On Assignment for Soiree // Aaron Reddin & The Van

When Marcus Boyce, one of the talented Art Directors at Soiree, emailed me back in January about photographing Aaron Reddin for a feature profile in their March issue, I almost laughed to myself. Aaron and I are good friends, and he's definitely my closest friend I've ever been asked to photograph for a magazine. I picked up the phone and told Marcus I would be honored to do the shoot. Aaron's work and mission are more than deserving of a feature like this. Hell, he should be on the cover of Time Magazine. 

Aaron is the somewhat infamous director of a local non-profit called The One, Inc., which is often better known by its street name, The Van. The organization exists to serve the needs of the unsheltered homeless community however it sees fit. Aaron always emphasizes the the word unsheltered when he describes his work - which means his focus is primarily on the vast number of homeless men, women, and children who cannot afford the $6 per night beds at the homeless shelter - or the ones who have overstayed their one-week welcome. The unsheltered are the ones who simply haul off into the woods with their few possessions and attempt to brave the elements as best they can.

As Marcus and I continued to talk about the creative direction for the shoot, he suggested a few ideas that would have worked wonderfully with just about any other subject, but with Aaron, all bets are off. He understands the social stigma surrounding homelessness better than most, and he is always careful to portray it accurately. If you don't believe me, just mention the words "cardboard sign" within Aaron's earshot sometime and watch what happens. 

Aaron Reddin, founder and President of The One, Inc., photographed at the organization's headquarters in North Little Rock, Arkansas. January 2014. Photo credit: Jacob Slaton

Aaron Reddin, founder and President of The One, Inc., photographed at the organization's headquarters in North Little Rock, Arkansas. January 2014. Photo credit: Jacob Slaton

We agreed to simply show up at the headquarters of The One, Inc. on the scheduled date and come up with a few ideas on the fly. I assured Marcus that we would have plenty of interesting options to work with once we arrived.

For our first shot (above), we set up in the main warehouse where thousands of articles of donated clothing hang on wooden racks waiting to be given away to anyone in need. For the main light, I used my large octabank overhead with a grid to keep the light from spilling onto the background, while my assistant Michael hand-held a small speedlight behind Aaron's left shoulder and just out of frame to camera right to act as a hair light. I also placed another small speedlight on the floor directly behind Aaron to give a little more depth to the background and to better show the vast size of the warehouse. We shot for about 30 minutes with this setup and tried several different variations, but this shot was the clear winner. 

After the warehouse shot we decided to go outside to set up another shot using the giant wood pile out back as a backdrop. One of Aaron's main goals during winter months is to keep homeless camps well stocked with firewood, and we thought the shot would work well for the story. We carried the big octabank outside with a power pack and I asked Aaron to stand on the logs for a few quick shots. It was incredibly cold outside - possibly my coldest outdoor shoot ever - and I didn't see the need to spend a long time setting up multiple lights. Sometimes the shot just looks cool without much effort. We positioned the octabank high at camera right, as close to Aaron's face as possible without being in the frame, and I took off the grid to give the light a more natural fall-off at its edges. I crouched down low to give the shot a little more "superhero" feel. 

Aaron Reddin, founder and President of The One, Inc., photographed at the organization's headquarters in North Little Rock, Arkansas. January 2014. Photo credit: Jacob Slaton

Aaron Reddin, founder and President of The One, Inc., photographed at the organization's headquarters in North Little Rock, Arkansas. January 2014. Photo credit: Jacob Slaton

My main goal with the lighting in this shot was simply to look like we didn't use any obvious lighting at all. I allowed the sunlight to peek out behind the trees to give the illusion that the main light was coming from the sun itself, which in this case, was only really lighting the back of Aaron's head. I also warmed up the octabank light in post to enhance the sunlight tone for the finished image, which they ended up using (slightly cropped) for the final magazine spread below:

Screen Shot 2014-03-03 at 9.26.45 AM.png

After the wood pile shot, I asked Aaron if we could get a few shots of him holding one of the organizations 50+ chickens, and although we were nearly frozen solid in the cold, he graciously agreed. We ducked into the chicken coop for a few minutes to get warm, and I snapped a few shots in there with just natural light (gasp!). Here's my favorite:

