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16 July 2014

The Photographer's Hat

ASMP Portrait taken at the
Strictly Business 3 Conference in
Chicago, April 2011.
Copyright 2011 Shawn Henry
The other day, I’d posted a new FaceBook profile picture of myself taken by a fellow photographer, Shawn Henry. It was a ¾ portrait taken in front of a white background and rendered into a black and white. The series was taken a few years back, but I asked and got permission to use the images for inclusion on things like my bio page on this blog and my website. FaceBook came later.

When my various friends saw the image for the first time (and it was the first time I used that particular image), I got the usual likes and positive comments. One stuck out: My friend and advanced amateur photographer from South Dakota, Jon “Fiskr” Larsen, mentioned that all I needed to be a photographer was a cool hat. (It is a nice looking hat, even if I say so myself.) There was the usual banter back and forth about how adding a hat instantly made a photographer and such. However, the comment got me to thinking about how much my broad brim hats are part of my photography kit.

When I started, film cameras were what we had. I had a basic SLR in my trusty Pentax K100. It was fully manual, and a work horse if there ever was such a camera. One of the foibles of pentaprism viewfinders, common in optical viewfinders like my K100, is that light can intrude from eyepiece and skew the exposure meter, making the meter read more light than there actually was coming in the lens. One simple trick to counter this is to wear a wide brim hat to eclipse the light coming in from behind you. So hats become part of my kit.

As the years rolled on, I also worked for the US National Park Service, with their famous “Smokey Bear” campaign hats. That cemented my liking for broad brim hats. I never liked the ever-present ball cap, common in the US, as they never fit my oblong head shape. Also, I didn’t like how ball caps allow my ears and the back of my neck to get sunburned. So, I was in constant search for broad brim hats that were durable, good looking and still functional to keep the sun, rain and light in control around my head.

A self-portrait while photographing in the "field,"
Olbrich Gardens in Madison, WI.
Copyright 2012 W. Clinton Hotaling
The hat pictured is one I got from Duluth Trading Company. It’s their “Albert’s Hat.” The hat is made from oiled cotton and has a fleece liner, so it’s a good winter hat for all but the most severe conditions. I have a variety of hats for summer months, but none of them are waterproof. However, they still fill the need for shade and blocking light.

My current digital cameras don’t have an optical viewfinder. They both use a two and a half or three inch LCD view screen, depending on the camera, for that purpose. The hat helps me see what on the screen in full sun. Without shade it’s almost impossible to read, something many smartphone users are finding out.

So, between the practical functions and stylish elegance, I wear hats and enjoy it. They are a permanent feature of my identity as a photographer.

15 June 2014

Criticizing your own work

Most of the time when I shoot, I'm bracketing for exposure. So naturally I'm already tossing 1/3 to 2/3 (or more!) of my shoot on the first edit. Also, on my first edit I'm checking for sharpness. Sometimes, a really intriguing shot leaps out that breaks all the rules, so I'm open to them. 
One of my best shots was a wild motion blur of a fair midway. It was completely unintentional at the time (I thought I finished the exposure and moved my camera early.), but it worked so well that it graces my portfolio back cover. 
Lights on the Midway

Back to the first sort: I look hard at the technical aspects of the image so I don't try to invest emotionally in what would otherwise be just bad technique. 
The second sort (often a day or so later) looks at the artistic merit of the photos. I'm looking for images that "speak" to me. Often, these are the images and impressions I was trying to capture at the time. The selected pictures are deemed worthy enough of my time to perform basic adjustments and cropping. These are then the images I'd present to a client. 
The third sort selects those that I'd recommend to a client. 
The fourth sort selects those that I'd keep copies of in my presentation galleries
The fifth sort selects contest entries and portfolio images. 
So the questions I'm asking at each stage are these: 
First: Is the picture technically competent? If not, is it compelling enough to keep in spite of the flawed technique? (For instance, my motion blurred shot was dead on in exposure.) 
Second: Do the images tell a story? 
Third: Do the images tell the story you want to tell? 
Fourth: Is this an image that keeps drawing you back to it? Do you keep seeing more and more in it? 
Fifth: Is this an image that consistently make you say, "Oh. Wow."? 
That's how I look at my images after I've taken them. 
Granted the 10,000 hour rule still applies for looking through the camera, but you'll find after even 1000 hours that your images are improving, and you'll be willing to take informed risks that will push your work further. 
Really, if all the pictures on your card are keepers, you aren't pushing yourself enough.

