In photography, you are either going to be great from the beginning, over time or never at all. No matter what happens, you should treat people nicely, because whether your work is great or mediocre you are building your reputation. In reality, great work is going to happen if you spend enough time and energy thinking and practicing your art.
What is greatness in photography? It is subjective, obviously, but it is a goal. It is a standard that you set for yourself about what can count as a photograph. It is your evolving sense of value in photography and what you consider a keeper. All these things are dynamic and subject to change. One thing is not. How you treat people matters a lot.
Photography is creating a public record of a person’s image. During any given portraiture session, you might take anywhere from 100 to 1000 photos. Some people will take more. Some people take fewer, but generally with digital photography there are potentially hundreds of photographs that don’t make the cut for every one that does. It’s the same person in the same lighting with the same camera and photographer but only one photograph out of a dozen stands out enough to really count.
What does it take to get good photographs of a person? There are lots of answers to this question. The main one is practice. You must get good at working with your camera so that you feel confident in your ability to get the shot when the time comes with a model in front of your camera. This will also help with being good to the people you photograph. The more confident you are in your craft, the more you can focus on the subject and their concerns.
The second key to getting great results with portraiture is to choose good lighting situations. If you don’t have a studio space, overcast days are great for soft light. If it is mid-day during the middle of the summer you are going to have some challenges finding soft light outside. There are many ways to deal with a challenge like this, but the important thing is to figure them out ahead of time, before you are working with a model. There’s always going to be a certain amount of experimentation, but the more you understand how to get the photos you want, the clearer your path to getting great photos.
I had the opportunity to get together with artist and model Shana Burton, recently, to play around with some dramatic midday lighting. The long hallways and natural spotlights coming through skylights made for some dynamic light.
One of the ways landscape photographers have legitimized their craft as an artform is by this idea of previsualization. This artistic direction is epitomized by Ansel Adams, who preached the idea of envisioning the photograph before taking it. This kind of determined and deliberate approach to making photographs is very different than the tradition of photojournalism. Henri Cartier-Bresson coined the term the decisive moment to describe what it was he hunted for in his compositions. For him, previsualization was impossible. To capture that elusive moment required stealth, spontaneity, and quickness. In this dichotomy, you can sense something of the idea posed by Jeff Wall that photographers are either farmers or hunters.
There is another category that is not part of Wall’s interesting configuration and that is photographer as shepherd. On any given day, you can find this version of photographer trying to get a group of people to stand in a particular pattern in front of a picturesque background. The drive of this work is to assemble a group, to bring them into a space and to make photographs out of their synchronized smiling. For the shepherd photographer, there is something of the hunter and of the farmer in their process. They need to both have studied the landscape to know the light and how to use it in a composition, but they are also looking for those moments of emotional truth when laughter or joy spark in their subjects. The shepherd photographer leads a group and sometimes must charm them to feel comfortable in the setting.
The shepherd photographer can previsualize a lot of the elements and they must be ready to respond to spontaneous things that happen in the landscape with the light. The landscape photographer can focus more on previsualization because they don’t need to pay attention to subjects who are constantly moving and may not be altogether agreeable to the process. The landscape never minds. The journalist has all kinds of other challenges, including the risk of being confronted by people who may not want their photograph taken.
The portrait photographer is like the shepherd but has a more intimate relation to the subject since it is a one-on-one situation. In the portrait session, you can see parallels to all different kinds of professional relationships. The portrait photographer is part director, part trainer, part coach, part therapist, part friend. There is a psychological component to portrait photography that makes it very interesting.
Each of these different modes of photography requires a different set of skills and habits. You are looking for different elements in each field but the thing that is common to all modes of making photographs is the idea of looking for compositions. For a photograph to work, it needs a powerful composition. The way a photograph leads the eye around the image is the make-or-break element for all the different kinds of photography. Composition is the unified field of photography.
