Monday, September 3, 2007

The Myth of Talent

Recently I read an article written by Craig Tanner and posted on his site at called, The Myth of Talent. I highly recommend it to people in all walks of life, but it will have particular resonance for anyone whose dream is photography (or any creative endeavor).

The gist of his article, for me, is that we shouldn't buy into common notions about talent—that you either have it or you don't. Talent, in his words, is something that you develop through passion and a belief in your future.

These days, I sometimes feel impatient that I'm not consistent in producing top-quality photos. And, as I've been trained to do through experience, I wonder whether I have the necessary talent to reach my goals. Tanner made a clean break with his dead end job fifteen or more years ago and toured the western United States, taking 7000 or so photos along the way, to pursue his dream of becoming a nature photographer. He was shooting slide film at the time, and sent all his rolls off for processing. They were all waiting for him when he returned home at the end of the six months. As he described them, his slides were abysmal. Instead of quitting in shame or disgust, he adjusted his goals and began to practice closer to home. He finally built up his talent and his portfolio to where he is considered a "talented" photographer now. When he receives compliments, he has to resist the urge to tell people just how hard it was to achieve the level of success he enjoys now. When we see someone with obvious talent, we tend to think they just popped out of the box that way. Not so, according to Tanner.

Reading Craig's article helped put things in perspective for me. I've changed jobs and even professions several times in my life, usually when I've become bored or saw no future in it. Perhaps a lack of vision at certain points? This time, there is no turning back. Even when I produce poor results, the process itself is still enjoyable. And when I produce great results, the elation is like nothing I've experienced before. The most important point I took from Tanner is that I shouldn't expect perfection every time I pick up my camera. Try for it? Yes. But expect it? No.

Last week, a friend of mine, and a fairly successful photographer, mentioned to a group of us that he needed a "second shooter" for a wedding he had booked for this past Saturday. Having shot three low-budget weddings on my own this season, I felt ready to take on this responsibility on a shoot that was as important as this one was. This was a high-budget wedding with high expectations from all concerned.

I went into the event with the goals of making as good photographs as I could for my friend and to learn as much as I could from him. But, when I took my DVD of RAW files over to his studio today, I had a feeling that I had let him down. Don't mistake me. There were some excellent photos on the disk. But there were some real clunkers, too.

The reason some of the images didn't turn out well is that I broke what I assume to be a cardinal rule in photography. For some time now, I've relied mostly on two lenses, both of which are image stabilized with a constant f/2.8 aperture over their zoom range. But their zoom ranges don't overlap each other. In fact there's a gap of about 45mm between the high end of one and the low end of the other. So, I pulled another IS lens out of my bag that filled the gap, but it ranges from f/4 to f/5.6, depending on focal length. We were shooting both indoors and out late in the afternoon, and I simply had not accustomed myself to this lens to get the best use from it. And I left it on till after the sun set (usually no problem with an f/2.8 lens). I should have used my 17-55mm f/2.8 IS that would cover me well in low light instead of trying to get some extra reach with a slower lens.

This will be the first advice offered in this blog, but it's based on a lesson I learned the hard way. Don't use new equipment for the first time on an important photo shoot. Take it out and test it first, so that you know it well enough to get what you expect from it when you're on the job.

Following Craig Tanner's advice, no matter how the feedback comes back to me on this most recent shoot, I'm going to continue moving forward without letting this foolish choice affect how I feel about my talent, because talent = desire + perseverance.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Catching Up

A month or so before my last post, I attended my photo society's symposium in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Put this on your watch list, by the way, for next May 17-18. It will be called the Mid-America Photography Symposium. We're reaching out to our sister organizations in two neighboring states, Oklahoma and Missouri, to make this a regional symposium for the first time. As we grow, the quality of instructors, speakers and activities will only improve.

Anyway, this time, instead of simply attending and enjoying, I taught two classes and was more involved because of my board membership. So, I didn't come away with as many images as I used to. But I did learn quite a bit, and I began to give more focus, as a result, to where I wanted to take my photography career.

Anyone familiar with my work to date knows that I simply love architecture—daytime, nighttime, in any kind of weather. Prior to this year's night model shoot, attendees were gathering in front of the hotel, and I stepped across the street to take this night shot of the Basin Park Hotel. I've shot it a number of times in daylight, but this was my first opportunity at night.

