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

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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.

Answers

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.

What I’ve Learned So Far: Twenty Seven; “Baggage Sucks”

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What do I mean by “baggage”?

I mean the crap we think about when we are making our work, the stuff that goes on between our ears that may have NOTHING at all to do with reality, but begins to weigh on us with false intentions and ruinous decisions.

When I was younger (Jurassic period I believe), I ate a dill pickle on an outing. The pickle was tainted with some hellacious thing and I spent two days hugging the porcelain god.

I couldn’t be around the smell of dill pickles for years. The mere mention of a dill pickle would make me want to gag.

And of course, this bore no resemblance at all to the reality that not ALL dill pickles are tainted, or would make me violently ill again. It was just ‘baggage’ that came along and made trips to my favorite deli more dangerous. For those of you who are interested, it was the “Miracle Mile Deli” at Park Central Mall. Best Corned Beef on Rye… ever.

Then there was the time I was shooting a big-time model who was being quite rude and arrogant to me. She made fun of my name, my way of shooting and pretty much everything in my studio. She berated the hair person and humiliated the MUA, while cursing at my assistant for absolutely no reason we could figure. Her local agent was there and was mortified, and the client was standing in the corner with a clinched jaw counting down the minutes to the end of the shoot. To say it was uncomfortable would be to say that -32F is “chilly”.

This model came from a new, and very hip agency in LA and I had been so excited about working with her that it was very disheartening to have her be such a douche. I tried to let it all roll off of me and concentrate on the gig. The client was a good one, and it was on me to make it work.

After that experience, I balked at using models that I had not worked with and insisted on testing with every model that was going to be considered. I let that one lousy model leave her baggage in my head, and in a move to make sure that it never happened again, I was overly wary of ALL models from that agency and pretty much anywhere else.

And that was wrong.

I had to let that baggage go. And the next model that came in from that agency was delightful and a blast to work with. She also told me that the rude gal had faked getting pregnant by some rich guy who dumped her – after which the agency fired her.

Karma… well, you can get the irony there, right?

But lets talk about one area where baggage can seem a bit harmless, but in reality can be quite a problem if we let it cloud our judgement.

The baggage of the “edit”.

It goes something like this.

You plan a big shoot for your book. Models, location, props, MU/Hair, wardrobe… the whole thing baby. A production. And it is going to cost you some bucks to pull it off. All the work that goes into a production of this size means it is important to you and your team to get something great.

The day of the shoot comes and instead of the bright sunny day promised by the weather gal, you get an overcast day with the feel of rain coming soon. You make some changes in your head and feel pretty confidant that you can still make this shot work.

Until you get to the location which is now barricaded by police because of a hostage situation and no, there is no way they are gonna let you go down to your location set until the situation comes to an end. (Offering to drive your car into the house as a battering ram so you can still get the shot done is not an option, so don’t ask.)

You quickly change gears and call the crew with a change of venue – one you had thought about initially but had forgotten about when you found the perfect location. The one next to the current crime scene.

Everyone gets the message.

Except the MUA who was waiting at the police line with her cell phone on silent. She had forgotten to turn the sound back up after last nights school meeting with her kid.

Finally she sees the messages piled up and listens to her messages.

The shoot is almost three hours behind now, and the light is changing fast.

Your assistant works some miracles getting the booms to stand on uneven ground, the MUA works as fast as she can, and gets the model ready. The model is tired and hungry but wants badly to do a great job for you.

And finally the shoot comes together.

With a model who is tired, quickly applied MU, hair in pretty decent condition, weather beginning to give you some fits with wind and some sprinkles… damn.

But you shoot it anyway.

And you get some good shots. In fact you get some really good shots… for the situation at hand.

Edit time comes and you sit and recall the bad weather, the ruined first location, the quickly chosen second location, the tired model and rushed makeup and wardrobe malfunctions and you realize that for all of that, for ALL of that crap you went through, you pulled a shot out that was not half bad.

Fine.

But see – that is baggage. You remember all that went wrong and how you braved it out and how you ended up with a shot that is not half bad at all.

Unfortunately being not half bad means it is pretty darn close to being half good.

And half good doesn’t cut it.

When you show that image, no one is going to know what went on during that shoot. No one is going to understand all that you and your team persevered through to get it. They will only have a shot in front of them that is “not half bad”.

And “not half bad” ain’t gonna get you the gig, Charlie.

The baggage of what you went through is part of your editing process and it shouldn’t be. Not at all.

You cannot let the baggage of the shoot experience quantify the work output.

It is ether good, or it is not good. It either supports your brand or it doesn’t.

By the way, it also doesn’t matter if the photograph came instantly to fruition or had to be wrestled to the ground like a greased pig – a good shot is a good shot and a turkey is a turkey. I have met way too many photographers who equated how difficult the shot was to do with how good the shot is.

That is bringing a different kind of baggage to the edit process, and not one that will benefit you in the long run.

When I say “baggage sucks” it is because whether emotional or technical, it is simply stuff from a previous time. It may or may not be of relevance in this moment, but it is exerting influence over our decisions.

Leave the baggage home, or better yet donate it to the Goodwill in your mind and forget about it. You are much better off without it.

What I’ve Learned So Far: Twenty Six; “Be Deliberate”

bri-wall-crashBe certain. Be sure. Be deliberate.

Now this may sound strange coming from someone who advocates challenging everything, finding new solutions, and experimenting, but they actually go very well together.

When I say be deliberate, I am talking about a process from 0 – 100 with certainty and responsibility at the wheel.

Being deliberate means being responsible for every square millimeter of the image. Every nuance, every gesture, every leading line… every compositional faux-pas.

Every screwed up exposure, or cut off feet, or blown out sky or, gulp, overly HDR’d process disaster.

WE DO THIS – WE DO IT DELIBERATELY.

Well, OK, we don’t screw up deliberately, but the screw ups happen BECAUSE we are not deliberate in our work.

Let’s start with gear.

Photographers tell me they are hard on their gear. They break stuff all the time. That is certainly their prerogative to continue on that path, but for me it is a lack of deliberate attention that is the problem.

When I was assisting in LA, I worked with a still life / food shooter that was extremely organized and deliberate in how he worked. I assisted him for a two week gig and learned a lifetime of good practices from him. No, I am not as anal as he was, but I am very deliberate in my work.

He had a cabinet with shelving custom designed to hold his gear. Lens shelves were clearly marked with the lens designation, stands were numbered and hung, and booms were placed in order on a custom stand rack.

