Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Are You a Video Ranger?

Ever since Canon came out with their 5D mkII, a lot of photographers have joined the ranks of the Video Rangers. Many of them were encouraged to become Video Rangers after NY Times staff photographer, Vincent Laforet,  released that short video on the internet. You know the one. It was pretty cool. It more than demonstrated the possibilities of shooting video with a dSLR, especially if you have a ton of other gear, an experienced production crew, a helicopter, editors and more.

Suddenly, photographers who toiled at shooting images one at a time with a dSLR realized they could multiply their output by many times simply by capturing video. In other words, they could now shoot motion pictures with the same sort of camera they were already accustomed to using for shooting static images. Talk about taking your skill sets to new levels with the flip of a camera mode and the push of a finger!

Photographers lined up to purchase a 5D mkII and, later, other iterations of video-capable dSLRs. For them, it was going to be a brave new world, one in which they might make their indelible marks as filmmakers via their new gear and new-found movie-making abilities.

But then, something happened. Something called reality. And the reality was this: In spite of their newly acquired video-capable dSLRs plus all kinds of accessory gear to complete their rigs, for most photographers-turned-videographers their opus videos didn't quite turn out as expected. Leastwise, they didn't turn out the way Laforet's videos did. Or as many other notable filmmakers did, for that matter. And you wanna know why? Actually, I think I'll let the guy in the video below tell you some of the reasons why.

An open letter to Canon from safetyhammer on Vimeo.

So as not to post a blog update sans some gratuitous eye-candy, something I rarely do, here's a random shot I snapped of Jenna some time back. By the way, I'm proud to call myself a Video Ranger even if I don't own a video-capable dSLR. Instead, I merely own a dSLR that (gulp!) only shoots photographs. But I do own a fairly decent Sony HD vidcam and other video production and post-production gear. I'm also proud to mention I've been a Video Ranger since the very early 80s... maybe even late 70s. I don't remember exactly when my enlistment in the Video Rangers began.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Diary of a Left-Eye Shooter

I'm miserable. Yesterday, I had a laser procedure performed on my bionic eye. Apparently, there were some problems which have developed in and around the synthetic lens implant I've been sporting for a while now and my eye doctor decided some well-aimed bursts with a laser beam could fix them. Today, my eye hurts, really hurts, and is very light sensitive. It's also quite red and I look like I have a black eye.

Bionic eye, you might ask?

Yeah, that's what I call it.

About ten years ago I had a cataract removed from my right eye. It wasn't your run-of-the-mill cataract. It was a cataract that grew so big, so thick, so tough, it led to me being blind in that eye. As a result, I was half-blind for about a decade. All I could "see" with my right eye was some hazy, dark grayish light and shadow. That was it. Nothing else. Still, throughout my half-blind years, which also meant I had very poor depth perception and 3-D glasses simply wouldn't work for me, I worked regularly as a photographer and videographer. This meant using my left eye as my shooting eye. That didn't present a problem shooting with an SLR still camera but most video cameras were ergonomically designed for right-eye shooting. Using my left eye with most professional video cameras was cumbersome and awkward to say the least, especially since most pro vidcams had their viewfinders on the left side of the camera's body.

My cataract was of a type called a "traumatic cataract."  It was caused by an injury when I was a kid; an injury that put me in the hospital for over a week, had me wearing patches over both eyes for about a month or so, then a patch over one eye for about a year, and then wearing sunglasses for another year. I was the coolest kid in 4th Grade wearing shades to school each day.

Later, in my late teens, the cataract began forming. That was during the draft-driven Vietnam War Era. My cataract almost kept me out of the military. Almost.

My cataract continued growing until, eventually, in my late 30s or early 40s, it blinded my right eye. The doctors didn't want to attempt removing the cataract because of the risk of infection to my optic nerve which had a fair chance of leaving me completely blind. Then, about ten years ago, the doctors told me new technologies meant they could (fairly) safely remove the cataract and install a synthetic lens. And that's what they did... except one of those new technologies didn't quite work as planned. During the surgical procedure, one where I remained awake throughout, the surgeon, after almost two hours of torturing my eye, told me the new technology wasn't making much of a dent in the cataract and she'd have to remove it "the old fashioned way."

"With a pick and shovel?" I asked.

"Something like that," the surgeon told me.

