What I’ve Learned So Far: Seven; Gear Envy Sucks

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Gear envy takes two major forms;

1. “I can’t do what I want with this crummy gear.”

2. “I can’t believe that guy/gal has such great equipment when their work sucks so bad.”

Actually envying someone by what their gear collection is – “I so wish I was him, I would be so awesome with that gear” – is more a sign of needing some professional help. Please see someone straight away.

So let’s look at number one first, the thought that you cannot shoot with your current crummy gear.

I have absolutely no sympathy for you at all. Crummy gear is better than NO gear, and it is probably better than a lot of photographers who are smoking you butt daily. Why? Because they are shooting instead of worrying that their edges are too soft if the image was blown up to the side of a house, or that awful purple fringe that no one can see anyway, or how there is a chromatic aberration when the lens is pointed at a 36 – 46 degree angle to the sun in the afternoon on alternating Tuesdays!

Give it a rest. You can make great shots on an entry level camera. You can make great shots on P&S cameras if you know how to make a good photograph. And understand the nature of the tools. And have spent anytime actually MAKING images instead of talking about them incessantly.

Think about this:

  1. If you cannot take a good photograph with an entry level camera and a kit lens, what makes you think your work will be better with a shiny new D760D-X NiKanon?
  2. If your pictures suck with what you have, they will most likely suck with a new camera, but now have the added fun of sucking after spending a boat load of cash.
  3. Your results may vary. Listening to some photograph blather on about how the new camera from  —- simply sucks the suck out of suck means only that he/she lives in a bubble somewhere since there are thousands of photographers doing amazing work with every kind of camera on the face of the earth.
  4. Perhaps it isn’t your camera, maybe you suck at making photographs.
  5. If your camera is not working ‘correctly’, it could be “user error”… just sayin’.
  6. Bigger file sizes means bigger file sizes. That’s it.
  7. Focus is not a substitute for connecting with the viewer. (Neither is pixel counts or dynamic range, but we don’t want to get too crazy.)
  8. Yes, yes… that guru on all the awesome YouTubes shoots with some terribly expensive gear, and his pictures are awesomer than yours. Here is something to think about – give them your camera and watch them make the same awesomer shots.
  9. Camera manufacturers pay extraordinarily big money to make you think that their new wizbang will turn your pathetic throw aways into gallery ready pix. You let that crap take hold and you will never have enough gear… ever.

Worrying about gear is a form of resistance. It’s an excuse. I ‘need’ this or I ‘need’ that, and without this or that I am in no shape to make a photograph. The gear won’t let me.

(more…)

Thinning Down, Weeding Out… Hopefully

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Gettin’ Skinny and Lovin’ It

I bet you’re wondering if this will be about a new diet program, and how I am slimming down and getting to be a lean mean fighting machine.

And it is… sorta.

It’s a diet of all things photography.

I am moved out of the big studio I share with Dave Siegel in Phoenix. We moved to a smaller studio (still with a cyc and all I need for a big shoot) but without all the excess stuff that really resulted in a cluttered space and working environment.

Clutter is not always things either. Sometimes it is thought processes and sometimes it is workflow and sometimes it is simply dealing with all the physical clutter that makes us have mental clutter… did you follow that?

When I started the process, I was a bit down. I am a collector. I love my little mementoes; of projects I did, models I knew, and experiences that were memorable. Getting the courage to toss a lot of that stuff made me dig deep… LOL.

I also found boxes that had been unopened from my original move in 2002. I was going to open a few to see what was in the them, but realized if I hadn’t touched it in 12 years it simply was not important. (Yes, my fear is that I will awaken in the middle of the night remembering I had stashed a Leica system in one of the boxes… arghh… but that will only be a nightmare.)

I pared down almost everything I had because of the changes in my interests in photography and the work I want to do and will be doing.

When I started out it was in the late 70’s. Natural light was my source.

By the mid 80’s a studio with tons of lights and booms and stands was home to me. 14 hour workdays were common. It had a kitchen and a shower, a full makeup area with two stations. The darkroom was spacious and featured three enlargers – one color. We did Cibachromes and black and white prints and poster sized enlargements.