EVERY piece of gear was numbered, ordered and assigned a place on the wall for easy retrieval next time it was needed. And it was always there.

Cleaning up the studio was a cinch when you knew where everything went, and no piece of gear was ever lost, or gone missing – even temporarily. The very deliberate way he handled his gear allowed him greater confidence in his creativity since not a moment was wasted in trying to find some gizmo that had been put away in the wrong spot. Genius.

There was another photographer in LA that I had wanted to assist for over a year. I loved his work, loved his styling and was very interested in seeing how he lit those majestic headshots.

Finally I got the opportunity and for those four days I also learned how incredible deliberate he was with every part of his work.

White cards around the face were not simply put below, but were cut, and edges bound with white gaffers to create a seamless white environment below the face. Moving the softbox or beauty dish an inch or so would make big differences – at least to him – and were part of his deliberate approach to making imagery that was perfect in every way.

We didn’t have Photoshop. It wasn’t an option.

And yeah, we have Photoshop today and it is an option.

And being sloppy and not in control is easily remedied with a few layers, a cloning tool and some applied masking.

But why not be deliberate… what would it hurt?

What would be gained is attention to detail, attention to the craft, and the power of understanding the details that separate good from great.

I am certainly NOT saying that we shouldn’t use the tools at hand, I am advocating for complete mastery which renders the incredible tools we have even more powerful. Instead of “fixing” we are enhancing.

One more thing… being deliberate in what we do leads to mastery of what we do… and masters get more money for what they do.

When I look at photographs I like to ask photographers why they included certain things in their images; a garbage can in the distance, a parked car behind the subject’s legs that ruins the line, or a readable sign in the distance that pulls the eye from the subject.

One answer invariably get is; “I didn’t see that when I took the picture.”

OK.

Let me get this straight… other than seeing what was in your viewfinder and setting the exposure, exactly WHAT else were you doing that prevented you from SEEING what was in the damn viewfinder… seems to me that SEEING what was in the viewfinder was your single and ONLY job at the time.

The screwed up background is not a mistake seen afterward, it was a deliberate choice you made at the moment you pressed the shutter button. Either that or you were NOT deliberate and NOT in control of what you were doing.

How is that for a great working style? Maybe you could put it on your business card;

“When I get lucky, I make good photos.”

“Every Now and Then Memories are Made”

“I don’ suck.”

Awesomesauce… as they say.

I use a light meter for a lot of my work, although after working with the same tools and the same light for 40+ years, I have begun to understand and know the light… not a guess, a genuine understanding. It will happen with you as well.

Like seeing the music when listening to it. :-)

A long, long time ago I took a workshop from a famous landscape/art nude photographer on the west coast, Brett Weston. He was the son of an even more famous photographer (Edward Weston) and I was feeling pretty amazing that crisp morning standing on the side of the ocean near Carmel, CA. I had my Deardorff, and my 14″ lens and my big, heavy tripod and we were looking for something to shoot.

I placed the tripod on the uneven terrain and began to compose on the large, 8×10 ground glass, black cloth draped dramatically over my head and shoulders. As I was nearing the moment of making the deliberate decision of WHAT I was going to shoot, the famous photographer Brett Weston drew closer to my setup.

I was feeling pretty amazing that morning… on the same lands that Edward had made so iconic, with his son at our side and making photographs in the hazy light.

I pulled my meter from my belt and, using the ambient dome began to make a meter check for exposure.

Mr. Weston’s reaction was one of horror and dismay… and I was on the receiving side of a blistering lecture on understanding the light, and that light was the same all the time and if I didn’t understand light, then what the hell ELSE was there to understand?

He was right, of course, but it took the bright and shiny part of the experience and made it a little more rough and sort of icky… for a while anyway. I got over it. Fast.

Understanding light IS what we are supposed to do. Cameras do not see subjects, cameras see how light is reflected from the subject. Cameras don’t see composition, they see only what we frame and how we frame it, and then they capture on film or card what we do with the light we are given.

Sometimes we are given light that is so perfect for our subject, that it is like a gift from heaven. Other times the light is not what we want, and we must do something to it, or add to it, or detract from it or something in order for our subject to be seen in the best of it.

And how we do it is deliberate, and ultimately OUR responsibility.

“The light was really crappy that day” is simply NO excuse. The fact is that we did not use the light that was given to us in a deliberate way. We let our conceived notions of what light should be drive us from what the light is. Or at least what it was on that day, and at that location.

And that is not the way a deliberate photographer thinks. There is no bad light, nor great light, there is only light – and what WE do with it is as deliberate as the choice of shutter speed and aperture.

My meter gives me absolute measurements of the light I am working with. I take that information and make absolute choices based on what I want to achieve. Could we “chimp it in”? I suppose we could… but that seems sort of a sloppy, ill conceived notion of technology to me.

And even those choices are defining, powerful and deliberate.

Some ideas for being deliberate in what you do:

  1. Note all lens choices. Write them down if you must, but KNOW them. Be able to ‘see’ through that lens by being aware of what things look like through that lens.
  2. Know every exposure, and be able to defend WHY you chose that exposure for the image. If there is no reason, you were not being deliberate.
  3. Choose ISO with deliberate understanding of how and why it will affect all aspects of the image you are about to make.
  4. Compose your images with careful attention to EVERY detail in the frame. Search the corners, search the background, and adjust accordingly.
  5. Use what you have to make what you want. A deliberate photographer is not limited by their gear, but freed from it by total and complete understanding of what they can do with what they have.
  6. Don’t censor or edit your work while creating, but be as considerably deliberate as you can while making the images.
  7. Expect to fail. Expect to learn from that failure. Failure with deliberate intentions will teach you more than unexpected lucky shots.
  8. Choose every piece of gear with complete and focused deliberate intention. What will it do to make your work better… consistently better?
  9. Concentrate on what you are doing and close out all distractions. Try to find a working method that allows you to be open to the imagery around you… and then deliberately repeat those circumstances whenever possible.
  10. Enjoy the serendipitous moments that happen within a very deliberate approach. They are revealing themselves to you BECAUSE of the control you have put on yourself.

Being deliberate is challenging and can create some angst in those of us who have never had a lot of discipline attached to our work and our working methods.

But trust me when I say it will make you a much, MUCH better photographer.

If you let it.

What I’ve Learned So Far: Twenty Five; “Now and Then, Turn It Off”

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I am writing this on Christmas Day, 2014.

