Thursday, December 21, 2006

Copyright and the Digital Age

I recently read an interesting story online about a father who wanted to know if he would be violating copyright law if he scanned a print he purchased from a photographer and made prints for all his family and friends. He argued that he "owns a scanner that [he] intends to use" and that he thought $15.99 was too much to pay for prints.

Regardless of whether you think prints are worth paying for, the copyright of another photographer's images does not belong to you. Unless permission is given by the owner of the copyright, you have absolutely no right to reprint a photo either for personal use (scanning the photo and using it elsewhere) or for distribution (which includes publishing it online or sending it via email). This is a clear copyright violation.

It doesn't matter if you're selling it or giving it away for free. If you don't hold the copyright on a creative work then you have no right to reprint or distribute the work. Just ask the many kids (and their parents) who have been sued by record companies for illegally distributing music over the internet. In most cases these people shared music for free ... but they were violating copyright by distributing a creative work belonging to someone else.

Under Title 17, section 504 and 505 of United States Code the owner of the copyright can not only make you pay for his attorney fees, but you can be forced to pay statutory damages in a sum of not less than $750 or more than $30,000 as the court considers just.

Even worse, if the court finds "that infringement was committed willfully, the court in its discretion may increase the award of statutory damages to a sum of not more than $150,000." Are you ready to lose your house because you don't care about copyright?

Will most photographers bother trying to take people to court? Probably not. But I think you need to seriously consider that $15.99 (or whatever a photographer charges for prints) is a small price to pay in order to protect you from paying damages that are a minimum of $750 or a maximum of $150,000.

I know that in the digital age where photos instantly appear online it's easy to forget that photos have value and that the creators of those photos have rights. But regardless of whether you see the value or not, photographers have the right to control their images. Again, we can all debate the law until we're blue in the face, but that doesn't change the fact that copyright violation is a serious offense punishable by law.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Jack of All Trades, Master of None

In recent years there has been a steady increase in the number of "package" wedding service providers. These are places that provide the limo, flowers, reception hall, caterer, cake, DJ, videographer and even your wedding photographer. You pay one large fee for the "complete package" rather than a number of smaller fees. One main vendor hires "subcontractors" for all of the jobs listed above or one individual may have multiple duties.

I've heard too many horror stories about these types of "package" vendors who send "wedding photographers" who have
zero experience photographing weddings and are armed with next to no photographic equipment other than a single digital camera and a memory card. Of course, when brides and grooms see the proofs from their wedding day they are almost always disappointed.

I honestly can't feel sorry any more for brides and grooms who hire people like I've just described. If the bride and groom expect a single vendor to handle every detail of their wedding then it means the bride and groom didn't do their research. You wouldn't expect a brain surgeon to be a great OBGYN, so why would you expect the guy you hire to drive your limo to do a good job with your wedding video or wedding album? Ask to see albums, prints, and proofs from at least two other weddings before hiring a photographer ... and ask some basic questions about the photographer's equipment and previous experience. And make sure that the person you interview before the wedding is the same person who is photographing your wedding.

As I've said before, equipment is not a huge factor. I don't care if a photographer is using cheap equipment, but if he doesn't have a selection of good lenses or external/hotshoe speedlights then he isn't equipped to handle many situations on a wedding day.

Much of my wedding work is done with available light, but I would never show up to a wedding without multiple speedlights ... because you can't anticipate every situation and you have to be prepared to create the light that you need in order to capture those once-in-a-lifetime moments.

While I understand the need to "stick to a budget" for a wedding, there is a difference between shopping for the best value and just hiring the cheapest person you can find. Once you've lost the opportunity to capture great memories of your wedding day, that's it. You only get one wedding for each marriage.

This becomes a big problem for experienced wedding photographers because "most" people don't seem to recognize the difference between experienced, professional photographers and shutterbugs looking to make some extra cash on weekends. These wannabe pros show up at weddings thinking that the $600 camera they got for Christmas means they have the ability to produce professional results even though they have zero experience as a working photographer ... and 99 percent of the time the results are horrible. Then, when brides and grooms see the bad photos they think, "The professional photographer we hired was horrible. All professional photographers are overpaid hacks."

It doesn't matter that an experienced wedding photographer would have produced MUCH better results. The "jack of all trades" wannabe photographer they hired was terrible so all "professionals" are worthless.

In short, experience and focus matter. By "focus" I mean, if you're looking for a photographer then hire a photographer ... not a florist or a DJ with a camera.

