Why Tethering Is an Essential Part of Commercial Photography

Why Tethering Is an Essential Part of Commercial Photography

While I was initially slow to adopt the notion of being literally tied to an external machine while I went full throttle through my photo shoots, I’ve found the process not only beneficial, but absolutely essential.

I’ll admit I was a bit intimidated at first. When I first started taking pictures over a decade ago, like most, it was a bit, shall we say, willy-nilly. Like all beginners, it was a lot of trial and error. Perhaps more of the latter. As my skills progressed, that ratio began to flip until the hits surpassed the misses. Eventually you get to the point where you know the shot is going to be good (in technical terms, at least, artistic merit is something entirely different), but what you really want is that single shot that is truly special. Either way, it’s a process. And that can make the idea of tethering a bit scary.

For those who don’t know. Tethering simply means having your camera connected to a computer while you are shooting so that the images from your camera are instantly viewable for everyone on set. The main reason for doing this is to give you a better representation of the final image you just took as opposed to constantly trying to suss out detail from the tiny LCD that clings to the back of your DSLR. Perhaps more importantly, it gives the client a better vantage point from which to access the results. And, seeing as though they are the ones paying for this little session, that’s kind of a big deal.

But, let me repeat, it’s also kind of a big deal. No longer will your misses be a secret. The client’s eyes will be glued to that monitor and be able to see your mistakes as clearly as your masterpieces. So how do you get around that? Well, just like any other pretension that you, or anyone on Earth, could ever be perfect all the time, you just have to get over it. The benefits far outweigh the drawbacks and your clients are more than capable of understanding that sometimes you need to take a few bad shots to get a good one.

So, what’s the best way to handle your tether session? In my opinion, Capture One is head and shoulders above the pack. I'll write more about why I like that particular software in the future, but for now, it’s important to look at why one would want to tether at all.

Prior to using Capture One, my workflow was fairly straightforward. I would shoot untethered straight to the memory card. Checking the back of the camera as I went along. When I got home, I would import all the raw images into Lightroom and figure out where I went right and where I went wrong. In my early days, I would usually then spend the next several hours making radical adjustments either in Lightroom or Photoshop. I am happy to say that that particular part of the process has decreased over time to where my time in front of a computer in post production is decidedly minimal, preferably nonexistent. I would the kick out the images using my Lightroom export presets, one preset at a time, backup the export and move on.

This workflow was easy and effective. Once I’d repeated it enough and learned the keystrokes like the back of my hand, my turnaround times were more than respectable. But still, the vast bulk of the creative process occurred behind closed doors. The clients only clue to what I was actually shooting would be the quick glances they might steal at the back of my camera when I had a moment between shots to show them progress. Whatever color adjustments I intended to make were locked in my own head. I could attempt to try and explain what I meant by “a little blue here, and a dash of warm over there,” but the client wouldn’t actually see it until I’d gotten the images home and spent a few hours toiling away with my precious sliders. Not only did that mean that I was committing myself to additional work time following the shoot, but that I was committing to do work that the client may or may not approve. And I was doing it after the fact, meaning that, if the client didn’t like the direction I was going, it could potentially be too late to change course.

As my career developed, I was fortunate not only to improve on my own, but also under the tutelage of some of the best photographers in the business. Whether through workshops or assisting, I got a chance to see the masters on set and get a better understanding of how they went about their business. Everyone has their own techniques, but with very few exceptions, one thing became painfully clear. They all tethered. And if you ever spend five minutes on a major commercial photography set, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand why.

Unlike those smaller early shoots where an intimate portrait session was essentially a one-on-one affair, a commercial shoot is more akin to showing up stark naked at a garden party. There are a lot of eyes present and they are all on you.

Even more pressing is the fact that each set of eyes on set are seeing a different thing. The client's creative team is seeing the images through the prism of the last four or five months of work they’ve put into the project to precisely craft the brand message they want from the key art. The marketing team watches each successive image pass across the screen, all the while considering and reconsidering which frame would be the most effective at convincing customers to buy their shoelaces instead of the competitors. The copywriter looks at the images and dreams up captions. The stylist watches the images closely to see if her combination of pink trousers and a purple tie was really as good an idea as she imagined it would be. Likewise, the makeup artist is watching the screen to access just how annoying that one little strand of hair that keeps dropping over the model’s left eye really might be. Even the models get the benefit of having a better idea of your framing and might be able to offer you a stronger pose now that they know the direction you’re headed.

