Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Are You Fluent in Light?

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As most of you know, the word "photography" means writing with light. Okay. Some people say it means, "painting with light." Whatever. You say tomahtoe, I say tomaytoe. If you're a "painting with light" advocate, cut me some slack for a few so I can write this update. Pretty please? Indulge me for a moment or two and go with "writing with light" as being the word's meaning.


Okay. As I said, the word "photography" means writing with light. As such, are you fluent in light? I'm guessing many of you are fluent. Perhaps not fluent like it's your natural language but fluent enough to use light to write, I mean make some decent photos. I'm that way. Fluent enough, I mean. But I have my limitations. It's much like my Italian-speaking skills.  I can order food in Italian in an Italian restaurant, but I can't hold a conversation with someone in Italian.   English, yes. Italian? Nope.

Even if I could speak Italian fluently like my Dad, my grandparents, and many of my aunts and uncles could, it wouldn't necessarily mean I could hold conversations with all Italian-speaking people. How so? Because there are those things called dialects.

Dialects make some Italian speakers sound almost like they're talking another language to various other Italian speakers.  My Dad, who was fluent in Italian, make that fluent in the kind of Italian that Italian-Americans who emigrated from the Naples, Italy, region speak, had a really hard time speaking with Italians (in Italian) when he visited Rome later in his life. Why? Dialects.

Lighting is like that. It's one thing to be fluent in lighting, leastwise to believe you're fluent in lighting until you start looking at other kinds of lighting or light for genres outside of genres you have lots of experience shooting. It's sort of like trying to speak with another dialect you're unfamiliar with. I can write fluently with light in the glamour model dialect.  I can do so like a pro. But now, I'm planning to expand my photography to some other genres and, in order for me to write with light like a pro in those other genres, I'm going to have to become familiar writing with it in another light-writing dialect. I'm talking figuratively, of course. Light is light, after all. Leastwise, a lot of people keep saying that. But how you use light, make that how you write with light, sometimes changes from one genre to another.

Extending my pretty girl shooter light-writing skills to outdoor photography, for instance, is going to require learning another dialect of light. The more I read, learn, and study the art of outdoor photography, e.g., landscapes, seascapes, cityscapes, nature, etc., the more I realize I barely know jack about writing with light when capturing that sort of imagery.  Sure, I'm fluent writing with light when shooting models. It's  much the way my Dad was fluent in Italian, but his fluency didn't mean he could easily converse with all Italians. He could converse with them in basic sort of ways, but he often told me it was difficult speaking with a variety of other Italians because of differences in dialects.  It's the same with photography. In order to write with light in all genres, that is to write poetically, dramatically, or in most any other way, it requires understanding other lighting dialects.

You see, when I finally get out there shooting the sorts of outdoor photographs I'm interested in shooting, it's going to be, for the most part, the first time I've ever done so. I may not be a beginner, photography wise, but I'll be a beginning outdoor photographer nonetheless. How I write with light when shooting models is more than a little different from how I'll need to write with light shooting outdoorsy pics, assuming I expect to make some pretty good outdoor photos... which I hope to do.

But that's okay! In fact, it's better than okay. It's terrific! It's going to be all new adventures with my cameras and I love new adventures. It's also going to be fraught with new challenges that might make my images suck! At first, at least. But that's what's going to make it fun and exciting. I'll have to learn to look at things with new eyes, things like light, because writing with light for outdoor images is a whole different thing than writing with light with a model in front of your camera. I'll have to train myself to see the light differently-- almost the way a child sees their newly discovered world; a world where, for them, everything is new.

Now, I just need to get my ass out there and start doing it... start learning-by-doing with the new writing-with-light dialect I've been studying. I'm running out of excuses. I've pretty much put together all the gear I'll need, some of it quite different from the gear I regularly use shooting pretty girls. Now, it's simply a matter of turning my motivation into action.

By the way, I've been doing a lot of reading about outdoor photography lately -- web pages, tutorials, books, etc. -- including sub-genres like long exposure and night-time and low-light outdoor photography. That's my style in terms of how I learn new things. I tend to be someone who does a bunch of reading and researching before doing. In fact, I just started reading a new book today. It's called "The Art of Outdoor Photography" by Boyd Norton.