I started this blog with the best of intentions to post regularly, but a modicum of success seems to be getting in the way! Although I haven't hung out a shingle, as they say, I'm still getting lots of word of mouth advertising. As each new project comes along, I add to my backlog of images to be processed. It's given me a tremendous appreciation for working professionals who don't yet have anyone on staff to handle such things for them. With a full time job and dozens of photography assignments coming along, I simply fell behind. I owe myself a complete redesign of my web site, but I've had to push it back. It's kind of an interesting situation to be in. I need a polished web site to bring in more business, but I'm doing too much business at the moment to devote the needed time to the web site.

As I mentioned, I like architectural photography (which was one of the classes I taught this year at our symposium), and I have always tended to photograph nature or inanimate objects (like buildings). I think I always had a feeling that this sort of photography was simpler, people being as particular about how they look in a photograph as they sometimes are, especially when they're paying for the photographs. Buildings never complain if you show their flaws. But, it occurred to me that, short of breaking into the world of fine art or architectural photography, photographing people is what's most likely to pay the bills in the short term. So I determined to put people into my repertoire. To my surprise and delight, they are lots more fun to photograph than I had thought. And the creative possibilities with people are much greater than with found objects.

Back to the symposium this past May...

From the Basin Park Hotel, we moved on up the street to photograph models. We really appreciate the models who join in with us at our symposium. We contract with them through their agency on a Trade For Prints basis. They come away with hundreds of photos to add to their portfolios, and we get the chance to photograph people with modeling experience. The rules of the night shoot are: no flash, and anything else goes. This session is always fun and can be extremely challenging to folks who haven't done low light photography before. The moody image of the young model above had a lot of clutter and an overall red cast from the neon lighting from a store. With a little work in Corel PhotoPaint and using the vignette tool, I'm pleased with the effect.

I was determined to get better shots this year—without benefit of a tripod—so I bought a Canon EFS 17-55 f/2.8 IS lens just before the event. Wow! What a difference a lens can make! It did exactly what I expected it to do for me, and it's become my workhorse ever since. I was able to shoot hand held, at no more than ISO 800, using only street or store window lighting and get crisp, sharp results.

For instance, the picture of Jazmynn, above, was shot at f/2.8, 1/20 sec. at ISO 800 with an effective focal length of 60 mm (37 mm on my 30D). The rule of thumb for hand held photography is to have a shutter speed equal to or greater than the inverse of the focal length to avoid blurriness from camera shake. With a slower, non-IS (Image Stabilized) lens, I doubt I could have captured this image without some serious compromise in quality. To get 1/60 sec. in this same light with a non-IS, f/3.5 lens, I calculate I would have had to push to ISO 3200. I challenge you to take a sharper image with studio lighting at 1/250 sec.

Speaking of fast IS lenses, I borrowed a Canon EF 70-200 mm, f/2.8 IS L series lens from three different friends for several recent shoots. My guilt finally started to get the best of me, so I figured a way to buy my own. I'll talk about this lens at another time. It rocks!

If you were observant, you noticed I mentioned above editing images in Corel PhotoPaint. Although I own PhotoShop, and I've used it at my job for the past six years, I've never learned to do with it—as quickly or as efficiently—what I can do with Corel's product. It could be the seventeen years' experience I've had with PhotoPaint that skews me that way. But I really do intend to become proficient with PhotoShop. The same things that PhotoShop layers make easy are somewhat more difficult with PhotoPaint, although, for the sake of argument, not impossible. But, well, EVERYBODY uses PhotoShop, and the release of CS3 has finally nudged it ahead of PhotoPaint, in my book. If Adobe would just copy some of Corel's ease of use features, it would be a slam dunk to switch.

The next morning, we had sessions in the four studios we set up in the hotel. The image of Rock, above, and the next two images are from some of those sessions. Up till now, I've never had use of an actual studio, so I've had to use available light for all my photography. Our photo society recently decided to offer extended memberships to our members. For those of us who participate, we share time in a fully-equipped studio. Now I'll have the facilities to explore this area of photography more aggressively.

Above, Jazmynn posed again for a fun shoot in the studio. I keep reading about the huge upsurge in popularity of Senior Photography. I can't wait to get started.

The title of this post was "Catching Up." I think I had a lot of it to do—and much more yet to come.

In coming posts, I'll talk about some of the amazing opportunities I've had come my way over the past couple of months and share some more photos from them. There have been a number of concerts (you REALLY need to get a backstage pass—it makes everything so much easier), a couple of weddings, a family shoot, great Fourth of July fireworks photos, and charity events.

