Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Art of Self-Critcism

Author Joyce Carol Oates once said, "Self-criticism is an art not many are qualified to practice." For anyone pursuing artistic endeavors, whether it's creative writing, photography or any of the visual arts, music and more, Ms. Oates' words are dead on.

Some people believe, when it comes to critical appraisals of their work, the only critiques that truly matter are the critiques of others; that is, what others think of their work is what matters most. Conversely, some believe what others think of their work doesn't really matter. If they, as producers or authors of the work, think it's good, bad, or something in between, that's what it is. Personally, I don't agree with either of those views. They're too one-sided and intractable. For me, valid criticisms of my work falls somewhere between those two extremes; somewhere between my own self-criticisms and the criticisms of others... unless it's a client who's doing the criticizing. In those instances, my self criticisms matter so much less than the criticisms of my clients.

But how can anyone know which criticisms are most valid? Should we put more weight on our own criticisms or the criticisms of others? In other words, which should we count on most in order to determine the relative value of the aesthetic qualities of our work or a specific example of our work?  That's a tough question to be sure.

I've heard some photographers suggest it doesn't matter what others think of their work. What each of us thinks about our own work is all that matters.  That sounds terrific and very reassuring even if Ms. Oates' astute observation doesn't quite bear it out in terms of it being the better way to go. Still, I'm confident there are some very successful photographers and other artists who wholeheartedly subscribe to that idea, giving it much credit for their personal successes.

On the other hand, I'm also sure there are many more unsuccessful photographers and artists who, likewise, advocate that notion. When others don't agree with their self-criticisms, they simply chalk it up to others not understanding or appreciating their art. Those people are gifted artists, leastwise they've convinced themselves they are, and no one else knows nothing when it comes to their work. Worse yet, I'm pretty sure there are more than a few photographers whose work, for lack of a better word, sucks -- leastwise, in the eyes of most others -- and they wholeheartedly believe their self-appraisals of their work is all that's important and it always trumps the criticisms of others. For them, their work only sucks when they say it sucks... something they rarely, if ever, say.

I don't believe there's a sure-fire way to learn the art of self-criticism. Unfortunately, we all have something that can get in the way of learning to become good at self-criticism. That something is an "artistic ego." For some, it can be referred to as a "wildly inflated artistic ego."  Some of you might know a few people who suffer from that affliction. I know I do.

There are those who seem to have a natural knack for the art of self-criticism. I wish I had that knack. For most of us, however, self-criticism is a tough and difficult art to master, if it's even master-able.   Still, there's techniques, ways, steps, rules, whatever you want to call them, which may help you become more accomplished at criticizing your own work. Here's five of them I've come up with.

1. Practice your art often. The more you do so, the better you become-- both at it and at evaluating and appraising it.  Yep, the more you practice, the better you'll probably become at deciding what's good and what's not so good in your work.

2. Be honest. This is where you have to really work at keeping your artistic ego in check. Somehow, you need to learn how to remove the rose-colored glasses when you're looking at your work.

3. Don't make excuses. In other words, don't blame others (for example models) or circumstances (like the environment you're shooting in) for less-than-good work. Learn to deal with inexperienced models. Learn to shoot in less than ideal locations. Learn as much as you can in terms of how to deal with less than optimum conditions when shooting. Don't make excuses for yourself or your work.

4. Evaluate the work of others.  Look at the work of other photographers and, in a sort of semi-formal way, evaluate/critique it. That doesn't mean you necessarily have to share your critiques of other people's work. You're simply doing it to practice critiquing your own work. After you've critiqued another shooter's work, compare your critical appraisals of their work with your critical appraisals of your own work. Are you tougher on others than you are on yourself?  When being critical, are you more lax and forgiving with the work of others than you are with your own work? Is the level of detail in your critiques greater when you are criticizing other people's work? Conversely, is there less detail in your self-criticisms?

5. Have others critically evaluate your work. You don't have to agree with their critiques but I think you'll learn a thing or two about self-criticism when you compare your self-critiques with their critiques. This might require growing some thicker skin, but thicker skin is generally an asset when it comes to both accepting criticism, as well as developing your own skills at self-criticism.

The gratuitous pretty girl at the top is CJ from about 5 years ago. (Click pic to enlarge it.) I think she's waiting for dinner to be served.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Five Years Ago on Pretty Girl Shooter

I thought I'd occasionally reprise some of the posts I've made in years past. There's certainly plenty of them, what with the PGS blog being well into its sixth year. So today I'm climbing in  the WABAC machine. (Pronounced "Way Back" in case some of you don't know what the WABAC machine was or who normally operated it.)  Specifically, I'm heading back 5 years to September of 2007. If any of you decide to look this post up, you'll probably find I've done some small amounts of editing on it. Why? Simple-- I think I've become a slightly better blogger than I was 6+ years ago. You may or may not agree.  Anyway...