Aaron Reddin, founder and President of The One, Inc., photographed at the organization's headquarters in North Little Rock, Arkansas. January 2014. Photo credit: Jacob Slaton

Aaron Reddin, founder and President of The One, Inc., photographed at the organization's headquarters in North Little Rock, Arkansas. January 2014. Photo credit: Jacob Slaton

As soon as Aaron got his hands on a chicken, I could see him soften up a bit and show his tender side, and I really wanted to capture that for the story, so we went back to the wood pile to shoot a few more frames with the same setup as before. I love the way this shot turned out. I think it shows the truest picture of who Aaron really is deep down: Tender, loving, sensitive, and endlessly searching the horizon for anyone in need.

Aaron Reddin, founder and President of The One, Inc., photographed at the organization's headquarters in North Little Rock, Arkansas. January 2014. Photo credit: Jacob Slaton

Aaron Reddin, founder and President of The One, Inc., photographed at the organization's headquarters in North Little Rock, Arkansas. January 2014. Photo credit: Jacob Slaton

As always, thanks to Soiree for bringing me in for another shoot - it's always a pleasure working with you guys. Special thanks to my trusty assistant Mikey Mike "Mailman" Hall for freezing your hands off for this shoot, and for not punching me when I remembered I had gloves in my car the whole time, which I forgot to tell you about. And double big thanks to Aaron Reddin, who offered up a grand total of two wardrobe options for himself, which consisted of:

  1. A yellow hoodie
  2. A brown hoodie

We went with brown, mostly because he was already wearing it when we arrived. I love you dude. You're ridiculous. Keep up the good work. Let's go play pool again soon.

To read the full article featuring Aaron, click here. To learn more about The One, Inc. and to find how YOU can help support their work with our unsheltered homeless neighbors, click here. You should also keep up with Aaron on twitter, if you're into that kind of thing.

On Assignment for Popular Science Magazine // Dave Lange

Back in November I got a call from the fine folks at Popular Science Magazine to head over to the FedEx headquarters in Memphis to shoot some portraits of a guy named Dave Lange for their February issue.

The shot was for their Q&A page, and my contact at the magazine explained that he wanted a very particular shot of Dave for the issue - a close up portrait with the lighting rig I built for my Man + Wife series. It's always nice to get a job based entirely on work I've done in the past - in fact - nothing could be more flattering. I told them I would be more than happy to deliver the image for their magazine, but in the back of my head I was planning something completely different. 

On the day of the shoot I packed up the custom light rig, along with the rest of my mobile studio and drove east toward Memphis. I knew I could get the shot they were asking for without much trouble, so my plan was to shoot that photo last. I always like to get the safety shot last. It adds extra pressure to the risky shot if you do it first, knowing you better nail it because it might be all you've got work with. I spent the entire drive brainstorming ideas for the shot, and once I arrived I had a decent plan in place. 

Dave's job at FedEx is to ship literally anything anywhere. He is the guy you talk to if you need to charter an entire cargo jet to ship, say, six live elephants from a zoo in Canada to a zoo in the US, or send a tank from Virginia to the Middle East - so I wanted to incorporate this crazy concept of logistics into the shot, but also to show Dave calmly handing it like the pro that he is. When I arrived at the FedEx headquarters and saw Dave's office, I was immediately drawn to the giant map above his desk. The final shot from the first setup is below:

Dave Lange in his office at FedEx headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee for Popular Science Magazine. December 2013. Photo credit: Jacob Slaton

Dave Lange in his office at FedEx headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee for Popular Science Magazine. December 2013. Photo credit: Jacob Slaton

To light the shot, I set up the big octabank to camera left, originally with a grid, but ended up getting rid of the grid because I wanted more light to spill onto the map behind Dave. I toyed around with a few different fill light options (ring flash, shoot-through umbrella, on-camera strobe) but in the end I went with the old standby - a 5-in-1 reflector on the white side off to camera right. It's always the simplest things that work best. 

