What I’ve Learned So Far: Eight; Life – Through a Lens…

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… is different – depending on what lens you choose. Choose wisely.

One of the joys of photography is being able to use a different lens for a different perspective. Something very far away can be brought ‘closer’ by a long (telephoto) lens. We can add depth to a flat scene with a shorter (wide) lens.

Interesting though that the scene itself doesn’t change. Only our ‘perspective’ of it does. The scene is a reality that exists whether we are photographing it or not, and all we can do with it is choose our POV.

Kinda like life.

A very talented photographer who is just starting out recently noted that he may be a failure after spending a year and not making any money at it. That was his lens of the moment.

For the last few years he has spent a ton of money on getting the best equipment that he could afford – without being extravagant or a gearhead – and working at his craft with great commitment and passion. Hell, I wish I could shoot as often as he does.

But work had not found him, and he was feeling the pinch of that telephoto lens. That’s the one that reaches out and magnifies the small things on the horizon making them look quite large to the viewer. Large and formidable.

In reality they are hardly noticed when standing there without the camera and scanning the scene ahead for a possible composition. We choose the telephoto to reach out, grab that small, insignificant element and by doing so elevate it to the “hero” of the photograph. The isolation of the subject removes much of the context, so it is without a relationship to that which is around it.

Kinda like life.

In life we put those telephotos on our minds and reach out to find the small things, the little incongruous parcels of our life and we magnify them to ‘fill the frame’. What was a single incident is magnified into ‘the way it is” in our minds. What was small and perhaps inconsequential becomes elaborately framed and presented as THE star of our focus.

Now if we stayed in that telephoto mode, most of our lives would be filled with small, tiny fractions of our life enhanced by magnification into massive failures, huge challenges and a resignation to defeat.

Hey… let’s not do that shit, OK!

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

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Gear envy takes two major forms;

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think about this:

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

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

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What I’ve Learned So Far: Six; Self Sabotage and the New Photographer

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(This is an ongoing series that I am writing for the month of December, 2014. After nearly 40 years in this business, I have learned a couple of things. I am sharing that knowledge here.)

What is “self-sabotage”?

It is the premature destruction of a talented photographer… and it comes from within.

It starts when we accept the judgement of one person as the gospel truth of our work. Usually that voice is one of negativity. We can have a huge bunch of people who tell us they like what we do, a cadre of clients who continue to support us, and yet one lone voice can carry so much weight.

When we let it.

I taught for a while at a photography school in Phoenix after my celebrated return from LA – (LOL, more on that later). It was part of a modeling school and we had a very good facility with students from all over the southwest.

One day the director called me to discuss a great idea she had about doing a show of the students work. It would be like an opening and there would be food and drink and making merry.

She also mentioned that she wanted to get one of the local photographers to come in and ‘judge’ the work. I was sort of mixed about that since this was student work and it would take a judge who knew what the parameters were to be able to do the work justice. When she told me who she was going to invite… well, that sort of took a lot of the fun out of it.

Egos can be a problem in this business. They can blind one to all that is outside their orb of ‘kissassedness’ and provide a faux quality of relevance where none really exists. This photographer had that… trait.

This may sound braggadocios, but it is the honest truth. We had a hell of a school and we had some simply astounding photographers. Some of these guys are still shooting and kicking ass all over the country. The show ended up with 38 prints and all of them were stunning. The instructors and some of the local photographers came in to help hang the show and were simply blown away at the quality of the work.

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What I’ve Learned So Far: Five; Step Up, or Step Aside

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In photography, as in most things in life, there are moments when you hesitate for reasons you may never know. Those small hesitations can be driven by fears, or unknowing, or simply because you had too many beers and are partially paralyzed from playing some sort of adult game that you cannot remember the name of BECAUSE your good buddy John and his girlfriend decided… wait. We aren’t going there.

Suffice it to say we occasionally hesitate.

And when we do, we leave the door open to a lot of other people to hit it before we do.