I have to say, this book resonated with me in big ways from the first few pages. Probably because it's equal parts photo-philosophy and photo-technique. That's the sort of approach that appeals to me most.  The book isn't for beginners -- the sub-title is "Techniques for the Advanced Amateur and Professional" --  but if you're interested in outdoor photography and you already have the basics of photography tucked under your belt, I recommend Boyd Norton's book. It's copyright is 1993 so it's pre-digital but that doesn't matter. So much of photography is the same, film or digital. Obviously, being pre-digital, there's no lessons in it regarding digital post-processing, but that's okay with me. At this point, I'm way more interested in learning to shoot this outdoor stuff, shoot it like a boss of course. I'll worry about processing what I shoot later on. Again, that's how I roll.

The pretty girl at the top is Madison. I must admit, while writing with light to produce images of Madison, my quill wasn't drooping. She's a very sexy woman in all ways! ISO 100, f/10 at 125th with a Canon 5D1 and a Tamron 28-75 zoomed all the way in. Three lights: My main, camera-right about head-high or so, modified with a 5' Photoflex Octo angled slightly downwards, plus a couple of small-ish shoot through umbrellas, either side, from the sides.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

When Shooting Models, Soft Skills Often Count Most

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Just about anyone can learn to light a model. I don't say that in a cavalier way. It takes practice. Lots of it. But if you stick with it and practice, practice, practice, you'll become good at lighting models. All sorts of models.

Lighting for photography ain't rocket science, although it relies quite heavily on science. That's why almost anyone can learn to do it well. The cool thing about science is that it doesn't have mood swings. It doesn't, itself, need experience. It's not occasionally disagreeable. It performs in the same proven ways each time you employ it. It's repeatable. It's reliable. You can count on it.

While lighting is a very important aspect of model photography, it's not at the top of the list of those things which are important, most important that is, to successful model shoots. Not in my opinion at least. Neither is composition or a photographer's prowess in post-production. That's not to say lighting, composition, and post-processing aren't important to many, if not most, photographers' work. They are! But they each fall under the general category of "hard skills."  Not necessarily hard-to-learn skills, but "hard" skills in the sense that they are technical in nature. Certainly in their most basic forms.

"Wait a minute," you might be thinking. "Lighting, composition, and post can be very creative and artistic. They represent art, not science. Art is soft and subjective unlike science which is hard and objective."

I agree. Mostly. Those skills often are that way. Creative and artistic, that is. No doubt about it. But each of them relies, in many ways and to varying extents, on science and technical skills for their success in a photo. That's why I refer to them as hard skills. They have rules governing them. Those rules might not need to be strictly enforced each time you pick up your camera to shoot. You can break them, for sure. But breaking rules means there's rules in place, rules that exist and that can be broken: Hard, technical, scientific-like rules even if they're not absolutely required rule to follow.

Your soft skills, on the other hand, leastwise when it comes to shooting models, are your people skills and your people skills, your most-excellent people skills, will do as much (usually more) for your overall success as a model shooter, glamour models or otherwise, as your hard skills. That's because your "soft" people skills are the skills which get the most out of your models. They are the skills which inspire and motivate your models to call on something inside themselves, something they outwardly project to your camera and, by so doing, make your well-lit, well-composed, nicely processed photos even better.

When you're shooting models, you're not shooting animated mannequins or robotic, human-like, adroids. You're shooting warm, living, breathing, complex human beings. Beings who will best deliver the goods, the modeling goods, when the best and most appropriate people skills are employed by the photographer. Your terrific people skills will generally (and most often) trump lighting, composition, and post-processing skills most days of the week. At a minimum, they will enhance those other skills.

Here's something I've been told by a number of my clients. I've been told this, or a variation of this, fairly often in fact: "I don't hire you because you're a good photographer, Jimmy. There are lots of good photographers. I hire you because you're so good with the models, working with the models."

How or why am I so good? Leastwise, in my clients' eyes when I'm working with the models those same clients hire to be in front of my camera? It's not talent. It's not something unique. It's not because I'm a natural-born model shooter. It's because I consciously apply effective people skills when working with them, i.e., directing, encouraging, and molding them while I'm shooting them.  I remain constantly aware of my demeanor and it's associated people skills while I'm shooting. Those skills aren't who I naturally am with a camera in my hands. They are skills I learned and practiced through trial and error. A lot of errors, in fact.

You see, I have a shooting persona -- you might compare it to a doctor's bed-side manner -- that I adopt whenever I'm working with models. It's a practiced persona or demeanor. My shooting demeanor, persona, whatever you want to call it is all about -- that is, it's 100% focused -- on getting the goods out of the models in front of my camera. Let me repeat myself:  It's a practiced demeanor or persona, not necessarily a natural one. In fact, I've practiced it to the point that my on-set persona has become my natural state -- make that an altered state, albeit a non-drug-induced altered state -- via a well-practiced second-nature I can call on whenever I'm working with models.