Not gonna do too much today. Spend time with the family, have a quiet read, and listen to some of my favorite music.

There are times we must do this after long periods of stress and hyperactivity. It is our way of regenerating.

Do it when you need to.

Feels great – and recharges your batteries.

Then, when you are ready – turn it back on and get to work.

What I’ve Learned So Far: Twenty Four; “Photography is a Privilege”

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Is making a photograph easy?

Good question… although the question should really be;

Should making a photograph be easy?

We seem to expect it to be. I see the ads about how easy it is to “click” and get a picture. Kodak said it decades earlier: “Push the button and we do the rest.” Now Ashton Kucher, the uh, actor or whatever he is, tells us that it is even easier.

I see post after post on forums everywhere that seem to say “I don’t have time to learn this, just show me how to do it really well. I got a minute. I have to do an annual report next tuesday and my ass is on the line. How do I light a CEO?”

To record an image to a sensor is an extremely easy thing to do these days. Point and shoots do it amazingly well. And the new pro cameras are simply awesome. Throw in a flash and a modicum understanding of light and ‘voilA’ – a photograph.

We can post it on Flickr. Stick it on a hard drive. Transfer it to our iPhones.

Easy.

But is it so easy to make a photograph? I mean an image that connects with the viewer. One that means something to the people who see it. Should it be easy to make a photograph? Seriously… should it? Will it ever be?

Not an image. That should be as easy as, well… a click I guess.

What I am talking about is making an image that transcends the ‘pictures’ we make and reaches a new place.

I submit to you that it is easy to make an image, and terribly difficult to make a photograph.

Making a photograph requires more than a camera, or the newest sensor, or gazillions of pixels. It has more to do with the photographer than the camera. The thought processes that got the photographer from the bed to the place where he/she is standing and ready to click the shutter.

So many of us spend so much time talking about lenses, cameras, pixels, lights, stands, whether we should take an umbrella to the beach (heh) and other stuff that we forget about talking about photographers. About photography. As a verb.

Us.

We matter in the taking of a photograph. We make the difference between a capture and a photograph. What we think. Who we are. Our depth of life experience (or lack of it) can make so many differences in the choices we make to commit that moment to a still shot. An image is a momentary snap of reality that is recorded for review. Lots of images are simply wonderful too, so this is not a slam on simple images or snaps or whatever. However, a photograph can bring us back again and again to a place in our emotions that call up more complexity.

Or not.

Consider this: A photograph by Edward Weston or the snapshot of your parents now gone, taken before they were trampled by age and smiling together – a rare moment – as they went out the door for a party. Which provides more emotion for you. Side by side it is a no brainer. At least for me. Which would I grab and head for the door in a fire if I could only take one? See ya ‘Peppers.’

The image can become a photograph by extraneous emotions of the beholder. If I were not there and someone came in to save my things, I imagine they would take the framed ‘Pepper’ shot and not the little picture on the desk of mom and dad. The difference is what they brought to the image. Not in the image itself. We bring things to the picture after it is taken.

What do we bring to the image before we take the snap? Is it easy? Simple maybe, but easy?

In this fast world where you can board a plane in Phoenix and end up in Atlanta in about 3 hours, take your camera out and make a snap of the concourse and hook up the iTouch for some Coltrane, the thought that making pictures should be easy is probably normal. Yeah, I’m good with that.

But I don’t think making a photograph is easy. It is made more difficult by the ease of creating an image. Does that make sense? As the making of a snap becomes quicker and easier (no film, processing and darkrooms needed) the ability to transcend the mere making of an image becomes more difficult. When everone can make a picture that is exposed well, lit reasonably well, in focus and with glorious Photoshopped enhanced color, the call is to make an image that somehow goes beyond that set of parameters and touches the viewer, or moves them, or repulses them, or makes them think, do, act… whatever.

That is not easy. That is as hard as any other art form. Hell, maybe harder due to the fact that everyone can reasonably do it. I can sit any person down at my keyboard or drums and if they cannot play… they cannot play. No button to push. No “Easy Button” or whatever. They are gonna have no idea and the learning curve is substantial. Give them a 40D and they can put it on auto and make some reasonably good captures. Some point and shoots will even alert you if the subject wasn’t smiling. When they can make decent coffee, I’m gettin’ one.

So the ability to make a clean image is just not a big deal anymore. To me that means that making an image that goes beyond that level is made even harder.

My questions to you is: Do you think about photography as being the result of the gear you have or the thought processes that goes before? Is it the print or the moment? The action or the result? Is it a question of how that you first think, or one of why? Are they both important, or are neither of any consequence?

Is the making of a photograph easy? Or are you challenged every moment that you work at it.

I am. I want to make some photographs as I make thousands of images. It can be such a daunting task. Like triple paradiddles, but uh, different. But every time I grab the camera I think ‘maybe this time’ and work as hard as I can on the image before me.

To make a photograph that makes someone else feel something is a privilege. And a rare one at that.

What I’ve Learned So Far: Twenty Three; “On Creativity”

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Occasionally we run into the argument of whether or not ‘creativity’ can be taught, or does it have to be born within us? We read all about creativity and how important it is. We award little statuettes to really “creative” people. Creativity is blessed, cursed, chased, obsessed over, ignored, beaten down and vindicated.

It is a word so over used that we mention Stravinsky and Lady GaGa in the same breathless discussion of creativity. Schools want to nurture it (bullshit). Companies seek it (bull-bullshit). Poets have it in spades (bull… oh never mind).

But have you ever tried to simply define it? Being ‘creative’ can also be cruel, savage, inhumane and anarchistic. Creativity can mean simply doing something different… so what? If I take the garbage out with my left hand instead of my right hand, as I do every day, is that “creative”?

I rarely think about creativity, as I long ago realized something about creativity that made me wary. Creativity claims to be your buddy, your pal… your roommate along the path to making cool shit. but creativity rarely keeps up his end of the bargain. He leaves the place a mess, hits on your girlfriend, steals your money and drinks your beer.

And then one day, ol ‘creativity’ waltzes out the door destined to befriend that kid down the street, or the woman downstairs. He hasn’t even paid for his half of the electricity.

Bastard.

So here are a few things I know about creativity. And believe me, after being in the ‘creative’ business for nearly my entire working life, I know this guy. Here’s the skinny…

Ten things I Know About Creativity:

1. Creativity is not something you bestow on yourself, but something that others bestow upon you. Creativity to the creative person is simply the way they work. Calling yourself ‘creative’ may not mean it is so, and in fact, I find it runs pretty much the opposite. Every time I see the title “creative photographer” I want to mutter under my breath, “says who”?

