Friday, May 27, 2011

Some Cold, Hard, Inconvenient Truths

A photographer wrote to me today and said he's seriously considering quitting shooting altogether. He asked me for any advice I might have regarding what he's doing wrong. He wonders if his work is "just shit?" He's curious why people (make that people who might pay him for his work) don't give him respect and if that's why nobody ever offers to pay him for his photography. He can't understand why he pours so much effort into his photography with so few rewards... monetary rewards, that is.

Whew! Tough stuff to respond to!

Still, I took a stab at it. Basically, here's what I told him, although I've edited and/or added more for the purpose of this blog update:

These days, there's few career choices tougher to succeed at than photography. Leastwise, in terms of getting paid for your work, especially if your work is shooting models. It seems more than a few photographers, for whatever reasons, are pursuing photography "careers" either for some bizarrely altruistic reasons or as a result of some other, career-building strategies... if strategies they be. In other words, they're willing to work for free or for very little which means others, i.e., those not so willing to work for free or for very little, find themselves often competing with free or with absurdly low rates. No surprises there, right?

This is especially true for shooting models, whether it's glamour, fashion, beauty, commercial, whatever. It's also true for headshots and portrait work, editorial, even sports and some other photo-journalism gigs. Photography, in this digital day and age, is now on a par with writing, acting, being a musician and so many other creative and artistic endeavors which have always been extremely tough career choices. Often times, the toughest of career choices. Know anyone who has tried to "make it" in Hollywood as an actor or a writer? If so, you know what I'm talking about.

With photography, there's an incredible amount of competition these days. (Not just from those working for free.) There's probably more competition than ever before. That competition, I told the dude who wrote to me, probably has more to do with what he's experiencing than anything else. "Do you need to continue learning and developing your skills?" I asked him. "Of course!" I answered for him. "That never stops."

But I also explained that the decision he should first be considering might have more to do with whether he's willing to keep on truckin' in a crowded, uber-competitive, field. I told him he needs to consider and evaluate what his level of determination might be and, once he does that, honestly and truthfully does that, if he's willing to persevere and compete in an almost unbelievably tough industry. You know, that sort of stuff. I also told him it's not so much about whether his work is "just shit" because, whether it is or not, he can always continue developing and bettering his skills providing he's investing enough time and energy learning, reading, experimenting, and practicing. "Practice, practice, practice!" I told him.

Still, there are no guarantees no matter how hard someone tries or how much time or resources they invest in learning, in gear, in honing their craft. These days, I'm not sure if the cream always rises to the top. Unless, of course, it's actual cream and it's poured into a cup of Joe. (Other dairy and non-dairy products act similarly.) Accepting that it's a really, really tough photo-world out there is a really, really tough thing to come to grips with when someone really, really wants to shoot cameras pointed at models for a living.

Sure, some photography genres might be easier to make a go at: weddings and events and other, related genres come to mind. When I say "easier," I don't mean they're easy. I guess what I mean is they're sometimes easier to get paid for doing than, say, shooting models for a living. Like it or not, that's the cold, hard, inconvenient truth. And by the way, these days it ain't so easy for established model shooters to keep getting paid for what they do. Certainly not as easy as it once was. (Not that it ever was all that easy.)

Sucks, don't it?

For this update, I thought I'd post a "cleaner" pic than I normally do. It's from 4 or 5 years ago and I'm not too thrilled with the post I applied to it back then. Oh well. WTF, I'm posting it anyway. For the life of me, I can't remember the model's name. Getting old (and all that goes with it... like big, gaping holes in one's memories) sucks even worse than trying to still make a good living as a pretty girl shooter.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

sLIGHT of Hand

Digital PhotoPro magazine published an excerpt from a really terrific book on lighting: Light: Science and Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting I've had this book in my personal library for quite some time and I recommend it to anyone looking to increase their understanding of photographic lighting, especially those hoping to make some magic with your photography. If you're interested, you can purchase a copy from Amazon by clicking on the link I just provided above.

