What I’ve Learned So Far; Seventeen; “Funk In, Funk Out, Funk Off”

theroad-washington-coast

I know that being a professional photographer should be a bed of roses, a magical place where unicorns and rainbows are interspersed between the Bentleys and mansions. A place where creativity is simply something that everyone has in spades, and no one is ever without a great idea.. or three.

Yeah… I imagine it is wonderful there.

I have never been. I live in the other part of the creative world. The one where crap happens, and creativity doesn’t always drip off the fingertips. Where I live people have to work hard to deliver, practice hard to get it right, and push themselves to deliver better and better work every time.

Sometimes a funk moves in. It could be a creative funk, or a business funk, or simply a malaise at the end of a particularly busy and stressful period. There can be many things that wrench our creative energy from us and leave us, well… sort of flat feeling.

The funk moves into our heads and sets up a little flat, meaning to stay for a while. And that, we simply cannot allow.

You see the problem with funk is that it can take over, create patterns of destruction, and make it more and more difficult to get out of. So we have to be proactive and kick that bastard out… evict the funk.

Each of us have ways to do that and work well for us. If you have ways to get the batteries charged and knock the funk from its roost, do it without hesitation.

For those of you who wrestle with it, I can share a few ideas that I use for banishing the funk outta my thoughts.

1. Create an Excitement “Folder”:
Make it easy to save work for your portfolio – and provide an interesting idea gallery.

I can’t believe how many times I will be working with a photographer and ask to see some new images, or to send some images for a portfolio, and be told “Let me see if I can put some together”, or “I’ll look for them.”

That is not terribly efficient. Or wise.

I use a shortcut on the desktop to send any and ALL portfolio possibilities to a folder on an external drive. When I am working on an image, and I feel it has consideration for the portfolio, it is simply dragged to the shortcut and sent to the folder for later review. Keeping the drive external means a copy of the image is sent, so the original is still in the working folder.

When I feel a funk coming on, I go to that folder to explore and review work that I thought cool when I shot it, and now I use that work to trigger new ideas or scenarios I want to work on. Note: this is my folder of work, and not other photographers work. The images in there range from commissioned work, to personal work to iPhone snaps, and experiments. They are loosely catalogued in those titles.

I am sometimes very motivated to creating new work when looking at older/less structured work.

2. Create a Journal – then USE it:
Pencil, pen, quill… who cares? Just do it on paper, not on a screen.

A Journal can be a fantastic way to spike creativity when nothing is going on. And I am not talking about a “diary” or a “blog”, I am referring to a paper journal for image ideas, fun ideas, creative ideas. I put snips of conversations, imaginary play lists, and simple sketches of ideas in mine.

Feeling in a funk? Pull out that journal and begin to make some chicken scratches on a shoot idea. Add some real world info like lens choice and lighting schema. It doesn’t matter if you are ever going to make that shot, the act of doing the sketch is sometimes enough to get something else firing in your synapses.

Next thing you know you are making some images. They may or may not resemble your sketches. And it doesn’t really matter.

3. Refresh the Portfolio:
Sometimes just the act of working on the portfolio gets the juices going.

When is the last time you added new work to your portfolio? I am hoping new work goes in constantly, but alas I also know how notorious photographers can be about not getting new work into the book.

If you haven’t worked on adding new images and deleting older ones in your book, take some time to do it. That simple, yet important project can put you back in touch with your best images… and can work as a strong catalyst to make more.

As you begin to work on your portfolio, you will see the gaps, ideas for new shots will begin to flood in. Grab your journal and make some notes.

4. Start and complete a project:
Even a small one. Concept it, shoot it and produce it.

Yeah, a project. Done. Nothing like it to get the creative juices flowing and stimulate growth into a new project or set of images.

Choose something that can be done in a weekend. Shoot in a day or two, edit and do post on a set of images and add them to your book. Keep it simple if you haven’t done it before or are so busy with all kinds of scattered projects that you feel it is impossible.

A few ideas from my current journal:

  • Fake animals as decorations
  • Roadtrip up 395 to Canada
  • My daughters sea shell collection
  • Jazz… portraits/instruments – whatever
  • Antique wardrobe/edgy models
  • Cafe Racer Motorcycles on Rte 66

I don’t know if I will get to all of them, but they trigger more ideas all the time. And I hope to do the 395 roadtrip next Spring.

