Friday, May 30, 2014

Day 71, Learning 71: The Wedding Questionnaire

It's wedding season!  There are, I believe, different philosophies on how in-depth and specific your wedding client questionnaire should be.  One thing everyone agrees upon, though:  send it to them immediately after they book you.  It doesn't matter if the wedding is nine months out-- the point is to take control of an event that can spiral in any direction.  I recently made the mistake of waiting; I had my reasons (none of them good) and my strategy (about as well thought-out as Custer at the Alamo).  The result?  Before I got my questionnaire with shot list to the bride she sent one to me.  It was 34 pages with screenshot examples from other wedding/photography sites. 

And here I'll take a moment to shake my finger at those wedding photographers who choose to pad their portfolios with staged wedding images with professional models:  please stop.  It sets unreasonable expectations among real clients.  You really can't produce that for your paying clients, and neither can anyone else, simply because it is staged. 

After explaining to my client that she had cobbled together over five hours of photography, we agreed on something more reasonable and I sent her my list. Because weddings are fluid, full of unexpected touching moments and surprises-- I recommend a bare-bones shot list that focuses on the location and sequence of events.  For example, I don't specify a shot of the wedding dress before it's put on; I ask whether her bridesmaids will be involved in her preparations and does she want images of that (and where and when it will be).  That way if she's getting dressed in a Motel 6 with a window facing the parking dumpster over a 30-year old air conditioner, I'm not legally obligated to produce a "romantic" image of her wedding dress backlit by the window curtains. Of course, I'll still try.

I don't want this post to be as long as my questionnaire (three pages), so I'll simplify the gist of my survey into sections:

1. I ask for the wedding logistics (time, date, and place) so there can be no confusion
2. I ask them to specify (in percentages) whether they want the style of the photography to be "Candid/Photojournalism," "Formal/Posed," or "Detail Oriented" (a focus on the details of the wedding-- cake, cuffs, etc.)  I describe each type of photography.  This is as much to get them thinking about what could be as to get stylistic direction.
3. Who's Who in the Wedding: Pastor/Official, Parents, brothers and sisters, Wedding Party, Important Others. For some I ask for names; others just the number (I won't remember all of the bridegrooms' names, for example, so why ask?)
4. Pre-Ceremony Prep:  Do they want pictures of the bride/groom getting dressed; where will it be; what time?
5.  Formal Portraits: here I will get specific and have them indicate all of the combinations.  You can't go by memory on the formals because you'll forget someone.
6.  Reception Images:  Here I don't ask for specifics, I ask what events they'll have as a part of the celebration:  Bride and Groom entrance, Receiving Line; Best Man Toast; Maid of Honor Toast, Other Toasts; Bride and Groom Toast; First Dance; Father/Bride Dance; Groom/Mother Dance; Bride/Groom's Father Dance; Groom/Bride's Mother Dance; Bouquet Toss; Garter Removal; Other Entertainment; the Departure.
7.  Other images, events that I might have forgotten.

One thing you'll notice is that this shot list is for Christian and non-religious weddings.  Other cultures and religions (Judaism, Hinduism, etc.) have their own traditional customs that you'll have to learn and incorporate into your list.  You have to know what a Yichud is before you agree to photograph a Jewish wedding....

Mazel tov!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Day 70, Learning 70: Making Eyes Pop

In many respects, eyes make the photograph.  They are the one thing that is always supposed to be in focus (traditionally, though there is the occasional brilliant exception).  They are one of the main characteristics of beauty.  And in all honesty, they can be difficult to capture well in pictures, especially when you're working in natural light.  Overcast days can make for dull eyes.  Converting to Black and White can also dull them. 

So here's a Photoshop technique for making them pop using Color Dodge in Blend Mode.

Let's start with the original image above.  I haven't adjusted or touched it up in any way, so it has many issues.  We're going to focus just on the eyes, though.  Being dark, they were especially vulnerable to turning dull on our overcast day.

After you make a new layer, select both eyes.  I'm going to do just one eye so we can compare.

After you've selected the eye, you'll want to smooth and feather is slightly.  There's a "Refine Edge" button near the top of your screen for this dialogue box.
Then copy it into a new layer.  On that layer, set the Blend Mode to Color Dodge.

