Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Single Terrific Image Effect

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The American tycoon, JP Morgan, undoubtedly represents different things to different people: positive things as well as negative. For some, he's remembered most for being a ruthless, robber baron. Others recall him as a one-man economic powerhouse who acted much like a central bank before there was a central bank in the US.  Still others remember Morgan as a huge patron of the arts. It's said he spent nearly half of his considerable fortune on art.

Morgan commissioned a number of portraits of himself; painted portraits, that is. The problem was, leastwise for the artists Morgan engaged, JP wouldn't sit for more than a few minutes even when a painter managed to get him to sit at all. Finally, one of JP's painters engaged a young photographer, Edward Steichen, to photograph Morgan. The painter planned to use Steichen's photo-portraits as a guide for painting Morgan's portrait. As it turned out, Morgan wouldn't sit for Steichen for too long either. All the young photographer managed to snap were two photographs.

Of the two photos, the first was, in a word, unmemorable. But the second photo, because JP became somewhat agitated waiting for the photographer to continue, became a sensation. And it wasn't a photo JP Morgan cared for at all! In fact, he tore up the proof of the second capture the moment he saw it but, as a result of that image, Edward Steichen's photography career was kick-started in a big way.

Have any of you ever snapped a single photo that ended up being a boost to your photography career?  In my last update, one where I wrote about new or better gear and what it might or might not do for you, I related a personal story regarding how a single head shot I snapped back in the day, an 8x10 for a forty-something-year-old actress, kick-started my head shot business. It's one of two photos I've snapped over the years which directly resulted in a fair amount of work for me and, directly and indirectly, a decent amount of money put into my pockets. I'm not saying either photo made me rich and/or famous,. (That's obvious since I'm neither rich nor famous.) But each image, in its own way, did quite a lot for me in the near-term, and even the longer term,  after I snapped them.

This sort of single terrific image effect, i.e., where a single image might do a lot for a photographer, can be an anomaly or it can be because the photographer has the requisite skills to increase the odds of a single image doing much for him or her.

Sometimes, I view a photographer's work that, for me at least, isn't too good. The work does not invoke a sense (in my mind) that the photographer is skilled to any great degree or has much experience. Yet, that same photographer might be someone who manages to score a lot of paid work. Some might credit that to exceptional marketing and tooting-one's-own-horn skills. And that might be true. But other times, I wonder if it's the result of the single terrific image effect because even the world's worst photographers might manage to somehow, in some way, snap at least one, truly memorable, photograph.  Photography is funny that way. Skill and experience play a big part. But Lady Luck and serendipity can also sometimes play a big part, if not the only part.

The gratuitous eye candy at the top is Devin. It's one from a set I snapped at a location house sometime back. The image is, except for resizing and a very modest  "curves" adjustment, SOOC. (Straight Out of the Camera.)  I always try my best to snap photos that are competently shot SOOC. I'm not always successful at doing that but, at least 80% of the time, probably more, I can consistently snap SOOC pics that hold up well.  Doing so is simply a matter of experience. In my opinion, every photographer should be striving to become a competent, SOOC photographer. Besides being a good practice, doing so will radically increase the odds of snapping that often elusive single terrific image which just might be responsible for catapulting your photography to great success or, at the very least, some decent levels of success.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Is Your Gear Holding You Back?

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Over the years, I've often thought my gear was holding me back. If only I had this or that, I could shoot more of this or that or, for  whatever this's or that's I was already shooting, I could shoot them better, more easily, etc.

In retrospect, I was correct some of the times and not so correct other times. There were times I was flat-out wrong about my gear (or my lack of certain gear) holding me back; 20/20 hindsight is remarkably accurate that way. There were also times, I'm happy to say, when I was 100% correct in that assessment. Again, 20/20 hindsight let's me make that statement.

