Monday, October 12, 2015

Luck is a Skill

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We hear about lucky shots all the time.  We all know that luck isn't something photographers can count on but, count on it or not, luck sometimes is a factor and it's always nice when we catch a bit of luck in our photography. If only we could count on luck for even more lucky photos, right? But luck doesn't work that way. Luck is fickle. It's unpredictable. Luck smiles on us when it wants to, not when we want it to.

Shooters who regularly take the spray-n-pray approach to their photography are counting on luck to various extents. After all, if they shoot enough pictures, a few of them are bound to be good. Maybe one or two are better than good. But who gets most of the credit for those truly cool snaps out of 300? 400? Perhaps even more?  Sure, the photographer deserves some of that credit. Maybe a big share of it. (Or maybe not.) But luck and odds snag some of that credit as well. Sometimes, luck and odds deserve most of the credit for those great shots.

Some photographers seem to catch lucky shots more often than others and they don't do it by spraying-and-praying. They don't count on the odds. So how or why  does luck seem to smile more often on some photographers and not others?

It mostly happens because those "lucky" photographers are prepared for luck to smile on them. They're ready for it. They know it when they see it. They open the door to luck, they open it wide allowing luck to happily prance into their photographic lives... often and regularly.

Famous golfer, Gary Player, was once asked about luck in terms of his game. Here's what Player said, and it's as appropriate an observation for photographers as it is for golfers:  "The more I practice, the luckier I get."

"The more I practice, the luckier I get."

Sounds so simple, right? Perhaps too simple? "The more I practice, the luckier I get." What's simpler than that? You know, than practiceing? It's a whole lot simpler than regularly buying new gear and going through new learning curves just to get yourself proficiently up-and-running with that new gear in hopes of capturing better photos.   It's simpler than spending hour after hour reading books and viewing tutorials and utilizing other learning methods to improve your photography. I'm certainly not saying learning new things won't help your photography. It sure as hell will. But learn all you want, all that learning won't amount to much if you don't practice what you've learned. And practice it a lot.

Ockham's Razor tells us that the best solutions and answers to many things are usually the simplest and least complex of the solutions and answers that come to us. I'm pretty sure Gary Player's take on luck, "The more I practice, the luckier I get," qualifies for an Ockie. He get's my vote for one! (An Ockie, BTW, is what I call my imaginary Ockham's Razor Award. I try to award myself Ockies whenever I can. I look for opportunities to earn Ockies.) After all, practice is one of the simplest ways and most assured ways to improve your photography. It's not complex. You just... well, you just do it.

So there you have it. Luck isn't just about "luck."  Luck is also a skill. A skill you practice and prepare yourself to receive and to spot when it smacks you in the head.  Bottom line-- the more you practice something, the better you become at it or, looking at that from another angle (and as famed golfer Gary Player discovered and shared with us) the luckier you'll get!

So get out there and practice!  Practice often. Practice a lot. Practice, practice, practice! And get ready to get lucky!

The model in my lucky shot at the top is Faye. I used two lights: 1) a strobe modified with a shoot-through umbrella in front of her, camera right, and 2) another strobe, bare bulb, on the floor directly behind her and pointed up.  Simple monochrome conversion with PS3's B&W tool. Snapped it with a Canon 5D1 (M mode) and a Canon 70-200 f/4 L at ISO 200, f/6.3, 1/100th.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Standing Out

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Since I've become semi-retired, my mind, leastwise in terms of my photography, has been focused on finding or discovering ways to stand out as a photographer. (Doesn't everyone do that?) Actually, "focused" might be too weak a word to describe my condition in this regard, so I'll make that "obsessed."

Obviously, standing out (to varying extents) is generally a bit easier when one regularly has (or has had) as many beautiful and sexy glamour, tease, and nude models in front of their cameras as I have. Duh, right?

Now, if I want to stand out, I'm going to have to do it in other ways. Having a stand-out photographic style doesn't just happen. It takes thought, premeditated thought. And experimenting! And practice! And a bunch more! In the future,  instead of my style relying mostly on who/what I have in front of my camera, and how I direct them and so forth, standing out is going to rely on much more. than who/what is in front of my camera. It's gong to rely more heavily on how I capture the who and the what (the non-model who/what) and how I might treat the photos after snapping them. (Treat them in post, that is.) Again, duh.