I hope to cover this last item in more detail later. I've read it any number of times, but doing charity events really gets your name out. And, when folks at these things see some pro gear hanging off your shoulders, they ask for your card. It goes the other way, too. I shot a wedding at a church in Fayetteville back in June. I did a back to school charity event there yesterday for underprivileged kids. A nice young lady who knew the bride from the June wedding, and who had seen her pictures, came up to me and asked for a card. Her wedding is in January.

Keep shooting...

Thursday, June 14, 2007

On competition

I started life with hardly a competitive bone in my body. A couple of years of pee wee football and, later, a couple of years of swim team in high school. I was always a better speller than anyone in my school, but I simply had no stomach for the spelling bee. Consequently, I have very few ribbons and trophies like lots of other guys I know.

Once I joined my photography club, and I was feeling around for a place, I found myself seeking validation in a way I'd never done before. "What do you think of this?" "Could you give me some feedback...?" We have a monthly competition on our website, so I started entering. I won several first place awards and didn't get votes on a whole lot more. I entered county fair competitions, TV morning mugshot competitions. Anything to get some validation that I took good photographs. I found a competitive side of myself I'd never known before. But something wasn't quite right. I submitted images that I knew, without a doubt, deserved at least a third, if not a second or first place award. They were, in my opinion, that good. And yet many of them did not place. And this feeling started growing in me that I wasn't really getting any valuable feedback, win or lose.

Why do people go into photography? Lots of reasons. Some are surely competitive. For most, it's more likely that there's an artistic or aesthetic drive at work. For my first 35 years or so behind a camera, I imagined myself as an artist waiting to be discovered. This competition thing didn't really fit. I started noticing what types of images won competitions. More often than not, there was bold color and contrast in the winning entries, mine included. The question that started gnawing at me was whether a photograph had to win an award to be a truly "good" photograph. I had my doubts.

This morning, I had occasion to read one of Allain Briot's essays, Art and Facts, where he helped put it all into perspective for me: "Art is not a race, a match, a competition. Art is inspiration, skill, talent, personal expression and yes, if you ask, luck as defined in my essay Being an Artist."

Winning a competition entails appealing to some judge's preconceptions of what's good, whether he bases his conclusion on what he considers measurable facts (technical merit) or on emotional impact. Creating art, as Allain pointed out so well, requires being attuned to your own feelings and vision.

I'm going to enter one final image in our monthly competition. You be your own judge. I'll let you know how it fares. I'd also enjoy hearing your thoughts on photo competitions.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

On beginnings

A few years ago, I resumed a pastime that I had thought early in life might be my profession. It turned out that my life took many twists and turns totally unrelated to that initial impulse. Still working, and nowhere near retirement, I began buying digital cameras back in 2002. First, a cheap, underpowered model to try it out. I quickly moved on to a more expensive DSLR. Then some lenses and various gadgets, then another camera and another. And another.

In 2004, I came across a really unique group of photographers scattered across parts of NW Arkansas, Eastern Oklahoma and Southern Missouri that met in Fayetteville, Arkansas, under the name of the
Photographic Society of Northwest Arkansas. Since then, my education has begun anew. I'm now the secretary/treasurer for this organization, and we meet in Springdale, Arkansas. I'll never lose my fascination with and love for gadgets, but I've begun to focus on what it really means to "be" a photographer. My library of photography books is increasing, and my subscription list is out of control.

There are so many choices. Can I replace my current income, and handle the various burdens I've accumulated, through photography? If so, do I focus on fine art? Commercial? Do I follow my interests or do whatever pays?

I'm becoming confident in my technical abilities and the quality of my work, but I'm finding more questions than answers. Feel free to visit my
website, which, at the moment is woefully behind what I've been shooting for the past six weeks - several charity events, six concerts, a wedding, etc.

Recently, an old friend of mine from Kansas created a new blog,
Ideas to Images, and it crystalized a thought I'd had for a while: to create a blog of my own where I could document my journey as a photographer. I've long been inspired by several talented photographers who are also prolific writers and who share their knowledge through the web. Chief among these is Michael Reichmann's Luminous Landscape, where I could spend whole days just reading his and his guest writers' thoughts on their art and craft. It occurred to me that I might be able to provide something of value to less-experienced photographers by discussing what I'm doing, why I'm doing it, what I'm learning, and share some of my work. I have no illusions that anyone will expect expert advice from this blog. But I may get lucky and get some valuable feedback from—I would hope—interested readers who help determine the directions I go in.

So, there you have it. The beginning of another, perhaps, mundane journal. We'll see.