My Extra Right Hand (I am looking for an individual who in very energetic, more energetic than me.)

 

Model: Kendall 2015

My Extra Right Hand

To I want to talk about working with an assistant and how much easier life can be.

I think anyone would agree that having an assistant would make life easier; So why then would I post about it? While it seems like a “no brainer” I still see many photographers working without an assistant. I seen wedding photographers hire a second shooter, but no assistant and I cannot understand why.

First let me say that I have another business aside from my photography and I realized a long time ago the power that having an assistant can give you and how much pressure is taken away when I have a really hectic job to do. My other business is catering and we mostly cook on-site. For me it is not high pressure anymore because I have been doing it for over 20 years. However, I didn’t hire an assistant until about 5 years in. Sure, I had people working for me as employees, but one day I realized that “maybe I need an assistant.”

So, you’re most likely thinking “well what’s the difference between the two?” Employees in my opinion are workers who have a more or less defined set of tasks that they perform on a regular basis, whereas an assistant is someone who is by your side working and interacting with you to help you accomplish your set task.

Okay, so I only use a photography assistant when I have a really important job to do. A job that requires me to stay focused (pardon the pun) and keep on a schedule. Jobs like weddings, large project shoots or maybe just a fast-paced event. Aside from these kinds of jobs most times I am a solo act and I do just fine.

Let me describe what it is that I am looking for in an assistant because I think most people are confused as to what they really need an assistant for. First and foremost, my assistant is paid and paid as well as I can they pay them. I work the cost for the assistant into every job. They are not a family member or a friend and most times they know very little about photography. Anything they need to know about photography I will teach them and most times that is just how-to setup and take down gear such as light stands and running power cords. However most of all I am looking for an individual who in very energetic, more energetic than me. I want someone who has their own means of transportation and is also comfortable driving my vehicle too. I want some one who knows how to use a smartphone/device, can do an adequate Google search in seconds, knows how to get to the nearest, store, coffee shop, deli and camera shop. I want someone who is great with people, they can not be shy at all, they must exude common sense thinking. They must be the kind of person I trust enough to hand them my credit card/s to go buy something and they won’t steal my money. I can also hand them cash money to

Tiny & Kendall

hold. Essentially, I want someone who is me, but better, faster and I can trust them with anything.

About now your saying “where the hell do, I find somebody like that.” I’ll agree it is not an easy thing and it doesn’t happen overnight, but once it does you need to find a way to hold on to that person. If they are a college age student it is inevitable that you will not have them forever and they’ll move on sooner or later. At this current time, I have a few different people I use. Because it is on an “as needed basis” if one is not available usually the other one is. One is a big strong guy we appropriately call “Tiny” and the other is a lady named Amy.

Tiny & Cynthia Ann

Tiny works a as a truck driver and appliance installer during the week, he also works for my catering business on the weekends. He meets all the criteria described above and he is an all-around good guy at heart.

Amy is a legal business administrator for a university and she too works for my catering business. I have known Amy for years and she is a very intelligent and motivated person.

Between the two of them they no nothing about camera exposure, aperture or ISO. However, they do know everything that I need them to know, things like how to change out batteries and lenses and help me stay organized. As any photographer knows the life of a photographer is “always forgetting something,” sure it may not be something critically important like a camera body (OMG could you imagine?). It is those other little things that could turn into big things, like running back to the parking lot to get something from my vehicle or maybe finding a cup of coffee on a cold day.

Amy

Each person I work with has their strong points. If it is a wedding Amy is very good at scouting the location for good spots to shoot. While Tiny on the other hand is great with lighting setups and adjusting. Tiny can also fly a drone and have it ready when I want to do an overhead shot.

So, to sum it up into one easy statement; having an assistant is like having an extra right hand or two or three.  To have that extra pair of hands to carry a camera bag, to have someone to bounce ideas off of and basically be there when things are not going as planned.

In conversation with other photographers I have found some who wholeheartedly agree with me about paying an assistant “as good as you can pay them.” However, I have had a few people disagree on the amount an assistant should be paid. Some people are cheap and don’t understand the value a good assistant can bring to your gameday.

