Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Best Advice I Can Give

An amateur photographer emailed me the other day after he found a small gallery of my work that I have on display over at and was impressed with my work. He asked for some advice since he is really just starting to get serious about photography, and I figured I might as well write about it in my blog.

I've received a ton of advice from photographers over the years and had my own experiences that have lead me to some opinions regarding photography. Here's a mix of advice from others and my own two cents:

1) Emotions matter. Whether it's capturing emotions of subjects or conveying your own emotions in the frame, if someone doesn't "feel" something when they look at your photo then it's basically just a snapshot. If you want someone to be happy when they look at a photo you need to create a happy photo. If you want the viewer to feel the weight of an emotional moment, then you have to make that emotional weight show in the frame. However, it's not just the emotions of your subjects that matter. Your own emotional state has an impact on the way your photo turns out. If you're feeling energetic and playful then it's a safe bet that some of your photos will communicate that feeling. On the other hand, if you show up feeling like you don't care about what you're photographing, that is going to show up in the images as well.

2) Assume the worst and sometimes you'll be pleasantly surprised. This bit of depressing advice comes courtesy of one of my favorite college professors. In short, if you prepare yourself (both in terms of equipment and psychologically) for the worst case scenario then you'll be even happier when good things happen ... and prepared if the shit hits the fan. If you show up to a photo assignment with only one lens then that will be the day that you wish you had brought another lens for a different angle or that will be the day that your one lens breaks. Likewise, even if you're certain that the first photo you took on an assignment is absolutely perfect you need to keep crafting more photos. You never know when that "perfect" photo will get accidentally deleted or whether that "perfect" photo will get rejected by an editor.

3) Keep studying and working on technique. Good photographers never stop learning about photography or stop studying new technologies. Many of the worlds best photographers nearly went bankrupt in the early part of this century when they were slow to transition to digital. Just because what you're doing today works today don't assume it will still work tomorrow. Similarly, even if you think you've mastered the basics of exposure and composition to the point that it's second nature, keep working on them. The "fundamentals" of photography are important for a reason. You need to know the rules before you can creatively break them without looking like an idiot.

4) Ignorance is your friend ... if it's someone else's ignorance. Knowledge is power, and if you have it and someone else lacks it then you can benefit. Some of the best opportunities I've had as a photographer came when someone else didn't know any better. Maybe it was my first magazine assignment when the editor thought I was someone who had been published in several other magazines. Maybe it was my first wedding assignment when the bride and groom had no idea I'd never photographed a wedding before. Then there were the times that subjects were willing to spend their time (and sometimes their money) in order for me to get a great photo not knowing that there was a good chance the photo would never be published. Those moments of opportunity often generate amazing photos ... and they wouldn't be possible if not for the ignorance of others. Just be sure that if you're going to take advantage of someone else's ignorance that you are a knowledgeable photographer. Ignorant subjects and skilled photographers make for great photos. Ignorant editors or subjects combined with ignorant photographers make for horrible photos.

5) Equipment doesn't matter ... until it does. Anyone with half a brain knows that the photographer is more important than the camera. However, any photographer with half a brain knows that sometimes having the right tool for the right job is essential to creating the image you need. Some images require shallow depth of field to isolate your subject. Sometimes landscapes or large group portraits require huge depth of field so everything is in focus. Occasionally you need high ISO to capture a candid portrait in low light. Other times you might need $15,000 in wireless strobes in order to creatively light an entire building for a corporate advertising assignment. Then there are times when you can take a $250 compact point-and-shoot digital camera and capture an award-winning image that skyrockets you to fortune and fame. The point is that a good photographer understands when it's important to have the right gear ... and knows when the gear doesn't matter.

The last jewel of wisdom that I've acquired over the years comes from none other than my dear old parents. The single best piece of advice I can give to aspiring photographers is, "Be responsible." This applies both photographically and in terms of your overall life philosophy. Take responsibility for anything that remotely can be considered your responsibility. Whether it's researching a subject prior to going on a photo assignment or having the right equipment you need to get the job done ... just make it your responsibility to get it done. Maybe being responsible means showing up 30 minutes early to an on-location photo shoot so you have enough time to get the shots you need. Another time your responsibility might involve calling a publicist a dozen times in one week in order to get a celebrity to sit down for a portrait session. Responsible people accomplish great things in this world. Irresponsible people who don't care about anything rarely rise above the depths of mediocrity.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Reminder Time: Brand Doesn't Matter

While on location at a photo shoot a little while ago I was approached by an amateur photographer who wanted to ask me about the equipment I use because he wanted to find "a camera that takes good pictures." Well, since people ask me this type of question all the time, I figured I might as well post an in-depth answer in my blog.

