Two old sayings people like to throw around a lot without really listening to what they are throwing around;
“The devil is in the details” means pay very close attention to the minutiae… it is where the challenges will be hiding.
“Don’t sweat the small stuff” means getting caught up in the minutiae can be problematic, and not productive.
These kind of colloquialisms will fall from the lips of many creatives, and occasionally within a short amount of time. Makes you kind of wonder how many other ‘sayings’ we have are diametrically opposed? Or just plain silly.
“Patience is a virtue” / “Carpe Diem” (“Seize the day”)
“Haste makes waste” / “Time waits for no man”
Really helpful stuff there old guys… thanks for your, uh… wisdom.
In commercial photography the devil IS in the details unless it isn’t. And not sweating the small stuff is easy unless the small stuff will kill the shot.
So “don’t sweat the details unless the details are of great importance because they contain the devil…”
The most interesting thing is that both are true… and that is where it becomes a bit of a tricky choice for the photographer. Do we start sweating the small stuff or let it go – do we get into the details of the shot to dig out the devils or are they just fine being left alone?
Sorry, I am starting to sound like my own oxymoron, but it is so very true.
Shooting for a swimsuit designer catalog on the shores of Zuma Beach one Friday afternoon was a hot mess. Three of the five models were riding together and had gotten lost. Now they were stuck in traffic and we were already an hour and a half past call time. The MUA was new to the catalog type shoot and was busy making every eyelash perfect. On five girls, three of whom would be late… my calculations showed we could comfortably get the shot by oh, midnight or so.
She was looking for the devil in the details, and I was noting that the trajectory of the sun does not care about how much more time we need for perfect faces… in full length shots running on the beach.
To me and the photograph, the devil in the details was small stuff compared to the fact, scientifically accurate by the way, that the sun always sets faster when you are on deadline. True… look it up.
Make them look good, get the hair nice and full and we gotta go… gotta go go go.
In the end, the late models had enough time to be primped a bit, sprayed with about 4 cans of cheap hairspray and begin frolicking for the whirring of that old F3 motordrive. The MUA was not happy, but later we explained that there is a huge difference between making the model up for a headshot or a beauty ad, and getting them ready for a full length ‘lifestyle’ shoot with a setting sun. The perfectly detailed make up is of no consequence once the sun goes down… we would have missed the shot.
She got it… I think.
Working on a liquor shoot for a national ad, the art director and I were having fits. The label of the imported Courvoisier had metallic text and script, and the layout called for the bottle to be shot dead straight on. This means that the light had to be reflected perfectly back from where the camera was. Using a Deardorff 8×10 gave us enough ‘rise’ to get rid of a lot of it, but there was always a tiny black reflection at some point in the bottle due to its rather unique shape.
We spent a full day on it and by 6PM we were exhausted, but determined. I went to the darkroom to process yet another “fauxlaroid”* (we only had 40 sheets of 8×10 Polaroid and were using them very conservatively) an idea struck me on using a blended exposure with masks. Another couple of hours and we had a perfect color Polaroid and were ready to shoot the film. Shooting the bottle took a little over a minute for 6 sheets of film.
The small stuff, the devil in this case, was that small black area on the type that could NOT be there. Liquor manufacturers spend small fortunes on the design of their labels. It is a defining brand component for them, and it had to be – absolutely MUST be perfectly presented.
As did the image on the film. We did not have Photoshop. This was back when even the Scitex was a gleam in some inventors eye. In this case the devil was indeed in the detail, and the small stuff that didn’t matter was how long it took to get it right.
Shooting for a major LA department store was a gig that always had residual benefits of being on their ‘list’ and getting fairly steady work for a while. When I finally got the nod from the AD, it was for a series of POP counter and end-cap display shots for the cosmetic department. 6 shots larger than life – beauty shots of some very top models.
Oh man… oh man oh man… THIS was one of those assignments where you just know that it is all about the stars lining up and the karma coming back around and that it is certainly proof that you are some HOTTDAMNSHIT!!!
The agency did the casting and I was invited in to be an equal in the choice. The MUA was one of the best in LA at the time and someone who was extremely influential, as was the stylist. We all hit it off pretty well and when shoot day came and the 6 amazing women showed up at their call time it all came together.
