Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Road to Success | Q and A with a Photography Student

One of my workshop students, who's also studying photography in college, asked me recently if I would answer some questions as part of a school project. The students were given an assignment to interview a professional photographer. The following are the questions (italic) with my responses.

When did you first become interested in photography?

It was probably when I was about 11 or 12, back in the mid 1970's. One day my Dad brought home a new Honeywell Pentax Spotmatic F camera with a 50mm lens. I had played around a bit with the Kodak Instamatic 110 cameras before but that was the first time that I got hold of a 35mm SLR camera. I was fascinated with the advanced features and the in-camera light meter. It required more skill to operate and for me, even at that age, it was an inciting challenge to master.

I was already a nature-loving type kid to begin with, spending all my free time out in the woodlands behind my childhood home in the suburbs of Dayton. It just came natural to me to explore with the Pentax camera and record on film all the things that caught my eye. It wasn't too long after that when I saved my grass cutting money for a darkroom kit and began developing my own black and white prints. I was also fortunate enough to have been exposed - no pun intended - to the art of nature photography by being involved with after-school programs at the Dayton Museum of Natural History. They had a darkroom there and I'll never forget the thrill of taking time exposures of the night sky and then making my own prints, from start to finish.

When did you know you wanted to be a professional photographer?

I think I've always wanted to be a professional photographer since the first time I sold a print of one of my images, when I worked part-time in a local gallery/frame shop during my sophomore year in high school. It's that realization that other people value your photographs to the point where they're willing to pay for a print that they want to hang in their home. Unfortunately most artists tend to be introverted and are often the last ones to appreciate their talent, hence they often go down career paths based on other priorities, at least early on. That's why I didn't choose to study photography in college and worked a number of years in corporate positions, almost all marketing and PR related.

But eventually what it is you're meant to be doing with your life pushes to the surface. There's usually a "reawakening" type experience that causes that to happen. For me it occurred in August of 2000, when I attended a 10-day course of study on professional nature photography in Montana, taught by David Middleton. After that experience is when I really knew, even if it was going to be another three years before I made the big jump.

What educational background do you have?

I graduated from the University of Dayton with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Management in the late 80's. Later I would return to school to complete a graduate program of studies in professional communications at Westminster College of Salt Lake City, shortly after moving to Utah in the late 90's.

What kind of equipment do you use?

My background was with both 35mm and medium format film cameras, however, today I'm entirely digital with Canon EOS DSLR camera bodies - Canon 1D Mark III and 5D Mark II. I utilize a full range of Canon "L" lenses, from 17-35mm wide angle zoom to a 500mm. Also, Canon Speedlites, pro-level tripod and heads, Alien Bees strobes, PocketWizard transceivers, light boxes, reflectors, stands, etc.

My "digital darkroom" is entirely Mac based with both a Mac Pro desktop and MacBook Pro laptop. My Apple 23" LED Cinema Display rocks. Love it because it maintains a near-perfect color calibration.

I use to do my own printmaking with a large format Epson 7600 printer, however, it wasn't too long before I found it more cost-effective, and with just as good if not better quality, to outsource the crafting of fine art prints.

What is your favorite subject to photograph?

Landscapes. Specifically, landscapes that include a dramatic sky. I can't resist a good Moon on the horizon as well. On the edges of the day there is a spiritual-like quality to the light and that's where I go. It pulls me. It calls to me. Other subjects within nature photography appeal to me during certain times of the year, or when I find myself drawn to particular subjects for stretches of time, but I always return to the spilling-out of the soul on a landscape, whether it be wide with a sky or more intimate along a woodland stream.

Where is your favorite place to take pictures?

The Hocking Hills region of Southeastern Ohio. I currently live in the "Lowcountry" coastal area of South Carolina, which can be spectacular for coastal scenes and skycapes, and I've also spent a number of years in Utah. I've visited and photographed many of the National Parks out West. But Hocking Hills is home. It's still where I capture my best images because that particular landscape is where I have the deepest connection with my subject.

Which of your pictures are you most proud of?

