Friday, November 28, 2014

Some Things Ain't the Way They Used to Be

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Before I say what I have to say today, an FYI on something free to download. It's the TLS Digest. What's a TLS Digest? Well, the TLS FB page, (aka The Light Side) is a terrific photographer's forum-style page on FaceBook. It's mostly comprised of British photographers but I don't hold that against them. The guys who administrate TLS decided to transform some of the really good threads there into a periodic digest and make it available to, well, to everyone. Check it out!  You can download the first TLS Digest, a free PDF, by CLICKING HERE.  Also, if you're a Facebook user and you think you might want to join TLS, here's the link to the page. It's a closed group with more than a few very accomplished (and helpful) photographers participating, as well as plenty of shooters who are there to share and/or to learn. As it's name suggests, The Light Side is mostly focused on all things lighting... without taking itself too seriously.

Anway, here's today's post...

The world of professional photography has dramatically changed in recent years. Duh, right? These days, mostly because of new technologies, many more people are interested in photography then ever before. Not only that but many of those who have more recently found interests in photography can produce images that are quite good. Often enough, awesomely good!  I'm often blown away by the quality of photographs I see coming from hobbyists.

Not only are many of those newer-to-photography folks able to produce great images, but many of them have (or are trying to) turn their passions and skills in photography into something that generates personal income.  Nothing inherently wrong with that. But here's the deal...

These days, becoming a working photographer -- you know, one who gets paid to shoot -- has so much less to do with their photography, i.e., their skills, talent, and the pictures in their portfolios, and so much more to do with their abilities to market and brand themselves that the photography itself seems to have become a less important trait or factor in their abilities to become working photographers.

Do you know or know of any photographers whose work, in your opinion, isn't so great and yet they seem to have work, paid work, and clients or customers coming out their ears?  Guess why that is. Yep. Marketing and branding.

None of that is to say you shouldn't work hard at becoming a good photographer. But if you're doing so at the expense of also learning to become a good or great self-marketer, well, odds are no one is going to notice how terrific your images are, leastwise in terms of seeking you out so they can start giving you tons of work. It just doesn't work that way. In fact, I'm not really sure it ever worked that way.

I do know that ten, fifteen, twenty or more years ago being able to produce work that truly stood out counted for more than it does these days.  Whether that's a good thing or not depends on who you are.  If you're a shooter who routinely produces average, pedestrian work, but are really good at marketing and branding, it's likely a good thing. If you're a photographer who regularly produces terrific, even awesome photos but you kind of suck at marketing and branding, it's probably not such a good thing.

I'm mostly writing about this stuff today because my email's "in box" has been cramped full of Black Friday offers for deals on gear, software, instructional programming and more, but I haven't seen anything offered that deals with helping photographers become better self-marketers.  That's not to say those products aren't available. They are. But I guess they're not sexy or popular enough to waste a Black Friday on.

The pretty girl at the top is Jamie. Snapped it on a standing set in a loft studio in down-town LA. Used a 5' Photoflex Octo for my main, plus a medium strip box behind her and to camera left for some subtle edge lighting.  Converted to B&W with Photoshop's simple tool for doing such things. Plus, I added few other digital ingredients to it. If you read this blog somewhat regularly, you know I'm partial to converting images to B&W in various ways.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Beyond Mundane

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I was reading an article about portfolio websites today while eating lunch. The article was published in a well-known photography magazine. Yeah. I'm old school. I still read magazines and periodicals of the non-cyber kind. I even read the occasional book, i.e., a printed-on-paper book.

Mostly, I read magazines about photography or I read one of two other, non-photography rags: Archaeology and Smithsonian. Occasionally, I'll read Vanity Fair but not too regularly. Also, like today, I mostly read magazines while eating lunch alone at a restaurant. Today's lunch alone was sushi. Yum! Sushi! Who needs lunch company when you have a good magazine and sushi? Not me.

The magazine article I read provided helpful tips on creating visually notable portfolio websites. It also included some words on how to get your website mentioned or showcased in the magazine's future articles on photographer websites. Some of the generic tips about websites included suggestions like not using black backgrounds because white lettering on black backgrounds is hard to read. You know, like the design of this blog page of mine with its black background and white letters.