At the end of the day, all of these various viewpoints need to coalesce to form a whole. You need to make all of them happy. Well, maybe some more than others. Usually the ones who are actually signing your check. But the more creativity you can draw from those involved, the better your odds of creating something the client will be happy with.

And this all leads to the most important result of tethering: buy in. By making the client and creative team part of the process, you not only engage their creativity but you also get a better sense that you are providing them with what they actually want. Many of us have had the experience of a client saying they want one thing, then you provide that exact thing, at which point they say that they really were looking for something else. It can be completely maddening. Shooting tethered greatly reduces the chance of that happening. It may still happen from time to time. Clients aren’t always clear in their own minds about what it is that they need. But, for the most part, if they are on set, seeing the sausage as it’s made, they are in a position to comment right there and then if you’re heading in the wrong direction.

I build my Capture One style adjustments beforehand and set them up on the tether stations so that with each click of the button, everything from my composition to the color adjustments are immediately viewable on screen so the client can give me the thumbs up or down in real time. This means that when I get home from the session, aside from minor adjustments, there is essentially zero post production adjustments that need to be made prior to being able to send proofs to the client for them to make selects. It also means that when I get home from a shoot, I can rest with confidence that the client has essentially already seen and signed off on the images from the day. In rare circumstances they may still change their mind after the fact, but they can’t say they weren’t aware of what you were shooting as they might able to say were they restricted to occasional views at an untreated image on a camera’s LCD screen. So while shooting tethered may, at first, seem to make you more vulnerable to scrutiny, it also helps protect you from miscommunication.

Good communication is the most important thing to any team effort, whether it be a photoshoot or trying to implement a new passing scheme in the NFL. Shooting tethered provides the common platform so that all team members and clients can be on the same page. And just like that NFL passing scheme, once the quarterback and receivers are all on the same page, everyone’s individual talents are able to show through and the process becomes smooth as silk.


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imagei _'s picture

Thanks Christopher for the thorough explanation of an aspect of a shoot I haven't considered. Particularly interesting is the observation that the more everyone sees the results as they come the better chance of contributing to the end result they have.

It's a pity (still) that a wireless connection can't be dependable. Still a ways to go.

Jay Jay's picture

Using a canon 5d4, i can vouch that it stays connected on all of my shoots, with no drops. Every once in a rare while, the iPad can't find the camera and i have to reconnect to it. My old EyeFi in the day (useless product) stayed connected about 5% of the time, but on my canon, connection is very solid and photo transfer is nearly instant.

jessepatterson's picture

Same story for me. I've used wireless tethering from my previous 70D to my current 5D4. I've not had any issues other than slight delays here and there.

Jay Jay's picture

Even though it was wasn't mentioned, Lightroom has always allowed tethering. While Capture One is fine, Lightroom's interface is hugely easier to use and less arcane than Capture One. Some prefer one to the other, but in fairness of the topic of tethering in general, both should mentioned (you can promote both products in your article, it's ok!) There's also the free midi2LR open source app that lets you map every function and parameter of Lightroom to the midi controller of your choice, which in itself, will save you hundreds of hours of editing time a year, depending on how much you edit.

Btw, Capture One has a free app called Capture Pilot, which lets you view, rate, and capture photos on your iPad/iphone/ etc.

Most newer higher end camera feature WIFI. I use my Canon 5D 4 to stream directly to the Canon app on my iPad Pro, which provides complete wireless tethering. More importantly, i can slip the iPad in my bag and go anywhere i want and have a nice nice screen to check my shots against, or give them to the client or client's friends to use so that they can see what i shoot, in real time. The app also allows rating, so culling can be done in a 2 step process, rating them with the iPad, later importing them into Lightroom, and filtering my flagged picks.

I much prefer wireless tethering because you're not limited to a 6 foot cable, don't need to bring a laptop with you that can get stolen or need a power outlet, a stand to put it on, or worry about knocking it over.

