Balance and perspective.

I've been writing a lot lately about the new Nikon V1 camera and it's three popular lenses.  And, of course some will think that this requires me to pledge lifelong loyalty to this system and this brand.  So I thought I'd step back and shoot with a totally different camera today.  I chose the  Canon 1DS mk2 and the manual focus, 35mm Zeiss f2 ZE lens from the Canon drawer.  I got a late start out of the house today because Belinda and I were making some last minute proofing corrections to the LED book which is about to go to the printer. (Yah!!!).  It was 4:30 or so when I left the FedEx office.

I'm such a creature of habit.  I walked the same route I do most weekends.  I like it because this part of town is in constant flux.  The mid point of my out and back route is Medici Cafe which, incidentally, has the best coffee in town.  The beginning and ending point is the Whole Foods headquarters store.  And today I was on a mission to buy a bottle of our favorite Sherry on the way home.

When I shoot with the Nikon V1 I tend to let the camera do a lot of the work.  It's like a squirrel on amphetamines.  Fast to focus.  Fast to review. Fast to go again.  The Canon is different.  I shoot nearly wide open with the 35mm and I try hard to get the focus right.  I also depend more on manual metering with the spot meter.  I think a bit about exposure compensation and I shoot for tonality and range.  Not pop and sharp.

The late November light was beautiful from 4:30 till about 5:30 this afternoon.  Not too contrasty but not flat.  The clouds seemed more resolved and inherently dramatic than usual.  I'd gotten a brief tutorial on B&W in the RAW converter in Lightroom, from Will so I made a few conversions of the files I'd shot just to see what it was all about.  Kudos to Will.  I like the black and white function there.

After weeks of using the Nikon V1 as my primary street shooting camera it felt strange to haul around a camera that weighs five times as much with a lens that weighs at least ten times as much as it's smaller counterpart.  And it took a while to reconfigure my mind to the single focal length lens in an angle of view that seems wide to me.  But after a while I found my cadence and started to enjoy either getting closer or including more.

It's obviously getting darker earlier and the light is so different from the harsh, Summer light.  I was delighted to be outside just when the ambient light started to match interior lighting and I kept walking and looking for interesting stuff to wrap the light around.

After the balance changes and the city lights beat the sky light it's time to head back home.  After a stop for the best cappuccino in Austin.  The secret, I think, is not to fear whole milk.  It adds the perfect taste and consistency to the mix.  If you are going to have a cappuccino made with skim milk you might as well save your money and just drink your coffee black......

This is my favorite image from today's walk because of the sky.  The sun's been down for about 30 minutes here but there's this delicious afterglow that makes it all work for me.  

I'd come to believe that the fabulous VR of the V1 system was the vital component in me getting good, sharp shots from that camera but I found that I'm okay at hand holding some stuff right on down to 1/15th with the big Canon.  And even though it is hardly state of the art at higher ISO's I think it still does a great job right up to ISO 1600.  While preserving good color saturation.

At the end of my walk I ran into a fellow photographer friend, named, Todd.  He's a good photographer and a great teacher.  He was sitting with a friend and during the course of our quick, catch up conversation mentioned my penchant for changing camera systems more often than some people change their underwear (unfair!!!).  I rebutted as follows:  If you had an decent food budget would you eat the same meal at the same restaurant, night after night?  I know I wouldn't.  I'd get tired of even the finest ribeye eventually and want some Chinese food or some pizza.  Hell, maybe even a hamburger....

Same thing with cameras.  Some days I want something light and refreshing.  Other days I want something filling and substantial.  I shot with the V1 yesterday and the 1Ds 2 today.  Yin and Yang.  Foil versus sabre.

The important thing was to get out and taste the light.  Breathe the air.  Move through time and space.  And feel the flow of late afternoon.  The camera was just a motivator.  

"Do it right." A re-post by request. Thank you, Dave. Initially posted 11.01.10

Do the little things right and you'll do pretty well.

