On a recent portrait shoot for a University client in New Jersey, I found myself with no one around to help me shoot test shots. It was a small editorial job with a simple one light setup in a gorgeous atrium setting and instead of having my assistant along, I was flying solo. Usually I'll ask some passer-by to pose for me for a lighting test--it only takes a few seconds--and then I'm ready to shoot when the subject shows up. With no one around, I had to improvise. Yep, I put the camera on my tripod and used the self-timer! While not ideal, it got the job done and I was ready to roll when the first subject showed up.
"What's it really take to run a photography business"? The question came from a student in one of my recent classes that I teach for NYC Digital Photography Workshops; a young man wanting to make a living doing what is currently his hobby and passion.
My mind instantly flooded with answers: it's about being creative on demand, being able to reproduce a look, follow a storyboard, communicating your client's message; it's more about business than photography and it's most certainly a juggling act. That you take good--if not great--pictures is a given. I started down this line of explanation but stopped myself. Yes, all of those things are true, but what is the real cornerstone of being in the photography business--or any business for that matter?
The number one overriding principle for my 30 years in business has been this, "Business is an excuse to have relationships". Yep, simple and straight-forward; everything else builds from that credo. Sure, you have to be super creative, a technical master, a marketing fool and a production pro, but none of that matters if you can't (or don't) form relationships. Think about it, you need other people to help you accomplish your goals and the best way to reach your goals is to help others reach their goals. By forming relationships you are in essence building a team that will help all of you succeed; and as the saying goes, "there is no “I” in Team".
As a "people photographer", I have placed even more emphasis on building relationships, be they life-long, or for the 10 minutes I might have with a subject for a magazine assignment. That instant rapport is crucial to getting a great shot when time is short and it's a skill I've worked hard to master.
My greatest successes have come directly from building relationships and I'm proud to say that I have more than a few clients that have been working with me for 20 years or more; others have become good friends and even if the work flow has stopped, they have remained in my inner circle of trusted critics and advisors.
Ultimately, building great relationships leads directly to shooting better work because trust is involved. My clients trust me and know that I'll do everything possible to get great shots; they are often willing to listen to my ideas and creative input because they know my main focus is to serve them in the best way possible. With that trust, magic happens.
So master your craft, find your style, market like a madman, but remember, business is an excuse to have relationships.
Portraits are as important today as ever, whether it's a selfie for Facebook, a casual shot for Match.com, a business portrait for LinkedIn or something more formal for your company's Annual Report, a good portrait helps show the world who you are. My key to a great portrait--after getting the lighting just right, of course--is to help the person relax and be natural in front of the camera. Sometimes it's easier to do than others but it's always worth the effort.
I'm no Gene Kelly, singing and dancing in the rain, but I do like shooting in the rain. The world looks different when wet and with a little awareness and creativity, the inclement weather can provide outstanding photo possibilities. I like how light reflects off of wet surfaces and often shoot in ways to use color and light to enhance a scene. Sure, you have to be careful with your gear when it's raining and be particularly aware of raindrops on your lens, but simple precautions and a clean, dry cloth are all you need unless it's a downpour. Like the cold weather I talked about last month, most people don't like to go out in the rain; if you get out there and explore you'll be ahead of the game from the get go!
Ahhh, the old K.I.S.S. rule; we all know it and we all forget it. But simple is one of the secrets to powerful photos. Keep simplicity in mind when you're shooting, have a simple subject, simple lighting and simple composition. By keeping your images simple you leave little to distract your viewer and your images will stand out from the rest.
My Mom thinks every picture I take is great; showing her my latest work is always an ego boost. The problem is, my Mom doesn't know squat about photography; she may know what she likes, but she doesn't have the expertise or ability to show me what I'm missing or how to make my images better. For me to grow, I have to seek out the opinions of others more knowledgeable about photography.
That's why I'm a big fan of having my work critiqued.
But let me add an important caveat: critiqued by knowledgeable people whom I respect and trust to be constructive and supportive.
You see, it's easy to be critical of someone and it seems almost human nature to cut others down. Don't ever expose yourself to those type of critiques, they are detrimental to your growth as a photographer.
I recently saw an on-line critique session and thought that very little of what was said was helpful, in fact, some of it was even belittling; the critique session was more entertainment than learning.
So why am I such a fan of critiques? Seeking help from others is the only way I'll ever see my blind spots. You can never know something you don't even know you don't know, that's why it's a blind spot. Until someone points out your blind spots you'll never get past them.