The ones that reflect the honesty of what it was I was feeling and experiencing at the time they were captured. The photographs that flowed so naturally they appeared within my camera as if it was meant to be by a guiding force beyond understanding or prediction. A few that come to mind right away are a series of landscape images at sunset that arose during a couple of outings in August of 2009, in two different rural areas of Ohio - Hocking Hills and Greene County. The following January I came upon some incredible still life subjects in winter window light that to this day still haunts me. That was a period of time in my life when for a short while a door was opened and the usual stresses backed-off for a bit. There was something about that summer that's hard to explain. That may not make sense to most people but other artists will understand exactly what I'm talking about. But I know this to be true because it's still those images that elicit the most emotional response from others who view them.

The images that arise from those moments when I've completely let go what others are expecting of and from me and I become completely lost in the light and spirit of the moment. It's those experiences that feed the soul.

Which of your pictures is your favorite?

It's hard for me to select just one. There are those that are a favorite based on a spiritual connection and then those that originate from a feeling or memory.

"November Moonrise," with the full Moon rising over the hilltop behind The Inn at Cedar Falls in Hocking Hills is one I think of right away. "Sunrise on Ilesboro Road" is another favorite.

Photographers photograph best the area and subject they are most emotionally connected to. Now that could be landscapes, wildlife, portraits, architecture, etc. For me it has always been - and will always be - the haunting beauty of light on the landscape.

Which of your awards or accomplishments are you most proud of?

This past summer one of images was selected as one of ten finalists in the "time" category of the Ron Howard/Canon Project Imagin8ion contest. That was huge. I've also had one of my images shown as a print at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in conjunction with a national award received through National Wildlife Magazine.

In fall of 2009 I earned my Certified Professional Photographer designation through the Professional Photographers of America. Earning the CPP involved passing a comprehensive written test as well as a thorough review of my print portfolio.

Also, earning a number of awards through the juried print competitions at the annual conventions of the Professional Photographers of Ohio was worth noting because my work was judged and scored by some of the best

What do you think takes a picture from good or just ok to great?

The light, and the photographer's ability to capture the essence and quality of beautiful light. That just doesn't happen by accident. It takes an awareness and sensitivity to see and know the end result of how a particular play of light will interact with the subject. Form and spatial  relationships are vital for the success of a landscape photograph as well. The photographer's ability and technical skill in conveying depth within the flat surface of a photographic print is essential.

And again, a photograph that clearly communicates both a unique artistic vision and an emotional connection, between subject and photographer and then again between photograph and viewer.

What is your favorite thing about being a photographer?

Sharing with others the beauty of my visual discoveries and then seeing how those photographs elicit an emotional response from the viewer. Communicating what is felt within the soul by way of a visual medium helps me to reach out, connect and hopefully inspire. That's one "favorite thing" about being a photographer. Another is the sense of accomplishment from utilizing experience, skill and artistic vision in providing a unique image that no one else could create, whether it be for a commercial assignment, portrait session or fine art nature print.

Another unexpected blessing that has come from my photography business is the opportunity teach, as in presenting workshops and lessons. It's one thing to capture original images but it's quite another to be able to teach and inspire others in discovering their artistic vision through photography. Teaching is very rewarding. It can be a lot of work but it's well worth it, and I'm not referring to profits from workshop fees. It's witnessing new photographers taking their passion for the art to the next level through guidance and coaching and then receiving feedback - again and again - on how I made a difference and spurred a new excitement for photography. I love it when I have repeat attendees to my workshops. I like to think I help present a learning experience that's fun and rewarding for all who attend.

Another favorite part of being a photographer is the opportunity to meet so many interesting people, make new friends and learn about other businesses. That's especially true for commercial work. For me that's fascinating.

What is your least favorite thing about being a photographer?

The activity that I'm involved with this week - preparing all my materials for the annual tax return on the LLC, my business. Being behind the computer too much and not having more opportunities to be out shooting. But that's the reality of professional photography. It is a business and it has to be managed as such. Unfortunately that entails a lot of activities that don't exactly come natural to us artistic types. Fortunately I have an excellent CPA/bookkeeper who trained me on the use of QuickBooks for my business finances - invoicing, payables, sales tax, etc.