28 May 2014

So you want to make a portfolio from your pictures?

Smiles from Infinity
Recent work on my self-marketing package included producing a printed portfolio. Simple enough; I have some four thousand archived images to choose from. Some of them have to be good, if not spectacular. As it turned out, I took a lot of really good, even exceptional, pictures over the years.
So, how do I choose what will represent my style? Well, I had to sort, sort those that I sorted, and sort those again ruthlessly. 
Here's how I start my sorting:
First sort: Pull together images that speak to me in some way. Since I'm in my Archive, I've already weeded out poor, such as out of focus or badly exposed, images and those that were too marginal to fix.
Cloud Crown on a Hill
Second sort: Group images by type, such as landscapes, portraits, architecture, street scenes, and so on. Don't forget to include personal projects, as they can really reflect your style. Reject any orphans. Some images can work in multiple categories, and that's good. They make ideal transitions between portfolio sections. Some, like the cuties above, make the front cover.
Third sort: Look at each image as if it wasn't your work. Blow it up on the screen. Do a test print if you have any doubts. Reject any that become blotchy, have cluttered backgrounds or noise you just can't get rid of.
Fourth sort: Arrange your images into logical groupings. Look for repeats of the same thing, be it model, scene or general type. Do two images look similar enough to be confused for each other when viewed at a distance? If yes, remove one of them as you essentially repeated a picture.
Doorway Silhouette 
After all that, I ran the ones I picked past a trusted friend who would tell me the truth for a final sorting. 
Sometimes, it's worth the time and money to go to a personal portfolio review for a sorting by a professional art director or buyer. They really have seen the gauntlet from "Oh. My. Goodness. Where have you been?" to "Oh my goodness, please take this away." And everything in between. They can give you valuable advice as to what a good picture is, and how you can improve the way you present yourself through your images.
Now, you have something worth publishing. I set up my portfolio using MagCloud because they weren't expensive, their color matching is very good, and they could turn around an order in a fairly short time (about a week). They have a template that I used in InDesign to lay out the covers and the pages that works very well with one minor exception: the inside (towards the binding) margins on the first and last sheets inside the cover are very tight. This is a legacy of the perfect (glue) binding process. While I didn't have text cut off, I still had to move text in a bit to re-balance the margins. 
Colors of a Midway
(HP recently sold MagCloud to Blurb, so I'm inclined to get my redoes and alternate editions done sooner rather than later while the quality control at MagCloud is still in place. We'll have to see how well the color control holds up as the two become fully merged.) 
One thing I did have to do is lighten most of my pictures a touch. As good as my monitors are calibrated, images displayed on my monitors are still lighter than they'll appear in print. Lighten accordingly. Use test prints to double check.
Before sending off your baby, print spreads of facing pages. Look for unfortunate groupings or combinations, make sure your progression through each section, as well as the order of the sections, make logical sense. Adjust. Reprint. Look again. Keep doing it until you are happy with the way it flows.
Are you hoping to market your work to architectural firms? Don't lead with a section of portraiture. Travel? Get your beautiful city-scapes up front! If you are indeed marketing to different groups, then it's worth your while to have separate editions of your portfolio for each one emphasizing that subject. They really aren't that expensive to produce (less than $20 each for mine, and that included postage).
That's it in a nut shell. I hope to be wowed by your book of images in the near future.
All images above are under the copyright of W. Clinton Hotaling. Do not republish the images without written permission.

16 April 2014

There and back again.