Here's an example: Back in the day, in the late 1970s to be more specific, when I began shooting head shots for Hollywood hopefuls, I started out doing so with a Canon AE1 and a 50mm Canon lens. That particular workhorse of a camera/lens combo was fairly common back then, and it stayed common for quite a while. It was certainly common amongst hobbyists if less so for dedicated pros. But I wasn't a pro back then. I was just a guy with a camera and some camera skills --  a GWC&CS versus the generic GWC (Guy With Camera) -- looking to augment my income shooting those head shots. My then spouse was an aspiring actress. I was going to film school, bar-tending, with my sights set on becoming a working screenwriter and later, if the Gods smiled on me, a director.

I started out shooting head shots by shooting them of her, my then wife. She had quite a few actor friends so, as result, I also began shooting head shots for a few of them. My head shot business began growing from there.

I paid a lot of attention to the work of other shooters who were also shooting head shots. I noticed much of their work seemed to be the results of them using a longer lens than I was shooting with. So, I decided one of things that might be holding me back was the lens I was using. That decision led me to purchasing a Canon 135mm prime. In my eyes, my head shot photography improved dramatically after I began shooting with that new lens. But was it responsible for the continuing growth of my head shot business?  Perhaps. I'm not completely sure. In fact, I now lean towards no, it did not, although at the time I might have offered a different opinion about that, at least for a time.

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You see, the one thing that really made my head shot business expand was a single photo I snapped. Admittedly, it was shot with my new 135mm lens. But did that really make any difference? I think not. Rather, it was the content of the photo that truly resulted in my head shot business suddenly taking off, not its photographic merits. How so? The content? Of a simple head shot?

I'll make a long story short: One of my then wife's acting friends needed new head shots. She was, at the time, in her early forties but all her 8x10s were snapped in ways, i.e., ways where her hair, makeup, clothing, expressions, attitude, was such that one would ordinarily expect from an ingenue's pics, i.e., an actress in her late teens or early-to-mid twenties. I convinced the woman to let me shoot her dressed and made-up like a frumpy housewife. A fairly common stereotypical character for somewhat older actresses, to be sure.

Guess what? While the actress wasn't too thrilled being presented that way, ego and all, the photo immediately got her called-in to audition for a national commercial and, after a few call-backs, she scored the role! Actors talk and she was no exception. Suddenly, my phone was ringing off the hook with calls from other actors who were hoping I could make some magic for their photos. They were hoping that lightning might strike twice.

Did any of that small success I had have anything to do with my new 135mm lens? I think not. I could have snapped the same pic of the forty-something actress with my 50mm lens and the results would have been the same. Maybe not exactly the same in terms of its photographic results, but the same in terms of the personal results both the actress and I experienced from that single image.

So, in my example, was my gear holding me back?  Apparently, it was not. Does that mean your gear or lack of it is holding you back?  I suppose that has much to do with what you're shooting or what you'd like to be shooting. But I do know one thing: Your gear isn't always responsible for holding you back, whether you think it is or not.

The pretty girl pics shown above are both of the same model. For the image at the top, we had some extra time so I snapped a few that were decidedly non-glamour in terms of pose, expression, and more. I used a wide-angle zoom lens, a Canon 17-40, to distort the image a bit... just for fun. The second image was also snapped during a glamour/tease shoot and, for that one, I stuck with the genre.

What's the biggest difference between the two pics? Well, other than one of them is color and the other converted to monochrome, the biggest difference is in the content itself, that is, how the content/subject is presented to viewers, and so much less the result of the gear I employed for either pic. The top image, although distorted a bit by the lens, could have been snapped with the same lens as the second image and, IMO, the overall impact of each of the images, on their own, would have remained the same.

Monday, September 01, 2014

When it Comes to Good Photography, There is No Instant Pudding

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With all the many ways to manipulate photos these days, especially applications that are almost completely automated, is there a line where a photographer's photos cease being something they can take much of a pic's credit for? Or, should that credit, at least a big piece of it, go to whatever application(s) are mostly responsible for a big chunk of the finished results?

If I snap a fairly cool picture and I then add some automated treatment to it -- one that, in my mind, enhances the picture's coolosity -- am I reducing the satisfaction I should be feeling for snapping a cool pic or am I increasing that satisfaction because I increased, leastwise in my mind, the photo's coolness?