I've never been much of a post-production guy. My clients all have art departments or they employ re-touchers and graphic artists to perform the post on my work and other shooters' work. That's been fine with me. And easier. Besides, I've never had a great interest in developing my post skills to the levels of those sorts of people. I probably could become pretty good at processing pics if I really wanted to and was willing to invest the time and resources... but I'm a shooter, dammit, not a photo processor! I admire some of the work of other photographers who excel at that stuff but I'm still not particularly interested in learning and practicing more than I need to learn and practice doing. The quality and stand-out-ish-ness of my current and future photography (assuming I manage to stand out) will rely, mostly, on what I do in production, not post-production. Again, I'm a shooter first and that other stuff second.

To that end, I've considered and explored a number of ways to accomplish standing out, be it with the help of certain kinds of production gear or via shooting stuff I've not shot much before, e.g., of an editorial-ish nature. (And no, I'm not going to rely on gear to stand out. That's folly.)

Like most photographers, I have preferences for what I most enjoy shooting and what I most enjoy shooting involves people in front of my camera, not necessarily models. I should also note that my quest to stand out has little or nothing to do with earning money with my photography. It's fun making a living with cameras in one's hands, especially with pretty models in front of you, and I've done that for more than a couple of decades, but money isn't driving me now; art is.  If my future photo-art generates some money, that's cool. If not, no biggie. I could mostly care less.

One of the "gear-centric" ways I've messed around with for my attempts to stand out has been via glass, you know, those lensy things on the front of our cameras.  I've played with using plastic Holga and Diana optics plus a couple of LensBaby lenses. None of them have resonated with me in big-big ways, although I do like using them. I've also used some specialty filters (like Tiffen's ProMist filters) and still plan to use them, as well as some others, e.g., FLD, ND, and more. But again, while I like the results I haven't suddenly been moved to make those filters part of my possible future calling-card style, stand-out or not. I would love to try using a tilt-shift lens to this end but, so far, I haven't been able to convince myself to lay-out the dough for a good T/S.  They ain't cheap!

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My newest eBay acquisition -- it should arrive in the mail in a few days or so -- is a Cyclop 85mm f/1.5. It's not a lens intended for photography but, well... here's how someone on a manual focus lens forum described it:  "Cyclop-- The One-Eyed Monster! It's called a Cyclop and is an f/1.5 (only! no aperture control) 85mm lens modified for use by the Russian military for a night-vision device and renamed the Cyclop H3T-1. It weighs a ton, is carved out of a former Soviet tank, has no diaphragm, and produces absolutely insane results! The good news is that it's a native M42 mount lens and practically indestructible."

I'm told mastering shooting with the Cyclop is no easy task, but that makes it that much more intriguing for me.  Yeah, it's focus is so shallow that manually focusing will be a challenge but, to obtain the sorts of results I'm looking for will not only require precise manual focusing, but choosing quite specific shooting environments, especially in terms of time of day, lighting conditions, specific sorts of backgrounds, as well as optimum distances between camera-to-subject and also subject-to-background. (Yeah, I've been doing a lot of reading about this Cyclop beast.) When all that stuff falls properly in line, the results can be insanely awesome, at least to my eye. What makes it insanely awesome? The unique and special bokeh this lens can produce. along with the very shallow DOF. It's not your run-of-the-mill bokeh, BTW. It's almost other-worldly. It's bokehlisious bokeh. And a unique bokehliscious bokeh at that!  Anyway, I'm stoked. I'll post some pics when I have some I think are half-way decent. 

The woman in black in the photo at the top is a friend of mine. (I've probably posted that pic before, a while back that is.) I snapped it using a Canon nifty-fifty on my 5D classic with a Tiffen ProMist filter screwed onto the lens. All natural light  I might have been tempted to add flash or a reflector but we were shooting in a county park, Vasquez Rocks, and the park ranger told me that the moment I pull out any lighting gear she was going to consider it a commercial shoot and require me to have a shooting permit. (Which, of course, I did not have.)  She then parked her Park Ranger's SUV nearby and sat there and watched me shoot. Freakin' bi... never mind. I'll refrain from name-calling.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Creative Pokes (Part Two)

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For about 15 years, I worked for a rather large corporation: Lear Siegler.  At the division where I worked, I was their in-house video production guy, a job which also also included a fair amount of product photography. Example-- sometimes being their video and photography guy included hanging out the side of a single-engine Cesna (tethered with the passenger door removed) as I video recorded and photographed one of their products, an experimental reconnaissance drone, during test flights over the Mojave Desert. (And you thought all I've ever professionally shot has been pretty girls. Fellow photographers, please.)