I don't personally have an online portfolio but I'm often thinking I should have one if for no other reason than my photographer's ego.  Anyway, to get to the point of this update, the two things the rag article's writer mentioned regarding getting one's online portfolio showcased in the printed magazine are: 1) A great design and 2) Photos that aren't mundane.  (With extra-special emphasis on #2.)

Just so we're all on the same page with this mundane stuff, let me define the word for you, not that I think you don't know what it means. In the context of portfolio websites, I take the word 'mundane' to mean: Lacking interest or excitement; dull; common; ordinary; banal; unimaginative photographs.

Many of us who are photographers earning all, much, or even small parts of our incomes routinely shoot mundane photos. Mundane photos are most working photographers' bread-n-butter. Mundane photos represent the lion's share of their work. Mine, yours, most shooters' work. How's that, you ask? Because most clients, be they commercial glamour clients or wedding and event customers and beyond want, whether they know it or not -- and they usually don't know it's what they want -- mundane photos.

Don't get me wrong, those clients and customers who want mundane photos want terrific mundane photos! Stand-out mundane photos! But in terms of most other aspects of the photos, they want what everyone else wants, only better, that is, better in terms of quality and all that stuff. You see, what most of them don't want are photos unlike those that other photographers provide except in terms of quality. And by quality, I'm not simply talking about good exposure and in focus. They want, for the most part, images that are exceptionally well composed and lit with good emotional content. Hence, they want really good mundane photos. All that's why I sometimes go out and shoot photos for myself. 

When I shoot photos for myself -- I usually refer to doing so as shooting photos "just for fun" -- I try to shoot photos that aren't mundane. Leastwise, photos that are less mundane. Photos that are unlike those I normally shoot for pay. Images that are less-seen and somewhat uncommon. (Even if the genre I'm shooting is, basically, common.) Why? Because I want my personal work to be super expressive and super-expressive isn't as common as many photographers think it might be or claim their photos happen to be.  You see, I want to shoot stuff that's, well, that's different. If I go out and shoot landscapes as an example, I want to shoot them in less-seen ways utilizing less-seen techniques and from less-seen perspectives. It's not about what I might point my camera at -- let's say, for the sake of my example, a pristine lake with majestic mountains in the background -- but it will be about where I point my camera from, where I place it, how I angle it, what filters I might use, how I shoot it, and what I might include along with whatever it is, in the bigger picture sort of way, I'm pointing my camera at... if any of that makes sense.

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Here's a pic on the right I shot not long ago just for fun and just for me. It and others I snapped that day may not be ready for prime time in some gallery. It  might not be one I'll choose to include in some future, online, portfolio I may or may not create. And it might not appeal to too many people's discriminating tastes. Whatever. But whatever it is or is not, it expresses something I wanted to express and it's not mundane. Leastwise in my opinion.

Hopefully, in the not too distant future, I'll have a pretty good stockpile of non-mundane images I can choose from to put together an online portfolio; one that has a good design and includes more than a few images that aren't, for the most part, mundane. I might even go for broke and not make the portfolio's background black with white lettering. 

Course, every photo I use likely won't be non-mundane. And then there's the notion that one shooter's super-expressive photo is another shooter's "ho hum" pic. But I'm hoping more than a few of the pics I'm going to shoot will be of the beyond the mundane variety, especially any pic I might use for my portfolio's splash page image plus the first one or two in each individual category or gallery -- within my overall portfolio -- I might create. 

The pretty girl at the top is Alexa. It's not my usual pretty-girl-on-a-seamless that so many of my clients have me shooting. Ergo, it's a bit less mundane than much of my work, owing largely to the environment she's selling her allure in. I lit Alexa with three lights: A 5' Photoflex Octo for my main, set just a bit to my right with the center of the modifier just above the model's eye-level. I also used a medium strip box, camera left from behind, plus a small rectangular soft box boomed overhead from behind Alexa and just slightly camera right. ISO 100, f/5.6, 125th, manual mode on my 5D1 with a Tamron 28-75 at 60mm.