I like this image because it was lit so simply that I'm still amazed by it.  These two people were in an office and I'm shooting thru a doorway.  I've placed a Canon 508 EX2 with a radio trigger on a desk behind then facing the wall behind them.  The entire room is lit by that one light bouncing off the back wall and lighting them from the back and going around them and hitting the wall in front of them and then bouncing back into their faces.  Amazing to me.

I've been interviewing photographers who have been in the business for decades.  The successful ones do the details very, very well.  Let me circle back to that but first let me define what I mean by successful.  I'm thinking entirely from a business point of view.  So successful would mean that in good times and especially in bad times the doors stay open, customers call and share work, and all the bills get paid.  Now, a year like 2009 tests everyone but even in those dire circumstances there were a number of photographers who put their shoulders into it and pushed harder.  They were working with the same clay as everyone else but they focused on doing it better and more often.  

When I say, "better"  I am in no way talking about the quality of the work.  I'm talking about their unyielding resolve to keep up the advertising, the marketing, the blogging and whatever else they did to keep things moving forward.   And to a person they made it through not because of one or two very high budget, glamorous advertising projects but by doing the daily work that keeps clients happy.  And rather than see that "daily work" as beneath them, or remedial they approached the small jobs with the same professionalism as the bigger jobs that came their way in previous years.  Because, at the core, they realize that these jobs were just as important to their clients as the big ones.

They took the time to write a "thank you" note for any job they were asked to shoot.  They worked just as hard on the their post production.  They reached out and connected with their clients.  What I'm hearing now from these photographers is that all of their clients are coming back to full life.  Bids are being requested.  Contracts are being written and assignment work is back in style.  And, to a person, the clients have come back to these photographers and rewarded them for working the details. 

As I reflect on these interviews I've given some thought to my own business.  While I've had some big, fun, high profile jobs over the years the "bread and butter" jobs are the foundation of the business.  I've had one client at Motorola (now at Freescale) who's used my services for over twenty years.  None of the projects were the type that would get me on the cover of Adweek but all of them were challenging and fun to execute.  And the loyalty of my client translated into good income.  In return I would do whatever it takes to make this client satisfied with my work.

In all the years we've worked together I've never missed a deadline.  Never arrived late.  Never forgotten a critical detail.  After a few years my client stopped getting competitive bids.  She just calls on the phone with the details secure in the knowledge that there will be no surprises on her bill.  No complaints from her team.  And she's never forgotten to submit my invoice to accounting or recommend me to her peers.

Much of the marketing that photographers did in years past was aimed at getting the "big job".  Now the big jobs have become more scarce and the smaller and medium sized jobs are what photographers are looking for.  If they're smart.  Stringing a number of smaller jobs together can make an imaging business profitable and it's a way of not having all of your eggs in one basket.

I did this image for the same Annual Report as the image above.  These are the smaller "profile" images that accompany the bigger double truck spreads.  But the fact that they'll run smaller doesn't make them any less important to the client.  In this image I balanced the color of the small flash in an umbrella with the florescent lights in the rest of the facility.  I put a 1/2 plus green filter on the flash and it matched the overall light color pretty well.  I used the smaller flash because my intention was to match the overall light levels and provide clean fill.  It's not a difficult shot but it does take time to do it right.

So, besides doing the thank you notes and showing up on time and taking the work seriously, what are the little things and how do you keep track of them?

1.  You should have a job envelope for every project you do.  In it should be a copy of the job brief telling you what the client wants and what sort of details will be involved.  It should also contain the signed letter of agreement or contract.  During the job all invoices, parking fees, and client notes should go in there.  Clients hate it when little stuff falls thru the cracks.

2.  Pre-production is the foundation of all successful jobs.  Map out the job and make lists.  What kind of equipment will be required?  What kind of models?  Wardrobe?  Makeup?  Even what kind of snacks and refreshments.  Make maps to every location.  Put together a crew list with everyone's phone #'s.

