Thursday, May 6, 2010

Other Duties As Assigned: Photography

I'm a web designer by trade. (The technical term is "html code monkey".) In theory, this means that I handle updates and new development for a collection of websites. In practice, it also means that I:
  • help people use image editing software which is 400x more powerful and 600x more expensive than they actually need;
  • troubleshoot problems with e-mail, Microsoft Office, Windows, and a host of other programs that have essentially nothing to do with my job;
  • proofread enough poorly-written text to violate OSHA standards and quite possible some Geneva Conventions as well;
  • ...etc.

All of this is summed up by a single line in my job description: "Other Duties As Assigned." Oh, how I have come to fear those words.

Perhaps the most interesting consequence of Other Duties As Assigned is the fact that I am now, two or three times a year, a professional photographer. Yeah, I know; surprises me too. Especially since, for the rest of the year, I'm barely even an amateur photographer. But I take pictures, and I get paid for it; ergo, professional. Here's how it happened:

My employer puts on a series of regular community events. Included among them are a music festival and several art festivals. The major events have their own websites, which my boss and I are responsible for designing and updating. (Originally, this was more of a team effort; but over the last couple of years, he's had to do more and more programming for some of our applications, so more and more of the updating and designing has fallen to me.)

The problem is that in order to make sites for the festivals, you have to have some material to work with. That means text, and that means images. Text was relatively easy; Special Events was quite happy to get their information online. The problem was images: we didn't have any.

So, shortly before I started working for him, my boss asked for and received permission to take pictures at the events. Six years later on, we're the main source of the photographs that get used for promotional materials, sponsorship packets, web graphics, and anything the festivals need.

The art festivals are relatively easy. One of us drops by the event, wanders around taking pictures, and goes home. That's true of the other events, too - Fourth of July, Winter Holiday, etc. The one big exception is the music festival. It's huge, with two main stages and two minor stages, open-air performances (tumblers, etc.) in the center, shows in the local theater, plus whatever happens to be going on in the children's area... and we need pictures of all of it, along with the food and vendor booths, sponsor signage, any special appearances...

On the one hand, it's a nightmare. We work a full forty-hour week, then put in another thirty-some-odd hours over the weekend, then go back and start another forty-hour work week. Since we spend most of our time working at computers, odds are nearly 100% that someone will end with weekend with a visible case of sunburn. ("What is that bright thing up in the sky!? Make it go awaaaay!!") Oh, and since we're on duty, we can't drink during the festival.

On the other hand, the overtime is really nice, and we get to see some really good performances - parts of them, at least - often from backstage. (Personal favorite so far: Bowling For Soup covered Britney Spears' "Hit Me Baby One More Time". I was laughing so hard I nearly dropped the camera.)

So I generally regard the approach of this particular weekend with an acute mixture of anticipation and dread.

It's particularly acute because right now I'm putting together our schedule. We have, basically, four people to cover everything I just mentioned. As an added bonus, this year we'll be posting updates on Facebook during the festival. So how do you organize something like this?

Well, first of all, you admit that there's no way to cover everything with that number of people. Some acts are just going to get missed. Second, you admit that your photographers are going to have to stop occasionally. People have to eat, and download pictures so they can clear off memory cards. Sitting in the air conditioning for a few minutes also helps you maintain a professional attitude - not to mention your sanity and your basic sense of humanity.

Then you take everything that's happening - every single event at the festival - and you put it in a spreadsheet (or, preferably, a database), sorted by time and location. Starting with Friday afternoon, you go down the page and assign someone to each (important) event, keeping in mind that some events repeat, and taking care not to send anyone hiking back and forth across the festival.

Once you've done that, and looked it over to make sure that you haven't made any obvious mistakes, you hand it off to your partner, who also checks to make sure you haven't made any obvious mistakes. Then, and only then, you go to the next page, and reorganize the data: this time sorting by person and time, and putting in the event and location. This gives you another chance to make sure that everyone has enough time to get to wherever they need to be (and also to eat, download, grab a soda, etc.).

Then, you pass that schedule around, and let your photographers check for obvious mistakes. This also gives them a chance to complain about being assigned to the far side of the festival from that one band that they really wanted to see. If that happens, you can either adjust the schedule or practice your maniacal laughter - whichever seems appropriate.

Assuming that everything is more or less workable, you then wait until two days before the festival. At this point, you will be given the schedule for Meet'n'Greets, when a few select fans will be allowed to meet some of the bands and obtain autographs, take pictures, and possibly set up assignations. Examine the schedule for Meet'n'Greets, and you will immediately see that at least two of your photographers will now have to be in two places at once. Toy with the idea of having them cloned, then dismiss it - there's no money in the budget for that. Tweak the schedule again and hope for the best.

Finally, at this point, take the individual schedule for each photographer and print it off. Laminate it, and add it to the collection of access passes, mini-maps, and other data for the festival. Realize immediately that the handy little lanyard-and-clip will spill the entire collection at the worst possible moment, and find some other way to carry them around. (This part absolutely must be complete before the festival starts.)

Make sure everyone has their camera. Make sure every camera has batteries. Make sure the batteries are charged. Make sure the battery chargers are in the command center. Now check for memory cards. Check to make sure that the laptop has room on the hard drive for a terabyte or so worth of images. Also, check to make sure that the laptop has a working card-reader.

Got all that? Now you're ready. Go forth and take pictures.

Welcome to my world...

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