Behind the Lens: The Making of a Photograph

VictorianBreanna-0271-Edit

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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Your Testimonials Page Sucks

I realize I’m not in the best position to be criticizing other people’s websites, but I have noticed a trend among small business owners that needs to be re-thought.

For starters we’re all taught that it’s good to showcase positive feedback from our clients. Not only do these comments make us feel good about the work we have done, but they may be helpful in generating future work. The problem is that this feedback usually resides on a boring page full of text with no credentials to back it up.

If you find yourself with a page like that ask the following two questions: 1.) Do you honestly think anyone other than your mom is going to read all that? …and if you’re a startup then your mom probably wrote half of the testimonials anyway. 2.) Why should anyone believe what others have said about you?

The most important thing here is validating the praise you’re getting. Instead of shouting generic praises at cyberspace give that feedback some context. Who said it? What photos were they talking about? Why is their opinion important? When did this happen? The more answers you provide the more credible you become.

I set out to resolve these problems for my own site, and here’s how I do things now.

Stop fishing for compliments. Sending a follow-up survey can have some advantages, but it creates more needless work. If people really like the work you’ve done then they will go out of their way to let you know.

Include a relevant picture alongside each review. If a client says, “This is the best photo ever,” then show us that photo. By doing this you are giving your audience a scale on which to measure the feedback.

Give us the option to see more. This is your opportunity to showcase your favorites. I’m not talking about a link to your portfolio, but a highlights gallery from the same shoot.

Give it a date. If all of your compliments are 4 years old then why should I believe you’re still doing great work today? Showing up-to-date feedback can be a powerful motivator; not to mention that it keeps you honest.

Tell us exactly who wrote the review. Use their full name and title as it appears on their email signature or business card. (*Wedding photographers, see below). This, more than anything else, gives the feedback some authority. Take the following example:

“You are seriously the only photographer that has ever been able to make our museum look good in photos…”
-Jackie Reimann
Special Events Coordinator at the National Museum of American History

Now imagine if the review was just signed as “Jackie” without her title. Nobody would know who that is, and we’d have no reason to believe her. However, given that she’s the Special Events Coordinator at that museum her comment has a lot more credibility.

The issue of privacy is bound to come up, so let me address that. For most commercial or corporate work there doesn’t need to be any concern about disclosing the name and title of an individual. In most cases this information is readily available on their company website. This is another reason why it’s good to date your reviews in case that person goes to work for another company a few months later.

*Now for wedding photographers you need to be a little more careful. You should not use the full name of the couple. A wedding is a personal event, not a professional or public one …unless you’re Kate Middleton. Rather than using their full names, use only their first names, but you should absolutely include a photo with the review.

Whether you’re a photographer, handyman, or any other small business owner take a look at your own testimonials page and ask yourself how it can be improved. By all means share your discoveries with the rest of us!

Exploring the City By The Bay

SanFrancisco-8795Turns out it was actually cheaper for me to fly Virgin America from Seattle to San Francisco and then SFO to Dulles, as opposed to flying directly from Seattle to DC. This also meant that I would have a 14 hour layover in which I planned to stretch my legs and explore yet another city for the day. I spent the morning soaking up the sights and sounds of downtown with no particular agenda.

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Exploring the Big Apple

NewYorkCity-1744New York City is a mere four hours away from DC, yet I spent over seven years in DC before ever venturing into the Big Apple. All along I kept saying I just needed to go there by myself, camera in hand, with no agenda to speak of. One week after the call to accumulate experiences I found myself on a Bolt bus headed for Manhattan…

It was a bit overwhelming. I had no idea what exactly I was doing there other than “exploring.” After about 2 or 3 hours of wandering aimlessly I decided that my primary objective was simply to throw down some tracks and see the city, capturing it along the way. I wasn’t focused on getting great photos, I just wanted to see as much as possible. Continue reading

Setting Up a Home Photography Studio

I’ve been using my living room as a make-shift photo studio for about 6 months now. It has served me well for the most part, but I’ve decided to kick it up a notch, turn it into a studio rather than a living room. I still have some work to do before it’s fully functional, but I thought I’d share the process with you so far.

