What I’ve Learned So Far: Twenty Eight; “Photography is Jazz With a Camera”

What I’ve Learned So Far: Twenty Eight; “Photography is Jazz With a Camera”

[ REPOST FROM 2014. ]

JAZZ… with a camera.

Let’s start out by saying I love jazz. I love the swing, the blues, the instruments and most of all the improvisation of jazz. I listen to all kinds of music as well, from Opera to Country, but jazz is where I return to get my juices going.

Artists like Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Pharoah Sanders, Cannonball Adderly, Miles, ‘Trane, Monk, and Duke are mixed in with more modern players and some rather obscure tunes from the “free jazz” movement.

At the basis of jazz is improvisation. This is where one of the players is featured playing a melody over the rest of the band who may be playing a simple background. In most situations, this melodic tune is improvised… made up on the spot. The player may be reacting to something that was happening in the rhythm section, or responding to the chord changes with a free flowing melodic interpretation of the original tune.

There is usually an original tune. The whole band will play that in a practiced, orchestrated manner… then the “jazz” takes over when the soloist goes out to play his lines.

I think that is just what happens when we make photographs. The photographer is the soloist once the base (background/ambience) has been established.

A few rules apply to being able to know how to solo.

The first of which is you must know your instrument so well, that you are not thinking about how to play it, you are only thinking about the music coming forth from it. The actual operation of the instrument is now so second nature that you are hearing the music around you, and simply adding your voice.

Being a photographer means knowing that camera so well, that the operational struggles are far behind you and all that is being thought about is the image. What you need to do to make that image should come nearly second nature to you.

Aperture / shutter speed / ISO – it is all related to the creation of what you see in your head, and it simply should flow from fingers to camera to vision.

When I meet photographers who do not know the reciprocals, or how to light for beauty or which lenses do what, I know they are not ready to solo yet.

A Quick Test

You should be able to answer these questions instantly:

1. ISO 100 is how many stops different from ISO 650?

2. If the ambient light is f5.6 @ 1/250th, what would the strobe have to be giving to be one stop brighter than the ambient?

3. In a dark studio with a flash, which shutter speed will freeze the hair more? A=1/200 / B=1/60 / C=Not Applicable

4. What is the Sunny 16 Rule?

5. According to the Inverse Square Law, would we get twice as much light when placed at half the distance to the subject or 4 times as much light?

6. If you have an exposure reading of f5.6 @1/500 at ISO 400 – which of the following is a reciprocal value of that reading? A – f11 @ 1/60 at ISO 400? B – f4 @ 1/500 at ISO 200? C – f8 @ 1/2000 at ISO 800?

In a dark and noisy room, can you quickly – without looking – make these changes to your setting? 1. Change ISO? 2. Change Shutter Speed? 3. Change Aperture? 4. Format a card? 5. Change from Aperture Value to Manual?

Quick… does your lens turn counter clockwise or clockwise to focus from close to infinity? There are more… but you get the idea.


1. 2 2/3 stops faster.

2. f8

3. C Not Applicable. The hair will be lit by the strobe duration which is much faster than either of the shutter speeds.

4. Sunny 16 rule is F16 at 1/ISO for shutter speed. Side light open one stop – f11 Back lit open two stops – f8 – f5.6 depending on bounce from ambient.

5. 4 Times more light (two stops)

6. B – f4 @ 1/250 ISO 200

Thanks for playing… heh.

And soloing is where it is at, friends.

Being so confident in your gear that you forget all the operational buttons and switches and thinking about this or that or somethign else… you just create. Making the images you love because you are totally focused on that instead of being distracted by trying to figure out what ISO you should be using (reciprocals will help with that).

Imagine how difficult it would be to start to make up something in your head to play right now, while trying to remember the fingering for the GMajor scale… impossible.

Now imagine you are shooting a location shot and the shadows are coming up too deep. Do you know how deep they are coming up? Do you know how to fix them – fast? Will a shiny board be too much, or a white board be too little? Would a second flash create more highlights than you want or is there another solution? There are many solutions, you know.

