Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Wedding Cans

Recently I was contacted by a friend who had a favor to ask. She was looking for some pictures, primarily a portrait, for a project they were working on. The project was something they were calling "Wedding Cans." They were going to attempt to pay for their modest wedding by recycling cans. This wasn't possible by themselves, obviously. Even a modest wedding can cost several thousand dollars and I don't know of anyone who can consume that many soft drinks. Their plan revolved around the idea that people would gladly donate cans for the cause. In the process, via recycling of an estimated 400,000 aluminum cans they would completely offset the carbon footprint of their wedding. It was a beautiful thing, the idea of environmental activism and financial necessity coming together in a fun way. For the press purposes online and off they were going to need a few portraits.

It was a simple project and one that I was glad to help out with. In the name of serving the purpose of Wedding Cans, I was doing it pro-bono. A quick shoot, 30-45 minutes including conversion, color correction, and sharpening. In and out. No big deal.

The pictures we came out with the first go were not to my liking. I have certain high standards that I put out there, and that night, due to equipment malfunctions and freezing fingers in the sub 20 degree weather we walked away with images that I didn't consider good enough.

I immediately knew that I wanted to re-shoot. While I know many folks would have walked away figuring, "No big deal, free shoot. You get what you pay for," I just couldn't do it. It was leaving unfinished business on the table.

We got together again a short time later, this time at Andrea and Pete's house. We did another quick shoot. All told, I was in 30 minutes once again. But this time, we nailed it. We ended up with shots we were all happy with. I walked away thinking that I had done my part to help out, and didn't expect much more to come of the images.

That's when Andrea's ability to put out a marketing blitz took over.

Immediately the story of the crazy couple, paying for their wedding with aluminum cans was on a few blogs, along with the photos. Thanks to Andrea's knowledge of how things are supposed to work in the media world, the photos included a link to my website. If you're here because of those images, welcome. Have a look around. Let me know if you see anything you like.

It didn't stop there, though. Soon, a local news station picked up the story. They ran a video that included my still images. Andrea and Pete were interviewed by a local morning show.

Then the A.P. picked up that video. Then Fox, the, then a dozen financial websites and recycling sites and environmental sites. Then the national morning shows began calling up Andrea and Pete for interviews. Then national radio, and international radio, and more websites, and more news programs, and more websites, and on and on and on.

And a large number of them linked back to my website. My traffic went throught the roof pretty quickly. All from a free shoot that I decided to do over because it wasn't up to my standards.

Admittedly, not every free shoot we do for a friend who has a project that we'd like to support will end up this way. Not every friend working on a project is Andrea. Her ability to generate interest in this has not only been of benefit to their cause (as of writing this, Wedding Cans is up to 76% of goal. That means they've collected over 300,000 cans in a month) but to mine as well. But everyone has friends with projects. If it is something you believe in, or just something you think is cool, do your part. Help out.

And for goodness sake, never let a shoot end with you feeling like you didn't get the shot without rescheduling if at all possible. It's about producing the best work you possibly can in every situation. If equipment fails, that's not an excuse. If it's cold, that's not an excuse. Make it happen. Your "A" game is the only game that's acceptable. It's just that simple.

Besides, you never know where that simple portrait of a friend is going to end up, or who's going to end up seeing it. All it takes is one good impression.

Wedding Cans

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Flavor of Your Photography

Let's talk about vision. Let's talk about finding your personal photographic vision. Some people seem to come out of the womb with a photographic style. They have a certain pallet that they work from, that suits their shooting, their intent, and their spirit. Those people are few and far between. The rest of us either ignore the idea of a vision or style and content ourselves with the craft of photography and creating images that are generally pleasing to the largest swath of people we can, or we obsess over finding our own individual flavor. There is nothing wrong with the first. I would say, the act of creating generally pleasing photography, vs. photography that is in a very individual style that may not please some is the difference between the craftsman who makes generally pleasing and widely purchased and used chairs, and the one who makes a sculpture masquerading as a chair. One is a true craftsperson, making something of very common origins, with a perfectly standard usage. This is not to disparage that craftsperson, as most craftspeople do things that I couldn't dream of doing. Those at the top of their fields have the skills that most of us would give out left hand for.

That said, the individual who makes the sculpture that happens to be a chair, that individual who makes something that is perhaps more pleasant to look at than to actually sit in, or perhaps something that is only to their personal taste and not to the tastes of most, that person is an artist. That person does not concern themselves with the number of people who appreciate their chair. That person concerns themselves only with whether or not that chair speaks to them personally.

There is a joke somewhere here about photography and chairs both having a lot of butts in them.