2. Creativity is not a method or a system or a learned behavior. It is inherent in all of us, but few of us let it be what it is. Out of fear or laziness, self pity or arrogance, ignorance or infinite exploration, we eschew creativity and choose the safer, well worn paths. Ignorance of creativity is a very smart way to get along in some circles. Washington DC for instance.

3. Creativity cannot be taught. It doesn’t have to be. It only needs to be unleashed. Getting out of its way is the most difficult of challenges. We are not conditioned to allow creativity to go unchecked. From our earliest age we must walk in a straight line, color inside the lines, sit at our desks, study what some older person deems is important to us. Creativity and schooling is like a fish with a bicycle.

4. Why do we automatically consider creativity good? Hitler was fairly creative in his endeavors, getting farther along the path to madness than most would have been able to go. Some murderous monsters are creative in the ways they trap their prey… while eluding capture. Creativity can be horrific when applied to horrific things. Creativity has no soul other than the one wielding it. Creativity is not good or bad, it is simply its own person, and he does what he wants. We allow him to run free or channel his wanderings and misadventures. Our call, not his.

5. Creativity can be within specific genres and may not necessarily spill across the entire spectrum of a persons life. One may be incredibly talented in music, but not very good at drawing. A sculpture may be able to see and reveal an incredible masterpiece, while a concert level pianist may not be able to see anything but a piece of rock. This is not good or bad creativity… it just is creativity in different spaces of humanity.

6. Creativity is shown simply and honestly… and not in a good or bad notion. One may be very very creative and turn out pure shit in the eyes of the world. A 3 year old with a canvas and 56 paints could have the time of their lives… being creative and exploding color across the field in ways NO ONE has ever seen.

So what?

Creativity does not necessarily create masterpieces. Sometimes creativity creates shit. And then he stands there smugly demanding that we LOVE what he did… it was so, you know, creative.

7. Work that is derivative can be creative, if the act of derivation ends with something that we think is worthy. It can also end on a bad note if it is not as good as the original. We see creativity usually on the backside, not the front. We see the results not the action, and we rarely see the prelude. Sure “Batman” was pretty creative back when Marvel was cranking them out and we were spending a quarter to keep up with the story. But these days, they are simply worn out ‘toons with two hundred million dollar budgets. Boring, predictable and lame.

8. Creativity is a tool. Creativity is a honorarium. Creativity is a joke. Creativity is divine. If Lady Gaga is creative, then what would we call Eliot Carter? Stravinsky? Coltrane? If P-Diddy is creative, what do we call the hordes of rappers that came before and after that sound the same… identical even, to his work? If Copland was creative, how do we explain it to someone who has never heard the music? How about explaining music to someone who has never heard music before… ever?

Now that would be creative.

9. Creativity is over rated. We have turned anything a bit differnt into “creativity at its finest”. If building the space shuttle and twitter are both creative, is there any difference given to the importance of the creation? Can “Cats” be considered as creative as “Othello?” Is a child like presentation of a Chopin Etude be considered as creative as a performance by a prodigy – or indeed the creator himself? If we consider creativity to be some mark on a ledger or tick on a measuring stick, then we have to be able to quantify it.

Go ahead… give it a go. Quantify creativity.

Good luck with that.

10. Creativity is not definable. Not in any way I can comprehend. And yet I know creativity when I see it, hear it, taste it. We all can agree that we know creative people, and yet we may be somewhat dismayed when we discover who each of us believe to be creative.

I rarely think of creativity as something I want to achieve. It is never how I discuss my own work. If my work is creative, others will note and if it is not, then it will be noted as well. To seek it wastes time, as it cannot be found. It only reveals itself when it is ready, and when the moment is right.

Our job is to make more opportunities for creativity to be revealed. We do that though practice, and study, and work, and effort, and critiques (good and bad) and friends who are not afraid to call you on the work, and enemies that make you defend, or retreat, or rethink. Creativity is a pain in the ass. It has no guarantee of being revealed. There is no magical criteria (10,000 hours my ass), no ‘aha’ moment, no grace to be bestowed. It can leave you waiting at the alter after promising you a thousand times that it loved you. It is heartless and loving, cruel and kind, manic and patient.

And often it is disguised as something else. Something more familiar than trendy, more ethereal than processed. Sometimes ‘creativity” is disguised as hard work.

Creativity means something to each of us, but it is rarely something that I think we should be chasing. Rather we should be chasing the near perfection that comes from working whatever we do to the heart of it. From shooting every day. From being relentless critics to stalwart defenders of our work. Creativity needs nothing from us, but we give our all to achieve it.

Sometimes we are awake to see creativity arrive, but we rarely know its name nor recognize its power. Most of the time we are working on our work so hard we never see it arrive, we couldn’t care less what we call it and we never remember to acknowledge it. We just keep working.

So creativity sits on our shoulders for a while.
Resting in its comfortable by-the-month apartment, putting his feet on the furniture and parking his car on our lawn

But you can be sure about one thing… creativity can be a mercurial and disloyal pal while he camps on your shoulders. He will come over for BBQ and Corona’s, flirt with your wife and hang around long enough to borrow your lawnmower and never return it when he leaves.

You see, creativity rarely moves in, buys a house and puts in a pool.

What I’ve Learned So Far: Twenty Two; “Photography Is an Incredible Art”

portrait-ny-1Photography at its best can be a reflection of the world in ways that we have never been seen before. It is the photographer’s vision that makes the image become more than it could have been.

But at the heart of the photographer’s vision, there is a deep foundation of the art and the technology that is required to create images that transcend the normal.

Photography is one of the most incredible art forms known.

It combines composition, and color, and tonality, and aesthetic sensibilities with technology that is as precise as it is deliberate.

Many art forms can lay claim to that set of parameters – or at least many of them.

But only photography has the element of time. Time frozen in the vision of the photographer. Time that was captured in an instant of the photographers choosing.

That choice made by determining the nature of the subject unfolding in front of them… in a heartbeat or faster, the shutter captures something that was seen, but only in that moment.

Dance can be seen live, and on video or film, but the moments of the dance are blurred to create an entire piece meant to be savored from the beginning to the end.

A painter can paint the dancer again and again and again to get it just right.

But a photographer has no second chances, no video to show a totality.