Knowing what each one does, quickly, is jazz with lighting.

Improvising. It is one of the most important traits of a commercial photographer. Why – because things rarely go as planned.

We all know about backups and backups for the backups… you don’t go out with only four extra AA’s, right? We have backups that backup the backups on some gigs.

Extra lights, extra flashtubes, extra stands*, extra sandbags… everything in mutliples.

But the most important thing we have for backup is between our ears – the talent we have with a camera, the knowledge we have of the craft we work in, and the ability to spin on a dime and give change. THAT is what multiple backups are about.

Thinking of possibilities, seeing challenges instantly, and starting to work on how to fix them before anyone else even thinks about them. Keeping a crew motivated in 115 degree heat, while shooting under a dark cloth, and having the background slowly move to shadow because the AD couldn’t make up their mind in time for the shoot to be done in the frame you had… dancing like a fool to keep it all together.

That’s jazz, man.

Shooting a headshot and changing the angle of the light because it brings out the subjects eyes more, or creates a wonderful shine on the side of her hair, while instantly knowing that now you need more fill from the bottom pull up the card, and bring in the shiny board for some more bounce from behind… and all of this happening while you are working with the model, giving directions to both her and the crew and finding those moments where she looks great… click… click…

That’s jazz, baby!

And when the shoot is wrapped, and the AD is ecstatic, you ask for another chorus… just a bit more time to loosen up, slide outside of the chords and play in some registers that don’t get much attention. Move the light, swing in the boom… a chorus of changes happening right before your eyes… experimenting with the light, pushing the boundaries of composition, MAKING something new and so outside of the box that there ain’t no box… I don’t see no box… shut up about the box.

Yeah… that’s jazz too.

So how are you going to prepare to get to that solo? Some tips:

  1. LEARN to use that camera and KNOW how to do it with your eyes closed.
  2. Practice, practice, practice.
  3. Experiment. Once you KNOW you have the shot, try new and wild things… or even new and mild things. But step out and try something different… and if it works, you now have what jazz cats call a ‘riff’ you can spring when you need it.
  4. Work on your visual style with every shoot you do.
  5. If you do not have a visual style, ask yourself why not and look back at your work to see if one is beginning to appear.
  6. Push everyone around you to be the best they can be. Push yourself twice as hard.
  7. Improvise on a theme. Using a model friend, a bud, or some great props, play with the light. Build upon your knowledge… this is improvisation in the practice room. Safe.
  8. USE what you find is useful. Never remain inside the box others have built for you.
  9. “Stretch out”… what we call it when the soloist takes more than a couple of choruses… similar to improvising on a theme, this is more long form… a subject, story, journal.
  10. Inspire yourself with art you may not see or listen to often. Do not become encapsulated in one thing. Listen to all kinds of music, view all kinds of art and photography – EVEN, no ESPECIALLY if you don’t like it or understand it. Inspiration comes from such explorations… it really does.

Some of my faves include:

I listen to this when I am editing… Love this album.
The music you hear is totally and completely improvised on the spot.

And this classic Miles tune… it set the tone for a decade of new jazz

Music is one of the main inspirations I have in photography. I hope you will think of music and photography in a new way now as well.

*I should note that there is no such term as “too many stands”. One will always need one more stand than one has at any given time on any given set. It’s science, don’t argue.

How To Find Your Style (Video)

How To Find Your Style (Video)

How to Find Your Style in Photography.

We find it looking back at our output, not ahead at someone else’s.

Imitate. Assimilate. Innovate. – Clark Terry

It is not what you shoot, it is how you shoot what you shoot.

Most of us start out shooting everything that comes in front of our lens. We simply fall in love with the process of fixing a still image from our visual surroundings.

We love the act and product of photography.

But down the road a bit, we start focusing in on the subjects we choose. Perhaps we lose interest in urban street photography in order to make more portraits. Or we find less and less to shoot in the city because all of our efforts seem to be focused on the wild that lies beyond.

