Breaking In: Digital Tech Shannon Roddy
By Aimee Baldridge
/ Published by MOCJust as the end of the Dark Ages gave rise to the Renaissance man, so a modern polymath arose from the ashes of the film age: the digital tech, a.k.a. the capture tech. Working on set by the glow of a well-calibrated screen, this discreet Leonardo mingles artistry with acumen to immortalize the photographer’s vision in binary code. Shannon Roddy, at 34 a sought-after New York tech, talked to us about how she got her chops, what it takes to make a shoot go smoothly, and where the unpredictable life of a digital tech has taken her.
Photo by Shannon Roddy.
Aimee Baldridge: What is your educational background?
Shannon Roddy: I received a bachelor of science in communications with a minor in photography from Salem State College in Massachusetts in 2001, but I honestly believe my education started after college in terms of what I’m doing now.
AB: Tell us about the course your working life has taken since your student days.
SR: After college, I worked at a start-up company that specialized in large-format output with NUR Macroprinters. That’s what really got me introduced to color management, RIPing files for output, digital workflow basics. In 2003, I attended my first digital capture and workflow workshop, by a company called D-65. It was very Photoshop-specific, but it pretty much set down the foundation of digital workflow from beginning to end, and a lot of prepress and color management knowledge. From there, I worked for a couple years as a photo assistant—that was when we were starting to see digital capture emerge on set. It made more sense to take the knowledge that I had and apply it in that field, versus continuing photo assisting. So in 2006, I decided to focus on digital capture and teching, and I’ve been doing that ever since.
AB: Did you have advisors or mentors who helped you get off the ground? How did they influence the path you took?
SR: I would definitely say that Seth Resnick and Jaime Spritzer from D-65 were a huge component of that. I also met a very talented photographer in that first workshop named Michael Brian who encouraged me to make the move from Boston to New York City. I definitely wouldn’t have made the leap without the three of them pushing me forward. . . . Seth and Jaime always left their door open for me to come in, and I met a lot of my clients through them because the work was specific to a workflow that they knew I was familiar with.
AB: How has being in New York influenced your career? Are you limited to being based in certain locations as a tech?
SR: I tried breaking into the Boston market because that’s where I’m from and I have family there, but it seemed like the amount of work, or the day rate, doesn’t exist there as much as it does in New York.
In Boston the expectations are a little bit different. There are a lot fewer digital techs who are just digital teching. There are a lot of people who are photo assisting and working as digital techs. You have to do one or the other. The expectation for somebody to play two roles on one shoot is totally unreasonable, and I think that the quality of work that they’re doing is sacrificed. I feel that’s well understood in the New York community. It seems like the majority of the digital techs that I know are working in L.A., Miami, or New York.
AB: Who usually hires you?
SR: At first, it was solely photographers. Then, as I built relationships with rental houses, they started adding me to their lists—producers or post-production houses often ask them for references. And now I have quite a few relationships with agencies and magazines as well.
AB: What do you do during a typical day on the job?
SR: Before I even get on set there’s a dialogue with the producer or photographer or anyone who can inform me about what needs to be prepared or what kind of situation we’re going to be shooting in. I can then pull the right equipment and make sure we’re covered for power and any output needs.
On the shoot day, I set up a system, whether it be a tower on a cart or multiple towers on a cart or laptops; calibrate monitors and make sure that everything for color is dialed in; figure out which programs the photographer prefers using; and make sure everything is set up for backup batteries. I usually have a dialogue with the photographer or art director about their expectations of how the shoot is going to flow and whether or not they’re going to be editing between shots or if I’ll be handing off low-res JPEGs at the end of the day. Once I’m set up, the photographer’s assistants will set up their lighting and do some test captures. Then, when everything is ready, we just wait for the client to show up and start shooting.
I’m pretty much stationary at the computer for most of the day. I’m sitting with a client and tagging files as they come through or making sure that we have a connection and that the files are properly exposed. I also make sure that color treatments or corrections are being applied for client review. Depending on the production, there may be one to three techs on set—myself for capture, possibly a second for processing if there are high expectations of turnaround on set, and occasionally a third tech/retoucher who can start marking up things and dropping them into layout.
AB: What is a short or long day for you?
SR: An average day is ten hours. A day rate is generally based on ten. But I’ve had some short days, which are probably about a six-hour day. And then there are days when I’ve worked 18 hours straight.
AB: What do you need to know about preproduction and postproduction work to do a good job on set?
SR: The more information, the better prepared you’re going to be. There’s a lot more dialogue the first time working with a new photographer or producer, and I think that’s important. I generally ask them to cc me on the equipment list, because I can often see what needs they may not have realized or communicated yet. If I see a generator or something specific to being on location, that will prompt me to ask, “Do you need external battery backup? Are you expecting to be tethered the whole time? Are we shooting to card?”
The second thing I get from new photographers is a link to their work so that I can get an idea of their aesthetic. I think it’s comforting on their end to know that I’m taking a look at what their final product looks like, so that I can have that in my head as the production’s happening. . . I can create presets and treatments for the files beforehand; that cuts down post-production and gives the client a better feeling of where the image is going to end up.
With some agencies, I’ll be in direct communication with their post-production house before the shoot happens. It’s important to be on the same page with whoever is going to be taking the files after the job or working on them. Certain retouchers have very specific ways they like to have files delivered. And if the photographer and retouchers use different systems, there’s going to be an issue because the treatments or tweaks that you’ve done are not going to be read by the other program.