A photographer has a single moment.

A single photograph of a dancer, caught in that never to be seen again moment is all up to the one who makes the decision. The decision to activate a shutter that reveals the light.

At that exact moment in time.

Precisely at the moment the photographer has been waiting for, planning for, working for… that “moment” when it all comes together and makes something extraordinary.

And then it is gone. Forever.

But for the image that was caught, that moment is lost.

Time is the vessel of photography. The print is its legacy.

Imagine the skill involved in making that choice. Imagine the depth of sheer knowledge that is brought to bear on that ‘click’… that moment that the photographer has chosen to capture. Imagine photography without the limitations of time.

Skills that develop slowly give way to a comfort in the making of images. A comfort that will inevitably give way to a deeper push for better skills and understanding of the process.

Like the tall trees on the beach, photography is seen on the surface, but buoyed by the deeper roots of the artist.

And like the trees, artists with deep roots whether the toughest of storms, the heat of summer and the frost of winters. The roots keep them anchored even as they are thrown about on the surface by storms of indifference and self doubt.

At least long enough for them to stalk that moment in time when all come together whether from deliberateness or whimsy, and that tiny sliver of a moment is caught and rendered as a photograph.

What I’ve Learned So Far: Twenty One; “Don’t Be A Clone”

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Nobody likes a clone.

A clone is a copy, a non-authentic ‘ringer’ that has no soul, no guts, no passion, no quirks or guilts or pleasures.

And it is way, way too easy to be a clone. Just copy something or someone and do that as you.

But it is you.

Case in point.

A very talented media person who I work with spent many, many hours researching her WP theme. Upon deciding on it, she spent many more hours customizing it to be a perfect “magazine” for her publication. With the added coding required for special posts, it is a very nicely done site.

Another one of the people that worked with us saw her site and asked a bazillion questions about the custom post types and what was done to create such a marvelous looking site.

Then went and got the same theme and built the same custom post types for a nearly cloned site. Although the content is different, the look and feel is identical… and this caused a problem.

The person who had built the original site was miffed that she had been ‘ripped off’ and the person who had appropriated her site felt that since it was a WP theme, all was fair.

Both are actually right. It is indeed a commercial theme – and there is no copyright or proprietary ownership of custom post types and fonts and such. And she wasn’t really ripped off, but more like appropriated.

But what is inherent in the original site is a feeling of authenticity, of originality. Something only found when you are on the front lines of trying to make some goddam thing work – and work well for you and your specialized needs.

And there is a feeling of a win as you wrangle those problems and shards of ideas into something cohesive that is exactly what you wanted.

Copying it, however, is simply copying it. “Command C / Command V” is not a win. It is a non authentic approach that has no passion or desire or plan. It’s a no heart, no guts approach.

Now for sure others who do not know of the existence of the original site will NEVER be any more aware, and the clone site does indeed look pretty nice – but not because of anything special the clone did, but all to do with that original site designer busting her ass.

After it all settles, something has been lost.

The struggle for excellence has been sidestepped in favor of the damn “easy button” and what could have been discovered was not. To think that someone else’s approach to something would so perfectly match your own that it is a slam dunk is to miss the idea of unique and authentic.

He needed to struggle with a theme… hell, even that theme. He needed to stay up late and look at font combinations again and again and again to find the ones that were so perfectly his that they screamed at him from every H1 tag. If you have never fought through a design struggle, then you will never learn how to fight through one.

And you just may have to do that one day. Especially if you are a, you know, designer.

Photography is very much the same way. Finding out what actions a photographer in your town uses may be wonderful for that imitation phase (school/beginner – NOT in business yet), but by the time we are into innovation and creating an authentic vision, that is simply not acceptable anymore.

How could the ‘style’ of a forty seven year old mother of three who photographs children in natural light wearing old people’s clothes’ be the style of a 20 year old hipster in a NYC loft working with ‘alternative’ talent? C’mon… it may be a rare coincidence, but very rare.

You must speak from your authentic self every time you make a photograph, chat with a client, invoice a gig, post a blog article or – and this is important – talk about another photographer.

Let me make a bold statement here: Authentic people are not petty people. Authentic people are not jealous or envious. Nor are they gossips or naysayers. They spend their precious time making their authentic work, not disparaging or stealing the work of others. That is truly a waste of time and effort and results in a badly made clone if it results in anything at all.

And clones are easy to spot, actually. There is a bit of lifelessness in their eyes, they are not fun to be around and they cannot dance the Tango.

Which is an important part of all life on planet earth. Trust me on this.

We are oftentimes presented with opportunities to simply cut and paste something else and call it our own. And there may be times when we are tempted because of the banality of what it is. But think long and hard about what that does to YOUR creative muscles.

It cheats them from a solid workout. It is taking your creatives to the gym all excited to work out and then spending the afternoon in the doughnut store next door. Too easy. No challenge.

Do it once… and perhaps no harm done. Do it twice and we are now seeing the beginnings of a trend. Do it a couple more times and it is now a defining way of doing business and you are no longer pushing for excellence.

In the consumer side of photography we have seen some major players lose a lot of their credibility from that ol’ cut and paste habit. Big names at the top of their game for reasons that are simply lost on me figured they could steal a little snippet here, a line or two there… who would notice or even care.

Somebody noticed. A LOT of people cared. It was a matter of character, or the lack thereof, that was on display that made a mockery of their claims of authentic creativity.

Look. Being authentic is being YOU. It is owning up to your mistakes, challenges and losses. And to pretend that there were none will always bring us back to the pain of being found out as a putz.

I could go on and on about being authentic, uniquely you and how important it is. But I think you may have the idea.

Being the best you can be is far better than trying to be the best someone else can be.

What I’ve Learned So Far: Twenty; “Gravity; A Force of Nature, Not a Way of Life”

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One of the more difficult things to wrap our arms around is that not everyone out there wants us to succeed. In fact, the numbers are highly stacked against us. More people will seem to want to douse your flame of passions before it gets lit than will block the wind for you.

I don’t know why that is. I don’t.

But we see it everywhere. Writ large and writ small, the people we engage with seem to be either indifferent to our successes or actively engaged in diminishing them.

The media touts destruction and sorrow, with a steady drumbeat of negativity. Even as gas prices are falling all over this country, there are many pundits who are now saying that will bring ruin. Same pundits who predicted ruin when gas prices were on the way up.

We hear that if the economy is roaring, it is a terrible time to start a business because there are already too many businesses doing well. That leaves no place for us.