In total, the surgery lasted almost four hours. Finally, my cataractasaurus was defeated, broken into manageable pieces, and removed with a vacuum device of some sort. Then, the bionic lens was installed. Interestingly, the procedure left me with double vision because, while I was blind in that eye, the muscles controlling my right eyeball had atrophied and that meant I was permanently looking to the right with that eye.  There was talk of fitting me with some sort of prism for that eye but then, a couple of weeks later, my double-vision suddenly and magically self-corrected. I'm also happy to report that no infection in my optic nerve resulted from the "old fashioned" surgery.

Suddenly, I was back in business as a two-eyed shooter! The only negative result of my bionic eye, if you could call it a negative result, is I see with a slightly bluish color cast with that eye. For some reason, though, I had become so accustomed to shooting with my left eye that I continued doing so. I'm still, in fact, a left-eye shooter. Don't ask my why but, for some reason, going back to shooting with my right eye was very difficult so I simply said, "Screw it!" and kept on shooting with my left eye.

These days, there doesn't seem to be any problems associated with shooting with one's left eye. There aren't any advantages I can think of either. Today, many video cameras, certainly the smaller, HD cameras, aren't right-eyed-centric in their ergonomic design. If they were, I probably would have forced myself to go back to shooting with my right eye. I've yet to have anyone notice that I'm a left-eyed shooter, leastwise no one has ever mentioned it. By "anyone" I mean other photographers or videographers.

Anyway, time to pop another Vicodin for the pain in my eye so I guess I'll log off now. Have a great weekend everyone!

The pretty and not-really-dead girl lying on the autopsy table at the top is Sasha. It's a behind-the-scenes photo I snapped a few years ago while working on a movie set in the morgue of an abandoned hospital in East Los Angeles.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

It Helps to Know Your Competition

I love bidding simple jobs against other photographers who I know may likely overbid those jobs. Often enough, those jobs end up mine. Now don't get me wrong, that doesn't mean I grossly underbid those jobs and am willing to work for stupid low rates.  It simply means I might be a bit more in touch with reality than some of my competitors might be and that I know some stuff about those competitors.

Here's a recent example: The gig is for shooting an actress for her portfolio/agency pics. Besides some head shots, she wants at least four looks, mostly on the glamour side, and wants the price to include the cost of a makeup/hair person experienced with painting faces and coiffing hair for glam shots. She also wants the price to reflect a half-day shoot. She will provide the shooting location.

The actress asked a regular, ongoing, client of mine to recommend an experienced photographer. My sometimes client, a producer/production manager type, sent an email out to a few photographers, myself included. Since I know who the handful of photographers are my client regularly hires, I figured I knew who those other photographers likely would be. It didn't matter that the email's recipients were all BCC'd. I knew by the wording of the email that a few shooters were being asked, "How much?" I also knew this because the email's "To" was to the "From" guy writing the email with no one else listed on the "To" line or on a "CC" line. That meant, of course, the photographers it was being sent to were being blind-copied.

One of those other photographers (who is guaranteed to be on my client's "BCC" list) is someone who always insists on having an assistant regardless of the job. This photographer generally wants between $200-$300 for their assistant. Also, the photographer insists on using the same MUA he/she always uses. The photographer's MUA is good, I'll readily admit that, but there's more than a few good MUAs out there. This photographer's MUA is also on the pricey side and the photographer insists his/her MUA be paid their full asking rate. No problem beating out that shooter on price. I don't need an assistant to shoot an actress for port/agency work. I also know plenty of terrific MUAs who will work for more standard rates, certainly rates that are at least $100 less than this photographer's MUA. Finally, this photographer always asks for a fairly hefty rate for themselves, i.e., heftier than mine. (Not that I'd describe my day rate as "hefty," but neither is it on the too-low side.)

The other photographer (whom I figured was on the BCC list) is someone whose rates always seem contingent on how much work he/she currently has booked. If you want to know how I know this, well, we often work for the same clients and those clients talk. On more than one occasion, I've heard or overheard clients mention that this particular photographer is always asking for different rates depending on how busy he/she is, even though the jobs may be quite similar.  Since I recently ran into this photographer and because he/she told me about all the work he/she currently has booked, I knew the price he/she would submit would be on the high side.

So, I submitted what I would call a reality-based price. I knew the actress wasn't a "money is no object" type person. I wouldn't be needing an assistant. I'd be hiring an excellent, albeit standard rate MUA. My rates are generally consistent, that is, they're pretty much the same (for the same sort of work) whether I'm experiencing lean times or fat times. While my rates are often about the same as the 2nd photographer's rates I mentioned -- provided that photographer isn't currently experiencing fat times --  they're always less than the first shooter I wrote about.  I would say that all of our work, craft-wise, is on a par with each others.