So here's Jimmy's advice for today: Practice is wildly important! (It's certainly not the first time I've said that.) But practice isn't simply limited to things like lighting, composition, and post-processing techniques. Your effective, on-set, people skills, i.e., your shooting persona and demeanor, are your soft skills. Your soft skills need to be practiced as much (if not more) than your "hard" skills; practiced until they become automatic and second-nature. I don't care if you're shooting glamour models, company CEOs, kids, or formal portraits at a wedding or other event. When your shooting persona becomes as effective as your lighting, composition, and post-production skills, I guarantee the results of all your model or other portrait photography will be improved.

The pretty girl at the top goes by Jenna Presley. Whether she's related to the King of Rock & Roll, I don't have a clue, but she can put the rock in my be-bop anytime.  ISO 100, f/11 at 1/12th of a second with a Canon 5D. I know, I know... an odd, slow, shutter speed for shooting a model in a studio setting. I was playing around with producing a soft-ish looking image quality while still keeping sharp focus on the eyes.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Think Small for Daylight Portraits

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How often are we encouraged to think big? Big thinking is how so many of humanity's achievements have been, well, have been achieved. And it's not just humanity's achievements that have been achieved by thinking big. Same holds true for many of photography's achievements. After all, photographers see the "big picture," don't they? Literally, I mean.  Being photographers, we often photograph those big pictures. Especially, photographers of the landscape photography variety.

Portrait photographers, on the other hand, whether they're shooting sexy pretty girls or smiling, "trust me," head shots of local realtors or car salesman also think big -- big regarding gear, lighting, technique, and more -- but they don't often photograph big. You know, the way a landscape shooter thinks and photographs big. If or when they do, their subjects might be reduced to the size of  small mammals like mice or squirrels perspective wise.  Not often a good thing for the purposes of most portraits. Course, it depends on the portrait.

Whenever I'm driving locally in my car -- and by "locally" I mean within a relatively short distance of home, say 15 or 20 miles or so -- I'm always keeping an eye out for potentially cool spots to shoot. Always. Spots to shoot portraits at, that is, whether I have a shoot coming up or not. BTW, I don't exclusively shoot scantily-clad or unclad women so the spots I'm on the lookout for can be quite public. The helpful thing about most portraiture is that many of those spots I might come across while driving don't need to be "big picture" spots. They can (and often are) small picture spots. That's because, when I consider my probable framing for such portraits, I don't need a lot of space or otherwise "big picture" real estate. I only need a background that is no bigger than my frame when framing my shots and, frankly, that isn't often very big.

For the above reason, the potentially cool spots I keep an eye out for are small picture spots. Yep. When looking for good places to shoot outdoors in daylight, I think small. How small? No bigger than my average framing small... which generally isn't very big. When I spot a spot that might make a good spot to shoot, I have two major criteria for those spots. Two criteria that makes or breaks a spot as a good spot or not.  Here's my two criteria:

1. The Environment Itself: The physical spot itself in terms of it's immediate environment and how cool of a background it might or might not represent.  And not just the background! Sometimes, often in fact, I'm looking for those combo background/foreground cool spots to shoot. I love putting interesting foreground elements in photos when they're appropriate for the portraits. 

This first criteria isn't always or necessarily a deal-breaker in terms of the attractiveness of the backgrounds and foregrounds. That's because I might (and often will) be shooting with a very short depth of field.  The backgrounds and/or foregrounds become so much less important if they're going to be blurry, out of focus, and (intentionally) filled with bokehliciousness, assuming I'm shooting with a lens that  produces fairly nice bokeh the way my Canon 70-200 L lens does. (Note: Currently, my 70-200 is the only zoom lens I own. It's also the only telephoto lens I own and I own a half-dozen or so lenses. Therefore, my 70-200 is often my go-to lens for a lot of portraits I shoot these days. Not all of them, but many, perhaps most of them.)

2. The Position of the Sun: The position of the sun relative to my potentially cool, small-picture, possible spots to shoot portraits at is generally my number one consideration for those sorts of cool places to shoot. For me, it doesn't matter how cool, environmentally cool, a spot might be. If I'm going to be shooting there in daylight I want the sun to be where I want it to be at the time I choose to shoot there.

