Sometimes you can get some amazing shots if you work fast. I shot this at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas in 2001 with my Mamiya RZ67 Pro iiD , not exactly the world’s most inconspicuous camera. We managed to bang out two rolls of Provia 400 slide film before security came and chased us off.
The Venetian is a superb location but they’re notoriously hateful towards photographers. So in a situation like that, get everything ready to go, rehearse offsite and work quick! Also, have your lawyer’s number handy.
Fashion Photography Outside – More Fun in the Sun!
I like to get outside with my models whenever possible, especially for fashion shoots. It’s SO much more interesting. Studio is boring but it’s easy and that’s why most photographers like it. You can control all the variables and you don’t have to worry about the weather. And you don’t have to schlep gear. But it’s just not usually that interesting.
Outside is a lot more fun. An infinite variety of locations and much more interesting backgrounds make for more dynamic and visually appealing photos.
This is particularly true for fashion/glamour shoots. I like to shoot in a modern, edgy style. Think Vogue or Harpers Bazaar, not Hallmark.
As someone who’s entire formal academic education has been in the arts , I am a firm believer in a disciplined course of training and instruction for anybody trying to learn anything, whether it’s cooking, car mechanics, photography or whatever. No matter how smart or talented you may be, there’s no substitute for learning in a structured environment from somebody who is an expert.
This is particularly true in the arts, where it’s essential to have a good grounding in fundamental technical concepts and craft knowledge in order to express yourself clearly and creatively. And it’s even more true in a field as technical as photography where technology we use today may not have existed two years ago. The bottom line is, you’ve got to try and keep up and the best way to do that is continuing education.
Fortunately these days we have more options for education than ever before. One problem with this abundance of information is that sometimes the information is not reliable. The websites below are reliable and I personally use and recommend the websites below.
Most of these folks also offer paid training (everybody’s got to make a living after all) but they also offer significant free content or I wouldn’t list them here.
Evaluating Sites – Qui Bono?
Everybody has to make a living. Producing a high-quality website is a ton of work (believe me) and I certainly don’t begrudge anybody their attempts to monetize their labor. However, I think it’s important to understand how sites are monetized as this may impact the information that they give you.
There are basically three ways that photography websites make money:
Websites earn affiliate income by linking you to sites like Amazon and B&HPhoto. You click on a link, they get a commission or a click-through fee. Advertising is self-explanatory – they receive money for running ads. And then there is the paid training. Paid training is all the rage now because very sophisticated digital imaging technology has never been more affordable. People rush out and spend $1200 at Costco on a D7200 kit and then have no idea what to do and they are desperate to get quick results.
As a result, everybody and his brother is trying to sell you paid training. I think that’s just fine but before you go down that path and invest your hard earned money in somebody you’ve never heard of on You Tube’s training course, I think it makes sense to a) use the free options I will point you to below and b) look at the two big paid training sites first, which offer very detailed, reliable and comprehensive training for a very nominal fee.
Sidebar – Regarding A Conspicuous Omission
You may notice that I do not link to what is probably the best known website and also the highest ranked photography review site according to Alexa. I’m not going to link to it here, but it’s not that hard to find as it comes up on the first page of any Google Search for “camera and lens reviews”.
Hating on this guy is one of the most popular activities on every serious photo forum around the net. Part of that is just jealousy because he’s successful no doubt. But it’s also because he is prone to sweeping generalizations that frequently cross the line between being opinionated and simply giving out bad advice. In fact he occasionally posts information that is just plain wrong and could be highly detrimental to someone just starting in photography, e.g., “just shoot .jpeg, raw is a waste of time” and so on.
The worst advice he gives is to constantly recommend older Nikon lenses over newer Nikons lenses. This is terrible advice! There are some technical reasons for this (advances in lens coating technology, optimization for digital vs film, etc.) which I will address in another lengthy post but you can take a look at Dxomark’s Best Lenses on a D810, one of my recommended sites, for specific quantitative results that make this crystal clear.
You could also do what I did and simply do your own test. I have rigorously tested this myself under controlled conditions and virtually every single older (pre 2010) Nikon lens is simply unacceptable on a modern high resolution camera like a D810, particularly when compared to its newer counterpart. Believe me, as the owner of a LOT of older Nikon lenses, I wish this wasn’t true but, alas, it is. So this person advising newbies to pick up older lenses on Craigslist – as he does – is really counter-productive at best.
I personally look at his site on occasion because he very much has his finger on the pulse of what’s going on and he has tons of useful links, but I’m very reluctant to recommend his site to anyone who doesn’t know enough to know when to ignore what he says because he speaks so authoritatively that – to put it very bluntly – the less informed may take his opinion as fact and that’s a big mistake.