In most cases the result is extreme and you have to pull the transparency down to between 10%-30%; in rare cases you'll need to boost the effect by duplicating the layer.  The final result should be subtle but noticeable in comparison:

See the slight boost in color and vibrance?  This is much closer to how she was in person.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Day 69, Learning 69: Approaching the Problem of Style

Hurricane Images with Underground Runway

"To do a dangerous thing with style is what I call art" ~ Charles Bukowski

Easier said than done, I think.  Good, actionable advice on how to develop your photographic style is hard to find.  Clichés, on the other hand, sprout like lawn weeds everywhere:  Style develops over time; you can’t rush it!  Confidence creates style!  Imitate other people’s work and put a twist on it!  Here are 3 ways/8 ways/10 tips to creating style!

To make matters worse, some of the top photographers in the industry have been teaching that the endless repetition of an observable technique equals style.  To me, that qualifies as fashion.
"Kitsch is the inability to admit that shit exists" ~ Milan Kundera

To a certain extent the clichés  are true; style isn’t possible until you’ve mastered the basics.  We’re all still learning.  Even the most accomplished photographers push themselves to create images they haven’t done before.  The basics are easy.  The intermediate skills are just that-- more difficult than beginning ones.  When it comes to style,  people often try to link the strengthening of technique to the creation of style--  you read about ridiculous exercises to improve one’s “vision” by  “spending the day photographing things that are purple.”  Like that’s going to be a big help on a professional shoot.  But since there are elements and principles of photography and form, it can be useful to practice identifying them in the real world. 
  • Line
  • Shape
  • Form
  • Texture
  • Color
  • Pattern
These are broad concepts and as one student-of-photography to another I can assure you that they aren’t much use until you learn to break them down into smaller elements.  Spend the day looking for one sub-element at a time.  You don’t need to drag your camera with you; use your cell phone. Observe reflections.  Identify complimentary colors.  Spot intersecting lines and curves. Locate a spot where one texture becomes another.  I'll tell you a secret:  None of the exercises will build or improve your personal style.  But they will strengthen the muscles you need to create it.

If you’re a working photographer the number one dictate is that you give your client the product they want.  Always remember that.  But once that's on the memory card, you have latitude to explore. So how do we develop style?

Examine the basic ingredients.  Style appears in the use of photographic elements and principles mentioned above.  It's also in the shape and texture of light.  Style isn’t static; it evolves.  Here are the most useful tips I’ve found to speed the development of personal style:

Style doesn’t develop on its own.  Yes, that's right:  you can take boring pictures from now until the day you die if you don’t actively pursue its development.  Time may improve your basic skills, but you’ll have to apply yourself to create an artistic vision. 

Strengthen your muscles and be attentive to what excites you.  Whether it’s practice or performance (work) pay attention to your interests.  It’s not just about identifying images that work-- a workable image may have no attraction to you.  Find what excites you.

When you’re shooting for a client, take a few for yourself.  Once you’ve met their expectations, ask to do something unusual-- new lighting, new location, new pose.  Keep your request reasonable, but ask.

"The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in" ~ Henry Green

Pick five words that describe your favorite images.  These should be pictures you’ve already taken.  I often ask my clients for three words that describe the image they want me to create; that way I know what I’m working towards.  This is the same principle.  Now go into your image library and pick 10 of your favorite images.  Do they fulfill your five words?  Do you need to pick new ones?  

Pick three words you don’t want people to use when describing your images.  That sounds too easy, doesn’t it?  Here’s the catch:  They should be positive words.  They can’t be “boring,” or “plastic.”  They have to be three words that someone might say they want in their picture.  Is “fun” a word you don’t want attributed to your work?  Bright?  You can’t use gloomy (that's a negative word), but what about dark or moody?  These three “not-words” should guide you as firmly as your five positive words.  And remember, you don’t have to never create images that have those attributes-- you’re pointing your feet in a direction, not cementing them to a spot.

Post Mortem to Death.  This goes back to my first point-- style doesn’t happen by itself.  Review your images; review your process for taking them.  Evaluation is constant; it should be as addictive as taking images.  At Hurricane Images Inc. I constantly dig back into old images, re-edit them, play, and re-invent.

Special thanks to Tiffany Stewart (clothing designer for the top image), Hazel Wheeler (make-up artist), and Lejon Vinge (model, top).

