort, as he had a large number of top architectural photographers from which to choose. After considering several others, he chose me because — not only did he like my pictures — I brought a lot more to the table: My ability to pitch the idea to publishing houses, my management skills, my design skills and my understanding of marketing and promotion.

ASMP: You collaborated closely with O’Connor on this project. What was it like working with him? In what ways were the two of you similar? In what ways did you complement each other?

MC: Kevin was a great partner and an excellent client. He gave clear direction about the book and what he wanted to feature in each home. He put a lot of trust in me, which I really appreciated, and allowed me to bring my eye and creativity to the project. Though we shared a common vision, look and feel for the book, we listened to each other’s point of view, and we really pushed each other and debated issues when necessary. I think this is why the work is so strong.

While shooting, he and I created a set that was laid back and fun. We always had good tunes playing, kept things light and were always joking around. Kevin was great with the crew and in fact, quickly became one of the guys always willing to lend a hand, be a grip, grab lunch. Whatever it took. He was invaluable.

ASMP: Photographing interiors can be challenging, due to variations of color temperatures and the physical confines of the space. Generally speaking, how do you approach solving these challenges?

MC: In managing light issues, I tried to minimize as much as possible. I love the look of natural light and preferred to shoot with it as much as I could. But I didn’t always have that luxury. In the instances where I had mixed light, I eliminated one source then balanced against what remained. I would bracket the shot for exposure and take frames with elements that could be stripped in during post-production. Photoshop was a huge help. To mange the space constraints, I used as minimal a set-up as possible, and I kept a very neat and organized set.

ASMP: In working on this project, you were allowed time to study the spaces before shooting. How much time was allotted to scouting and preproduction versus actual shoot time in each home? When it came down to the shoot days, what were your biggest concerns and how did you overcome them?

MC: I dedicated a lot of time to pre-production and scouting so that I could be well organized before I even walked on set. With the exception of three homes (Los Angeles, Austin and Brooklyn), I had the luxury of doing extensive walk-throughs with Kevin. This gave us time to discuss the important highlights in each home and compose shots, organize our shot list and test lighting.

I carefully prepared all of my movements through each home because I knew how quickly time evaporates on shoot days. Kevin and I needed to walk away with 20 to 25 shots from each location. We were usually given two days by the homeowner but in some instances we were only given one. When limited to one day, I had to really prioritize, be incredibly efficient and make fast decisions to get what we needed. My crew was so important to me and really delivered at each location. In some instances, we had to work alongside other photography crews who were sharing the same spaces chasing the same shots (…that was fun…) Oh, and we often had to completely re-stage rooms — and then put it all back in its original state! It got crazy at times, but I was always calm amidst the chaos and always gave clear direction to my team.

ASMP: You mention that one of the challenges while shooting was leap-frogging with other crews who were after similar shots. What was the purpose of the other pictures? Do you have any tips for approaches or strategies to negotiating timing and access in these types of circumstances?

MC: Once a house project was completed, there were many groups who wanted to capture the home in its final stage: the TV crew, the magazine staff, suppliers who want to showcase their goods, designers, Kevin and me. On top of this, the homeowners were naturally eager to unpack and move into their beautiful new home. So, the window to achieve all the photography needs was never big enough. And as a result, the photography crews were sometimes forced to work alongside one another. The crew I bumped into the most was the This Old House magazine crew. They were great and we accommodated each other really well. But it did require constant communication, patience, diplomacy and a nimble crew.

ASMP: The Best Homes from This Old House comprises ten chapters, giving a comprehensive look at each home with some “before” photos and many photos from completed projects. How are the chapters organized? By type of home? By region? Other factors? Were you involved in the photo editing and/or design of the book?

MC: Although we offered our ideas on what might go where, it was the editor and designer who ultimately determined the order. They were much more experienced at it than Kevin and me.

ASMP: What kind of crew did you work with in terms of assistants, stylists, producers, location scouts, etc? Were any of these people consistent throughout the project or did you engage crew on a day-to-day basis depending on location and availability? Do you have any tips for keeping a crew motivated and working well together?

MC: I used a pool of five assistants whom I already knew to help me. All of these guys were versatile and total pros. Each had solid knowledge of my Nikon gear, my lighting equipment and understood my digital requirements. Because the shoot schedule was spread out and not all were available when my schedule dictated, I found assistants who were interchangeable, who knew one another and could work really well together. On shoot days, I used a small, nimble crew of two assistants and a stylist. As I described, shoot days were very well planned out and there was always one assistant one step ahead of me setting up the next shot with the stylist. Once set, he would return to assist on the digital back-up, and confirm all clear before we moved camera positions. It was pretty fine-tuned.

In my studio, I had one assistant act as the “keeper of all images.” His job was to manage all the files in the library to keep everything central and backed-up. He also handled all of the retouching to provide a consistent look across all finished files. Needless to say, he had a huge role.