My opinion of him is that he’s in the entertainment business and like other people in the entertainment business, keeping it simple, stupid and inflammatory is a good way to get good ratings. Anyway, just keep that in mind if you happen to visit that site.
The first two (KelbyOne and Lynda) are the two best paid subscription services if you’re in the market for that. They are both extremely affordable and offer a great value in my opinion. KelbyOne is more like a photography trade school, being restricted to photography/photoshop while Lynda.com is more like a community college with courses on a vast number of topics. I subscribe to both and recommend both and the cost of entry is extremely minimal, roughly $25 a month or $200 per year in both cases. They also both have periodic sales so you might want to take advantage of that.
Fred MirandaMajor portal with lively forums and a particularly good classified section which is a great place to buy or sell.
DP ReviewOne of the highest ranked photography sites on the internet, DP Review is an indispensable source of up to date information. The forums are very active but as with pretty much all internet forums, the loud voices drown out the wise voices, so bear that in mind. Nonetheless, an essential site.
Photography Life Nasim Mansurov has one of my favorite websites. He maintains an excellent balance between length and technical detail, interesting content and topicality. If you only wanted to look at one photography website, this would not be a bad choice. Highly recommended.
Northlight Images This UK based site run by photographer Keith Cooper is a terrific source of information.
Petapixel.com A magazine style site, lots of good and interesting information.
Fstoppers.com A popular and heavily trafficked site but I find some of the information to be a bit erroneous personally.
DXOMark.com DXOMark’s Lens Ratings has established itself in a few short years as the de facto final authority on lens specs. Within the hardcore photo community there is a bit of fetishizing of the magical “DXO number” but this data is invaluable in separating marketing hype from empirical reality.
Adobe TV Adobe offers tons of great free content. Take advantage of it.
I also can’t say enough good stuff about their top 3 “evangelists” here. These folks are experts and they are also great teachers and very pleasant to watch or listen to. They all have Facebook pages as well that you might want to add.
Strobist Don’t let the fact that it’s hosted on Blogspot deter you, this UK based site is the gold standard for all things related to flash photography.
Good Light Magazine. Crazy German Michael Zelbel has kind of a funny presenting style but he’s got lots of interesting ideas and his website is definitely worth a look.
Turnkey Portfolio Websites
These sites are basically offering you a turnkey portfolio website. The two big names in this space are Smugmug and Squarespace with Photoshelter and 500px bringing up the rear. Both are paid, both offer similar services. I like Squarespace’s templates better and you can port them to your own domain if you want. Neither is cheap but they are very easy. All of these sites offer free trial accounts as well as various premium options. All offer on-demand printing at extremely high prices of which they take a significant cut. (I’m personally too picky about my printing to use these options but I guess it works for some folks.)
The pricing is highly dynamic but generally the fully-featured packages for all of these run $300-$600 a year. All prices below are based on one annual payment at the monthly rate.
If you’re a serious photographer, you’re much better off having your own dedicated website, IMHO.
Smugmug – $25 a month ($300 a year) for the “Pro” account.
Squarespace – $24 a month ($288 a year) for the top of the line “Business” account.
Photoshelter – $50 a month ($600 a year) for the “Pro” version.
500px – $5.25 a month ($63 a year) for their upgraded account. One really good deal they have right now is a bundle including Adobe Creative Cloud Photography Plan for $10.35 a month ($124.20 a year).
About 500px. Very popular, their related site, 500px Prime, allegedly allows you to license images via their site but they keep 30%. Not sure how well that’s working for folks in reality. It seems to be positioning itself as a kind of vanity site for people who would like to be with Magnum or Getty but aren’t. Limited free account but you have to pay to unlock the much more powerful premium account. Anyway, I don’t know, it’s not for me.
Social Networking Photo Sharing (free)
You know what they are, but here’s a list anyway. I am also including their claimed user base (M=million) but I find these numbers highly suspect personally.
Instagram – 100M users – the big one, owned by Facebook. Don’t forget to apply your annoying cheesy filter.
Pinterest – 12M users. Very popular, skews towards the female demographic.
Flickr – 87M users (really? I think they are just claiming everyone with a Yahoo account). Less important every year. Seems to be on its way out.
Deviant Art – 25M users – I don’t really know who uses this. I guess I just don’t know any of those 25,000,000 people.