One photographer I know who has a studio and does mostly portraiture work, she hires mostly teenagers from the community. She pays them the same as if they worked at the local grocery store. She doesn’t want to pay them more because they lack experience. I feel this is a different situation, this is more of an employee than it is an assistant. And yes, teenagers are very lacking in experience and life skills. Not to rag on teenagers and I know there are good ones and bad ones, however most American teenagers lack life skills that it takes to interact with people of all ages on a personal level. Life skills come with time and experience of dealing with people. Even when I myself was 20 years old I did not have the life skills of dealing with people as I do today.

I really feel there is a distinct difference between an assistant and a general employee or at least in my interpretation of “assistant.” And as stated earlier finding the right person is no easy task. But for me it just kind of happened, I found Amy many years ago when I placed an add on Craigslist looking for general weekend catering help. I found several people that fit the bill for what I needed. Amy however did not fit the bill, she was extremely overqualified, holding a masters degree among others and being an administrator at a university just didn’t jive with doing weekend catering work. She told me she just wanted to stay busy and make some extra money. So, I gave her a chance and she is still with me to this day. As my photography business increased and I needed and assistant to shoot a wedding I asked her if she would like to do it and it was all good.

Tiny came to by way of a friend of my wife. My wife is a Thai lady and she has many Thai lady friends living here in the USA. A few of her friend have worked with us over the years and they were all amazingly motivated people. Tiny who is Thai, moved to the USA as a young boy when his mother married and American man. I met him when he was in his mid-20s, he was looking for extra work on weekends so we brought him on board so to speak. Now he is part of the main fabric of our catering business. One day I needed an assistant to help me with a rather large project shoot. I asked Tiny if he would like to make some money for the day helping to setup lights and tear them down. He jumped at the chance. Little did he know he had to carry all the gear to the third-floor studio with no elevator. And “yes” it was not easy and yes, I paid him good.

Like anything in life and we have all heard it over and over “you only get what you pay for,” however in the realm of good photography assistants you must first find them and that is the hardest part.

Tiny & Francis

The last job Tiny and I did together was covering an event. It was a private premiere showing for a yet unreleased reality TV show about a family who is in the Monster Truck business. They needed a photographer to cover the event and we had a lot of fun, plus I got to meet the producer and director and a lot of other interesting people. Yes, it was a fun time and we both made money.

Now as I draw to a close on this post, I must say I know a few wedding photographers who take a different route when it comes to finding assistants. Some will actually use other photographers. They will use the photographer as both a second shooter and as an assistant. I have actually done this, I have worked as a second shooter/assistant for weddings and really it is not a bad deal at all. I help you and you help me… just as long as we both don’t have jobs the same day. Yeah and just my luck I was on the losing end of that deal a few times and that is why I just use people who are not photographers.

Thanks so much for stopping by and reading.

 

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Sinister Clown Project Shoot (As far as looks Nicole is everything Pennywise is not. )

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I am just a week away from my most planned out project shoot of 2016. I had set a goal at the beginning of the year to “create images with impact” and unlike the typical new year’s resolutions that fall by the wayside a few weeks into the year, my goal still haunts me. It has been a struggle; however I have created a few images that are portfolio worthy. When it comes to my portfolio it is like a game, there are self-imposed rules. First rule is that there are a certain number of images in the portfolio and in order to add an image I must take an image out. So essentially the new image has to dethrone another… and that is the hard part, deciding what goes and what stays and what new images are worthy to add. So this first rule really does dictate most everything.

With all that said I started the year off pretty good with the close distorted facial shot of Nixlot Dameus, it was different, it was creative and it was planned. I hit my mark and I was happy. I could also say the same with the “Ice Princess” look I did with Kendall. Although the shoot was cut short due to time spent on makeup I was able to get an image that was worthy of making a composite that was then worthy of portfolio contention. Then came Ryan McNally and his shoot while being more of a test shoot, it still yielded a good image worthy of gracing the portfolio pages. Many times people helping me with a shoot such as an assistant or even the model are often surprised to hear me say “well… if we come away with five good images today I’ll be happy.” They usually look at me like “he’s got to be kidding” or “he must be a horrible photographer,” when in reality I’m totally serious. Hell if creating portfolio worthy images was that easy, life would be no fun.