Keeping my assistants engaged was key. I involved them throughout each shoot, asked their thoughts and opinions and allowed them to offer lighting solutions. All of them worked really hard, were always one step ahead, and were very committed to me. I asked a lot of them on each project but I took care of them, too. Plenty of meals, good tunes, beers and good pay. But most importantly, they were all great to hang out with.

ASMP: Many of your photographs seem to have a rich color palette, which in turn creates dynamic, bold imagery. How would you characterize your photographs aesthetically? Do you try to keep aesthetic concerns consistent across different subject matters or does this vary?

MC: This is nice to hear. I set out to make simple subject matter — whether it was of a staircase, a kitchen or an exterior shot — striking and engaging. I wanted the reader to want to walk into that room, sit down in that outdoor space, to feel the texture of that door hinge. Rather than shooting in an architectural way — which can be described as cold and sterile — I treated each shot more like I was shooting a portrait of a room (or of a detail). I wanted to pull out the warmth and personality of what was in front of me.

In the book, there are various architectural styles and a different language for each of the ten homes. My challenge was to tie these diverse looks together aesthetically so that the book had one feel to it, a consistent brand if you will, that complemented what Kevin was writing. I think the photography does that pretty well.

For work apart from the book, how I approach aesthetics is really determined by what the client is looking to achieve. I have a style that clients are attracted to and it will naturally come out when I am shooting. But I rely on my style as a basis and jump off from there to make great pictures based on the assignment.

ASMP: You majored in fine art at Holy Cross College, but after graduating you took jobs as a teacher and a presidential campaign staffer, before settling into work in the advertising industry. What kept you from pursuing a creative career? Do you regret not entering the photography industry sooner?

MC: I don’t think I was kept from my creative career, per se. It just took me a little while to declare it fully. I had a very interesting path to photography and have no regrets not getting into it as a career sooner. In fact, the lessons I took from teaching, politics and advertising contributed to shaping my photography and me as a photographer. I was equipped with a creative mind, a sharp business sense and a mature point of view when I started Casey Photography.

ASMP: You spent 12 years on the account side of advertising. What insight or skills do you have as a result that now serve to distinguish you from photographers without such a background? Do any of your current clients include people you worked with in the ad world?

MC: Working on the account side gave me valuable business skills. I learned how to balance the needs of the clients with the desires of the creatives, the smarts of the strategists and the profitability wishes of upper management. I had to know a lot about a lot, collaborate with a diverse team, listen and be patient. All of this has benefitted me with my client relations and building my business.

Additionally, I learned a ton about branding and strategy, which have been central in how I interact with clients, and how I approach my photography and my assignments.

A number of my former colleagues and clients are now Casey Photography clients. These include Titleist, HBO, Bain Capital, Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism, and Harvard University.

ASMP: While in advertising, on the account side of things, you also worked with creatives. What were the common perceptions of creatives at that time? Now that you have become a creative yourself, do you feel these perceptions are founded or unfounded?

MC: Creatives were always highly regarded because they drove the success of advertising campaigns and building brands. They were the focal point of the agency team and everyone worked to support them. There was a lot of pressure for the creatives to deliver. They worked really hard and really long hours. Like within any group, there were some difficult ones but for the most part they were a great bunch and a lot of fun to work with. I still have a lot of great friends on the creative side of advertising. Now that I’m a creative, I experience that pressure to deliver…but I like it.

ASMP: Your time in advertising taught you the importance of establishing a clear brand strategy. How have you applied this knowledge about branding to your own photography business?

MC: I’ve made branding a central part of my business — both in how I’ve shaped Casey Photography and how I interact with clients. At the outset of an assignment, I dig down to learn about a client’s brand positioning and how that translates into what I shoot for that client — the look, the feel, the tone which determines which setting, which models are chosen, how’s it lit. It’s all about connecting with the viewer. My photographs are an extensive of a client’s brand and it is crucial that my work fits into the overall strategy to make for a successful campaign.

ASMP: What prompted you to switch to a photography career? Were your perceptions about a career in commercial photography accurate, or were there surprises along the way that caught you off guard?

MC: It was a life-changing event that really made me sit up and ask, “Am I doing what I want with my life?” I loved my career in advertising and the agency at which I worked, but I realized that life was short and that I had to at least pursue my passion for photography. So at age 36, I truly took a leap of faith with my wife supporting me and my family and friends encouraging me. I knew that making this dramatic change would be daunting — and crazy — but I was confident enough in my photography skills and my relationship skills to feel I’d be successful. I just wondered if I had the business sense to pull it off. And I have.

I love what I do and I love seeing how my work makes other people happy. It’s been a great ride so far, but I have a lot more that I want to accomplish.

ASMP: What was the best piece of advice you were given when you began you career in photography? Who gave it to you and what were the circumstances?

MC: Bill Brett, Boston Globe legend, taught me early in my career how to make people relax in front of the camera. “Before you make a picture, put the camera down,” he told me, “start a conversation and work your subjects so they get comfortable. When you are ready to shoot, they will forget that the camera is even there.”

ASMP: How do you market yourself for assignment work? What is your bread and butter client base?