Keeping it between the lines on the back highways.
Our niece's wedding is in October. This isn't much of a problem, but she lives in the Seattle area. My wife and I have a choice: Fly? Ride the Train? Drive?
If we fly, we'd take up little more than an extended weekend getting there, touring the area with my sister-in-law and her family and coming back. Rush. Rush. Rush.
If we take the train, it would definitely be an adventure. However, to do it properly would cost almost twice as much
as flying.
The third option is to drive. We'd bring the travel trailer and keep to the non-interstate highways. As a rule, they are far more interesting (like the views from the train). The truck would less stressed from avoiding the higher interstate speeds. Our mileage under tow is anywhere from 9-12 mpg at 55-60, depending on slopes and winds. Push it to 65 and that drops to 7-9 mpg. It does take longer, about five days out and five more back. But out of a 16 day vacation block, that leaves time to visit with family and a side trip or two to look up friends in Idaho and our first trip to Yellowstone National Park. It also would cost about the same as if we flew out to Seattle, rented a car and stayed in a hotel for a few nights.
You'll never know what you'll find on your
travels off the interstates. This dragon
made entirely of tires greeted
us off of US 18 in Iowa.
Another benefit to driving is that we won't need a puppy-sitter. The pooch can come with us just about everywhere except the wedding itself. We won't be able to eat at a lot of restaurants, but we like to do our own cooking in the
trailer, anyway.
Most times, the cost of a campsite with full hook-ups is far less than a hotel room (although we have been known to take advantage of a local hotel when there is a dearth of campsites).
We'll take separate routes out and back. We plan to follow US-2 from Minnesota all the way to Seattle. The plan is to follow I-90 as far as Livingston, Montana and then turn south for Yellowstone. From Yellowstone, the route will take us southeast to Cheyenne, Wyoming to pick up I-80 or parallel to it on US 30 for the return trip.
There are a bunch of interesting places on our routes. One is Deception Falls in Washington. It's a pretty place, but the falls themselves actually cross under US 2, making for a challenging picture like this one of Brownstone Falls in Wisconsin. We hope to be able to take in the Beartooth Highway on our way back if if it isn't closed due to snows when we get there.
I do look forward to the trip. Seeing my niece get married will be good, too.
Road picture: copyright 2013 W. Clinton Hotaling.
Dragon picture: copyright 2013 Mary A Hoffman, used with permission.

23 March 2014

"Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore!" - Dorothy in "the Wizard of Oz"

Fish and Chips in Ireland.
First and foremost, I love visiting new (and sometimes very old) places, experiencing new things, and trying new foods. Getting there can be the headache. There are also sometimes some very unexpected things that will throw one off of stride. For instance:
TSA checks will require you to unsling your carefully positioned camera bag and computer case, empty the eleven pockets of your jacket, the seven pockets in your pants and the three in your shirt. Don't forget that they want you to remove your shoes, take off your knee braces and will still scrutinize your eyeglasses and wedding band. All this about a minute after you just did this for the Irish Garda. I was about in tears, because getting everything off without damaging the fragile takes time and the line behind me was getting longer. Lesson: aim for the balance between minimalist and every contingency in packing. Especially with the carry-on gear.
While we're on travel to the Emerald Isle, it's useful to prepare by a bit of studying. We read and brought along copies of Rick Steve's Guide to Ireland. It proved a very useful source. Sometimes somethings aren't mentioned. The Irish do drink coffee. They drink a lot more tea. Coffee is sold by the cup. We are talking a consistent 200 ml (about 6.5 oz.) cup. When you are used to, nay addicted to, large mugs of coffee this can add up fast in the traveling expense column. The best way to get your caffeine fix is switch to tea. Tea is often sold by the pot or cup, and refills are often free. Tea is usually included with the meal.
Ireland is primarily temperate rain forest (The trees are slowly returning after centuries of over-harvesting.). There are usually some sunny days or even an hour or two of sunshine most days, but don't expect it. It's damp more often than not. Dress for it. We wore wool or microfiber and good rain shells. Our accommodations had towel warmers that made for dry towels after morning ablutions-more forethought.
Our travel arrangements included car rental. The car we got was almost as large as my 1/2 ton pickup truck! It was HUGE. It did have a lot of trunk (boot) space--we joked four bodies would fit in there with room to spare. So us Yanks had this huge car, with manual transmission and the steering on the other side from what we are used to across the Pond. Most Irish roads that aren't Motorways are pretty narrow. When we went over Conner Pass, it was down to one lane. It was a good thing the only things we met coming the other way was bicyclists. I'm glad we paid the damage waiver as a stone wall reached out to grab the car near Dingle. We did clip a few hedge branches and a construction barrier with our curb-side mirror. One big advantage was that the engine was diesel powered. Diesel fuel costs pretty much the same as gasoline (petrol) in Ireland, but we had a fantastic range. We drove the car 2000 kilometers (1200 miles) while there that week, and only filled the fuel tank twice.
Ireland was fun, and we'd go visit it again.
Even in the US, we have some adjustments to make when we travel. Our home state of Wisconsin is known as the "Dairy State" for a reason. Milk and cheese are the biggest agricultural products here. One of the special treats that can be found virtually anywhere is fresh cheddar cheese curds. We're talking so fresh that they squeak when you bite into them. Fresh cheese curds are uncommon to rare outside of Wisconsin. Note this as they make wonderful gifts for out of state friends! The cheese choices quickly dwindle down to American, Swiss and sometimes cheddar the further you go from our fair state.
The strong German heritage also has available a variety of sausages in Wisconsin. Ask for a bratwurst in Mississippi, and you'd get a blank stare with a "Whot dat?" Spicy andule sausage is popular close to the the Big Easy.While it looks and smells the same as keilbasa, it tastes very different!
The closest thing to tarter sauce-the staple condiment of the Friday Fish Fry-south of the Mason/Dixon Line is "sandwich spread" which is sweeter and pink.
Iced tea down south is made very sweet. If you want it unsugared, ask for "unsweet tea".
The joys of traveling often make the rewards that much better!