We also hear that if the economy is doing poorly, it is a terrible time to start a business because there are too few businesses doing well.

Schizophrenia is a terrible malady, NYT… you should see someone about that.

We all know that “haters gonna hate”. And trolls are a new level of disgust pooped from the bowels of the internet. Trolls and haters don’t count… not at all. My advice is simply given, but a bit more difficult to do: Ignore them. In every way.

Arguing with trolls (which I am guilty of doing in the past) is a losing battle. They are by definition NEVER going to have their minds changed because that is NOT what they are about. They are trolls (reference the “Scorpion and the Frog” story for more clarity).

Haters are even a lower form of life, and need to trouble you not. Screw ‘em.

But barring the cretinous haters and trolls, we have many people who will stand in our way with good intentions – and they are a bit more tricky to deal with.

The “I don’t want to see you be disappointed” crowd is usually parents and older relatives who really only want to see you succeed but many times bring their own fears and failures forward to stack on your back. This is of course, unfair, but being angry is not the way to deal with those folks. Let them know that you understand that failure is a possibility, one that you have prepared yourself for. Failure can indeed be in your future, but you will accept it only if you have done every possible thing you can to succeed.

Remind them that Disney was bankrupt twice in his life, that Sylvester Stallone was a bit actor with a screenplay about a boxer. Edison was nearly out of funds when he found the material for an electric lightbulb. And Colonel Sanders was a retired guy with a chicken recipe… and running out of funds as well.

To do anything great, risk must be involved. Otherwise there is no greatness. Only the mundane. Tell them that you appreciate and acknowledge their advice, but that you must move on with your dream – and the associated risk – if only to prove to yourself it can be done.

When you meet the naysayers group, the “nobody is making any money in that business”  folks, you will undoubtedly be in for some long, undocumented, vague and creepy novellas of treachery, deceit, and defeat.

“My sister’s best friend’s brother knew a guy who knew a guy who was the brother of a woman who wanted to do this and she failed badly… nearly sank her whole town.”

Questions regarding what exactly went wrong are met with shrugs, and vague guesses, but then it isn’t really a news story they are telling you. It is a fictional report of a made up failure to illustrate their own fears.

Which are probably not your fears. (Not that we don’t have fears. No, we got entire rooms full of fears but they are also probably not relatable to their fears.)

Let them know that a lot of people who are unprepared want to go into business right after buying a zoom lens or a Mac. And that unpreparedness is more likely to have been a big contributor to their massive fail than anything else. Let them know you are prepared, you have completed your research, and have your ducks in a row.

Being prepared means the risks are mitigated. Not gone, just made a more palatable percentage point change. They may be a little more understanding, but there are still residual concerns.

Dealing with the obviously and truly jealous is also problematic. Some of them are not even aware of their envy and how it is manifesting itself in comments and little actions meant to demean what you are doing.

“Yeah, those big contracts come along now and then, but be careful… they will probably try to rip you off, and then you will be left holding the bag.”

Well, probably not, actually. But your success worries them because if you are successful they may have to face the fact that they were either not ready, not very good, of completely confused by the business. That makes them feel their loss doubly hard, and they see it as a failure all around.

Now we have our last troublesome group, the ones who feel that your success directly creates their failures. These are the “zero-sum” folks – and the world if full of them. Unfortunately.

They see success as a limited quantity of something… and if you have more, someone else must have less. That is NOT true, never has been. Your success can breed more success for others. You being successful can inspire someone you may never have met into doing something they may never have thought about doing. Being great at what you do can be the impetus for someone else’s greatness as well.

Gravity is such a powerful force of nature. Pulling something down is always easier than lifting something up. Not only in the real world, but in the psychology of our daily interactions.

Now you have seen some of the habits and traits of people who may be bringing others down. You can recognize those traits. And if you are exhibiting any of them, you can stop that right now.

Be a mentor. Be a sponsor. Be a friend that inspires, cajoles, pushes and expects greatness.

Be a positive, uplifting force for good.

It is, in the end, a hell of a lot more fun!

PHOTO INFO:
Robert Shaw, International Consultant. Scottsdale, AZ

 

What I’ve Learned So Far: Nineteen; “It Isn’t What You Shoot, It’s HOW You Shoot What You Shoot”

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In the ‘business’ of photography some things have changed drastically since I started out a long time ago. From “day rates” to “snip tests” some of what we did as a normal part of our creative lives have either vanished or have been recreated into some new language – “TFP” will always be ‘testing’ to me.

What you shot helped determine a lot about your style, and helped clients understand what you do.

Don Giannatti: Landscape photographer
Don Giannatti: Fashion photographer
Don Giannatti: Architectural photographer

Hell – we had those designations ON our business cards… it was WHAT we shot.

And for a wide swath of the industry, it was enough. Clients wanted a photographer to do THAT thing – and you did THAT thing so you got the gig.

But not anymore. It is no longer good enough to simply shoot what you shoot. It is far more important HOW you shoot what you shoot.

Style

One of the most difficult and challenging things we deal with as photographers is style. It is a defining point of our work. It is one of the things that will set our work apart from the other photographers out there. Style will be our calling card, the incredibly complex nature of our style will be the simplest thing people see. Our work.

And yet style cannot be taught, nor would you want it to be. It shouldn’t be contrived, forced, manipulated or fake. It has to be authentic. And that can be one of the biggest challenges a photographer can face.

Let’s get a few things out of the way first. You must be a shooter first. That means that the technical stuff isn’t getting in the way. You can light what you want, and can create a shot under duress and deliver an excellent result every time. Well, if not excellent then really really really good.

We have to discover what it is you love to shoot. That may sound easy, but it can take a lot of personal introspection to find that inner driving point that makes it all come together. We will look at a few ways to get yourself directed toward the kind of work that you really love to do. And doing what you love is such a great way to make a living as a photographer.

Questions to Answer

Question: What do you shoot? Are you a glamor photographer or an editorial portrait specialist? Do you like to shoot landscapes or still life or architecture? Or is fashion your focus? If you already know what you want to do, that’s great. Are you doing it? If not, what is getting in your way and preventing you from doing what you want to do? Take the time to note what you are doing to sabotage your images from getting made if you aren’t currently making them.

Is it time? Could you cut out some television, or weekend projects? Could you get one shot a weekend done while still spending time with family or obligations? Can you plan very tightly to keep yourself focused on a shot per weekend?

