The “Long Game” in Photography

The “LONG GAME” Approach to Photography

One of the things I notice about the culture lately is that there is more focus on the easy route, the quick way, ‘getting to done’ without really knowing what got done. There is a quickness to many things we do, and we expect it to carry over into everything we do.

I can get on a plane and be in NYC for lunch. I can shoot an image, and have a print in my hands in only a few minutes. I can send someone a note halfway around the world and hear back from them in a second.

And all of this makes us believe that quick and fast is the only way things get done.

Wanna be a rock star? American Idol… only takes 20 weeks!
Wanna play drums? Sample a drummer and throw it into ProTools.
Wanna write something? Take a “Weekend to a Bestseller” workshop.

And sadly these are now considered by many to be the de-facto way of getting anything done. Quick, fast, and easy.

You all know how I feel about easy.

Easy is a fool’s charade. Nothing worth doing is easy. Easy means everyone can do it. Easy places mediocre at the top.

So let’s talk about how we get suckered into thinking it’s easy.

1. We see people seemingly doing what we want to do with little effort.
The photographer who goes from being relatively unknown to shooting covers for Vanity Fair. The stylist who bursts out of seemingly nowhere to take on the biggest celebrities. We see this all around us. We refer to them as the “overnight successes” of our business.

And we call them that because to USit seems as though it was overnight.

Guess what? It wasn’t. We only see them now, at THIS point in their career, not at all the gigs they did for free, or the screwups that made them feel like they wanted to quit. We don’t see the all-nighters, the reshoots, the failed projects.

We weren’t privy to that, we only see them now, and somehow we take our awareness of the world and slap it on to their reality. “Dude, I didn’t know you when you were struggling, so I guess you didn’t”.

2. We only see their highlight reel.
Those awesome portfolios that make us think “how in the hell do they make so many great images”? Well – they are only showing you their great images. The turkeys, bad shots, shitty images don’t ever get posted.

Why would they?

So we see their best shots and think they must be their only shots. And we know that isn’t reality, but it affects us anyway.

3. They make it look easy.
You know, those photographer’s BTS shoots of awesome adventure camping and gorgeous models and helicopters and a full on crew. WOW, that looks like so much fun. (It is, BTW… it really is.)

But… what we don’t see is the preparation, the weeks of hard work and decision making, the meetings that can seemingly go on forever discussing the most minute of wardrobe changes. We don’t see the years of experience that gets them to the point where they can bid and produce such a shoot.

And the screwups… again, they don’t usually make the BTS video. Unless they’re funny… heh.

That photographer and her crew up on the glacier shooting some professional models for a national campaign didn’t happen overnight, it didn’t happen because she was ‘special’ or because of luck. Sustained hard work put her there, and that same hard work keeps her there.

The “long game” is a sustained effort as well. It is working today with no return. It is shooting images that few people see. It is working on projects that fail and projects that succeed. It is deciding on spending $300 on gas and motels or to sleep in your car and get some roadtrippin’ sunrise shots instead of a new thingy for your bag… that never goes anywhere.

The long game is not a sprint, it is a marathon that rewards those who keep running, and simply ignores those who bail out at the first 10K. The long game is the only game in town for creatives.

Sometimes people attribute luck to others success. Or they factor in crap like birthright or who their daddy was or some sort of class delineation. And there is no doubt that some of that comes into play… hey, life is what it is.

But usually it falls to this basic truth: They are simply outworking you. They are doing what you are not. They are making while you are not. All things equal, it is the performance that counts. We do or we do not.

And lastly, one of the things that separate those who are seemingly doing better than we are is the fact that they jumped.

They simply jumped.

“We must be willing to fall flat on our faces. Fearlessly putting ourselves out there is simply a required part of the process. At the very least, it results in the gift of humility and, at best, the triumph of our human spirit.”
? Jill Badonsky

Imagine being on an airplane to do your first skydive. You have practiced and taken the training and now it is time for you to make your first solo jump.

Scary as hell, that’s for sure.

But also a very simple choice.

You can either jump. Or not jump.

You have prepared for this moment for a long time. From jump school, to practice jumps, to studying for the test and passing it. Then the endless mental preparation… all leading to this moment of ‘jump or not jump”.

If you do, you will have become a skydiver. You have done something very few others have ever done. You will have conquered fear, and proved that you were ready to move to the next level in your desire to become a skydiver.

If you do not, you will simply sit down in the plane… no shame in not jumping. You decided that the risk outweighed the reward, and chose to remain risk-free. And you may go on to do other great and noble things for sure. But you will not be a skydiver.

