Monday, February 23, 2009

New Booking

A past coworker sent me a note yesterday. Engaged last month, she and her fiancee had started the long process of planning their wedding. Recently her father, who was ill, took a turn for the worse. The couple felt they needed to move the wedding up, and skip the prolonged planning of a big event so her father could be there. They had already arranged many of the details, but didn't have a photographer yet. In her note she asked if I would take on the job. They will be married in six weeks.

After reading the note I took a moment to reflect on the engagement photo shoot on Saturday, and my growing feeling of dissatisfaction with the results. The question I had to confront is: can I learn enough and make the corrections needed to produce satisfactory results in six weeks? Yes, I can. I have great clarity on what I did right and wrong on Saturday. It's not hard to fix. I just need to own it. Six weeks isn't much time at all to prepare, and I still have business details to work out (bank account, state registration, contract templates, accounting, business cards,...). But I can do it.

So I took on the job.

My action plan is:
  1. Meet with the couple to talk through their wedding and nail down the photographic details
  2. Spend a day freaking out
  3. Get out the Gold Card and buy some gear
  4. Practice every day
  5. Make the magic happen
While I'm waiting to meet with the client, maybe I'll preview a little bit of #2.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


In contemporary process engineering, we identify the "as is" state, then we map the "to be" state and a plan to get there. This initial "as is" look is the baseline. We don't judge what it is, we simply note that it is where we start on our way to the "to be" state.

Today I baselined my photography practice. I have a long way to go. But I'm not judging.

Today my partner and I shot engagement photos for a young couple at a rescued mill. We know this place fairly well, as it's just a mile or so from my home. We wanted to be prepared, so we got to the site early and walked the grounds. We selected several choice places to try with the couple, scheduled to arrive an hour later. We factored in the sun, and how it would likely change, to prioritize the shooting order. We checked gear, took several test shots, and got our heads in the game.

The couple arrived on time, and we went through the shoot as we planned. Generally, everything went fine. The couple relaxed, had some fun, and was willing to try anything we asked. As expected, we struggled with lighting and shadows, especially in the old mill building. The only significant problem came late in the shoot. My partner's Nikon spazzed and refused to function. He tried everything you can do in the field without success. I carried on with the last few shots and wrapped the session. We thanked the couple and parted ways, all of us looking forward to seeing the outcome.

Over the course of the 75-minute session, I shot 335 images, while may partner shot about 500. After reflecting on the session, and reviewing the shots I took, I have learned too many things to list. A few are paramount, however.

  • I put my backpack in the car partway through the shoot, thinking I only needed my 70-200mm lens. The very next shot I needed my 28-70mm lens, and had to run to the car to get it while my partner set up the shot. I won't do that again.

  • I have the right flash gear, but I'm not using it properly. I will spend some serious time learning and practicing.

  • In post-session reflection (the afterglow), I realized that I wasn't seeing the data in the viewfinder that I normally see. It was there, but I wasn't seeing it. I shot mostly in aperture-priority mode, and occasionally in full manual. I left the ISO at 100 and let the camera sweat the right shutter speed for the aperture I set. Mistake. For some shots, especially in the old falling down mill building, I should have jacked the ISO up, probably to 400. As it was, and shooting at 200mm, I found I had some annoying lens shake.

  • Lastly, during my prep I checked every setting on the camera...except one. Apparently I had been shooting in Large JPG before today, and it was still set that way. I had intended to shoot in RAW so I had more chance to correct the exposure mistakes I expected I would commit. Next time, I'll check every setting, period.

Today was an important day. It told me where I was in relation to where I want to be. Now, I know how to get there.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Professional Eve

Tomorrow, weather permitting, is my first professional job. I'll be shooting engagement photos for the son of a family friend, and his fiancee. I have been getting my head and my gear prepared all week. The couple didn't have any thoughts or ideas about where they wanted their photos taken, they only knew they wanted it to be outside, and they would dress casually. Knowing the couple as I do, I selected a location that fits their vibe and style of dress. We'll be shooting at an old mill that has been converted for shopping and dining. I have sketched several ideas for locations and poses, and have more ideas than I feared I might. I have been studying the work of other photographers whose work I admire, and using that inspiration to plan the shoot.