So any time you have the chance to have your work reviewed by someone experienced, knowledgeable, honest, kind and respectful, jump at the chance.
One final--but very important--point: be true and honest with yourself, too. In the end, it's your photo, your artwork; your own opinion is what matters most. No one has the vision you have for your work, so don't let anyone critique you out of your own vision, but always be open to seeing other points of view, that's how you grow.
With all that said, and being secure in my own artwork, what do you think of this image below? Go ahead, critique me!
Here's a fascinating tool from our world-wide overseers at Google. www.Sightsmap.com is a graphic representation of all the photos taken in the world and uploaded to the Google photo sharing site Panoramio.
How cool to see where in the world the most photos are taken! Now, these are only the photos uploaded to Google, but still it's an interesting representation of all the photos taken. You can also zoom in on specific areas, like New York City; this is where I think Sightsmap might be a useful tool and not just an interesting time waster.
You can zoom tighter, all the way down to specific areas and even see some of the photos that have been taken. The ability to zoom in and explore may be helpful to travel photographers looking for ideas of what to shoot when visiting new places. Doing research about your travel destination in advance will help you get better shots while traveling.
The weather rarely bothers me; in fact, I love shooting on cold, crisp nights. When most people would rather be bundled up inside, you'll find me out in the clean, clear air searching for beautiful scenic photos. When it's cold and crisp, the air is generally clean and clear, which makes for images that "snap". When there is humidity in the air or that haze that comes with summer heat, your photos can look fuzzy or even out of focus. Certainly, you can take beautiful images in any conditions, but I really love the clarity that comes from shooting in the cold and I never mind throwing on another layer to prepare for the elements.
The Boy Scout motto serves photographers well. By always having a camera with you and always being ready to shoot whatever strikes your fancy, you will inevitably capture some gems. I was walking down lower Broadway when I saw these tourists "holding up" the Red Cube, a sculpture created in 1968 by artist Isamu Noguchi. It's a fun picture and it was gone in a moment. The best camera is the one that is with you, just be prepared to use it.
Grand Central Terminal is one of the most beautiful building in New York, steeped in history and bustling with activity, it's a source of never-ending images. From the grand beauty of the main concourse to the old fashioned details of the ticket booths, from the priceless clocks to the harried commuters, Grand Central is a photographers dream.
Thirty five years ago I was poking around the terminal and somehow found myself up in the catwalk of the big window on the west end of the concourse; I found that the windows were hinged and I could swing certain panes open and take pictures. It was dark in the terminal back then because the big Kodak Colorama mural covered the east windows (those panorama images were 18x60 feet). Unfortunately, I can't seem to find those negatives and in today's post 9/11 world, there is little chance to get back up on the catwalk. Luckily, there is plenty to shoot at ground level!
One of the great things about living in New York is that there is so much here that serves as inspiration. I live in Chelsea and there are literally hundreds of art galleries within a three block radius of my home; great museums are nearby and the streets themselves constantly inspire me. Some of the greatest creative talent in the world live and work here and if that doesn't inspire you to be on top of your game, nothing will! When I first moved to the city 15 years ago, Annie Leibovitz lived across the street from me and I'd see her all the time; just having her so close inspired me to push harder and shoot the best work I've ever done and since you're only as good as your latest work, I continue to push hard.
So what's my latest work, you ask? Well, two weeks ago I shot some fantastic portraits, images I'm really proud of, but because I always let clients publish the images first, I won't show them just yet (don't worry, you'll see them in the future). But I can share a photo I did just yesterday of actor Andy Mizerek. I like this shot and I'm sure he'll be pleased when I send it to him tonight.
The Matisse "Cut Outs" exhibit currently at the MOMA in New York is a beautiful and inspirational show, but the biggest thrill I had while there today was seeing the parents & kids art classes in a couple of the rooms of this major exhibition. What a gift these thoughtful parents are giving their children by enrolling them in a class that lets them explore their creative side. The participants hear about the work and then sketch their own drawings on pads of paper. I could only smile and wish that I was exposed to such great art when I was a child. Luckily, I took an interest in art early enough in life to still be thrilled by the beauty that can be produce out of sheer creativity. Who knows, there may be a future Matisse sitting cross-legged in this crowd.