So it was for me and Polaroid transfers. I watched a photographer do one while on a roadtrip in Colorado. I LOVED the look, and he was very gracious and walked me through it.

Back in Phoenix I tried all sorts of Polaroid transfer techniques: Hot press paper, cold press paper, original images shot in camera, slides projected on Polaroid film… all sorts of methods.

I was the only one in the area doing it and I wasn’t showing anyone because I wanted to have this massive book of imagery to show. I wanted to blow the walls down with a half dozen different techniques that would rocket me to stardom.

Once I had the portfolio put together, I wanted to start showing the agencies… but I hesitated.

“What if no one likes this stuff,” it suddenly dawned on me. And I began to question whether the technique was really something they wanted to see.

I hesitated.

A few weeks later, I decided to hell with it, I wanted to share this work with folks who may think it was as cool as I thought it was.

And they loved it. In fact the first agency told me they had just hired a guy the day before to do a big Annual Report with the technique. A second and third agency all said “yeah, we have been seeing this a lot in the last two or three weeks…”

Seriously?

My hesitation meant I lost first opportunity by a few lousy weeks.

By the end of the year, everyone and their brother were doing them and in another year or two they were passe’… only a few opportunities to do them.

(Which, as an aside I will say – NEVER set your style on a technique. Technique can be learned and borrowed. Vision cannot.)

“He who hesitates is lost.”

“Strike when the iron is hot.”

“Carpe Diem”

All very important for photographers. No matter what we are doing, it is important to not hesitate unless there is a good reason. Wondering if they will like what we do means we weren’t sure about it to begin with.

Do you have an idea for a shoot? Do it.

Been wanting to change your style a bit? Do it. Now.

Waiting for that perfect moment is a fools folly. There is NO perfect moment.

There is only now, and you and your work.

In the words of a great captain, simply “make it so…”

PHOTO NOTES:
The original image was shot on black and white Polaroid Instant Slide Film, a very delicate but absolutely lovely positive transparency. The Polaroid transparency was put into an Omega enlarger and focused onto a mounted 4×5 Polaroid film sheet holder. After a few attempts that were pure black and white, I added a slight warm filter to the enlarger and it then cast a sort of sepia image down to the Polaroid in the holder. Cold press water color paper was used and I made four images transferred to the paper. This is one I liked the best, and it is an original… no negative exists. One of a kind art.

What I’ve Learned So Far: Four; You Can’t Please Everyone

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Not only can you not please everyone, you shouldn’t even try.

Why? Because all those “anyone’s” can’t even agree what they like anyway.

The first seven or eight years of my photographic career were spent trying to figure out what “they” wanted to see. Should I have more black and white? Should I separate out the black and white from the color? More product / less people or more people / less product?

It was a quandary every single day. And trying to dial it in seemed impossible.

Out the door to an agency showing… book is tweaked and ready. Agency CD looks through it quickly and mentions that they mostly do more ‘produced, big set shots’ which I knew – intellectually – was pure bullshit. I could see the work they did on his FKN OFFICE WALL. And it was the kind of work I was showing. I was a fit.

No matter… back to the studio with one burning thought… “must do more big set productions, must do more big set productions…” A new mantra was born.

The next meeting with a different agency would find an AD saying – “wow, I like your food stuff but you are a fashion photographer right?” Well… uhh… I am showing you food and you are discussing images you haven’t seen in a book that has never crossed your desk. And – you didn’t hire me for the food stuff, even though you said you should, because you heard I was a fashion photographer?

“Need more fashion, need more fashion, need more….”

And on and on it would go. Always taking a random thrown out statement as some sort of ‘golden nugget’ of advice and a solid lead on what I needed to do to ‘get the gig’.

Sad. Lonely. Maddening.

Then one evening the local ASMP hosted a “round table” of some of the big name AD’s and CD’s in the area. There were four of them sitting there and we got this kind of stuff:

AD 1: “Never send me direct mail. I hate direct mail… goes right the can.”
AD2: “Direct mail is the only way I will see your work. I rarely look at the annuals and we will only call in books if we have worked with you before.”
AD3: Direct mail… eh. We occasionally will bring all the AD’s together to look over a couple of weeks pieces, but honestly it is catch as catch can on that stuff.”
AD4: I LOVE direct mail. Keep it coming, guys…”

Seriously?