Here's the DPP article I'm talking about: The Family of Master Angles. It's a good read with plenty of important ideas and information contained in it. The "master angles" referred to in the article's title aren't shooting angles relative to your subject, that is, your models, rather it's the shooting angles relative to your light source(s). I love the authors' statement, "Photographic lighting is primarily an exercise in reflection management. Understanding and managing reflection, for the result the photographer wants, is good lighting."

It's true: When we're lighting and photographing something, we don't directly paint with light in spite of that notion being what the word, photography, actually means. Instead, we paint our photographic images with reflected light. It might seem like there's not a whole lot of difference between painting with reflected light versus painting directly with light but there is. Why? Because it means, as photographers, we need to understand how light behaves when it's reflected.

Everything you see in your viewfinder and then record on film emulsion or a sensor is illuminated with reflected light. (Unless, I suppose, you're pointing your camera directly at the sun or whatever artificial light source you're using.) You're recording the light that's being reflected off your subject. Those reflections are the the results of direct light being reflected off your subject and/or already reflected light being re-reflected off your subject. That's why it's so important to understand how light reflects and how it behaves when it's being reflected.

While the book's title refers to light as being both science and magic, it's actually all science. The results, of course, can be perceived as magic depending on how well and how creatively you, the photographer, light and shoot your images. So give the article a read. Whether you're an experienced shooter, just starting out, or anything in between, I think you'll find if worth your time.

The pretty girl at the top is Alisha from some time ago. I lit Alisha with three lights and used a fan to provide some movement to her wardrobe.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Photographologist or Photographer?

Sometimes I just sit, transfixed, watching my Tweetdeck columns spin like a never-ending slot machine. Tweetdeck is a Twitter app if you didn't know and, yeah, I probly need to get more of a life. My generally unexciting life aside, I usually have search columns showing on my Tweedeck feed. They search for words like "photography" and "photographer." It's amazing how many folks, world-wide, Tweet their 140 characters with those words included in their texts. So freakin' many!

What am I looking for as I stare at the spinning columns of characters keyboarded in by so many people, most of them photographers and from all over the country? (All over the world, for that matter.) Well, anything that might interest me, catch my attention, appease my appetite for photography-related information.

I also look for trends or common subjects: trends and subjects that seem to have grabbed a bunch of peoples' interests, make that photographers' interests, nearly at the same time and enough for them to Tweet about it.

I find it interesting that more photographers seem more like photographologists than, well, than photographers. Why do I think that? Because the majority of those Tweeting their 140 characters with the words "photography" or "photographer" in their texts appear more interested in the study of the tangible things related to photography, i.e., gear, equipment, and technologies, than the intangibles like craft and technique. I'm not saying there are only a few who are interested in those intangibles, many are, but the majority seem more interested in the tangibles.

And yet, so many of those who Tweet mostly about the tangibles also seem genuinely interested in improving their skills and abilities as photographers. This leads me to deduce that many people believe the tangibles, rather than the intangibles, will make them better photographers. That's exactly, of course, what those who manufacture and sell all those tangibles, things like cameras and lenses and lights and more, want people to believe.

I'm not saying many of the tangibles cannot help you become a better photographer or a photographer who snaps better photos. They certainly can. But they're not going to help you achieve your excellence-in-photography goals all on their own, contrary to what more than a few manufacturers of that stuff would have you believe.

I also find it curious that so many who often Tweet touts about all the latest gear often are the same people complaining the loudest that everyone thinks they're a "photographer" these days.

Well... why is it that? Why do so many people who know so little about photography believe they are photographers? (In a professional or accomplished sense of the word.) I'm convinced it's because too many people are constantly touting gear and relaying and replaying the notion, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that gear makes the photographer. And if gear makes the photographer, all someone needs to call themselves a "photographer" is a war chest full of the latest and greatest gear; not skill, not ability, not experience, just gear.

Anyway, just something to babble on about today while I drink my coffee.

The gratuitous eye-candy at the top is one I snapped a few months ago of a model who goes by the name Ash.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Anatomy of a Rut

I read an insightful blog update on the Photo Focus website this morning. Leastwise, I thought it was insightful. It was authored by photographer and writer, Joe Faraci. It's titled, "A Photographer's Three Phases of Development."