So this leads us to the present day turmoil of the “Sinister Clown” shoot. I spoke about it in my latest video update on the YouTube channel, but I will elaborate a little more here.

So to recap; Stephen King wrote a short novel of 1156 pages called “It” and there was a movie or rather a TV mini-series created in 1990. The book is impeccable and King is at his best. The movie was not so great. In my opinion the movie started off great but it started to falter about midway through. In all fairness putting King’s writing into a visual form like a movie is extremely hard to do. So when I see the new revamped images of Pennywise the dancing clown that will appear in the remake of “It” due to be released in 2017, I was really taken back and became very interested. So much so that I decided to use those images as an inspiration for a detailed project photo shoot. Pennywise is one of the many forms that “It” takes on while in our universe and he feed on the flesh and fear of young children. …I know …King is a master at this kind of stuff. So I called the shoot the “Sinister Clown” shoot and proceeded. Now truth be told I had already had an idea for a clown shoot and my original idea was very much the same although not as intense.

So there were many things to plan. Who would be the model, who will do make up and where the hell can I get decent wardrobe. After all I want this to be… as makeup artist say “an HD look” meaning “high definition.” “HD” is the big buzz word these days in the makeup and FX world. We used to say “movie quality” and now it is HD… Whatever!

So I asked a cosplay model who dresses up as a clown often and she was all in. Well until her personal life took a turn and she was relocating. So here we go we are hitting barriers before the race even starts.

I put a casting call out on Model Mayhem. Well let me tell you there is a reason why it is called “Model Mayhem” and that Mayhem part is a wild ride. I specifically asked for models that had experience in “cosplay” and it resulted in getting hits from models who clearly can’t read.

Then I get one model that looks valid and appears to be creative, says “yes” and she can do her own makeup and I tell her what the inspiration is for the shoot. She agrees and then starts adding her own inspiration that is not in the same direction as mine. Essentially what turns me on about the new Pennywise is that he does not look like a standard clown. In the 1990 movie the clown was very standard Claribel-ish or Ronald McDonald-ish. The new Pennywise scares me… and I’m not afraid of clowns at all. So this model wanted to go in a different direction AND… after all that she tells me she will be free in a few weeks. Hello…

Here again it is hard to convey your passion, inspiration and importance to others. So when you do find that special person that clicks it is like being in love, two creatives on the same level is rare and amazing all at the same time. I have to stop and say that every one of my project shoots gets treated as if it is a paid shoot. That my friend is how you learn and how you get better. My projects have deadlines and must meet my expectations to be considered a success in the end. Sure it creates stress, but I always say “no stress, no success” and that is how I roll. Now I don’t always transfer that stress to a model because I want him/her to be relaxed and natural. All the while I’m the one stressing over the shoot.

So two years ago a young lady by the name of Jade left a really nice heartfelt comment on my Mayhem page after viewing my work. I reached out to her and thanked her. We had a wonderful phone conversation and I got the feeling she was a true creative person. I ran off to Thailand a few weeks later and we lost touch. But I remembered her and I found her again. I presented the idea to her and she was down with it, so I commissioned her to do the Sinister Clown look. She has given me a hope of confidence that she can create an HD look.

So now for the model… Oh the model? So I changed direction and went 180 degrees the opposite direction. This cannot be a Time For Print model, this has to be someone who can take direction, someone I can trust to show up and someone I like to work with. So I asked Nicole Gallagher the beautiful face you see on the opening page of my website. As far as looks Nicole is everything Pennywise is not. She is pretty, elegant, female and just a really sweet person to work with. Pennywise on the other hand… well is an evil rotten clown with fangs. But Nicole holds all the qualities to make for a great shoot. On time, takes direction well and is a cool person to work with. So I asked and she said yes, yes to sitting for 2 plus hours while Jade applies the FX makeup that will be composed of a special prosthetic head-piece that Jade will custom make.