A Photographer's Christmas Wishlist

Over the past month I've found at least two dozen websites with gift idea lists for photographers. Every single list is loaded with cameras, lenses, tripods, portable hard drives, photo editing software, and every camera or studio accessory you can think of. In short, every list I could find was focused on equipment. While every photographer, myself included, would love some expensive photography toys for Christmas the reality is that deep down equipment doesn't satisfy our inner creative urges.

To that end, here is a quick list of some gift ideas for the photographers in your life:
  1. Any book by David Alan Harvey, such as Divided Soul or Cuba: Island at a Crossroad. Harvey has an amazing talent for composition and his photos have inspired many photographers over the last two decades. Most of his recent work is done with a single DSLR and simple prime lens ... a reminder that skilled photographers (not expensive equipment) create great images.
  2. Any book by Steve McCurry, such as Portraits, The Path to Buddah or South Southeast. McCurry is best known for taking the famous National Geographic cover photo of the "Afghan Girl" but that photo is just one small example of why he is considered perhaps the greatest living master of candid portraiture.
  3. A copy of Leros by Alex Majoli. Yet another inspiring photographer, Majoli is one of the Magnum Photo Agency's best young photographers and has won many of the most prestigious awards in photojournalism ... using cheap point-and-shoot digital cameras. That's right. Majoli crafts award-winning images using some of the most "average" digital cameras on the market ... the same cameras that your relatives blamed for "taking bad pictures" last Christmas.
  4. A Video iPod. What does this have to do with "satisfying inner creative urges?" Well, more than you think. The latest generation of iPod can store digital photos, audio books, podcasts on photography and Photoshop techniques, or just stimulate creative energy with some TV, movies, or good old fashioned music. Some of the best photographers in the last century admit to being inspired by music, TV or movies. An iPod means inspiration is with you at all times.
  5. A weekend vacation just for photography (and absolutely nothing else). Whether it's a trip to a local city or a vacation to a national park, photographic opportunities are everywhere. Sometimes the photographers in our lives need a loved one to push them out the door ... otherwise they get stuck working on Photoshop all weekend or browsing online camera stores. You can't take great photos if you don't get out and see the world.
Oh, and something EVERY photographer would like for Christmas is to never hear the phrase "Your camera takes really nice pictures" ever again. Simple recognition and validation of a photographer's talent and effort goes a long way ... especially around the holidays.

What are some other ideas for Christmas gifts for photographers? Feel free to post your comments.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

How to Choose a Photographer / How to Choose a Client

One of the issues that makes the single most significant impact to the quality of your wedding photos or portraits (regardless of whether you're a client or the photographer) is choosing the right person to work with. Just as I mentioned in my last article that emotions matter in terms of creating great images, the relationship between client and photographer makes all the difference in the world between photos you love and photos you can't stand to look at.

Most people looking for a wedding or portrait photographer struggle with how to choose the right photographer. But I'm amazed at the number of photographers who don't put any thought into choosing their clients.

How you choose a photographer or a client will depend on what is most important to you. Some clients are mostly concerned about price (the lowest) and some photographers are mostly concerned about getting business (any business). These are the types of relationships that usually result in disappointed clients and frustrated photographers. There are many issues that need to be considered when choosing the person you want to work with. The most important thing is to go into the interview with your eyes open.

Most photographers are thrilled to show you sample albums, but most photographers are only showing you the best photos they have ever taken. While this work might be amazing, it rarely reflects the results from a "typical" wedding or portrait session. Ask to see the proofs from the photographer's last two weddings or portrait sessions. This will give you a more accurate idea of the kind of work the photographer produces on any given day. Granted, no one should expect every photo to be a masterpiece, but if a photographer can't show you proofs that he was willing to show other clients then that should be a red flag.

Long story short, if you're looking for a photographer you need to keep in mind that "What you see is what you get" ... but only if you're seeing a realistic sampling of the photographer's work and not just their best. If you don't like what you see then don't hire that photographer.

Likewise, there are red flags that photographers overlook when meeting potential clients for the first time. It's perfectly normal (and expected) for a client to have expectations about the kind of images they want from a photographer. However, if a client spends most of their time talking about what they didn't like about other photographers, or pointing out things they don't like in either their current photos or the sample photos you've shown them, this is a dead giveaway that the client is probably going to nitpick every proof they are shown regardless of the quality of the photos. When it comes to photography (or any art for that matter) there will always be clients who have a preconceived notion in their minds about how
the finished image will look. If the finished result doesn't match their imagined result they will not be happy ... regardless of what others think.

Long story short, if you're a photographer looking for a client you need to remember that "The customer is always right" ... even when they're not. It doesn't matter if you craft the best photos of your career. If the customer is not happy, that's all that matters. If you can't make a client happy then don't take the job.

