The Hired Hand 

Bill Austin has been in ads touting everything from iMacs to Rolex watches, but you'd never recognize his face.

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"These are the things you learn as a hand model."

Once the lights are adjusted just so, Austin says, "I need five minutes. I want to clean up this hand."

"Go for it," the photographer says.

Austin pulls a small sponge and a cap of foundation makeup from his grip belt. He pats the flesh-colored goop across his knuckles and down the fingertips, careful to apply it evenly. Next, he presses the jeweler's loupe into his left eye socket and reaches for his cuticle nipper. "I go through one of these every three months," he says as he works on the fringes of his nails. "I like 'em really sharp."

Finally satisfied, Austin declares his hand ready for its closeup. "Okay," the photographer says, as he places a cell phone in the hand. "Good, good."

"Something like this?" Austin says.

"That's great, Bill. Just like that."

The photographer clicks away. Then he removes the phone. "Take a break, Bill."

Austin wiggles his fingers.

A few minutes later, the photog adjusts the lights for a new look and returns behind his camera. "Oh, no!" he says. "I just lit up your fingernail like crazy, the little groove."

Austin remains calm. "Can I move it?"

"Nah," the photographer says as he heads toward his lights. "Let me do something. ... Now, just bring the phone toward the camera a little bit."

"Oops," Austin cautions. The new lighting illuminates a deviant thread on his cuff. Out come the surgical scissors. Snip.

All is well on the set. The photographer resumes shooting. Between takes, Austin checks the setup with his flyswatter mirror. "You know what?" he interrupts. "I've got a lot of lotion on my hand. It'll take just a minute to wash it off so it won't be so shiny."

"Go right ahead," the photographer says.

"You'll get a better shot."

"No problem."

A few minutes later, Austin returns to the set and picks up the cell phone. His fingers look nice around the edge of the product, soothing, even. The lotion-shine is gone. It's a great hand, really.

Moments later the photographer removes the phone and prepares to take pictures of Austin's empty hand. Later, he'll Photoshop other products into the hand.

"Wait," Austin says. "There's a divot in my index finger from the phone."

The photographer looks over his camera, then reaches over and squishes the fingertip. He snaps his final shots. "You can relax now," he says, returning to his laptop. "You're good. You can put your hand down."

Less than two hours after he arrived, Austin sheds his gray sleeves and repacks his suitcase. He has earned a nice fee today, but nothing over the top -- not like some guys try to charge. He says he's been in the business so long because he goes for volume, taking all the jobs he can get, not just the big ones. Ever since Photoshop appeared, a lot of photographers think they can get away with using just anyone, he says.

"That's not true at all," this photographer says. "You can clean up some stuff, but not everything."

"And you've got to know how to work with people," Austin adds.

One of the biggest jobs Austin recently missed out on was the launch of Apple's new wafer-thin iPod Nano. Just last week the billboards popped up along Bay Area freeways, and he felt the twinge of professional jealousy. "Whose hand is that?" he asks.

"I don't know," the photographer replies as he puts away his gear.

"It's a beautiful hand," Austin says.

"It's crazy cleaned-up, too," the photographer notes.

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