That is your choice and no one should belittle you for it.

But you should know that if you do not jump, you will not soar, you will not face that fear head-on, and you will most definitely not become a skydiver that day.

That doesn’t mean putting yourself at dangerous risk, but it does mean that in order to soar, you first have to jump.

Might as well… heh.

The “Long Game” approach means working your ass off to become the best you can be, preparing for the work ahead both mentally and physically and then when the moment comes, be prepared to jump and soar.


FIND PHOTO CLIENTS NOW
– is an online class that I have created to help you prepare for a good jump.

It is free for all photographers, and it comes in the form of one class per week so you have plenty of time to study and implement the material. For more information and to ‘jump on board’, check the site out here.

Deconstructing a Portrait

I want to take a closer look at some of the portraits the students in the 8 Week Portrait Class are doing. Decontructing an image is a very valuable exercise and one that can garner much insight into the way the portrait was conceived and produced.

The image above, by Leonardo Ferri, is of a young woman at the rose gardens in Berkely, CA. Usually a place teeming with people and other photographers, and especially so, it was nearly deserted on this cold, overcast day.

Using the steps and the hedges as a grounding point for the image – a contextual pallete – he placed his subject in the middle of the steps and then moved a little to the side to bring the angles of the image slightly askew, and giving her a bit more of a dynamic position in the image.

Leonardo-Ferri-anootated

The placement of the subject is directed by the angles of the parts of the image. The placement of her face is in nearly a perfect spot.

Photographer Iryna Ischenko used the tall gates and cypress trees to frame her subject. I personally like this photo for so many reasons. The leading lines of the brick roadway, the brooding sky and those lovely, tall cypress trees. The subject seems to be moving through the gate, and her gaze is down. All other elements are focused upward while she gazes down. I think this makes the portrait quite intimate and hints at a narrative unknown.

Photographer Gabriel Alvarez worked with his wide angle lens (part of the assignment) to create this powerful, yet understated portrait. Simple elements for the subject to lean on, and a single light from a speedlight was the effect he wanted to use. Gabriel told us he really struggled a bit with the wide angle lens and used a cropped area of the frame to keep the wide angle distortion from being too much for the image. Since our inspiration this week was the great Jean Loup Sieff, I think Gabriel did very well.

The expression is a moment caught in time and we are not privvy to what is happening. The wardrobe, a little black dress, adds to the minimalistic setting. Everything is black or white. Carmen Blike, the photographer, used the V shape of the stone work as a base for her composition, then used the subjects legs as an inverted “V” above them. The light is a single diffused speedlight above the subject and blended to be just a bit brighter than the ambient.

This image, by Diana Lundin uses the geometry of the setting to drive the eye toward her subject. It also seems to isolate her, while making her the obvious hero of the shot. All lines lead to the subject here, and instead of appearing overwhelmed by the huge architecture around her, the pose makes her seem confident and in total control of her environment.

Linda Luu Kieff used a graphical shaft of light coming in from the window on right to highlight the face of this nude portrait. The angles of the light bring our eyes to the face and the textures of the environment help the subject stand out. The smooth skin of the subject is in full contrast to the dark, rough material of the lounge and the patterned background. Working in the dark tones like this can be very tricky, but Linda handled the exposure very well. The image has a feeling of film to me, although it was shot digitally.

One more from the set by Linda Luu Kieff. This nude shows a different angle and how Kieff worked with the window light, and the bars/panes of the window to play the light across her subject. This play of light, and the anonymity of our subject prove to be a narrative that begs explanation. None is forthcoming. The gentle tones of the image are very film like, and keep the viewer intrigued by carefully retaining the shadow details to play off of the skin of the subject. Ballet shoes add to the story, although we don’t know why.

Annely Silferwax used two softboxes from either side for this nude portrait. Camera right is turned up a stop and a half over camera left, and provides the impetus for our subject to be looking off toward it. The dynamic position in the subject with the careful placement of the cloth makes this a very powerful image… one the subject seems ready to leap from. Annely used a very contrasty post-processing to be reminiscent of high-speed film when pushed. The subjects regal expression, and subtle dynamics provide a stunning image.

Photographer Frederic Reblewski used the stripes on the jacket as a compositional element. Notice the painting (hung on seamless paper) that mimics the lines and colors of the jacket. A large single light source gave him the look he was desiring, and a natural feel to the portrait.

