ECR had the opportunity to interview Philadelphia photographer Colin Lenton, who's portrait and photojournalism work has yielded steady clientele and critical praise. Colin gave us great answers to questions ranging from the nature of finding one's life/work balance; to the techniques involved to create fantastic natural-looking portraits.
ECR: Portraiture comprises a significant portion of your body of work; what led you to develop this particular aspect of your craft to the degree that you have? Was this a consideration for you when seeking out studio space?
Colin: My initial interest in photography began with documentary photography, and I intended to pursue a career as a newspaper photographer. It was while I was studying documentary, and doing internships at newspapers, I realized that I had a strong interest in meeting the people that I was photographing. Because of the staged nature of portraits, this style of photography sometimes felt at odds with what I needed to do at the paper.
Never the less, there will always be a need for portraits in news publications and of course I had to shoot my fair share of them. As I continued to work, my passion for doing portraits sub-consciously resulted in them being my best work, and in turn I started to get hired by magazines to shoot environmental portraits while I was still an undergraduate at Temple University in Philly.
By the time I was ready to graduate from school, I had a small but growing freelance base comprised of a few trade magazines and newspapers and I decided that then was as good a time as any to give running my own business a shot.
My portraiture didn't really factor into my decision to get studio space much because most of my work is location based. Even today, with my studio, 95% of my work is on location, and 90% of that isn't even in Pennsylvania, let alone Philadelphia. I spend a decent amount of time on the road.
ECR: As a freelancer, how has having your own studio space available to you impacted your work habits? Do you find that you use your studio as "home-base" for your projects which take place elsewhere?
Colin: Having my studio space has made me much more productive. When I started my business in college, I shared a big house with some college buddies and I rented the entire top floor. I had my own office in the house which was nice, but after college I downsized to save some money and I rented a room that was honestly, only about 45-55 sq ft.
In that tiny room I slept, watched television, and worked way more hours than anyone ever should. I did eventually move into a larger house where I had an office again, but this time I was truly sick of living and working in the same place. I'm not a home body, so I tend to get cabin fever really quickly.
My studio partner and I signed the lease on our studio almost two years ago after an instant message conversation took place, in which one of us ( I won't say whom) was still in our pajamas at 7pm - from the day before. We realized that we would be much more productive if we had an office space that was separate from our homes. An added bonus is that we now have a better work life balance. I think our friends and family appreciate that.
ECR: Your "NOLA" series focuses on children in public schools in New Orleans. Being a resident of Philadelphia, how did you find the conditions in public schools in New Orleans compared to your hometown? How did the environment influence your shoot?
Colin: I love the NOLA series ! Those are photos that I've shot for this wonderful organization called Rethink (Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools), Rethink is one of my first, and best clients. I've been shooting for them each summer since I was in school. I'll be honest, I wish that I knew more about Philadelphia's school system, but I did not move to this city until I was college aged and at present I don't have any close friends with children who are school aged yet here.
From an outsiders perspective, my guess is that they face similar challenges in that both are urban schools facing very real budget problems - but I really couldn't speak to anything specific.
The goal of the Rethinkers is to get the REAL experts on what the schools are like - the students - to address their experiences and their ideas for reform. So far I've watched some of the brightest middle schoolers and high schoolers tackle everything from bathrooms, to cafeteria conditions, to discipline issues. Pretty heavy hitting stuff for 7th graders.
I was concerned with two things when I was that age - mountain bikes, and making out with girls; so these kids really impress me. It's also worth noting that they get together during their summer months, when most kids are fooling around playing video games and hanging out at a pool somewhere.
ECR: Outside of your photography business, you also teach journalism at Temple University. How much is your photographic practice informed by journalism, and vice versa with regard to your teaching?
Colin: I'd say that my photographic practice is most influenced by journalism in my reluctance to photoshop things in order to conceal reality. I'm certainly not anti-photoshop, and I retouch many of my photos (some of them considerably). I just don't like it to be over done. For example, I don't mind photoshopping out a pimple or temporary blemishes, but I would hesitate to remove beauty marks , or freckles and I don't enjoy having to photoshop people to appear thinner.
I think that there is a beauty in reality and overly plastic looking people don't look real to me. I also tend to prefer real "moments" over staged ones, and prefer shooting actual people as opposed to models. My teaching is informed in large part by my experience as a freelance business owner. I think many of the students could be entrepreneurial journalists going forward, and I try to instill a certain business skill set in them in every class.
ECR: Whether documentary, portrait or editorial, people comprise the bulk of your subject matter. When working with your subjects, how do you encourage a natural, relaxed reaction while taking someone's photograph?
Colin: A HUGE part of getting great photos is having your subjects relax in front of the camera. Not coincidentally, creating a comforting and relaxing shooting environment is also a huge key to getting hired again and again. Even though I do a lot of corporate work, and our shoots take place during the workday, often at or near our subject's workplace, I try to make it feel as if the photoshoot is an escape from the office.
I tell my clients that a scheduling a shoot with me should feel like scheduling a day of hooky. At the end of a shoot, if the subject and client don't want to go grab dinner or a beer with me - I've done something wrong.
ECR: Much of your location photography has the appearance of being shot with available light; is this in fact the case, or do you achieve this natural look by artificial means?
Colin: We almost never shoot only available light on location. I'm glad that you think they are though, because I don't want my lighting to be obvious. Normally we try very carefully to balance our light with the ambient light on location. We use the light to add shape and character to the images without being distracting.
A photo director that I interned under, Mark Pynes at the Harrisburg Patriot-News, told me once that the difference between a professional photographer using flash, and an amateur photographer, was that when the pro uses the flash, you can't necessarily tell from just looking at the image.
He told me this because I was under the impression that all of my favorite photographers were never using flash, and he told me - correctly - that this wasn't the case. He encouraged me to get my first off camera strobe, and it is because of him that I began teaching myself lighting. I've included a behind the scenes grab [above] from a recent shoot in Ft. Collins, CO so that you can see a typical lighting setup for a remote location shoot. In this shot, you can see we have two lights. We used the larger "soft lighter" umbrella as a key light, and used the ring flash (held by my smiling assistant) non traditionally off camera as fill.
Both are alien bees and are powered by portable lithium batteries. So , basically a typical setup for me includes a key light and a fill light. The fill light is normally 1-2 stops under our key, and our key light is normally 2 stops above ambient.
ECR: Where does post-production factor into your workflow? How much time do you spend editing your shoots after you've taken the photos?
Colin: Our post production workflow is fairly simple. On site we either shoot tethered directly onto a laptop and an external drive, or we back the cards up as we go along. We don't leave set until we have at least 3 copies of the image. Generally the cards that we shot on, and two hard drives.
Once we get back into the studio, we import all of the photos into our Lightroom library, which we have organized by year and date. Files and folders are named with a 4 digit number that corresponds to the month and year, and a short word that identifies the subject matter. Just for example a photo shot today for land rover would be organized into a folder and given a filename of 0612rover.
I go through the images and make my first edit of selects and prepare a web gallery using an online proofing tool to share with the client. While choosing my selects, I normally check for focus and edit out any blinks or obviously horrible photos, and then do some minor levels adjustments all in Lightroom.
Once the client has made their selections, I send the photos off to my retoucher and studio partner, Nell Hoving. Nell does the final edits and any extensive photoshopping and prepares the files for final delivery.
Retouching needs really depend on the client, but my general preference is "less is more."