And as a fail safe (i use this more than anything), a simple 3x loupe that magnifies your rear lcd screen, will do wonders for your ability to check images, or share them with your client, anywhere you are. I use it primarily outside where i can shoot low profile and not draw attention as much as if i had an iPad or laptop sitting next to me.

Vincent Alongi's picture

My question on wireless at this point - how excessive is the drain on the battery?

Jay Jay's picture

It's does produce a drain, same as if you use wifi on your mobile phone vs turning it off. I've never officially tested, but in my experience on a standard shoot lasting 4 hours or so (off and on shooting with 3 looks shot), i've seen maybe a 15-20% drain. It doesnt do a true photo stream per shot, but rather, when you refresh the app, it basically reads your memory card an displays the contents on the screen... so it's basically on demand and not a constant trying to push every shot over wifi.

I have a battery grip with 2 batteries in it and have never had wifi drain my battery, not even to 50%. My personal opinion, it's not excessive at all, and the ability to use any mobile device or phone at any time, is what makes it incredibly useful.

Vincent Alongi's picture

Not bad re: the battery.

I'd like the shot-by-shot stream, but as I do a preview on the LCD after each shot, I could then choose which one to bring up on an iPad / iPhone for the model to see. This would solve the "they're seeing a bad shot" question.

I'm for simplicity, and wires could get in the way... as well as the basic issue of dragging a laptop around with me on city sessions- that would be a hassle. If in-studio, that's not an issue.

Dan Howell's picture

When you say complete wireless tethering do you mean wireless preview? Or do you mean the full suite of raw image control including session creation, file naming, color analysis with next capture settings controlled via Wifi? Does it control the camera from computer? Can you do layout overlays for critical cropping? Can you print from it? Can you determine which hard drive you want to write to? (I virtually never shoot into my laptop's internal) If so, I hadn't heard that there was any application that does 'complete wireless tethering'.

I'm skeptical that it does, especially on an iPad. Previewing is one aspect of 'complete' tethering, but by far not the only one. The author highlights previewing as an important advance to his workflow, but there are significant other aspects to tethering that wireless preview does not encompass. It is an error to equate the two.

btw. I don't even own a 6' cable. All my tethering cables are 15'.

Jay Jay's picture

Wireless preview and ability to rate images, using the Canon app on the iPad. In live view, you can use the app to take photos, and if i remember, it does do real time viewing when you shoot video, allowing you to pull focus and adjust settings.

If you want full suite control with the options you stated above, Lightroom and Capture One can both do that very easily, but you'll need to tether it. (Although by using the Canon DPP software that comes with canon, i believe, and someone correct me if i'm wrong, but you can wirelessly transfer images to your laptop for instant viewing and editing in DPP, or use it with Lightroom, using the watch folder feature.

To achieve nearly instant wireless viewing, i set the app to view jpg to the iPad. If you set it to view actual raw, you're going to have to wait a quite while before they show up. We aren't quite to the point where common devices have gigabit wifi built into them... just yet. ;)

I used to use a 15' as well as a 6' originally, but even at 15' i had to be careful not to yank the cable out of the laptop or snag it on something. The positive part of wired is that it allows very fast transfer of cr2, which wireless does not. Then again, i use the wireless part solely to check my images, nothing more. Having wifi gives me the freedom to move completely around the studio, or shoot anywhere outside of it, without needing to bring extra equipment such as a laptop with me.

jessepatterson's picture

I'm with you Jay Jay. To confirm, you can tether wirelessly to Canon's EOS Utility software. I've done so a few times and love it however, I prefer the iPad for simpler shoots. Canon's EOS Utility software allows overlays, file renaming, printing, and control of the cam.

The same features are available in the EOS Utility software with the W-E1 Wifi adapter in my 5Ds R however, the wifi adapter has limitations with the Canon Connect App.

For example, you'd only be able to control the 5Ds R (or 7D2) from within the app while the camera body locks up until you disconnect from the app on your phone/tablet. On the other hand, with the EOS Utility on a laptop, I can control my 5DS R (w/W-E1) within the application AND directly on the camera. WHY CANON, WHY!!!

Mike Leland's picture

Lightroom actually HASN'T always had tethering functionality. And when it was introduced in Lightroom 3, it was really awful.

