Saturday, December 05, 2015

Your Photographic Spine

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You have a spine. No surprise there.  We're all vertebrates as opposed to, say, octopuses, jelly fish, and sea urchins which are invertebrates, i.e. they're spineless animals. (I know some people like that, mostly spineless, but that's another story.)

Your photography has a spine as well, albeit a figurative spine. It's that one aspect of your abilities, above the others, that supports you, holds you up, that gives you photographic stature -- whether it's via hard skills or soft skills -- almost regardless of what you're shooting. It's the main thing that keeps you, or can keep you standing tall as a photographer.

Whether we consciously realize it or not, we rely on our photographic spines in most all of our work. Before I started pondering my photography spine -- and I started pondering it in earnest while  reading a book by famed Broadway choreographer, Twyla Tharp: "The Creative Habit" -- if someone asked me what the #1 thing I rely on most for the majority of my work, to make it stand out that is, I would have said my knowledge and skills in lighting. But the more I read Ms. Tharp's book, the more I re-thought my  answer to that self-asked question. Eventually, I came to realize my spine had less to do with what I know about the nuts and bolts of lighting and photography in general, and so much more about how I interact with people, in this case, with the models in front of my camera.

I have a long-time client who told me, somewhat recently, and this is a quote or as near to one as I can recall: "You want to know why I've kept hiring you all this time, Jimmy? And still do? It's not because you're such a good photographer. There's plenty of photographers as good as you; plenty who are better than you. I hire you because of the way you work with the models. Just about every model I hire you to shoot, whether they're new or experienced, walks away from your set happy, confident in the photos you snapped, and with nothing but good things to say about you. There's hardly ever a problem or drama caused by you. And it shows in the pics." BTW, I've had other clients tell me similar stuff in similar ways. So yeah. I have some corroboration in this matter. (Where's those smiley face emoticons when I need one for a blog update?)

While some of this may sound like I'm patting myself on the back, I'm really not. I do have good people skills. Probably better than good. Leastwise, when it comes to models. (Who are also people, at least technically they are.) I can usually read most models like a book within minutes, sometimes seconds, of them arriving on my shooting sets. (At least the model part of who they are.) It's a rare model who comes close to causing me to choose the wrong tack or the wrong approach, photographer-to-model/person-to-person approach to shooting her. You know, in terms of how to best to interact with her and gain rapport with her so as to get better pics from her. I'm good at it. It's something that's part natural (I suppose) plus it's born of many years shooting many, many models. Even before that, I had plenty of experience shooting actors for their head shots and portfolios. Actors and models are similar sorts of folks in many ways. I could list all the ways they're similar but that's not what I'm writing about today.

Conversely, I've recently become very interested in shooting things other than models and/or other human subjects and my biggest problem with that (not that it's too big a problem because I still have skills, you know, skills other than people skills) is that I can't rely on my spine, my 'people skills spine,' to make good pics. In fact, when I first started trying to shoot some of this other stuff, I felt a little like a jellyfish, one of those invertebrates I mentioned at the top, all gelatinous with little hard structure to support my less than competent efforts. It's like going from model shooting to product shooting. I know how to light inanimate objects because I know how to light people. I know how to compose people and inanimate objects. But the pics still mostly sucked in spite of my throwing my non-spinal-skills at the pics.

So, how do I proceed if I can't call on my photographic spine, my people skills, to support me in these other efforts that don't include people? Well, believe it or not, and this is probably going to sound rather stupid, I've taken to talking to the inanimate objects in front of my camera. I've also taken to talking to myself, out loud, when I'm shooting. (Hoping some mental health professional isn't nearby because I probably sound like a whacko.) For some future shoots that require special locations and/or environments, I plan to take along someone if I can.  You know, just to have someone to interact with even if that someone isn't the one being photographed because, IMO, my best work happens when my mouth is going, even if/when I'm talking to myself,to something that doesn't talk back, or to someone who is just along for the ride.

If you haven't thought about what your photographic spine might be, i.e., what the #1 thing that makes you who you are as a photographer -- whether it's a hard skill like understanding gear, lighting or composition, or how you make exposure your bitch -- I highly recommend you do. Course, remember: Your spine might be something other than a hard or technical skill and there's a good chance it is for most folks.  I suggest, if nothing else, you do a personal skills inventory to figure out not only what your spine is, but what your other support structure skills are that you routinely rely on most. Doing so will likely give you more confidence, help you to work to your strengths and, at the very least, help you figure out what you may need to work harder on as you/we all continue to grow and develop as photographers.... because that's something that never ends.  Growing and developing, that is.

The pretty girl at the top is Melanie. She's user-friendly in front of a camera; that is, she knows what she's doing, has a great attitude, takes direction well, is fun to work with, that stuff.