Sunday, July 7, 2013

What Photographers Really Do

From time to time I am asked about how photography stacks up as a viable revenue source. It looks simple enough. You walk up to your subject, share a few pleasantries, click the shutter, and you done, right? How hard could that be?

In a pre-digital era, people usually separated themselves from the development and printing part of the photographic process. The actual transformation from exposed film to finished print was seldom done at home. Times change, and today many home printers allow direct direct connection to a suitable digital camera resulting in a finished print in mere seconds.

I have been asked to help some high school photography students who will be submitting photos for possible publication in the Journal. Since the relevance of hard-copy publications has changed so radically in the 21st century, there are misconceptions about the current value of the still photograph in a world dominated by other forms of visual media. Add to this the technical advances in equipment and it's easy to become dismissive about still photography. I remember hearing one aspiring photojournalist describing his responsibilities as limited to simply showing up at a location and taking the picture. He appeared confident that his digital SLR and an assortment of lenses would somehow manage to overcome odd locations, hostile lighting, and unprepared subjects.

As an editorial photographer, I spend a great deal of time just arranging for a shot. Part of being a photographer is having a strategy for how to approach every assignment. In my own work for the Journal, the typical assignment checklist consists of a series of e-mails and phone calls, each one designed to keep the production “on track”. Here’s my typical sequence of non-photograhic tasks that precede any assignment. 