Is it money? Are there ways to do what you do without spending money? Portraiture or street shooting shouldn’t cost at all? Can you find people and partners who can work with you to get what you need without spending money? Are there ways to piggyback tripos out of town with a few hours or a day shooting?

Is it gear? Naw… that doesn’t fly with me. If you have a camera, you can make photographs. Now, sure… you may want to create rockstar shots with 12eleventy lights and trestles and gaffers and grips. Well… that ain’t gonna happen. But if you have a camera, you can use available light, bounce cards and great ideas to get to done on the making pics thing.

Are you lacking ideas? Well, this is a tough one. If you are unable to find ideas to make photographs, then you may find this a difficult business to work through. However, if you need to prime the pump so to speak – and we all have to do that at some point – hit the bookstore, grab a coffee and start looking at magazines. Look at magazines where the interest focus is NOT what you are interested in. You want stimulation? Try magazines that you have not much interest in… then when the image captures you… BAM! That is a great idea… right?

This list will be your first challenge.

Inertia. Getting moving. The first step. Work on it.

Your subject is not your style.

I’ll say it again. Your subject is not your style. Your subject is your subject. It is what you shoot. It is your choice to aim the camera in the direction of what you like to photograph is a personal choice. A choice of subject.

How you shoot it is your style. What the image looks like is your style. How it engages the viewer and creates an emotion or reaction… that is attributable to your style. You could be a classic fashion shooter or a classic architectural shooter or a classic portraitist. Classic means you have a style that you apply to what you do. If you are wild and crazy, and that look carries across the subject matter, then you have a strong style. You will be hired for How you Shoot What You Shoot, not just What you shoot.

Let’s take portraiture. You can go to department stores and get a “portrait” made. You can get a portrait made at a photobooth, or a church fundraiser, or from that nice lady who lives across the street – the one that used to sell time-shares – she has a really good camera and can snap a pic or two.

A portrait.

Or you could hire Dan Winters to make a photograph of you. Or Emily Shur. Or Scott Toepfer or Platon. The work would be the same thing genre wise… a portrait. But it would certainly not look like those department store pix. Each of these photographers would bring their style to the work… their way of seeing, their way of making an image that does more than simply capture your image on a sensor.

And let’s be perfectly clear; if your images look like they could have been taken at the local department store, there is no way in the world you are going to be successful on any level but that… $29.95 packages of forgettable pictures.

I had a photographer who was quite frustrated come to me once and ask “what am I doing wrong?” He could not figure out why he could not get an account that for him should have been an easy cash-flow money cow. Youth sports team photos were a great way for him to stay busy in the traditional slow times in his city, and he was totally confused as to why he couldn’t get in the door.

“Look at these shots,” he said, “they are exactly like the other guys work and I can’t get in the door.”

I asked him to repeat what he had said because he had nailed it… that was his problem. And it wasn’t that he couldn’t get through the door, it was that his work looked just like the other guys work. Period.

And it was schlock – ten steps below what my friend was capable of doing.

I told him to make HIS shots, his way and see what happened. Take the lights and the batteries, take the booms and the stands – go the extra mile on making images that stand out. That are YOUR images, and see what happens.

He did nearly $40K that season alone.

His style resonated with the kids, and they in turn begged mom for more photos… cause they were cool.

As to how to know what your style is… well, that is a challenge. And I don’t think you should go out and seek a style. Rather your style is something that is revealed the more you shoot. We tend to gravitate toward those things that intrigue us about our own and others work.

Clarke Terry’s marvelous quote about jazz always resonates with me: “Imitate. Assimilate. Innovate.” And I think it is true in photography as well.

Naturally gravitate toward someone who’s style you love and find if it works for you. Imitate.

Learn to shoot in that style until it is second nature. Assimilate.

Break through and add your own twists, turns, runs, and personality to the work. Innovate.

Imitating and assimilating are easy. There are so many clones of great photographers it is sometimes difficult to see past the facade. Innovating his hard.

But necessary.

Your style is revealed by looking back, not determining forward. Style should not be contrived or artificial, it should be an organic part of your process.

And it is NOT what action or plugin you are using in Photoshop or Lightroom. C’mon… if your style is dependent on a $60 piece of software, you have no style at all. You have a gimmick.

An exercise if you are interested

Take ten of your favorite photographs by someone you admire style-wise and in your journal make comments on the following:

What kind of lighting is predominant?:

  • Natural
  • Appears natural
  • Dark and Moody
  • Single Light
  • Multiple Lights
  • Location Heavy
  • Studio Heavy

Add any additional criteria you want to add. Note all things that are the similar in the work.

How does the photographer handle composition?:

  • Classical
  • Funky
  • Off Kilter
  • In Close
  • Far Away
  • Horizontal Prominent
  • Vertical Prominent
  • High Angle
  • Low Angle

Add any additional criteria you want to add. Note all things that are the similar in the work.

What kind of post production do they do?:

  • Heavy Post
  • Medium Post
  • Minimal Post
  • No Post.

Add any additional criteria you want to add. Note all things that are the similar in the work.

At this point it is important to note that we are not caring about subject matter. We are looking at ways photographers create a style. It may not be a style that you are interested in or it may be such a blast that it makes you want to shoot like that. Cool. You can’t copy, you can only work through it as an inspiring model.

And that is so true. Taking the time to do this with a couple of the names above is a great way to see how photographers work within parameters they set themselves. Don’t do all of them, but do a couple for sure. I suggest that you use one or two of the photographers you love. And do one or two of those shooters who may not be your cup of tea. It is a great exercise. Sharpens the mind.

NOW DO IT AGAIN WITH 10 OF YOUR IMAGES.

This can be quite an eye opening exercise – and it can be done by photographers of every level.

If you have been shooting for only a couple of years, it may be entirely possible that you do not have a style yet. Or if you do you are still in the Assimilate stage. Finding your own voice, one that resonates with your heart and mind is the most important part of all of this process of professional photography.

There are legions of mediocre photographers out there crying the blues because they cannot get a gig – remember the story of my friend. If your work is stylistically the same as 8 dozen other photographers, there is a great chance that no one cares. You haven’t given anyone a reason to care.

Give them a reason to note your work. Give them a reason to champion your imagery. If you cannot do that, then give them an estimate that’s $5 less than the other photographer that shoots the same way you do.

What I’ve Learned So Far: Eighteen; “It Costs What It Costs”

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Have you ever purchased a car? From a dealership?