The question of what makes a good composition is highly personal and it is through answering that question that a photographer develops a sense of style. When making photographs, you are constantly studying how the world translates into a two-dimensional form through all kinds of various technological constraints. You must learn about depth of field, compression of images through the distortion of a lens, and other optical effects of photographic technique. Through experimentation, you can learn what elements you need to exist to take a good photograph.
One of the ways that you can look for compositions is by walking. As you walk and notice the shifting perspective between elements you can begin to see when certain alignments happen. For example, there is a composition I have been eyeing that I am going to photograph this morning. This is my previsualization. It is of the surfer sculpture on West Cliff with the aloes in full bloom right now. I have been watching the flowers for some time getting ready for when they are peaking to get a shot of this iconic spot. Yesterday as I was walking my dog by, I saw exactly the shot I wanted as I moved along the sidewalk the flowers the sculpture and the boardwalk behind it all came into an alignment that felt like something clicking into place. That is the feeling. It’s like a seat belt fastens. All the sudden you just know that it is secure.
So, I’m calling my shot this morning and painting the picture of the photograph that I am going to take before I get out there and get it. Previsualization, baby. It’s an interesting practice that takes some time to get to. You have to know what shots are possible, you have to study a particular location over a period of time, and then you must time it correctly so that the light adds in the final elements to the alignment of subjects in space. When all of these things come together, you have a magical photograph. The trick to managing that is to do tons of work ahead of time figuring out what is possible so that you can zero in on one idea and find the ideal moment to realize your composition.
If photography is to live up to its name and function as writing and not just decoration, then composition is key. It is through assembling the elements of a photograph in a particular form that great photographs are achieved. To do this, you need to study and practice photographing your subject over time so that when you see that alignment happen you can be prepared to follow through on your vision.
We are in a weird spot as a culture. I think most people would agree with that. Things have shifted in ways we don’t even understand yet. Major world historical events like the Covid-19 pandemic are formative for the generations who live through them. Your age and your social position have a lot to do with how you are able to navigate those challenges, how the times affect you. This is a generational event.
One year of involuntary widespread unemployment is going to have major psychological effects on people. This has to be expected in order for us to be able to help, in order to survive. We need to be ready. We need to actively be finding ways to assist ourselves and others to adapt. What do we need to focus on?
In order to climb our way out of the economic and energetic abyss into which we’ve fallen, we are going to need leadership. We need collaborations. We need positivity. We have to think about the situation critically and work creatively to find solutions. What is the new need, how could it be a new market? How can we address it? What positive energies can we summon to help us overcome our despair?
Enter the alpha executive assistant, Erin Schwartz. The pandemic has restricted so many of our movements, but some personalities are indomitable. Some people have overcome tough situations before and are emotionally equipped to face uncertainty without falling apart. Erin is one of these people. She has that warrior like strength that you need in times like these.
During the restrictive months of lockdown, Erin took charge of her own work life by basically creating a job for herself as a virtual executive assistant. Erin is talented at networking. She thinks of other people and wants to involve them in projects. She has the instincts of a producer. But, she is also a very clear communicator who is not afraid to ask the hard questions or to be strong in her requests.
We are in an era where small businesses are experiencing existential threats, but also where there is a rise in entrepreneurship. It is when we effectively combine the usefulness of the new category of entrepreneur with the needs of businesses to adapt to changing times that fruitful synergies can occur. I have seen it happen so many times in my own work, and this is a time where the opportunity is there for lots of other entrepreneurs.
I became a full-time entrepreneur out of necessity back in 2011-12 and found over time that it is something that I love. I enjoy thinking about business and marketing as much as I do art and literature. I now see them as all so connected there is no way to separate art from business from politics. It’s all intertwined and there is a middle path you can follow, a way to sanely and productively interact with others despite the seemingly divisive times.
I started working with Erin as a model probably three or four years ago. When I work with models, I care more about the results of the collaboration than anything in particular about the person. I’m never looking for a specific look in terms of gender or ethnicity or age. I care about energy and results more than anything. You have to keep it moving and get stuff done, so whenever a collaborator brings that go -etter energy to a project it more often than not leads to more work.