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Why Opt for a Professional Profile Photo

A recent studied indicated that recruiters on LinkedIn spent, on average, 19% of their time looking at your profile image.  It was more time, actually, then they spent reviewing your job history.  So what are they looking for?
In part, it’s the fascination we all share with photographs: a voyeuristic peek into someone else’s life when they’re not watching.  At face value that seems unimportant.  But the truth is it’s a big part of whether they remember about you.  And they’re looking for clues.
What kind of clues?  Do you look honest?  Healthy?  Engaged? Vibrant?  Aware? Confident? Competent?  Any one of us can look dishonest, sickly, vacant, unsure, and incompetent in a bad photograph-- so the picture doesn’t really speak to who we are.  But for some of those characteristics your profile picture is the only tool the recruiter has at their disposal.  And it’s not just employers: it’s business partners and associates.
Clearly, transmitting those positive characteristics is one reason to hire a professional to take your profile picture (though of course a friend might do as well).  But it’s not the only reason.  Professional work should be self-evident.  A professional photo communicates that you value appearance and are committed to your career.  Moreover, a professional photographer knows what aspects evoke these characteristics; how to position, light, and set your background.  More importantly, they (should) work with you to make your profile picture both individual and reflective of your career.
Here’s what you should expect from a headshot session:  an initial consultation to clarify and fine-tune exactly the type of profile image your want to create; a 1 to 1.5 hour session; professional image editing to remove distracting elements, sharpen, and correct color; digital delivery of both high resolution and web-ready files.
One of the things professional photographers understand is that a photograph doesn’t naturally capture a person.  It can capture facets of the person with unexpected results (it’s one of the reasons we like to look at ourselves in photographs).  What’s more, light and physical elements can obscure important elements.  Your eyes may naturally sparkle with intensity and warmth, but the camera may not capture that on its own.  A skilled photographer can re-create that sparkle to show who you are in life.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Day 68, Learning 68: Under-expose or over expose for best shot?

There's an ongoing debate about whether to under-expose or over-expose your images for best results.  The underlying philosophy of both schools is that you will correct the issue in post production editing.  Those who argue for under-exposed images take the stance that detail can be recovered from shadow but not from blown highlights.  And that's true.  Those who argue for over-exposing the images correctly state that the upper end of the exposure spectrum contains more data.  Our cameras are designed to find detail on the brighter end.  So which is the best approach?

Like most photographers, I've inadvertently done both and had to deal with the catastrophe in post.  Over-exposed images abound when shooting outdoors because they look accurate on your camera's LCD when the sunlight makes things difficult to see.  I more rarely under-expose images, but it does happen.  In studio, your computer screen tends to make under-exposed images look correct-- your computer pushes light out, whereas a printed picture only reflects lights.  So over time I've struggled with correcting both issues.  My verdict: get it right in camera. 

My reasoning is simple:  when you darken an over-exposed image the contrast and vibrance remains washed out.  Attempts to correct the issue vary in their success because many images won't saturate naturally.  When you lighten an under-exposed image it rarely works to raise the exposure uniformly.  Often you have to lighten the subject more than the background.  And when you do selective exposure adjustments you torture pixels disproportionately.  The result is varying grain and an increase in artifacts. 

Right about now you're thinking that as far as "tips" go this blog post sucks.  Just "get it right in camera" is advice that is not only easier said than done but also a cliché.  So let me offer something more concrete: 
  • Lightroom is great if you want to adjust exposure universally; however, it quickly creates harsh artifacts when using the brush tool to adjust exposure selectively (the gradation tool works better)
  • In Photoshop, use Curves and a mask to adjust selective exposure; you'll have fewer artifacts
  • The image on your LCD screen will consistently fail to represent the exposure and dynamic range of the image you just shot; check your histogram for a more accurate picture.  Check your histogram every half hour and every time you change location in a shoot
The above image was taken for HerStory, a start-up used clothing company. Its founder, "Lucky," is an ultra cool, ultra smart woman with an eye on both the past and the future. For this shoot, she was also one of the models-- picture above. Being Black myself, I can safely write that shooting people of color has challenges and rewards.  Indoors, the richness of skin color can be a real advantage; outdoors, it can be a liability in terms of exposure. Here, the sky was overcast and bright compared to her skin tones.  Full disclosure:  I over-exposed this shot significantly and had to "massage" it back to life in post.  It was a real pain. But worth it. Surprisingly, the solution was in "global adjustment" (the whole picture needed adjust, not just her face versus the background), so I did it in Lightroom by adjusting first the Blacks/Shadows and then the Exposure/Fill Light and until I found the right balance.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Day 67, Learning 67: Tether Me Up

Shooting tethered is bound to be a love/hate relationship.  Seeing the results immediately on full sized screen can be both gratifying and helpful, allowing you to make adjustments in real time and save hours of headache in post.  Of course, some of that headache may be transferred to the shoot itself if the tether keeps you from moving fluidly, or if your computer buffer makes you wait for several minutes to view the burst of images you just snapped.