With the subject leaning way into the photograph, and into the light from the bay window, Photographer Duane Middlebrook used line and texture to set his subject off from the background. I love that bright outside contrasted with the dark patina of the inside walls. The pensive look of the subject makes the portrait more intimate and personal.

In the wilds of the mountains, and on an overcast day, photographer Marjorie Decker caught this portrait of a fellow hiker and companion at a moment of rest. The gentle light and shallow depth of field help the portrait keep a more personal feel.

An intimate, spontaneous feel to this portrait is due to the careful use of props and background. A single speedlight is aimed from camera left, and it is flagged off to provide the raking light on the flowing background behind the subject. The simple wardrobe and sparse table setting give the image a bit of mystery. Photograph by Richard McDonald

The image on the right by Sherrie Von Sternberg is whimsical, playful, and quite a candid moment. The use of overexposure, and the shadow line, as well as the brave and dynamic crop, makes the portrait quite evocative. I like it.

What We Can Learn from Portraits

What We Learn From Making Portraits

Portraiture Can Enhance All of Our Photography

Want to increase your photography chops? Try portraiture.

When we are working with another person, and trying to make a great portrait of them, we have many challenges that confront the photographic process.

The one that is largest, and seems to be one of the more difficult challenges is time. With a landscape or food or still life, we can take as long as we need in most instances. But with a portrait, time is of the essence. A bored subject can look tired or uninterested in front of the camera.

Add to that the challenge that so many of us put on ourselves of entertaining our subjects while they wait and we work to fix this stand or that umbrella… the stress can add up to an unfulfilling session.

Learning to work within this time constraint can make us better all around photographers, and lessen the need for vast quantities of Tequila and Rum at the end of a long day.

The cover image above is by Frederic Reblewski. Using a strong light behind the subject, his goal was a moody portrait of a young man in conflict. The light and shadow show a classical scenario that plays out well in this dramatic portrait. Close cropping of the image and the use of negative space help the mood along as well.


In this image, photographer Diana Lundin had a very short window to keep the sun on her subject. Notice the angle of the shadow that indicates the sun is already low in the sky, and to maintain the even light on the subject she had to work quickly. Using the graphical element of the lifeguard tower set the subject off, and provided another element of interest in the image,


With a large scrim and a speedlight, photographer Marjorie Decker was able to position her subject and create a flattering light quickly. This kept the subject more relaxed while Decker was able to finesse the pose. Large, soft light sources can be much more forgiving than small, direct ones.

Portrait photography helps you work on your composition as well. Having a subject that can move allows you to play with placement of the background elements. Trying several compositions quickly is much easier – just have your subject move a little to the left or right to see what happens,


Photographer Iryna Ishchenko moved her model into and out of the frame to find the point where the subject worked best in relationship to the background. Keeping the flow of the lines of the body, while making the subject nearly anonymous gives the portrait a sense of mystery and elegance.


This dramatic portrait was lit with only a window light. Photographer Linda Luu Kiefl positioned her subject to give extra dark space around him. This helps the feeling of isolation that is enhanced by the gentleman’s somber expression. Including a small part of the window shade in the photograph helps give it context and adds a bit of whimsy to the image.


Working with negative space on a plain background can be very challenging. Working the subject into and out of the light can help a photographer see composition happening right before their eyes. Working with the subject and space can be quite illuminating. Heh. Photographer Annely Silferwax worked with her subject looking off camera for added drama.

Portraits can encompass a wide variety of emotion. Photographers can use compositional elements to enhance feelings of isolation, elation, distress, sadness and joy.

Add to this the elegance of light, and the portrait photographer can work through all the challenges of photography in this one genre.

Texture, dimension, shape, color, and gesture are all within the purview of the portrait. Using light wisely and with intention helps set the mood for the portrait.


Adding texture and whimsy to the portrait, photographer Richard McDonald kept the light strong behind the subject and flattened it on the front side to present this portrait. Photographer and subject simply began playing with this interesting piece of cloth until something striking happened before the lens. The graphical element of the image is enhanced by the anonymous subject.


With the light fading fast, photographer Leonardo Ferri moved his subject between two pillars in the courtyqrd they were shooting in and pushed his ISO to capture the delicate ambient light from outside. The subjects haunting expression fit the mood of the light, and the soft texture of the background give the image a striking appeal. It has a timeless, tranquil quality.

These images are pulled from the student work from the 8 Week Portrait Workshop. The inspiration for this assignment was the work of Herb Ritts, an incredible photographer who left us far too young.

2015: A Postmortem and Retrospective.

2015: A Postmortem and Retrospective.

