July 7, 2018

"Advices to a photographer", by Marcus J. Ranum

Published in 2009, this article is always TOP of the week and the month... Since 9 years... Marcus has promised me another article, I'm impatient !

Member of UdA since 2007

"I sometimes get requests for advices and suggestions..."

"Why arent there more...?"

I sometimes get requests for advice and suggestions... which is incredibly flattering but usually makes me sit back in shock and go "why me ?" Inside my head, I am still trying to figure things out, so I hardly feel like I'm someone to ask for advice. But then I assess the stuff that I have figured out to my satisfaction, and - oh, OK, I have some ideas that might be worth sharing.

So I got this email... ... asking for advice. Advice ? About what ? And he replied :  

" Advice as to finding the best subjects to use, equipment, paper, and just some things you wish you had known when you first started out."

Honestly, I wanted to blow the whole thing off, until I thought about the "things you wish you had known when you first started out." So.

"A Dream of Flying"
Art Model Zinn

"Circles and Circles"
Art Model Candace Nirvana

A bit of explanation about what's wrong with this shot. 

It's a bit blurry from the motion, which is OK - but it's also out of focus. Look carefully ! You can see what happened, if you do : the camera's autofocus locked on her left elbow. 

So, here's some suggestions for how to do it right next time :
a) lock the camera on a tripod,
b) turn autofocus off,
c) set the focus manually for the plane where the model is jumping around,
d) ask her to stay along the axis/focal plane you've set up."

Equipment doesn't matter

once you know what you're doing. The bad news is that when you're a beginner, having the right equipment really helps. So trying to make reflectors out of aluminum roasting pans works for experts, but is a false saving for beginners. When you're a beginner, you should be spending your time trying to figure out how to make your photography better and adding "reinventing the softbox" to your list of things to worry about will just bog you down.  

Think in terms of streamlining your problem set so that you're only worrying about a few things at a time ; then focus on crushing those problems.

"Kithos' Box"
Art Model Angelique Kithos

Here's a shot of Kithos playing with her "box" It's a steamer trunk, really, but - whatever. Lighting is a single chimera flat-box on a boom directly over the model. To make her shiny in spots a thin coat of eros bodyglide was added. Post-work includes channel mixer b/w conversion, and slight colorize with hue/saturation.

"Wet Mammal"
Art Model Kobe Lee

Kobe Lee, coated with Eros Bodyglide wet lube, then spritzed with water. Technicals : single softbox and black velvet drape.

When you're going to buy some gear

break it down into 3 categories :
- stuff that ages well in terms of holding its value.
- stuff that is solid.
- stuff that becomes technologically obsolete quickly.

Why ? Well if you look at digital SLRs, you'll see that they technologically leapfrog themselves every 5 years. So there is a good chance you'll get less than happy with your camera every 5 years (especially if you are getting more skilled faster) - it's much better to buy a better used SLR of last years' (or 2 years' ago) best model than the latest greatest thing. Because you'll be sick of it in 5 years no matter what - and the cost differences can be huge.

If you look at something like studio gear, though - if you get the right strobes or a high quality softbox, it'll last your entire photographic career. If you're paying $400 for a good softbox it seems ridiculous but if you use it for 15 years (mine are going on 15 years..) you've paid $30 per year for that softbox !

If you pay $2,000 for a digital SLR and get sick of it in 5 years you've paid $400 per year for it. See ? Things like light stands and studio gear that you're going to use a lot for a long time, you should buy the best you can get. Things you'll replace every few years: buy used.

If I were going into photography today I'd go buy a set of top-quality used mono-head strobes, new top-quality light stands and softboxes, and a used digital SLR that was the latest thing 4 years ago.

"Magnificat II"
Art Model Candace Nirvana

Lighting is a large octodome to camera right with a smaller fill softbox positioned right next to the camera, with the lighting ratios set to 1200w/s on the main and 400 w/s on the fill (about 2 stops less, in other words).

Art Model Theda

I love the ambiguity of her expression. The pose says "come get me" but her face says - something else. Lighting : pair of large softboxes to camera right, gridded spot to camera left making a hot-spot behind the model to knock her off the background.

Get a tripod

Some day use it, just to slow your shoot-flow down and make you think differently. Then go out and shoot some pictures by moonlight. A good tripod will open opportunities to photograph scenes that hand-holding never permits, and it'll last you your entire photographic career. It'll also double as a weapon if you need to discourage dogs, or customs agents.

Corollary : never buy a cheap tripod ; a good used one is better than a wobbly new one.

"Simple Valentine"
Art Model Valentine

Lights are 2 large softboxes ; one high firing down and one low firing horizontally, slightly at angles to eachother.

Borrow if you can

You can't know what gear you want/need until you've used a bunch of different things. For example, I could not live without my softboxes but that's because of the style I adopted. If I had run out and bought a full "kit" I'd have all this gear I don't need. Like the $800 focusing spotlight that gathers dust in the corner of my studio. I didn't know I didn't need it. So here is the problem : you need to know what you like, before you buy it. The only answer is to experiment with someone else's gear. Take a lighting workshop that is oriented to what you're interested in and that is taught someplace that is gear-rich. Go see what you actually use.

If you can avoid buying stuff you don't need, the workshop will pay for itself in terms of money not wasted.

((PS - Anyone want to buy a focusing spotlight ? It's only been used 5 times in 10 years. Like new !))

"Vassanta - P2"

Get over "originality" and having a "style".