Now we have a model and a makeup artist, all we need is wardrobe. So I got an idea to shoot the Sinister Clown in a “Renaissance” context. I had seen it done with Batman, Robin, The Joker, and The Cat Woman and so on. This then entailed many hours of searching on the internet and those hours turned to days and finally I found a rental place in Oregon that had something that I hope will work.

And lastly I will say that I am currently working on lighting diagrams for all the different shots. So yes this shoot is complexed. Will it turn out great images? Time will tell. And as a side project I hope to shoot a time-lapse of the makeup application as well as behind the scenes video.

Please stay tuned and I will be talking more about this project in the coming days & weeks.

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Did You See What Charlie Barker Did? (…hmmm maybe something interesting and creative, yeah that sounds about right. )

Blogging Phenom

Blogging Phenom

Did You See What Charlie Barker Did? I guess I should first ask you; do you know who Charlie Barker is? Charlie could very well be one of the most powerful people on the worldwide web at this moment. You see being influential on the internet in today’s world gives you power… and let’s face it, it can make you a boat load of cash too. So if you haven’t already stopped reading and Googled Charlie Barker let me tell you who she is. Yes… who she is. She is a young model, she is sexy (to most), she is talented and she is a very creative blogger. How creative you might ask? Ok… so you know that little thingy the young hipster crowd uses called Instagram? It’s this little social media app on your mobile device and of course I’m joking it’s not so little. IG as it is called is another social media outlet. I was turned onto it years ago by a good friend in China. We were looking for a way to communicate secondary to Skype. So one day Grace (lol yes my friend in China is named Grace) said we could communicate through IG and share photos and best of all it was free.

So that was when I entered the world of IG. Then I started to grow in IG and I posted my photography. Next thing I know I have models contacting me and to my surprise I have photographers contacting me asking for instruction. Not an overwhelming amount but interesting nonetheless.

Then I find Charlie Barker… Charlie is a blogging phenomenon to put it mildly. I will watch Miss Barker put up a post, it doesn’t matter what it is. Let me say that again “it does not matter what it is,” it could be a photo of her shoes. I will see the post the moment it goes up and I will hit refresh and in less than a minute it has 400+ “Likes” in less than an hour her post will be liked by more than 5000 people and it will top out at anywhere between 20,000 to 50,000 Likes maybe even more. She has 533k followers on IG https://instagram.com/charliexbarker/, not bad for a cute little blogger from Nottingham. But as you can tell Miss Barker is far from a cute little blogger. She has unlocked the true power of social media and who knows where she’ll go next. She is a blogger, photographer, model and most of all a creative genius. With her web presence she is unstoppable and if turned loose in the world of advertisement she could very well become a leading force in what people buy or don’t buy. What if she ran for political office? Don’t laugh!

Take the Tumblr challenge and try to scroll to the bottom of Charlie Barker’s Tumblr… have fun. http://charliexbarker.tumblr.com/

And I know you’re probably asking “why are you blogging about Charlie Barker?” I think she is amazing and I think she is a genius, I also think that she may have a great formula for a blog platform. Although I am not seeking to be the next blogging Phenom, I do however think I could learn something from what she does. Quite simply put she really doesn’t say a lot, but what Charlie does say she says with photos and the photos are interesting and creative. Now I ask you (if you are a photographer) “what makes a great photo?” …hmmm maybe something interesting and creative, yeah that sounds about right. So in essence I guess one could come to the conclusion that to be a successful internet blogger all one needs to do is know how to work a camera and be creative and make interesting photos. Sound as simple as eating pie.

Have a great day everybody and thanks for reading.

…And The Watermark Saved The Day (hold your hat folks the rollercoaster is headed down fast)

Laydee'Fly (model)

Laydee’Fly (model)

Ok so I have recently blogged about watermarks and I found it very ironic and interesting that two separate incidents occurred on the same day that involved watermarks and my photography.