Natural progression.

But after a while we begin to see a particular kind of image more and more in our work. Perhaps it is a way we compose, or a consistent way we present our subjects. Our post processing begins leaning toward that ‘look’ and we have the beginnings of style.

Style is NOT just a filter set or a plugin.Style is NOT using a specific lens.
Style is NOT making images that look like someone else’s style.

Style is what we do with all of the tools at our hands.

How we compose, frame, light, interact, present emotion (or not), deliver a story (or not). treat the subjects relationship to the world, reframe the subject into a place that may or may not represent reality.

It is how we make images that are uniquely ours.

Totally unique?

Nope. Damned difficult to do.

But unique to us in that they are a cohesive set of images – a body of work – that relates to our vision and presentation of the photography.

We find our style looking back on what we love.

So we need to make a lot of images before we begin to see our ‘style’ emerging.

Imitate. Assimilate. Innovate. – Clark Terry


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15 Things To Consider When Leaving Your Corporate Gig

15 Things To Consider When Leaving Your Corporate Gig

Going Pro Photographer from a corporate gig is not as easy as many think it is.

Here is part one of things that you should think about before making the switch.

The List

  1. Turn a 9 – 5 job into a 5 – 9 job
  2. Do not underestimate the power of a good budgeting system. If you are not good at delayed gratification, this will be harder than it seems.
  3. Learn to love Mac and Cheese and Ramen
  4. If you don’t use it weekly, you don’t need to own it
  5. You will hate your boss… you will work when you are sick, and never be late
  6. If you are not working harder than you did at your corporate gig, you are failing
  7. Dress for the day. PJ’s and slippers will not put you into a work frame of mind
  8. Make sure you have a calendar and stick with it. There are far too many distractions to deal with otherwise
  9. Forget TV
  10. Save for rainy days… they happen
  11. Spend time with your family and be there when you say you are. Important to not work when you are with family time
  12. Shoot something every day… or every other day at least.
  13. Don’t measure your self or your work against others, just don’t.
  14. Watch closely for resistance… it can show up in the damnedest of disguises
  15. Don’t hide in your office… get out and meet people – especially other entrepreneurs and small business owners.

Being prepared is the best way to make anything work out.

The Headshot Ebook: For You

The Headshot Ebook: For You

John McAllister is a talented and hard working photographer in High Wickham, Buckinghamshire. He specializes in product and people photography for commercial clients who expect exacting standards and high creativity.

In order to serve his corporate and headshot clients better, he created this wonderful Headshot EBook that we are sharing here with you. If you get some ideas on creating your own book for prospective clients, then we are happy to have helped.

Here is the book. Download it for your use and enjoy.

The Headshot EBook PDF

John’s Website

Contact Info

John McAllister Photography
London Road
High Wycombe
Buckinghamshire, HP11 1DQ
United Kingdom

Telephone: +44 1494 464287

(All images copyright John McAllister)

My Utah Trip With Maciej

My Utah Trip With Maciej

A few weeks ago, photographer Maciej Blaszczuk and I took a road-trip together. This was a consultation with him on how to grow his business, where to go with his new ideas, and how to implement them in order to be more manageable. I help photographers focus, and I like to do it in a situation where we are relaxed, engaged, out of a familiar element, and being creative.

Hence: The road-trip consult. Genuinely successful, and a hell of a lot of fun.

This road-trip consult ended up being in southern Utah, so I rode my motorcycle up to Vegas, and Maciej flew in from the Bahamas. Maciej is based in both Bermuda and Poland and is a travel/adventure photographer focused on smaller camera work and cameraphone mastery.

I am happy to see he is implementing what we discussed and making his business more successful. And it is a fantastic new approach to a business model.

I love southern Utah. Some of the most amazing country on the planet, easily accessible, and marvelous people willing to help you find a canyon, choose a great restaurant,or pull your rental car out of the mud… heh.

