Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Flurry of activity (except blog-posting)

So much going on lately that I haven't been able to sit still long enough to post, so here's what's been up:

First, my shoot with Andrea and the mannequin heads. I got a Facebook message from a high school friend saying she had a bunch of mannequin heads if I wanted them. Who could say no to two dozen heads with various hairstyles (they were used as practice heads for a stylist school)? Not me, that's for sure. Couldn't wait to use them in a shoot.

Enter Andrea Hoekzema, a makeup artist here in Grand Rapids, who I contacted after another shoot we were supposed to do fell through. She was a total pro, all the way through. In the interest of collaboration, I left it up to her what wardrobe would be. She brought several different choices and we came to a joint decision about her look. Once lights were set, she went into pose-off, and just kept popping and locking into different positions and I kept firing away at the shutter. She was great, and I look forward to working with her in the future, either as a model or as MUA.

Last week I headed to NYC to visit my friend (and fellow photog) Dan Gottesman for a one-day intensive (for real. we were exhausted when we got back to Brooklyn) workshop in Dobbs Ferry with none other than the inexhaustible Joe McNally.

But first, as soon as my plane landed, we headed to a burlesque/sideshow on Coney Island. Let me just say excellent way to start my time there.

The two greatest lessons I learned from Joe were:
1. it was of great benefit to me to see HOW he works, and interacts with the models, and to see the miscellaneous millions of pieces of equipment he uses. Much better than viewing them on B&H's website and guessing whether or not you're ordering the right thing.
2. With all the elaborate setups and multiple assistants, the big epiphany came when I realized every setup was a version (albeit in most cases a much bigger version) of what I already know how to do, and have used in the past. That is a liberating feeling because that means technology/equipment is not an impediment to image realization. I mean, you can only light the way Joe does if you roll with lots of Speedlights or Elinchrom Rangers, but even with almost unlimited choices at his disposal, most setups were 1 or 2 light solutions. If even Joe McNally gets it done with 3 or fewer lights, that confirms what we all know anyway: it's about vision, not equipment. Cameras don't make excellent pictures, photographers do. As Chase Jarvis says, the best camera is the one that's on you at the moment.

At one point in the workshop, he set us all loose with just 1 SB900. There was some squirming from some of my fellow attendees about that limitation, but I took it to mean Joe was driving the point home that one light is enough to make good pictures. If you can't make decent pictures with limited light, then having 75 lights isn't suddenly going to make you a better photographer.

As I looked back at my photos from the day, though, it was interesting that my favorites were available light shots that I stole in the moments between setups.

Back to Brooklyn, exhausted and not sure we could do it, Dan and I decided not to wuss-out and cancel a shoot we had scheduled for later that night. Our friend Michelle and our new friend Coco La Pearl agreed to model for us in a couple quick setups. Everyone was tired, and our models had to work in the morning, so we cut our half-dozen setups down to two.

Coco is also a burlesque performer, so we were thinking something along those lines. I thought "we're in Coco's very normal apartment; how about juxtaposing that with something more burlesque?" It would be very easy to make this into a "sexy" shoot, which if you're a member of Model Mayhem, is an overdone idea. Makes me (yikes!) never want to see another topless woman. What's the least sexy thing I can think of here? Cooking dinner. So I had Coco pick out one of her kinkier outfits and work the stove like June Cleaver. And I thought, in the interest of incongruity, Michelle should look as though she couldn't be less interested in what was going on.

Next we went out to the backyard. Never boring, it turns out Coco is also a fire-eater...a skill Michelle was interested in acquiring. So Dan and I took turns climbing an old TV antenna (dangerously close to all-too-live electrical wires) and documented tutor/student in action.

The fact that all that happened within 24 hours is why I love New York and will always be drawn back, at little or no provocation.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Shooting Cari

After a slow couple of weeks, things have been heating up lately, which I love. Even on vacation, nothing makes me more tense than relaxing. My Zen Happy Place is when I'm working my ass off. So I've been in a great mood the last few weeks.

Last week I did a portrait session with Cari Draft, owner of EcoTrek Fitness. Interesting shoot, both easy because Cari is a good model, and challenging because once again I found myself out in the blazing sun on a cloudless day at exactly the wrong time. One of those days where I wished again that I had Joe McNally's 27 speedlight setup. But, having recently read The Hot Shoe Diaries, I was better prepared for this situation and the results were much more successful than they would have been had I not read the book.