At the beginning of the shoot Dave was pretty well frozen solid, but he quickly loosened up and settled into the rhythm once we started chatting about our kids. He did a great job taking direction, but he still looked a little stiff and oddly placed on the desk all by himself, so I handed him a coffee mug. It's amazing how much people relax during a shoot when you give them something familiar to hold onto. 

I asked him to tell me about one of his his most complicated shipments of all time and his face slowly settled into the pose you see above. He told me about a time when he shipped several adult whales to a zoo somewhere and how complicated it was to keep them wet and comfortable during travel. He explained how they had to custom build a watertight container for each whale with a hammock for them to lie on for the duration of the flight. He looked upon these things with a sense of obvious satisfaction that everything went smoothly, and that's the look I think I captured for the photo. I also love how the map provides an appropriate backdrop to the image.

The thing I love most about this photo - the thing that I think makes it work for Popular Science, is the even tonal range across the image. Popular Science isn't a magazine where I would expect to see a lot of high-drama portraits and that's why I went with this more even style. There's hardly any pure black or pure white in the photo, which is a style I seem to be working with a lot more lately. It's not the kind of lighting you typically see in the real world, but it's sort of hard to say why not - that's when you know you've got it right. 

After the first shot, I still had to get my safety shot - the shot that the art director originally asked for - so I broke down the big lights and set up my custom rig in Dave's office. Basically, the light is really just two parallel fluorescent tubes mounted to each other about 6 inches apart - the same kind of lights you would expect to see in any office building in America. I bolted this contraption onto an old tripod for extra stability and wired in a regular three prong electrical plug that goes into a standard wall outlet. The lights stand straight up in the air and I have my subject stand just inches from them and I stick my camera in between the two lights and shoot away. 

The general idea with this shot is to get a raw, up-close, true-to-life photo of the subject with every detail in sharp focus (except the nose and ears). Sometimes these shots work, and sometimes they don't. It really depends on the subject. Here's the image of Dave that I sent in along with a few variations of the first shot:

Dave Lange in his office at FedEx headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee for Popular Science Magazine. December 2013. Photo credit: Jacob Slaton

Dave Lange in his office at FedEx headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee for Popular Science Magazine. December 2013. Photo credit: Jacob Slaton

It's a cool shot, I think, but Dave doesn't look particularly great here, which is the only real problem with this light setup - what you see is what you get. There's no hiding anything with this light. I wasn't a big fan of the white on white shirts dave is wearing here either - prison jumpsuits come to mind for some reason. Maybe if Dave ever gets convicted of murder I'll have a good reason to use this shot, but for now I think I'll let it let it marinate on the external hard drives for a while. Anyway, you get a sense of what the light does here. Some people really like the cat-eye catch lights in the eyes, some don't. I think they make the portrait really striking. 

After I sent in the proofs, I got a call from the art director saying he loved the first shots with the map and the coffee mug, which is what they ended up running in the magazine. It's always fun to walk into a bookstore and buy a magazine off the rack with one of my photos in it. Here's the final layout they used for the February isse:


Big thanks to the folks at Popular Science and FedEx for being so easy to work with! Always a pleasure, guys! Hope to hear from you again soon!

On Assignment for The New York Times // Acxiom CEO Scott Howe

Acxiom CEO Scott Howe / Jacob Slaton for the New York Times

Acxiom CEO Scott Howe / Jacob Slaton for the New York Times

I shoot for the New York Times fairly regularly, and I always take every assignment from them very seriously, regardless of the particular section of the newspaper I'm shooting for, but when Jose Lopez calls, I know I have to be on my A-game. Jose is the photo editor for the business desk in New York, and he knows the difference between good photography, bad photography, and just downright lazy photography. I found that out the hard way. 

The first time I shot for the business section back in April of 2011, Jose called with an assignment on unemployment featuring two couples from here in Arkansas. He told me to spend some time with the assignment and really get to know the couples being featured. For this story, I spent two full days shooting (one day with each couple) and I got tons of photographs that I thought were fantastic. The following day I sat down at the computer and got going on the edit. At that point I wasn't sure how many photos the Times wanted to see, and I figured they would rather see more than less, so I sent in around 100 shots for them to review. Within minutes of sending the files, I got an email from Jose that said:

"Thats's a lot of pictures that you sent me and we need to talk. The most important thing I can convey to you is that ALL of your photos look washed out to us.  DO NOT RESEND ANYTHING until we have had a chance to talk."