AD1: “The only kind of portfolios I like are loose prints. If I can’t spread them around the table, I am not really gonna look that hard at them.”
AD2: “Small books are best. 8×10 – 9×12… and not more than 30 images, please.”
AD3: “I like the really big format… even 16×20’s are cool. Book or loose prints, it doesn’t matter much.”
AD4: “We prefer to find the work we like in the annuals, and if we need to see a book we will ask you send it over for us to look at on our leisure. We don’t care much for large books, but we do love when they are super designed.”

Seriously seriously?

There was no consensus on anything that evening. We heard that direct mail sucks and keep it going because it is effective. We learned that design of your portfolio was totally unimportant except when it was absolutely a dominant force. The enlightenment continued with the admonition to separate black and white from color and oh, BTW, never separate black and white from color, only separate genres except when the book has a more flexible, organic flow.

I realized that I was trying to please a ‘them’ where there was no ‘them’.

There were only individuals, and they all had different criteria for what they wanted to see.

I stopped worrying about them. I started worrying about me. What the hell did I want to do? When the taskmaster of madness is lifted and all you have to worry about is the work you LOVE to do, it can suddenly dawn on you that you are not really sure what that is.

After years of trying to feed the beast, it became abundantly clear that it was a faux beast to begin with… and it may be too stupid be fed.

I learned that I had to be comfortable with what I shot, and build that work from the ground up without checking in with the Blackbook or the Workbook or any other ‘hip’ annual to see if I measured up to what everyone else was doing. I wanted to measure up to what I WANTED to do.

Within a year the book was totally different than it was a year before, and the clients I was shooting for not only liked what I was doing, but wanted me to do more of it.

And no, it wasn’t every agency in town. It was a few agencies, and a few designers, and a few corporate MarComs… but they added up to busy weeks and lots of billing.

I was shooting exactly what they loved because I was shooting exactly what I loved and the individuals who hired me were in sync with that.

Trying to please everyone will end up with you pleasing no one.

I remember one of Avedon’s assistants telling me one of the things that surprised him was that Avedon didn’t get every gig he tried for. Sometimes they picked someone else. For all sorts of reasons. Can you imagine?

You simply cannot please everyone.

You shouldn’t even try.

(And if you ever hear someone say, “this is what they all want to see”… well, consider that full on, totally awesome bullshit.)

Photo notes:
I was asked to shoot tools for a construction company. They prided themselves on very detailed and hand done work. I chose a set of antique tools and shot them on 4×5 Polaroid Type 55, then contact printed them and toned them with copper. I left the ragged edge of the Polaroid on the contact sheets to give the images more ‘reality’. They ran as 4×5 images quad toned and floated singly on a white page with text on the opposite page. The brochure turned out to be an award winner.

What I’ve Learned So Far: Three; It Ain’t Brain Surgery

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When I first started I met a photographer who was what I call a “prima-donna”, or asshat in today’s world. He would rant and rage while shooting. All of his assistants would cower as he belittled them, humiliated them and treated them less than anyone should ever be treated.

I met one of his assistants who quit after he threw a 4×5 film holder at him because of some perceived offense. In the day, he was quite an influential photographer and had lots of work. At first, the rages were done after hours, but they slowly became visible to clients. And that was sad.

The clients would talk about his screaming and ranting and raging with a shake of the head… but they used him anyway because he was a good photographer.

The problem I had with it was three fold.

  1. No one should ever be treated with that level of disrespect.
  2. It was supremely less than professional… after all, the staff was HIS, and HE was ultimately responsible
  3. He was taking pictures of fkn TOWELS FOR A DEPARTMENT STORE!!!