I seldom shoot “on speculation”, which means I would never arrive on location unless I’m expected. A typical e-mail announcement from my editor of an upcoming assignment will include the following:
  • Name of the Event
  • Location, Date and Time of event.
  • Press Release text, often forwarded directly from the event coordinator or the assigned publicist, or
  • Press Release / Invitation attached as a PDF.
  • Contact Person’s e-mail and phone number, which may be different from the contact listed on the Press Release. Sometimes the Publicist sends the release, which is who you really want to contact. The name on the Press Release itself might be the person in charge of ticket sales and may not be the most useful contact.
If I am available to make the photo, I let my editor know as soon as possible. Next I will write or call the event contact and introduce myself.  At this time, I’ll go over some important details:
  • Date and Time of the Shoot: I will also confirm the date, time, and location (more important than you might think!). 
  • Number of Subjects: I also try to get an idea of how many people to expect in the photo. Sometimes I can get their names and titles in advance which makes photo captioning much easier. Sometimes the publicist may want to over-populate the photo, so it is important to set some limits. Remind them that the more people that appear in the photo, the smaller the faces which will decrease the impact of the photo. To clarify, I’ll sometimes say “Bride, Groom, Maid of Honor, and Best Man”. This is a simple reminder that I only want the major players.
  • Cell Phone Numbers: Whenever possible, I exchange cell phone numbers with my contact just in case I get delayed, or lost. I enter that number in my phone’s contact list so I’ll recognize them if and when they call.
  • Location Details: Sometimes there will be something that the contact knows will be an important element to include. It may be unique sculpture, a painting, or maybe a particular setting that might be related to the event. Encourage the contact to share any potential locations for the shot. Remember that the number of subjects may have a bearing on the feasibility of such a shot.
  • Shooting Schedule: When possible, I try to set a schedule for the shoot. This gives the contact an idea of how long the shot will take. Believe me, nothing makes friends faster than having a well thought out plan of action. I try to set the “exact” time the shot will be made so that the subjects will know when, and where, they are to show up, and how long the shot will take. Sometimes I have the contact have everybody meet at the front desk, and from there go to where the shot will be made.
  • Lighting Equipment: If I know that I’ll be working in a crowded environment, I attach my speedlight to a monopod. If the shot will be made indoors before the main event, I’ll use a light stand. Both are always in the trunk of my car.
 For a “picket fence”, I will usually allow ten or more minutes to scout a location, five minutes to set up, and five minutes to make the actual photo. I may allow for additional time under certain circumstances. You are better off scheduling more preparation time than you’ll really need.
  • Scouting The Location: I will often Google the location to view images that others have already taken. If I like what I see, I may allow additional time for finding a suitable background. If it’s an annual event, I’ll also look for photos made by other photographers
  • Tough Lighting: This is where your lighting solution comes in. Those of you who read these posts regularly know that I always carry several speedlights in my bag no matter where the assignment is. This allows me to compensate of uneven, or "hostile", lighting. Remember that you are committed to only five minutes for setup, so you better have a plan of action and execute it as quickly as possible. I usually make some sample exposures to insure a proper blend ambient and flash (if used).
At the designated time, your subjects will start arriving on the set. I try to keep my subjects as informed as I can, and try to give the reason for why I do what I do. This helps to calm down the crowd, and also lets them know that you mean business. With your camera at the ready, I always try to say the following:
  • "Hi. I'm Tom Jung from the San Mateo Daily Journal". Make sure you introduce yourself. An explanation of why you're making a photo may be necessary, so be prepared. 
  • "I may be moving some of you to make sure everybody looks their very best." This gives you a license to re-arrange people, ostensibly to make them look their best, but in reality, to better balance the photo.
  • “Be sure you can see the light. If you can’t see the light with both eyes, half of your face might be in shadow.” I sometimes add that they need to be able to see my shoes so their smiles won’t be cut off. This is especially important when you speedlight is on a light stand. If anybody is wearing a baseball cap, be sure the visor is pushed back.
  • “Let’s work together so you can all get back to the party. This reminds them that the sooner the shot is made, the sooner they’ll get back to having fun.
  • “Before you leave, I’ll need to get all of your names and your responsibilities at this event.”
  • “The camera lens is here (and I point to the lens) and this is where you need to look when I take the photo.” Sometimes I’ll add, “This is where the love happens”. This lets the subjects know that the photo is about to be taken.
  • “I will be taking at least three photos so everybody will have a chance to blink”, which usually elicits grins and giggles.
  • After each shot, say, “That was perfect. Let’s make this next one better!” I keep the conversation as upbeat as possible, all the while keeping their attention. I use a Hoodman Hood Loupe to check for proper focus, blinks, or unwanted background clutter after each shot. Watch out for people wearing glasses. The shadow of the frame my obscure the eyes if you’re not careful.
  • “Thank you soooooo much! Enjoy the rest of your day/ afternoon/ evening/ dinner (or whatever)”.
Before you submit your photo for publication, you need to open the image in an image editor and do the following:
  • Select Your Best Image: Your subjects were warned that you would make three images, so now you must choose the best of the lot. How you do this is up to you, but be sure that it is sufficiently enlarged so you can spot anything you’ll regret submitting. Watch out for blinks, unwanted background detail, and bad expressions.
  • Edit Your Selected Image Gently: One thing must be made very clear: You may NOT alter the content of an image.  You should crop the image to eliminate any unnecessary portions of the image. I follow the basic “Rule of Thirds” when cropping, although I normally crop in the viewfinder by insuring proper placement of the primary visual elements before I press the shutter release. Exposure adjustments with Curves or Levels are permissible, along with proper dodging and burning.
  • Crop For Content Density: This is a term I used to describe the amount of meaningful content compared to non-essentials. Generally, if it doesn’t add something to the image, feel free to crop it out.
  • Write The Caption: The last step before submission is captioning. The absolute minimum would include the names, from left to right, of everyone you photographed, along with 3 w's, What, When, and Where. When getting names, be sure to include the position they hold in the organization, or their responsibilities at the event. Hopefully you will be able to read your own writing, but if not, immediately call the publicist and get some help. Keep in mind that the Publicist’s job is to get their “client” in the limelight, so they will often go out of your way to help out. You did remember to get her name and number, right?
  • Use Internet Resources: If you get in a jam and a publicist isn’t available, Google the organization and look at the Officers and Support Staff. Sometimes I’ll cut and paste an important statement from the Organization’s Mission Statement. This will help out the editor, who has the option to include or delete the text from the final copy.
If you’ve read to this point, you’ll have to conclude that as a photographer you will spend more time on the phone or in front of your computer than behind your camera. I have found this to be the norm for nearly all of my editorial and community assignments to date. This is the difference between the craft of photography and being a photographer. 

It is not enough to just know when and where to show up is not enough. Getting of names, writing of the caption, and editing and submitting the image in a timely manner are as important as the actual photo, if not more so.