First is the (hopefully) obvious stuff:

  • Decide what type of work you want to be doing in the studio and plan accordingly.
  • Consider your light source –north facing windows are ideal because they never receive direct sunlight.
  • Measure everything. You’ll save yourself a lot of trouble if you know exactly how much space you have to work with.

The two most important things for me are 1.) having an open, adaptable space to do creative portraits and personal projects, and 2.) being able to precisely control the light.

Before studio paint The first goal is a combination of several smaller decisions which I will highlight in Part 2 once I actually finish them (ie. the next time I’m procrastinating). For now I want to focus on my second objective. To properly control the light you’ve got to minimize bounced light. Shooting in a small space with white walls makes it nearly impossible to isolate your light because white is so reflective even if it’s a matte paint. The best way to get around this is to darken things down.

Take a photographer’s Color Checker to Home Depot and tell them you want middle gray in flat paint. Don’t get confused by the term “18% gray” which is often used in reference to metering and exposure. The percentage refers to the reflectivity of the material, not the brightness. In other words, there is also 18% black and 18% white and 18% green, etc… You don’t want your walls to be reflective at all; they are much easier to work with if they are completely flat. The important thing is to get a medium gray color. I opted for a shade halfway between black and white. It’s light enough for a livable space, but it’s also dark enough to soak up most of the light.

LarryDriver-6542Avoid any color in your paint. If you have a green wall, for example, any light that hits it will bounce back as a green color. It may be cool for a shot or two, but it will annoy the crap out of you in short order. If you need color, you can add a gel to your flash. The whole point of creating a neutral (gray) space is that you can make it whatever you want. Also, the darker walls will respond better to color gels than a white wall. In other words, if you’re trying to create, say, a blue background it’s much easier to do this by pointing your blue-gelled flash at a gray wall than a white one. White walls tend to make colors more pastel.

I only used one coat of paint. Even though it seems good enough I can see advantages of having a second coat, mostly because I would’ve been less stingy with the paint and had fewer visible strokes. Then again, I can always re-paint later.

I left the ceiling white. Some people suggest painting it black for a photo studio but personally I like having the option to bounce my lights off the ceiling for a large overhead light source that doesn’t take up any space overhead. Secondly, I don’t want my clients to think I’m some goth emo freak who lives in a cave with a black ceiling. You’ve got to consider the psychology of the space as well as the efficiency of it.

It took me a while to make up my mind about which walls I would paint. Should I leave one white? Maybe paint one black? Eventually I realized that it would be best to paint everything gray and use the backdrops to change things up as needed. My setup allows me to cover two walls with backdrops (more about that in Part 2). If I want a pure white background I simply use my giant white paper roll. If I want black I can underexpose the gray walls until they appear black in the photo or just use a black paper roll. In the end it’s much easier to have a neutral space that can be changed quickly and easily.

After studio paint

All of this cost me less than $40. One can of Behr Premium Ultra gray paint put me back $32. One roll of 2″ painters tape was another $6. I was able to borrow painting tools from my brother who recently finished painting his own studio. Chances are pretty good that one of your friends has some painting supplies you could borrow too.

Check back for Part 2 of this post for tips on finishing your home photography studio on a budget.

Perspective on VW’s Darth Vader Commercial

By now you’ve probably all seen the fantastic commercial by Volkwagen featuring the pint sized Darth Vader struggling to use The Force as he roams around the house. But what you probably never paid attention to were the camera angles they used:

Now, the thing I want to point out is how intentional they were in choosing the perspective for each shot. It starts with a very low vertical panning shot. This immediately distinguishes him as a prominent, powerful individual regardless of the fact that he’s probably 4 years old and 3 feet tall. That said, the right camera angle can in fact make you look younger, thinner, more powerful, and all that. The trick is to learn how to communicate that from the right perspective. (Hint: photographers would do well to study cinematography.)