All the run around they do, the “let me take this to my manager” BS, and the “hey, what do you want to spend per month for this little honey…” makes me cringe. I am a marketer, and that stuff makes me laugh. But it also annoys the hell out of me.

I recently bought a new car (Sonata – loaded). It was pretty painless. I told them straight up that I had no time or energy for haggling (and they actually do not do that either). I wanted their best offer and if it was good I would take it and if it was not good, I would walk. Simple. I wanted their best effort and price and I got it. They came back with three proposals, and I took the middle one.

I had done my due diligence, knew the trade in value for the old blue-rocket, knew my credit score and the rates that should accompany that, and also knew the markup of the vehicles both used and new. Research is a bitch, but a beautiful bitch for sure.

I kinda laughed to myself, as the ‘three price guideline’ is something I teach a lot. And true to nature, I took the middle offer. I haggled a bit for an extended warranty (got it) and for an interior package option (didn’t get it). Why? Because they could not afford to make that deal.

Drove home in a new car. And a new car payment – something I wasn’t really used to. The monthly bill was less than the monthly mechanics bill on the blue rocket, so it evened out for a while.

The whole experience reminded me of something I read by Danielle LaPorte – a very good read for all of us in the commercial arts. “It costs what it costs” she said. And she is absolutely right. People will always try to bring down the price. No problem with that, as we do it too. The problem is when they want to go below the price that makes sense to our business model. What we do cannot cost less than what it costs, that is an old joke.

“I lose money on every sale but make it up in volume.” And that is funny, until we are asked to do that very thing.

You know what…

“IT COSTS WHAT IT COSTS…”

No more.

No less.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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

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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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What I’ve Learned So Far: Eleven; “They Don’t Pay Me Enough To…”

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Have you ever heard someone say this?

“They’re not paying me enough to do my best work.” Possibly some variation of that?

What a terrible, awful, self-defeating way of doing anything. It’s an amazingly stupid, self-absorbed sense of entitlement that brings nothing but disappointment and failure.

When I hear someone saying that I can only feel a twinge of pity for them, and a sharp desire to smack them up side the head.

And fire them on the spot.

Why?

Because they agreed to do the job. At the rate that was offered.

The “job” is to deliver the best image possible. The rate was there to accept or deny and they accepted it.

Did they tell the client “Well, I will do it for $200, but I am only gonna give you 50% effort cause it is worth more than $200?”

No, of course not. They took the job and then did a crappy job because they felt entitled to more than they charged. And that is not only a deceitful, petty way of cheating the client, it is unethical and will lead to eventual failure of the photography business.

Look, no client wants a crappy job. They want the best they can get. That is what they are expecting when they hire a photographer to do the work.

The photographer wants to project an image of being the best available creative. They want to be seen as the solution to the problems and challenges that clients have.

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What I’ve Learned So Far: Ten; Listen to Your Gut

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… it knows what the heck is going on. That place deep inside you where you just know something is not right. Listen to that feeling. It is right more than it is wrong.

Now I know that your head will be arguing with you the whole time. There is a reason for that is ego, romance, “passion”, a fondness for gazing at one’s own navel… the list is too long to imagine. But all of those things make it difficult for that ‘gut feeling’ to get through. And it is the one that is the most important.

And perhaps your initial gut instinct is wrong. Fine, by listening to it you can make better choices, investigate the situation and come to a more rational conclusion.

For instance…

I often see posts by people who have gotten an email that reads something like; “I have seen your work online and it is perfect for us for our project. We have not been able to find a photographer that we like as much as you and we need you to do this for us…”

Right.

Because we know how difficult it is to find the ‘rare photographer’ out there in the world.

And when the email comes from somewhere in LA or New York, it of course makes everything perfectly clear. There are no photographers in LA that can shoot ‘the project’ like you can. This is true even though you have never met the ‘clients’, they do not know anything about you, you live 2400 miles away, and no one has even mentioned what the damn project is. Nope – YOU and YOU ALONE are perfect for this ‘project’. It says so on the email.

Your gut says… “WTF” and your ego says “Wow, this major corporation/agency thinks I am better than all those LA photographers. Yeah! Sucks to be them!” A good thing to do is to ask your FB friends how to proceed now that you have been anointed into world class at-least-better-than-them-LA-fools status. They will offer loads of good ideas on how to land this big fish client.

But your gut says “wait – this doesn’t make any sense. All I have is a Model Mayhem account with 11 hand-bra shots of girls in stripper heels posing on railroad tracks with caution tape wrapped around them and there are certainly better photographers out there in LA who have done this ‘project’ work before…”

Yes… that is absolutely true – however your head is all wrapped in the stars. And your ego.

Now. Listen. To. Your. Gut.

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What I’ve Learned So Far: Nine; Loyalty Should Be a Brand Attribute

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I am a pretty strict believer in loyalty. I live it and I demand it. Not in harsh, ‘kingly’ sort of way, but more of a gentle ‘I am way too busy for your call’ way.

I can list loyalty as one of my strong traits. I may sometimes be loyal to a fault. I have always felt it was something that was valuable not only to me, but to those around me.

Loyalty to my friends, coworkers, vendors, and clients is a powerful part of my personal brand.

Expecting that loyalty to be returned is not something I can expect, but it is something I do recognize as being very important to me.

What is loyalty?

To me it means I can trust those around me to be considerate when they discuss me and my business to others. It means lying and gossiping about me is limited to the good stuff. No, I’m not kidding about this. I do not gossip about my friends, although I may be candid about situations that we have mutually agreed on whether agreeable or not. Telling someone that my bud Dave doesn’t like the ‘snapshot’ aesthetic which I do enjoy is not the same as telling some dark and potentially damaging bit of knowledge I may know about him. Arguing over aesthetics in photography is fun, and it is open for all.

Those things that are private are easily known. If you know something about someone and have a question as to whether you should share it, you already have your answer. No. You should not.

Loyalty to my clients means billing correctly and on time. It means plugging them at every opportunity. It means arranging a meeting between them and another client who may be a perfect fit for their product or service.

And it means I do the best I can at every single thing I do with them.

Loyalty means honesty too. You cannot be loyal to someone and lie to them at the same time. Not. Possible.

I find that loyalty begets loyalty in most cases. The people around me are those who recognize this attribute as being something that is important to them. And they expect the loyalty they give to me to be returned.

It’s a win-win deal for both sides, and it brings great rewards. Both in business and in our personal lives.

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