The first incident took place when I received a text telling me to call a lady in regards to photos of a model I posted to her Facebook and she wanted them removed. Strange!

The second unrelated incident was later that same day I received an email from a WordPress editor asking if I could offer up some thoughts & comments about watermarking for an article to be posted across WordPress.

So the first story is quite interesting, but my watermark played a key role in helping correct the problem and I’ll explain. See back in the beginning of October 2014 I did a model shoot for Laydee’Fly a model from Bethlehem, PA. The shoot took place at a park that has Moravian ruins, old building that are pretty much falling down and they make for great photos. So while posting the content to my Reckless Pixel Facebook page I decided to tag the location. Now I have shot at this location before and I tagged the photos with no problems at all. Well… this time something went wrong, I thought I was tagging the “Moravian ruins” at the park, but in-fact I tagged a Moravian Village real estate page. So it turns out (follow me now because this gets real stupid) there is a Moravian Village senior community that has a Facebook page, but it was not their page that my photos were tagged to. Now for some reason the real estate page is somewhat of a dead page, maybe someone started the page and then abandon it and for some stupid reason the people looking for the Moravian Senior community go to the Moravian Real Estate page and “Like” the wrong page and post and tag to that page. Talk about confusing… So the lady who I’m in contact with is the “Social Media” director for the Moravian Senior community and she can’t seem to find the owner of the Real Estate page so (hold your hat folks the rollercoaster is headed down fast) she is trying to control the content of the Real Estate page even though she can’t login to it. It is not her page, but it is the page that everybody thinks is hers. Wow! So I know about now your head is spinning, if you’re even still following me.

So of course I told her I would look into the matter of the sexy tattooed model images that always seemed to be in their feed even though they were posted over six months ago lol. The social media director was nice and polite and seemed to be for the most part clueless to how Facebook location tagging worked. But she found my watermark in the photos and then found my website and then found my phone number. My big question is; If you’re a so-called “social media director” how do you not know how Facebook location tagging works? And why are you trying to control an abandon page? In the end I went back and corrected the location tags.

Now to the second incident involving watermarks, I received an email from an editor/blogger/writer at WordPress dot-com that is preparing content about photographers and watermarking.  She was reaching out to a handful of WordPress photographers and asking their thoughts on watermarking. I will admit I felt somewhat flattered and I did reply with my thoughts and comments. I really do feel watermarking is an important topic and often not thought of topic for most hobby photographers. I think most people fail to realize when you snap the shutter you are creating intellectual property. I know to some this sounds corny and over stated, but once they find that someone is making thousands of dollars from their simple click of the shutter… well now it is a different story. Or the photographer finds that someone is using their images in a malicious or hurtful way… well again the whole idea of intellectual property soon becomes a reality and more so if you were educated just a little bit about what to do and not to do, things might never get out of hand.

In closing this post I will emphasize that you (the photographer) do not have to be a professional nor do you have to have a $6000 camera to be concerned about your images being “clipped” and used by people without your permission. I have had crazy things like people clipping one of my Instagram posts of a model I did a shoot with. And then re-editing the photo and posting it back to Instagram with their watermark and tagging me as the photographer… again (head spinning) you never know what people are up too. Basically some people are just idiots and you don’t have to look for them, they’ll find you.

Take care of your photos and thanks for reading.

Laydee'Fly

Laydee’Fly

Laydee'Fly

Laydee'Fly

Laydee’Fly

Are You Seeing What You’re Looking At? (Am I always able to do it? No. But I strive to do it.)

Are you seeing what you're looking at?

Are you seeing what you’re looking at?