Also, notice the camera height on the majority of the shots. Almost all of them were shot at the kid’s eye level, and that was by no means an accident. This helps bring the audience into his world and see things as he does. The number one mistake I see in photographs of children is that the photographer was too lazy to kneel down and see eye-to-eye with them. Do yourself (and your subject) a favor and put yourself in their shoes. Your images will be much better for it. (Hint: This also applies when shooting animals.)

There are two shots taken from a higher perspective, and there is very good reason for those as well. Around the 8 second mark he is wielding his powers against an object much bigger than him. By shooting from high above and looking down they exaggerate the proportions and communicate that this little kid isn’t one to back down from a challenge. He’s shooting for the moon. Then halfway through the commercial they include a shot looking down on him in the kitchen almost as if to remind us that his mom is just humoring him. I don’t think it’s mere coincidence that these two scenes appear when they do. There’s a timing and sequence to it all.

Even the shot of him running past his dad is still on his level. Heck, his dad’s head is cut out of the frame because it’s not important. The story is all about the boy; there is enough context to communicate that the man is his father, but everything beyond that is unnecessary. Find your story or subject and then keep the audience’s attention focused on that.

Art Exhibit by Dylan Byrd and Yours Truly

Consider this your formal invitation to join me this Friday for the most amazing art gallery on the planet.

How’s that for managing expectations?  Seriously though, I have the distinct privilege of displaying some of my work alongside illustrator Dylan Byrd. Dylan is a friend and extremely talented artist. It’s worth coming to the show just to see his stuff!

As for me I will be featuring some brand new pieces as well as some old favorites.  You will find a combination of commissioned work and personal projects, photography and graphic design.

Basically, you should come check it out!  In addition to the artwork there will be live music and some goodies to munch on.  …and did I mention that it’s FREE?!  Yeah, what’s your excuse now?  Besides, it’s from 7:00 – 9:00, so you’ve got plenty of time to get your Friday night party on afterward.  Details below:

  • What: A stunning visual experience that is sure to make Avatar look like a thing of the past.
  • When: Friday, May 7th from 7:00 – 9:00 PM  (and it’s ONLY during that time. One night only.)
  • Where: Ebenezers Coffeehouse (201 F Street NE)
  • Why: Because it will rock your flippin’ socks off! Gosh!  Besides, it’s local to support sexy artists.
  • Who: You! Me, Dylan, and a special guest appearance (of international fame, no joke!)
  • Bonus: The first 362 people will get a souvenir high five from Stephen Elliot!  Better come early!
  • No need to RSVP, but here’s the Facebook event page if you’re into that sort of thing.

On Renting Equipment

I really can’t stand spending money on rental equipment.  I’ve probably collected enough rental fees over the years to pay for some sweet equipment if I had saved the money and bought the gear rather than renting it.  But the problem is that I need the equipment today, and I can’t afford to drop a couple thousand dollars right now.  This is where renting provides a nice alternative.  For example, instead of spending over $2,300 on the new Nikkor 70-200 lens, I can rent it for a weekend for only $50 at Penn Camera.  The problem is that by the time Monday morning rolls around, I have to return the lens and I’ve lost $50 (i.e. I have merely spent the money, not invested it.)

Generally speaking, at the end of the day I can hang my hat knowing that I was able to do my job better because I had relatively affordable access to the gear that I needed.  This is especially true for gear that I will only use a handful of times (like the 600mm lens I’m renting for the shuttle launch next month).  Still, I think there is a better alternative…

Consider this:

  • The Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8 VR2 lens retails for $2,319 at B&H.  It costs $50 to rent it for a day.
  • The Nikon D700 camera body retails for $2,399 at B&H.  It costs $185 to rent it for a day.

It is over three times more expensive to rent a camera than a lens!  Granted, these prices were taken from Penn’s website and I know there are other places to rent equipment –I’ve used lensrentals.com a number of times– but still the rental costs of camera bodies seems overpriced across the board.  I’m sure rental shops have their reasons for pricing camera bodies the way they do (to make money), but I have reasons to look elsewhere (to save money).