As you might have already guessed, the job is mine. It's mine because A) When it comes to price, I'm a reality-based photographer whose reality-rates are consistent; B) I know what the market will bear for certain kinds of work and/or certain types of clients; C) I know my competition in terms of their approximate rates as well as their personal quirks.

The pretty girl in the diptych at the top is Penthouse Pet Celeste Star. (Click to enlarge.)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

You Need Both Yin & Yang Eggs in Your "Learning Photography" Basket

Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while have probably figured out I'm more interested in writing about (what I call) the "soft" side of photography rather than the "hard" side.

What I mean by the "soft" and "hard" sides of photography is fairly simple: If it deals with the aesthetics of photography, the psychology driving it, production and post-production from a non-technical or less-technical perspective, interacting with subjects, clients, or others, the attitudes, behaviors, and demeanor photographers engage in, the creative aspects of photography, etc., I see that stuff as the "soft" side. If it deals with gear, tech, how-to tips, and those sorts of things, it's the "hard" side, the side I'm generally less interested in writing about. That's not to say I don't ever write about the "hard" side. I do. But I write about that stuff less often.

Another way to look at this "hard" versus "soft" notion is like this: Photography is both art and science. One is photography's yin, the other is its yang. They are both equally important! If the science and technical aspects of photography are it's yin, I prefer writing about its yang. Yep. That's right. I'm more a yang guy than a yin dude. Leastwise, when it comes to writing about photography.

There's more than enough people covering photography's "hard" side beat, you know, the yin of photography. If you follow a fair number of people on Twitter, other social media, or those who write and share about photography on blogs and the many websites dedicated to photography, you know the great majority of them Tweet, blog, and post about the "hard" side, especially gear, lighting, Photoshop and Lightroom, and all the rest of the techy, hard, yin stuff. As a blogger and an e-book author, I decided quite some time ago that another cyber-voice isn't needed to regularly share about that stuff. How many more photographers do we need, as an example, blogging or publishing about small flash photography? I think folks like David "Strobist" Hobby, Joe McNally, Syl Arena, and plenty of others have that subject covered from head to toe. I certainly don't need to add my voice to theirs. Besides, they cover the subject so well my voice would be barely heard if heard at all.

Conversely, there's way fewer people often writing about the soft, yang-ish side of photography. I count myself as one of them. I've never been one to follow the pack anyway. My e-book, Zen and the Art of Portrait Photography, is entirely about the yang side of this thing we do. Famed photographer and painter, Man Ray, once observed: "There will always be those who look only at technique, who ask 'how,' while others of a more curious nature will ask 'why?' Personally, I have always preferred inspiration to  information." Yep. Me too, Mr. Ray. I'm curious by nature and most always prefer inspiration (or ways to become inspired) to hard information. To illustrate the point,  there aren't even any pictures between my Zen portrait photography e-book's virtual covers. (Illustrating without illustrations: Now there's a novel concept!) While my e-books, Guerrilla Glamour and Guerrilla Headshots do include ample pictures, along with chapters dealing with gear and how-to elements of their respective subjects, i.e., the information stuff, there's plenty of words in them covering the soft, yang side.

As I already mentioned, both the yin and yang of photography are equally important. As a photographer, it's pretty hard to pursue photography without some knowledge of both, including how they interact and are interdependent on each other; leastwise, if you hope to snap some decent pics... which begs the question: Why do so many photographers, that is, those who educate other photographers, seem so preoccupied with only half of what's important in photography? You know, the yin side of it. I'm sure all the gear and software manufacturers really love those guys but, photography-wise, they're only telling half the story. Also, it seems to me many photographers, those who are seeking to learn, are also lop-sided in terms of what they deem important versus less important. Does anyone think Canon's or Nikon's latest announcement about their latest camera bodies are going to make any difference whatsoever to a photographer's skill at shooting pictures? For many, it seems, the yin almost always trumps the yang. Here's some 411 for those people: It doesn't. Period.  I believe photographers who grab most of their learning eggs from the yin basket are limiting their growth and development. Seriously limiting it. But maybe that's just me?

The pretty girl in the polka-dot bikini at the top is Madison. (Click to enlarge.) She's darn easy on the eyes, no?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Quit Trying So Hard to Make Your Work Unique

It seems to me a lot of photographers sometimes work too hard at producing images that stand apart for either their creative or technical uniqueness. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. But if that's your #1 goal just about every time you shoot you're in for a lot of disappointments. How so? Well, most of your work, no matter how much you believe is unique or never before seen, probably isn't. As a result, don't be surprised if a lot of viewers fail to share your same excitement about the work you believe is nearly incomparable for it's relative uniqueness.