The studio was always full of people… models, clients, art directors stopping by on the way to and from somewhere, assistants, makeup artists… it was a place of social interaction as well as a place to work.

That changed.

What was pretty cool to do in your thirties became less so as we get older and gain families and other social lives. Perhaps in some studios that still goes on.

In ours it doesn’t.

(We are adding some things to the new studio that will maybe help create a more fun environment with much more interaction between creatives.)

I have over the years gotten rid of a lot of the bigger lighting (Norman 2000 packs) and was down to only one pack and four heads. They went to a friend who is going to fix them up and use them in his studio. The stuff I had been clinging on to for years was in the end a lot of junk.

Dumpster divers will find old negatives, transparencies, and boxes of stuff they will not even have a clue about. Stuff that meant something to me at one time… now it is gone.

Or perhaps someone will reclaim those old pinup shots from the 80’s. or the tractor catalog I shot in 92 or better yet, the “Little Black Dress” poster I shot for the Leighton Agency back in 90.

LOL… lots of memories.

Interestingly the memories remain… only the box of stuff is gone.

I was going to toss out the print ‘collection’ (probably a thousand or more)  but decided to digitize it first. Probably use the iPhone and snap shots of each of the prints before tossing them as well. Perhaps… unless I just love the print and want to DO SOMETHING WITH IT. If it doesn’t go into a portfolio, it will be gone.

So what did I keep?

Booms – all five of them. And all my stands. Never have enough stands. I have four Profoto strobes and a plethora of modifiers, but my “kit” is now two heads, two Octaboxes (48”) and one 24” square softbox. Accompanied by four grids and a beauty dish, this is what I will be grabbing on the way out the door. I still have the one Dynalite as well. It may go or I may get rid of the Profotos and go all Dynalite. Much smaller footprint for sure.

I have a rolling rack that contains all of my gear except the booms. All stands and umbrellas are in Standbaggers, and the small stuff is in a cadre of tool boxes. One for small strobe stuff, one for big light shoots and one for the odds and ends I always need on a shoot. Pliers and wrenches and fasteners and velcro.

Organized it is getting. And I will be doing more now that I have pared it all down. That means I have to redo my packing sheets (obsolete now) for the new gear bags and boxes. Each box/bag has a laminated ‘packing sheet’ with exactly what is in them. This makes it easy to find the right part and easy to know where it goes when the shoot is over. Even thinking about color coding the items for the different boxes. Using small pieces of colored tape, each strobe, connector, cable or screwdriver can find its home easily.

When I used to go on location, we took a truck of gear. I am now finding I prefer one light and the world. Styles change, but also my personal work is becoming more about my vision rather than someone else’s. Yes, commercial photography was a lot of working your image to THEIR vision. I am climbing out of that hole, but after decades it is not as easy as I would have thought it to be.

The more gear I take on a shoot, the less ‘spontaneous’ I find myself. I want to change that up.

For nearly four decades I was focused on getting THE IMAGE. We would prep and light and re-light all day for that one perfect shot. Tweaking and ‘roiding, tweeking and ‘roiding. In the end a perfectly conceived and produced photograph was the goal.

That is not how I want to do it anymore. I want flexibility and whimsy and a much more loose feeling to my work – to my images. And that means thinking differently.

Thinking smaller in gear choice, looser in presentation, quicker in production. Spontaneous is exactly that and ‘staging’ spontaneity is as hard as it sounds. However, the actual image should look like it wasn’t staged at all. And that takes a loose approach to a tightly scripted production… loving that right now. The challenge is something I have always craved. If it is too easy, it can become a bit stale.

I still love to shoot in natural light, ‘real light’ so to speak. Working with what I am given seems to perk my creative ideas up a bit. But I also love to create light and create an emotion with that light that may move someone else when viewing the image.