If you're either too busy, too lazy, too hung-over, or simply not interested (pick one) in reading Faraci's post, I can boil his 3 phases down into much fewer words-- Phase One: Your photography is awesome; Phase Two: Your Photography sucks; Phase Three: Your photography is all the same.

If you're a Phase 3 photographer, Joe offers some advice: Try shooting in monochrome mode. Okay, that might work for some, although there's certainly a ton of other stuff you might also try. Still, Faraci's advise is well taken: Do or try something different, something outside your comfort zone. In other words do something, anything, to get you out of your rut. (Assuming it's a rut you're in.)

I should note that all ruts are not equal. There are ruts born of comfort and security, there are ruts born of boredom, there are ruts born of lack of inspiration, there are many ways ruts are born, created, or exist. (Pick one or add your own.)

Personally, my Phase 3 rut is born of comfort and security. Most of my work looks the same -- different models, of course, but same sorts of photos -- because most of my clients expect my work to look the same or similar or very close to what they expect it to look like. What they expect it to look like, BTW, is very close or similar to what all of my clients expect. (Plus any would-be or hoped-for clients I'm continually eyeing.) Such is the way, I suppose, when the majority of one's work is performed in a single industry where the unwritten guidelines and expectations (of that work) is fairly uniform.

Sounds a bit like a Catch-22, no? If I want to continue getting paid for what I do, I need to maintain my rut. In fact, I need to maintain my rut to quality rut standards. If I want to transcend my rut, i.e., get out of my rut, I risk discontinuing getting paid for what I do.

I often wish, not that it's a unique wish, that I could win the lottery or inherit a bunch of dough. If I did, I'd probably (in addition to other changes in my life) give up being a professional pretty girl shooter and become a hobby photographer. If that happened, I'd also probably end up snapping way more photos than I currently do getting paid to snap photos. Not surprising, many of those photos would no doubt be quite a bit different, decidedly non-rut-like, than the photos I routinely shoot as a paid professional.

Oh well. I guess the grass is always greener and all that.

Here's the way I look at it, creative ruts aside: It's not always a good idea to try out new things on someone else's dime. That's not to say trying out new things isn't a great idea, it often is, but it should mostly be messed around with on one's own time and dime.

The pretty girl at the top is Allie from a shoot a few months back. Allie has just signed on with Vivid Entertainment as their newest "Vivid Girl." I also read, just today, that Allie is currently in Cannes where it's been announced she signed-on as the newest title-role star in the next generation of "Emmanuel" films, continuing the sexy franchise which began with Dutch actress, Sylvia Krystel, many years ago. Congratz to you Allie! You're lots of fun to work with (I mean that) and it definitely doesn't appear as though you're in a rut. If you are, in a rut that is, it sounds like a pretty good rut to be in. BTW, there's another pic of Allie (snapped during the same shoot as the one above) in my previous blog update, "Your Photography Sucks."

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Your Photograph Sucks

When I was a much younger Dad, I recall being a bit (cynically) amused with other parents who thought (and loudly voiced) that everything their kids did was absolutely, incredibly, undeniably fantastic: gold medal worthy accomplishments! In my opinion, those parents weren't helping their children learn the difference between what is a truly terrific accomplishment and what is something less than that.

I understood then, and still do, the need to build confidence and self-esteem in children. Doing so is especially true for parents. Kids constantly need approval, especially from Mom and Dad. As parents, we should often and pro-actively look for opportunities to offer approval as well as praise.

But let's face it, everything our kids accomplish isn't award-winning, fantastic, or exceptionally terrific. It might often seem so to us, they're our kids after all, but it's not. Trust me. It's not. The same goes for photographers. Every picture a photographer proudly showcases in which he or she thinks kicks some serious photographic ass doesn't. (Come close to measuring up to photography's butt-kicking status, that is.)

And yet, if you spend significant time on photography forums or social media sites and look at a lot of photos many photographers showcase, and then read the comments by friends and others, you'd think the majority of these pics are nearly of Pulitzer prize winning caliber.

