Friday, January 8, 2010

Looking Back, and Looking Ahead

"Holy crap Brian! They are awesome!!! Love love love them so far :)"

Now this is much more like it! I know I can't get a "holy crap" from every client, but it sure is nice to hear from time to time, and it's a good balm for the sting of a "we were disappointed".

Looking back over the first year of my practice, I have enjoyed success far beyond what I thought possible. With nearly 100% client satisfaction, and several "holy crap"-like exclamations, I think I have started out on the right foot. I have made some smart investments in equipment and in learning; all are showing a positive return already. I have successfully integrated the business into the household's routine, and established some degree of balance between all of the demands on my time. Ok, fine, I get a B- on that one. But I'm getting better at it. Best of all, I have had a ton of fun and taken some photos that I really like. I study and learn every day, and shoot as often as I can (while bringing up my B-). So all in all, I exceeded my expectations in 2009.

The goal for 2010 is to get good at it. I want to be able to pick up my camera, turn on the strobes, and get to the matter of shooting. I don't want to have to stop to think through all of the fundamentals; I want them to be automatic, like muscle memory, and my camera to be an extension of me. To the degree that I am an artist (subject for much self-debate in a future blog) I want to focus on my creative vision, not how to hold my paintbrush or what colors from the color wheel I need to mix. I want to develop "skill".

Oh, and I want more holy craps.

Monday, November 23, 2009

"...we were very disappointed."

It was going to happen at some point: an unhappy client. Well, in this case an unhappy mother of a client. She ordered a modest number of prints, but upon receipt found them to be unsatisfactory:

"The pictures came, but we were very disappointed in them."

I took a deep breath, in and out, then read on to the specifics. Her issues were largely well founded. Yes, that image was blurry. Yes, that image in the church was dark. Of course, they didn't get any blurrier or darker than the proofs she saw when she placed the order. And she didn't choose the plethora of well executed photographs tat were available to her. But her selection and expectation of spontaneous image improvement aside, the real issue is that I included photos in the proofing gallery that didn't meet my standards for technical merit.

Yes, I knew the image was blurry then, just like it is now. And I knew the other was too dark, just like it is now. Photoshop can only save the minor imperfections. It can't create clean, noiseless images from a near-lightless church with no artificial lighting allowed. It can't make the best smiles of the couple happen only on the sharpest of images.

So, some of the images the mother-in-law selected did not meet my technical standards. I shouldn't have included them in the gallery. But I received many opinions to the contrary. "Include them, they're cute, the couple might want them." That's the problem. They (or the mother-in-law) did want them. But they wanted the beautiful images they were imagining when they looked at my poorly botched photographs. Just Photoshop it? Really, no.

I learned a lesson. Yes, I'm still smarting from a client's criticism, but the lesson is still a fair and simple one I think: don't post images if they aren't good images. If I tried to take a photograph of an important moment, but only came away with a technically poor representation, I simply missed the moment. Sure, maybe in some spectacular forensic cases a blurry image could be worth a mint. But not at a wedding.

I have to be willing to accept that I either got the shot, or I didn't get the shot. As I get better at what I do, I hope the number of times I miss a shot declines. But when I miss the shot again, I most certainly will not wrap it in a bow of wishful thinking, sprinkle it with Photoshop filters, and post it for a client to purchase because "it was almost a cute shot".

I was my harshest critic. I'm back.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Anniversary Shoot

While I suffer with dissatisfaction over my photography, I need to prepare for tomorrow's shoot. The parents of a good friend will celebrate their 50th anniversary tomorrow, and have asked me to photograph the event. Well, actually I think I asked them. Either way, we have agreed that I will show up tomorrow with my gear and take some photographs.

I'm looking forward to it. I feel confident I can come away with some photos that capture how special the day was, and how special this couple is. It means a lot to me to get this shoot right. I have been reading books and studying photographs at every chance I get. I have asked my friend to look for any iconic photos from his parents' wedding that we might want to recreate tomorrow. I have also found some period-correct examples of couples poses that I want to try. To wrap it up, I hope to get a photo of the entire clan.

Time to get the gear set up and practice. Maybe after this shoot I'll find a glimmer of satisfaction.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I Can't Get No...