22 January 2014

Working with Models or Talent

Stephanie and my Hat
In still photography, they're models. In motion imagery, they are talent. In either case, they are the people (and sometimes animals) you put in front of your lens to help you tell your story. They are also a big factor in your collaborative effort to deliver a product for your client.

Sometimes the hardest part of the whole process is simply finding the model or talent that you need. Most beginning photographers and videographers recruit from their circle of friends and family. My most reliable model is my lovely wife. She'll complain, but she models very well. College acting classes, small local agencies as well as nationally connected talent bureaus all are sources for recruiting that person that will work in front of your lens. It's just a matter of how much time and budget you have.

The first step in making sure you have what you need is to ask very specifically for what you are looking for: approximate age, gender, hair color, facial hair (men), hair length, height, body build, secondary talent (dance, singing, horsemanship, etc.), and/or anything else that would be what you have in mind for your imagery. Also, be specific in what type of role this person would play. For instance: "Physical comedy as an always ready to please, clumsy husband for a competent, but indulgent wife." Hopefully, from your listing you'll get a set of people willing to audition for you.

Quite often, with models for still work the selection process gets done through head shots, resumes, portfolios and availability checks. Motion talent usually must be "tested" to see how well they fit the ideal  for your project. (Benedict Cumberbach was the only one tested for the role of Holmes in "Sherlock". Martin Freeman was one of many who were tested for the role of Watson, but the instant chemistry between him and Cumberbach during Freeman's test cemented the role for him.)

Hannah: "This is awkward!"
Make sure that responsibility for secondary items like wardrobe, hair styling and makeup are clearly spelled out before your talent arrives on the set or studio. Almost always, you are responsible for any props or products, but these other considerations, if fairly basic, can be covered by your talent. (They should tell you if they don't have something specific that you asked them to bring, i.e. ripped jeans. If that's the case you will need to supply it for them. Be sure to get the correct size. Whether they keep what you supply them is up to you.)

Once your talent is decided, make sure they understand exactly what you want them to do. They are quite willing to do so if they know what you are after. For a commercial I shot, an actor deliberately fumbled the large assortment of tools he was holding. It was marvelously fake, and you could see that it was fake on the recording. I explained to him that the many items in his hands will naturally fumble when he selects just one to use, just let them do so. It looked much better (and was funnier) when he relaxed and just let the pieces fall.

How tight of control you use is up to you. I tend to be more collaborative, and only correct or re-do when something didn't work. Annoyingly for the talent, that might be something other than what the talent did. I've been known to retake a scene for minor corrections (see above), but I do enjoy letting my talent run with an idea.

Don't forget to make sure the appropriate releases are signed.

One last thing. Most models or talent are part-timers in this. Be sure to feed them.