I used a clamshell with two 24″ umbrellas in very close. No fill on the sides, we let the models perfect skin fall off on both sides. The AD was there and she loved what was happening. Shooting a 6×7 camera meant big glorious Polaroids and I went home feeling pretty damn happy. Picking up the film the next day, I was greeted by roll after roll of some of the best work I had done. PERFECT color. PERFECT composition. PERFECT models and expressions and it all felt so wonderful.
Later that afternoon I was standing next to the CD of the agency, as she put the film on the light table.
“You’re lighting is kind of sloppy…” was what she said in that now instantly vanished magical moment.
I was kind of at a loss… my mind racing and brain scanning for words that were not there. Time stopped moving.
“Uhhddreerrddbfff…” or something like that came out as I was visualizing how I would look in one of them McDonald’s aprons hawkin’ fries to retirees in Sun City.
“I like it when the umbrellas are perfectly aligned in the eyes…” she explained.
Me = now doing my imitation of a deer in headlights just before becoming roadside venison.
“But they are lovely… and they will look smashing…” She smiled at me and went into her office.
Time began moving again.
What she was referring to was the fact that in the clamshell, I had not made absolute sure that the points of the umbrellas were EXACTLY the same top and bottom. In my shots, they were just a little bit off… just – a – little – bit – off. And when the images were blown up to four or five times lifesize, those small umbrella catchlights would be very visible. (I asked all my friends if they could see any problems with the images and NO ONE saw it… but I saw it every time I looked at them.
And she saw it immediately.
That has never happened since… EVER. (And I did a lot more work for them for the following year, so it still ended well with me learning a valuable lesson on being a monster over detail.
Unless it is an eyelash out of place on a full length active shot taken with natural light when the sun is 1/8″ above the horizon and you still have one more model to go…
Finding that balance between the devil in the details and not sweating the small stuff is the challenge for every artist and craftsperson I know. Thinking the problem through from all vantage points will help you decide the prioritization of your attention.
- Make sure your gear is accurate and true – faulty gear is a disaster
- Be meticulous and detailed with your invoicing and billing
- Exposure is not a guessing game or an ‘approximation’ – if you have to chimp more than three times, use a meter
- Consider each shot from the client’s perspective
- You know that reflector you left in the car back on the road, the one you know will make the shot better… yeah, that one. Stop what you are doing and hike your ass back up to get it. “Making do” is making crap
- When shooting products, labels matter. A lot. A lot lot
- In beauty work if the makeup is not right, send it back. Ask for perfection when it is called for
- If the food looks crappy on set, it will look crappy on the screen… you know that. Don’t accept it – nobody likes terrible photographs of food that looks inedible
- Be meticulous in your correspondence. Bad grammar, mis-spellings and terrible language will make you look like you took a home study course titles “How to Right Good”…
- Never show an image that you do not stand behind. Never let an image leave your studio that you wouldn’t stand behind. Be a raving asshat if you must, but NEVER let a bad image go out into the world with your name on it
- What kind of camera you shoot – (in fact brand name anything)
- How many Facebook or Instagram followers you have
- What that other photographer, the one with the amazing online lifestyle does. She ain’t you – you ain’t her.
- Bokeh… seriously, give it a rest will ya
- How much money other people get for their work
- Worrying whether ‘everyone’ likes you. I can help with that; No, not everyone likes you. Deal.
- Not making a great shot every time you shoot… get out and shoot more and that will change
- Other people’s drama. OK, it may not be small, but isn’t your circus and it isn’t your monkey
- Workflow… find one you like. Do that.
- Worrying about how it is “supposed to be done”; anyone who tells you they know how it is SUPPOSED to be done is either lying to you or trying to sell you something. There is no one way, find YOUR way.
Rio on the beach in freezing temperatures on Anna Maria Island, Florida. Shot with a Rebel-something and a 20-35MM L using the pop-up flash and long exposure grippest style. This image was taken a few minutes after sundown. Ahhh… digital.
That is what I referred to when we needed to see what the camera was seeing and didn’t want to or could not spend the $12 a sheet for an 8×10 Polaroid (Today’s dollars around $40 per). We would shoot a sheet of Plus-x or T-Max 100 and process it in highly concentrated D76 for about a minute… and bang – a negative we could see on the light table after a minute in the fixer.
I don’t have any of them to show you now. Those who worked with film know why.