7.29.2010

You have to get wet if you want to learn to swim.

If you want to swim competitively, at a very high level,  you'll need to spend time in the water.  A lot of time in the water.  When I swam in high school and college we hit the pool at 5:30 am every morning.  We swam for two hours and then went to class.  When classes ended we headed back to the pool for another hour and a half (if you were a sprinter) or two hours (if you were a distance swimmer).  During the middle of the December we averaged 10,000 to 12,000 yards a day.  Five days a week.

Today, swimmers focus on just as much training out of the pool.  They work on flexibility and strength training.  I'd venture to say that they think about swimming technique a number of times throughout the day.  Before the last Olympics Michael Phelps swam workouts 365 days a year.  That's what it took to be the best in the world.

But here's the interesting thing:  When college football is over the players who didn't make the pro cut stop playing. Same with baseball players and gymnasts.    Most swimmers never stop.  I swim six days a week with a masters swim team.  We have members who are in their sixties who are fast, highly competitive swimmers.  They never give up.  They rarely miss practice.  They know that if they miss a week or two or, horrors! a month!  Their conditioning and feel of the water start to decline.  Even a week out of the water means a rough re-entry.  Because physical technique requires constant practice.

So why is it that many photographers don't get that constant practice is really required to perform photography well?  Too many people put off taking photographs until it's "convenient and then wonder why they don't improve.  Why their craft seems to plateau.  Why they don't "feel" the flow of their creativity in the way they want to.  I think photography is every bit as demanding as competitive swimming but in a different way.  It's so much more multi-sensory.  You have to be able to look with rigor and, at the same time, block out the distracting thoughts of everyday life that dilute your intention and your conscious focus.

You need a clear head so your hands and eyes and feet all operate together as a unit.  So you can capture the image you want at the exact millisecond you want.  I'm not saying you need to do exercises or drills to become better but you have to spend time in the water.  You have to spend time with your camera.  You have to spend time practicing seeing.  And maybe most importantly, you have to spend quiet time with yourself, alone, thinking about why you photograph.

I conjecture that only by knowing what really motivates you to pursue photography will you be able to channel the energy and spirit to ignore the mental and physical roadblocks that every day life tosses in front of each of use like a never ending shower of kabers. Because only when you are clear about the real value you get from exploring photography do I think you will overcome the impediments to clearly seeing and capturing images that move you with passion.

Here are a few things I find helpful when I hit a creative block:

1.  Lie on the floor and clear your mind of everything.  Go blank.  When thoughts come into your head look at them in a dispassionate way and then let them go.  Pay attention to visual constructions.  And then let them go.  Get back off the floor when you feel the desire to create come back.

2.  When you are clear about why you photograph and what subjects give you pleasure (as opposed to subjects that serve to gratify your ego because you know that others will respond to them) visualize an end result for your work.  It could be the construction of a private book of images just for you or a show of your work in a public place.  You might even send prints out to people as anonymous gifts.

3.  Everyone has their own cliche images.  But if we try to avoid the sticky cliches we give them a certain perverse power and they become more dominant in our field of view.  Instead, shoot all of your cliches and then move on.

4.  Edit down your vision.  If you try to do every aspect of photography well you dilute the things you do extremely well.  Every swimmer has a favorite stroke.  That's the one they work on.  Boil it down to its essence.

5.  Find a kindred spirit who can be a mean son of a bitch and be politely but firmly critical with each other's work.  Having all nice critics around makes for a lazy artist.  Sometimes you need someone else to tell you what you don't want to hear about your work or your approach to work so you can get past it.

6.  Once you are clear on what you want and how you want it you have to make time to do it.  That means you have to make photography a priority in direct proportion to how much you want to get out of your photography.  

7.  Don't do it for love or money, do it because you feel compelled to do it.

8.  Like eating, breathing and swimming, do it everyday.  Doesn't have to be hours and hours.  Just enough to keep you fresh and loose.

9.  Don't compare yourself to  other artists.  You are on your own path.  Your life is different from mine.  I might hate your work and you might hate mine but it doesn't matter.  Neither of us is right and neither of us is wrong.  If we're being true to our real vision.

10.  You can't swim without a pool.  You can't shoot without a camera.  Don't leave it at home.  The camera is like your shirt or your shoes.  Take it everywhere you take your body.  Then you'll be ready when the image you love arrives in front of you like a gift.  Be gracious.  Be ready to accept the gift.

Penny's Pastries. Looking for connection.


I think we all love to photograph people on location but how do we decide where to pose them, how to pose them, what to say to get just the right expression and how to go about lighting it all?  When I photographed Penny she let me know right up front that she was pressed for time, didn't like to be photographed and expected to stand next to a wall and have a mug shot done in about five minutes.

My first mission was managing expectations.  I started with mine first.  I knew right away that I wasn't going to get an hour for pre-lighting and then a big chunk of Penny's time to play with while we performed some leisure dance of mutual exploration aimed at carefully extracting the "real" Penny for a portrait.  It was going to be a quick process.

But I needed to manage her expectations as well.  I quickly told her what the intentions of the magazine were.  How they were likely to use the image.  What the advertising rates in the magazine were like, and how great it was that she would get this editorial coverage for her business.  Then I told her how much time I'd need and what I was trying to get from the shot.  I have a good friend who also owns a bakery so I was able to ask her some questions without coming off like a complete idiot.  When she got that I really was interested in her and her business she settled into the shoot just fine.


My biggest challenge was finding the right spot to set up and shoot in.  We were in the middle of a working commercial bakery!  I wanted to show the ovens and some product so I started to narrow down the real estate.  I found the right spot but I needed to have Penny leaning on the table to make the whole frame work and to show the ovens in the background.


I lit her with a 4 foot by 6 foot softbox over to the right of the camera.  I used a much smaller box with home made, black foamcore barndoors to keep the ovens from going too dark.  Once I showed Penny a preview she was excited and ready to work the shot.


Our total set up time was 20 minutes.  Shooting time, 10 minutes.  Tear down and packing 20 minutes.  She was cautious about her time when we came in but by the time we finished she was smiling and handing us bags of cookies.  Really good cookies.   We both managed each other's expectations and we both won.


When on location it's best to walk in looking for what you know you need.  I always look for the right background first.  Then I look for the right middle distance setting and then I figure out the position I want my subject in.  To a large extent the pose is based on how the subject fits into the constraints of the space.  The pose (for my work) has to be comfortable, realistic and calm.  Once we have lighting that brings the space together instead of accentuating three different planes we're ready to shoot.


How do you make them smile?  You can't make them smile.  You earn the smile.  You do it by making them comfortable and collaborating with them.  You earn the subject's smile and good wishes by making sure that you are sharing your "A" game with them and not just knocking out another job.