WORKING WITH FIRST TIMERS              (Reprised & Edited)

While I was in Vegas this past week, some of the models I shot were first-timers. To be sure, working with first-timers can be a lot of fun but they sometimes present special challenges. Here's a few examples:

Deer Caught in the Headlights Syndrome: Models beset by this affliction step in front of the camera and, although they may each have been Little Miss Personality while getting ready for their shoot, they suddenly go stiff, become filled with anxiety and dread, and begin posing as if a taxidermist had arranged their bodies and molded their expressions.

I've Watched Every Episode of America's Next Top Model Syndrome: These first-timers know it all. They paid close attention to every bit of advice Tyra Banks and her panelists and co-hosts offered to every contestant ever appearing on the show. They won't make the same mistakes those (losing) contestants did! Unfortunately, they're working too hard at putting the knowledge they gleaned from Ms. Banks' TV show into practice and their poses and expressions are often way over the top.

I'm Not a First-Timer Syndrome: These models have spent some serious time in front of cameras. But the people holding those cameras were boyfriends with point-n-shoots or cell phone cams. While these first-timer's boyfriends are all, according to the models, extremely creative -- after all, they're someday going to be A-List actors, superstar rockers, celebrated poet rappers, or even famous photographers -- they somehow weren't able to produce work that matched their creative prowess. Obviously, leastwise according to the models, only due to the limitations of their gear and not, of course, in any way associated with limitations of skill, talent, knowledge, and/or experience.

Yep, working with first-timers can be a real challenge. Here's some of my best advice for doing so:

1. Spend less time focused on craft, i.e., the photography tech stuff, and more time focused on the model. (That's why the craft stuff needs to become as  automatic and second-nature as it can be for you.)

2. Always keep the communication lines between you and the model open and going on at all times with a free exchange of ideas for poses, expressions, and more.

3. Give direction. Plenty of it and even if some of it becomes repetitive. If you find you're giving the same directions over and over, that probably means they're making the same mistakes over and over. Sooner or later, you keep giving that same direction and it will sink in.

4. Do your best, your very best, to gain rapport with the model. Say things (often) that build her confidence and stroke her ego. Again, repetition is a positive thing when it comes to stroking the model's ego.

5. Pay attention to details! Both in your viewfinder and in general. Especially in your viewfinder! You don't need to chimp every shot. Trust your eyes without always resorting to an instant replay by chimping the back of the camera. When you do, it sometimes makes the model think you're the inexperienced and insecure one!

6. Don't wait for the model to accidentally trip and fall into a decent pose. Shooting pretty girls isn't gambling. Good captures don't happen by accident. (Well, sometimes they do.)  But don't count on photographic lightning to strike all by itself. You're not Ben Franklin with a key and kite waiting for nature to happen. You're a photographer. Your job is to make things happen, not to wait for them to happen.

7. Always remember: It's lonely out there in the lights! More so if the photographer is mostly quiet and seemingly preoccupied with everything but the model while adjusting this or messing with that. (Note: If you're having a problem with exposure or anything else related to the tech stuff, let the model know that's what's going on. Otherwise, sure as shit, they're gonna think the problem has to do with them.) The best way to NOT capture the shots you hope to capture is to stand there, camera raised to your eye, silently keeping most of your attention focused on all the tech stuff,  all while an inexperienced model is emotionally squirming and melting in the lights.

The first-timer pretty girl at the top is Tina. (Click to enlarge.) MUA was Eva. Tina started out with Deer Caught in the Headlights Syndrome. Fortunately, she wasn't too difficult to loosen up. Image captured with a Canon 5D, 85mm f/1.8 prime, f/5.6 @ 125. Three source lights--a 5' Octodome and two strips--and a reflector were used.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Knowledge and Practice

Hat tip to my friend and fellow photographer, Tom McElvy, for the Beethoven quote. Click the pic if you can't easily read it. Old Ludwig B, as well as Tom, provided my personal inspiration for writing today's update.


The two best ways to improve your photography is via knowledge and practice.... knowledge and practice... k-n-o-w-l-e-d-g-e  and  p-r-a-c-t-i-c-e.

Growing your knowledge about photography is a never-ending pursuit. Practicing photography is a never-ending drill. Together, they represent the key, the combination, to unlocking photography's secrets and producing your very best work.

Whenever I learn something new about photography, something that really grabs my interest, I put it into practice. I don't mean I simply try it out once and Bingo! It's part of my repertoire. If I really like it, I practice it over and over till I nail it, till it becomes nearly automatic. I might have to practice it a few times or many times but I rarely try out new, unpracticed knowledge on a client's dime. Instead, I wait until practice and repetition, on my own dime, time, whatever, makes me comfortable with incorporating what I've newly learned (and practiced) into my production work-flow.

Someone once said, "The eyes are useless when the mind is blind."  When photographic knowledge is a scarce commodity in your brain, your eye, which is your greatest photography tool, might as well be blind. Some might say your mind is your greatest photographic tool. There's a whole lot of truth to that, but try snapping great pictures without your eyes.