The venue has a wealth of possibilities. There is a wooded path following the banks of a large rocky stream. I really like the iron trestle bridge that crosses the stream to get to the mill. While it once carried a train track, it is now a footpath with a great view down to the stream. Then there are the many stone walls of the mill and outbuildings. Lots of opportunity for different lighting and backgrounds. In the morning I'll go out and scout the site, selecting possible locations that, light pending, might work well.

Tonight, I'll check the gear again, and check my head. I expect I'll find both are ready to go.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Mind the Gap

The other day I went to the third of three Parks & Rec classes I signed up for. This one was "Demystifying Exposure", taught by the same nature photographer that did the "White Balance" class. She's an excellent photographer, and knows her stuff. The class, however, made sparse use of her skills. To be fair, it was (as advertised) geared towards noobs. I took it, and the others, because I wanted to fill in the gaps in my technical knowledge, starting at the beginning.

We (re)covered ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. I'm pretty ok there. Then we got into shooting modes on the camera. Pretty ok there too. The last part was interpretation of histograms. Now, we're talking. Not talking a lot, but talking. I understand the histogram better now, although I rebel against it as an absolute arbitor of good exposure.

A case in point: I took this photo in the evening using available light. The histogram says it was significantly underexposed. I like it as it is. It has a subdued quality that makes the brass richer and gives the hair a chance to shine along the top. Since it was shot in RAW, I opened the image in Photoshop and cranked it up to "fix" the exposure. I hated it. So I left it as it was originally.

So I'm done with Parks & rec classes I think. Time to get more advanced training.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

New 40D

My new Canon 40D arrived a few days ago. Since I had some shots to take as homework for one of my classes, the timing was perfect. I took it out to a high school basketball game in the same gym I used for my first homework assignment. Wow! After seven years using my D30, I was shocked at how much better the 40D is in every respect. (Yes, I bought the 40D without having tried it. I knew I would stay Canon, and based on research and recommendations this was the best I could afford/justify. )

Physically, it's only a little different from the D30, but it fits my hand just as well, if not better. I also bought the battery grip, and found it to be very comfortable and easy to use. The controls were different, but not unfamiliar. I can't make sense of Nikons, but Canons seem to make sense to me. When I got the gym, I set my custom white balance (of course!), selected aperture priority mode with f2.8 (per the assignment) and found a place at the top of the court to catch the action. After a few minutes of shooting, the referee noticed me said he would try to stay out of my way. Nice! I shot for a while in single-shot, then switched to the high speed mode. So much faster than the old camera!

I have sorted through the photos of the basketball game, and find that the quality is much improved over what I have been taking. I have several keepers, and got what I needed to turn in for class. Now, I need to go find lots of things to potograph to learn this new camera as well as I know the old one. I don't think it will take long.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

White Balance 101

I took an evening class called "White Balance 101" taught by Christine Bowles, a local nature photographer. It was only about 90 minutes long, but I did a lot of learning in that time. In the past I had just let my camera do an automatic white balance adjustment, and shot in RAW so I could make further adjustments afterwards. Now, I completely understand how to set my camera for the color cast of the light I'm in. I can't imagine why I wouldn't take a moment and set the white balance before a session. The other big revelation I had was in how fabulous the ExpoDisc is. With one of these gems handy during a shoot, I'll be ready to set my white balance to whatever custom level I need. I'll still shoot in RAW, so I can make adjustments as needed, but I expect to need those adjustments a lot less often now that I'm up to speed on getting it right in-camera.

Saturday, February 7, 2009


I ran across a rec basketball game in the high school gym today, just in time to shoot for few minutes for my class homework. I spent about 30 minutes watching and photographing the action. Typical, the light was dim and an odd color. I cranked up my venerable old D30 and got a few photos I was OK with. Technically, they all were poor - underexposed and noisy. But under the conditions, the best I could do. Tomorrow we'll do review and critique on homework photos. I'm very interested to learn what I could be doing to improve the outcome in situations like this.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

First Class

As a first step in my preparation, I signed up for some photography classes through Howard County Parks and Rec. They were inexpensive and short - exactly what I wanted for my first time. The first of these classes started last weekend: Sports Photography. Yes, I'm aware that sports photography is a bit off target. But I was more interested in getting accustomed to photography classes than in the alignment of curriculum with my business.