The other day I was talking with a wedding photographer who has many years of experience. During the conversation, I mentioned that although I (generally) like my images, I'm not satisfied with my photography. Her response was to the point:

"Get used to it."

Yeah, I get it. It comes with the territory, and I'm fine with that. I figure that if I ever felt satisfied with my work, then I would be done with photography; there would be no more challenge for me. Realistically, though, there is infinite challenge if I choose to open my eyes to it.

Since I started with my old Minolta X-370, the quality of my photographs has consistently improved. People started to comment on them politely, then they started to really mean their compliments. I upgraded equipment, shot lots more, and got more positive feedback. I liked my photographs, and thought others would too, so with much encouragement I started my professional practice.

I'm serious about it, so I study, read, and practice. And the more I do, the less satisfied I am. My shots aren't as sharp as I want them to be. Or the lighting is bad, with an unfortunate shadow appearing where I failed to notice it in my viewfinder. Whatever the reason, the more I learn the less satisfied I am in my work. But isn't that actually just a sign that I am indeed learning? I am learning what constitutes a good photograph, with good composition and good lighting and good exposure. I am also learning more about what I like in terms of a photographic style, and perhaps starting to define my own.

So now, after many years of ever-improving photography, my skills have seemingly regressed. I feel like I'm only just beginning to understand what I'm doing with my camera, and what's possible. Everything is in question, and I struggle with every image. I study the work of others, wondering if I can ever achieve that level of competence. Intellectually, though, I know that these insecurities are actually just the telltales that I'm growing and learning and seeing more.

I'm not satisfied, and I'm glad.

Friday, August 21, 2009


For a long time I have been pondering a problem:

* I need people to model for me so I can experiment and gain focused experience
* I don't have the bankroll to pay models for their time

A photographer acquaintance's web site gave me the answer: TFP = Time For Prints

This is exactly the solution I was thinking of, but I had no idea it had been institutionalized enough to ave a name. In essence, TFP is a bartering arrangement between photographers and models. That is, photographers who need models to practice connect with models who need experience in front of the camera and shots for a portfolio. No cash exchanged.


I am all about this bartering arrangement, and looking into how I get such a thing rolling. More news as I progress...

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Yesterday, while catching up on my bookkeeping, I channel-surfed across a photographers' competition/reality show broadcast on some obscure network. The premise of the PG-rated competition was a bit weak: a bunch of photographers (all male in this case) get paired up with a bunch of models (all women in this case) to see which photographer and which model can produce the best photograph in certain time restrictions. Or something like that. The setting was some abfab beach resort with perfect weather and exotic backgrounds. The pairings changed throughout the competition, and then at the end everybody rated everybody, along with a panel of expert raters.

The models were predictably attractive and well-practiced at being photographed. What surprised me was how good these photographers were. Even the guys who seemed to struggle with the shot assignments came away with some spectacular images. I didn't pay enough attention at the start to hear about anyone's credentials, so all I know about them is that they weren't professional photographers. Now, maybe they had some behind-the-scenes pro guidance? Or maybe they were pros posing as amateurs? Or maybe they're just that freakin' good?

Whatever the case, I was impressed and inspired. The techniques they used, the direction they gave, and the confidence they had got me thinking about the few posed sessions I have done so far. With their example in mind, I have a lot of ideas for improving my photography. I'm anxious to do my next shoot to give these ideas a try.

Could be a bit tough - my next shoot is with a horse...

Monday, July 20, 2009

Kelly's Wedding

About a month ago we shot Kelly's wedding at the Army Navy Country Club. Everything went great: the wedding went smoothly and was very nice, and the reception was a ton of fun. The band (The Joker's Wild Swing Band: 301-775-7641) was outstanding, playing a fantastic mix of dance music that had the dance floor busy all night. Between my brother, my son and I, we shot about 3,000 photos of the wedding and reception. That seems to be emerging as a standard for us. Now, after a few weeks of getting derailed, we're in the middle of editing. We should finish these in the next week or so, and then start prepping for a wedding at the Naval Academy.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Saving the Candid

Hypothesis: Taking candid photos is harder as a professional than it is as an amateur.