Now yeah, I got it – being a professional means doing the absolute BEST towel shot, or box of crap shot that you can. And you tweak it till it is perfect. Feeling that it warrants rage and deep, moody brooding is – well – mental illness.

Seriously.

I only worked for him one day, and never went back. He eventually left the industry when digital came in. I sorta figured it was because throwing a compact flash card at assistants wasn’t impactful enough.

I was reminded of his idiocy a few years after the one day I assisted him, when I photographed actual brain surgery for a regional hospital chain. The mood of the two surgeons and four nurses was relaxed and respectful. They were focused on the task at hand, and broke tension with humor and good natured comments.

Brain surgery. Screw up and someone dies.

Photographing towels. Screw up and… photograph them again.

The difference was absolutely staggering… and it has stayed with me since that day.

Yes, we work very hard to make the absolute best image we can, we push those around us to perform even better than they think they can. And we do it with respect. We take great pride in presenting an absolutely perfect photograph, but that should never come at the expense of those around us.

Things have changed a lot since those days, and I don’t hear much about the “angry prima-donna drama queen” photographers. Oh, they are out there, but probably not as prevalent as they were because social media could be disastrous.

It really is important to do the best we can at what we do, but it ain’t brain surgery and no one dies if we mess up… and believe me, that is a good thing. :-)

(PS… my assistants have always appreciated the way I treated them, and their professionalism. In fact, many of them became personal friends over the years.)

(PSS: My wonderful MUA Danita Fenn, who is still a friend today… sorry, cannot remember the name of the model. Only worked with her once.)

What I’ve Learned So Far: Two; Partners Maybe – Maybe Not

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There is nothing better than a great partner. Finding someone who fills in those blanks in your business acumen can be a life saver. Whether it is a rep, or a second shooter/first assistant, or a full business partner, working with someone who helps you stay focused can be one of the most enjoyable experiences of being in business.

A great partner takes hold of what you don’t do well and runs with it. And your creativity helps them do their best at what they do as well.

Synergy. Power. Growth.

My best assistants were ones who understood how I worked. Some even better than I did. They knew where the damn meter was even when I had no idea where I had left it. They knew what I was thinking when looking at the Polaroid with that sort of look I get that says… WTF is THIS? The best would be a step ahead, or at least ready to spin on a dime to “make it so”. They were partners.

My reps (only had two in my career) were also great people who completed the parts of me that were as yet unformed. Yeah, I could handle my way around an 8×10 but bidding a three day shoot on location… well, my ADD kicked in and I would find it a great time to clean the darkroom. I eventually learned from them – and them from me. Partners.

The best of them know how to make you smile when all you really want to do is to kill the art director slowly and with as much pain as possible. They knew how to break the tension, and let me refocus on the part of the gig I was working the hardest on.

However… there is also the possibility that what you thought was a good mix, a good partnership, was not that at all. Sometimes people can deceive, be dishonest, or simply change. If you are not paying attention, the ramifications of a bad partner can be as small as a gig going south and you having to pick up pieces while still delivering a smashing job to losing three quarters of a million dollars. Three quarters. Of a Million. Dollars.

I have learned that while good partners are great, nothing is as bad as a rotten one.

I have no partners at this moment, although I do work closely with some folks that may be limited partners on some deals coming up.

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What I’ve Learned So Far: One; Photography Ain’t Easy

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Starting today and for the duration of December 2014, I will be making one post per day on ideas and thoughts I have had about this business of photography. And it is directed toward the professional practice of commercial photography.

I have been kicking around in this crazy business for nearly 40 years. In that time I have discovered what I didn’t know, been surprised by what I thought I knew, and still don’t know what I think I should know. But I am catching on… ya know.

Along the way on this journey I have learned a few things. Some of them seriously impactful and some of them curiously quirky.

Now these little posts may not change your life, rock your world, finally open your eyes to “the truth”. They may only make you think about photography, business, life and great beer. (More on great beer as we go along.)

Let’s get started on this list of 31 things I have learned so far. Please understand they are in no particular order, nor are they meant as a guideline for you to base your hopes, dreams and mortgage savings on.