Something else happened this week amongst the tossing of stuff and the paring down of gear… I am much more excited about shooting. I have so many more ideas now than I did two weeks ago. Perhaps the anchor of too much stuff began to wear on my creativity.

Stravinsky once said that the greatest freedom to create came with the tightest confines. If we have everything to choose from, perhaps the choosing gets in the way of the creation itself.

I went on a week long roadtrip with only one body and four lenses not wider than 28 and not longer than 85. I had the best shoot I could have imagined. In fact, I probably would love to do it again with a 35mm only. Maybe the constraints of the lens would spark a creativity I would have to dig deep for.

Perhaps.

For now I have gone from an office the size of my living room to a corner in the garage (OK, a bit more than a corner) and I am feeling more like shooting than I have in quite a while.

Look, I am not telling you to pare down and go minimal. I have no dog in that hunt and would only prefer that you do what you want if it makes you happy and more creative. There are some incredibly gifted shooters with far more gear than I and Dave put together. They USE the tools for what they do.

And that is exactly what I want to get back to… using the tools I have to make the images I want to make.

It is really all about the image, and the freedom to create what you see in your minds eye. If there is something that is getting in the way of that endeavor it must go. It must.

I will post images of the new studio when it is ready. Lots of construction going on… we are putting in a real darkroom with sinks and all. Don’t ask… we are indulging ourselves a bit.

Industrial Assignment: Project 52 Pros

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One of the most under-rated and least mentioned genre of commercial photography is Industrial/Corporate. It isn’t sexy, and models don’t flock to the studio after hours. The travel is usually not to some awesome resort or fancy hotel, but rather to out of the way places with gritty facilities and hard working men and women.

I like industry. I love when people make stuff… and then find people who want to buy that stuff.

We had some great work turned in on this very difficult assignment. In some cases the work is far better than competing work by those already in the business. I like tough assignments and this one the students really lit on.

Photographing Mundane Subjects

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I have always been a ‘commercial’ photographer. While that included some wonderful editorial and fashion along the way, the bulk of my income was from good old commercial photography. Photographs made for advertisements, brochures, product sheets, illustrative uses and corporate.

There is a growing difference between commercial photography and the world of editorial (which seems to be the focus of most blogs/sites/gurus) and that difference can make it a little difficult for many of you starting out.

Editorial, fashion, glamor portraiture and food are specialties whose niches have grown quite a bit in the last 20 years. Commercial has enveloped a lot of those niches as well, but it also has the genre of “stuff”.

We photograph ‘stuff’.

Mundane items like power strips and lamps and a cool new gizmo that keeps hard drives from overheating. Sometimes with a model, sometimes on a table top, and sometimes on location in a factory setting.

While not exactly a ‘jack of all trades’ a commercial photographer keeps their doors open by working the markets they have.

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NOTE: If you are living in San Francisco, LA, Chicago, Dallas, and New York, this may not apply to you. The markets are very big and one can specialize in shooting one thing, in one way. No problem… and those are great places to live.

The rest of us live in Winnipeg, and Cleveland, and Albuquerque and Missoula. We could get every single fashion shot in those cities and still not make even a small living.

So we keep our doors open shooting all kinds of things.

While we work on those specialties that can give us regional and national reach. Yes, you can be a niche “Editorial Portraitist” and work for magazines the world over while living in Portland, Oregon or Portland, Maine.

But that takes time. And money.

Commercial shooters work as photographers instead of barristas, or cable repair while they work toward those more lofty goals.

SHOOTING MUNDANE ITEMS

One of the things we all have to do as a commercial shooter is to make images of mundane, everyday items. It is part of our general workweek in many studios.

Shoes, tools, consumer products, industrial materials. All must be shot for product sheets, consumer and trade ads, brochures, catalogs and websites.

However the bar is being raised all the time and you may find, as a recent “Summer 2013” Project 52 students did, that shooting something as mundane as a power strip is much harder than it seems.

This is where technique, lighting, style, and deliberateness come into play.

Can we take a power strip and lay it on a white seamless and bang it with a big softbox? Of course. So can eleventy-hundred other shooters.