Holy shit. That's pretty much the worst possible email you can receive from a client, and when your client is the New York Times, you just want to throw your camera in the trash and get a job at Starbucks after that. My heart stops a little even now reading that email over two years later. 

Jose and I talked and he had a pretty scathing review of my work on the assignment. He wasn't being rude, he was just doing his job. He's a photo editor for the New York Times. Not an easy conversation. I realized pretty quickly in the conversation that I had two options: I could get pissed and tell him to go to hell, or I could suck up my ego, learn something new, and hopefully not lose a good client. After the call he sent me another email with one of my photos that he had edited himself to show me what he was looking for. Seeing the photographs from his perspective was incredibly helpful and I've used his advice on every job I've shot since. I re-approached the gallery and sent back around 20 newly edited images and prayed that he would be happier with my second try. Once the files had finished uploading I got another email from Jose:

"Jacob. This is excellent. Difference of night and day. Your images have contrast and they leap off the monitor. Well done. Thank you for taking the direction that I offered. I will keep you in mind for future assignments in that area. Remember, the way one becomes a master is by doing. Get out and shoot everyday with every lens in your bag. Know what you can and what you can't do with your digital camera. Never be afraid to push the envelope by shooting available light. The image might be grainy and a little underexposed, but if its “the moment,” then you have done your job."

Wow. That's exactly what I needed to hear. Such great encouragement from a guy that I truly respect in the industry. So glad he didn't throw me out and find someone else to fix my mistake. Here's the unemployment story that ran in April of 2011

So when Jose called last week with an assignment to photograph Acxiom CEO Scott Howe here in Little Rock, I knew I had to crush it. He asked for several photos of Scott demonstrating this new software they've developed and a few extra portraits to supplement the story. He told me to "have fun with it" which is both terrifyingly ambiguous and yet completely exhilarating at the same time. I knew I would have only 30 minutes with the CEO, so I started coming up with a mental shot list before I even arrived for the shoot. 

When I arrived at the Acxiom building, Mr. Howe was in the middle of giving the writer, Natasha Singer, a tour of the Executive Briefing Center on the top floor of the building, which looks over downtown Little Rock. I tagged along for the start of the tour and found a good spot to get a simple portrait of Scott on the balcony (he asked me to call him Scott). I quickly set up a light and snapped a few frames. The shots below were lit with a 22 inch beauty dish off to camera left.

Acxiom CEO Scott Howe / Jacob Slaton for the New York Times

Acxiom CEO Scott Howe / Jacob Slaton for the New York Times

Acxiom CEO Scott Howe / Jacob Slaton for the New York Times

Acxiom CEO Scott Howe / Jacob Slaton for the New York Times

I knew these shots weren't going to be anything truly special, but I was happy with the light balance and the sky and city in the background. Scott was super nice and easy to talk to, which makes everything so much easier. There's nothing worse than photographing a subject that doesn't want to be photographed. 

Next, we went inside the conference room and Scott began demonstrating the software, which was the whole point of the story. Acxiom collects extensive data on pretty much every single adult in the United States, and they are releasing this new software that allows consumers to see literally everything Acxiom has on them, so the general theme of the story was "transparency" - I knew I had to get a creative shot illustrating transparency, and I had a few ideas of how to pull it off. But first, I had to knock out the software demo. 

The conference room had a big flatscreen television displaying how the software works, and I asked Scott to stand right in front of it for a few photos. I lit these shots with a shoot-through umbrella close to Scott and off to camera right. The conference room table was huge and I couldn't get the light right where I wanted it, but I think it worked in the end.