Accept that almost all the fundamental ideas in art spring from the human experience. Which means that you're not going to create something completely new ; you can be pretty sure that some ancient Greek sketched a sulky, emo, teen-ager in 200BC - the sketch just didn't survive and the teen-ager didn't have purple hair. Art is about culture - what you're doing is making your own commentary on the human experience. As such you can't be "original" or unique, but your commentary will ALWAYS be yours.  

Your "style" is what you get when you fall into a creative rut and your work starts to look the same. Don't be afraid of creative ruts if you're happy in your rut.

"Box Top"
Art Model Nerlande

"Buffalo Goddess"
Art Model Sarah Ellis

2 light setup - gridded spot on the backdrop and a flagged octodome main on the model. Postwork is cleanup, mono conversion, black flare layer, and soft light blur layer.

Know what you like

and be honest with yourself what it is.

Your work will be infinitely more personal, powerful, and effective if it's based on things that you are interested in, or that you enjoy, or that torment you.

Connect your art to yourself and you can look anyone in the eye and say "if you don't like it, f*ck you !" If you're not sure why you're doing what you're doing, you will never be able to be fearless.

If you plan to become a commercial photographer, ignore most of what I just said : do what gets you paid. Tell the art director they are the smartest cleverest art director ever. Do what it takes to get their money.

"Golden Dreams"
Art Model Irina

This was lit with a big octodome right off the edge of the mat she was lying on, angled slightly downwards so it wouldn't hit the camera. Photographer was on a ladder shooting down.

Don't obsess over your gear.

Some photographers think it is cool to argue about Nikon versus Canon or whatever lens length to use. If you don't spend your time worrying about that and spend your time photographing instead, you'll discover that gear doesn't matter very much.

Days in the studio or messing in photoshop can save you hours in the library.

A lot of the time, you can figure something out by experimenting, but almost everything has been researched and published someplace before.

"Arch III"
Art Model Samantha Stine

This was shot with a set of 2 stacked softboxes (i.e. : a large light-bank) to camera left. That's all ! Because the model is very pale pink, I did the monochrome conversion in channel mixer with largely blue and green tones.

Art Models Candace Nirvana
and Amber Gangi

Use science

It's not a bad idea to get a couple of objects and position them, then photograph them with your camera on a tripod, moving the lights around and seeing what things look like from different angles. Call it an "experiment." Don't be afraid to experiment but remember one of the most important things about doing science :

try to only change one thing at a time !

If you change 3 variables (light, exposure, post-work) in a shot and you love how it looks, how will you know which factor was the one that had the desired effect ? Keep your experimenting separate from "real shoots" because if you're like most people you'll be embarrassed to experiment when you're trying to also take your work seriously. I have a plaster bust of Elvis that I use as a stand-in for portraiture lighting tests.

"Collapsing Within"
Art Model Carly Champagne

No liquify filter was used ; she's all natural. Lighting for this was a single large octodome high camera right. Post-work on this is a bit more elaborate than usual, because I wanted it to be punchier ; I added a black overlay to increase the shadow density slightly, and a very mild hue shift to warm the image back up afterward.

Memorize important stuff : don't be lazy.

When you're shooting and you get a particular lighting measure, try to remember what it looks like. For example, I can pretty accurately tell f/16 at 1/100sec lighting. Some day you'll find yourself without a light meterand you'll estimate it perfectly and feel brilliant.

Take 10,000 bad photos.

You'll notice that more and more good ones start to happen as you shoot more. There is a correlation between how much you shoot and how good you get. If you use research and science to direct your course you'll get there faster.

Art Model Sarah Ellis

The lighting on this one is not my usual fare. I've got the octodome cranked all the way up to ceiling height, firing downwards at a steep angle. The spill on the backdrop is from the octodome ; this was just one light.

Art Model Samantha

Alternate between experimenting and doing, and studying.

I spent 4 years doing photography before I took my first classes. The classes were a revelation for me because, by then, I had some experiments that I'd shot - and as the teacher explained things I was going "aha ! that's why THAT didn't work !" Or, sometimes, "Hey, teach, you're wrong about..."Totally self-taught works, as does totally class-taught. But combining them is dynamite.

Art Model Irina

Lit with a single large octodome to the right, and a silver bounce on the left.

The best way to learn is to flip back and forth between theory and practice. If you do too much of EITHER theory or practice, you'll work yourself into a corner.

When you're practicing, always try to understand what you're doing in terms of the theory. When you're studying, always ask yourself when you've encountered that problem in practice. This is what I call "mindful artistry."

The idea is simply to know what you're doing and why. It makes you much more powerful than if you are simply resorting to getting lucky, or finding one thing that works for you, and hammering on it endlessly.

If I may make a musical analogy : consider Bob Dylan's career in music as opposed to the countless one-trick ponies that have come and gone.

When you see a photo you like, ask yourself, "how did they do that ?!"

Don't just sit there going "wow !" and above all, don't feel like you're stealing someone's idea if you try to figure out what they did. If you ask "how did they do that ?!" you may eventually start coming up with answers. That means you can do it, too !

Nobody has ownership of a technique.

Don't be afraid to try to "steal" someone's technique. You're not going to exactly duplicate it, anyway. For example, some of my lighting results from my attempts to steal from Caravaggio.

Of course, about 10,000 other photographers have used the same lighting trick, including Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. Steal from the very best.

"Hommage to My Man, Ray"
Art Model Courtney L Buck

1 comment:

D.L. Wood said...

Great advice.

It's so nice to have a great photographer so open to share his knowledge with us of lesser experience.

I checked out your Deviant pages and what a great place to start with some ideas on how to light and pose our own creations but not have to start from scratch.

Thank You

D.L. Wood