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|| News Item: Posted 2004-12-16

Pushing Pixels: The Reality of The Apprentice
By Reed Hoffmann, Blue Pixel

Photo by Reed Hoffmann

Photo by Reed Hoffmann

The cast of The Apprentice at the beginning of the Crest task.
A strange thing happened to me on the way to shoot Reality TV. I found myself doing documentary photography.

This past year our company, Blue Pixel (, started doing the still photography for some of Mark Burnett's reality television shows. We have a long relationship with Burnett, dating back to 1997 when we started doing the photography for an event he ran called Eco-Challenge. Those were 10-12 day adventure races held once a year in an exotic location. Using much of what he'd learned with Eco-Challenge, Mark created Survivor. That led to other popular Reality shows, and Eco-Challenge has been on hiatus since 2002.

This past spring we were asked to do the still photography for Apprentice 2 (the one airing now) in New York City. Kevin Gilbert, the managing partner for our group, did the bulk of the work, and Larry Levin and I filled in the remainder.

The week I spent covering Apprentice 2 reminded me a lot of Eco-Challenge. The planning and logistics behind running something like this are amazing, So are the number of people involved. Each camera crew alone is made up of at least three people (and there are nearly twenty camera crews), and then there are all the producers and assistants, lighting and audio folks, transportation, catering, etc.

Photo by Reed Hoffmann

Photo by Reed Hoffmann

Wanna-be Apprentices stress out during the show.
The action is nearly continuous, as each episode covers a three-day period and they go straight from one episode to the next without a break. The two competing teams can break into smaller parts, so you may have four different groups you're trying to keep track of, trying to decide where to go when and how to get there. And did I mention that since everything (and I mean everything!) is being filmed and recorded, you have to be constantly aware of where every camera crew is to avoid being in their shot, as well as not make noise. Was it stressful? You bet, and very long days. I was happy to leave after a week.

In August, I headed to LA for ten days to shoot a new Burnett production called "The Contender." This time Kevin Gilbert was again doing the bulk of the coverage, with myself and LA-based freelancer Paul Gero covering the rest.

Contender is a boxing reality program, with Sugar Ray Leonard and Sylvester Stallone heading up the show with the usual challenges and competitions. In this case the boardroom is the ring, where two guys duke it out every three days in a championship fight atmosphere to see who stays and who goes. Now I started having fun. Having done Apprentice, I knew the basic structure of the show, who did what and more importantly, who had the information I'd need to be in the right places at the right times. It was a busy ten days, but I came away with a set of photos I was happy with.

This fall found me back in New York City spending two weeks shooting Apprentice 3 (which will start airing in the next couple of months). Kevin Gilbert again did the bulk of the work, with Paul Gero and myself handling about four weeks of it.

Three days into shooting, I had a sudden realization - despite being a TV Reality show, this was the most pure documentary photography I'd done in fifteen years. Think about it. I had total, complete access to my subjects (the contestants and the production crew), 24-hours a day. I could be with them in the bathroom, take photos of them sleeping, eating, getting dressed, going about their daily tasks. I never had to ask, "would you mind if…" They were instructed to ignore my presence and I wasn't allowed to talk to them. I had no control over lighting or what anyone was doing or where they went. When was the last time you had an assignment that allowed for this? News organizations today are rarely willing to devote the time or resources for documentary work. It's mostly environmental portraits and one-shot jobs. And how many assignments do you find yourself having dinner on the Queen Mary II sailing out of New York (one of the rewards for a winning team during Apprentice 2)?

Photo by Reed Hoffmann

Photo by Reed Hoffmann

Filming Donald Trump behind the scenes on The Apprentice.
Here's what I learned from Reality TV:

• The lighter you can travel, the better. I used a Nikon D100 and D70, as they're light-weight, excellent image quality, very low-noise up to 1600 ISO, long battery life (and they both use the same battery) and fairly quiet. For Contender I added the D2H for fight nights, as 8 frames per second with fast auto-focus made shooting boxing fun.

• Fast lenses are a must. You're always working with available light, and although some scenes are lit for the cameras, they're lit for quality of light, not quantity. You'd be amazed at how little light they need for good TV images. The boardroom is 1600 ISO, 1/80 at f/2.8. My top lenses were the 17-35mm 2.8, 50mm 1.4 (great small, fast (FAST) short tele on a digital), 85mm 1.8, 70-200mm 2.8 VR. The Vibration Reduction was huge, as I was often shooting at 1/30 second.

• Camera sound is not normally a problem, but there are times you can't shoot, and times your shouldn't. What's the difference? You can't shoot when you know the sound would be a problem. And you shouldn't shoot when the Producer or lead audio person is next to you. Even if the shutter sound wouldn't be a problem, once they hear it, it is.

• Get a blimp, for the above situations. I ordered one from Sam Cranston in Daytona (, just for when I'm stuck next to one of those guys.

• Live (or die) by white balance presets. The first two days shooting Apprentice 2 I shot RAW format, since we were constantly on the move to different indoor locations. Imagine shooting for 16 hours, going back to download over 1000 images, then having to go through and set proper white balance for each location, then convert it all to JPEG (what they needed delivered). What a PAIN. It only takes about 10-seconds to set a white balance preset on location, so from then on I shot JPEG Fine and a preset when needed.

Photo by Reed Hoffmann

Photo by Reed Hoffmann

Donald Trump
• Have a solid workflow. Handling tens of thousands of images over a two-month period, with three photographers contributing, is a recipe for disaster unless you have a solid workflow that covers every step of the process, from download to delivery. Photo Mechanic ( was our download/caption/rename/organize workhorse and Extensis Portfolio our cataloging package.

• Backup. Then backup again. Images were downloaded to a pair of mirrored 80GB Firewire drives each day, backed up to a separate, standalone 160GB drive each night, and burned to DVD and shipped out every three days. The quickest way to lose a client is to lose their photos.

And most importantly, documentary photography is where you find it. It may be a story on the last farmer in the county, a family that cares for foster children, a little league season or an annual report. What's important is how you cover the subject, and the photos you make. And who knows? Maybe the client will like that style so much, they hire you again and again. That's what's happened to us.

(Reed Hoffmann is a partner in Blue Pixel, a company specializing in digital photography and workflow issues. Before that he was a newspaper photographer for over 20 years. He normally uses this space to rant about digital issues, and can be reached at

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