Working without a photo assistant? You will love WiFi-enabled cameras

Why do you need a photo assistant

Let’s start by evaluating what are common reasons for working with a photo assistant?

  • time: your project has to be done within a certain time
  • practical reasons: you need the extra pair of hands (e.g. to hold a reflector/light, adjust the power levels, operate wind machines etc.)
  • mental focus: an assistant can help you focus on the interaction with the model/scene and stay behind the camera
  • project flow: an assistant can help preparing and briefing the people you are shooting, so that they are ready to go, when it’s their turn
  • test subject: test your lighting, composition etc.
  • extra pair of eyes: in case you missed something, e.g. the tag of a shirt is showing

However what if you simply don’t have an assistant? According to the above points, these are some of the possible consequences:

  • time: You have to work faster and will probably not perform on the same quality level
  • practical reasons: you incorporate more light sands and grip, run back and forth and will get exhausted more quickly
  • mental focus: your model will pick up your stress and lack of focus and will feel less confortable
  • project flow: people arrive on the set less prepared and feeling a little uneasy and unprepared
  • test subject: you have to be your own test subject, setting a timed shutter-release on your camera and running to the set within the 10 s delay. Oh and you need to set your focus separately (I used to put an empty box on top of a light stand as a simulation for a head). The running back and forth will tire you.
  • extra pair of eyes: you will miss smaller things, if you are luckily you will be able to fix them in Photoshop, but of course this will cost time.

WiFi-enabled cameras to the rescue

The good news is that the current generation of cameras have a feature that really helps you with a lot of these problems (not all of them though). I use a Canon EOS 6D since about three months and have absolutely fallen in love with the WiFi features. A note for Nikon shooters: Unfortunately I can only an account of my experience with Canon, since I don’t shoot Nikon. If you are experienced with Nikon, please write your experiences in the comments section.

There are in fact  a couple of features packed in the WIFI settings, like uploading to a webservice from camera, transfer images to a wireless printer or DLNA-enabled tv, etc. However there are two killer features that make my live much much easier:

  1. Being able to remotely change camera settings and trigger the camera shutter, all from your iPhone.
  2. Receiving the photo you just took on your iPhone and being able to zoom in and check focus.

This means that during the setting-up phase of the process, I can be the test subject. And since I am right next to the lights, I can easily adjust the power settings, light angles etc. during the test shots. If I notice that more DOF is needed, I can change almost all the camera settings right from my position on the set. I takes about four seconds from an image to appear on my iPhone. That’s about a second longer then the usual tethering setup via USB to a computer, but a lot faster then running back and forth between the camera and the set using a delayed shutter (10 s).

IOS apps that make use of WiFi-enabled cameras

I use two apps:

EOS remote app” (by Canon) for iPhone/iPad. You can download it from the iTunes store for free. As of now, you can install it on an iPad, I won’t however benefit from the greater screen resolution. It will simply enlarge the iPhone app. So there is no real point in using your iPad for that.

“ShutterSnitch” (by 2ndNature) for iPad. Also available for download on the iTunes store for 20$. This app not only can download and display your photos from a WiFi enabled camera, you are also able to rate the images right there on the set together with your client. And you are even able to upload your images to your dropbox or facebook. And many other useful features. I use ShutterSnitch as a tethered solution for the model, so she can check what the photos out of camera look like and I have a means of showing her what I observe from my angle behind the camera.

So do I still need an assistant?

Let’s look at our “pro assistant” list again to evaluate how much the wifi-enabled camera can help you.

  • time: setting up the wifi-connection takes about 30 s. But you will be faster at setting up the lights and adjusting the settings. Still, nothing beats an actual assistant when time is short.
  • practical reasons: this might feel weird, but you don’t actually have to be behind the camera anymore. You can be the one holding the reflector or operating the wind machine while at the same time taking shots with your tethered iPhone. Should you? Not always, sometimes you have to be behind the camera, especially when catching the right moment is absolutely crucial. But sometimes it is very pleasant for the model to have the photographer right by their side, this can give them a sense of “we are doing this together” vs. “I am trying to do my best for that person behind the camera”. It all depends on the situation, choose wisely!
  • mental focus: Still a challenge. Born multi-taskers (aka not me) have a natural advantage here. You can however encourage your model to help you to a certain extend. If I think it helps, I’ll set up a tethered iPad for them, so they can review the photos as I take them and with have a common visual basis to communicate with each other.
  • project flow: You can actually show some of the test shots you just took to the arriving model, so that they know without many words, what you are having in mind. Other than that, if you have to shoot 50 people’s portrait within two hours – you absolutely need someone to do the briefing and checking that everyone gets their turn.
  • test subject: You will love the WiFi-tethering especially in this situation. Granted all your selfies will show you with an iPhone in your hand, but you will complete this phase quicker and more relaxed, since you can stay on the set during the whole setup process. You will be able to zoom in and thereby rely on a much higher quality screen then the one on the back of your camera.
  • extra pair of eyes: again the tethered iPad might help and your model might spot things on herself (or himself) that you didn’t spot. Again, be sure to know the level of self-security of your model as well as her ability to spot helpful things. In the end, it is of course your job and not hers to make sure the final image is perfect!

Setting up the WiFi feature

There are plenty of videos available on the subject. I recommend this one here:

Personally I keep two separate settings in the 6D, one for my iPhone and one for the iPad. You can’t use both devices at the same time though! The 6D can only communicate with one remote device at a time.

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