We humans love to think in terms of beginnings and ends, and where, in reality, January 1 carries no more significance than any other day, we see it as a beginning of a new year full of promise.

And that is fine with me. 2015 was a difficult year for me, and I am damned glad it is over. I want to look forward to new opportunities.

First the good stuff from 2015:

My family is well and healthy, and I am going to be a grandfather. One of my daughters who was a bit estranged is now back ‘in the fold’ and we are all having such a good time together.

Project 52 started out with a bang in August, and the level of artistry in this year’s group is absolutely awesome – and you all know I do not use that word lightly. Project 52 is the glue to my existence these days. Thanks to everyone who is taking part.

My friends are all doing well, although a good bud of mine in Texas is having a rough year. We are all thinking about you, Charles. I know you can kick ass on that thing.

I made a decision to ride a motorcycle from Phoenix to Fairbanks, Alaska and have begun to get ready for that ride starting August 1, 2016. When I made the pronouncement I didn’t even own a motorcycle. I do now. And I am loving taking solo rides through the southwest.

The motorcycle is a luxury, I know… but I needed something to get me excited again. It seems to be doing the job.

Now the other stuff:

2015 was the worst creative year I have had in decades. I feel like my mojo done mojo’d off somewhere. I took fewer photographs than I ever have in a year. I was interested in some aspects of my creative life, but other parts just seemed to be sluggish at best.

Why?

You mean, what’s my excuse? I don’t have no friggin’ excuse. Excuses suck. Even more than my creative year of 2015 sucked.

My leg bothers me more than expected 2 years after the incident, but that is always going to be there and while it is annoying as hell, it is not an excuse to fall behind creatively. And I have worked through other challenges worse than a stupid leg cramp.

I fired three clients this past year. More than in a decade previous. Just got tired of the lame bullshit of diminished productivity. If you ain’t ready to commit, I am not interested in rowing your sinking boat. But that is just the way it is.

I pondered (picture me pondering… awesome…) over the last few weeks and have come to the conclusion that while I am pushing others to be their best, I may have slacked off on my own sorry ass. Not that I don’t work to be the best I can be, I just have not taken the effort out of the box to give it a shot.

Am I creatively afraid? I honestly cannot answer that.

I have rarely been afraid in the decades I have been making stuff, but I do feel like something in my core has fractured a bit. Not fallen apart yet, but fractured enough that it needs attention, Lots of attention.

Being creative has always been how I have defined myself, my work, my output. I may not be the most brilliant creative on the planet, but I do pretty well in the trenches. I love the trenches. I love getting into the process and the production, the grimy grit of where it gets made.

I love makers. I have always been a maker.

At least, I was until last year… and while I made some stuff, my output was lower than acceptable to me. It seemed like every time I started something I knew I had to do, it would get messy, and confused… and I would begin to pull away from it, not wanting to continue. A book is left half finished, another in nearly final form but sitting on a drive and without much love from me.

Maybe this is what they call a “Grand Funk”… or a “Creative Block”?

Who the hell cares what they call it, I want out. Desperately want out.

My action plan:

I have been working pretty hard this month to get ready for this ad-hoc ‘beginning’ of 2016. And I have been making stuff, getting it done. Shipping out is next, and that means I have had to shift some priorities. Slide a little here, shave a bit off there. Axe that crap right off the table… shifting.

My goal is to make something every day. 

Produce something every week.

To ship something every month.

Less FB, more camera/pen/stylus in hand. More time outside. More time working this fucking leg to either get it strong enough or kill the SOB.

If the last few weeks are any indication, I should be able to meet those goals.

Lighting Essentials is a big part of the plan. A new look coming next week, articles and tutorials that will put my creativity to the test. I hope you stick around to see what LE will become.

I know this is not your typical “GoodGollyGee, I am so awesome and have been doing better than I ever expected” end of year post, but it is heartfelt.

And I know I am not the only one in a funk, a darker place, a trench in the front yard of Mr. Happy’s summer fucking home.

If you are going through something similar, may I suggest you DO something, and ship it. Get it done.

Small successes can lead to a tiny bit bigger than small success. Hey, it takes time.

I will keep you posted occasionally on what my funk level is, and perhaps we can help each other.

Until then, I will leave you with something that has helped me get going. A heavy metal band, Disturbed, recently covered a 70’s piece by Simon and Garfunkle, “Sound of Silence”. To say they made it their own is an understatement. I have watched it a gazillion times – not only for the wonderful musicality but for the incredible visuals of master photographer Matt Mahurin… a lifelong creative and someone I am influenced by. Enjoy.