Cari runs EcoTrek sessions by taking her groups for hikes on the beach or in the woods, pretty much anywhere, and stopping for impromptu workouts along the way. They all take resistance bands along with them, so they really stop anywhere there's a tree, light pole, gate, anything, wrap the resistance bands around said object and do resistance workouts on the spot.

So I figured we should shoot Cari in the woods, using the bands like she would normally. Photographically, the canopy of trees would knock back the light so it didn't matter that we were there in the bright mid-morning sun. Yes and no. While the trees did cut back the sun, the leaves also made for, IMO, a distracting background.

Enter the Hot Shoe Diaries.

I had always shot on full manual. And, not being one to read the owner's manual for equipment I own, my flashes were always on manual also. Which means if the flashes needed adjustment, I had to walk over to them and change it. Which also means lowering the stand they're on, making the adjustment, raising the stand, going back to shooting position...annoyingly cumbersome to both photographer and model.

After reading Joe's book, I tried his method. Camera on Aperture Priority, meter on Matrix mode, and SB800s in Remote mode. I only have 2 SBs so far, so I used the pop-up flash on my D300 as the commander. I dialed in -3 EV for the exposure, and set the flashes to +2 or +3 to compensate. This worked so well, I will almost never do it any other way again. The main light was Group A (+3) and the second one was Group B (+2) for rim light.

When I got home, I still felt like there should have been more separation between Subject and Background, so I spent some time in Photoshop knocking the background down another additional stop or so.

Added bonus: I can now cross "overpowering the mid-day sun" off my List of Intimidating Setups.

On the last pic in this series I tried another McNally trick: threw both SBs (diffuser domes on) through one umbrella. Still improving, but I'm happy with the results.

*Next post: upcoming shoot with the 2 dozen mannequin heads I picked up last weekend*

Good advice

Was about to post, but got sidetracked with my RSS feed. Found this on the Fashion Photography Blog. Part 1 of what will apparently be a 3 part series, and it applies to everyone trying to do their own thing:

I’m going to give you some advice that not only took me years to learn, but I sometimes had to learn it the hard way. Even though I went to a great college, the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and I had several business classes towards the end of my schooling, it still didn’t totally prepare me for the Big, Bad, and REAL World of running a successful photography business. This 3 part series is going to be broken down into the following categories: Positioning, Portfolios and Marketing, and finally Negotiating and Estimating for Jobs. I’m going to keep this intro short and dive right into it. No better time than NOW to get your business head together and not only SURVIVE the industry but THRIVE in it!


  • Get a Point of View and stick to it:
    • Find your voice, your vision, otherwise known as your style, and stick to it! Art Buyers/Editors/Designers want to see a unique Style; they look for consistency and cohesiveness in your portfolio. They want to know what they’re going to get when they book you for a job. If they’re looking for photographers to shoot their next story, it doesn’t matter to them that you can also shoot food and weddings, they want to know that you will shoot an amazing fashion story that showcases YOUR STYLE. Find your style and make it YOURS.
  • This is a Business, not a Pajama Party:
    • In other words: You can’t act like a Rock Star until you’ve made it. The most fun I have is the day of the shoot where my creativity is at its peak and I get to do what I love most; shoot fashion. All the days leading up to it however are not all fun and games. You are a business professional and you have to take this business seriously otherwise you won’t be taken seriously. What does that translate to? Basically, you won’t work.
  • Agencies and Clients work in their own best interest. You need to do the same:
    • It’s a bittersweet reality but there are NO imaginary friendships in this business. Everybody is out for what suits them the best. You have to do the same.
  • Photography is a business built on perception:
    • If you start at the bottom it’s way too long a climb up to the top. Yes, you have to pay your dues but you also need to present yourself from the start, as a business person who is serious about their career.
  • Believe in the value of your work:
    • Do you know what this means? It means you DESERVE to be PAID for what you do. Your work has VALUE to it. Be proud of it and believe in it. Don’t let people take advantage of you because you’re an artist. And let’s face it: if you don’t believe in the value of your work, no one else will!
  • Get out of the Poverty Mentality:
    • This brings us back to the previous point; know your worth and don’t undervalue yourself. This is a fear driven business. Try to keep the fears to a minimum.
  • The level you go into an agency situation is the level you will stay at:
    • If you do a job for less money than you deserve, thinking you will be rewarded next time with a bigger job, guess again. When there’s a bigger job, the agency will hand it out to a bigger photographer. You stay at the level you started with them. Aim HIGH!