The second variety of person, that person who searches endlessly for their style, is the one that interests me the most. I find the search for one's self in one's art interesting. I think most artists who would consider themselves intellectuals in the least do. For most of us, it is at the core of every piece we create. Though I may have a home and a wife, children, a business, friends, social connections, etc., etc., when I take a photograph what I'm really asking is what is this world around me and how do I fit in it? Who am I? What is my nature? There is an entire school of thought that believes the Mona Lisa is actually a self portrait with a different gender. I think, that even if there was a sitter for Davinci, the painting is still of him. An artist puts themselves into every piece they work on.

The question that so many photographers ask is, "How do I develop a style that's my own?" and the standard response from more seasoned shooters, regardless of skill or the visual volume of their own "voice" is, "Don't worry about it, it will come with time." But in a world now populated by cheap lights, cheap digital cameras, pirated software to make your photographs more perfectly fit what you want than reality ever could, and all manner of instant gratification, "it will come with time" is not something most are willing to hear. So we do worry about it. We start forcing it. Often, we mimick the styles and passions of those that we admire. We fall into the roll of expert forger, able to recreate the artwork of masters, without possessing the individual voice to create on our own. We have all the right tools, but the original vision leaves us completely. When unused, our creative vision atrophies.

At the age of 27, I am a child of a world of instant gratification. I would, however, like to think that I am a student of an earlier time. With that in mind, I think that there are things one can do to accelerate a voice's rise to the surface.

1. Limitation: Limiting your options can be a beautiful thing. So ofte, photographers become paralyzed with choice. Do I use the telephoto or go wide angle? Do I light it or go natural? Do I heavily coahc a model or let them run with an idea? Black and white or color? Heavily photoshopped or not at all?

Years ago, this wasn't an issue for a new photographer. You put your one lens on your one body, put in a roll of film and until that roll was gone, that dictated how you shot. You were limited in your options and learned how that affected your reactions. With this in mind, I always recommend that a new photographer and a seasoned pro alike take a day, a week, a month, and shoot with 1 body, 1 lens, on one setting. I'm fond of throwing the camera on heavy contrast black and white and running with it. I don't change settings outside of shutter speed and aperture. I've even gone so far as to use an old manual focus, manual aperture lens with an adapter on my digital body. It slows me down. It affects my decision making. It shows me what matters to my personal vision.

2. Sloooooooooowwwwwwww doooooooooooooowwwwwwwwwnnnnnnnnnn: take your camera out of burst mode, first of all. There is nothing that makes me cringe more than hearing someone fire off 30 shots in 10 seconds of the same thing. Frame the image, look at all four corners of the frame. Change angles and look at how the light comes in differently. Go with a narrower D.O.F. and explore putting pieces out of focus that you wouldn't normally. Toy with the idea of softness and blur.

You'll notice that not once during these directions did I say, "take the picture." Before you take one shot, you should have created 20 images in your head. Try it. Don't spray and pray. Meditate, reevaluate, and create.

3. Break your habits: I love to shoot wide angle. For a long time, it was all wide angle with heavy lighting. lately, I've been pushing myself to shoot with only a standard focal length.

It's not about what you're looking through. It's about how you see. If you can get yourself out of your comfort zone for just a little while, you'll return to it with a a different viewpoint. It's like leaving the country to visit a foreign land. When you come home you see things a little differently than before you left.

4. Find your loves: What is it that you do when you're not shooting? What is it that you would rather do than anything else? (outside of shooting) Where would you like to be right now? Make that, the flavor of your photography.

Recently, i saw a question that was sent to a professional advertising shooter. The individual was responding to the statement that you should shoot what your into. They asked, "I love wine. How can I incorporate this into my shooting?" The photographer came back with the humorous response of "drink while you shoot." While this is funny, it doesn't address the passion portion of the idea. I would respond with a question in return. What do you love about wine? If it's just that you're a raging alcoholic, I can't really help you except to suggest you call your local AA branch. But if it's something else, say the history of the drink, or the variety of wines, the paring with food, the memories of having fun with friends, making new friends and living life, then you have the start of a photo. Hell, with those things you have the start of 1000 photos. And you're the reason you're passionate about wine will show through in them. Your passion becomes your flavor.

Take photos of your friends sitting around playing games, having fun, laughing and enjoying your favorite bottle of wine. Find the beauty in your life, in your subject matter. Make those images speak to you, and they will speak to others. If you position yourself right, they will speak to wineries that need advertising materials. They will speak to food magazines and restaurants that need images. They will speak to magazines that need lifestyle images. And if you're very very good, they will speak to others who love wine the same way you do.

You'll know you're hitting the right notes when you take a step back, as that question again, "who am I and how do I fit into this world?" and the answer can be given by pointing at your photographs. You're flavors there, it just needs a little simmering to come to the surface.

I look forward to using my images to speak of myself, to myself and hopefully to some of you throughout the next year and beyond. I look forward to many of you speaking back.

Happy New Year
Tyson Habein
YellowHouse Photography
SPOKE(a)N(e) Magazine