Sometimes we just don’t know if what we see is real and sadly enough most times we just take what we see and never really process it to its fullest. Everyday things happen in our lives and we never really see it even though we are looking right at it or I guess I should say we never notice it and it doesn’t just stop with what we see, but also what we hear. We as humans just tend to tune out both visually and tonally. Children are very much more attentive to all the little things that we adults have tuned out. I remember myself as a young child and how attentive I was to extremely small details in my surroundings, more so than most. I did not realize it at the time because as a child many times you think that what you do is what everybody does, until somebody points out that you are different. So I thought everybody noticed small details. As I got a little older I remember a high school teacher giving the class a simple test of taking one plain piece of paper and a pencil and he gave one simple instruction of “take the pencil and draw a house on the paper. There are no rules; you can make the house whatever you’d like. Just put your vision of what you see as a house.” Of course there are always the students that didn’t understand and had fifty questions. But all he said “was draw a house as you see it in your mind.” After the last student completed the task he collected the papers and we had a discussion about how some people are more detailed than others. See some students had drawn a house that was simple and basic; some added a door and a window and others had two windows and so on. Oh… and then were two papers that really stood out, my paper and that of a female student. The teacher looking at my paper quite perplexed, looking at me then at the paper, then back at me. Mr. Roberts walks up to me and asks very calmly “Richard can you tell me what the instructions were.” My heart started to sink and I said in a low voice “you said draw a house,” he looked at me and smiled and said “why yes I did, so tell me why you also drew a tree and a dog, four windows, a chimney… and with smoke I might add. You also have grass and a walkway and somebody looking out of the window and you even have the windows divided into quarters to show four separate panes in each window (he chuckles). He then turns to the female student and gives her a rundown similar to mine. She had two trees and a car, windows and a door. After class he called me aside and told me that you have a knack for detail, well more than a knack. It doesn’t make you any smarter than the next person, but it shows how creative you are. Some could even argue that you did not follow the instructions because the instructions were to “draw a house” and not a dog, a tree, ect… My reply was “you said draw your vision of a house and my house has trees, a dog and several windows ect… That is how I see a house. He smiled and then put my paper in his briefcase.

So in regards to detail and our surroundings; “are you seeing what you are looking at?” I think it was renowned photographer Jay Maisel that was quoted as saying that. And it is so true; many times we don’t really see what we’re looking at. As a photographer it is a great piece of advice to get in the habit of asking yourself that question as your setting up a shot or scouting a location. And another odd but incredible tool for “seeing what you’re looking at” is to use a mirror. Smack my face and call me crazy, but I noticed many years ago how different a scene looked in a mirror. Because most times we use a mirror in our house to look at our self and we are so familiar with the scene we tend to just take it all for granted… But take a mirror and stand outside and look behind you and you surely will see the whole scene just a little differently than if you look at it straight on. Try to use a rectangle mirror, a side mirror from an old truck door will work and change between landscape & portrait. This really is nothing new as I had seen a director doing this while setting up shots for a video he was working on. At the time I thought he was crazy, years later it hit me while driving down the road and I figured it all out. Looking in my rearview mirror one day I saw the most beautiful landscape scene. It looked as if it had been taken from a storybook. But this is a road I had driven on for many years of my life and I had just never seen it from that perspective. Not to mention mirrors will sometimes cast a bluish color to the scene and this can give a little different feel to a scene, making the sky & clouds stand out.