That often means terrific morning-shoot spots aren't the same great spots for late-afternoon shoots. Sure,  I can make do with strobes. I often use strobes for, at a minimum, some subtle fill even when the natural light in a given spot is quite pretty or very useable. Doing so, I suppose, is simply how I roll. But even then, I rarely want to use more than a single strobe. That's because I'm already shooting with two light sources: my strobe and the sun. And because the sun is one of my light sources, either as a main light or an accent light, I want it to be where I want it to be and not simply there or anywhere for its ambient-light light-producing qualities.

I have a list in my head of some fairly cool, make that cool-n-easy places to shoot. They're not year-round cool though. That's because, as you know, the sun isn't in the same place in the sky at different times of the year.  Good places to shoot in the summer months, i.e., places where the sun is where I want it to be either in the morning or later in the afternoon, aren't always such good places to shoot in the winter months because that old sun refuses to stay in the same approximate places in the sky, relative to a daylight shooting location, year round. Bummer in some ways. Oh well.  A photographer's gotta do what he or she's gotta do.

So, there's Jimmy's advice for today: When selecting possibly terrific spots to shoot your daylight portraits, think small, not big. Unless, of course, you're going to shoot big, wide, however you want to describe it.  If/when that's the case, go ahead and think big!

The image at the top is one from a daylight set I shot for a clothing designer's line. Apparently, I decided not to roll the way I generally roll, lighting wise, that day. No strobes used! The image is entirely lit by the sun, using it for direct-light highlights, as well as via bouncing in the sunlight via a reflector.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn

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If you don't toot your own horn, someone is going to use it as a spittoon. Sage words. To a point. There's tooting and there's tooting and some photographers take tooting to extremes, especially on social media, a horn-tooter's paradise.

Here's some 411 for those who take personal horn-tooting  to the limits and beyond: While tooting your own horn has its merits, so does humility. It's been my observation that those who produce the best photographs engage in the least amount of horn-tooting. Certainly, more modest horn-tooting. That's not to say they don't toot at all, but the occasional triumphal sounds of their fairly sparse tooting is, more often than not, justified and well-earned. One look at their photos tells you so.

And that's my point: One look at their photos tells you so. Bottom line-- photos aren't better photos because their auteurs, i.e, the makers of them, tell you so.

Photos are better photos because viewers tell photographers so. And by viewers, I'm not simply referring to other photographers. Unless you're marketing something photographic to other photographers, marketing your photography, in one way or another, to other photographers doesn't mean squat. First off, if you're in the business of shooting pictures, other photographers aren't the folks who will be hiring you to snap photos. I've been a commercial glamour shooter for quite a while, nearly twenty years, and I've yet to be hired by another photographer.

Sure, peer approval is a cool thing. A satisfying and personally rewarding thing. Sometimes a head-expanding thing. It can be helpful too. Other photographers have knowledge and experience which may produce insights meaningful to your work and your photos, as well as to whatever it is you might be marketing. (Including and beyond your photos or photo services.)  But it's non-photographers viewing your work, people who do not possess that same level of knowledge and insights, who are your job creators. Those people either think your photos kick ass, they suck, or they lie somewhere in between. And they don't fall for excessive horn-tooting unless you show them the proof your horn-tooting is justified.  Even then, how you toot your horn may gain you their support or turn them off.

You see, the best photo-horn-tooting comes not from a photo's photographer, but from others. The people viewing their photos. Even when people or companies hire publicists to do their tooting for them, those publicists, leastwise the good ones, don't audaciously, unabashedly, and blatantly toot on their client's behalf ad nauseam. (By the way, I'm not suggesting photographers need to hire publicists. They don't. Certainly not the vast majority of them.)

Most photographers are their own publicists and being so can work well providing they understand the difference between effectively promoting and pimping their work via modest amounts of reasonable horn-tooting versus engaging in excessive back-patting and bloated braggadocio.  In other words, those who practice the art of horn-tooting well will reap the rewards of effective horn-tooting and those who don't, won't.

Course, those who ought to be reading this won't be reading it because they're really not interested in what others think of their blaring, high-pitched, horn-tooting or their self-proclaimed "amazing" photos for that matter. In their minds, no matter how loudly they toot their own horns it's simply the honest truth no matter how overblown and shameless their toots might be. After all, they know their photos ARE all that and a bag of chips and they're not the least bit shy about saying so. They'll tell you how good they and their photos are whenever or wherever they have the opportunity to do so.

I don't recall the name (like that's unusual) of the waifish, freckled-faced, pretty girl at the top. She's cute, no? I think so.