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BEST OF 2014, David Fonda
Philadelphia, PA
David Fonda negotiated a personal day from a family vacation to make a whirlwind architectural tour of Los Angeles for a self-assigned shoot. With no time for scouting, he narrowed his selection to a half-dozen buildings, concentrating on only the most interesting aspects of each.

© David Fonda

© David Fonda

“I generally like to take some time before a shoot to walk the site by myself,” Fonda says. “The less clutter in my head, the more present I can be, the better able I am to see the light and lines, the shapes and colors and how they interact, and to find the best angles where all elements fall into place to create a beautiful image. Once I’ve got the angles in mind, I can go back, reengage and make the shoot happen.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

David Fonda: Since 1983.

ASMP: What initially prompted you to join ASMP?

DF: The urging of a fellow photographer.

ASMP: What has made you stay an ASMP member since 1994?

DF: ASMP has provided me with countless educational opportunities to improve myself, both as a photographer and a businessperson. It has enabled me to connect with fellow photographers in the area and from across the country and it has helped me to feel a part of a meaningful and valued profession.

ASMP: What do you consider the most valuable aspect of your ASMP membership?

DF: The connections — to people, to resources and to answers.

ASMP: What is the most important relationship you’ve formed through your ASMP membership?

DF: The relationship to my profession. It’s helped me to develop and maintain a professional attitude about my work in a profession that’s often isolating and cryptic.

ASMP: Which ASMP education/advocacy tools do you find most helpful to your day-to-day business and why?

DF: The monthly chapter meetings. The opportunity for in-depth, personal learning about specific aspects of the profession, whether it be lighting, Photoshop, the business side, or what have you, is unequaled anywhere else.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

DF: Architecture, corporate/industrial and environmental portraiture

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?

DF: My most valuable ‘tool’ would have to be my eye. It’s the one tool that every other tool works in support of. My cameras, my lenses, my computers — any other photographer can use the same equipment I use, and many use better, but they won’t get the same images I get because they don’t have the same eye.

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

DF: I like to take some time before a shoot to walk the site by myself. I try to empty my mind of all of the issues, and problems, and needs of the job and just take it in for what it is. It’s a very internal process. The less ‘clutter’ in my head, the more present I can be, the better able I am to see the light and lines, the shapes and colors and how they interact, and to find the best angles for all of the elements to fall into place and create a beautiful image. Once I’ve got the angles in mind, I can go back, re-engage and deal with what needs to be done to make the shoot happen.

ASMP: How did this architectural “whirlwind tour” come about? Why did you limit yourself to one day?

DF: This was a self-assigned project. We were on vacation, visiting family in Los Angeles and I ‘negotiated’ for a day on my own — one day was as much as I could get! I’d never been to Los Angeles before, at least not with any free time on my hands, but I knew there was some unique architecture and I was determined to shoot some of it.

ASMP: Please describe the overall scope of this shoot and your working methods in terms of preliminary research, organizing the day and shooting each building.

DF: My research was pretty straightforward: Web searches for LA + architecture. I found a dozen or so buildings I wanted to shoot, then looked at a map of Los Angeles to see where each was in relation to the others. I started with a few prime sites that I wanted to be sure I got, then picked a few more that I thought were close enough together that would make for a reasonable day of shooting.

ASMP: You shot these images on what you describe as an unusually dull day in terms of light. How did that affect your plans and the photographs you made?

DF: I hadn’t really considered the weather too much before getting out there; Los Angeles is known for their great weather, right! But it was cloudy the whole time we were there, and it actually rained one day.

I started my day downtown, where there were several buildings I could walk between, including the building that I most wanted to shoot: Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall. It has such beautiful lines and such a complex of shapes. I was afraid that, without the sharp contrast, all of that would be lost. But once I got shooting, I found that the flat light lent the building a softness, a smoothness of transition from plane-to-plane that you don’t usually see in photos of this building. The patina, the staining and aging of the stainless steel panels also came to life without the harsh reflections of a brighter day. My over-all shots of this building were a bust, though; the muted stainless steel blended right into the muted gray sky and made for very blah images.