That’s it for the first part of this 3 part series on Succeding in the commercial photography world. Commercial photography is competitive. Fashion photography is FIERCELY competitive. If you’re not in it to win it, you won’t get far. That’s just the sad reality. When people ask me how I’ve lasted this long in the business I tell them this: I absolutely love fashion and photography and I can’t see myself doing anything else but this. I am passionate about it. But I can tell you the truth: I have witnessed others who maybe had a lot of talent or were technically savvy but if they weren’t IN LOVE with fashion and photography, they didn’t end up far into their career and eventually quit and chose different paths. So get yourself motivated, learn the business side well and you’ll be that much closer to SUCCESS.

Whether or not fashion is where your photography is (or is headed), Melissa Rodwell writes an interesting, informative blog. I never miss it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Joe McNally is my Jesus

In my previous post I mentioned that reading the blogs of David Hobby, Chase Jarvis, Joe McNally, etc. was an important part of every day for me. Well, let me amend that.

I'm a pretty firm agnostic. Just not sure if we're being watched over, or if the watcher was our own invention because we didn't like the idea of dying being the end of it. But what I do believe in firmly is the pursuit of a creative life. And in that pursuit, Joe McNally is either the Messiah, or at least one of the most important books in the Creative Bible.

I recently got my copy of The Hot Shoe Diaries by Joe McNally. I know my way around my camera pretty good, but I had barely gotten past the foreward in Joe's book before I felt like I had never really used my camera before. And by page 50, I had soaked up so much new information that I started to read with my camera next to me so I could read a paragraph, pick up the camera and see what Joe was talking about, change some settings, get back to reading, pick up the camera...you get the idea. Joe's got that perfect balance of technical knowledge, original vision, and (in his own words) bat-shit craziness. Which is how you can learn so much from reading his books without feeling like you've just read an owner's manual. Has anyone ever read a manual anyway? I don't even know where mine are. For anything.

I'm totally a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants guy, and am sometimes (read: most of the time) amazed at the images I get without truly understanding how that just happened. So it's sometimes a little embarrassing how much I DON'T know about my main creative tool. (heh...Creative Tool was my nickname in high school). Which is probably why The Hot Shoe Diaries speaks to me so loudly. Feels like he wrote it specifically for me, "The Hot Shoe Diaries: Seth, Stop Being an Idiot and Learn Your Instrument".

Those last paragraphs sounds a little too "school girl crush" in its effusiveness, unless you're a shooter and have read the book. Then you know the value of that book cannot be overstated. This new - or at least it feels new - culture of sharing knowledge is really exciting. And I think it's extra cool that even though Joe's a photo rockstar, not only is he willing to lift the veil on everything he does, he even went "power to the people" enough to list a Flickr Group for readers of his book.

Buy this book. For yourselves, and for anyone...and I mean anyone...with the slightest interest in becoming a better photographer.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Can't start my day without it

Blogging about blogs, there's something a little curious, a little "vicious cycle" (minus the viciousness) about that...

I finally got around to updating my links on this blog. Must admit that I hadn't done this yet because I thought the "blogs I'm following" function took care of this. Just one of those pesky little details that I routinely skip. I don't read instruction manuals either, sometimes to my physical detriment. 

I want to call attention to that link list over there, because, after collecting and reading TONS of photography blogs via Google Reader, these are the ones that I never miss reading. Ever. My day doesn't start until I see what Joe McNally, David Hobby, Chase Jarvis, Zack Arias and the others have to say. Routinely I find nuggets of such high value in there that I make Google think I haven't read them yet so later I can go back and really dig deeper. And maybe retain some of what I've read. Sure, close to 100% of those links are photographers (or at least photography-related). But in this  era, where photographers felt the crash coming long before anyone else did, there are tons of words to live by even if you've never picked up a camera.

And if you are a photographer, these guys have either already replaced your morning newspaper (whatever that was), or they will once you start reading them. The best part is that these guys are the rock stars of photography; they could be complete pricks and no one would say a thing. But they aren't. Quite the contrary, they're giving away their tricks like they're tax deductible or something.

So click away...

On another note, I recently did a shoot with Jen Pider, former editor of Revue Magazine in Grand Rapids. A more enthusiastic subject, I've not yet encountered. Jen was ready for anything, and a couple times she gave such a smoldering look that I could feel the camera glass start to melt. Which I wouldn't guess is ever a bad thing.