3.  You need a packing list.  You might as well make a big list and have it copied.  Then, at the start of each job you can look through the list to jog your memory and make sure you're not forgetting a vital part.  What good is a softbox without a speedring?  A camera without a battery, etc.  The most forgotten item around here seems to be model releases and pens.  That's near the top of the new list around here.  The car is part of my production system so gas for the car is also on the list.....

4.  Make sure your client gets the files they want.  Every clients seems a bit different.  Some want big Tiff files while many who work mostly on the web are looking for Jpeg files.  A few even like working with RAW or .PSD files (whether you let RAWs out to your clients is a personal decision.  I have a few clients who are PhotoShop experts.  I'll give them the raw stuff.)  Give them what they need.  Give them what they want.  If they are web designers you aren't doing them or (by extension) yourself any favors giving them 120 megabyte uncompressed Tiff files.

5.  Make the process smooth. If you can knock some rough edges off that's a good thing.  Might mean bringing extra pens and pads for the forgetful or making sure the coffee addicts have access to the right brew.  Might mean finding the right restaurant for foodies.  Just don't leave anything to chance if you can help it.  We probably won't find "just the right chair" at the location.....

6.  The follow up.  After you deliver the files you need to follow up and make sure everything works and the designers are happy with both the files and the images.  Then you need to follow up and make sure you haven't messed up anything on the invoicing.  And finally, you should make a note to follow up and see how the photo worked in the ad or on the web.  The more interested you are in their work the more interested they will be in your work!

7.  The "thank you."  Without them you will not make money.  Clients need to know that you appreciate being invited to the party.  If your mom and dad never made you write "thank you" notes for gifts you got  from relatives and friends then you need to work that out with your therapist.  But you should make thanking your business partners = your clients mandatory when they give you the opportunity to show off how good you can be while giving you money in the process.  I've never met a client who didn't appreciate an honest expression of gratitude from an important vendor.....

8.  The "non-creepy" check in.  You want to stay connected to your client and you want your client connected to you.  Between jobs it's important to keep in touch.  But not in a creepy, "Hey, it's Bob.  Do you have any work for me???"  sort of way.  How do you do it?  If you've worked with a client on a project you'll probably have chatted about fun stuff like favorite TV shows, favorite music, favorite foods and what not during the course of their project.  A quick link to something you know they'll be interested in is nice.  A "no sales" lunch at a favorite lunch haunt is always welcome.  Just keep the selling to a minimum.  If you have some new work to show send them a taste in the form of a post card.

Finally, make sure there are no loose ends from a job.  If you promised a print or a file, jump on it right away.  If you make your jobs smooth and pretty much carefree for your clients you'll be invited back to the party again and again.  We all like working with people who make our lives easier.  And we've all dumped vendors who gave us confusing bills,  showed up late or acted gruff and surly.  Don't get dumped for forgetting the little stuff.

How do you know when you have a style?

I showed this image a couple of weeks ago but it kept calling out and begging me to make it black and white.  That's part of my style.

One of the questions I always had, as a struggling, beginning photographer was, "How do you create your own style?"  And no matter which grizzled, old photographer I asked the answer was always the same...
"Just shoot what you love the way you love to shoot it and you'll eventually have a style."  Being in a smaller market, in many ways, made the process a lot longer for me.  With a smaller market we always felt as though we needed to be prepared to shoot anything that came along and we generally reflected that in our portfolios.  I spent the first ten years of my career locked in a conflict which was basically a schism between:  "I'd love to have a personal style that people reconize."  And, "I need to be able to show proficiency in everything from commercial portraits to large format product shots if I'm going to make enough money to survive.."

