Week 10 DLS exercises 2011: get into the groove

This week (yes, I'm late - sorry!) the idea is to start getting into the groove of taking portraits.  No no - I'm not going to make you go out and shoot portraits of anyone (yet) but I am going to ask you to do a writing/research exercise.  I want you to pick at least 3 different genres of photography (babies, landscape, photoshop art, boudoir, wedding, pin-up, etc.) and find several websites of photographers in that genre whose work you like.  Try and deconstruct what it is that you like about their style (technical critique) and try to imagine yourself shooting in that style.  How does it make you feel?  What do you think the challenges would be for you as a photographer?  For the client(s)?  What are things you would like to do to hone your skills if you were going to specialize in that genre?

You are welcome to write a bit, share some weblinks, or just cruise around and absorb and think.  We will be discussing this in depth on April 3rd.  Right before I make you shoot real people.  ;)  Happy hunting!

Can of Worms: putting the baby on the thistle

I had a bad day yesterday.  The worst in a long time, actually - emotionally and mentally exhausting to the point where all I could do was just hold on long enough to get through my evening, get the kids to bed, and get a good cry in.  Ever have those days?  Yeah - they suck, right? So that was my day.

Online communities are amazing places - they foster a sense of community on a global level that was unheard of until the advent of the internet.  The down side of internet communication is that even with the assistance of emoticons, smileys, and lols, there is always a missing human element, that oh so important factor that allows people to get you because they can read your physical cues, the tone of your voice, and all that other non-verbal stuff that is impossible to parlay with any kind of consistency.  The upshot of that is that social retards like me end up with their foot in their mouth, running around in circles aimlessly trying to point out subtle cues like the use of "I" statements when I state an opinion that someone reads with emotions instead of cold and detached debating skills.  Without meaning to, I can singlehandedly alienate large groups of perfect strangers in seconds flat, because they don't "get" me.

~heavy sigh~

I was added to a photography group the other day, and within 48 hours I had managed to change a relatively harmless question into a raging debate where people got all up in knots because I used an analogy to describe how *I* felt about the issue that someone else read as a personal attack.

~sigh with an oh man headshake~

I know someone will ask, so I'll just go ahead and elaborate.  The question was to CD or not to CD, which inevitably led to the conversation about banding together to make the competition about our skill and style as a photographer not our prices by not including the CD and standardizing prices and and and...

~double sigh~

We all complain that gas prices are fixed.  Nobody likes price fixing.  Yes, it's harsh to liken price-fixing in the photography community to the scene in Titanic where the passengers in steerage are locked below deck to prevent them from taking spots from the first-class passengers on the lifeboats, but this is really, truly, honestly how I feel about the issue.  While I see the logic in many of the arguments people offer in support of standardizing photography prices (it levels the playing field, it makes it more profitable for photographers, etc. etc.) I also think that people who have to (or like to) shop at WalMart will be pantsless if the price for trousers was standardized by Prada, the same way some families and individuals already struggle to pay for pictures.  The fact that upstart photographers are charging less while they build their portfolio is a threat to established photographers is as ridiculous as Prada feeling threatened by WalMart.  The target market is different, plain and simple.  When you have a few minutes, I strongly urge you to check out this TEDtalk by Johanna Blakely - it drives this point home hard and fast.

I am well aware of the fact that there is a desire within the photography industry to return to the good old days where you needed to be not only a lighting expert but a chemist and accountant to run a photography business and it was easy to justify extremely high prices because the cost of operating was HUGE and several manual skillsets were required.  There weren't auto-mode cameras, free editing and accounting software, and professional labs to outsource these things to... and there are always going to be hacks, and there are always going to be people who can create stunning images with a cheap point and shoot, but the bottom line is this: the good old days are gone so you can either try and throw the industry back into the dark age, or shut up and shoot.