Acxiom CEO Scott Howe / Jacob Slaton for the New York Times

Acxiom CEO Scott Howe / Jacob Slaton for the New York Times

Acxiom CEO Scott Howe / Jacob Slaton for the New York Times

Acxiom CEO Scott Howe / Jacob Slaton for the New York Times

The data on the screen was Scott Howe's personal data file, which hinted at the concept of transparency, but I still didn't feel like I had what I needed. By the time he was done with the software demo, we were well over our 30 minute shoot time, so I knew I was running out of time to get something really cool. Scott was making small talk with the writer and I was trying to figure out a way to drag him into just one more shot. I quickly moved my shoot-through umbrella over by the big conference room windows and asked Scott if I could have just a few more minutes of his time. He graciously obliged and I asked him to stand at the window looking out. 

I set the light on half power, moved it close to him on the right side, and stepped outside to shoot through the window from the balcony. I knew I had to overpower the sun which would be hitting him right in the face that close to the window, and I needed to draw some detail out of the clouds in the reflected background, so I stopped down to something like f/11 which worked well with my light power. I was hoping I would end up with a strange reflection on the glass where I could see both the sky and the interior of the conference room with Scott standing well-lit but slightly mysterious in the center of the frame. I snapped a few images and the composition looked great but I wasn't loving his pose. I wanted more "CEO" from him. I motioned to him through the glass to step right up to the window frame and put his hands on the sill. Three of four frames later I knew I had the image I was going for.

The Great and Powerful Oz comes out from behind the curtain to reveal that he's just as scary in real life. This guy knows everything about you. Perched high above the city with an army of worker bees in the building plugging away at their desks combing the internet for anything and everything they can find out about you. I love the dark tones and the expression on his face in this image. I love the combination of the clouds and the conference room ceiling. I love the clarity in his hands and his face and I love how his shoulders evaporate into the sky. It makes him seem slightly ethereal, or even omni-present, which if you think about it, he kinda is. 

Acxiom CEO Scott Howe / Jacob Slaton for the New York Times

Acxiom CEO Scott Howe / Jacob Slaton for the New York Times

The funny thing is that Scott Howe is about as down to Earth as they come. He's just a regular guy who cracks jokes and laughs a lot. He also happens to run one of the biggest data mining companies in the world. He was a gracious host and when I was packing up to leave he offered to help carry some gear for me, to which I politely said no, and to which he happily said "Oh, come on" and grabbed a bag and walked it out to the truck with me. Nice guy. 

A day or so later when I sent the images in to Jose, I was anxiously driving around town waiting to hear back from him when I got a call. I'll probably never get used to seeing "New York Times"  pop up on my caller ID. It was Jose. He started off by saying "Jacob, I'm embarrassed to say..."

"...that I love the pictures you sent in. They are exactly what I was looking for. Great job. I'm embarrassed though because in my excitement, I accidentally deleted all of them. Can you resend?"

Man. What a way to start a call. My heart just about jumped out of my chest and hit the ceiling. I was so glad to hear that he was happy with my work and when the story ran I was even more thrilled to see that they had published my favorite shot from the series - the one with Scott looking out the window at me. Read the full story here

Funny side note: If you look closely at the window shot, you can actually see me in the reflection too - I'm wearing a green plaid shirt. So in a way, this is also the story of how I snuck a picture of myself into the New York Times.  

You never know what you can get away with until you try :)


Soiree August 2013 Cover Story // Behind The Shoot


So that's the cover image, but first, a little backstory:

I was in Denver on a three day shoot in June and had to catch a flight back to Little Rock late in the afternoon on a Thursday to do the Soiree shoot early Friday morning. My flight was set to leave Denver at 3:45pm and by the time I got to the airport and found my gate shortly before 3:00, the flight was delayed. And again. And then again. 

By the time the delays stopped hitting the screen, the flight was behind over four hours. I had to go through Dallas first, and the last flight to Little Rock out of Dallas that night would be leaving only 20 minutes after I landed there. I called my contact at Soiree and told him he might need to go ahead and set up a backup photographer, but that I would do my best to get there in time for the shoot. 