So first I added her to the collection of Two-Facers. These I shot in my usual way, using 1 SB800 overhead with a softbox, and 1 SB800 camera right, slightly behind her to put a rim light on her shoulders and hair. Then we tried for the "who is Jen Pider" photo. Well, Jen said Jen Pider is a music fanatic so she probably should be listening to music and dancing. Jen takes the "dance like no one's watching" thing to heart, and, just like everyone who lives by that rule, is a really good dancer, even when there's no actual music playing. For these shots, no matter how I dialed them down, I just didn't like what the flashes looked like. So I shot these by a north-facing window in natural available light. She was definitely my favorite subject to date, so now I just need to cook up some more projects that require her as the subject...

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Lessons from Peter Pan

Last week I volunteered to photograph the rehearsals and performances of Peter Pan, put on by my daughter's elementary school. It was at turns interesting, fun, frustrating; but mostly fun. Shots from rehearsals were to be used in a pre-show slideshow run from a laptop. 

It's been a LONG time since I was involved with elementary or secondary schools, and you're in for a rough initiation if you take the same things for granted in dealing with teachers and students that you can easily take for granted in the professional world. First, teachers live their lives in 45 minute segments. Don't know how they do that; I could get stuck on one thought for that long. But somehow they get stuff done in those small chunks of time. Second (and maybe because of 45 minute thing), they do not have the luxury of detail attentiveness that most of us just assume comes with any project. By nature and by necessity, teachers are wholly conceptual. The details will work themselves out. So I was surprised to find that the slideshow laptop was to be provided by me. More surprised when we didn't run the slideshow during dress rehearsal to get the kinks out, assuming that if we did it for the first time on show night everything would be fine. It wasn't. No surprise to any of us who deal with technology on a daily basis; you can bank on SOMETHING going wrong every time, no matter how much you've rehearsed. But all issues were resolved by the second performance and the slideshow ran beautifully (and looked really good projected).

But I was most struck by the kids. At first they were calling me Mr. Photographer, so I jokingly said that wasn't necessary; I would be fine if they just called me Mr. Awesome. Which, to my surprise, they did. They got as much of a kick out of it as I did. Then there were the kids (girls mostly) who vehemently pretended to not want their picture taken. But those same kids were always close at hand when I had the camera out. Pretty funny. 

It was nice to see and be surrounded by these kids, who tried sometimes to be jaded and "too cool" for stuff, but their enthusiasm was undeniable. And easily recognizable to an adult who has been surrounded by actual jaded, burned out professionals concerned only with how much they were making or whose getting promoted for a long time. Picasso once said "I could draw like the Masters right away; it took me a long time to learn to draw like a child." That is one of my favorite quotes, and made Peter Pan a poignant play to watch as I try not to grow up myself. Or, to take the lesson from Peter Pan, to grow OLD. Among the adults helping out, in some cases you could see playground/"who are the cool kids" politics going on, but among the kids themselves, there was none of that, and nothing about the process of putting on a play that wasn't exciting to the kids: hair and makeup, backstage crew jobs, sound...even pulling the curtain was exciting. In some ways, even though it could have turned into Lord of the Flies, I found myself wishing the play was completely run by kids with no adult involvement. Except me, of course, to document it.

One of the questions/comments that came up as I showed the kids the images I was getting was "what kind of camera is that? I like taking pictures, but my camera just doesn't take pictures like that." From an adult, this question is really annoying (and I was asked that by an adult later the same evening). But from a kid, it's kind of a beautiful teaching moment where I'm able to preach the art of seeing and observing. And how much more interesting the world is when you look at it as shapes rather than items on a checklist. Seeing the twinkle brighten in the kid's eyes as they realize they've had an epiphany is really something. 

It was a lot of work and time investment for me, but interacting with the kids made it all worth it, and I can't wait to do it again next year.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Shoot what's in front of you

No gigs on the books this week; waiting for the weather to cooperate for a cool upcoming shoot. So, I could spend all day following everyone on Twitter, Facebook, read every entry of every blog...or...I could shoot what's right in front of me. In my case, that's my kids. So while the older two are at school, there's always a baby cooing in the other room with her mom while I get distracted with blogs, Facebook, etc. Hmm...here Clementine, why don't you wear Dad's hat he was wearing to disquise the fact that he didn't have time for a shower this morning...

These are the kind of impromptu images that also allow me to work in ways I'm not (or not anymore anyway) used to, meaning all natural light, and (in our Victorian house) high ISOs. I don't always like the noise of high ISO, but sometimes it gives these digital images a filmic feel, which is nice.

All the parents out there will recognize the above image as "Pooping my pants face, stage 1". I might be a little callous, but I think it's funny.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Google Google Google

Taking a break from trying to learn ActionScript 3 and updating my website, I found this series commenting on the ubiquity of Google. Pretty funny.