One of its most useful applications is when collaborating with an art director.  In my last post I shared some images and insights from a food shoot I did for Yum for All.  Katherine Crowley, the baker, and I worked together during the afternoon.  Food photography is meticulous work; there's no need for a burst of snapshots; in addition, the visual geometry, angles, and subtlety of lighting are of utmost importance.  This makes food photography the perfect session to tether up.

Now it's time for a confession. I'm still using Lightroom 3.  Yes, I know I should upgrade and that it's not that expensive.  But being a combined Lightroom/Photoshop user, and advantages of upgrading are relatively few.  However, I shoot a Nikon D600 which isn't supported in LR3.  So how did I manage it?

There's a trick in Lightroom that allows you to tether any camera into LR:  if you use a different tethering program, you can "monitor" an existing folder and automatically bring the new images into LR. You can set it up under:  FILE, AUTO IMPORT, AUTO IMPORT SETTINGS.  The tricky bit is that the folder has to both exist and be empty when you create the settings.  For the cookie shoot I used ControlMyNikon software to tether the camera, and auto imported into Lightroom.  If I only wanted to see the image I could have skipped Lightroom, but Katherine and I tweaked the images to bring out their potential as we worked.  This informed whether we needed to re-shoot or move on.

ControlMyNikon is very inexpensive and feature rich.  Another free option is DigiCamControl.  Check them out and see what works best for you.

I arrived at my cookie shoot without my USB extension cord.  Don't do that.  My recommendation is a 10-foot extension cord for about 7$.  Then you can use varying lengths of USB cable based on the project.

One of the shortcomings of Lightroom as a monitor is that the interface is cluttered with menus all around.  There's a shortcut that solves that problem, though:  hit "L" once and everything but the image will dim; hit "L" a second time and everything will go black around the image.  You can still use the arrow keys to move between images.  Hit "L" a third time and everything returns.

With product photography I would always recommend going tethered.  It saves time and keeps you from unnecessarily duplicating images for the sake of "safeties."  With people-as-product shoots (commercial photography) I would always consider tethering, especially if you're indoors.  There is so much information that your LCD doesn't provide.  And it slows you down, which is really a good thing.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Day 66, Learning 66: Tastier Food Photography

Back in January I wrote a post on photography food that covered the basics.  The more you practice, of course, the more nuanced your understanding.  Or sometimes things that were "invisible" to you because they were seemingly self-evident become commandingly evident while working one's craft.  While shooting some promotional images for Yum For All, a vegan cookie company who's tasty tidbits are out-of-this-world delicious, a few self-evident approaches made their presence clear.  So I'm adding on to my original post here.

In product photography is easy forget that it takes an inordinate amount of futzing.  If you shoot events you learn to create captivating images in a fraction of second...

Portraiture is more methodical, but you're still working within a small window of time in order to catch authentic emotion.  When shooting product, you need to slow down that clock.  Play with the lighting-- both subtracting and adding.  For that reason, it's easiest to work with continuous lights.  You don't need the power of a flash because you don't need to freeze movement.

Cookies are an interesting challenge.  They don't have the color variety of fruits or vegetables.  That means you can't play with contrasting colors.  They're also relatively small-- making it easy for other elements to overpower them in the image.  And they're commonly recognized, minimizing any "wow" factor.  For the picture above we went matching tone colors: the wood plate matches the almond slices in the cookies rather than contrasts them.  The jar of almonds would have overpowered the cookies except for two things:  we only see part of the jar and the almonds inside echo the almonds on the cookies.  We introduced a little "wow" or unique factor by having the plate be a stump ring-- not something you see every day.

The image below is a little more traditional.  We used a triad of cookies because three is visually pleasing, and it creates depth in the scene.  Remember the January post where I said utensils bring the viewer into the image?  Well the bite does the same thing.  That single crumb does adds something remarkable:  it makes you think the cookie was just bitten into.  The action becomes immediate.  Notice, too, how the bite is both in focus and the brightest spot in the image.  The focus of a food image should always be on the spot where the viewer will take the next bite.

This last image puts the crumbs and the ingredients into the picture.

I'm not quite as fond of this one for reasons I can't quite put my finger on.  The separation between the background and foreground cookies seems too far; and the chocolate pieces... I wish some of them were in focus.  Maybe it should be a trail of chocolate pieces leading up to the front cookie, rather than a trail of crumbs.