Lessons Learned from Beauty Retouching

BeautyRetouch_BannerLast week I met with the French photographer Clovis Lalanne who does a lot of work in the beauty and makeup industry. Talking with him made me realize how little I know about shooting and retouching beauty photos. Far too often I’m guilty of looking at an advertisement and saying to myself, “I could’ve shot that…” and then usually end up in a bout of self loathing as I reason why I’m not doing work at that level yet. Meeting with Clovis helped me understand the gap and realize I still have a lot to learn. After looking at my portfolio he suggested that I work on retouching, so that’s where I began. Continue reading

Behind the Lens: The Making of a Photograph


First things first, I really can’t take much credit for this photo. Sure I lit it and pressed the button, but it was 100% a team effort. Colleen Anne is a talented hair stylist who helped create the look, and Breanna Gittell is a fantastic model. With this much talent working together it’s hard to take a bad picture.

Lesson Learned: Surround yourself with talented people. Your photos will be better because of it.

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Behind the Lens: Shooting Skylines and Architecture

National Harbor at Dusk

I was hired to shoot some interior and exterior photos of a really ugly up and coming property just up the road from National Harbor. Suffice to say I was none too excited, but at least it was a chance to make a buck. The shot list also called for “pictures of the surrounding area” which I interpreted loosely as the National Harbor waterfront. You see, I had recently discovered a small stretch of land with a great, unique view of the harbor, and this was my opportunity not only to shoot it but to get paid for it. In other words I turned a crappy assignment into one I was actually looking forward to.

Lesson #1 Always look for opportunities to expand your portfolio and shoot what you want.

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Four Steps to a Better Business Card

I just got hired for a shoot solely because of my business card. Here’s the deal…

If you are a photographer and you don’t have a photo on your business card then you’re simply doing it wrong. It doesn’t matter if you are a professional, hobbyist, amateur, or self-proclaimed iPhoneographer. Your job is to shoot and deliver photos, so make sure your business card reflects that. Your card may be the only way someone remembers you, and pictures stick in our memories longer than names and contact info.

Practically speaking, here’s how I recommend you do it and why:

  1. Pick ONE photo that serves as a testament to your style then print it full-bleed on one side of your card. Don’t try to squeeze three images on there; it will only weaken the impact.
  2. Don’t leave the photo by itself. (This is important! I’ll explain why below.) Include some sort of text on there like your website, but keep the text to a minimum so you don’t distract from the image. A photo with negative space is ideal because you can place the text directly on top of the image (it tends to feel too rigid if you have the text next to the image, rather than on top of it).
  3. On the back side is where you put all of your contact information. Keep it simple. Don’t make the two sides of your card fight for attention. This is where smart branding and typography will serve you well.
  4. Lastly, when you give someone your card hand it to them with the photo facing them. Often they will compliment your picture and in turn find one more reason to like you.

By having the main text and the photo on the same side it makes it clear to the viewer that that is the front side. If you put all the text on one side and then the photo by itself on the other side it immediately feels as if the image is on the back (i.e. the less important side). If someone is flipping through a stack of cards I want them to see my photo before they see my email address. It’s faster to process, it conveys a lot more information, and it’s easier to remember.

In my case I had given someone my card about 15 months ago. I emailed him promptly after we met and then followed up a couple weeks later, but I never heard back from him. I figured he knew enough photographers already. Apparently he hung onto my card because I got an email this morning saying he needed a photographer this week. “Are you sure we haven’t worked together before?” he asked, “Because I’ve got your card and I don’t know how else I would’ve gotten it –it had the picture of the benches in the snow… yeah, I liked it.”

When Stage Lighting Gives You Lemons

StageLightExample-6447The way a stage looks in person and the way it looks in a photograph can be two very different things. My job in this case was to make the photos look as good (or better) as it looked to the audience. The client specifically wanted to make sure the background was colorful, not washed out. Unfortunately, however, the stage lighting was awful, so this was quite a challenge.

I ended up having to use two off-camera speedlights on either side of the stage to brighten up the speaker. Both flashes had a snoot on them to help aim the light and keep it from hitting the audience. I also had to make sure they wouldn’t spill light onto the background and wash out the green colored lights.

StageLightExample-6449This second images shows how it looked before I added my lights. Notice how much less detail you can see in his suit coat as well as the brightness of his skin.

It would have been much easier to shoot with the available light and then pass the blame, but a photographer’s job is to produce good photos with no excuses attached.