Learning new things, gaining new knowledge, and practicing that new knowledge begets even more knowledge. In other words, the more you practice what you've learned, the more you learn even more. And that often occurs simply from practicing what you've already learned. Cool, ain't it? It's an awesome never-ending cycle!

These days, photographic knowledge is so easy to come by. There's no excuse for anyone to pretend knowledge is hard to come by. There are thousands of books, web sites, blogs, other photographers and more to learn from.

Today, photographic knowledge is like a tree with its branches hanging low from the sheer weight of all the Fruit of Knowledge hanging from it. And it's all within arms-reach! In fact, as a metaphor, merely comparing today's abundant availability of photo knowledge to a single fruit tree doesn't adequately cover its scope and breadth. It's more like there's an entire orchard of photographic-knowledge fruit trees beckoning you to come choose and pick all you want. From the perspective of developing and enhancing your photographic skills, it may be the best time ever to be a photographer!

Just so you don't think I'm blind to the fact that I didn't post one of my customary eye-candy pics at the top, here's a couple (below) of Anna I snapped a few months ago.  (Click to enlarge.)

Saturday, September 01, 2012

My Way vs. Other Ways

Being it's the Labor Day holiday weekend, I thought I'd write a little bit about labor. More specifically, the amount of labor, work, and so forth it takes to snap some decent pretty girl shots.

There are many ways to approach and succeed at capturing a good glamour shot. For instance, there's my way and then there's other ways. At the risk of sounding a bit full of myself with that "my way" and "other ways" stuff, let me clarify: My way always tries its best to be the shortest, easiest, simplest way to get the job done. Other ways often take other paths: complex and circuitous paths, time consuming and tiring paths, which may or may not be the shortest, easiest, simplest ways to accomplish the very same thing and arrive at the same destination; the destination, of course, being a competent glamour photo.

Some of you have read either or both of 2 of my 3 eBooks, Guerrilla Glamour and Guerrilla Headshots. If you have, you know I'm a huge fan of the KISS approach to photography, i.e., Keep it simple, stupid!  KISS is a well known acronym/term coined by Kelly Johnson, Lockheed's famous "Skunkworks" lead engineer.

The other concept I'm a big fan of is one called Ockham's Razor, sometimes spelled Occam's Razor.  Ockham's Razor postulates, Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem. The theory driving Ockham's Razor was first put forth in the 14th Century by a Franciscan monk, William of Ockham.  Waitaminute. What? You don't savvy Latin?  Sorry. In English, Ockham's Razor translates to, "Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity."

In a nutshell, the good friar's observation simply means this: The simplest explanation (method, process, or way to approach something) is usually the correct one. You might even make that, " usually the best one."

I like to think that my way, whatever way "my way" happens to be at the moment -- and there's more than a few ways which are "my way" depending on the circumstances and given whatever it is I hope to accomplish -- "my way" always hopes to conform to both the KISS and Ockham's Razor concepts.

Take yesterday, for example. I was booked to shoot at a house high up in the Hollywood Hills. Even though the location's altitude might make one think the temperatures would be somewhat cooler than down in the valley, they weren't.  While the house was air conditioned, I was mostly shooting outdoors. And it was freakin' hot out there!

Realizing the heat was going to be a factor, probably a negative factor for both the models and myself -- although I'll admit I was mostly concerned about myself and my comfort -- I decided the best approach (in order not to wear myself out prematurely or end up with heat stroke or something) would be too lighten my load. In other words, to get by with less gear. Even less gear than I normally try to get by with! Rather than shoot with my customary lighting set-ups utilizing three lights and a reflector mounted on a stand, I opted to go with one light and no reflector. This, of course, meant I only had to trudge through the thick, oppressive, triple-digit heat carrying one light, one stand, one modifier and one stinger (extension cord) versus three lights, four stands, three modifiers, extra stingers and other stuff. While this might not sound like a huge personal stamina savings in terms of surviving the heat, trust me... it was.

Did that mean I sacrificed anything in terms of the quality of the photos? I don't think so. While I personally prefer the look those extra lights deliver in terms of highlights, there's nothing wrong with one-light portraits... and glamour shots certainly are portraits.  I might not regularly be a one-light shooter but when the temperatures trump 100° and I'm outside in it, you can rest assured I'll suddenly become a one-light shooter if it means better surviving the heat. Better surviving the heat means my energy level remains up and when my energy level is up I'm better able to focus on the things that are important, which mostly revolve around keeping my attention on the model and interacting with her in ways that improve my chances of capturing some good stuff.

The model above is Adriana, one of the pretty girls I shot yesterday.  (Click to enlarge.) As already mentioned, I used one light. I modified it with 4' Photek Softliter.  I was shooting ISO 200, f/11 at 125th.  Hope everyone has a terrific holiday weekend! I'm going to try and do the same.