When the wheels touched down in Dallas I was out of my seat and ready to run. My arrival gate was pretty much as far as possible from where I needed to be and I knew I had a couple of train rides to get around to the other terminal before they shut the plane door. I bolted off the flight and sprinted around to the train and caught my breath as it hunkered along the tracks. When the train doors opened I blasted out and ran past at least twelve gates before I landed at the one I was looking for and my heart sank. The gate was deserted and the screen informed me that my departure gate had been changed to two gates down from the one I had just left. I had under six minutes to get back to where I started. Unbelievable. 

After another soul-crushingly slow train ride back to my original terminal, I sprinted back down to gate B23 and slipped into line as the last person to board the flight. I handed my boarding pass to the gate attendant and laughed as I slouched toward the plane. I dropped into my seat, texted the folks at Soiree, and shut my eyes. It was almost midnight. 

The next morning I woke up at home and packed up my gear and headed downtown to the studio. The theme for the shoot was "Sixty-five Roses," a common monicker for Cystic Fibrosis. The story profiles Aven Emery, a six-year-old girl living with Cystic Fibrosis, and Mackenzie Horrell, co-chair of "Taste of the Finest", an event that raises awareness for the disease. Our first shot of the day was with Aven, a really cool kid who was super excited about getting her hair and makeup done by a pro. 

My setup for the first shot was on a simple white seamless, which is a great easy way to start the day. I set up a single shoot-through umbrella to camera right and that was that. Aven came in holding a bouquet of roses with more in her hair. She was pretty nervous at first at first with a room full of people staring at her and a camera in her face, so I used a trick that always works with kids. We screamed. All together. On the count of three. Her mom even joined in. Kids love screaming, especially inside. A few people poked their heads in from the hallway to make sure everyone was cool and after that Aven was having fun. We shot several frames and when I felt like I had what I needed I asked her to bring the roses up to cover her mouth. I snapped one more shot and it ended up on the cover. Here it is again.



After that we brought in Aven's breathing machine to get a few shots showing what she has to deal with one a regular basis with Cystic Fibrosis. We kept the light setup roughly the same but I raised the umbrella up several feet to bring down the shadows and add a little more emotion to the shot. We originally had the machine off to the side but I thought it worked better under her feet where the hoses catch your eye throwing off the symmetry of the shot. What a cool kid. 


While we were wrapping up with Aven the stylists were working on getting Mackenzie ready for her shoot. I ducked into the green room to see how things were coming and to start planning out my lighting. Our awesome makeup artist Dustye was finishing up and I snapped this shot with my iPhone. 



I was super excited about this next shot. After talking with the Art Director, Dean, we came up with some cool ideas for a wild portrait on a red backdrop. I set up the red seamless and put a strobe with a reflector about 12 inches away from the paper and popped a few test shots and liked the sunburst style we got from it. Then I set up a beauty dish high and to the right to give Mackenzie some definition in her cheek bones. After a few test shots with an assistant standing in the shadows were looking too dark so I added a six foot softbox directly behind the camera for a soft, even fill. Mackenzie came in ready to get to work and we knocked out a great set of portraits. The one that made the magazine was definitely my favorite from the series. It worked great as the story opener.

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After the portrait we had about five dozen more roses that hadn't been used yet so we decided to see how many of them we could fit into one shot. I ditched the beauty dish and moved the softbox in super close and right above my camera. There was no easy way to get all the roses in the shot with the hands we had on deck, so we grabbed a few people from the hallway and recruited them to stand in as voice-actived vases. Mackenzie had a great time with this shot and she did a fantastic job giving me a solid strong expression. This shot ended up on the table of contents page.

Screen Shot 2013-08-01 at 10.39.40 AM.jpg

Once we had the shot I stepped back and grabbed a little behind-the-scenes shot with the extra hands on flowers. Nice job everyone :)


The shoot was an absolute blast and I think we ended up with some really great photographs. It's always a pleasure to work with the folks at Soiree and I'm never disappointed to find out my shot ended up on the cover. Thanks again to Dean and Amanda at Soiree, to Aven and Mackenzie for doing a fantastic job in front of the camera, and to our wonderful stylists Carrie Parsons and Dustye Helms for making our subjects look and feel fabulous. Well done team!

To read the full story, check out the digital edition here or pickup a copy pretty much anywhere you can find people in central Arkansas. You can also read a quick blog post of the story here