They're not. Again, trust me, they're not. Yours aren't and neither are mine. They might be good, they might just be okay, they might be better than average but they're not all exceptional. BTW, the word, "exceptional," in this context, means unusually good; outstanding. I only mention this because I've seen enough photos that are exceptional in other ways, like exceptionally bad.

Obviously, no one wants to hear or read their photos suck. I know I don't. But then, I don't really want to hear that some photo I'm putting out there, one I think is just okay, is anything more than what it is-- good or competent or whatever other words indicate it's a decent enough image.

I've worked pretty hard at trying to develop a good sense of aesthetics; a good "editing eye" if you will. I think I have fairly good skills in recognizing the difference between a photo that sucks, a photo that's just okay, one that is good, and a photo that is better than okay or good, possibly exceptional. Unwarranted praise, as ego-building as it might be (not that photographers who need help in the ego department are a rare commodity) works against a photographer's ability to discriminate between work that sucks, work that is okay or good, or work that is exceptional. The ability to discriminate in those ways are important skills for any photographer to develop, very important skills! And they are learn-able skills rather than abilities you need to be gifted with.

BTW, if someone tells you your photograph sucks, you have three choices: you can either accept it, get over it, or deal with it. Or, you can do all three plus another thing: you can choose to accept it, deal with, get over it... and move on. (Hopefully, moving on in a direction that helps you learn to make photos that don't suck or, at the very least, to learn the difference between photos that suck and those that don't.)

The gratuitous eye-candy at the top is Allie. I don't think it's an exceptional photo but it works. It's okay. More importantly, my client thought it and others I snapped of Allie were okay, were good in fact, and that's what matters most to me... and that the check clears.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Blogger Blues (Update)

Google's Blogger, the service I use for this blog, has been up and down and everything in between for nearly two days. It looks like my only casualties are my last two updates. (Which have now been restored, albeit minus comments.) I'm wondering if Google's techs finally threw their hands up and re-booted the service to where it was prior to two days ago? (Turns out, that's exactly what they did.) I suppose it's possible my last two posts may re-appear but I'm not optimistic. (They have. Maybe I should'a had more faith?)

This is the first time in the six+ years I've been using Blogger that something like this has happened. I should note Blogger is a free service so, coupled with their performance for at least 6 years, I can't complain. But I still want my last two updates back! (And they are. Back, that is.)

We'll get back to our regularly scheduled programming shortly... as soon as I come up with a subject to blog about and I start feeling relatively confident Blogger isn't going to take a dump again.

The headshot/buttshot above is Kayla. I can't remember if she was demonstrating her flexibility or we used another model as a butt-prop. The photo sorta reminds me of Blogger pulling its head out of its ass but still holding on to it just in case it suddenly returns to where it was for the last couple of days. Thanks again to Ashley Karyl for sending me my last two blog posts that had disappeared. It's nice to know others have my back... up. :-)

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Learning Composition From the Movies

There are few better ways to learn about photographic composition than by watching movies. Hollywood's best cinematographers are masters at using composition to help tell a film's story, to impart emotion, and more. (They also use lighting and other techniques but I'm writing about composition today, okay?)

Let's take one of the simplest rules of composition: the Rule of Thirds. We all know about the Rule of Thirds, right? It's where you divide your frame into nine equal parts with two equally-spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines. Then, when framing the shot, important compositional elements are placed along these lines or at their intersections. Cinematographers use the Rule of Thirds often and in many ways.

Suppose you're shooting a movie and the scene features two actors sitting across from each other at a table. You'll probably want to get ample coverage by, minimally, shooting a wide shot, close-up "singles" of your two actors, as well as some "cut-aways."

First, you might shoot a wide shot establishing your two actors seated at the table in whatever environment, like a restaurant for instance, they might be in. Then, you might shoot a closer "two-shot" of your two, seated, characters and record their dialogue in that shot. Next, you will probably shoot close-up "singles" of each actor, once again recording their dialogue as well as their reactions to what the other actor is saying or doing. This is where the Rule of Thirds often reveals itself in obvious ways.