Momentum is a powerful force in creativity, so when you find someone who is stoked to get pictures, who brings creative energy to the project, it adds to your momentum. The same thing is true in running a small business. You need team players.
Everyone has things they can’t do, but that are important to their work. I work with models because I need subjects for lifestyle and commercial photography. I can’t do that by myself. When I work with a model and have a successful shoot, I am able to deliver lots of great content to a client and that often leads to more work. Their positive energy adds to the overall process. So, I end up working with the people who bring the best energy most consistently. Over the years, Erin has proven to be a reliably positive collaborator.
As I mentioned, Erin brings a kind of alpha energy to her life. She is not one to let circumstances stop her. As a result, she managed to get married during the pandemic and I was honored to photograph the ceremony in beautiful Carmel. With her own wedding as I have seen her do in her life in general, she found the will to bring people together and to accomplish a big thing together.
This is Erin’s knack. She has an indomitable will and an awareness of how other people could come together to create a larger team to tackle a project, to accomplish a goal. With all that is happening in the world, it is refreshing to be reminded that the human spirit will find a way. Artists generally make their way to the stage one way or another, and we are living in a world more entertaining for their efforts.
I strive to create the best content for brands, which is why I work with people who bring the best energy to the project and Erin is one of those individuals who responds to the potential of a situation. We are all collectively building the future as we go, and this has been a time of rethinking and reimagining what that will be.
As we move into Spring and whatever that brings, it will be good to add new entrepreneurial ingredients into the mix. Now is the time for young people to initiate internships, to look for mentors, to figure out how to get experience in business. It is also the time for businesses to find ways to work with content creators, influencers, virtual assistants and anyone who is able to bring value to the table.
So much of life depends upon location. Realtors know this better than most, but photographers also are expert in understanding place. Yesterday I photographed my friends Natalia, Antonio and Derek. Natalia and Derek are realtors. Hence, the title.A favorite collaborator over the years, Natalia Lockwood has become a powerhouse broker of homes and it is fun to watch her grow.This is Derek Scranton who was voted Capitola’s “Best Realtor” in the Santa Cruz Sentinel’s Readers’ Choice Awards. Super nice guy, easy going and fun. Contact him if you are in the market for a home.What a team! Their smiles say it all. We chose Loch Lomond for our shoot, and found some great pockets of light along the lake. FYI, you are allowed to visit the lake for fishing and hiking, but no hanging out, as we learned.The homie Antonio is a capoeira master and with supreme flexibility he busted out some moves real quick. Had to take the opportunity to get a few shots of one of my favorite couples.By the way, Antonio and I talked about podcasts the whole time. He’s the only person I know who loves podcasts as much as I do. Always fun to link up with kindred souls.
What are your favorite podcasts? Going to be brainstorming some ideas with Antonio. Could be something cool in the works! These are wild times and we need to be discussing the issues.
With all of the strange changes going down right now, it’s important to be able to find ways to adjust your attitude, especially if you do creative work. What gives you a fresh look at things? For me, one of the surest ways to regain my sense of humor and to renew my will to be productive is exercise. Physical activity helps me to stay in a good frame of mind.
I’ve been pushing myself to hike lots of miles during these weeks and that has been a super productive and inspiring practice. Hiking plays a key role in me being my best self and living my best life. I get out to some remote locations during obscure lighting situations for the rarest of photo opportunities. Since photography is writing with light, it helps to have as much information about the terrain you will be describing and the light you will be using.
That is one of your biggest jobs as a photographer. Know the landscape. Because it changes day by day, the seasonal variations you experience are invaluable knowledge to getting the best shots. Hiking is ideal for this kind of practice because of the slow and deliberate nature of the decision to go on foot.
Although I love the minimalism of hiking, especially when I leave on foot from my door, there is another tool I love to use to explore the landscape and that is a bike. One of our greatest inventions of all time: the bicycle. What a slice of freedom a bike can be.