I regularly see pics by other photographers where it's obvious they applied auto-treatment(s) to the photos. Often enough, very obvious auto-treatments. Sometimes, I think the treatments are cool. Other times, I think they're not.  Most often, I'm neither impressed by the addition of the treatments nor put off by them. They simply are what they are and what they are doesn't alter my reactions to the photos one way or another. There's an oft-seen internet comment which describes my response to those sorts of pics: Meh.  (Meh: Indifference; to be used when one simply does not care, one way or the other.)

When I'm shooting, I work hard at snapping pics that have as little meh to them as possible. I'm not always successful, of course. No one is. Also (no surprising observation here) meh is quite subjective. One person's meh is another person's cool.

There are times when meh is beyond a photographer's control. If I'm hired, as an example, to shoot subjects who are (or that are) intrinsically meh, I'll still try to shoot them in ways that reduce their meh-ness. Unfortunately, given the available time, resources, and more that may or may not be allotted to me at those times,  there might be only so much I can do to reduce the subjects' meh-ness.

In the situations like the one I described in the paragraph above, i.e., where the subjects are rather meh, should I, for the most part, automatically use an application to somehow, later in post, try to overcome or reduce those photos' meh-ness?  You know, with a (supposedly) cool treatment?  I'm not just referring to obvious treatments. They can be rather subtle treatments as well.  I don't know. Should I? Should you? Should anyone?

Many people do, of course, add those treatments. Some of them add them just about always, whether the photos seem to need them or not. Those folks tend to be people I don't consider as being serious photographers. But some of them who use those treatments, leastwise who use them occasionally,  are serious photographers. Often, quite good serious photographers. And those are the shooters who make me think about whether I should be adding auto-treatments to otherwise meh pics.

The pretty girl triptych at the top is one I processed three different ways: Normal processing, converted to monochrome, and one with an obvious treatment added to it.  The original image is, IMO, a pretty good image. The B&W also works well for me and the decision to convert was purely aesthetic. But the treatment I used for the pic's third rendition... well, the jury is still out (in my mind) and likely will remain out. (Note: The image was snapped with a Canon 17-40 f/4 L on a Canon 5D classic. It's all natural light via late afternoon sun. She's facing into the sun. Not even a reflector was used, much less needed... which isn't my norm but that's a different story.)

Do I think that third treatment adds any cool value? Yeah. Sort of. I guess. Maybe not. Who knows? Did the original pic need any added cool value? Well, that's the  more important question, isn't it?

Personally, I don't think it did. But thinking that way doesn't automatically mean the treatment is bad, does it? In some ways, it's simply different, neither improving or degrading the image. It simply makes it different.  Has the treatment, in this case, turned a decent image into a bad image? I'm not sure. I don't think so. Certainly not entirely. I suppose that's a question better answered by others, i.e., the image's viewers.

Bottom line: When it comes to good photography, there is no instant pudding, all the available auto-treatments notwithstanding. Leastwise, for those who pursue photography seriously as a hobby or professionally as a career.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

RAW v. JPEG: A Somewhat Different Perspective

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I've been a shooter in the adult biz for a long time. I've worked for companies like Playboy/Club Jenna, Hustler, Vivid, Wicked, and more. Guess what? They don't want RAW files. They never have. They want JPEGS-- large, fine, JPEGS.
I know, I know... Some of you might be thinking, "That's porn. Quality doesn't matter much." Okay. If you say so. But before you start feeling all photographically superior and so much smarter than the people who shoot and utilize glam, tease, and erotic photos in the adult industry, you might want to take a look at some of the packaging, print ads, and more adult companies produce.... from JPEGS. Shouldn't be too hard to find some good examples. They're all over the place, Certainly, on the web.

That's not to say there aren't adult companies who aren't too picky about quality. There are. Many, in fact. But that's the same in most industries, not simply the adult industry.

When I'm working for adult companies, I usually burn disks of what I've shot right on the set at the end of the production day or days. Why? For a number of reasons. First, those companies don't pay me to go home and convert RAW files for them. Second, those companies' art departments don't want to spend time and resources converting RAW files. Third, trust issues of various kinds. They paid me to shoot the stills and they want them in their possession almost immediately. (Note: If I'm working for a company for the first time and I don't really know them, I don't give them the stills until I'm paid. I'm not saying I hold the stills hostage. I don't. And they're not holding my pay hostage either. For the most part, it's a mutually understood practice: they hand me a check and I hand them disks or vice versa. It works out better for everyone that way, i.e.,  actual trust is taken out of the equation.