Lear Siegler Inc. was comprised of many divisions all over the country.  (For a time, LSI even owned Smith & Wesson.)  I worked, primarily, in Santa Monica, CA, at their Astronics division. I also sometimes worked at their Developmental Sciences division, which was located in Ontario, CA.

 Primarily, Lear Astronics designed and manufactured flight control systems for military aircraft-- from the F-16 to the Tomahawk cruise missile and on to the stealth fighter and stealth bomber, Astronics was a major player in military flight control technologies and more.

The original Lear Corp., prior to merging with the Siegler Corp., was founded by Bill Lear. Bill Lear is most famous for giving the world the Lear Jet. Bill was an inventor, creator, and technology developer extraordinaire. Example: The "Lear Jet Stereo 8" cartridge audio device was soon marketed to consumers as -- yep, you guessed it --  the 8-Track stereo tape player. Interestingly, Bill's most famous (and possibly most successful) endeavor, the Lear Jet, is the reason Bill resigned from the board of Lear Siegler and sold his shares in the company. You see, the board thought Bill's idea to develop and produce a small commercial jet was a really bad idea and (probably driving that notion) a too-costly idea. So, they nixed it. Bill, in turn, said sayonarra to Lear Sielger and went his own way to develop and manufacture the aircraft without them. That aspect of Bill's life and legacy is a notable part of aviation history.

Because of Bill Lear's creativity influence on Lear Siegler, and even more so on the Astronics division (where I worked) because that's where Bill himself once worked, ideas were always very encouraged. (We still had a few employees at the division who once worked directly with Bill.) The Astronics division instituted some robust internal programs which actively encouraged and fostered employees -- from engineers to assembly line workers -- to share their ideas. And they rewarded them for ideas which were, ultimately, implemented!  Those rewards also included the company sharing ownership of any patents or trademarks which might result from an employee's idea. Astronics regularly held "brainstorming" sessions among groups of it's employees. (On company time, of course.)  The prime directive of those sessions was: There is no such thing as a bad idea!

"There is no such thing as a bad idea" gets me back to what I'm writing about, i.e., creative pokes. If you treat all your ideas as good or bad, you will probably leave your self-described "bad ideas" in the dust. Potentially, those "bad ideas" might have led to some really good ideas but you'll never know that because you kicked your "bad ideas" to the curb.

You see, with some added work, brainstorming, developing, pokes, whatever you want to call it, all your ideas, good or bad, are worthy of pursuing to some degree, at least at first and for a time. I guarantee if you do so, you will either A) turn your ho-hum, not-so-great, possibly lackluster or even turd of an idea into an idea worth pursuing, one with luster. less turd-like, and more or B) it will often lead you to another idea, perhaps one completely different, that is worth pursuing. That's how many people's creative minds work.

When it comes to ideas, we are often our own worst enemies because we too often eighty-six them before we give them a chance to bloom into something worth developing more. Course, your not-so-great idea might remain a not-so-good idea but you'll never truly know that unless you give it, at the very least, a half a chance to bloom or to morph into something else, i.e. a good idea. Sometimes, a truly stellar idea!

The gratuitous eye-candy at the top is Jennifer. Pic was snapped at a location house in the Silverlake District of Los Angeles. I used a 5' Photoflex Octo for my main, pretty much on-axis with the model, plus a small, shoot-through, umbrella, camera-left, to the rear of the model for an accent light. The French windows provided the balance of the light for the image.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Two Birds, One Stone

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It's not often I get to knock off two (metaphorical) birds with a single (also metaphorical) stone but I did it. Leastwise, today I did.

My good buddy, Dan Hostettler, of Studio Prague, asked me to write an article  (of sorts)  for his web site. It's the same sort of thing I might author for the Pretty Girl Shooter blog, only Dan posted more pretty girl pics along with my words than I would have.

I've started working on Part Two of my most recent blog update but I don't think I'm going to get it done for a few days or so.  So, in the interim, perhaps you'd be interested in reading the article I wrote for Dan?

