Whenever you do something that other people observe or use for a service, you inevitably get the question, “How long have you been doing this for?” Once that’s out of the way, the next question is typically, “Where did you learn all this stuff?”
Me? I got a strong foundation by working with my Uncle, Charles Glatzer, of Shoot The Light. The rest, I got from mind-numbing hours of watching youtube, reading blogs and books, and experimenting with a random friend who happened to have a free hour to act as my subject. The result? Lots of hours and money spent on trying to make myself a better photographer.
What I’ve come to realize is this: Learning sucks.
Let’s use my last two shoots as examples.
The first was publicity photos for ACT1 Theater’s production of Once Upon a Mattress (tickets available here if you’re interested). I was going nuts during this shoot because I had about an hour to do 6 different sets of photos, and I had some complex ideas in my head because I wanted to push myself.
Well, there was a lot of chuckling from the peanut gallery the whole time and with good reason. Firstly, I’m very animated and use my hands a lot. I also talk to myself when I’m figuring out my lighting set-ups (don’t worry, I don’t respond to myself so I’m not that crazy - I think). On top of that, I’m in this musical as well and would also be getting my picture taken; therefore, I was doing the entire shoot dressed like this:
Imagine if you will a medieval madman with his arms flailing about, muttering to himself, and the juxtaposition of him doing all this with a DSLR in his hands. Can you blame them for laughing?
The first shots were of the Queen, King, and the Prince. We used the background from a previous show, which contained a sunset gradient of bricks. Unfortunately for me, they also painted over parts of the background which left me with only a 5 foot wide section to work with. What you’ll notice is that big strip of wall where the background doesn’t really match.
What the hell was I thinking?!?! I knew I had to keep the subjects away from that part of the wall, and yet as you can see, I allowed all of us to creep over. 2 hours later in Photoshop, and I finally conceded that I couldn’t very easily rebuild that gradient and “fake” the background.
Lesson numero uno: Get everything you possibly can right in camera. Otherwise, your roommate will walk into your room wondering why you’re cursing out loud like a pirate who just got a splinter from his peg leg.
The second shoot downright infuriated me. I’m working with a buddy of mine who’s kind of like a producer. He sets things up, finds the right people, and makes things happen. The goof prefers to remain anonymous, so we’ll just call him Chester B. Arthur because he’s obsessed with the man. So Chester tells me the night before we’re supposed to shoot, “Hey Mike, we’re not going to do that Arabia Mountain session. Instead we’re going to do a still-frame story of Light Vs Dark at a cemetery. I want to push you out of your comfort zone; just for fun.”
You’re an evil man…
I don’t think I’ve been more disappointed in myself after a shoot in my entire career. Chester told me the basic story at 6AM and we scouted 5 or 6 quick locations for the shots we (he) wanted to do while the models were getting ready. At 6:40AM we started shooting and my “retrospective learning” commenced.
A number of the shots were fantastic technically. I think they may be my best images from a complex lighting standpoint: balancing flashes with ambient dawn sunlight, and having the proper depth of field and ISO as well to really make the images work.
Unfortunately, I can’t use a lot of those images because my composition was, put simply, BORING. A cardinal sin of a photographer is taking a photograph with lame composition. Framing is everything, and I definitely did nothing with some of those shots. Looking back, I can easily think of better ways to take those images.
Lesson numero dos: If you’re not happy with the composition, FIX IT. Don’t settle for it like your high school homecoming date.
I think one of the major difficulties of the shoot was that I really didn’t know what Chester wanted or the look he was going for. It was basically up to me to create the images based on the story right on the spot. Since I couldn’t “see” it in my head, creating lighting and composition was incredibly challenging and taxing.
Lesson numero tres: When you’re shooting someone else’s story, have them storyboard it or show you reference images before you start. Give me some color outside-the-lines preschool doodle and I’ll give you the Mona Lisa in return.
There’s a great truth in that we’re all students of our craft and should never stop learning or trying to get better. I was just thinking I was past the rookie mistakes. Whelp, I ate some humble pie and learned my lesson; again. I’m going to tape these notes to my bag so I don’t forget them for my shoot tomorrow.
Leave a comment if you can relate to some hard learned lessons while doing photography or some other task!