It really comes down to perspective and how you approach a scene and what you can pull out of the scene that is being overlooked. My weakest point can sometimes be seeing reflections. Many times I have looked at a scene that had a wonderful water reflection and it would not stand out right away. However they say learn from your weakness and I have. Now I force this to the front of my mental checklist and after a while it comes as second nature. Another great tool is having a second pair of eyes. When doing a model shoot it can sometimes be daunting trying to interact with the model/s and dealing with ambient issues such as wind, heat or cold, maybe your lighting is causing you a nervous breakdown and now you are also supposed to see the little things like stray hairs across the eyes & face or maybe a wrinkle in the wardrobe. These are just a few of the things that can drive me crazy in post. If it is a large shoot then of course I will have an assistant as my second eyes, plus the hair stylist and makeup artists and maybe even the clothing designer. Or there could be an art director overseeing the project and working together as a team is so much easier to see when a small detail is out-of-place. But if I’m working on a personal project it may be just me and a makeup artist and it makes it a little harder to see what is out-of-place. Again I have to ask myself; “are you seeing what you’re looking at?” It is so easy to get caught up in the moment and distracted. I’ll be the first to say that “yes” I make note cards for when I’m shooting. I know my weaknesses and I know I am a disorganized mess. As much as I can notice details about a lot of things in life, however like most people when I am rushed or there is pressure I tend to get three steps ahead of myself. If it is just me and the camera shooting wildlife or nature I’m ok and I can handle the pressure (if there is any). Maybe rain is moving in and I’m trying to finish the shot, not a big deal. But if I’m working with people I know full well there is a chance for pressure. It does not mean there will be pressure, but the potential is there so I will prepare my little note cards a day or more in advance. Most times I will have a shot list and wardrobe changes or looks. I will also have a locations list if we are outside and I may go further and put some plan “B” notes on the card, just in case a location becomes unavailable at the last-minute. I try not to make my notes too complicated; they are mostly a guideline to follow. But aside from those notes I will have a mental checklist that I will stop and think about. Asking myself; are you shooting both landscape & portrait? Are you seeing everything you are looking at? Is focus sharp? What would this look like with another lens? Where is the light coming from? (Natural light) And the list goes on and it repeats as I’m shooting. I equated it to being a professional driver because a professional truck driver should always be scanning his mirrors. He/she should be in a mode of constantly scanning from looking at the path of travel as well as what is happening alongside of the vehicle. For me shooting a camera is similar if I want to see what I’m looking at. I try to keep my mental checklist rolling through my mind as I’m working the shoot. Am I always able to do it? No. But I strive to do it. Sometimes distractions or the situation will hamper me from the flow; however it is what I strive for.

Thanks so much for reading and have a great day.

Part 2 Improving Your Photography Skills (the power of the personal photography assignment)

Model Cynthia Ann with hair & makeup by Aryn Wilson.

Model Cynthia Ann with hair & makeup by Aryn Wilson.