Sunday, November 16, 2014

Angle of Attack

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I like to refer to a photographer's shooting position, i.e., whether their camera is pointed up, down, or remains mostly level, as their "angle of attack."  It's a term I first learned while working (for more than a decade) in the aerospace industry as a corporate film-maker and photographer.

In aerodynamics, the angle of attack specifies the angle between the line of the wing of a fixed-wing aircraft and a vector representing the relative motion between the aircraft and the atmosphere... if that makes sense.  In photography, in my mind at least, angle of attack represents the angle (relative to, say, a level floor) which indicates an up or down angle between a photographer's camera and the subject of his or her photo. Hopefully, that makes more sense.

Course, most photographers simply call (what I call) their angles of attack their "shooting angles."  But a shooting angle is a bit vague and can be applied to other positions a photographer might be shooting from when shooting anything. You know, like, "I need to get this angle from over here or that angle from over there."  Saying things like that doesn't refer to an actual angle, i.e., an up or down angle relative to level. It refers to virtually anywhere a photographer might be shooting from, not just angles like high angles pointing the camera down or low angles pointing the camera up or even a lack of an angle when keeping one's camera level in the "X Axis" when shooting. (In aerodynamics, the X Axis is referred to as pitch, that is, it refers to a plane's nose pointing up or down or being level. The two other axises are yaw and roll. Aren't I smart? Who knew?)

Okay. Now that I've spent three paragraphs explaining my use of the term, "angle of attack," I'll get to what I'm writing about today: Using low angles of attack for dramatic or psychological impact and giving more "power" to your models.

I received an email from the good folks at Picture Correct the other day, as did about a hundred thousand or more other photographers. It was all about low angle photography tips. If you're not on Picture Correct's email list you might want to go there and sign up. They regularly send out some terrific info. And it isn't just promotions for stuff to buy even if they do promote a few of my ebooks from time to time, as well as those from other photography authors.  Anyway, this particular email got me to thinking I should write an update about shooting models from low or lower angles versus level angles that are, for the most part, snapped from eye level.

There are a couple of reasons why I shoot the majority of my pretty girl pics from lower shooting angles. Make that I shoot with an angle of attack that has me shooting from low rather than eye-level or higher. While I don't often shoot from dramatically low angles of attack -- unless I'm purposely looking to produce a fairly dramatic image -- I am, for the most part, shooting from below. By below I mean I'm generally shooting from belly-button level. That would be the model's belly button, not mine.

Shooting from a belly button angle of attack means my camera is pitched or pointed up, but not overly or too dramatically angled up. It's just enough of an up-angle to give the model a bit of psychological "power." Leastwise, in terms of how viewers perceive the images. In other words, it awards the model a subtle sense of dominance over the viewers. Conversely, if I want to create a sense of subservience or submissiveness, I'll opt to shoot from higher angles with my camera pointed or pitched down.  Yep. Angles of attack can have a lot to do with how viewers perceive images, and not just in terms of whether it's a generally good or not-so-good image.

The other other good thing about me shooting from an approximate belly button height is it means I'm usually shooting with my ass plopped on an apple box. But that's a more personal thing cuz, personally, I can be a bit lazy when shooting.

My laziness aside, a variety of types of people photography -- include many types of portraits -- aren't the only genres where shooting from low angles, often from dramatically low angles, can make your photography more, well, more dramatic. Many landscape photographers, for instance, capture images from quite low angles of attack, sometimes nearly ground level, even though their overall images are big and wide vistas snapped with wide angle lenses. Shooting models from a very low angle of attack with a very wide angle lens can create a sense of distortion -- an uber-wide angle lens combined with a low angle of attack, that is -- which may produce some very cool and memorable images!