5. Two words for you. Road Trip:
Whether with a photo bud or alone.

Me, a car, the road. Instant creative flow. New places bring freshness of seeing for me. I want to shoot everything I see.

It doesn’t have to be a long trip, just an afternoon could be fun. Go somewhere you don’t normally go. See things you don’t normally see.

Take a friend, to share the journey can sometimes be stimulating to both. Creativity starts to flow and it can become quite an adventure.

Three rules:
1. If you like it, shoot it.
2. If you see it, stop the car, (or turn around) and shoot it.
3. Have fun with your photography.

6. Research some new resources, art, photography, music:
We get used to the same inspirations. Find some new places to recharge.

I have so many different sites I go to for inspiration. Some are “new music” sites, some are photographer’s reps sites, some are stories and articles and of course there are a few photographers I love to visit from time to time.

I also recommend the art museums, art galleries, coffee shops in your town. Here’s an idea – the next time you want to go for coffee, find a little independent coffee shop at least 5 miles from where you live – a different part of town would even be better – grab your iPad or laptop and spend some time there. Different faces, different music.

Different coffee.

Do that same exercise with other forms of art you interact with.

Always listening to rock? Great: Go to Pandora and listen to some Classical.
Always looking at fashion photographers work? Cool, now discover the Renaissance painters and what they did with light.
If you specialize in food, view a bunch of lifestyle shooters. If you shoot lifestyle, check out the formal portraiture of Hollywood’s “Golden Era”.

It really doesn’t matter… just change it the heck up.
(Journal? Yeah… here too)

7. Rent a Film Camera for a Week:

It can be very zen-like to shoot a nice medium format camera.

Get an RZ, or a Hasselblad, or one of those monstrous Fuji’s and make some images. If you have never shot film, get a quick lesson on how to load the camera, and make sure you understand the workings of it. RB’s take two actions to get ready for the next shot, RZ’s only one. If you are a telephoto shooter, rent an additional lens to keep you in that zone.

Shoot a couple of rolls, or shoot a lot. Getting the film processed will be more of a challenge in some areas than learning to shoot the camera. But you will find a place – the rental folks will tell you where to take it.

My favorite film for medium format is color negative film in the ISO 100 – 160 range and black and white in the ISO 100 – 400 range. This is not the time or place to get into all the different films, and if you haven’t shot film, it may not be a discussion that would make sense at this point.

I would suggest a tripod, and use your digital camera to check exposure if you don’t have a meter. Have fun with a new way of taking photos that is actually an old way… of… well, you get the picture.

8. Find a Mentor:
They are out there. Find someone who will take some time to lead and encourage you.

Sometimes all you have to do is ask. Ask for some assistance. Many photographers will be available to help. And those that aren’t…. well, they would probably suck at being a mentor anyway, right?

You can find people willing to help at associations like ASMP, APA, and APPA. Local chapters will be filled with folks who may take time to advise you.

Suggestions: If the photographer who wants to help you is some ol’ grumpy dude who wonders why you are getting into this god-forsaken business cause it has all gone to hell and there is no hope… well… maybe he ain’t the right guy to advise you in your endeavors.

I have had several wonderful mentors in my life, and all I did was ask.

9. Find and Critique Great Images:
Write three paragraphs of what you see. How does the work relate to you and your vision.

Seriously. We look at photographs all the time. But it takes time and energy to actually see them. See them.

Go online and find some great photography. Adams, Caponigro, Avedon, Penn, Weston, and Cunningham are some of the ‘Masters’ that I love. Take an image that you particularly like and write about it. Write three paragraphs on what it is that you like.

This is probably the hardest of all the suggestions I have made. It will force you to confront the image, your understanding of it, what it means in and out of context and more. But it also makes you see the delights that are inherent in wonderful images – of the great ones, and of your own. And writing them down reinforces what it is you find exciting about photography. Do it for an hour… creative block gone.

10. Photograph Someone who usually is not the subject of a photograph:
Make an image that they love and you love.

We can always get models. They are into having their picture taken. Sometimes they can actually stimulate the image and bring it forth.