I teach photography (the boring stuff like the law of reciprocity and what the rule of thirds is and how to break it) and during one of this year's workshops we ended up having a discussion (briefly) about settting ourselves apart from "the competition."  I don't know why my brain came up with the analogy of a baby on thistle - I guess I love picking on babies because they are small and defenseless - but there it was, and here it is.  Currently, the trends in baby photography include composite digital renderings of babies hanging in knitted things from impossibly thin branches wearing funky hats while propped up on their elbows.  It also involves removing unsightly bags and pimples and skin flakes from newborns to create a very particular aesthetic appeal.  Now, regardless of my personal opinion on how this might be detrimental to the self-images of our children, I realize it's a matter of personal choice so I take no exception with photographers who specialize in creating digital art or parents who choose to commemorate the arrival of their child by having a beautiful piece of digital art created.  It's a free world, right?  But then you end up with people who view this as the industry "standard" and they aspire to mimic these trends.  Pretty soon everyone is out buying knitted things to hang babies in and buying digital skin patches, the market gets saturated, people complain about being copied, blame the newbies who undercut their business for their drop in sales, enter price-fixing arguments... and we're back to square one.  (Psst! If you didn't watch Johanna Blakely's TEDtalk, you REALLY need to go do that now.)  So while the whiners whine, the tough innovate.  We've all seen the smooth-skinned sleeping baby in the knitted thing wearing a long toque while propped on their elbows in a 3 foot tall fig tree.  What we haven't seen is a screaming baby on a bed of thistle.

What it boils down to for me is quite frankly, I'm really tired of hearing the plight of the poor photographer, the wishy washy justifications that we (some photographers) are all supposed to adopt when they (some other photographers) feel they aren't making "enough" and need someone (newbies) or something (the wrong camera) to blame their complacency on (they all copy me) and start looking for ways to squeeze more money out of clients (let's get everyone to restrict the provision of CDs!)  If "enough" for Person A is turning a profit of 150% and that conflicts with Person B whose "enough" is making a couple hundred bucks with the dSLR birthday gift they got that allows them the flexibility to be home during the day with their children, then so be it.  If you are providing wall prints and albums and branded packaging, you have to charge more to cover the cost of operating your business and cater to the wishes of your clientele base so raise your prices; if you are burning a disc of unedited pictures and using a free blog service, you can pass those savings along to your clients.  Beauty!  So, people with large amounts of disposable income are free to spend their money on high priced photography with all the bells and whistles like fancy packaging and private galleries that reflects their desires, and people with small amounts of disposable income are fortunate enough to get amazing custom photographs of their children at a price that fits within their budget from the newbies.  Whatever you're going to do, do it, don't talk about it.  If you believe you are worth $600 a print, build it, and they will come, and if they don't, you're doing something wrong and perhaps you need to remember how and why people shop for photography.  You need to figure out how to put your baby on thistle, and the only way to accomplish that is to just Shut up and shoot.

We're photographers, not doctors in the emergency room.  What we do is both priceless and invaluable.  While some people think that this is a socialist perspective, it is in all actuality the epitome of capitalism, where the economy is driven by competition in a free market.  If we wanted to keep it "fair" we would have to address the larger social issue of elitism through consumerism and change the cultural perception that value is associated with a price tag.  We would therefore need to focus on retaining control of our small home-based photography businesses so that we don't end up like the clothing industry where Prada and Gap are outsourcing the manufacture of their higher-priced goods to the same sweatshops in China as WalMart to maximize profits.  (Like sending images off to third-party post-processors in India for pennies a picture to maintain a high volume of turnover.  Yeah - I went there... remember that whole part about disenchantment a couple of weeks ago?  I'm just getting started on sharing dirty little secrets that support the concept behind this cultural revolution... in the coming weeks expect: women as photographers, the dehumanization of business, and why most pricing strategies suck your will to live.)

Ignorance can certainly be bliss.  And so I walked away from the debate yesterday.  I was feeling defensive and reacted emotionally.  I'm only human, and in a moment of self-preservation I chose to retreat so I could regroup and have this conversation with myself:  Why am I outspoken?  Because I feel passionately about what I do.  Is it going to make me popular?  No, probably not.  Is it going to make people like me?  Well, no, not really.  Is it going to make people think?  Yes.  If I'm going to talk about a revolution, I need people to talk to, to hash out details, to hold honest and open discourse with, to explore the hidden crannies and shed light on the darkest corners.  I want to shake people and when they feel as uncomfortably shaken (and disenchanted) as I do, not to blame me for pointing out the obvious but to take the opportunity to look inside and say, why did this touch a nerve?