Discussion: For years I have been taking candid photos, mostly at events that had many people in attendance. Nobody paid me much mind; they went about their business as if I didn't exist. Oh sure, sometimes they would notice me and give the "creeping me out" expression, but generally my camera changed nothing. But when people hire you to take candid photos, they become hypersensitive to your presence, and start performing for you. I suppose culturally we're trained to "smile for the camera", so when we know there is one around, and especially one we have paid for, we pose and smile at the mere hint of a pending shutter click. Poof, away goes the "candid".

Corollary: Candid photos can only happen when the subject is more interested in their natural activity than they are in the camera.

Discussion: Get the subject distracted with an activity. But it has to be an activity that occupies their attention to the point that they forget that there is a camera in their vicinity. I did a session with a wonderful family over the weekend, focusing on their young son. For almost an hour he did his best to smile whenever he saw my camera up, or on command, or just spontaneously. The whole time he was checking to see where I was, and what I was doing with my camera. His smiles reflected his preoccupation with the camera. It wasn't until near the end of the shoot that he forgot about me. It was the swing that did it. His dad pushed him on a swing, and was goofing around with him. Sure, it was prompting, but the son forgot that I was there and was just reacting to the swing and his dad. Finally, a genuine smile. It was worth the wait.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Quick, act natural!

I took my son with me to a family portrait session on Sunday. He's a theater lighting major at Virginia Tech, and helps with the lighting, equipment, logistics, etc. He has a good eye. When he's not hauling gear or adjusting lights, he uses a spare camera I have and shoots with me.

For this session, I kept the family's attention, setting and taking the posed shots. He wandered around and took the ones we really wanted - the candids. The family wanted both posed and "real" shots. However, they were very aware of the cameras, and good candids were difficult to find. Their dogs, on the other hand, couldn't have cared less about us. So my son was able to grab some great candids of their dogs having fun.

Now I just have to figure out how to get my clients to ignore me like dogs do...

Depth of Field

The more I practice with depth of field, the more I struggle with it. I understand depth of field well, and how aperture and focal length play a role. I'm just not consistently getting the results I want. I don't own it yet. But I'm getting closer.

The other day I was taking photographs of two women on their horses. Although they were jumping the horses, I didn't want a "sports" shot. I was looking for a portrait of them while jumping. Not much distinction maybe, but for me that means I needed a very shallow depth of field. Specifically, I wanted the rider and the horse to be in sharp focus, and the background to be as diffuse as possible. No prob, I brought out my sweet 50mm f/1.4 lens. It was a sunny day, so I was at ISO 100. I like to shoot in aperture priority mode, so I set for f1.4 and checked my exposure. Not good. Too sunny, the shutter speed couldn't go high enough to compensate. I ended up at f/3.5, 1/2500 at ISO 100. The histogram was good, and the display looked ok. I checked my DOF calculator app on my iTouch and determined that my depth of field was about 10 feet, from 20 feet to 30 feet away. Perfect.

So I shot the session with those general settings, making minor adjustments as the sun went in and out. When I got home and reviewed the photos, the exposures were all great. But I was unhappy with depth of field. With the sun, I had no choice but to move up to f/3.5. But even at that aperture I expected some diffusion in the background. Nope. The background was sharp as a tack. This is not the way I like my portraits.

So what went wrong? I checked in with my local Penn Camera guy and, after spending some money, asked him what he thought. His answer elevated my understanding of depth of field quite a bit. The problem was distance to the subject.

Using my 50mm, I had to be about 25 feet away from the jump to get all of the rider and horse in the frame. That's in the range of infinity for the 50mm lens. That is, the autofocus set the lens to infinity focus. As my Penn guy reminded me, by definition when the focus is set to infinity everything in the background is in focus. My calculator didn't remind me of that fundamental principle. In order to get some diffusion in the background, I had to be closer to the subject. But then I couldn't fit the subject in the frame.

The ultimate answer: bad choice of lens. What I should have used was my 70-200mm f/4L. Now when I take my test shots, I'll look to see where I am on focus and adjust so I'm not at infinity. Another valuable lesson learned. So will I relegate my 50mm to the bottom of my camera bag. No way hoser. I'm shooting an indoor wedding on Saturday. I'll be in dim light, where every stop counts so my aperture will be f/1.4 for sure. I'll be about 25 feet away from the couple, which puts me at infinity for focus, which makes everything sharp on the alter, which is exactly what I want.