It's very difficult to produce work that truly stands apart! I'm not saying it's impossible. It's not. But it's damn hard to accomplish. It's even harder, probably approaching impossible, to accomplish on a regular basis.

Occasionally, producing truly unique work is a product of luck or simply finding yourself, camera in hand, at the right place at the right time. True uniqueness isn't always planned or somehow conjured by the photographer. That's because just about everything, photography-wise, has either been done, tried, or shot before.  Photos you've captured that are new or seemingly unique in your mind doesn't necessarily mean it's actually new or unique. Instead, it might simply mean your awareness of what's come before (or what others are shooting) may be more limited than you know.

Please don't be put off or disheartened by my seemingly negative words. I'm not trying to rain on anyone's parade. Being a photographer who stands apart doesn't mean all your work needs to stand apart. There are a lot of qualities which will make you, as a photographer, stand apart whether your work truly does so or not. And if your trying to monetize your love of photography, those "photographer qualities" may mean more to your success than the uniqueness or stand-apartness of your work.

A client of mine, one who has hired me, literally, hundreds of times over the years, once told me that he likes my work well enough and he thinks it's really good but the main reason he continually hires me is because I get along with the models so well. He told me he can count on the fact that problems on sets rarely seem to raise an ugly head as a result of my interactions with the models. If you're shooting tease and glamour for a living and you don't think the way you get on with the models is all that important I've got some news for you-- it is! It can be very important, not only in terms of getting the shots but also when it comes to you getting rehired again and again.

Your "bedside manner" can be extremely important to your success. It's been that way for me. Sure, you still need to be able to consistently produce good work which meets your clients' expectations but good work alone often isn't the only important element to success.

Good work ethics are also very important. They're the same sorts of work ethics that apply to almost any job: getting along with others, being a team player, showing your commitment, being dependable, and so much more.

I know a few photographers who, in my opinion, don't produce work that's all that good but they work regularly regardless. They do so because of some of the things I just mentioned and because they really excel at networking.  I often wish I could network as well as them.  They're also good at selling themselves once they've networked into a potential opportunity for work. That's another quality I wish I was better at. Selling yourself is as important as the work you produce. It's an art. People who can masterfully sell themselves are... well, they are masters at walking that fine line between being perceived as a terrific photographer and not being perceived as overly egotistical or self-impressed.

In a nutshell, I'm not telling anyone not to work at producing work that is unique and stands apart. I'm simply saying there are other elements to being a working photographer which are equally important. Sometimes, if you're doing this thing for a living (or as part of your living) those things can be even more important than producing unique work that truly stands apart.

The pretty girl at the top is Kayla. (Click to enlarge.)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Excelling at Mediocrity

Your clients won't ever tell you this but, as a rule, whether they or you realize it or not, what they really want is mediocre photos, make that photographs at the higher ends of mediocrity.  They're not looking for you to shoot photos on a par with humanity's great artists. They don't want museum quality images. If they tell you they want edgy or out-of-the-box or super-artistic images, they don't really mean that. They simply want good photos which might have a definable style but which still fall into the realms of, for the most part, fairly average-looking photos... preferably, in the above average realms of technically and artistically average-looking photos.

I know all this sounds very cynical and, in truth, it is cynical to a degree, but it's the truth whether you or your clients admit to it or not. Most clients want good pics, actually a bit better than good, but they don't want images which completely transcend what they're accustomed to seeing in the often-seen world of photography. And what they're accustomed to seeing falls somewhere within the lower-to-upper limits of mediocre.

None of this is to say clients want photos that suck. They don't. They want pics which are noticeably better than the mid-point of mediocre. But even the high-side of mediocrity still falls within the limits of mediocrity.  You see, for the most part, clients want images which are more commonly seen. Uncommon images are risky. Uncommon images might occasionally be perceived by viewers as incredible, awesome, terrific, and so on but they might also fall flat on their faces. More commonly seen images are safer. They're less uncertain in terms of achieving they're expected impact. More commonly seen images, when done well, are guaranteed to be fairly well received even if it's possible to produce images of the same subjects that are significantly better, more artistic, and achieve greater impact than more commonly seen images of the same subjects.  Photographers who know how to shoot more commonly seen images in very competent ways, delivering images which are always at the higher ends of mediocrity, are considered consistent. They're thought of as reliable. They often become the "go-to" shooters for many clients.