Here’s what I propose: why not find a friend who has the gear you need and then rent it from them for a smaller fee?  They make a buck for essentially doing nothing, and you save money by being able to negotiate, not to mention that you are building community among your circle of friends and photographers.  Invest in the people around you; the corporations will adapt.  Learn to barter and trade with others; you will find that it can help more than just your photography.

10 Reasons to Edit Your Own Photos

If you’re anything like me, you probably wish you spent more time shooting photos and less time editing them.  For most of us, editing photos is just not as sexy as shooting them.  However, I would venture a guess that 90% of the things I’ve learned about photography is the result of editing my own photos.

It takes some real discipline to sit down and review every one of your photographs, but unless you confront the reality of your images you may never learn what they have to teach you. Photographers would do well to take a note from movie directors in this area. After each day of shooting the director will sit down and review the footage they just shot. The footage, appropriately enough, is called “dailies.” The sooner you can review it the better off you’ll be.

Believe me, I know all of the excuses and reasons to procrastinate, even seemingly valid ones like, “I will have more time to shoot if I pay someone to edit.” I guarantee you the best way to see your photography improve is to edit your photos. If you really want to learn a lot while editing try shooting the same event with another photographer and then edit them all yourself.

A number of things happen when we do this:

  1. Ideas and inspiration crop up when you slow down and really examine your photos. Many times I have noticed a reflection or shadow in a shot and I’m left thinking, “Oh man! I can’t wait to try another shot like this…”
  2. It puts you in the position of your client. Take a minute to imagine what the client will think when they see your images.  Will they be impressed?  Will they notice that the focus isn’t perfect? Will they notice if it’s a little bit crooked? Did you meet their expectations?
  3. It will show you what you overlooked. Some photographers, myself included, have a gift for missing the obvious sometimes.  We are too busy looking at the light or composition that we failed to realize the subject is picking his nose.
  4. You will be able to spot trends in your style.  Much to my frustration I recently discovered that I had an extremely annoying habit of tilting every photo I shot.  I didn’t even realize it until I started seeing it in all of my photos.  Now I know, and I don’t shoot like that any more.
  5. Every crappy photo will serve as a reminder to do it better next time. Look at your photos until you’re disgusted with them, until you’re ready to do something about it. Take responsibility for them. Study them. Learn from them. Then do it right next time.  P.S.  This won’t work if you blame the client, or the venue, or the lighting, or anything but yourself. Step up and own it.
  6. It enables you to compare differences side by side. Often during a shoot I will try a few different options or ideas.  When editing these photos I can see what worked and what didn’t.
  7. It gives you time to think about your photos. The most limited resource during most shoots is time (wedding photographers in particular know this).  When you have such a narrow window of opportunity you can’t afford to stop and ponder your options; you’ve got to go with what you know or cross your fingers and hope for the best.  When that time constraint is lifted (i.e. well after the shoot is over) you should analyze your shots.  If you had more time, what would you have done differently?
  8. It teaches you to look for the potential and then capitalize on it. It truly is a skill to be able to look at a photograph and say, “It needs a little of _____.” Editors are taught to look for the potential in a photograph.  Photographers should learn to do the same.
  9. It helps you find the story within the frame –the subplot, if you will. Try playing around with that crop tool. You’ll be surprised at how much you can cut out of an image and still tell the story. This is great fodder thinking of new shots, and good reason to invest in a telephoto lens.
  10. It rehashes the technical settings of your camera. You don’t have to edit photos for long before you begin to understand what White Balance does.
  11. In short, editing teaches you how to take better pictures.

Editing is an altogether different skill set than shooting photos.  Simply knowing how to apply a filter or preset is not enough. Learn the craft of editing and your photography will be better because of it.  There is a saying in the film industry: “The best editors are cinematographers, and the best cinematographers are editors.”