CLICK HERE to read my Studio Prague ramblings. I titled it, "Spray-n-Pray?  Quality Before Quantity!"

The pretty girl at the top is Sarah. It's a one-light portrait  -- I forget which modifier I used but probably something on the larger side rather than the smaller, perhaps my 5' Photoflex Octo. I snapped it at a practical location (a condo) in the hills above Warner Bros. in Burbank, CA.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Creative Pokes (Part One)

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As photographers, we often come up with new ideas regarding what we want to shoot, how we want to shoot, where and when we want to shoot, that sort of stuff. Sometimes, our ideas slowly materialize in our photographic consciousness. Other times, they hit us suddenly, like thunderbolts and seemingly out of nowhere!

So where do our shooting ideas come from? Both the slowly appearing ideas as well as the suddenly-out-of-nowhere ideas?  Obviously, they come from within and without.  Sometimes, they seem to arrive purely from within-- regardless of whether that's 100% accurate or true -- while other times, they poke us from without. When they poke us from without, the pokes act like sparks or catalysts for spontaneous shooting ideas suddenly appearing from within, albeit prompted from without... if that makes sense.
There are some people who believe in "Divine Inspiration."  I'm guessing some photographers also believe in that notion. You know, that some creative ideas are "God-given."  Me? I don't believe in divine inspiration. Not even a little bit. In my mind, anyone waiting for divine inspiration for shooting ideas (or any other sorts of creative ideas) has a long wait in store for themselves.

Michelangelo, in my mind, was not divinely inspired to paint the ceiling of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel. Instead, I'm confident it was the patronage of a pope that gave him the idea, at least in part, and motivated him with more earthly rewards.  Yeah, some of you might disagree -- in whole or in part -- but that's my opinion and I'm sticking with it.  I also don't believe God inspired Mikey to sculpt the Pietà. The Pietà is an extraordinary work of art, for sure. In fact, I once saw the Pietà when it was on display at the 1964 World's Fair in NY --  I'm that old, although I was quite young then -- and to this day I vividly remember it. But was it divinely inspired? Not in my book. IMO, any artist who claims their work is divinely inspired simply has a hyper-inflated sense of self-importance. There's probably a psycho-babble term for that, one with the word "syndrome" or "disorder" attached to the end of it, but I don't know what that term might be. I'm a photographer, dammit. Not a psycho-analyst.

Back to those non-divine sparks and catalysts for ideas that sometimes poke us: Do they accidentally poke? Are they lucky pokes? Does serendipity play a poking part? Do we need to be in the right places at the right times to be creatively and spontaneously poked?

Occasionally, I suppose, all those notions might be true. More often than not, though, I'm pretty sure we have to purposely look to be poked, i.e., we need to go a bit out of our way to make ourselves available for poking. You know, make ourselves open to pokes. Search them out. Being open to those often-elusive, inspirational, idea-generating pokes means putting ourselves in places, not just physical places (although certainly those too) but mental places where the creative pokes have a better chance of, well, poking us in ways that spark creative ideas.

And here's how you do it, leastwise, how I think it's done:

Step One: Hopefully, you already realize there's no such thing as a  bad creative idea. There are only creative ideas. Creative ideas, especially at first, aren't necessarily good or bad because those ideas come in a variety of degrees of completeness. What one person might think of as a bad idea another might perceive as being merely an incomplete idea or simply the germ of an idea. They're much like stepping-stone ideas. You know, creative ideas that might not seem like great ideas at first, on their own, but are still ideas that lead us to other ideas or bigger and better ideas... like a path or, well, like stepping stones.

Here's an uber-simple example: Your new idea is to shoot landscapes. Well gee! That's great. Isn't that special? Bonne idée, homme!  But as good an idea as that might sound, at least initially, it's an entirely incomplete idea. Generically, landscapes cover a lot of terrain. (Pun intended.)  Besides, to have the idea to begin shooting landscapes is, frankly, an idea about a gazillion other photographers have already had and a gazillion more will have. You see, your idea to shoot landscapes is only a good idea in terms of it being (sort of a ) stepping-stone idea. A poke, if you will.