If those "singles" are profile or semi-profile shots, you'll probably want to shoot the actor on the left utilizing the Rule of Thirds and placing that actor in the left 1/3 of the frame. When you then shoot the actor on the right, you'll again probably use the Rule of Thirds but this time by placing that actor's face in the right 1/3 of the frame. As long as your camera remains on the same side of the table for both shots, the actors will appear as if they're facing each other while they speak. Using the Rule of Thirds in this way also retains the sense that there is some distance between the two actors, in this case, that distance seemingly reflecting the horizontal width of the table. Each of those "singles" are more effective because, like the Rule of Third's many uses, it often results in more effective composition and, in this case, helps tell the story.

BTW, those "cut-aways" I mentioned are things like shots of the actors reaching for a glass or a cup or scratching their noses or perhaps other shots that will allow the editor to "cut away" to something else happening in the room or to other people in the room.

Let's look at another compositional technique: Negative space.

Cinematographers often use negative space to impart many different ideas and emotions in a scene. Suppose your movie includes a character who is lost and alone in a desert. Your first shot depicting this character in this situation might be a very big, wide, shot with plenty of negative space surrounding the character. So much so that he or she might seem an insignificant part of the environment. Doing so will heighten the sense the character is lost, alone, isolated from civilization, and possibly in a dangerous situation, that is, the danger inherent in being exposed to the elements, perhaps without water or shelter or proper clothing or other things necessary to his or her survival.

Sometimes, negative space is used to portray the grandeur or beauty in a scene. We've all seen movies that take place in Africa's savannas. They often include a beautiful sunrise or sunset shot of the savanna with plenty of sky, plenty of savanna, and that one, lone, tree on the horizon depicted in the image. You've probably all seen that shot. It's practically a stock shot in those sorts of movies. In fact, it might often be a "stock" shot that was used.

Cinematographers also understand the importance of where to place the camera, that is, the "angle of attack" of the shot. That angle can also impart many feelings or emotions. If you're introducing a character in your movie or scene, one who is an imposing figure or threatening character, you might set your camera low and angled up at a rather extreme angle. This compositional technique will heighten the audience's sense that the character is intimidating or lofty or powerful or frightening or other things.

Cinematographers, just like photographers (because cinematographers are photographers after all, the difference being they're shooting motion pictures rather than still images) call on all the techniques and so-called "Rules of Composition" to help tell a film's story in much the same way photographers should call on those same rules and techniques to tell a story in their images or to add power and interest to their photos.

Next time you watch a movie, pay attention to the compositional techniques used in the film. Who knows? You might learn something. I know I often do.

The pretty girl the top is Dahlia. I snapped this one and a bunch of others at El Mirage Dry Lake near Victorville, CA, last year. About 5 minutes after I snapped this, two rangers showed up asking for my shooting permit. Having a pretty naked girl handy helped me convince the two rangers I didn't need no stinking permit. Instead, they decided to hang around and watch the rest of my shoot.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Gear Up, Soldier!

If all the photography people I follow on Twitter are any indication of what photographers are most interested in learning about, gear and equipment tops the list.

Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against gear. I even own some. I also have nothing against keeping up with the latest and greatest advances and trends in photographic technologies and all the equipment represented by them, the technologies that is. But it seems to me either the Twitterers I follow have it mostly wrong or I do.

Sure, I occasionally write about gear. But I write about it less than I do the craft of photography. Much less. I don't do that because I don't know what's what in the world of photography gear. I do this because, in my opinion, my priorities for learning and sharing about photography hold skill and knowledge above gear and equipment.

Call me crazy but I think it's more important for photographers to learn about photography than it is for them to be given a heads-up on every freakin' new camera, lens, light, software, service, or whatever else represents the tools of this trade rather than how to become a better, more skillful and knowledgeable tradesman. (Or woman)

It might be, of course, that many of those on Twitter (and elsewhere) who constantly Tweet (or blog or write) about gear and equipment really don't have much else to say? That' s not necessarily a bad thing. Those people could be terrific shooters without the additional abilities that are helpful when getting into writing about other, less gear-related and more art-and-craft enlightening, aspects of photography. Maybe they simply know something I don't know? Maybe they've figured out that more photographers are more interested in the things we use to make good photos rather than the many ways, gear and equipment aside, that we call-on to make good photos?