Number One:

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Thinning Down, Weeding Out… Hopefully

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Gettin’ Skinny and Lovin’ It

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

And it is… sorta.

It’s a diet of all things photography.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That changed.

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

In ours it doesn’t.

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

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

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

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

LOL… lots of memories.

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

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

So what did I keep?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps.

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

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

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

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

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

Industrial Assignment: Project 52 Pros

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

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

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

Photographers You Should Know: Ellen Von Unwerth

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tumblr_l2hzax2OX91qb9i4yThe first time I saw her work was a Claudia Schiffer shoot for Guess. The ads were edgy, fun, loose and sexy. The photography was gritty, and voyeuristic and part of the scene itself.

Ellen von Unwerth (born 1954, Frankfurt) is a photographer and director, specializing in erotic femininity. She worked as a fashion model for ten years herself before moving behind the camera, and now makes fashion, editorial, and advertising photographs. (wiki)

From Complex Style:

Ellen von Unwerth began her career in the fashion industry as a model herself before deciding to get on the other side of the lens. She gained credibility as a photographer in the ’90s when her work for GUESS jeans became popular, shooting famous models like Claudia Schiffer, Eva Herzigova, and the late Anna Nicole Smith. von Unwerth has continued building her reputation throughout the past two decades, doing work both for top publications and independently, while also creating album art and doing private shoots for many celebrities.”

The One Hundred Sexiest Photographs by Ellen Von Unwerth.


 

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Here is a large group of great posts of the work of Ellen Von Unwerth from Fashion Gone Rogue.

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Some very cool videos by Ellen Von Unwerth.

Throughout her career, she has kept it fun, sexy and very accessible. Her models always look like they are having a blast, and many times unaware of the photographer, or happily playing along with the shoot. There is a feeling of watching something unfold in front of our eyes that we are not usually privy to see. She is definitely one of my biggest influences as I have tried to keep the hand of the photographer out of the image itself. I love the wildly candid approach to the images.

See more on Google:

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Photographing Mundane Subjects

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

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

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

We photograph ‘stuff’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that takes time. And money.

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

SHOOTING MUNDANE ITEMS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is where you must differentiate yourself from the pack.

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

How do you do that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Summer 2013 Project 52 Yearbook (Free Download)

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Proud to announce the arrival of the Summer 2013 Project 52 Pro Yearbook. If you would like to purchase a hard copy, it is available at cost at Blurb.

If you would like to download a free screen resolution PDF, here ya go. Enjoy.

Summer PROS 2013 Yearbook (Free to download and distribute. Modification of this document is strictly forbidden)

(Cover photo by Tracy Sutherland)

If you would like another issue, the 2013 Project 52 Winter Yearbook is here. Also free for PDF.

Photographers You Should Know: Matt Mahurin

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Matt Mahurin is a a multi-discipline artist who uses film, photography, and illustration to create a pallet of amazing work. (Wiki)

From American Photo Mag:

“When you commission a graphic from Matt Mahurin, you never know what you’re going to get. Which is the whole point. Skipping around his toolbox, Mahurin uses whichever media combination will help him create charged images to illustrate difficult stories. No wonder, then, that publications such as Time, Rolling Stone and Men’s Journal hire him to make visual sense of complex topics like Abu Ghraib or the Wall Street crisis.

But while his technique is top-notch, editors and art directors come to Mahurin, based in New York City, for something beyond Photoshop expertise. “They come to me for my point of view,” says Mahurin, who began working with Photoshop soon after its launch in 1990 and personally executes every stage of his photo illustrations. “I walk the line of having an emotional take while working with the point of view of the article.”