To make your germ of an idea even better, how about narrowing things down a bit? How about shooting landscapes which feature beautiful rolling hills in the countryside? Okay. That might be a better idea. Not particularly original or seldom-seen but, at the very least, a little more complete.   So how about photographing rolling hills in the countryside all captured around dawn or dusk?  What if your dawn or dusk images of rolling hills in the countryside also include old abandoned barns, farmhouses, or other abandoned structures as thematic elements?  Now we're talking a more complete creative idea, a more narrowly focused idea. Perhaps even a better idea even if it's one we've all seen before. You get where I'm going with this?

Well, if not (or if so) I'll be back soon to expand on this subject a bit more. I'm still narrowing my focus for my follow-on update about being creatively poked and, as a result of such pokes, developing creative ideas that lead to creative images.

The gratuitous eye candy at the top is Devin. I snapped it in a residential house. It's a combination of a single strobe -- a monobloc modified with a 5' Photoflex Octo -- ambient, and window light. (Coming from a bank of overhead windows, framed out of the shot.)  ISO 100, f/3.5 @ 125th with a Canon 5D (classic) and an 85mm prime.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Vox Humana

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Photographers talk a lot about style, you know, personal style. So, what is personal style? Personal style is that part of a photograph which includes the photographer's biases, whether their biases are revealed by lighting styles or techniques, composition, personal commentary, and more. In other words, a photographer's personal style represents that part of their photography in which they have added their own voice. Their human voice. They're (hopefully) thoughtful and intentional voice. It's that thing referred to in Latin as their vox humana. A photographer's voice is not an audible voice, of course, but it can speak quite loudly and quite succinctly.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, vox humana became a popular term among church music aficionados. It referred to a specific reed in pipe organs of the day, one which produced a beautiful, vibrato, almost human-like sound. Later, the term took on another meaning, one used to describe an artist's style, that is, his or her artistic "voice."

Hmm... Latin, church organs, artist's voices, glamour photography?

In the arts, visual arts and otherwise, an artist's style or "voice" is considered a very important element of their work. It identifies them in many ways. That's because it's the one element of their work that sets them apart, to varying degrees, from other artists pursuing the same sorts of endeavors. Photography, like any other art form, can be highly competitive. Beyond a photographer's skill at networking, hustling, and schmoozing for work, i.e., clients, customers, art buyers, etc., a photographer's vox humana goes a long way towards making them, and their work, memorable and, quite possibly, in demand. For some, that is, those pursuing photography as all or part of their income, a resonating vox humana can be quite profitable as well.

In creative writing, for example, a writer's literary style, the way he or she constructs prose, is called his or her "writing voice" even though, again, no actual sounds are generated. (Unless, of course, the work is read aloud and the reader's human voice becomes inspired by the writer's soundless voice.) With creative writing, a personal, identifiable, and somewhat unique vox humana can be a truly awesome thing! (Provided that "voice" resonates in positive ways with readers.) It can not only be satisfying for both writers and readers, it can sell books and more! The same holds true for photographers, even glamour photographers, including that part about resonating... with viewers in photography's case.

Yep, a shooter's style, their "voice," their photographic voice can be an awesome thing. Some photographers truly make their photos sing in beautiful and meaningful ways. Look, I'm not trying to go all metaphorically philosophical on anyone but training and developing your photographic voice, a voice that resonates with viewers, one that produces pictures that sing, is a very positive thing, perhaps the most important thing many photographers can do. Like a singer practices and trains their voice, photographers should do the same... once they find their voice.

How does one develop their photographic vox humana? Certainly not by diction or singing lessons, that's for sure. In fact, I'm not sure it's something most photographers develop purposely and consciously. Instead, their style or voice seems to evolve on its own as the result of cumulative and eclectic, sometimes subconscious, retention by 1) viewing the work of others and 2) incorporating bits and pieces of the work of others in their own work. (Consciously or subconsciously.) 
What eventually emerges is one's own photographic style or voice. It may not always be especially unique and it's usually an amalgamation of other photographer's styles. Most often, it isn't a result of anyone's naturally-bestowed creative abilities. After all, it's that amalgamation of other photographers' styles and approaches which, when assembled together, consciously or subconsciously, becomes an individual shooter's style or voice. The good news is-- No natural endowments required.
 The gratuitous eye candy at the top is Jenna. I snapped it utilizing my usual glamour photography voice, i.e., making obvious use of edge-lighting and shooting from slightly below with an upward angle. That is how, at least in part, I most often talk "glam and tease" with my photographic vox humana. The pic is from a set shot on a small set in a studio.