But all through this time of indecision and ambiguity in my commercial work I was shooting portraits of friends.  I didn't consciously think of this work as "building a style."  That was something I thought I should be doing in my "paid" work.  Because I compartmentalized it this way I didn't approach my personal work with any sort of intention or grand plan.  I just shot what I liked, when I liked and with whatever camera I happened to have at hand.  There was no goal other than to make images that pleased me.  

When I went into the studio and worked on trying to build a style in my commercial work it always came out in one of two ways:  A train wreck.  Or, A dweeby copy of someone else's interpretation of whatever subject I was photographing.  While I usually, through entropy or laziness, light all my personal portraits with one big soft light when I walked into the studio and started shooting work for corporate clients it all seemed to match the stuff I saw in the portrait "how to" books of the time. I worked hard to emulate the styles of the "real pros."   Or it would be like the work I'd see in photo magazines because they always told you how to do it and even showed you were to put the lights, with little diagrams and behind the scenes shots.......

Honestly,  I despaired of ever having my own style, much less having anyone recognize that I was even close to establishing a unique way of looking at stuff.  And I more or less stopped caring about it.  But every week or even every day I'd find some gloriously hot, or quietly sophisticated beauty that I'd finagle into the studio to photograph.

One day I made this image:

The model was my assistant, Anne.  I was playing around with my usual "lazy man's lighting" scheme which meant:  Big, big softbox to one side.  Just inches from the camera and as close as I could get it to the subject.  And I put a few lights on the background.  It was an image I was making just because I wanted to see how much I could fine tune the lighting I usually used to make portraits of my own friends.  It was nothing I would really do for a client.  Anyway, we spent an hour and three or four rolls of medium format film and we came up with this.

I made a print because I liked the quiet and calm look of the image.  I made the print the way I made all my personal prints.  I let the shadows go deep black because my wife, the graphic designer, liked the way that looked in my images (helped along by using very little fill light...).  I stuck the resulting print up over my desk in my east Austin studio so I could study it.  It was so different from the overly lit images I thought the market demanded (a cautionary tale from those who would learn from the "experts" on the web and in books.  Sometimes the "education" we're getting in print and online is more of a history lesson.....).  I'd been churning out the standard three light portraits for years.  One main light.  One fill light, two stops down from the main light.  One background light.  The crappiest portraits were the ones in which I used four lights....adding one in as a back light.  It never looked right and I never liked the look.  In my portraits or anyone elses.

Anyway, a friend came over to shoot a small product oriented catalog and she remarked about how much she loved the image of Anne.  She asked if I had any more images in that style and I brought out an 11x14 inch print box with hundreds of prints of friends, acquaintances and random strangers whom I had asked in to the studio to sit for me, just for fun.  

My friend almost came unglued.  

"Why aren't you showing these to clients?"  She demanded.  "This is a wonderful style.  This is your style.  This is what you should be showing."  Now I'm older and I always want to be right.  But back then I was smart enough or flexible enough to take advice so I put together a whole series of portfolios that were mostly these black and white images I'd been making.  And the amazing thing was that it didn't matter what kind of camera or what format I'd made them in, when I started printing them and sticking them in the portfolios they started looking more and more uniform.

I showed these books exclusively for the next few years, always adding new and interesting work.  And a funny thing happened:  People started asking for work "in my style."  At first I had to ask them what they meant and they'd say:  "You know. That classical black and white stuff where everyone looks quiet and calm.  With the soft light and the nice shadows."  And it because a reinforcing cycle.  A circular process of paring images down to my barest and laziest lighting.

And now, when I show portfolios, or even when I write things here on the blog people refer to my style.  And they tell me that they can see the same style no matter what camera I use to shoot the images with.  The Nikon images look different but the same as the Olympus Pen images which look different but the same as the old Hasselblad images...

And I realize now how automatic it's become.  And how much I hate my own portraits when the shadows are over filled.  Or when there are gratuitous lights.  Or when I ask my subjects to do silly and unnatural things.  