Frankly, in my experience, these are a waste of time for the most part. It sort of brings to life the old saying, “those you know don’t say and those who say don’t know.” YMMV. Between people who post horrendously awful photos and are then upset that somebody doesn’t like them to people giving out just idiotically wrong information and to people aggressively trying to sell you something you have zero interest in, it becomes very hard to extract the good stuff from the noise and it’s easy to waste a lot of time arguing with the clueless over stupid stuff. No thanks!
I haven’t been to a photographic workshop or seminar in years, but I follow Joe McNally on You Tube and I’m a fan so considering the very nominal price of the workshop, I decided to go check it out and I’m glad I did.
Who is Joe McNally?
Joe is one of the most famous assignment photographers in the world and he’s been working steadily since the 80’s. He’s had hundreds of magazine covers and is probably best known for his life-sized Polaroid Ground Zero exhibition called “Faces of Ground Zero” and then the follow up shooting the same subjects 10 years later.
Joe has published 3 very well-received books and is also Nikon’s official speedlight/CLS ambassador. Bottom line, he’s pretty much the King of the strobists.
The event was held at the downtown Sheraton and I was surprised by the large number of people there. I’m guessing there were 200 people, which isn’t bad for a Tuesday in April in Phoenix. The crowd – bearing in mind that this is Arizona – were primarily older folks and amateurs. Joe asked how many people owned studio lights and I was a bit surprised to see that less than half a dozen raised their hands.
Joe is a very enthusiastic and energetic speaker. The event was well organized. He started out in the morning reviewing his work and giving general commentary on the business of photography and some of the challenges he’s faced in his career, both technical and professional. He went through some challenging lighting situations that he’s previously shot in detail and I found this both interesting and worthwhile.
He then did an impromptu lighting set-up using a single Profoto B1 Air and a few well worn Nikon SB900 speedlights. I should mention that we were in the main ballroom at the Phoenix Sheraton, a cavernous and dismal space that is severely underlit and with a color scheme best described as “puke yellow.” Not anybody’s idea of an ideal location. It’s also nearly the size of a football field.
Even though I’ve lit plenty of rooms myself over the years, I found his process fascinating to watch and totally different from my own.
Joe’s #1 Rule – Always Start with the Ambient
Ambient light is always the best light so always start with the ambient and build from there. This sounds very simple but at least for me, it’s a totally different way of working .
A Brief Detour Down Lighting Style Lane
OK, let me take a quick detour here and explain why this is such a revelation to me.
I went to film school in the early 80s and my approach has always been derived from cinematography as it was taught to me in the 80s. What I mean by that is when you’re shooting a movie, you’re almost always going in with a storyboard and a pre-conceived plan of how you’re going to light it. The ambient light is irrelevant to “the plan.”
I wouldn’t quite say they taught us contempt for the ambient light – maybe “ignore the ambient” is a better way of putting it. Part of that is because this was 30 years ago and the fastest motion picture film stock in those days was Kodak 5294, which just came out in 1983 with an ‘unheard of’ EI of 400. Hard to imagine isn’t it? That was the fastest cutting edge motion picture film. ISO 400.
That same year, cinematographer John Alonzo made industry headlines when he shot Blue Thunder using Kodak 5294 and pushing it 2 stops – giving him an effective ISO of 1600 – which was considered revolutionary at the time.
The other thing is, my USC teachers were all old studio guys who had shot in the golden age of the movie studios, which meant they were shooting at ASA 64 and using Mitchell cameras the size of a Smart Car, which required a couple of 10k Teeners just to shoot a medium shot. They did fantastic work but it was a totally different way of shooting than we shoot today.
Don’t get me wrong here – nobody looks at a gorgeous 40’s film noir like Casablanca or The Third Man or Out of the Past (pictured below) and says, “Gee too bad they didn’t have faster film” but it’s pretty much the opposite of “start with the ambient.” I still am very partial towards film noir and classic Hollywood style in general. (By the way, if you’re interested in the cinematography techniques common in this era, I highly recommend John Alton’s classic “Painting with Light”.)
To be honest, I never really thought about this until I watched Joe shoot. It was just sort of hard-wired into my subconscious. I had the realization that I have been shooting this way for 30 years and I’ve since actually adapted my process since watching Joe work. That’s something that doesn’t happen often and that is worth a lot more than the hundred bucks I paid for the seminar.
It’s not that one way is better or worse than the other – it’s just a different approach. Personally, I am constantly on the lookout for things like this that will creatively “shock me” into doing things a different way – I think it keeps it fresh.
Back to the event
Joe set up the B1 as his key light with a Lastolite softbox high and angled down on the subject and then added a single speedlight at the rear of the room with a blue gel as a backlight. Then he added two speedlights as fill lights in either corner of the room using audience members as human camera stands. (I held the one camera left.) He worked this exposure for about half an hour, adjusting and tweaking it until it was just right. He ended up using the key in manual mode and the backlights in TTL.