Over the years I've used a variety of film and digital cameras and lenses from almost every manufacturer you can think of (and probably some you've never heard of). Excluding my lengthy list of film cameras, if I focus on just professional digital cameras (DSLRs) I was exclusively a Nikon and Fuji DSLR user for roughly five years, then I switched to Canon for one year ... and then I switched to Pentax and I "might" stick with them.

That said, I also currently use Olympus, Panasonic, Leica, and Nikon point-and-shoot cameras when I'm not working in a professional capacity.

There's a lot to love and hate about every camera system on the market. Every DSLR system has its strengths and weaknesses. There's almost never just a single lens or single DSLR that can get the job done ... you can usually create the same types of images with cameras/lenses from different manufacturers. It all boils down to personal preference and shooting style.

Camera and lens manufacturers (and their ad agencies) want you to believe that the only way to get that perfect shot is if you use X camera or X lens. That's just complete nonsense. Yes, to some extent you may need certain features in order to get very specific shots in very specific ways, but the skill level of the photographer is MUCH more important than the choice of equipment.

It's ultimately up to the individual photographer to use the gear that he/she prefers. The only reason to stick with one particular DSLR system is so you don't have to spend huge amounts of money building a well-rounded kit for multiple lens mounts. My suggestion is to take your time researching (and going to camera stores to try out different cameras) before you make a choice.

Brand obsession/brand loyalty is for shutterbugs who need to believe that a bad camera is to blame for their bad photos. Photographers don't give a shit about the name printed on the gear they use ... they just need to know it's capable of helping them craft the image they want without getting in the way.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Value of Photography

Let me start my latest post by acknowledging that it has been too long since my last update. I apologize for the delay. Life and work have been keeping me very busy. That said, work is precisely what motivated me to write some commentary in my blog.

Not too long ago I was approached by a potential client looking for a wedding photographer to capture their special day. This isn't an uncommon event for me ... I've photographed more than 100 weddings in just the last five years. The individual in question was looking for the typical wedding day coverage: eight to ten hours of photography before the ceremony, during the ceremony, after the ceremony, and at the reception. Basically, they wanted me to cover their entire wedding day.

The individual in question admitted that he hadn't looked at the pricing on my website nor did he have an opportunity to check with other wedding photographers. That said, he proceeded to tell me he was looking to spend no more than $100.

One ... hundred ... dollars.

I realize that we live in a modern digital age where everyone who buys a $500 digital camera thinks they are a "professional photographer." Likewise, I recognize that everyone (and I do mean everyone) deserves to have a skilled, experienced photographer at their wedding day. That said, let's stop and consider a few things.

First, the cost of an average American wedding is $16,000 to $20,000. Those are "conservative" numbers since most industry experts say the average total cost is closer to $30,000. While there are many couples who manage to spend much less for their entire wedding day and honeymoon combined, most weddings fall within this price range. The ceremony itself is generally only between $800 and $2,800. The largest expense is usually the reception hall and catering which usually falls in the $10,000 to $15,000 price range. Couples generally spend between $1,500 and $4,000 on flowers. Attire (NOT including the bride's dress) usually runs between $1,000 and $3,000. Photography and videography typically costs between $2,500 and $6,000.

The statistic that always amazes me is the fact that people typically spend almost as much on flowers as they do on their wedding photographer and video. Most of the wedding flowers will be dead before you get to your honeymoon, but most couples spend almost as much (or even more) on flowers as they do on their wedding photos and video. Your wedding photos and video are second only to your new spouse in terms of important things you get to keep from your wedding day. The rental tuxedos get returned, the food and cake are eaten, flowers die, bridesmaids burn their dresses in a ceremonial fire a week after the wedding, and after the wedding day the reception hall will kick you out.

Memories will fade, but the wedding photos and video will be the lasting keepsakes that the husband and wife have to remember all the details from their wedding day. How much is that worth to you and your family?