I'm never comfortable walking into a room full of photographers - real or virtual - because it's hard to convey my often unpopular ideas without people get their hackles up and wanting to lynch or vilify or ostracize the person (me) who says all those things that it's easier to ignore or justify than admit or acknowledge.  I don't LIKE offending people, but it happens and I don't believe I should have to apologize or feel guilty about not wanting to join the legions of self-pitying photographers sitting around patting one another on the bum, encouraging one another to find ways of driving prices up and using scapegoats for the floundering (or failure) of their businesses - I want to motivate, stimulate, innovate!  Revolutionary ideas that challenge the status quo are never easily welcomed or adopted, especially when our attention is divided between retaining the respect, friendship, and loyalty of our peers and not selling out by being tongue-tied about that which we feel most passionate.  Of course I want people to LIKE me, but more than being liked I NEED to be accepted and respected for who I am, including my social ineptitude, which a group of us have taken to referencing as being loved right down to the pores on our polyps.

Once upon a time, women had no right to vote because women weren't legally recognized as people.  Once upon a time, it was legal to own human beings as slaves.  Once upon a time, a dude named Jesus was hung on a cross because his idea of peace and love made people revolt against being raped and pillaged by their political leaders.  And before anyone points out that women's suffrage was a long time ago or the fact that I'm not a descendent of black slaves or thinks I'm delusional because I just compared myself to Jesus - they are merely references to people who spread ideas that sparked monumental social change.  What we see now as barbaric or narrow-minded or discriminatory was once the norm - what if they had kept their mouths shut and thrown in the towel?

So.  I will pull my tail out from between my legs (and my head out of my ass) and return.  I'm quite possibly (definitely) going to say things that will probably (hopefully) make people think (and re-evaluate) their perspective.  If it makes people feel uncomfortable or offended, then it's likely not because of what I said but a reaction to something that is felt or understood deep within oneself, something that is in disagreement with what that which we've been told is the accepted cultural norm.  Turning a blind eye is easy; the value of a good debate lies not within its ability to change minds or sway opinions, but to open our eyes, and in doing so broaden the scope of and clarify our understanding of why we think and feel what we think and feel.  It's about putting the baby on the thistle so that people stop and say, Wow - I've never seen it that way before.

newLOVE: words not needed

Mostly, I just wouldn't want to freak you out by making you think I'm a cannibal since most of the words I'd use to describe Mr. L (delicious, edible, scrumptious, delectable) are generally associated with eating.  I don't want to eat this baby, but I want to eat this baby, yes?  ~sigh~

(eh? drooling a little yet?)

Even when he was mad at me I thought about biting off his adorable little cheeks.

It just doesn't get any better than this.  Sheer perfection.  If Mr, L was a food, he'd be a chocolate covered almond.

Week 10 , 2011 exercise: The Great Outdoors!

FINALLY! I can send you outside, with the weather wanting to cooperate and all....

We're about to start gearing up for more and more creative exercises, ones that challenge you to apply the skills you've acquired while thinking BEYOND the technical aspects.  You have the Law of Reciprocity down, you know the different between symmetry and balance when referring to a picture, it's time to roll into the next phase and get ready for portraiture, starting with yourself as a guinea pig!

You have 3 self portraits to create this week:

1.) A self portrait done with reflection.

2.) A self portrait done with shadow.

3.) A self portrait that does not contain a single part of your body.  (Hint: if your friends went travelling and stumbled across something that would immediately remind them of YOU, what would it be?)

Get outside, inhale, breathe, ENJOY the rising temps!  My pics are coming tomorrow!!!!

RETRO CAFE with Amber Lee April 17, 2010 in Edmonton, AB

Amber Lee presents:

     Mixin’ it up for hungry photographers! 

2nd floor, Hazeldean Hall, 9630 – 65 Ave Edmonton
10am - 4pm April 17, 2011, Coffee, tea, lunch included
Cost: $175 ($150 early registration ends March 17, 2011)
Limited spaces available – don’t miss out!!!