Camera Bags for Event Photographers

When I show up to shoot an event with my 34 pound backpack plus light stands and belt pack I wonder whatever happened to the days when taking pictures meant heading  out with nothing but my camera. Now it takes me 10-12 minutes just to get setup for most shoots. The problem is that the more I learn about photography the more gear I want to get, which means there is more stuff I’ve got to schlep around with me. Eventually I outgrew my Jansport backpack that I had been using for just about everything since third grade. I remedied this by getting the ThinkTank Airport Antidote backpack which I’ve blogged about before.

While the backpack is perfect for carrying everything from my studio to another location and back, it’s completely impractical to use during a shoot. Personally I group photo bags into one of two categories: transporting or shooting. The backpack clearly falls under the first category where durability, space, and weight are primary concerns. For shooting however, I need a bag that is accessible, comfortable, and snug. You’ll notice “stylish” isn’t exactly on that list… Personally, I prefer the ThinkTank Pro Speed Belt.

The belt itself is just that. A belt. But when you trick it out with some modular pouches it becomes a fanny pack on steroids that will have all the ladies wanting you.

The beauty of it is that all of the weight you are used to carrying around your neck and shoulders is now spread around your hips. Everything is close to your body, so you can run at full speed without worrying about your stuff banging around. Everything is easily accessible –no more digging around in the abyss of your messenger bag for that memory card– and often times that can mean the difference between getting the shot or missing the moment. I’ve been using my belt for over two and a half years now, and I’d be hard pressed to come up with a better solution for event photographers. If you find yourself looking for a better way to consolidate and access your gear while shooting, I suggest you give the belt a try.

ProSpeedBelt-8771-Edit.jpgHere’s a look at my setup. Clicking on the image will take you to Flickr where you can see the notes explaining what’s in each pouch.

P.S. The belt is also great for hiking. I usually strip it down until it’s just the belt and camera holster. It protects the camera and makes it easily accessible. I recently climbed Old Rag with it and I had zero complaints.

*I’m not affiliated with ThinkTank Photo in any way. They simply make good products that make my job easier, so I’m happy to talk about them.

Lessons Learned: Making Your Work Accessible

I’ve barely gotten any real work done today. I’ve spent most of my time sorting through hard drives and trying to locate photos. It’s annoying, but it’s been a good reminder of how important it is to make your work accessible not only to myself, but my clients (lesson 3 below). Here are a few things that make this easier…

Lesson One: Don’t delete your photos.  Today I’ve had three completely different clients say, “Hey, can you re-send the photos from ____?” They all have different reasons for needing them again, but the point remains the same. If I didn’t keep my photos long term then I’d have three disgruntled clients to deal with. It seems like a no brainer, but you’d be surprised how tempting it is to delete photos when you find that your hard drives are full. Which leads us to the next point…

Lesson Two: Establish an archiving solution. The important thing is that you have a system. Buying another external hard drive to “free up space” is not a system; it’s a symptom of a bigger problem. What you need is a plan. You need to know where to export your photos when you’re done with them, and you need to know how to find them years from now. I’ve blogged about my system before, but there are many different ways to do it. Find a solution that works best for you.

Lesson Three: Create online client galleries. This is where I’ve slacked off, and I’m paying the price for it today. Basically, you want a place where you can upload your finished, high resolution jpegs for the client to access on their own. I use Zenfolio, and I couldn’t be happier with it! I create a new group for each client, and then I add a new album for each shoot. This is ideal for corporate work where you’ll do multiple shoots for the same client, or destination weddings where you will have multiple days of shooting for a single wedding. The real advantage comes from the various options available such as privacy, expiration, and access control. This means my clients can locate their photos and download the high resolution images without having to wait for me.

Moral of the story, there is nothing sexy about file management. Do yourself a favor by making it as efficient and accessible as possible.

Lessons Learned Shooting with Canon

AnnapolisCanon-0226.jpgMy friend and fellow photographer Emily Chastain approached me with a great idea. She suggested that we plan a shoot where we swap cameras; I would use her Canon and she would use my Nikon. Now, I’m not sure if she was just tired of my Canon bashing or if she had something else in mind, nevertheless I jumped at the opportunity to give her a chance to experience the greatness of Nikon. We scheduled the shoot in Annapolis, giving her home field advantage…

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Lessons Learned from Shooting a Chef

This is maybe the 4th or 5th time I’ve shot portraits of a chef, and I’ve really come to love it. I felt like I learned so much this time, and I’m excited to share it with you all.