The pretty girl at the top is Charmane. I snapped it and a bunch of others of Charmane from my usual sitting-on-an-apple-box angle of attack. Since making eye contact with the camera is oft-seen element of glamour photography, my shooting position forced Charmane to look down on me. (Physically look down on me, not the other kind of looking down on me that some people sometimes engage in.) She's not overtly or too obviously looking down in the image. Rather, she's doing so in a somewhat subtle and natural way. Again, having models look slightly down to various degrees gives them a perceived sense of power and dominance in the photos.  By the way, that doesn't mean I'm a submissive person in other ways, if you get my drift. We're just talking about photography and angles of attack here, not me personally and/or other types of human relationships... other than your usual and customary photographer/model relationships.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Green and Blue for B&W

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I've been known to use colored gels on more than a few occasions when shooting pretty girls. Often enough, I've utilized Rosco's Bastard Amber or Straw to warm the skin of more than a few sexy models. The two other gel colors I've often employed are CTB (Color Temperature Blue) and CTG. The latter being -- Yeah. You Guessed it. -- Color Temperature Green.

Green and blue aren't gels used to warm skin. (People aren't Smurfs or green-skinned alien creatures, after all.) But they can be used effectively in glamour and nude photography in a variety of ways. One such way is with images intended for B&W conversion.

How so? Well, since human skin doesn't include blue or green in its skin tones, the green and blue in an image can be easily manipulated without effecting the skin tones. One such manipulation where using green or blue gels can come in handy is when you're converting to B&W.

In the image above from a set I snapped a while back, I was shooting with model Faye in a small apartment against a bare wall. The wall was texture-coated and painted off-white. I used two lights: a main light set camera-right about head-high and modified with a medium-sized, shoot-through umbrella, plus a bare-bulb strobe on the floor behind her, angled almost straight up. I metered my main light for a good exposure but cranked up the back light to create a very hard and obvious edge around her and to back-light the smoke so it would be well portrayed in the image. I also gelled the back light with CTB for some of the captures.

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The image on the right is the SOOC (Straight Out of Camera) capture for the photo above. (Re-sized, not cropped, for the web.) The blue-gelled back light has its own "cool value," in my opinion, and also affords me the ability to manipulate it in post -- manipulate it quite a bit, in fact -- when converting to B&W.

Because there's no blue to the model's skin tones (or her scant wardrobe for that matter) I was able to easily adjust the levels of the background in post by simply choosing the color blue as my "key" for such adjustments.  For the image above, I brought the tone of the blue way down, i.e., darkened it quite a bit, in order to further "pop" the model from the background and to add some interesting value to the bare wall. I was also better able to accentuate the texture of the wall working in B&W.

Manipulating the blue for a B&W conversion isn't the only thing I could do with that blue. Since the blue isn't part of the model's skin tone, I could manipulate the blue in various other ways for color versions of the image. I could have done the same thing with a green gel as green isn't present in skin tones either. That's why, of course, when they're producing many special effects for motion pictures, they utilize "green screen" and "blue screen" backgrounds because it allows the film-makers the ability to "key in" other things while not effecting the images of the actors or other subjects, props, foreground sets, etc. that don't contain the colors green or blue, whichever they chose for their background key.

I'm a big proponent of experimenting, not on my clients' dimes but when I'm shooting for myself. You might want to try introducing green or blue gels into you pretty girl shooting or for almost any portrait work that's captured against a seamless, neutral background, especially if you intend to convert those portraits to B&W.  I don't suggest you first try doing so if you're hired to shoot portraits for a client or customer but, once you've gotten comfortable using such gels and techniques, you might want to sometimes work into you productions workflows, including your paid-work workflows.

Model Faye, seen in the images above, is someone I've worked with a fair number of times. I've shot her in "just for fun" pics, as well as commercial glamour, tease, and also some fashion work for an LA clothing designer. As a teen, Faye was an American Apparel model and, combined with her subsequent volume of glam and tease work, it's all helped make her a very experienced model: Easy to shoot with (user friendly, as I sometimes like to say), easy on the eyes, and a model who knows how to very effectively "work" her side of the camera. The image I used for this update was captured with an 85mm prime lens on a Canon 5D1, ISO 100, f/6.3 at 100th.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Garbage In/Garbage Out

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Yesterday, a fairly well-known photographer said on his page he believes Photoshop is the greatest tool we have as  photographers other than our eyes and our knowledge of light and cameras. A lot of people, he said, feel that PS is an over-used tool and that we should get it right in camera. A statement like that, of course, is like a personal, monogrammed, invitation for me to jump in and comment.