Within 30 minutes he had a really nice portrait that could have been used for a corporate brochure, in a huge dismal location, using rudimentary tools that pretty much every serious photographer has. It was very interesting to observe his thought process as he went through this and it was an object lesson in not complaining that you don’t have the right gear to do the shoot.
He did a few more lighting setups which were equally interesting, including constructing an ad hoc gobo/cucaloris out of a pallet that happened to be lying near the podium. Again, working in sub-optimal conditions in a wretched environment, he created a terrific portrait in half an hour. That’s something we should all aspire to be able to do.
After that, he did audience critiques. Apparently, people had emailed in their portfolios and asked Joe to critique them. Let’s just say I was a lot more impressed by how Joe handled it than I was with the work presented. He was very patient and supportive with the crowd of eager beginners. I’m not sure I could have done that frankly.
The Consummate Professional
What I found most rewarding – and inspirational even – about the whole event though was Joe’s attitude. He’s 62 but he’s got the energy and attitude of a 25 year old film student. As a guy over 40 (okay, well over 40) I appreciate that. The guy just climbed the Burj Khalifa for cryin’ out loud.
Joe said he’s not one to treat his work as some precious thing or worry about what happens to it. He gets paid to shoot. That’s his job. You pay him and he’ll shoot it. He doesn’t get bogged down in how it gets screwed up in post or what some dumbbell on line says. Who care. He just wants to work. I really respect that attitude and consider it something to emulate.
He also made the incisive observation that even when you’re talking about the masters of photography – Eisenstaedt, Stieglitz, Lange, etc. – you see the same 30 images over and over. And that’s from their lifetime output. In other words, set reasonable expectations and have some respect for how hard it is to get a really outstanding shot.
And I particularly related to his point that he used to get $40,000 for a single shot from Sports Illustrated but guess what? Nobody gets $40,000 from SI for anything anymore. Those days are over. Deal with it. Adapt or die. I hear photographers – especially wedding photographers – bitching and moaning about this all the time – as though the changes in the wedding business are somehow a cosmic conspiracy against them and now they’re doomed.
Joe’s attitude? Screw it – I’ll just shoot something else. And so he does. You really gotta respect that.
Summing It Up
A really fun day with an interesting guy. I will definitely do another seminar with him and I’d highly recommend you check out this event if it comes to your town. Definitely an enjoyable way to spend a day.
So you just bought a fancy new DSLR and you’re not getting the results you want. Maybe you had a baby, maybe you got an unexpected bonus and decided to step-up your photographic game, maybe you’re just the kind of person who orders the most expensive thing on the menu, just because. Whatever the reason, you’re stuck with this expensive machine and a 600 page manual and you have no idea what to do and all you know is that your photos still suck.
First of all, I hear this almost every day so don’t feel bad. As good as the technology is in 2015, you still have to know what you’re doing to get good results.
This post will run you through the various options and make some suggestions that you may find useful.
Option One – Hire Me
I offer one-on-one training in general photography, Adobe Photoshop and other related creative areas. I am happy to design a curriculum tailored to your needs. I work with total noobs who’ve never had a camera and also experienced photographers who need help solving some photographic problem.
If you’re interested in that, please check out my dedicated training site here, ArsMinerva.com or drop me a line and tell me what you’re interested in at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Option Two – Take a Class
If you have the time and money, this is really the best option. In the USA, most community colleges have photography programs and some of them are excellent. Some are truly outstanding such as Santa Monica Community College‘s famed photography program. If you’re in L.A., quit reading this and just drive over there and register now.
(I could write another 50,000 words about my experiences there both good and bad, but that’s another post.)
The bottom line is, just like any other discipline, there is no substitute for a rigorous course of study and daily practice in an disciplined academic environment with experts, especially if you are going to present yourself to the public as a professional.
After all, you can buy a scalpel on Amazon.com but that doesn’t make you a surgeon. You can buy an All Clad pan at Costco but that doesn’t magically turn you into Tom Colicchio.
Option Three – On Line Training
There are lots of tutorials online but many of them are horrible. Some of them give advice that is not only not helpful but simply wrong. As is often the case in life, generally speaking you get what you pay for.
The Two Big Names in Online Training
The two big learning portals are Kelby One and Lynda.com. I’m a member of both and they each have their respective advantages.
If you attend any KelbyOne event, you can usually get a significant discount off of this, e.g., $175 a year and a $40 book credit. People either love or hate Scott Kelby, who has a jocular style that rubs some people the wrong way, but this site has loads of good content, all photography related.