The sun did come out for a while in the afternoon, which was fortunate: I was shooting the Pacific Design Center, a trio of buildings in red, green and blue which needed the sunlight to make the colors pop. I’d planned my final building of the day, Kanner Architect’s Union Oil Gas Station, for a dusk shot. Dusk was a dud, but I was able to get enough color in the sky after sunset for it to still work.

ASMP: What equipment did you use to photograph this project and why?

DF: I used my primary camera, a Nikon D600. My lenses were an older Nikkor 80-200 f/2.8, which is still a nice lens; Sigma 24-70 f/2.8, which is adequate, as long as you don’t shoot wide open; and a Nikkor 17-35 f/2.8. That’s my basic kit. I didn’t bring any lighting along; there was no time for it.

ASMP: Was there much postproduction work done on these images?

DF: Most of the images didn’t require much post-production work beyond optimizing for color, contrast, and sharpness. I use Photoshop with Camera Raw almost exclusively. And I’ve found that the Perfectly Clear plug-in by Althentech is a really nice shortcut for adding that last bit of polish to a lot of my images.

I did strip in a nice blue sky to a couple wide shots of the Disney Concert Hall, but the building didn’t quite match with that flat light on it. And my wide shot of the United Oil Gas Station is a composite of two images. None of my automated options did a very clean job of it, so it was all by hand — a lot of cloning and cut & paste.

ASMP: Did you require special access to photograph any of the buildings in this project? Did any issues with security or other authorities arise during the shoot?

DF: I didn’t attempt to get permission to shoot on any of these sites. They were either public spaces or I was able to shoot them from public areas. Outside one facility, I was approached by a guard who very kindly asked that I confine my shooting to shots from the public sidewalk. By then, though, I had already spent half-hour inside the building, including a good ten minutes talking with the concierge about the time a guy jumped from a fifth floor balcony. I would never do anything other than self-promotion with those images, though.

ASMP: The buildings you photographed are your personal favorites. What makes them favorites?

DF: The main thing these building have in common is that they’re uncommon. They all have a clean, distinctive design that speaks to their purpose: The Disney Concert Hall is an artistic home for the arts; the bold, primary colors of the Pacific Design Center shouts design; and the futuristic design of the United Oil Gas Station recalls L.A.’s iconic car culture.

ASMP: You speak of having to restrict your time spent in getting a feel for a building. Did you have a scout day to plan the aspects of the buildings you’d shoot?

DF: I had no opportunity for a scouting day. They were pretty much all noted buildings, so I was at least acquainted with them, and I researched them online, but the first time I saw any of them was when I shot them. I like to be able to spend a few hours with a building before I shoot it, depending on the size and scope of a project.

ASMP: How much time were you able to allot for photographing each building on your itinerary?

DF: I spent a couple of hours, give or take, with each of the main buildings I shot. There were a couple of other buildings on my itinerary where I only spent a few minutes and one that I had to skip altogether.

ASMP: What were the most challenging, and the most rewarding, aspects of this shoot? Are you considering doing an architectural “whirlwind tour” in any other cities?

DF: What would normally have been major challenges for a commercial shoot, weren’t. If a shot or an angle wasn’t happening, I just moved on — there was nothing I ‘had’ to get. That said, though, I was determined to get a dusk shot of the United Oil gas station. You take your life in you hands setting up for a shot in the driveway of gas station at rush hour in Los Angeles! That one shot took over an hour and I still got more cars in it than I’d have liked.

I don’t currently have any whirlwind tours planned for other cities, but I was surprised with what I was able to get in a single day from this one, so who knows!

ASMP: Was there anything you discovered from this project that will be advantageous to your assignment work or future projects?

DF: I don’t know that this style of shooting would translate to a commercial shoot, where getting what the client needs is the primary concern. This day was all about me and what pleased my eye. I suppose it may make me more insistent on having a little more ‘me’ time on future shoots though.

ASMP: Please describe how this project has impacted your business. Has the project generated new clients or markets for your work? Has it given you new visibility with existing or past clients?

DF: I haven’t seen any direct results from the work so far, but I expect that it will have an impact. I’ve only been promoting my architectural work for a few months now, and I haven’t used any of it in my marketing yet, but I expect it to be well received when I do.

