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.