Now I just need to get out to the horse farm again and re-shoot that session with the right lens.

Monday, June 8, 2009

I spent Saturday morning doing portraits at a horse farm in Montgomery County.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

I Don't Care for Asparagus

I had a client recently who, after viewing their photos, remarked "Some I don't care for, but [there are] several that I LOVE!!!". This is very positive feedback, and I should take it as that. In fact, I think this might be the ideal client response.

But I'm struggling to get past the first five words:

"Some I don't care for"

I don't care for asparagus. That's what Mom said we should say when we disliked something beyond polite description. Just push it to the side of your plate and, if asked, simply state "I don't care for it". I'm not a huge fan of yams, but I'll eat one if pressed, just to be polite. I am definitely into a good Russet potato. So I simply say "I prefer a Russet to a yam". I reserve the "don't care for" phrase for those things that will find their place on the side of my plate.

In fairness, the client was direct and clear about their feedback on the photos I took. I value that, and appreciate the candor. I don't expect every client will fawn over every shot I present. I hope I am creative enough that I always get some mixed reaction. And I like that everyone sees something different in every photograph. So a polite rejection of an image is something I expect and can take in stride (probably). And truth be told, there are some photos in this client's collection that I prefer over others.

I'm going to have to get past the thought of some of my photographs being pushed to the side of the plate. Besides, I'm sure somebody likes asparagus.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

A neighborhood friend, who is due in three weeks, asked me to take some photos of her before she gives birth. New territory for me, and a fun challenge. She and her husband were terrific - patient, easy to work with, and engaged in the process. The result is some of the best work I have ever done. A milestone in the evolution of my practice. Today I feel like a professional.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


These people have changed me. Enough said.

Moment of Reflection

Jim Gabarra, head coach of the Washington Freedom women's professional soccer team, always seems to give a reflective moment or two with the officials during a match.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Nurses Pinning

Steph at her pinning ceremony on Friday - the first leg of the graduation trifecta.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Graduations Day

Yesterday was Graduations Day for us. Steph graduated from nursing school, I received my MBA, and Christy earned her Bachelors Degree. Busy day, tight schedule, but it all worked perfectly.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Black & White

I don't think of black & white enough. I shot this image in color, and when the couple saw it they suggested it might look better in black & white. It does. And I should have thought of it. So now I'm going back through my recent shots to see if I missed an opportunity. In particular, I'm looking at shots that I dismissed for technical problems (mostly exposure), since the monochromatic look can cover for many mistakes.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Little Guy

A friend (and local "celebrity") brought his son to Saturday's race. While dad walked, son did the 5K in his stroller. Clearly, the son is brilliant. If I had thought of that...

This little guy moves around very quickly, and it's hard to get a good photograph of him. But when he stops, it's magic.

Musical Madness 5K Race

On Saturday I helped a friend photograph a 5K race put on by the local high school music department. I have always wanted to run in the race, but have either been a volunteer or had a schedule conflict. Having forsaken the gym for the last few months, there was no chance I was running this year either.

We were asked to take lots of shots with the sponsoring businesses in the background. Looney's was the primary sponsor this year, so they feature prominently in many shots. We also took lots of shots of runners finishing; seeing themselves on the race website ( may entice them to come again next year. We even had a list of local celebrities and sponsors who were running so we could be sure to photograph them. So this was more of a commercial shoot than anything I have done before. It was very limiting in some respects. But I took my opportunities to find some fun images. One of my favorites was the start of the kids' 1K fun race. So much energy, so many comically large t-shirts.

Friday, May 8, 2009


All of the photos have been reviewed, sorted, rated, touched up, posted, and are now ready for delivery. There are about 250 in all that we're delivering. I have designed and printed the DVD labels, burned three sets of DVDs, and put them together in jewel cases. I wrote the "thank you" note to the couple, and included a few of my business cards in the package. I'll hand deliver the package tomorrow.

Now it's time to make one more backup of my work spaces for this wedding, then clean up and get ready for the next one in a few weeks. In the meantime, some event and portrait work, and plenty of practice, study, and planning.