Which brings me back to $100. Eight to ten hours of photography on your wedding day for $100 broken down hourly comes to $12.50 to $10 per hour. The "average" employee working at Costco earns $17 per hour (ABC News) plus benefits. The "average" employee working at a Starbucks barista (making coffee) earns $18 per hour (Fortune magazine). No one working at Costco is responsible for photographing your one and only wedding day. Starbucks doesn't require employees to have a detailed working knowledge of photography, portrait posing, album design, or the experience to know when and where they need to be in order to capture that "once in a lifetime" photograph on your wedding day.

Ask yourself, How much are the memories of your wedding day worth?

Friday, March 30, 2007

What's in a name?

I hate to get into conversations about equipment, particularly conversations about camera brands, because equipment has the least impact on a photographer's work. That said, many photographers have recently been debating the quality of cameras and lenses from some of photography's best-known companies. For example, there are numerous Leica owners who are flooding photography-related websites complaining that the Leica-branded lenses used on digital cameras from Leica and Panasonic are not "real" Leica lenses.

Let's think about that for a second.

For years, the only Leica lenses were lenses manufactured in Germany by Leitz/Leica for the Leica rangefinders (first screwmount followed by the M-mount).

By the 1970s and 1980s Leica (and just about every company that cares about profit) realized that outsourcing to countries with cheaper labor/production was more cost effective. A great example of this was the Leitz Leica CL (also known as the Leica Minolta CL) and the Minolta CLE.

The lenses for the CL were manufactured by Minolta under Leitz Leica supervision and carried the Leitz/Leica logo. The Minolta CLE lenses manufactured at the same Minolta factory carried the Minolta logo.

That said, the "Minolta" branded CLE lenses use the exact same traditional Leitz parallel focusing cams ... while the "Leitz/Leica" branded CL lenses have angular focusing cams (not a very "Leica" design at the time).

In late 1990s through 2000 Leica teamed up with Fujifilm to release a series of "Leica" Digilux cameras such as the "Leica Digilux 4.3" which was actually just a relabeled Fujifilm FinePix 4700Z. That's right. The "Leica" Digilux 4.3 was manufactured by Fujifilm in the same factory using the same parts, just with the Leica logo stuck on the camera. It was NOT manufactured under the supervision of Leica beyond some superficial oversight.

A couple of years later Leica teamed up with Panasonic and Leica engineers began working with Panasonic to design and manufacture lenses and cameras (which would be manufactured by Panasonic under more direct supervision of Leica personnel). These lenses carried the Leica name.

But really, I'm going past my point. How do you define a "Leica" lens? Heck, I'm sure there are some "Canon L" lens owners who say that the Canon L lens on the Canon Powershot Pro1 isn't a "real" Canon L lens.

Likewise, I'm sure there are many Nikon SLR/DSLR owners using "Nikkor" lenses who don't think the Nikkor lenses on Nikon compact cameras are "real" Nikkor lenses.

You're talking about a brand as much as you're talking about lens design. What works in terms of lens design for a 35mm film camera doesn't always work for a APS-sized digital image sensor. Likewise, what works in terms of lens design for a 35mm rangefinder camera doesn't always work in terms of lens deign for a 1/1.8" digital image sensor.

In fact, I'm reasonably certain that if you removed the "Leica DC Vario-Elmarit" lens from the Panasonic Lumix FZ50 and replaced it with the amazing "Leica 50mm f/1.0 Noctilux M" that you would end up with horrible image quality ... because that "real" Leica lens just isn't deigned to work with a 1/1.8" sensor.

Bottom line, sometimes manufacturers have to change lens designs in order to evolve with modern technology. Likewise, sometime manufacturing is outsourced so companies save on expenses and consumers can have cheaper prices. That doesn't always make the new product any less of a quality product ... it just makes it different.

When a company sticks their brand on a product it means they're willing to put their reputation on the line for that product. That's enough to make it a "real" whatever the brand is.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Dust, dust, and more dust.

I usually hate technical/equipment reviews when it comes to photography, but since moving from film Single-Lens-Reflex (SLR) cameras to Digital SLRs several years ago I discovered a common problem that many digital photographers face.