As I said, all I shoot are JPEGS. And that's at the direction of my clients. And guess what else? Many of my clients have full-blown art departments. It's the people in those departments who are the ones who don't want the RAW files. And some of the people in those art department are very experienced and truly terrific re-touchers and graphic artists. Often, very well paid re-touchers and graphic artists.

I should also mention that, because of the way it works for my job,  I don't get to fix anything later on. At the end of the production day, I do a quick edit and delete frames with blinks or strobe misfires and what what have you, and then burn the disks. In other words, I turn in the SOOC (Straight Out of the Camera) images. Those art department people I mentioned have the ears of my clients long after I've shot the pics. Consequently, assuming I want to get rehired for future productions, it's a pretty good idea for me to do whatever I can to make their jobs easier and more efficient. Like most people, none of those art department people wants to work harder because someone else created more work for them.

None of that is to say my clients' art departments don't enhance my images. They do. Sometimes, they make them look truly stellar on the packaging and elsewhere. I remember walking into the big annual adult convention in Las Vegas some years back and the first thing I saw was an approximately twenty-foot vertical banner of Tera Patrick made from a JPEG I snapped of her. It looked really good. I mean really good. And the JPEG held up terrifically through all the enlarging that was done.  

I'm not saying shooting RAW is automatically a waste of time and storage space. It's not. But RAW isn't  the end-all be-all for all digital photographers either. I shoot a fair amount of non-adult-biz portraiture. Even then, when it's most likely I'll be doing the post-production myself,  I snap JPEGS. Not because of habit but because those JPEGS are more than good enough for most of that work.  If JPEGS are good enough for the people who pay me to shoot pretty girls and the skilled artists who process the pics, they're almost always good enough for me when I'm shooting other stuff. Leastwise, for the most part. 

The pretty girl at the top is Sasha Grey. I've shot Sasha more than a few times. She's always terrific and fun to work with. The image was captured in a night club in Studio City, CA, on a Vivid Entertainment production. It was a bit difficult remaining focused. There were somewhere between 50 and 100 extras on the location set. Plus, a rather large crew. Confounding the keeping-my-focus-focused issues -- and keeping Sasha focused as well -- was a 4-man, 4-camera reality TV crew from Showtime who were all over Sasha and I while we were trying to shoot this set.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Money Shot

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This will probably come as no surprise to those who read my blog even semi-regularly, but I've worked as a photographer for more than a few adult entertainment companies. Those companies include Playboy, Hustler, Vivid Entertainment, Wicked Pictures, Tera Patrick's TeraVision, and more. Quite a few more. Judge me if that's your thing. Have at it. Nothing I say will change your mind, not that I care enough to try. To me, it's a job. Like it or not, someone is going to do it. If not me, someone else. I have no moral hang-ups issues with it. Like I said, it's a job. Period.

That aside, the adult biz has quite a few words, terms, and  acronyms that are unique to it. (Which is what I'm actually writing about.) Example: Ever hear of a FIP? (You say it like a word. A word that rhymes with sip.) A FIP is a commonly used acronym in the adult biz.  It means "Fake Internal Pop." I think you can figure out what a "Fake Internal Pop" represents in the production of a porn scene. If not, use your imagination. You'll figure it out.

This blog, "Pretty Girl Shooter," is so named for a common term used in the adult biz. When I'm working on an adult set and a producer or production manager says, "Jimmy! Go shoot her pretty girls," he or she is referring to the glamour images that will likely be used for packaging, marketing, advertising and more. Those "pretty girls" are decidedly "R" rated, not "X" rated. In fact, often enough many of them are "PG" rated and don't feature nudity. Pretty girl pics are "soft core," not "hard core." ("Hard core" being a term embraced-by and commonly used in mainstream and elsewhere to describe many things of a decidedly non-porn nature, yet a term originating in porn.)