I consider myself a reliable, efficient, and consistent photographer of higher-end, yet still mediocre, images of beautiful (and sometimes  less beautiful, a.k.a. mediocre) models. I know how to get in and get out and still get the shot. "The Shot" might not win awards for artistic merit but will meet or exceed my clients' expectations for images at the high-side of mediocrity: Images which are as good, for the most part and given the shooting conditions and circumstances, as those produced by the majority of my peers. Being able to do that is something I can take to the bank, literally and figuratively. Even the world's greatest photographers shot plenty of mediocre images. Often, they shot them for clients.

If I was exceedingly driven to try to shoot truly exceptional images with oodles of impact and feeling, I'd probably have to do so as a hobbyist. In other words, for myself and not for pay. Why? Because clients aren't art patrons. They don't pay me or anyone else to strive for shooting art. Depending on genre, they pay either for commercially viable photos or keepsake images that are as good as most of what they see others getting for their money. In other words, average... well, better than average but not all that better than average.

Anyway, another "just saying" blog update. I've been rather preoccupied for the last couple of weeks. I nearly lost my Mom. She's eighty-five. Two weeks ago, she was in the hospital in critical condition. Now, she's out of the hospital and recovering at my sister's house. I'm very thankful for that.

I snapped the mediocre image of Amber at the top this past Saturday for an ongoing client who, lately, has been having me photograph pretty girl sports-themed images against a white backdrop. (Click to enlarge.)  It's exactly the sort of image they asked me to shoot. The images I've shot of a handful of different models for them will be composited (by their graphic artist) with some other background, plus text and graphics, for a DVD's cover art. Some (but not a whole lot) of processing on the image above.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Some Tips for Gaining Rapport with Models

I'm told I'm pretty good at gaining rapport with models and helping them to relax and be confident in front of the camera. I don't think it has much to do with my basic personality. Instead, it includes things I purposely set out to do whenever I'm shooting. A relaxed and confident model, one who is comfortable with the photographer, will nearly always yield better results.

Some of the things I do to help gain rapport with models are easily accomplished by any photographer. It doesn't require a charming personality or a "gift of gab," but it does require being mindful of one's demeanor. Most of these things you should have learned when you were enrolled in People Skills 101, also known as Kindergarten. Yet it's amazing how, when I watch some photographers work, they ignore some very basic social interaction techniques.

First off, I always try to converse *with* models rather than speaking *to* them. Sure, when you're actually shooting and directing them regarding posing and expression and attitude and all that, it generally sounds more like you're speaking *to* them rather than *with* them, and that can't be helped.  But when your interactions go beyond simple direction, which they often do, you need to remember the model isn't a prop. They're just like you, except they're often better looking. They appreciate being talked *with* rather than spoken *to* during a shoot. Just because you have a camera in your hand doesn't mean your position is suddenly one of being completely in charge. Yeah, you should be in charge of your shooting sets, but there are many ways to be in charge without brandishing a weapon, in this case the weapon being your camera.

To take that notion a step further, except for when I'm actually shooting the camera, I try to never have my camera in my hand when speaking with my models. I know that sounds trivial but, in some ways, perhaps many ways, it's the camera itself which makes models nervous, leastwise, the camera represents a tangible focal point for many things which may be making models anxious during a shoot.  When I'm shooting, for instance, and I suddenly decide to approach the model for various reasons, I always set my camera down. Doing so is like approaching them "unarmed." It's less threatening or intimidating.  Approaching models and speaking with them without your camera in your hand is a subtle action, but I really believe it helps, in a subconscious way, in terms of emotionally and psychologically disarming models.

I also try to never appear as if there are secrets going on. (Not keeping secrets being one of the first things most kids learn in kindergarten.) If I'm having some technical difficulties with gear or exposure or whatever, I always to share what's going on, at least in some brief, non-technical, way. Doing so helps prevent models from noticing I'm suddenly preoccupied, often while I'm staring at my camera's LCD screen, and them interpreting what's going on as having something (negative) to do with them.... which, guaranteed, most models will do. 

These are just a few tips you might consider when working with models. The bottom line is always being aware of your demeanor and how it might be impacting a model's level of comfort in front of the camera. I don't care how cool you light your models or have them integrated into some environment while posed in engaging ways, if there are things preventing the model from giving her all, the photos will not be as good as they could be, even if they're mostly good... if that makes sense.

The pretty girl at the top is Melanie. (Click to enlarge.)