I’ve been teaching my daughter to ride her bike without training wheels for the past week and seeing the amount of joy she gets just by pedaling down the street with me on a skateboard beside her is about the best feeling I have ever had. It reminded me of that pure feeling of freedom you get from movement, with the wind in your face and the ground moving fast underneath you everything feels a lot better. Going fast is fun. Of course, it comes with danger, and learning to be safe is a big part of the project, but seeing the release, especially in this time of emotional confusion and frustration is a beautiful thing.
I have also been watching the homeboy Brendan Schaub become a mountain biking maniac. His podcast The Fighter and the Kid, with Bryan Callen, has been a bright source of positive energy during this quarantine, because he refuses to give into the fear and steadfastly keeps finding ways to make the most of his days. For a guy with millions of dollars, he is getting out and mixing it up on the trails and I think it is about as pure and inspiring a project as I have seen.
I have also been seeing one of my friends, Natalie Earl, posting about her own bike rides. Getting out for some fresh air and sweating out some worries is a great idea and so I linked up with Nat for a ride. We left from her house and wound our way through weekend traffic up the coast.
There’s something so vital and almost primal about getting around on a bike. It forces you to tap into your instincts. You need your gut to guide you. And the rhythm that develops from dodging traffic gives you a kind of sense of flow that is very much related to creativity.
So, this week I joined the Thiccc Boy Bike Club with my friend Natalie and I’m hoping that we can continue to find some joy and release by hitting the road. I’m not going to be giving up hiking, though, because there is no replacing the intimacy of being out in the wild on foot where you can encounter the details and the animals on an even footing.
What are you doing to keep your energy positive? How are you getting exercise while staying safe during these strange times?
I’m most interested in photographs that include and involve humans. I find the challenges and rewards of portraiture keep me studying this mysterious art. I value work that gets me to think and to feel something unique or universal about the human condition from looking at a photograph of a person. Sometimes less is more and in the case of my taste in portraiture that is true a lot of the time. I feel like people are so complex it can only help to give them some space.
The biggest obstacle to truth in portraiture is that sometimes we carry lifelong habits of creating masks to protect ourselves. Whether it is a smile or a neutral face, there is something that you do to preserve yourself from the intruding eyes of strangers. At least, hopefully there is. Because it can be a rough world if you don’t know how to move with an understanding of the ways people are likely to behave. If you don’t have a grasp on the business, then you are going to have to learn.
Portraits have lots of uses in our contemporary lives. We can use them for our LinkedIn profile, for any articles people may be writing about us, for other social media profiles, and for finding love. Whether you need a good Tinder shot or something to show your grandma that you are doing well, a skillful portrait can go a long way towards helping you to reach your goals.
But there is more to a portrait than that. It is something that belongs to the canons of art history and if you care that much about the result, then you can make some magic happen.
A big part of a great portrait is the lighting. The way you place the model in relation to the light is going to determine how a viewer’s eyes might travel around the composition. The light is going to give shape and interest to the form of your subject’s face, hair neck, etc. You can use light to draw attention to important parts of the face, like a catch light for the eyes. This is when you place a light in view of the subject so that a small white light appears in the dark of their pupil helping to create a sense of depth and importance in the eyes.
One huge advantage of working in the studio is having the ability to create a comfortable environment for the subject. In general, there is a lot more ability to control the results. Natural light can be amazing and the experience of being outside sometimes can make a person really shine, but there is a much higher rate of success with the advantages of studio lighting.
I like to use continuous lights, because I find it is much more comfortable for the model. Not having the flashing of the lights and the beeping of the unit recharging makes it a much more enjoyable atmosphere. The vibes of the shoot always matter. That is one reason why working with someone you really like can help to make great work, or in my case with someone you love. When I photograph Madison I know that there is going to be a whole world of energy, emotion, intrigue, mystery and fun all bundled up into one frame. The feelings. Oh the feelings. We have a lot of them, and they show up in the work. I like that. That is what I like art to be. This portrait is an expression of love, fear, lust, faith, and so many other things all at once.