Yep. The language of porn extends beyond its own world and some of its words and terms are embraced (in speech and in writing) by others, others who porn folks commonly refer to as "civilians." The "money shot" is one such term. I'm pretty sure most adults understand what a "money shot" is, leastwise they think they do, even when the term is not used to describe what they believe a "money shot" represents, you know, specifically represents from a biological perspective.

But here's the rub: On all the porn productions I've worked, and I've worked a few, more than a few, I've never heard the so-called "money shot" called a "money shot" referencing that moment of release by a male porn performer. Not once. Not ever. I'm not sure who invented the term, "money shot" to refer to that part of a porn scene, although it likely was someone in porn or someone writing about porn. You see, in  porn parlance one does not call the so-called "money shot" a "money shot" because that's not what it's called. Everyone who works in porn refers to what many others call a "money shot" -- others who have never worked in the adult biz -- a "pop shot."

If you ask me, "pop shot" is a much better and more accurate description of what's going on when a male performer ejaculates. The word "pop," in a porn context, is a multitasking word. It's used as both a verb and a noun: The performer "pops," a verb, versus what the stuff is he's popped, that is, the product of his "pop" which is a noun. The "shot" part of "pop shot"  also serves double-duty.  It  refers to what the performer is doing, you know, sort of similar to what a gun does when it's discharged, and also what the camera is capturing, as in "a camera shot." Personally, I think "pop shot" is a much more accurate and appropriate term from a variety of  perspectives.  "Money shot," on the other hand, just doesn't do it justice. And trust me when I tell you the money doesn't later come to adult industry businesses as a result of "pop shots." "Pop shots"may be de rigueur for many adult flicks, but that's not something set in stone nor does it guarantee money as a result of said shot, or pop, take your pick.

"Money shot," I suppose, is a more politically-correct way of saying or writing about a "pop shot."  I also think it works better for analogies or as a metaphor when applied in different ways. But it's not accurate. It's not what they call that part of a porn scene, that is, the part at the tail-end of most porn scenes.

The etymology  of the term "pop shot" becoming "money shot" (leastwise, in more polite mainstream circles) sort of reminds me of George Carlin's famous riff about the evolution of the term, "shell shock."  If you're familiar with Carlin's "shell shock" monologue, I'm confident you understand my vague comparison. If not, Google the words "Carlin" and "shell shock." You'll find more than a few YouTube videos of the great comedian doing that bit. 

As a photographer, I do think of one type of shot that qualifies as a "money shot" and it ain't the actual "pop shot."  I even refer to this particular shot as a "money shot" when I see it. So do some of my clients. For me (and my adult biz clients), a "money shot" is a shot or shots (the shots being photographic captures) that I know are obvious, jump-off-the-screen, photographic shots that will be later used to generate money for my clients. It's the shot or shots that many non-adult photographers refer to as "keepers."  In actual porn parlance, a "money shot" is the shot or shots that most likely will be used for product packaging, in ads, and for other uses. It's not always the best shot(s) from a purely technical perspective, but that's because there's so much more to a photographic "money shot" than a photo's technical merits.

The pretty girl at the top is the Goddess of Glam, Tera Patrick.  I knew that shot worked well the moment I snapped it. Sometime later, 944 magazine selected and published it in full-page glory in their magazine. Models like Tera offer a different problem at times: It's harder to pick a "money shot" out of Tera's shots because it's sometimes hard to snap a photo of Tera that doesn't qualify as a "money shot." (A few years back, People magazine included Tera in their annual list of the 100 most beautiful women in the world. That should tell you something about the likelihood of snapping a "money shot" when photographing Tera.)

I can make the above comment (about it being difficult to snap a non-money-shot image of Tera) with some degree of confidence. That's because I've shot Tera quite a few times. In fact, for a few years years I was (for the most part) her exclusive photographer. Why's that you might ask?  Well, I'll simply say it wasn't that way because there was a dearth of photographers who could do an equally good or better job of shooting Ms. Patrick, or who wanted to shoot her.  Tera has been shot by many terrific photographers throughout her career, albeit not during those couple of years when I was her shooter.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

It's Alive! It's Alive!