On the menu for April 17, 2011

The Evolution of Pin-Up                         10:00 am
Porn or Art?  From nudie cards and Rods and Broads to modern boudoir, learn about the rise and fall (and reinvention!) of the genre since its humble beginnings

Cheesecake                                             10:30 am
Tips and tricks for making it delicious by conceptualizing ahead of time to pick the perfect location and select just the right props, backdrops, posing, and facial expressions to get a heaping pile of sweet cheesiness. Or is it cheesy sweetness?

Take-out                                                  11:15 am
A step-by-step guide you can reference out in the field when advising clients or professional stylists and make-up artists who are creating vintage looks with hair, make-up and costumes, with a special focus on the 1940s and 1950s

Lunch                                                     12:00 pm
(FREE! please alert us to any food allergies or concerns)
Visit Amber’s blog now to see more of what she’s been cooking up!

Sampler                                                  12:30 pm
This is your opportunity to apply what you learned in the first part of the day and create a few images for your own portfolio using the gorgeous and talented models provided for you and/or play with make-up and hairspray on yourselves and each other.

The Sweet Finish                                      2:15 pm
Learn how to take it up a notch during this live demonstration in Photoshop to recreate authentic-looking images consistent with the historical context of prints that were made before archival paper existed

Side Dish                                                    4:00 pm
Amber, a graduate of the Red Deer College of Art, has been involved with countless creative projects ranging from costuming to hat- and corset-making to burlesque performance and, of course, photography, and her newest passion is travelling.  Feel free to join Amber for a few minutes after the workshop for a brief Q&A while we pack up! 

For info and registration contact  imagerybyamber@hotmail.com
Limited spaces available - 25% sold already!

(click on the image below for a printable sheet!)

Week 9 2011 DLS exercises: in someone else's shoes

Moving right along, we're going to push the envelope this week. As of last weeks' exercise you took a leap into looking at pictures from a different perspective, one that was kinda cold and unfeeling. This week is about the OTHER side of that, which is identifying in pictures what you DO and DO NOT like. It is about identifying how those elements lend to the effectiveness of the image to convey a message. When you are able to recognize in your own and other people's images what your aesthetic preference is, you can begin understanding your own style.

Unfortunately, you do not really pick your own style. It kind of comes out all by itself. It's been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but not everyone can pull off a certain look. If you consider the world of fashion, while you may really admire the way Lady Gaga or a certain skateboarder looks, even if you purchase the exact same clothing and get the same haircut or even take it a step further and invest in plastic surgery to get a new nose, you are still going to essentially look like YOU.

Ansel Adams is credited with pointing out that there are always 2 people in every picture - the viewer and the photographer. The way you hold your camera, the way you interact with or approach your subject, the way you compose an image, the type of lighting you prefer, the lenses you favour, and the way you tweak or transform it in Photoshop all form a part of your overall style. Like developing wrinkles or getting a paint stain on your favourite jeans, over time your body of work may change drastically as you acquire new skills and equipment, but the common thread will always be something that is like an invisible signature.

Part of developing your own style is trying on different ones until you find one that fits, that you feel both confident and at ease with, and are able to do with seemingly little to no effort. Exploring other photography styles is a natural part of development and it's normal to try and shoot like those you admire. I encourage you to check out this video in the context of borrowing ideas in the fashion industry for an interesting perspective on how fashion trends being copied and reproduced forces creativity.

With your armoury of vocabulary and ability to look objectively at images, you should be able to identify elements of other photographers' work and recreate similar images. What kind of lighting was used? Are they prone to shallow depth of field? Is there a vignette or a colour wash they frequently employ? Do they use a lot of Photoshop? (Hint - pretty much all images look the same straight out of camera (SOOC) so if they look too perfect, they probably are.) Consider carefully how each of these elements contributes to whatever it is you have identified about the picture.

This week you will be asked to create an image by first finding one you like and identifying in writing the elements you will be incorporating into your own image. Please provide a link to the image from which you are drawing inspiration and/or get permission from the artist to use it on your own blog.