If your imagery is not better than the product managers iPhone shots (done in the bathroom at a trade conference and run through Snapseed for more dynamic range… heh) then there is absolutely no reason for them to hire you.

Product manager doesn’t get any more money for his iPhone shots, and you want a grand or two a day… plus usage!

This is where you must differentiate yourself from the pack.

Lighting, composition, style, dynamic sand concept. Make a shot of that power strip that knocks people’s socks off. A power strip shot that sets a new level of awesome for multi-plug devices retailing for under $12. Give that bad boy some visual juice!!

How do you do that?

You work your ass off. You work deliberately. Ask questions… does that corner read well against the background? Will the plug holes show the unique pattern? Does the base blend in with the shadow too much? Is there a highlight on the cord? Does the cord read well against the background? Is the background a distraction? What can we do to make the light more interesting on this 12” piece of cheap plastic?

Determination, skill, technique and a deliberate approach to making a photograph.

Below are some images that take everyday items and make them look amazing.

A shoe gets a fancy approach in this series by a popular shoe designer.

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A much more mundane pair of boots are made more interesting by texture and lighting. Photograph by Charles Ward.

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Grab some items from the kitchen and make something cool with them. My friend Rick Gayle does it all the time.

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Imagine getting an assignment to photograph notecards and small paper items. Annabelle Breakey makes it look amazing.

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A simple, everyday pill bottle represents a cancer treatment. Careful lighting, angle and presentation makes it look as important as the client believes it to be. Adam Voorhes always delivers.

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So the next time you hear yourself saying “there is nothing to photograph today” just run up to Home Depot or Bed, Bath and Beyond and grab something you need around the house anyway.

Then make some careful, deliberate, amazing shots of it before it goes into the drawer or closet.

Hint:
Vacuum cleaners… very tough.
Weed Whackers… harder than you think.
Blenders… wow, reflections!
Electronic items… can be boring or cool.
Kitchen or Garden Tools… Impressively difficult.

Can you make mundane shots of mundane things? Of course. Anyone can.

But not anyone can make a killer shot of a garden spade or a car vacuum cleaner. That is where you shine and it can be where you get work too.

What If The Problem Is That You Suck?

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Photo of the author by Mike Eller

Even More Advice for the Aspiring Professional Photographer.

These days a lot of people seem to be offering advice in the area of becoming a full time professional photographer. Some of those folks like Greg Heisler, Jay Meisel, Gail Mooney and others have long careers and great inspirational advice for those who are beginning the journey.

Others, whose names I won’t mention, and hosts of FB, G+, and Flickr shooters want you to know that the life sucks, the cameras suck, the business sucks, and the whole idea of being a professional photographer is a total pile of crap – and it sucks, of course.

Count me among those in the first group, with some cautious understanding of where those in the negative group are coming from.

Let’s face some cold facts.

Being self-employed is not for everyone. The challenges of self discipline, fear of the unknown, difficult self motivation and a desire to not eat macaroni and cheese for every meal for a year is daunting to a lot of people. And it doesn’t make any difference if the self employed person is going into graphic design, plumbing or photography.

Being a professional photographer is not for everyone either. On top of the challenges of self employment, there is also a huge disconnect between what people think that world consists of and the actual world of pro photography itself. Huge.

Let me be perfectly clear here; I am not referring to wedding, maternity, ‘senior’ and family portrait photography. That is not a world I am expert in, nor do I really care all that much about. While it is most certainly similar in a few areas, the differences are vastly so in the aesthetic and the end use of the images.

I am only commenting on commercial photography and its many adjunct genres: architectural, editorial, food, fashion, product and travel. This is photography used for commerce – both directly and indirectly. Think of it as B2B photography – not B2C.

I know most of my readers are in this group, and I have a sizable contingent of those who do both commercial and B2C. In smaller markets shooting some consumer work may be a necessity for a commercial photographer, and some photographers love both sides of the business, so that is cool too! Freedom of choice works for me.