Photographers rarely worried about dust ruining an image back in film days because the frame of film was only exposed to the open air inside the camera for a moment before the film was wound/advanced to the next frame. With Digital SLRs, the image sensor that sits inside the camera is exposed to air (and dust) at all times. This means that dust particles can settle on the image sensor and create ugly dark spots on your images where the light is being blocked by the dust.

A few brave photographers use sensor swabs and sometimes even cleaning fluids to remove dust particles from the image sensor. Most photographers use handheld air blowers to blow dust off the image sensor. Some camera makers have even developed complex anti-dust systems that literally "shake" the image sensor inside the camera to knock dust away. Of course, cameras with this feature usually cost more than cameras without this feature.

The staff at recently published a review of several cameras equipped with anti-dust systems and made some interesting findings.

Long story short: dust on DSLR sensors is unavoidable without "serious" cleaning using sensor swab-type cleaning tools or slightly less effective air blowers. Anti-dust sensor shake methods don't do anything.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

It's not just the light, it's the darkness.

One of the trends in modern portraiture and wedding photography is "flat lighting" or "even lighting" ... lighting a subject and background with low contrast so that there is little or no shadowing. This is the type of lighting you often see in portraits done at Wal-Mart or a local shopping mall. Flat lighting is even starting to become popular for landscapes in travel magazines. Popular but lifeless.

Why do I say flat lighting is "lifeless?" Because, just like your parents taught you as a child, you can't have good without evil ... and you can't have light without darkness. Contrast is one if the key elements of photography (and virtually any art). When you have highlights contrasting with shadows you get detail, depth, dimension, and color saturation (if you're shooting in color). Similarly, contrast (as in the combination of positive and negative space) adds drama and emotion to an image.

When a photographer uses flat lighting they are sacrificing all of the the above. This might sound like art class 101, but it's important for photographers and their clients to keep this in mind.

One particular photographer who seems to understand the overwhelming importance of light and dark in his photos is Patrick Hoelck. Hoelck has made a name for himself in recent years by going against the trend of flat lighting and making darkness just as important to his images as light. His recent work ranging from publicity photos of Clint Eastwood to portraits of the cast of Battlestar Galactica has created quite a stir in Hollywood.

This is the type of photography that requires forethought on the part of the photographer and effort to compose both subjects and the position of light. This isn't something that can be accomplished just with the click of a mouse in Photoshop.

What are your experiences with contrast in images ... or with flat lighting? Feel free to post your comments.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

It's The Photographer ... Not The Format

I recently discovered that one of the leading celebrity photographers of the current generation, Lionel Deluy, is doing something that many "know-it-all" photographers claim is the worst sin a professional photographer can make. Deluy photographs the vast majority of his work using (GASP) the JPEG digital image format.

Over the years as digital photography has replaced film many photographers discovered that JPEG (the same standard image format used in most digital cameras) causes a loss in image detail and color ... and creates JPEG artifacts (essentially pixels that shouldn't be in the image). The reason is that JPEG is a compressed or "lossy" format. When an image is saved as JPEG the image is basically "squeezed" into to tiny file and some image information is lost as a result of the "squeeze." Professional photographers quickly discovered the RAW format: essentially a huge image file containing every last bit of information captured by the digital camera's image sensor.

As a result, a large number of working photographers started using RAW because they were told it was the only way not to lose part of their images. Some clients even started to demand that photographers supply them with RAW images rather than JPEG. It doesn't matter that RAW files are several times larger than JPEG files, that the files often cannot be opened by various image editors, or that when the images are opened they take longer to process than a JPEG file.

So why is Lionel Deluy (and the overwhelming majority of amateur and professional photographers) using the JPEG format rather than RAW? Because the human eye will never notice the difference.

The simple fact is that during the various printing processes used to create photographic prints or display images on a monitor there is a great deal of image data and detail that is lost and never seen by the human eye. In fact, we often tend to see details in images that aren't even there because our brains "fill in" details that we aren't seeing. More to the point, many photographic printing methods require that the image be used in JPEG (or another compressed format) before the image can be printed.

What is the point to using a huge RAW image file if it has to be turned into a JPEG sooner or later? As Lionel Deluy said in a recent issue of Digital Photo Pro magazine, “I don’t see enough of a difference, and it takes so long to process." Bottom line, the difference between a bad photograph and a great photograph is the photographer ... not the file format.