Don’t tell him to smile. Give him a reason to smile. The difference is night and day.
AaronBaxendale-9205.jpg   AaronBaxendale-9211.jpg

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Suggestions for Buying a New Camera

It’s pretty much a safe bet. Whenever I get an email from a friend that I haven’t heard from in a long time there’s a good chance they are saving up to buy a new camera and they’re looking for some suggestions. So, here ya go…

Compact Cameras

Asking a professional photographer about compact cameras is about like asking Lance Armstrong which bike you should get from Wal-Mart. …well, maybe not quite that bad, but you get the idea. I don’t own a compact camera, but there is one that I would like –one that I would feel is a good enough replacement to an SLR. That’s the Canon G12. It gives you full manual control over your exposure and it can shoot in RAW. From what I’ve heard, it out-performs Nikon’s comparable camera even though the latter has better specs. Then again, at $500 you might just consider getting an entry-level SLR (more on that below).

Aside from the G12 I honestly don’t have any recommendations for compact cameras. At the rate that smart phones are going, we might find compact cameras to be a dying breed. Nevertheless, if you don’t want to break the bank and you want a pocket-sized camera consider the following guidelines.

  • Zoom – You’ll want a decent zoom, but make sure it’s an optical zoom; a digital zoom won’t do you a bit of good.
  • Battery Life – I wouldn’t recommend buying a camera that runs on double A batteries; instead look for one that uses a custom lithium battery or something like that.  They’ll last longer and cost less in the long run.
  • Shutter Delay –    The shutter delay information may or may not be readily available, but basically it’s a measure of how quickly the picture is taken once the button is pressed –this can mean the difference between getting the shot you wanted as opposed to missing the action.
  • Megapixels – don’t worry about them. We are slowly coming out of the age where all cameras are measured by the number of megapixels they have, but that simply is not any way to determine a camera’s image quality. I’ve got a 20″x30″ print that was taken with a 6 MP camera; had I not told you that you never would have known by looking at it.

SLR Cameras

Despite my preference for the G12, I’m a huge fan of Nikon. Thus my suggestions will be a bit biased entirely in favor of Nikon. Canon makes great cameras too, but in my opinion everything about them feels backwards. I would also go so far as to say that Nikon has really developed an edge over Canon in the last two years as they focus on better image quality and fewer megapixels. Personally I prefer the color tones of Nikon; they just have a richer feel if you ask me.

The good news is that buying an SLR is fairly straightforward; the more you spend, the better the camera you get. Let your budget determine the camera, but be sure to leave room for a lens, memory cards, batteries, and maybe a flash if you’re feeling adventurous. There is no reason to go into debt buying a camera unless you are confident that you can make money with it –and if you can do that, you probably already have a good camera.

I don’t mean to be Johnny Raincloud here, but this needs to be said: Don’t confuse need for desire. You will always want a better camera. If you have a camera already (particularly an “old DSLR” –which is somewhat laughable to put those to words together) ask yourself how much you are using it. Chances are that the camera still takes great pictures, but you don’t use it like you could. Getting a new camera will generate some enthusiasm for a little while, but unless you make a point to get out and take pictures often you’ll be no better off with a fancier camera.

Once you narrow it down to a couple choices find a way to get your hands on each camera and play with them for as long as you can. Borrow one from a friend, or at least test out the model at a local camera shop. Chances are pretty good that one will feel more intuitive and comfortable than the other. After budget, I would say that this is the most important factor in your choice. If you don’t feel comfortable using your camera you will likely get frustrated and not take as many pictures or you’ll just keep it on Auto and never use all the features you paid for.

Don’t overlook the option of shopping for used cameras. You could buy a decent camera used, play with it for a year or so, and then sell it again putting that money toward a better camera. It requires more work and more time searching, but it’s the most cost effective option in the long run. Just make sure to do your homework and only buy a used camera if you feel completely good about it. Aside from physical damage I would say the most important thing to check is the number of actuations (ie. shutter clicks) when buying used. If the seller doesn’t know the number or doesn’t know how to find out (hint: check out Opanda or Exif Viewer) then it’s probably not worth buying from them.

As for lenses, some of them may come with a “kit” lens, which is usually the 18-55mm. It’s a decent little lens, but not spectacular by any means. If you’ve got the room in your budget, I would suggest going for the 18-105mm lens, or even the 18-200mm VR2.

Don’t forget to add a memory card. You probably don’t need to spend the extra money on a super fast card at this point. Also, you’d probably be fine without an extra battery –all of Nikon’s cameras should be able to get at least 1,000 shots on a single charge, probably more.

Hopefully that helps! Feel free to share with the rest of us if you have any tips from your own search.