I have had the honor to work with a lot of emerging photographers and watched them grow from full time other job folks to full time photographer folks. Over at Project52Pros that is what we are all about.

In over 40 years of professionalismI have seen amazing success stories, and I have known some spectacular crash and burn scenarios as well. In most cases, the causes and reasons were the same for both. I have spoken with photographers who were crashing and instantly known why… some things are obvious. And the reasons are very much the same for most who are failing.

I would like to address some of these more obvious challenges and offer some solutions. Hold on, this may sting a bit.

To those of you who are struggling making the jump, here is some free, unsolicited advice.

Perhaps it is not the market, maybe you just suck.

C’mon… that could be it, right? I mean, other people are working and some are working their asses off. And you aren’t, and you don’t know why. Maybe you haven’t spent enough time making images, or building a book, or building a list or building a goddamn business! (It is important to understand that every photographer once sucked. Every damned one of them. The successful ones figure out how to not suck.)

No one who ever picked up a camera was guaranteed to be a phenomenal photographer with clients dripping gold infusions into their wallets with every snap. Most of the ones we see shooting the really cool stuff, the assignments we all want to get busted their asses to get there. They found ways to not suck.

To get over the suckiness that may be holding you back, let’s look at a few glaring challenges (traits) that those who are struggling usually exhibit.

  1. You suck at shooting enough pictures to make a difference.
    Getting a camera for Christmas and business cards for Easter may be a quick jump into the abyss of thinking it is the market failed you when actually you still suck. Make sure you are ready, and are able to make images that are amazing before you put yourself out there. This is very important.
  2. Your photographs suck.
    The images that you think are ‘good enough’ actually still suck. If you are measuring your work against others, make sure you pick high enough up the ol’ totem pole to make that comparison worth it. Being ‘better’ than the 1 ½ year shooter down the road may not be enough to make a difference to the people in your town and make them want to hire you. Only excellence moves on.
  3. Your marketing sucks.
    Recently I read a painful article from someone who was honestly hurting and was chastising all the other photographers he/she saw as crushing him/her with lowball pricing. Problem was, the author’s website totally sucked, there was no marketing message, the logo/presentation was amateurish and silly and the images were – well – meh. Not bad, not great… just… images.
  4. Your presentation sucks.
    Does your Website look like it was made in 1995 with a quick refresh in late 2000? You may have a problem convincing anyone that you are worth hiring. This is a competitive, creative world where PRESENTATION is an absolutely huge part of the equation. If you don’t know what good design is, why would I trust you to do good photography? They are hand in hand.
  5. Your list sucks.
    Your list… you do have a list, right? Right? If you do not have a list of people who could hire you, you are not really in business, you are playing like being in business. And that can be very painful. Of course playing at it is fun, but when reality catches up please don’t write a whining “I was crushed by the $200 Craigslist Shooters” post. It is embarrassing, it really is.
  6. Your client outreach sucks.
    No one knows you exist. I want you to reach out and touch a prospective client three times a day… that’s it. Just three times. If you do that, you will find success will follow (unless your work really does suck) and if you do more, it will come faster. MOST photographers do not market themselves to a targeted list. Waiting for the phone to ring from people who don’t even know you friggin’ exist is a fools game, ya know.
  7. Your portfolio sucks.
    You know, the portfolio that hasn’t seen a new image in 4 months or longer, has no current work in it, and totally misrepresents your new style and vision. The portfolio that has no personal work, tired old client crap and some nekkid chicks in the ‘aurt’ section will sink any photographer… fast. Get serious and get to work on the port.
  8. Your brand sucks.
    Not your logo, the one that you got from Fiverr… that totally rocks next to the fact that you have no personal look, never return phone calls, have no coherent message, no visual style and are late with every shoot. Seriously – next to that disaster, the $5 logo has it really going on, man.
  9. Your gear sucks.
    No, wait… I am not talking about the gear itself, I am talking about the way you hold it up as a substitute for the work. Owning a fancy camera with all the bells and whistles only requires a good credit score, not a quality image score. Using all your money to acquire the newest pixel machine may make you a hit on G+, but it will do nothing but suck your assets from doing something important to help your business. Gear Acquisiton Syndrome will suck the viability out of any emerging shooter.
  10. You suck.
    You are the type of person who sees everyone else as a threat or a competitor. You work against yourself in order to feel more powerful when comparing yourself to others… which you do at every opportunity. You treat other photographers and beginners as something less than human and have nothing but disdain for their wanting to be a photographer… like you. And instead of addressing the challenges of the business, you choose instead to ridicule the successful, and demonize the competition.