Lynda.com is much bigger than KelbyOne and offers content far beyond photography and Adobe Photoshop. They have really terrific and professional instructional videos in many categories, including web design, programming/coding, graphic design, audio recording, project management, general business, marketing, video production – you name it, they’ve got it.
If your day job is with a Fortune 500 company, you might want to check and see if your company may have any affiliation with Lynda.com. Many large companies use Lynda.com for employee continuing ed (for things like accounting and project management) and many offer free Lynda.com access for all their employees. It’s a nice benefit if you have it so it’s worth checking.
Recomendations: First, check out both course catalogs. If your interest is solely in photography, then I’d probably recommend Kelby One. However, if you also have interests in other topics, such as web design, coding, etc., then you might do better with Lynda.
Got money? Buy both. They’re a lot cheaper than any in-person option and they both deliver great value for the money.
Option Four – In Person Training at Workshops/Short Term Courses
Crunched for time and loaded with cash? These are what you want.
The Adobe sponsored courses are absolutely terrific. They’re also alarmingly expensive. So take a deep breath, get out your credit card and take a look.
Expensive and geared towards corporate clients but well worth it. I previously have taken Photoshop and Dreamweaver courses with Adobe in San Francisco at Adobe partner Academy X (highly recommended if you’re in California).
The Adobe sponsored courses are the best and I unhesitatingly recommend them. They certainly know what they are talking about and they pack a huge amount of content (and work) into a day’s training. These courses are no joke. It’s 8 hours of intense, difficult training in a small class environment. I’ve never had a class with more than 10 people but YMMV.
Note: Very expensive if you’re paying for it yourself. We’re talking $900 to $2700 per course. Adobe has regional partners that deliver the training in most large metropolitan areas, both in the USA and the rest of the world. One advantage in doing this training is that you should be very competent to take the Adobe Certification Exams at your local testing center. Those tests run $180 on average.
There are a lot of choices here, both good and bad. Any of the KelbyOne One Day Seminars are well worth the $100 or so they will cost you. A great value and a lot of information packed into a short time. They tend to be oriented towards beginners but they’re still a nice way to spend a day and you can’t beat the price.
I just went to Joe McNally‘s The Moment It Clicks seminar the other day and I took 9 pages of notes – and I’ve been doing this for 3 decades. There is always new stuff to learn and there’s no substitute to spending time with a seasoned pro, in any discipline.
Some of the other workshops that I hear good things about are:
PhotoShelter has a fairly recent comprehensive list of workshops and seminars, here. Check it out.
Whatever option you choose, it’s well worth the time and money to invest in your photographic education. Like everything else in life, you will get out of photography exactly what you put into it. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I learn new stuff every day.
Shooting women is easy. They know how to dress, how to do their hair, they use make-up, they just generally work it, especially when a camera is present.
It’s different for men. Most men in western cultures don’t pay the same attention to detail in their appearance as women often do. Men’s fashions don’t help. Many men’s wardrobes are virtually identical. Dark suit, cargo shorts and polo shirts and so on.
As a result, it can be hard to avoid a certain generic sameness when shooting men. I like shooting men doing their jobs. That’s often when they come most alive and it makes it easier to capture their individuality.
This featured shot was taken of a real working cowboy. I think it works.
I love shooting couples! I strive to create stylish, unique and exciting couples portraits that are very different from the standard Hallmark card style shot. I want to know what you two are really about and then I want to get that on the image.
When I do a couples shoot, I spend some time with the couple first to try and get to know them and to get a feel for who they are and what they are all about.
Normally, we’ll shoot for a bit to warm up and then I’ll come up with some dramatic scenario, create some characters and have them act that out. The results can be really great!
Shooting portraits is one of those seemingly simple things that is actually incredibly hard to do well. I’m also a cook and to use a cooking analogy, it’s kind of like french onion soup or a roasted chicken – often done badly and seldom done well, but when it is done well it’s a revelation.
My portrait sessions are typically 2-3 hours long and I will shoot 150 images. I’m looking for one perfect picture from that – an image that captures the subject’s essence.
If you’re an actor or model, you have to have a head shot and it better be damn good.
I’ve worked in casting and even a casting for the smallest part results in hundreds of head shots being dumped on your desk. A busy casting director goes through them at a rate of about 20 per minute at least. So your headshot better be good.
Like portraits in general, headshots are seemingly (and deceptively) simple. A great headshot captures your spirit, is technically perfect and most importantly, it gets you call backs. A headshot is not the place to cut corners. It’s the foundation of your career.