The other night we set up the studio and had two continuous lights going to get this shot. What we did next was something amazing. We did an experiment with using long exposures and candle light. This is one area where it is so radical to have a model as a girlfriend because she is so beautiful and I tell her that all the time. She knows it. It’s not a question. It’s not an issue. What is great about this, is it give us the freedom to be silly and to have fun. We did a series of portraits that are not flattering even though they have a beautiful topless woman in them. I’m not going to show them here, but not for the reasons you might think.
This series is art. As a series, it is a powerful experiment that worked. The images are intriguing as fuck. She looks powerful but sometimes scary in these portraits. Because we have done a lot of work together and have a deep sense of creative trust, we were able to do something original and cool.
Now, we have a few different series going and I am super excited about the direction and shape our work is taking. Our collaboration is getting stronger and smarter at every turn and I can’t wait to see what we learn next. So many lessons. I’ll be sharing more of them here as it makes sense in the coming days. I feel as though I have made some very important discoveries and I am excited to put them into practice and to share with other people looking for ways to be more effective and to improve their outlook.
Competition or Cooperation? In our current cultural climate it can be very challenging to think about cooperation. If we do, it’s often in terms of teams in competition. We believe in team work but only when there is another team to beat. There is very little that we find entertaining that doesn’t involve someone coming out on top. The logic of competition has its dark side, though. If there is any truth to the idea that competition has given us major advances in technology, it has also created some serious problems.
Agree to Grieve: Sunday evening, there was a shooting in Gilroy. A map of where mass shootings have taken place is beginning to look frighteningly crowded. We are so used to them, we don’t even know how to respond. Or we know so well how to respond that we no longer feel the need to do anything. We know that some tremendous and terrifying chasm opens up each time. Evil shows its face and families are forced to grieve prematurely and forever.
Freedom or Control? When something as tragic as the Garlic Festival shooting occurs, you would think that it would create some sort of consensus. At least we can all agree that mass shootings are a terrible problem, right? The problem is: the split that already exists starts arguing two sides. Gun rights versus gun control. Even when something as crystal clear as a public tragedy occurs we can’t avoid bipartisan arguments.
Habitual Fans: I believe that this kind of change is much deeper than debate can touch. We have deeply rooted habits and patterns. Our reverence for competition keeps us from ever really working together. It’s as fundamental as what we pay attention to as an audience.
If Everyone Wins: There isn’t anything inherently wrong with liking a game where there are winners and losers. What’s wild, though, is how much that form of game predominates. It’s difficult to even imagine a game where everyone wins. I’m not talking about slightly altering the rules of one of our games so that there are 12th place trophies. That still keeps the same structure of logic, it just distributes and dilutes the wealth of winning. Imagine, however, if a group of people were given a set of tasks and the more they achieved the more they all would win. Instead of fighting to win and not be on the losing side, what if we worked collectively to win as much as we could together.
Organizinational Habits: This game does exist, but it’s not widely known or celebrated. The Teen Kitchen Project is one such game. The more work happens, the more everyone involved wins. Teens learn about cooking and people who need a hot meal get some delicious and healthful food. Teens get some experience and develop their culinary skills, people who need good food receive it.
Working Together: On Monday, I felt the effects of this version of winning when I went to photograph a visit at the Teen Kitchen Project’s Soquel kitchen. It was a normal day of production at the kitchen, the teens were attacking their tasks with order and a beautiful discipline. It takes so much more time to peel carrots and to prepare the ingredients for a quiche than it does to commit mass atrocity. This is what I find cool. Working together to win together.
Produce and Purpose: When our visitor arrived, we got to witness another layer of the vision. Bentley had been a cook in the military and he had received meals from the Teen Kitchen Project recently when he was battling cancer. The teens gathered around and he shared some of his experiences both as a chef and as client. Here we were looking at a man who had been nourished during some of his darkest hours by this very program. His eyes were shining like a stage actor’s in the spotlight of our attention, and he articulated himself expressively with his hands.
Feeding people is an ancient and honorable occupation and a program like the Teen Kitchen Project gets it right on so many levels. It’s an honor to be able to work with them.