But making a cool or wonderful picture of someone who isn’t used to being photographed can have it’s own creative rewards as well.

I don’t have any pre-conceived ideas about who and where to shoot, but I know when you read the paragraph above you instantly thought of someone you know. That person… yep, that is the one.

So from talking them into the portrait, to the shoot, post and presentation, you will be thinking creatively. It is incumbent to be creative when working with someone who may not bring any creativity to the image.

Or… they could surprise you. I love it when that happens.

Look… the funk is always looking for a place to live. Don’t let it live in your head. Get it out as soon as you can.

We all have some funk in our lives, and those times are not the ones to define us. We are defined by what we accomplish, not by the funk that keeps us from accomplishing. Be strong… and kick the funk the funk out of your life.

What I’ve Learned So Far: Sixteen; “Devil’s In The Details / Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff”

rio-standing-annamaria

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…”

Got it.

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?

Yes.

Sorry, I am starting to sound like my own oxymoron, but it is so very true.

An example:

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!!!

Or something.

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.

The devils.

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…

Ya know.

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.

Devils:

  1. Make sure your gear is accurate and true – faulty gear is a disaster
  2. Be meticulous and detailed with your invoicing and billing
  3. Exposure is not a guessing game or an ‘approximation’ – if you have to chimp more than three times, use a meter
  4. Consider each shot from the client’s perspective
  5. 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
  6. When shooting products, labels matter. A lot. A lot lot
  7. In beauty work if the makeup is not right, send it back. Ask for perfection when it is called for
  8. 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
  9. 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”…
  10. 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

Small Stuff:

  1. What kind of camera you shoot – (in fact brand name anything)
  2. How many Facebook or Instagram followers you have
  3. What that other photographer, the one with the amazing online lifestyle does. She ain’t you – you ain’t her.
  4. Bokeh… seriously, give it a rest will ya
  5. How much money other people get for their work
  6. Worrying whether ‘everyone’ likes you. I can help with that; No, not everyone likes you. Deal.
  7. Not making a great shot every time you shoot… get out and shoot more and that will change
  8. Other people’s drama. OK, it may not be small, but isn’t your circus and it isn’t your monkey
  9. Workflow… find one you like. Do that.
  10. 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.

Happy shooting.

PHOTO INFO:
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.

*Fauxlaroid:
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. :-)

 

What I’ve Learned So Far: Fifteen; “Own Your Set” – Or Be Prepared for Chaos

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As a commercial and advertising photographer, one of the most important responsibilities you have is to be in control of your shoot. It can mean the difference between a very successful shoot and one that gets by. (Keep in mind there are no failures – it isn’t an option. Ever.)

I refer to it as “Owning Your Set” and it applies to location as well as studio work. It usually applies even more when you have a cadre of artists, talent and agency people working with you to make the shot. The more ‘cooks’ you have, the more everyone wants to add their pinch of spice.

And that can be a deal killer in the creative endeavor we call photography.

Now being in control of your shoot doesn’t mean you cannot delegate, nor does it mean that you must micromanage (something I have to remind myself of from time to time. It is also not a license to be a big asshat either. It only means you must take all responsibility, and MAKE decisions promptly and with clarity and decisiveness.

Remember that this is all your responsibility. Remember that this is what you signed up for. THIS is the big show.

And whether or not you maintain control, the end product is one you are responsible for. It is always better to be responsible for a great shoot and lots of accolades for you and your team than one that is passable and unremarkable.

At this point you may be asking if you are really ready for that responsibility.

You had better be. Seriously – if you are not, then you are not ready period. Get back to the basics and make sure you can control the creation of a photograph.

I can speak from some experience on this… heh.

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What I’ve Learned So Far: Fourteen; “Rolling With The Punches While Dancing On a Wire”

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One of the challenges of commercial photography is that you are obligated to hit a home run every time your number comes up. You are the clean up hitter, or the “go to” guy when the team needs a guaranteed win.

It can be a little stressful at times.