These are just a few of the issues that impact "The Big Picture." Feel free to comment about the things that matter most to you when selecting a photographer or selecting a client.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Emotions matter

There is an old saying among wedding photographers, "If the bride and groom (and their families) are happy, your job is pretty much done."

Now, any experienced wedding photographer will tell you there is much more to creating wonderful wedding memories than just a happy couple, but the emotional state of your subject (and your emotional state) has a serious impact on the image. This applies to every type of photography I can think of, not just wedding photos.

If I show you a photo of a crying child in a Santa hat your instinctual response will be to feel sorry for the child. If I show you a laughing baby in a Santa hat your response is likely to be happiness and joy ... the kind of feelings people want to have around Christmas time. The simple truth is that human beings are emotional creatures. If you show me a portrait of someone who looks uncomfortable I am going to feel uncomfortable about the photo. More importantly, if you show me a photo that lacks any emotion, I'm not going to feel anything about that photo.

That does not mean that every photo needs to be of a living human being who is expressing emotion, it means you have to bring out the emotion in your images and the people who view your images. Some of the greatest photographers in history made their careers by bringing emotion to objects that that have none ... and making people feel something when they look at the photos. Ansel Adams is not famous for taking snapshots of mountains but for making people feel the depth and majesty of unique landscapes. Bruce Gilden became one of the Magnum Agency's best photographers not because he took photos of weird people and objects ... he makes people feel regardless of whether he's taking a portrait of a homeless man or crafting an image of empty boots for a fashion magazine.

Photography, like any other art, is only powerful when it evokes an emotional response from the viewer. Whether it's a smile, a feeling of sorrow, or a sense of awe and wonder, emotion is the difference between an image that lands on the cover of a magazine and one that ends up as a sidebar on page 60. Feelings are what separate unforgettable memories and snapshots.

Feel free to share your stories about how emotions made (or didn't make) an image into something truly special.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The eye ... not the camera.

Few "relatively" unknown photographers have grabbed my attention in recent years the way that Phil Douglis has with his work.

Douglis, director of The Douglis Visual Workshops in Phoenix, Arizona is well known in some photography circles, but is still relatively unknown to the general public.

Whether he's capturing the expressions of Hmong Children near Laos or drawing attention to details in a rusted steam locomotive in Oregon, Douglis evokes an emotional response from the people who view his photos. Douglis calls his pictures "expressive" images.

In his own words, Douglis describes expressive imagery as "photography that interprets, rather than describes, what we see to others." Douglis provides a more detailed explanation of his method for crafting expressive images on his Web gallery and displays some of the best photojournalist work I've seen in the last few years.

One of the other reasons I find his photos even more interesting is that Douglis flies in the face of convention and uses compact digital cameras and all-in-one "prosumer" digital cameras for almost all his work. I'm not talking about the latest digital SLR and $2000 lens, I'm talking about the same $500 point-and-shoot digital cameras that mom's and dad's complain "take horrible photos" at football games and on vacations.

Why is Douglis crafting amazing images with cheap cameras that "can't take good photos" when the majority of serious photographers have given up on these types of cameras? Because great photography is more about the photographer than the equipment.

When most photographers want to improve their images they think (thanks to successful advertising from camera manufacturers) that they need a new camera ... but what they really need is a new eye-to-brain interface. The difference between a "snapshot" and powerful image boils down to the photographer's ability to add meaning to the photo. There is no camera that can do that.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Welcome to The Big Picture

Your view of photography is about to change ... for the better.

The Big Picture came to life out of the hundreds of technical review websites and blogs that dominate the Web and that have made photography more about equipment than about the photographer and the photos.

Technology and technique have always gone hand in hand when it comes to photography, but the core of what makes a great picture great has more to do with the photographer's eye and the subject than the camera, lens, light, and ISO being used.

Rather than focusing on reviews of the latest camera or tests of the newest lens, The Big Picture turns the creative eye on issues that matter to photographers. Whether it's simple composition tips or advice on best business practices for working photographers, successful photography is about more than the brand name on the front of your camera.

Every skilled photographer has created at least one amazing photo and endured comments such as "Wow! You must have a great camera," or "What camera do you use?" Most people don't meet a great author and say "Wow! He must have a great writing pen," or "What version of Microsoft Word do you use?"

Photoshop, the single greatest invention for photographers since the camera, has spawned a generation of people who "pixel peep" (criticizing every pixel of an image without ever looking at the image as a whole).

Somewhere, somehow most people have lost sight of "The Big Picture" when it comes to photography. We aim to change that.