AB: Why is it helpful to be acquainted with the photographer's aesthetic?
SR: It’s helpful because sometimes what’s technically correct is not what they’re actually striving for, so if we get that before the shoot, we can know how to prepare the files in a way that’s going to produce the best quality file for where they want to end up artistically or aesthetically.
I can create presets and treatments for the files beforehand, and that cuts down postproduction and also gives the client a better feeling of where it’s going to end up. The closer we can get to where they expect to see it, the happier they will be. If you’re on set and they’re seeing files that are not color corrected, and exposure isn’t totally where they want it to be, it’s not as reassuring as showing them exactly what they’ve already discussed with the photographer. I want the client to see exactly what the photographer wants them to see.
AB: What do you do on an extraordinary work day?
SR: One of the greatest things about my job is the ability to travel. I’ve taken some really amazing trips. I went to South Africa for twelve days for a job a couple years ago. We set up in vineyards and amazing houses and crazy locations, working on set in tandem with a commercial film production, which was really interesting. Another cool experience was the opportunity to travel five weeks on an NBA Finals campaign a couple years ago.
AB: What are the most important qualities and skills for a person to have in your line of work?
SR: Patience would definitely be one. The more set experience you have, the more you realize that each production is its own special entity. Every photographer has a different way of approaching things, and you have to be patient and adjust yourself to their needs.
Attention to detail is important, as well as having the capability of building really strong relationships with everyone you work with. There’s very little time between captures and if something needs to be changed, you need to be able to communicate that as fast as possible.
Keeping up to speed with industry changes and new equipment is important. And it’s absolutely vital to have good relationships with rental houses, producers, and production companies. Rental houses have numerous people out there with their equipment and their systems, and they’re going to hear about problems a lot faster than I would. Having a relationship with them is really helpful because they’re willing to share information.
AB: How can someone learn to be a tech?
SR: Being connected in the community is an important part. Most of my work comes through referrals, whether from a photographer, a producer, or an assistant that I’ve worked with. A good way of building your name might be working with photographers who are testing or just starting out and who are willing to take on somebody new.
A great way to get on-set experience—which I think is vital—is working as a second digital tech, maybe handling the post-processing while the first tech does the capture. You’re there and you can observe, and there’s somebody to field your questions when you have something that you’re unsure of.
Getting in with a post-production house would be really great. If you have some strong retouching skills, you can get your foot in the door with a company that offers digital capture and post, or possibly work in a studio in their digital capture department.
AB: What are the technical skills that somebody needs to have to start working as a tech?
SR: A strong knowledge of all the digital capture programs, especially Phase One Capture One and Adobe Lightroom. You should definitely have an understanding of Photoshop and some basic working knowledge of page-layout programs, like InDesign. You should have a solid understanding of the hardware and how it interacts with the computer systems. You should be comfortable with setting up networks, troubleshooting and basic IT, how to reset a program when things aren’t going right, and how to work on the fly when the system crashes.
AB: Do you have a basic kit that you always bring with you? What's in it?
SR: I always have multiple cables—from FireWire to eSATA to USB—because art directors often show up with just a hard drive and no cables. I also bring a card reader, a ColorChecker, a monitor calibrator, a thumb drive with all my installers in case I have a problem, and my external hard drives in case I have to back something up. That’s the very basic setup, and then depending on what the photographer needs, I’ll build on that.
AB: You can make a living working full time as a tech, right?
SR: It’s totally possible to make a living as a digital tech. I think those who succeed more, financially speaking, are those who own their own equipment. That gives them the opportunity to not only ensure that the equipment they’re using is solid but also make a profit on the rental aspect of the shoot.
AB: Have you taken any big professional risks?
SR: Digital techs, like photographers, own a lot of equipment. I think that financing and keeping up with technology and equipment is crazy, so the biggest risk I’ve taken is probably making that leap and buying the gear that I need to work and do my job professionally. Investing in your own gear requires a pretty extensive line of credit.
AB: What do you dislike about your job?
SR: I have a hard time with saying no to work because I’m freelance, and I think a lot of times my personal life becomes a second priority. That’s probably the hardest part.
I’m fortunate to have some clients that can confirm jobs way in advance, but plenty of times it’s hard to foresee how the rest of the month is going to play out. I get a lot of jobs a day before or a couple days before, which puts me in a position of trying to get the information I need while I’m on set for another job, or possibly cancelling plans that I might have had prior to those jobs coming in.
AB: Why do you do it? What do you enjoy most about your work?
SR: I love photography. I love the unpredictability of each day being totally different, the access to traveling to amazing places and collaborating with really creative people. There’s a part of me that really loves the geeky, techie part of it as well. It’s sort of a challenge. I have a curiosity about how things work and the engineering of things. I’ve always been interested in science and math, and pairing that up with something that has a creative output is really fascinating to me. I love every component of it, whether it’s the computer end or the technicality behind lighting . . . I can’t imagine working in any other industry.
The "Breaking In" series asks successful young professionals in photo-related fields about what it took to get into their line of work, what it's like to make a living doing what they do, and how they made the transition from student days to working life. You can find more "Breaking In" articles and a wealth of other resources for photography students, educators, and emerging pros at MAC-On-Campus.com.
Category:Interviews and Profiles
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