Capture one was built as a tethering and raw editing solution. It is the standard for commercial photography tethering because of it's speed, robustness and ease of use.

I know some people hate the interface. It's gotten tremendously better and I wouldn't call it arcane by a long shot. It's completely customizable. Anything and everything can be moved around wherever you want it to be. If you want it to look like Lightroom, you can set it up to look nearly identical to Lightroom.

But it BLOWS AWAY Lightroom in terms of performance and functionality when it comes to tethering. This is why you will NEVER see a DIT running Lightroom. It just doesn't happen.

I'm not a Capture One shill... I'm just a 20+ year working pro who utilizes the best tools for each job.

Also, while Capture Pilot is a free download, it requires an in app upgrade for camera control unless you're shooting P1. It also doesn't do anything on it's own. It needs to be connected to a server running inside Capture One.

Jay Jay's picture

Never had any problems with LR tethering, even with it was first introduced. Not a single glitch that i can recall. Maybe i've been lucky, i dont know, but i did run thousands and thousands of photos into it, without issue.

I literally could not disagree more. Lightroom tethering is an entirely unstable process that runs slower and is buggier than any version of C1.

We aren’t being Nickel and dimed... a multitude of people spend their lives creating software for us just as we spend our lives creating images for others. We expect to get paid so why wouldn’t they charge us?

Capture one tethering:
1. Open Capture One
2. Connect camera
3. Win.


Very happy to see people getting more involved with tethering, our ASMP chapter has been trying to push more solid workflow techniques to the community and articles like this are rapidly helping our case! THANKS <3

Robert Nurse's picture

This was a timely article. I've got the cables from Tether Tools. I just need to make use of them on the regular. I do like being able to share progress in real time with my subjects.

А great article and that is why Fuji can not be classified as a commercial camera - lack of a good tethering options. (LR need plugin.. C1 dont support it at all)

Spy Black's picture

I dunno, the last thing I need when shooting something like a fashion shoot is to be tethered. No thanks. It's fine for static work, tabletop and such, but not when I and the subject are moving.

william mitchell's picture

I think BZ is wrong you can use Fuji Aquire software to move fuji files on to your computer. Then use C1P to watch that folder.

Works but not as it has to be.
Adjustments you made to the file doesn't apply to the following one as it works with other brands (C/N/S).

Tom Lew's picture

I see London I see France I see Christopher in his underpants. lululululululul. Nice article!

Tethering sucks and I refuse to do it. Nothing stifles creativity and freedom more than being attached to a bunch of cables. No thanks.

Ben D's picture

Very nice article, thanks Christopher.

I take it this is mostly applicable to commercial studio shooting? C1 is among the editors I use, and I shoot w/ Sony so I could tether, but haven't in part b/c most of my shoots are one or two person non-commercial shoots in a wide variety of locations, never in a studio, often outside. Adding my bulky laptop just doesn't seem like it would be worth it, in addition to all the new gear I'd have to buy in order to secure it.

That said, I would love to be able to see the images on a proper screen as I'm shooting.

PS And echoing Scott Cramer's post above mine....it seems like it would be fussy and creatively inhibiting (I shoot prime lenses only and move around a ton to get different angles). Basically, suited more for conventional studio work. Which makes sense.

But if it can be used for more spontaneous art shoots, I'd appreciate getting tips on doing that. Like maybe, is it viable using a tablet?

Christopher Malcolm's picture

I started using primarily for commercial projects, but now use it on all projects. Once you really start, you won't turn back. I, like you, move around a lot when shooting, but with a long enough cord, it doesn't really trouble me. I had that same concern about mobility earlier, but it hasn't been a problem in action. I don't tether to a tablet, but Capture One does have Capture Pilot which allows you to relay the images you shoot tethered to a tablet, smart phone, etc, which can be useful if you have clients in other rooms, or even other cities that need to see the session in real time.

Ben D's picture

I will give it a try a see how it works out. Thanks.

Thanks for the article. Tethering is simply essential in my workflow. No more guess work on the LCD, I can adjust my exposure on my Mac. As a Canon owner (5DSR and 1Dx2) I use Kuuvik Capture software and a TetherPro 15f cable. Couldn’t be happier! The most reliable and fastest configuration I have found for my -mostly- product photography.