MC: I market myself through my Web site, my portfolio, client successes and word of mouth. My bread and butter is portrait work, but architecture/interiors is becoming a bigger part of my core business.

ASMP: You offer five portfolios on your Web site: people, places, things, portraits and architecture. Which type of subject matter do you most enjoy making? Which do you find most challenging and why?

MC: I love shooting architecture because it is a very soothing, relaxing process. But portraits are my favorite. I just love the challenge that each session brings. It is a process to make a great portrait and I really enjoy it. I love getting to know my subject, making him or her comfortable quickly and making a beautiful result. And I get a kick when he or she tells me how easy that whole experience was. That’s what I want to hear!

ASMP: From your perspective, what is most essential in maintaining a profitable photography business? What aspect of your business is most lucrative?

MC: Strong relationships with existing clients. Once I land a client, I really take care of them. I really watch the details, I go above and beyond and stay in touch with them. In between shoots, I will share new work and offer ideas for the next time we work together. Commercial work is most lucrative.

ASMP: What are the most important factors you take into account when pricing for various jobs? How do you respond when a client comes back saying your estimate is too high? Do you have any negotiating tips to share?

MC: Assignment, client, budget and opportunity — not necessarily in that order, but I consider all of them when making my decision. I ask a lot of questions to be sure that I fully understand the job before I submit an estimate. Often, clients come back to discuss price. I expect this because it is part of negotiation, but it also means that I’ve done a good job in covering my expenses and didn’t leave money on the table. If they want to work with a lower figure I begin to reshape what I can deliver, maybe less shooting time, fewer final images, or limits on usage. I always remind myself not to give it away.

ASMP: Your Web site is powered by LiveBooks. How long have you worked with this service? Do you find it helpful to be your own Web master and control your own content? Was there much of a learning curve to get your site up and running through this template service?

MC: About four years ago, I attempted to create a custom Web site. I hired a team and designed a beautiful site with them, but then things stalled in the development stage. I soon abandoned that effort and turned to the folks at LiveBooks because they offered a simple turnkey solution. They took the designs I had created and mapped it to some templates they had on hand. And now, I have a beautiful Web site on which I can easily showcase my work in a beautiful and professional way without really having to think about the back-end issues. I have been really impressed by them-very responsive and attentive.

ASMP: What is your favorite aspect of the functionality and services offered by LiveBooks? Is there anything not available through LiveBooks that you’d like to be able to do with your Web site?

MC: LiveBooks has a smart content management system. I love how easily I can make changes to site features and how quickly I can swap out and reorganize images.

ASMP: Your Web site has a download feature for generating printable portfolios of image categories as a PDF. Have you found this to be a beneficial with clients? Have you encountered any situations where your images have been misused or used without permission due to this function? Please explain your thoughts on this matter.

MC: Frankly, I’m not sure how many clients have actually used this feature. I find that most clients with whom I talk have gone to my site, like my work and pick up the phone to have a conversation. I know that there are clients who have used images without permission to save on the cost of a print. When I discover this, I’m pretty disappointed but, honestly, I don’t have the time to chase them down. They know the rules and if they choose to be that way, what can I say? Unless it an egregious misuse, I won’t confront them.

ASMP: Do you pursue personal photography projects? If so, describe a project you recently worked on or that is currently in progress. How do you make the time to pursue personal work while maintaining a business?

MC: Yes, I’m always trying something out on a personal level. These projects allow me try new styles, approaches, lighting techniques. They keep my work fresh.

A recent personal assignment was photographing my 11-year daughter’s etiquette and ballroom dancing class. Too funny. Capturing the interaction between the boys and girls at this age was priceless.

The experience was right out of a movie. My daughter dressed in an unfamiliar outfit — a formal dress, white gloves, fancy shoes. She was dying. And she couldn’t be bothered with the boys. And there they all were, in the classic guy uniform…the blue blazer, tan khakis, white shirt, the patterned tie and the white-man overbite. The whole scene was beautifully awkward and innocent. Everything about it — the whispers, the giggles, the uncomfortable body language of the boys as they ask for the next dance, the thousand-yard stares of the girls as they are locked in position for the fox-trot, very little conversation, counting the seconds until the song ends, the sigh of relief when the music stopped. It made for great photography. And it is a priceless memory of a cute, sweet and innocent time that I know will not be there when I go looking for it again. Great stuff.

ASMP: Have you explored in the past, or do you have an interest to incorporate in the future, motion, video or other hybrid forms of imaging among your business offerings or creative output? Please share your thoughts on the future of visual media in its widest sense as well as the relationships between various components.

MC: With the book behind me, I now have time to explore the many cool things happening in the photography/video/visual space. I think this is an exciting time and we are witnessing a sea change in our industry. I will certainly integrate video in with my still work because it adds an interesting dimension. I see a lot of potential with what is available but I need to be smart with what I pursue and be sure it is useful to my business. Currently, I am talking with a talented film production company about partnering with them. When Kevin and I do our second book, there will be an obvious tie-in to have a video component.