"Getting it right in the camera," I remarked, "doesn't necessarily mean no Photoshop. It means if you choose to process the image with PS, doing so will generally be easier, quicker, and more hassle-free."

The photographer responded with, "I gotta be honest. I don't  understand what 'getting it right in the camera' even means. I Photoshop every single image that I shoot because the images coming out of my camera are only the base of the image, the foundation, they're not the house." Someone else then chimed in with, "What comes out of the camera is not necessarily the vision you had."

I certainly couldn't argue with that other commenter's observation. I've seen plenty of images where, in my mind, it seemed painfully obvious the photographer didn't execute their vision the way he or she envisioned it and then tried to "save it" with a post-production replacement vision. (I don't, of course, think that's how the commenter meant his statement but what the hell. I replaced it with my meaning... sorta like a replacement vision.)

"Getting it right in the camera generally means good exposure, proper color balance, something closer to the final crop rather than further from it, images that are in focus and have the amount of DoF the shooter was looking to produce and more of that stuff." I wrote.  "I don't think any of that is vague, mysterious, confusing, or impractical. They're simply good photography practices." I added.

Regarding vision, I simply said, "If you need to completely alter your vision in post because what you snapped wasn't close to your original vision or didn't come out the way you saw it in your head, you might rethink how you're executing your visions when you're shooting them.  Otherwise, good results (via revamped visions) of poorly executed images are more often happy accidents, require a lot of processing, or both... none of which I personally rely on."

After a bit more online banter, I added, "If you're a shooter who generally gets it right in the camera, there's a point in time when you're not even thinking in terms of getting it right in the camera. It's simply what you do, automatically and consistently."

None of what I said yesterday or what I'm repeating today is intended to down-play the importance of post-processing for many photographers' work. Photoshop and other image processors are certainly important tools in the digital photography age. Wonderful tools! Tools that offer creative opportunities that were once very difficult if not impossible to achieve. But even still, I can't agree that image manipulating tools, combined with a photographer's skills in using them, are *the* most important tools at most photographers' disposals. (Note: I'm referring to photographers, not those who would be better categorized as digital artists. Those folks aren't always one and the same with those of us who are, for the most part if not all parts, photographers.)

In my mind, the most important tools photographers possess are in their kits and in their minds with or without the addition of image altering software.  That's why I believe knowing how to get it right in the camera (and doing so near-automatically) generally trumps your skills and use of Photoshop and the like.

If you're starting out as a photographer or still have a ways to go developing your production skills -- not that any of us don't -- I recommend prioritizing learning how to get things right in the camera as your #1 priority before  investing considerable time and resources into learning how to use Photoshop or any other post-processing software.  When you're then learning and practicing processing your images, you'll be starting out with better images to process. (That sure makes sense to me.) Otherwise, odds are you'll more-often, perhaps too often, be victims of that old adage, "Garbage in/Garbage out."

The pretty girl at the top is Dahlia. It's not a glam pic per se, but more of an art nude I suppose. Snapped it and others of Dahlia at El Mirage Dry Lake in the Mojave Desert a while back. I really like the angles created by her arms and legs and how they produce a bit of symmetry with the diagonal lines of the clouds (or chem-trails or whatever they are) and her shadow, all of which even more accentuated by my very low shooting angle. Yeah. I was lying in the dirt to get that snap. Boy! The things I do for my art! You know, things like lying in the dirt with a beautiful, naked, female model towering over me out in the middle of Nowheresville.

I shot the image with my Canon 5D1 and a Canon 17-40mm f/4 L at a 30mm focal length with all natural light and manual settings of ISO 100, f/8, 125th for those of you who like knowing the tech stuff. 

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Uber-Dramatic Lighting

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There's a time and place for dramatic lighting but it's not for all the time and for all places. Just because you can do something, even if you can do it well, doesn't mean you always should.

I regularly view a lot of images on the web and one thing I've noticed is that many photographers seem overly preoccupied with producing rather dramatic lighting with their people images, glamour images and otherwise. It's as if they believe their images won't get noticed if they don't utilize dramatic lighting techniques when snapping them.