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In the original 1931 version of "Frankenstein," Dr. F shouts, "It's alive! It's alive! It's alive it's alive it's alive!" when he realizes his experiment is a success.  I'm no Frankenstein-like photographer, but I've done a bit of experimenting in my time with cameras in my hands. While my experiments haven't always been successful, they have yielded (what I believe were) successful results on a few occasions. Perhaps even more than a few. Course, when success was achieved I didn't get quite as excited as Dr. Henry Frankenstein did over creating his monster. But I was fairly happy with the results, my non-monstrous results.

For photographers, experimenting with new ideas and techniques can be a good thing. A positive thing. An expanding-your-photographic-horizons thing. Equally important, it can often be quite personally rewarding. More so than, say, following the pack -- ideas and techniques wise -- with almost everything you shoot.

When you discover something that works through experimentation and trial and error -- whether you find it via pre-visualization and experimentation or stumble upon it accidentally -- and it really works well, who knows? The pack might even decide to follow you!  You might end up becoming something of a photographic trend setter. That doesn't always happen but, if or when it does, how cool is that?

A few days ago, I made a semi-snarky comment on a photography forum where a photographer posted a portrait of two people standing in a woodsy, daylight environment.  I couldn't quite figure out what was going on in the foreground: There were odd, beige, out-of-focus, semi-transparent, artifacts, very pronounced, visible in the lower third of the image.  I couldn't figure out what created them. I commented: "I give up. Is that flaring? Are you shooting thru a window? Is that swamp gas?"

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Other forum contributors quickly chimed in. Here's a couple of their comments: "It's broken glass, right?"  Another wrote, "It's probably just leaves, shot between the lens and subject." But then the same commentator re-thought his comment: "...there's some odd reflections in there too, so, maybe not."

Finally, the photographer who snapped the pic ended the mystery:  "It's just a cheapo prism I got at Amazon guys. I put it in front of my 85mm lens."

I then defended part of my original guess: "Hey! I was close when I asked if he was shooting thru a window. A window is a prism... well sorta... okay, not really. LOL" 

The shooter who snapped the pic then commented: "If I made u look at it for more than 3 seconds then that's a triumph for me. You don't have to understand it, that's the beauty of art."

Well, I can't argue with that even if my more-than-3-second pause when looking at his image wasn't because I thought his experiment was a success. Nor did I think it was beautiful art. I do confess, however, that I didn't understand it.  Whether that's a good thing or not, you know, a positive element of the photo I'm not sure. Sometimes, creating confusion in the minds of viewers can be a good thing. Sometimes it's not. For the image in question, I think is was not. (Not that I'm an art critic to a greater extent than all of us generally are.)

I did offer the photographer one bit of advice in his forum thread: "A simple caveat tho: If/when you're being paid to shoot, don't experiment on your client's time or dime."

The image at the top is one from some experimentation I've been doing lately. Specifically, I've been experimenting with various gear and techniques that yield rather lo-fi images. I've been experimenting both in production and post-production to achieve the sort of look I'm hoping to create. To that end, I've occasionally been using "toy" lenses like those produced by Holga and Diana. I've also been using a few filters to create the look-- filters like Tiffens' Pro Mist filters.  

The image at the top was snapped with a plastic Diana+ lens on my Canon 5D classic.  The second image with my Canon "nifty-fifty." I later played with a few post-prod techniques to further compliment the look produced by the decidedly lo-fi Diana+ lens, as well as the 50mm pic.  Please note the images above, as well as others I've shot using similar approaches, are what I call "personal project" pics. I wouldn't experiment like this when shooting for a client. 

If I later decide I really like the looks I've been experimenting with, I might decide to incorporate some parts of them into my professional work -- altho I doubt I'll be shooting pretty girl pics for clients using a Holga or Diana+ lens -- but not until I've nailed the processes down and am very comfortable with the gear and approaches to the images that represent my experimentation. In other words, I won't incorporate any of the results of my experimentation into my paid work until I'm able to confidently shout, "It's alive! It's alive!"