Sunday's class was fine. And by fine I mean fine for all of the soccer moms and dads who bought a badass camera to take photos of their kids but don't know yet how to use it. (We had to introduce ourselves, and I was the only non-sports-parent there.) The lecturer is a very nice young lady who is developing her presentation skills. So the lecture part wasn't too helpful. The real value was the second half of the class. The instructor had arranged for the class to take photos of a wrestling match being held in the same building. We spent about 45 minutes shooting the action. It was dim, with odd colored lighting, and the referee seemed to be most comfortable with his rear end in front of our lenses. It was an excellent challenge and I enjoyed it (well, I would have been just fine without the referee part).

I reviewed my photos of the wrestling match as soon as I got home, and was marginally pleased. Most in the class used a 50mm lens, but I shot with a 200mm focal length. I couldn't care less about the wrestling scene; I was more interested in capturing the faces of these sweaty kids as they grimaced and struggled and sometimes cried. The photos were there, but the light made it nearly impossible. I did my best, and like some of the images I caught, even if they are horribly noisy and underexposed.

Our homework is to go shoot any type of sporting event and turn in our best photo for review and comment in the next class this weekend. I am determined to find something outdoors, despite the cold, as gyms tend to have the worst light ever. Except for maybe reception halls. And churches.

Maybe I need to rethink the outdoor thing...

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

First Job

After making the decision to launch my practice, a friend coincidentally emailed me to tell me she became engaged over the holiday. This didn't come as a surprise; I recall discussion of wagers, but nobody would take the bet. It did, however, open up a possibility: would she be open to letting me photograph her wedding? It also brought along a social conflict: I didn't want the couple to feel compelled to use me based on our friendship. So when I told the bride-to-be about my new business, I was quick to disclaim that my decision had nothing to do with her engagement. Further, I recommended an experienced photographer she might want to use. She would have none of it. She told me she wanted me to photograph her wedding, and there would be no further discussion on that point. I didn't argue. So I now have my first job.

I think knowing the couple will be a welcome benefit for the first time around. They're casual, informal, fun, and adult. We get along great, so we'll all be comfortable with each other when we introduce a camera into the mix. Or maybe "less uncomfortable" is more accurate. Either way, I'm grateful to the couple for trusting me with their wedding photos.

With a job on the books for this summer, I now have a nearly infinite amount of work to get done in a very finite amount of time. Do I smell smoke?

The Start of the Practice

After many years pursuing photography as a hobbyist, I decided at the end of 2008 to take a chance and start a professional photography practice. This decision came quickly after a long period of deliberation, with the dam of indecision breaking after a casual conversation with a friend. I sent him a link to some of my photos earlier that day. His reaction was firm: "you have to start charging for this". The husband of a professional photographer, I trust his perspective and value his encouragement. It was what I needed to get off the fence and give it a shot.

In considering my focus for a practice, I thought for a long time about what compels me in taking photographs. Looking back through more than 30,000 photographs in my catalog, my favorites by far, and the images I'm most proud of, are candid portraits. The photographer wife of my encouraging friend specializes in candid portraiture; she is a gifted artist whose work I admire greatly. I have returned to her on-line portfolio dozens of times, studying her photographs and feeling more encouraged and inspired each time. I have achieved intergallactic oneness, just now. I am compelled to find and capture the natural, unstaged emotion in people as they go through their lives, from the daily grind to once-in-a-lifetime events. I allow that the ideal photograph is one that makes the viewer feel something - not necessarily what the subject felt, but maybe invoking some feeling of their own.

The focus for my practice, then, is photojournalistic wedding photography. Where else could I be welcomed with my camera in the middle of dozens, maybe hundreds of people laughing, crying, dancing, feeling? It's the perfect setting, dense beyond compare with ideal photographs waiting to be taken. I know some photographers have a dislike for weddings; people can be difficult, the work is intense and non-stop, the hours are long, and the risk is high. But over the years in my day job I have come to understand that I am like a firefighter who lives for the fire: I'm bored until the pressure is on, and then I'm at my best.

I'm very realistic about my abilities; I have a lot to learn. That won't ever change I'm sure. My goal is not to be better than other photographers. Rather, I aim to take compelling photos that mean something to the viewer, and hopefully to me as well. If I can show a newly married couple the photos I have taken of their wedding and they smile in that genuine way, not with their mouths but with their eyes, I will have met my goal.