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Illustrator of the Week: Matt Mahurin

“Matt Mahurin is an illustrator, photographer and film director.  He often uses images of himself as reference for his digitally-manipulated photo-illustrations, once posing as Sigmund Freud for a Time magazine cover.  Mahurin is also well-known for a darkened image of OJ Simpson on the cover of Time, based on Simpson’s mugshot at the time of his arrest, which raised some controversy when it appeared next to the unaltered mug shot on the cover of Newsweek on the magazine racks.”
Above from “The Art of Visual Thinking”
(Great portfolio there as well)

“Judd Apatow & Matt Mahurin join Mark Seliger to talk about photographing tragedy, finding humanity with comedy, and meeting their heroes. From Tom Waits to Seth Rogen and Steve Martin to Henri Cartier-Bresson, they share stories of collaborating throughout their careers.”
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Photographers you should know is an ongoing weekly feature. You can find more by using the category link to the right of this article.

What If The Problem Is That You Suck?

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Photo of the author by Mike Eller

Even More Advice for the Aspiring Professional Photographer.

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

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

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

Let’s face some cold facts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can find me at

www.dongiannatti.com

www.project52Pros.com

www.dongiannattiphotography.com

On Twitter and Instagram I am wizwow.

I suck at social media.

NOTE:

Thanks to PetaPixel for republishing the article.

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

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“Money, Money, Money” A Difficult Subject

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

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

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

Photographers You Should Know: Nadav Kander

Nadav Kander shoots a lot of different subjects and I think he does them extremely well. I love his classic approach to composition, and the understated approach he uses to lighting and presentation. His imagery is clean, uncluttered and created with deliberation and attention to detail.

From Wiki:
Nadav Kander
(born 1961) is a London-based photographer, artist and director, known for his portraiture and landscapes. His work is included in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum and other galleries and museums.

Nadav Kander: Radioactive ruins of secret Soviet towns: a fantastic set of images of places we may never see.

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From his Rep Agency in Europe: We Folk.

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From Nadav Kander’s American Representatives: Stockland Martel

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From Nadav Kander’s Website.

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Are We Clear About What We Do as Photographers?

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Are We?

Two things recently formed today’s article. One was a note from a commercial shooter who was being setup to fail, and the other from a consumer shooter angry that the client kept wanting more and more retouching… and feeling trapped that it must be done.

To both I responded with one word: contract.

I know we all hate that contract crap… at least I know I do. It starts out a relationship saying “I trust you, but I really don’t so sign this.” Maybe I am being a little melodramatic, but it seems that way to me.

The commercial situation was this:

The photographer had submitted a bid for the job and the client said “Wonderful. We love the bid. It’s a go… with just a few minor changes. Of course.

1. We want every shot you take in RAW.
2. We want there to be very little Photoshopping on the images (how does that square with #1?)
3. We want the images to look like the images in your portfolio.
4. We want the images to look just like what we want them to look like although we can’t really tell you what that is until we see them.
5. We want 60 days to pay instead of 30.
6. We want the copyright to all the images forever.

He was concerned about these requests… as he should be.

Whether intentional or not, they were setting him up for a major fail. Conflicting expectations and demands that are clearly not in the normal way of working will always create confusion. And give the client something to use as leverage to bash your price down.

The photographer asked me to review his response which was lengthy and detailed with explanations of why he doesn’t feel good about giving the RAW files, and what copyright really means to him and how he wants to do a great job for them but is a little confused about some of the terms.

I simplified the response to only a few lines.

60 Days is acceptable (from billing date).
Backup RAW Files for the chosen 16 images.
Responsible client representative to art direct the imagery and/or provide a shot list.
Responsible client representative to approve images on set.
Copyright will be retained by the photographer, but client can have a buyout for chosen images for this much more money.

Done.

I always hear photographers talking about educating the client. Well, I am not one that believes the art department of a major corporation needs educating. They know this stuff, they are only playing politics.

By the way, they said yes to the revised bid with 5 paragraphs stating what the PHOTOGRAPHER was going to do.

If I sound jaded, I apologize only slightly. I have seen too damned much of it, and on occasion been on the receiving end. In my case it doesn’t last long because I have a contract and a clear method of working that prevents that.

I have a very simple contract that has the deliverables plainly stated. You get this. This way. By this date.