My realization was the my style had to sneak up on me from behind and ambush me.  Because the harder I looked for it and the more hypervigilant I became in my search the further the style would recede from me.  I was doing it all along but I wasn't able to recognize it.  I thought of myself as a failure of a commercial photographer until I replaced what I "thought I should be doing" with what I thought was wonderful to me.  

And when I embraced my style people became much more interested in hiring me and using me.  People even volunteered to model for me.  And it was totally different than the stuff I was putting in my earlier promotional work because I realized that the only thing I could be good at, at all, was the stuff I was doing just for myself.  

Here are a few things I've found that kill a personal style:

1.  Embracing formulas from magazines, web sites and famous photographers.  You might be able to learn something by copying technique but it only helps your  style if you are finally able to discard the styles you've aped that come along with the techniques.

2.  If I spend time looking at everyone else's work and comparing mine to it then I diminish my confidence in my own vision and start, subconsciously, to give power to other people's vision and try to "absorb" some of their magic.  Always to my long term detriment.

3.  I think subject matter is vital.  I am only interested in faces and people.  I'll shoot urban landscapes when nobody is around to play with but I really only show people and I really only want to shoot people.  That's what's right for me.  And I think the further you distill your selection of subject matter the more and more fluid and conversant you become in photographing it.  To go from still life to food to landscapes to street photography to fashion to portraits is a sure recipe to never become truly conversant in any of it.  In the beginning we shoot everything because we are so in love with the process and in how things looked once they've been squeezed through a lens and reconstructed from electrons or silver grains.  It's like going from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to Snoop Doggy Dog to Madonna in the space of five minutes.  A jarring experience.  But while you might learn that you love the craftwork it's not a way to learn a focused style.

4.  Nothing destroys style quicker than well meaning "experts."  My funny story about this all has to do with detail in shadows.  Everything I read, from Ansel Adams to Pop Photo emphasized that a good print (image) has detail in the brightest highlights and in the deepest shadows.  When I would show my neophyte prints to established pros in Austin the standard critique started with the assertion that I needed to add a fill light to my portraits so we could see detail in the shadow areas.  The mark of a "professional" image.  But interestingly, the graphic designers at the hippest (and most successful) agencies as well as the art directors for magazines like Texas Monthly and Elle told me exactly the opposite!!!!  One of the things they all liked was the "rich, black shadows."  They thought it added a "wonderful contrast" to the prints.  My lesson?  Experts=status quo.

5.  Finally, the most common way to kill style is entropy and laziness.  Art ain't for the complacent.  I'm lucky.  Even though I may not have the native talent of someone like Richard Avedon or Irving Penn or Josef Koudelka,  I am interested enough and motivated enough to practice on a regular basis.  I kid that when I finish with a big photo assignment I like to relax with a little......photography.  If you ask my friends they'll confirm that I take a camera with me everywhere.....and use it.  The people who don't evolve a style are the ones who do too much brain work and too little camera work.  All the theory in the world is meaningless in developing rapport, empathy, excitement and a comfort in moving through a shoot.

I firmly believe that the evolution of a style comes from making the journey and it's all part of the same happy process.  When I shoot portraits for myself I enjoy the process entirely.  I love looking at the clothes the person brings to the studio.  I love setting up the lights and I love to watch the play of light across my friends' faces.  I love coaxing just the right expression from them and we share in the joy of reviewing the images.  If someone gave me a magic machine that I could use to automatically do all this and just get the same results I'd smash the machine and sell the scrap.  The process of having fun is also part of the process of building a style.

While I believe that purely technical workshops can be a benefit I advise everyone who asks to just take the same amount of money, read the instructions and then set off on their own adventure.  The iterative nature of the craft should soon make it invisible and automatic which frees you up to see.  And when you have automatic craft and clear seeing.....well......then you have a fighting chance of developing a look and style.

There's just one more thing that will kill a style.  The relentless pursuit of a style.....