Like standing on a set with 11 professional models ($1250+ rate for each), 4 MUA’s ($650 rate for each), two assistants ($450 rate each), a digital tech ($1100 rate), two assistant art directors, on senior art director, five (5!) client reps who flew in for the shoot from Singapore, and three Hollywood trained dogs ($1000+ rate each). Let’s not forget the stylist ($2500), her two assistants ($900 per) and the catered munchies/lunch (a little north of $1100).

And of course in a rented studio with rented lighting gear and a set that ran approximately $15,000 to build. The props bill was nearly $5000, and wardrobe had been purchased/rented for about $4000.

And by the way, the shot has to be – HAS TO BE – made and delivered by the next morning to make the deadline for insertion – which was already an extension.

The art director, set designer, stylist and photographer had spent at least a couple of dozen hours together on the set design, casting, and various other challenges this shot would create.

The cast was hired, the set was built, the lighting was in place and the tests had been made and approved.

And then… “Excuse me,” says the client representative, “on the flight over we have made some changes.”

At that moment the world becomes a very quite place, and the music that was blaring a moment ago is now drowned out by the thumping in your chest. Three things pass through your mind.

  1. He really didn’t say what I thought he said. (Denial)
  2. I can do a couple dozen years for homicide. (Anger)
  3. What the hell, I have always loved Walmart, might as well welcome people to the store. (Acceptance)

Now remember that the production is in full swing. The models are in makeup, the set is made, the tweaks to the lighting are being finished off, and the team is about an hour or so from first Polaroid.

And they had some ideas on the flight over. That needed to be heard. Now. At this moment. Here.

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What I’ve Learned So Far: Thirteen; Life’s Too Short for Asshats

no-cats

You know, it really is too short for most things.

Life. Four letters, and yet it means so much to our very souls.

One of the things I loved about being a photographer was all the amazing people that I got to meet. I photographed the guy who invented the mechanical heart. I photographed God – well, actually it was George Burns… but, you know. I photographed Kevin Johnson and several mayors, a Senator or two and lots of musicians.

I photographed a porn princess and a Supreme Court nominee in the same week. I turned down an ‘opportunity’ to photograph some tennis guy named McEnroe (who needs that BS in their life?), and spent an enjoyable afternoon with Phyllis Diller. Tatum O’Neal was a pure waste of air, and James Garner was a hell of a nice guy.

So many fascinating people.

But I never wanted to be a celebrity photographer. Seriously, I do not see how anyone willingly submits to being treated as badly as some celebrities choose to treat those around them. I simply don’t think that much of celebrity, or pop culture for that matter.

After a while, I only wanted to shoot real people – scientists, authors, astronauts and auto mechanics. And fashion models. I shot a lot of fashion models.

In those days the studio was always full of people dropping by; models between gigs, MUA’s, set builders and friends in the business. It was a safe place to go, and we had sort of a ‘family’ thing going.

But as in any family, drama and asshattedness would occasionally raise its ugly head.

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What I’ve Learned So Far: Twelve; “Nice Shot… Who Cares?

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Back when I was first starting out in this business, I shot nearly every day. Maybe for an hour or two, maybe only for a few minutes. When I wasn’t shooting, I was in the darkroom developing film, making contact sheets or printing.

Lots of printing.

There was a lot to learn, and the curve was sort of a hockey stick configuration. It was fairly easy to learn how to spool up a roll of film and develop it in chemistry as the directions explained. But once that hurdle was passed, creating more beautiful and tonality laden negs began to be something that resembled alchemy and magic – and a lot of damned hard work fraught with failure after failure.

And then that image gets printed – the one where I finally got it right. More tones, more depth, more feeling… magic.

After what seems like a lifetime – and tens of thousands of dollars later – the work was technically meeting some measurement of success.

I assembled a “portfolio” to share with the advertising exec a few doors down. He had hired me for my first ever gig, and I wanted to show him my brand new portfolio.

He took the book from me and sat down. He then flipped through it at a pretty fast clip, closed it and handed it back to me.

I sat there waiting for him to say something and finally he did. “Hey, you wannanother beer?”

I was kinda dumbstruck and asked him if he had anything to say about my book, my baby, the culmination of a few years of hardass work?

He stared at me with a kind of a wry smile and said, “nice shots… who cares?”

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