But the biggest negative is the occasional person who assumes, for various reasons, that I can give away my work, whether it be services, training/lessons, licensing or prints. When I first began working full time as a professional photographer in 2003 I made the common mistake that originates from the introverted, lack-of-confidence nature of most photographers. I fell for the "it will get your work out there" and "people will see your stuff and want to buy" lines. And like most photographers the damage is already done by the time they realize they should have stuck to their guns and charged appropriately for their work and the value they bring to the table.

It's just as important - and healthy for your cash flow - to know when to say "no" as it is with when to say "yes." In my previous location - Dayton, Ohio - word finally got around. No more free work. Don't even try it. Unfortunately I had to go through the experience again when I moved and set-up shop in Hilton Head, South Carolina. The good news is I had the benefit of previous experience and lessons learned.

Every once in a while I'll come across another photographer who's more interested in imitation versus developing his or her own style and brand. This tendency to find the easiest way up a creative learning is endemic in today's societal expectation for immediate entertainment, gratification and unrealistic career expectations. It's kind of sad. It's happening everywhere, not just with photography. Everyone has it in them to be an original. In the long run the achievements we are most proud of are those that required hard work, patience and determination.

What advice would you give to a new photographer?

Have fun, experiment, play. Shoot, shoot, shoot. Either you'll discover what subjects you connect with most effectively, or the subjects will find you.

Read your camera manual. Sounds basic but most people just take that new DSLR camera out of the box and start shooting right away, and then become frustrated based on a lack of understanding of the basic settings and features.

Don't get caught up in what I call the "camera club gear game." That's when photographers become too focused (no pun intended) on the next best camera or lens. It's amazing what can be accomplished with just a good, all around DSLR camera body and a "kit" zoom lens. Before spending another arm and leg for pro-level glass I always recommend a decent quality tripod, ball head and cable release. Those are the types of items that will greatly extend the capabilities of your existing camera and lenses.

Take a workshop and/or class from an established pro photographer with a solid portfolio of published images, but also ask for or look for references and testimonials from previous students. There's been an explosion of photographers teaching workshops over the last several years, which is a direct result of the availability and affordability of DSLR cameras with advanced features, being purchased right and left by just about everyone. However, just because a pro is a top-level photographer with impressive work doesn't necessarily mean that he or she is a good teacher. Truth is many are not.

Your best images are often just outside your front door. There's a common misconception that one has to travel to exotic locations to capture award-winning nature photographs. We often overlook the subjects that have the most potential, and those are the places, animals, people, etc. that are most familiar and found in our daily surroundings. Instead learn to see the quality of light - and how to capture it - and work with different angles.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue photography as a profession?

Stay true to yourself. You're going to come across many critics who claim to be experts in photography who will try to get you to shoot their way or what they assume to be effective image capture. Always consider the source.

Photograph what is you are most emotionally connected to, but also be willing to expand your photographic horizons, especially when and if you go into business for yourself. When I started I didn't see myself as a portrait, food or architectural photographer but it wasn't long before I recognized the need to become involved in those areas, and actually they've all been quite enjoyable.

With that said, don't be overly anxious to the point where you're willing to give away your work and time for nothing. As I said before word will get around very quickly. New, younger photographers are prime targets for various less-than-honest creative and ad agencies, real estate agents, entertainment firms, etc.

Yes, when starting it's perfectly fine to do some initial assignments or print showings for free or in exchange for services, to become established, but just be careful. Follow your gut instinct and seek the advice of a mentor who is more experienced in business. You just don't want to sell yourself and your work short. How you value your work and time is a direct reflection in how you value yourself - as a professional, as an artist, as a photographer.

Before going at it as a business gain some experience working elsewhere. Learn the basics of running a small business. Marketing, bookkeeping, insurance, licensing, etc. New photographers who go into business for themselves are always shocked by the amount of time required for all non-photographic types of activities that are necessary to make the business work. Don't fight it. Embrace it. It's all part of the learning process.

Get involved in professional photography organizations, such as PPA (Professional Photographers of America) and ASMP (American Society of Media Photographers). Invest in attending one of the annual conferences of the national and state associations. Great way to connect with suppliers and learn from the best photographers in the industry. I also recommend NANPA (North American Nature Photography Association). I've attended two of their annual summits and both times the experience proved to be immensely valuable.