So here is a thought… do it this way and skip the sucking part:

Shoot photographs as often as you can, and get those images critiqued by people IN the business, not buddies or Flickr followers. Find art directors, graphic designers, other photographers (who aren’t total douchebags) to give you honest direction on that work.

Work to make sure your marketing is up to the level it needs to be. If you do not know, get some other eyes on it. Knowing eyes. Being a great photographer does not automatically make you a great marketer.

Or designer. Your presentation must be professional, clean and perfect. Websites do not have to be expensive to work beautifully, but they do have to have a sense of style.

Get a list. Put one together yourself from magazines, local business papers, contacts and referrals. Then use that list and start to market to them with email, direct mail, and personal phone calls. Don’t like personal phone calls? Who cares… suck it up and do it. Reach out personally to at least three of your contacts per day with either a phone call, email or some other marketing piece.

Make sure your portfolio is kept up. New photographs (see one above), personal projects, BTS shots and more can help you stay fresh in the eyes of art directors, photo editors and art buyers.

Make sure your brand is doing its job, and remember that there is no more powerful reminder of your brand than you, in all you do in your business, and how you present your work, and yourself to the world.

Spend the least amount that you can on gear that sits around waiting to be used. Shoot more, acquire less. Use your assets for creating stunning work, in awesome locations, and add cool new shots to your book instead of a new lens to the bag. (There may be a time when your accountant says, “Hey, you gotta spend some money this quarter….” That is when you grab that lens. If you actually, you know, NEED it.)

And above all, don’t suck. Be a mentor, be a friend, be a helpful person to those who are starting out just as you are. Be positive in your speaking and dealing with others and never give in to despair, and negativity although it may be difficult when you are having another macaroni and cheese dinner.

Success is not an overnight roadtrip, and failing to understand that journey and its ups and downs, forks in the road and challenges can be the greatest obstacle in front of you.

Know that it is an obstacle that can be overcome by hard work, careful attention to detail, knowing what you don’t know, and keeping the gaze forward will help deliver you to the ranks of professional photography. And, believe me, it is still a blast and a thrill to be shooting gigs for a living… no matter what anyone else tells you.

Oh, and try a little Tabasco on that macaroni and cheese. The additional spice breaks the monotony… trust me, I know.

My name is Don Giannatti and I have, on many occasions, sucked at photography. I overcame those times when I sucked, and had periods where I didn’t suck. I have had a 40 year career in this business that has been punctuated by thrilling highs and devastating lows. The challenge is to get back up after being knocked down, understanding that in order to be knocked that far down you must have sucked at something. And then you fix it. Don’t whine about it, or the competition, or the market, or the economy, just fix the damn thing and stop sucking.

You can find me at

www.dongiannatti.com

www.project52Pros.com

www.dongiannattiphotography.com

On Twitter and Instagram I am wizwow.

I suck at social media.

NOTE:

Thanks to PetaPixel for republishing the article.

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The article was also picked up by OnGoingPro. Thanks Hillary.

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“Money, Money, Money” A Difficult Subject

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The subject was money. And the assignment was for a brochure cover for a financial services company. Layout was included, but optional. The important thing was to not be totally cliche’ about the image, and also not to succumb to a boring shot.

This is a most difficult shot to do, and the photographers had to master the technique as well as come up with the creative. I think they did very well.

The students of Project 52 just keep on rolling. Two of them just got their first pro gigs, and others have been able to expand into markets they hadn’t been in before. Very exciting times at P52.