Below is the detailed description of me taking a walk in the shoes of Brandy Anderson of Fresh Sugar in Calgary, AB, by doing my own take on her 2010 WPPI award winning image in the category of "Fresh Faces." She also shared some of the mistakes she made as a new photographer on her and Danna Bowes's Two Photogs blog, which is well worth a read. The image I used for inspiration is here. Please view it before reading the technical critique. Brandy was kind enough to let me use the image here:

The image is backlit through panes of glass. We know it's a bus because we can see enough to identify it, and the child's face is clearly visible only where she casts her own shadow. You can tell it is either early in the day or later in the evening/afternoon because of the angle at which the light cuts through the bus. We can assume it is the morning because in autumn a child would not be coming home late enough to be in the sunset. We can also assume it is the child's first day of school as parents tend to make a point of photographing that and not just some random day like the third Tuesday in November of 4th grade. There is enough of the schoolbus included to frame the child and imply the context of heading off to school without overpowering the image. The use of subdued colour and addition of more texture (I'm pretty sure the bus window was smeary before she started lol) in Photoshop lends to the feeling of ambiguity, heightening the the underlying apprehension mirrored by both the child's and the photographer's feelings about the first day of school. It doesn't matter if the photographer was conscious of how profound the image would be. Whether these were conscious decisions or simply instinctual during post-processing does not alter the impact of this image.

This a novel way to present the first day of school to an audience. We are traditionally shown cheerful colourful happy pictures that attempt to reflect what we perceive as the ideal experience for ourselves and our children, but is not the case for every child, and certainly not for most parents who indeed feel a bittersweet mixture of trepidation and pride as they close the door on one chapter and open the next when they send their children off into the public arena of school. In a word, brilliant. This is the essence of her pictures, her style - something indelible in the way she presents what she sees through her lens that clearly illustrates to the viewer how the photographer is always present in their photographs.

While I have a kindergarten-aged child, this feeling of ambiguity is oddly enough most accurately reflected in my oldest son, who has survived elementary and junior high and is on the cusp of entering the adult world.  Recreating the setting and the lighting was the easy part - my son is too old for school busses. He uses the public bus system, and bus shelters are conveniently a) located nearby and b) made of several panes of glass. My son isn't awake early enough in the day on weekends to do this by morning light, so we used afternoon light instead. This was one of the first shots I took. While I easily succeeded in making the setting work for me, the first images were too much like a portrait. He was posing, sticking his tongue out and putting on a show. I needed him to relax.

The second attempt didn't really capture his personality well either, but I did notice the delicious lens flare I was getting and decided to go for a third attempt.

In the image below, by lowering my perspective not only did I get my nice lens flare, but I was able to really capitalize on his edgy look and personality, mostly because by this point he was growing impatient with me, wondering how much longer he was going to have to stand in a bus shelter freezing his butt off (he's wearing pyjama pants and no shirt along with that filthy hoodie) before we could go home and he could have the two extra cookies (I put them in the oven seconds before we walked outside) I had promised him for humouring me.

Once I knew I had my image, I went into photoshop to grab the following textures, which were blended as soft-light layers and adjusted to about 75% opacity. If you need some help working with textures, this is a great link. This first texture is a freebie I downloaded from a freebie site.

Tidbit of interesting information - adding textures used to be accomplished in the days of film by doing a double exposure (taking two pictures on the same frame) and in the darkroom by a technique called 'sandwiching negatives' where a second negative was sub- or super-imposed either at the same time or consecutively as the original image. The first colour photographs were actually shot using three separate film strips, making sandwiching negatives necessary to view the final image. If you have ever seen Selphy printer at work which lays down the colours in multiple consecutive passes you'll totally get it.  Anyhow...

The texture above is a shot of concrete with light coming in through one of our garage windows. I chose this as the finishing touch because not only did it have a nice grain to it, the shadow in the picture is off a bike wheel. When you remember the photographer is in every picture, if you know I am a bicycle commuter, this becomes entirely relevant.

The final image is below. While you can clearly identify many similar technical elements, it is obviously not the same as Brandy's. Mine smells like teen spirit.

Now it's your turn. Go show me what you got!