Someday, I might figure this all out. Or not.

I can't remember the sexy young lady's name shown at the top. (I'm old, okay?) But I shot it and her for Playboy/Club Jenna a handful of years ago.

Monday, May 09, 2011

I Suck at Photography

I should probably qualify this update's title. I don't think I suck at all types of photography. I can handle shooting models fairly well, especially those wearing less clothing rather than more. But there are quite a few types of photography I suck at and, as a photographer, I'm not so full of myself to admit it.

This past weekend was my granddaughter's 5th birthday party. It was Justin Bieber themed. (Or, as my granddaughter calls him, "Justin Beaver.")

My daughter and son-in-law, the birthday girl's parents, went all out for this bash. For instance, my son-in-law built an outdoor stage equipped with a karaoke-style pro sound system so the kids could belt out their favorite songs, Bieber tunes or otherwise. There was even a "paparazzi" wall with a full-size, cardboard stand-up of the Bieber for the kids to be photographed next to and in front of... minus a red carpet.) About 30 kids attended the party so it was pretty wild from a 4, 5, and 6 year old party-goers point of view.

My daughter designated me the official photographer for the event. I am a photographer, after all. One who makes his living with cameras in his hands. (Altho lately I've been making more of my living writing about how I've made my living with cameras in my hands.) I wanted to set up some lights but she told me, "No, Dad. There's gonna be too many kids running around. You can handle it without your lights."

"I can?" I hesitantly answered, the fear beginning to show in my eyes.

Thoughts of shooting events like this (or weddings or most any other event) makes me break out in a cold sweat. It's so far out of my photography comfort zone it qualifies as being alien to almost everything I do, photographically speaking.

Fast forward: I shot the birthday party. None of my photos rose above snapshot status. I'm not being overly hard on myself. I'm being honest. Yeah, I could keep things in focus. I could swap glass and adjust exposure on-the-fly without much difficulty. (I shot all the pics in Aperture Priority or in Manual.) But I realized, while shooting the birthday party, that what really caused me to end up shooting lackluster stuff was my lack of control of what was in front of me.

I certainly wouldn't call myself a control freak. Not even close. Leastwise, regarding most aspects of my life. But when it comes to my photography, I want to be in total control. I want to be in total control of my lighting, my models, my shooting environment, everything. When I'm faced with a shooting situation that is mostly out of my control, you know like a 5-year-old's birthday party, in a word, I "freak," and in another word, I "suck."

I'm not 100% sure if this is a good or a bad thing, that is, recognizing (as a photographer) what I can do well and what I totally suck at doing. (I definitely lean heavily towards it's a good thing.) I know there's plenty of photographers who say, "I can shoot anything." I'm not one of those photographers. I know where my strengths lie and I know where my weaknesses lie. Besides events, for instance, I'd probably suck at being a photo-journalist. Many photo-journalists don't have too much control of what they're pointing their cameras towards unless they're shooting editorial-style portraits of people being written about in some rag.

On the other hand, I think I could fairly easily adapt my model-shooting skills to things like product photography. Heck, product photography offers even more of the ability to be totally in control of every facet of the shots, even more so than shooting models where the models themselves can sometimes be a weak link in the "control" chain.

I recognize these are tough times for many professional photographers. And for that reason, many of them have become, in many ways, complete generalists in terms of what kinds of photo jobs they pursue. Nothing wrong with that. Ya gotta do what ya gotta do. (Some of them have even become writers, authoring everything from blogs to articles to ebooks about the craft of photography.) I can't help but wonder, however, if many of those generalists truly excel at any specific genre of photography if they're all over the map in terms of what it is they shoot? Shoot for pay, that is. Still, I suppose there are some photographers who can handle just about any sort of photography and deliver decent results. I guess I'm just not one of them.

Anyway, just sayin.

The pretty girl on the staircase at the top is Brook from a couple of years ago, captured with two lights and a reflector. (Click to enlarge.)