The client is responsible for the shot list, and someone with the responsibility to do so, must approve all images. Without client approval process, they get what they get. In writing this is.

The consumer shooter had a customer from hell… asking for more than 15 rounds of ‘editing’… from ‘fly away hair’ (shot in a breeze) to making a chin smaller and opening up the eye a bit.

The photographer was mad at the client for all these demands and that shouldn’t be the case. I am happy to make all the changes you want. At $90 per hour.

The contract should state what is included: Color Correcting, skin cleanup, some creative expression (hey, it’s consumer… gotta love them actions). Additional changes are happily made at $90 an hour (or whatever your charge is).

“While every attempt is made to provide a perfect photograph for you, changes in reality can be costly and time intensive. Digital liposuction/cosmetic alterations are supplied at a rate of $90 per hour and estimates must be approved before work commences.”

In the design/web business we call that “Change of Work Order”.

Since we were clear in what we are going to deliver, it is a change to that deliverable schedule when things are added. This also goes for the “Hey, you’re here with your camera already out… can you get a shot of the whole facility from that forklift?”

“Absodamnlutely I can. Hold on, that will require a change of work order… I have one right here. I can add the fee to it and we can get that shot.”

You will quickly find out if they want the shot that bad.

Or you can just go shoot it for them… I don’t care. Just don’t whine about being taken advantage of later. Gift the client that shot since you already had your camera out… or don’t. You have the ability to do either because you have a specific job to do.

Inherent in all of this is the comfort level you have for ‘walking away’. In Trump’s book, “The Art of the Deal” he makes a very important point several times; if you are not willing to walk away from the deal, you aren’t in the deal, you are taking an order. Desperation breeds a bad deal if you are the one that is desperate.

Your choice. Are you an order taker or are you negotiating a position or compensation. Being willing to walk away gives the confidence to make your demands known, and feel as powerful making YOURS as they do making theirs.

I don’t usually do full RAW file transfers. It’s rare. 16BIT Tiffs… whatever. But RAW generally stays in my purview, just like my negatives and transparencies. And I don’t transfer copyright. Ever.

I can negotiate most other things and depending on the client and the gig, I can be pretty flexible. But core principals will not be swapped away, and I am totally fine with walking away. No gig is worth giving up my core values and deeply held beliefs.

Be smart, be clear and be deliberate. Eliminating those things that can go wrong upfront is the best way to make the ending a smoother, more enjoyable one.

PS: If your contract requires a Harvard Law Professor to make sense of it, then it’s wrong. Plain old speech is fine. Spell it out clearly with clearly understood words… it’ll hold up.

Two Lenses: A Day in the North Country

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Yesterday I spent the morning wandering around an area north of Phoenix for a few hours. Joined by photographers Dennis Mong and Miachelle DePiano, we took a loop through a beautiful part of central / north Arizona.

I had no expectations other than hoping I could capture a few shots of the fall colors that seem to last but a moment each Autumn. We took the I17 North to Camp Verde, had breakfast while hoping the very gray skies would open up with some sun, but moved on toward Strawberry, AZ when that didn’t materialize. As we went up the mountain toward Strawberry, Pine, and Payson, the sun began peeking out just a bit. The resulting soft light was really pretty.

I used two cameras, with only two lenses. The drive wasn’t formally constructed to do that, but it ended up that I used a moderate wide and a telephoto for all the images.

Cameras:

Nikon Df, 35MM f2.0
Canon 6D, 200MM f2.8L

Gear Links

So I either chose a moderate wide or a tighter tele for all the shots I did, not once changing the lenses on the two cameras. That forced me to look for tight or compressed images or things that could be presented within a wider context.

I may do this again in a week or so… 28mm on the DF and 135MM on the 6D and look for shots that fit those two specific image views. Or not… LOL. I do not have any idea what I will do in a couple of weeks.

5 Photographs with the Nikon Df and the 35MM f2:

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5 Photographs from the Canon 6D, 200MM f2.8L.

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