Thursday, May 7, 2009


Besides photographing plays at my kids' old high school, I also capture images of the music concerts. Both spring and fall (and sometimes winter), I take photos of all of the performances. This past Tuesday was the first of the two-night Spring concert series. I had my camera with me, and got shots of the mixed choir, percussion ensemble, concert band, and orchestra.

I'm very careful when I shoot concerts (and I have shot a lot over 9 years). I pick loud moments so my shutter actuation isn't so noticeable. And I slump in my chair so I'm not as conspicuous. On Tuesday another guy was shooting, but he was less discrete. He likes to shoot bracketed, so he gets three shutter actuations per shot (he might do this manually, I'm not sure). And he shoots a lot. Mostly of the same thing. While I took 80 shots over the concert night, I'm pretty sure he was close to 800. His camera is loud as well, adding to the effect.

I proposed to the directors (who are also my close friends) that maybe I shouldn't shoot at concerts any more, to avoid causing the noise. And when I said "I", I really meant the other guy too. Of the three directors, one said he never noticed the shutter noise, and it wasn't a problem; one observed that the noise wasn't on the recording (but conspicuously didn;t answer my question directly); and one didn't respond. I'm not sure what to do at tonight's "Spring Concert, Part 2". But I'll bring my camera, just in case, and see what the vibe is. If its not right, I'll leave my camera in the bag. Yeah, not too likely.

On the photo above from Tuesday, note that the Concert Mistress' bow is starting to shred. As hard as she worked, it's a wonder there was anything left. Had she lost the bow completely, the time-honored tradition in string sections is for the musician to turn around and take the instrument (or bow) from the musician behind them. They do that in turn to the person behind them. When it's done, the only person left without an instrument is in the back row, and is typically a less impactful loss. Certainly, Tuesday's performance of Tchaikovsky could not have continued without the first violin. But the instrument swap wasn't needed; she just yanked the broken fibers out of her bow and played on.

Web Site

We have finally gone live with the d2 Wedding Photography web site ( We went through a pronounced delay as we waited for our template vendor to deliver. Once they did, it only took use 2-3 days to et everything loaded and configured to operate the way we wanted. Last night at about 11:00 the site went live. It will take some time to sooth out the wrinkles and make it the we want it to be. But it serves the purpose. We had to deliver wedding photos for a couple, and wanted to use the new web site as part of that delivery. One more milestone in establishing a business passed.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Letting go...or not.

After spending hours and hours reviewing, assessing, and touching up photos from the wedding two weeks ago, I have an awareness of a challenge I face: letting go, and not letting go. Sometimes I find that an image is "almost brilliant", but has a fundamental and unforgivable flaw. For example, I had a shot of the bride and groom that was nearly stellar, but for the giant head that stepped in front of me and into the frame. Most of the image is fine, but I can't crop out the head without destroying what should stay. I want to keep it - in every respect it was going to be brilliant. But it's awful, and I have to let it go.

On the other hand, sometimes the standards I put on myself cause me to reject what are to others perfectly fine photographs. That is, they're technically well executed by not my vision of art. When it comes to art, what I like is not necessarily what others like. I read an article the other day on the importance of pursuing your vision for photography, not what everyone else wants from you. I think that's wise guidance, and I subscribe to it. But at the same time, I'm sure I'm too critical of some of my images. In fact, by not showing some of these images to my client, perhaps I'm diluting the value I'm giving them. So, sometimes I have to not let go.

The photo below is an example of both. Technically, it's poorly executed. It's not crisp, it's grainy, and poorly exposed (this was shot in the rain at 7:30PM from about 50 yards away). Right, into the trash it goes. But it's really a great moment. Abby Wambach, the stellar forward for the Washington Freedom, has won the header Nikki Cross of the St. Louis Athletica, as Nikki is left only to take the full impact of Abby's 5'11" frame. This is the kind of moment, the art that I'm looking for when I shoot sports. So it's a keeper because the action is so intense. But it's such a crappy shot that I should really let it go.

I'm going to have to figure out what my decision points are, and quickly. With my 600 shots from the wedding, and 15,00 total from the team, I can't agonize over each shot or I'll never finish touch-ups. Ok, for this one, I'll...