ASMP: Your architectural Web site notes that you have a background in fine art. What sensibilities or skills from that background that you rely on most often?

DF: I have a bachelor of fine art in photography from Ohio University. The school was very fine-art oriented at that time, and you had to go out of your way to get any commercial skills. Probably the main thing I got from OU was a good foundation in composition, which has been a major aspect of my work ever since. I also learned about the fickleness of art, where packaging, presentation and name recognition trump content.

ASMP: An excerpt from your architectural Web site describes your images as “reveling in the inter-play of light and structure.” In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges a photographer faces when lighting and photographing architecture?

DF: Well, first off, lighting exteriors and lighting exteriors are two very different things. Lighting exteriors during the day consists largely of waiting for the light to change itself! For nighttime exteriors it’s all about volume: lots of light sources with lots of power and lots of people to manage it all. It can be a real production. That’s not really the way I work, though.

The biggest challenge in lighting an interior is to know how to have a light touch. Light defines space, and if you alter the light too much you end up redefining the space. A good architect spends a lot of time considering how the light works in the spaces they’re designing. If you go in and blow a ton of light into a room, you’ve just undone the architect’s or lighting designer’s work. You’ve changed the character of the space, and, usually, you’ve zapped the life out of it. All I try to do is bring up the shadows or knock down the highlights so that the scene falls within the dynamic range of my camera. Occasionally, I’ll throw a little extra light into one area or another to draw attention to it, but even then it’s done with care so it looks natural and not out of place with the rest of the light in the room.

ASMP: Lighting architectural interiors can be particularly challenging, due to variations of color temperatures and the physical confines of the space. How do you approach solving these challenges?

DF: There are a lot of challenges in shooting interiors, and dealing with mixed light sources is actually one of the easier ones to deal with in digital photography. Of course, you start with swapping bulbs and gelling to get it as consistent as you can. After that, it’s multiple exposures, or multiple conversions of the same raw file, and blending the corrected files in Photoshop. Digital has made huge changes in how I approach color balance.

There are many times when using differences in color balance works to your advantage. Everyone expects a table lamp or a chandelier to have a warmer cast to it; it adds some ‘coziness’ to a room. And differences in color balance can be used to define and separate rooms or spaces within a room.

ASMP: From your perspective, what is the most essential element in maintaining a profitable photography business?

DF: For me, the most important part is keeping the expenses down. It’s easy to get carried away, especially with equipment. When you have a downturn in business — and it happens to everybody — high overhead or heavy debt can sink you. There are a lot of photographers that didn’t make it through the ‘great recession’ of the last half-dozen years.

ASMP: What are the most important factors you take into account when estimating 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?

DF: For me, the most important factor in estimating a job is how the image is going to be used. How it’s going to be used dictates the production level needed and also gives some insight into what the budget should be.

When a client comes back saying my estimate is too high, I always try to work with them on it. There’s always something that can be negotiated, such as usage, something that can be adjusted to bring the cost down. I’ll make a judgment up front as to what to charge for a creative fee for each job, and I may knock that down a little if I feel the client is really price sensitive, but I won’t cut my creative fee in negotiations. I’ll negotiate usage, or expenses where I can, but negotiating my creative fee says I don’t value my work.

ASMP: Do you work with a rep, advisor or stock agency to help build awareness, bring in assignments, and license your work?

DF: I’ve used Agency Access for a number of years for their mailing lists. This year I started using their Campaign Manager program. It’s been very helpful to have another perspective on what I’m doing and to have the structure imposed.

ASMP: Have you explored motion, video or any other different forms of imaging among your business offerings or creative output?

DF: I’ve done a little bit of motion work in the past, but only when it came my way; I’ve never gone looking for it. I’ve done enough research and bought enough equipment to shoot motion at a rudimentary level: OSHA case documentation, industrial case histories and talking heads. I’ve learned enough to know how much more I need to learn and I’m not really excited enough by motion to put out the energy that would be needed.

ASMP: What is the most important advice that you’d give a young photographer starting out now?

DF: You have to love the work and you have to be committed to doing it as a profession. It’s an extremely competitive field and can be filled with setbacks and disappointments. You have to be resilient and keep plugging away at it. It’s no way to get rich, but it can be very rich in experiences.