Part one of two:
If you really want to grow as a photographer you have to be challenged. Imagine a video game with one level… Kind of doesn’t really exist and why? Boring! How about a race where you are the only competitor? Not much of a challenge. But take anything we do in life and add a challenge to it and it becomes interesting. After all what is life in and of its self? Just a bunch of challenges, that’s it, just a bunch of challenges.
So you want to grow as a photographer? Give yourself a challenge. Or as I like to call them “assignments.” It doesn’t matter whether you are a total beginner or a professional, or whether you are a hobby shooter that just got a new camera for Christmas. Or a working commercial photographer. I can tell you first hand that there is no greater thing that you could be doing to improve your photography skills than going out and capturing images. But the process must be focused and have a purpose or a goal. It must have an end result that you want to accomplish. Example; you say to yourself “I have the whole day free and I want to go and capture images and just have fun.” Ok… Was there any kind of plan? Or are you just gonna go out the door and hope something happens. Now don’t get me wrong, walking out the door with the camera and having it with you all the time is a great habit to get into. After all I wrote a post sometime back about the best way to capture an amazing photo is to first have the camera with you. Sounds stupid I know, so yes always have some sort of camera with you… And don’t get me started on the “well I always have my iPhone.”
Now let’s get to it. Think of what it is you want to get better at. Do you want to take better portraits? Maybe you want to improve your landscape skills. How about you shooters that would like to capture sports? Or do you just want to improve a specific skill? Myself a few years back I decided I wanted to improve my long exposure skills. But rather than just going out and letting something happen I decided to give myself an assignment and make something happen. In the end I hit my goal and the accomplishment felt good, not to mention I had a few great images that I could print and hang up. The images drew lots of compliments and most of all I improved my long exposure skills and I have that tool under my belt. I don’t always shoot long exposure, however it is so nice that when I want to do it, I can. It makes a nice skill for capturing exotic backgrounds that I use in my Photoshop composites. And it all started with a personal assignment. Here is a breakdown of what I did.
I looked at a lot of long exposure photos at the various places I visit on the web. I read as much as I could on the subject, also spent some time at Youtube. But it doesn’t matter whether you read ten books, watch twenty videos and talk to fifty people about it. You still have to go out and do it. Now for long exposures a photographer needs a neutral density filter for the lens. It helps block light allowing the shutter to stay open for long periods of time hence the term long exposure. So I purchased the filter and then I chose a location. Many photographers like to capture moving clouds or moving water with long exposure. I chose water because it is always available. Clouds on the other hand are not always optimum or there may just be no clouds that day. So I have the equipment, the location, the subject and I chose a day when I had plenty of time available. My assignment was to successfully capture some great long exposures of a sunken forest and a local reservoir. The image would show the old tree trunks rising up out of what would look like ice.
So where’s the challenge you might ask. First and for most I chose a very cold day in the winter to do this and that was no fun. But that is when I had the free time and it increased the challenge. The rest was just a matter of calculating how long to keep the shutter open and composing or framing up the scene. Not falling in the water or getting the camera and gear wet also added to the challenge. After about 3 hours I was ready to call it a day and head home. Upon downloading the images and to see my work unfold in front of me was very rewarding. Then came all the fun of editing and choosing whether to keep the color or go with a black & white. In the end I hit my goal and learned a new photography skill along the way.
Now I challenge you to give yourself an assignment. Plan it out, read about it or take a class on it. Write it out and make a plan. Gather the gear you need. Purchase the proper gear or borrow from a friend. Make a gear checklist and plan your date, time and subject. Expect the unexpected after all it is a challenge. Do the assignment with another photographer. Some people are motivated to workout at the gym with a workout partner, so maybe you can do this with your assignment.
In part two, I will talk about a much larger and more complex assignment.
Part Two:
In part one I spoke about how giving yourself personal assignments will cause you to grow as a photographer. My previous post gave a real life example of what a personal photography assignment is. Because I continually want to grow as a photographer and as an artist I have actually given myself harder assignments as time goes on. Last year I decided that needed (not wanted) to learn how to work with models and conduct both location shoots and studio shoots. So I laid out a personal project that involved finding an interesting location and I put together a team and did the shoot. Two models, two hair & makeup artists and a clothing designer. I learned a lot and had fun along the way. The location being the old Eastern States Penitentiary made for a very interesting location and was very challenging because we could not start shooting until 5:00pm. The biggest challenge was light or I should say the lack of light. Plus when your shooting with a team of people there is the challenge of getting everybody and everything to come together. Then there were the micro assignments leading up to the shoot. Things like planning out the locations to shoot within the location itself. This required two trips to ESP to look and decipher what windows, doorways or hallways would be the best spots. In the end I captured some nice images but I know I should have done better.
The studio project went much better, I had scheduled three models for the day and two stylists/makeup artists. The day of, two models and one makeup artist actually showed up and in the end we captured nice images. Sometimes I link one project to another. The images captured at the studio shoot would later be used for another project, where I would use the studio images to make composites in Photoshop. The backgrounds for the composites would come from Thailand. I had a personal trip planned for traveling to Thailand and I thought this would be a great opportunity to make a specific goal of seeking out locations and capturing images to be used for backgrounds to finalize the Photoshop composites.
As I have come to learn with photography not only do personal projects create growth in knowledge and real life experiences, but the projects are what people notice if you use the power of social media to let the world see what it is you’re doing. After all, I could post all of the photos of customers that I have done portraits for and while the photographs may look nice, they are nothing more than just portraits, nice but not that interesting to the mainstream. But when you do something as simple as dressing a model up as a scarecrow it all of the sudden gets people’s attention and lets them see something more interesting than just a portrait.
So now for the upcoming year I have been planning out my projects and most will be moving in the same direction as last year, while at the same time being a little different and… yes more interesting. Certainly there will be projects that will center on making more composite images in Photoshop because this is the overall direction I want to follow as an artist. I’m using my photography as a skill or tool to actually create and therefore I feel I am more an artist than a photographer. I guess you could say an artist with a camera.
I will say it again “no matter what your skill level, if you want to grow as a photographer, give yourself a personal assignment.” It really is a lot of fun and it will give you the skills to improve your shots at the next family wedding, maybe the next vacation or just having fun with the kids and grandchildren. Just do it and have fun.

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