By dramatic lighting techniques, I'm referring to things like constant use of HSS (High Speed Sync), high contrast noir-like approaches, images that seem to live permanently in some shadow world, overly obvious (and excessive) use of chiaroscuro  and other ways of making photographs appear overly dramatic from a lighting perspective.

Sure, those dramatic lighting approaches can yield cool photos. And there are accomplished shooters who regularly employ high-drama-lighting for their usual and consistent styles, sometimes gaining their notoriety from using such lighting styles and approaches. Nothing inherently wrong with any of that. But if you're still learning about lighting and suddenly you learn how to shoot with uber-dramatic lighting techniques, even if you learn to do it well, you still should continue learning various other lighting techniques, styles, and strategies rather than suddenly deciding your lighting education is complete because of the cool, dramatically-lit photos you now can snap. Dramatic lighting is not the zenith or pinnacle of lighting techniques. They're simply sometimes effective techniques and styles amongst many other effective ways of lighting your subjects.

Here's an FYI for some of you: Overly dramatic lighting isn't for everyone. It can come off as over-done when it's over-utilized. By "everyone," I'm not speaking about the photographers who use such techniques regularly, even always, themselves. I'm referring to others, perhaps customers and/or clients, or viewers and/or potential users of the photos.

While some of those others, perhaps quite a few, will be wowed by your ability to produce dramatically-lit images, there are as many who appreciate photos with more substance than dramatic lighting alone can produce.  That's another thing I've noticed: more than a few shooters who seem to shoot all their portraits, glam and otherwise, with dramatic lighting approaches seem less interested (or appear to have spent less time) focused on the emotional appeal of their images or the story if a story of sorts was intended. Yes, dramatic lighting certainly contains emotional appeal on its own. It can also be a key component of an image's story. But if the emotional appeal or story told by the lighting doesn't match the emotional appeal or story that's intended or expected, the subject of the image (or the story or both) doesn't often make sense... if that makes sense.

The more tools you have in your bag of tricks, the more flexible and adaptable a photographer you'll be. I don't mean gear or equipment in my mention of "tools" in the previous sentence. I'm referring to soft tools, intangible tools, e.g., techniques, approaches, styles, strategies, that stuff.  The more of those you can call-on with, at least, minimal levels of expertise, the generally better photographer you'll be, regardless of what you're shooting.  Don't be a one trick pony lighting-wise! Even if some lighting approaches don't ordinarily match your vision, it's good to know them and how to use them because you never know when they'll come in handy or even be required.

The model at the top is Tera Patrick. She's rather simply lit with two lights and a reflector: A big main light in front, modified with a 5' Photoflex Octo with a 3' white reflector underneath and angled-up for some gentle fill, plus another light at the top of the stairs modified with a small shoot-through umbrella, angled-down providing a hair light. Could I have lit Tera on that staircase more dramatically? Sure. No problemo! I know how to do dramatic lighting, even uber-dramatic lighting. I have more than a couple of lighting styles in my bag of tricks. But dramatically-lit wasn't the style the client wanted.

I learned my lesson years ago about making cool (IMO cool) dramatically-lit glamour images that weren't in the style the client wanted. Upon seeing one such set of images, I received a none-too-appreciative phone call from my client saying, "Jimmy! What am I supposed to do with this artsy shit?"  Yep. "Artsy shit." That's what he said. Exact words. And he even went on to tell me the photos were really good in an "artsy shit" sort of way, but that's not what he wanted. Leastwise, in terms of the lighting approach he expected me to utilize when shooting for him. Did he want mediocre photos? No. Flatly-lit, low-contrast photos? No again. But he didn't want artsy shit either.

So, here's a bit more FYI for some of you: Everyone, i.e., customers and clients and others, doesn't want or particularly care for artsy shit. Perhaps more don't than you might imagine.  Course, if you're simply shooting for yourself, you might want artsy shit for all your work. If so, have at it. But even so, if you like sharing your images with others and especially enjoy getting viewer's pats on your artistic back, also know that all viewers of your images may not appreciate your artsy shit the way you do.  I suppose it all depends on what it is, or how it is, you want to present yourself as a photographer and/or an artist-- as a 100% "artsy shit" shooter or something else. Perhaps, something more?