With the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado, "Rocky Mountain High" probably means something different today then it did to John Denver back in his prime. But I understand his reverence and was recently reminded of how majestic the high mountains can be as I did some hiking in the Maroon Bells Scenic Area outside of Aspen.
This was not a serious landscape shoot, but I couldn't pass up taking this shot anyway; yes, I would have loved to have a blue-sky day, but Mother Nature doesn't always cooperate. And even if you're taking a simple "snapshot" while on vacation, put in the effort to find a nice composition.
I love the Fall, it's my favorite time of year. The air is crisp and clean, which makes shooting scenic photos nicer. And of course, the fall colors come out. We all love seeing the grand scenic in beautiful colors, but don't forget to photograph the details, too. Look for individual leaves or even patterns of leaves on the ground; the already fallen leaves can be beautiful, too.
Street portraits differ from street photography; in one you are capturing a "decisive moment" and in the other you stop the moment, take charge and get the shot you want. As a portrait photographer I like to take control; I want the light a certain way, the pose a certain way, the look a certain way. To keep things natural and realistic, I will often leave things pretty much as they are, especially with street portraits, but I always like the light to be nice. Whether using natural light only or adding a reflector or fill flash, the light has to be nice.
In younger days, I tried reading the Roman philosopher Seneca but lacked patience and understanding. Tonight, a facebook friend posted a link to some of Seneca's writings which left me pondering my photographic life and life in general. ( http://www.brainpickings.org/2014/09/01/seneca-on-the-shortness-of-life/)
In a way, my creative life has grown along the lines of what Seneca is speaking to; I've balanced toiling with actual living. Look, we all need to "earn our keep", "pay the rent", "crack the monthly nut", it's a necessity in our world, but at the very least, the toiling needs to be balanced with being present in the moment, valuing our time and appreciating life. Part of my creative philosophy is to consciously remind myself to be "in the moment". Yes, being "in the moment" sounds very new-age, but the practice has been around for thousands of years. And it does take practice. My highest levels of creativity are reached when I am totally present, or "in the moment", that's when I see things that are largely overlooked or have thoughts and ideas that would otherwise be passed over in busier, more stressful moments. In the quiet moment, my best work evolves.
I understand how short our time here can be, but if you live life wide, experiencing life to the fullest and being consciously aware of what's going on around you, the span of time doesn't matter much; there is a big difference between living long and merely existing long.
I'll be honest with you; I'm writing this to remind myself to live and not just exist. I hope you'll consider doing the same. The fact that we, as artists--as photographers--have the ability to visually share the results of living a conscious, creative life with the rest of the world is indeed an honor and a privilege. Let's make the most of it.
We find inspiration in many places, not only from within ourselves, but also from those who have gone before us. I think it's important to know the history of our craft and be familiar with the masters; Irving Penn is one of the masters I admire and his famous "Corner Portrait" series was the inspiration for a shoot I did last year. The client has an amazing building with beautiful architectural details, including great use of lines and angles; in one of the particularly acute corners, I found my inspiration for a series of portraits.
I love shooting portraits on location and get hired a lot to photograph people for corporations or magazines. While I like being able to set up multiple strobes and spend the time really getting my lighting perfect, I'm more often under some extremely small time limit. For those "speed portraits", I'll often use an on-camera flash but move it off camera. The speed light becomes my key light source and I can use a second light as a background fill light. Couple this two-light setup with the ambient light and it makes for a nice portrait.
When I'm on assignment it's important to capture the ambiance of a place; I never want to overpower the scene or the "feel" of the location with my lighting. I start by testing the available light, then decide on how best to supplement what's there with additional lighting to highlight what we most want to show in the final image.
I was headed home, walking down 8th Avenue at 39th Street when I noticed the light changing. It's hard to see the horizon in New York City, but at the next cross street I could see to New Jersey and see that the sunset might be nice. I was late for getting home but I just knew something good was about to happen; the problem was, in that part of the city there really isn't much to shoot. Forgetting that I told my wife I'd be home in ten minutes, I cut west on 39th Street looking for possibilities. At 10th Avenue I saw my subject: the high rise luxury condos that have sprung up along far west 42nd Street, they would make a good foreground to the intensifying sunset. It was a race against a quickly setting sun, but I finally found my angle in the middle of the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel; I literally had to shoot between all the buses heading into the tunnel at rush hour. Once you find the right angle and time the sunset perfectly, it doesn't take long to get the shot; I was done before the cops rousted me.