The images presented here were either shot on my iPhone 7 and processed in the iPhone, or on a Nikon Df with an assortment of lenses (28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm) processed in LR / Pshop CC.

Day one we met at the Vegas airport (where I parked my bike for the duration) and headed out in a rented Volvo 4x4… and was that thing loaded! Power everything, full open view roof, lots of power for icy roads and some lovely interior features that made the trip out to the wilds of Escalante a lot more luxurious.

Our first night we spent in Cedar City. Great hotel with complimentary full breakfast AND dinner. We opted for some Mexican food and went in search of the best Cedar City had to offer. It was amazingly good Mexican food too. Don Miguel’s is the place, and it is on the main drag so easy to spot. Ask them for the spicier roasted pepper salsa they make for themselves. Yum!.

After dinner, we went exploring out west of Cedar City in a grand prairie-like environment. We found lots to photograph.


Cedar City over to Escalante, via Bryce Canyon, was a blast. It was so cold at times I thought my fingers were going to freeze, And watching the blizzard conditions move across the mountains and valleys before us was almost magical.

We had lakes, vistas, frozen waterfalls, and a little pass where there was an amazing amount of Petroglyphs… simply amazing!

Things we discovered this day:

  1. Not many people travel that part of Utah on a Monday. The roads were empty and we once went almost an hour before seeing another vehicle.
  2. Devlishly hard to find hot coffee in that area, that time of year. We finally found a little diner with great pie, and indulged while it snowed.
  3. Weather changes on a dime at that altitude. From snowing and dark to sunny and comfortable in a manner of minutes.

I want to go back to that area… same time of year. Loved the aloneness of it all.

Day Three: Escalante to Waterpocket Fold

We spent this day exploring the Escalante / Grand Staircase area around Escalante, and I finally got to see Waterpocket Fold with my own eyes. I have wanted to see it since I was 20 years old and reading about it in a photography book I owned named “Slickrock”.

It was glorious.

But first, we drove up the mountain northeast of Boulder, Utah to some very high elevations, lots of snow, and a deep, perpetual cold.

That part of the trip was so amazing… the clouds, peaks, tree skeletons and more combined for some truly fun imagery.

Way up on the top of the mountains east of Boulder, we found so many wonderful places to shoot. I must say it was simply stunning. All the trees on this mountain range are Aspen so no pines were present. White tree-bones, white snow, and blowing snow made a whiteout occur on occasion. I was able to get a few shots in the moments when it would let up.

Road trips invigorate me. They make me realize how amazing it is to be here – in this spot – at this time. Being surprised at every corner, interested in every view, and engaged with the elements. Well, there is nothing like it.

While we were on top, in the blowing snow, three guys on Harley’s rode by. I suddenly realized how cold they must be… wow.

But then, we do what we need to do to be reminded that we are indeed alive!





This part of the road rides a ridge with very steep canyons on both sides for about a half a mile. It is simply amazing.


We were pretty beat from the long day in Escalante and Waterpocket fold so we elected to stay at the hotel in Kanab and have breakfast before heading to Zion. Good thing too… the light was mediocre and the traffic was horrendous. The breakfast, on the other hand, was superb!

We were going to eat lunch in Springdale but couldn’t find a place to park so we headed on down the mountain and decided to drive over to highway 93 through Modena and Caliente and then on into Vegas. I was quite surprised at a number of mountains in that part of Nevada. I thought it was all flat like over on 95, but it isn’t. Bluffs, peaks, mountains and canyons are plentiful in a high desert area. Simply beautiful.

On the way back we stopped in Modena – an empty town of maybe 3 people, saw a grass fire on the prairie and generally had a great discussion about what Maciej was going to do next. Fabulous!

Thanks for coming along on the virtual trip. I hope you enjoyed the images.

If you are interested in doing a one-on-one road trip consultation with me, just drop me an email and we can talk about what you are looking for. (NOTE: I do not do hotel conference rooms, or other sterile, non-creative environments.)

See you next time!