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One of the greatest challenges new photographers face is learning to bridle their excitement to show everyone, everything they shoot. The difference between a good photographer and a great one is not what they shoot, but what they choose to show the world. Learning to edit your work is paramount to being a great photographer.
In the last century, there was a buffer between the amateur photographer and the rest of the world: the science of photography itself and the cost of production and distribution. Expensive labs, chemical heavy darkrooms, and the complexity of publishing one’s work made it difficult to publicize. Those who were willing to make the effort and spend the money did so very carefully, with assistance from industry professionals to insure their work was well received. These hurdles to publication slowed photographers down and forced them to reflect on their work before displaying it to the public at large.
Today, you don’t have to go through a gatekeeper to have access to the world. With the advent of Facebook, blogs and Instagram, the public is only a click away from seeing your latest shot. A photographer can snap a shot, alter it in Snap Seed and post it to the world in a matter of 60 seconds, for free, without any oversight, second opinions or editorial review.
And the world will act as your editor by following and un-following your feeds. Now you (the photographer) need to learn how to be a photo editor. You can do it, you have the skills, but you now need the discipline to be your own harshest critic and to accept nothing but the best, even when it hurts to hit the delete key.
After all, photography is the art of selection. When you are out in the field photographing, you have an infinite number of frame options available to you, and with your photographer hat on, you choose the location, the angle, the moment and even the exposure settings for each image you capture. When you get back to the Lightroom, you now have a smaller number of frame options available, but it is still the same act of selection that occupies your attention. The only difference is that the decisions you make in the computer can be contemplated over and are not as permanent as missing the shot in the field. If a photographer approaches the act of selecting in the computer the same way she approaches selecting at the camera (with confidence), the act of selection will be far less intimidating and much more fruitful.
I offer a few suggestions for being a better photo editor:
First, photographers select in the field by reviewing options in comparison to one another. In the old days, we used to make our selections in the darkroom using a contact sheet with 15-36 images being compared to one another at the same time. Reviewing images one at a time will never yield quick or informed selection decisions. The art of efficient, accurate and quality selection begins with this comparative review principle: we make better decisions when we see our options in comparison to each other.
Second, photographers in the field take an infinite number of options and select images from that infinite set. When options are placed before you in comparison, one option will catch your eye and that is the option you will explore. Back in the studio, the selection process is hindered when photographers scrutinize every possible image. Instead, determine what you are looking for (i.e. children in action, brides dressing, politicians lying, etc) and set those images in front of you. As you compare them to each other on the screen or in print, let the great images jump out and grab you. Those that do not are unworthy of your attention.
Third, you must be willing to “kill your darlings.” Too many photographers keep too many images because it cost them time and money to produce. But if the image is not impressive, it should not be shown. Your goal as a self-editor is to promote your great work and, like the gatekeepers of the 20th century, deny entry to the rest. Shakespeare’s character Polonious reminded his son that “brevity is the soul of wit,” and I am reminding you now, that brevity is the soul of a potent portfolio. Protect your brand by protecting your portfolio.
Don’t just think of your portfolio as the book you show your clients, or a website for potential clients. Your portfolio is anything and everything you put out into the public’s eye. This includes your printed products, magazine publications and advertisements, your Facebook pages, blogs, image galleries and Instagrams. This is where you make your impression on the public, which is why it is so important to be more critical of your own work.
Fourth, find someone you trust to review your work on a regular basis. This could be another photographer, a mentor, your print lab, a portfolio review session at a trade show, a camera club or even a password protected web forum. You don’t want a “yes” man to butter you up, but an honest and harsh critique. The public will be more than happy to critique your work, but getting that critique means that you have to show the world your mediocre work. Henri Cartier-Bresson said “showing your contact sheets is like taking your pants off in public.” Don’t take your pants off in public – it’s not good for your brand!
The world knows that you are putting your best foot forward. So, when you share images that are merely good, you are telling your potential clients that this is the best you’ve got. If you are not willing to reject the good that is mixed in with the great, you will be seen as mediocre at best. If you won’t judge your own work harshly, the world will.
Jared Platt is a professional wedding and lifestyle photographer. He has lectured at major trade shows, photo conferences and universities on photography and workflow. Currently, Jared is traveling the USA and Canada teaching photography and post production workflow.
I signed up with my very first company that offered an “archive hosting” service five years ago. At that time, my idea of what that meant was vague at best. Would they sell my pictures or just provide storage and display? Would the web system be user friendly? Would I need to buy a complicated manual? Did I need to hire an assistant for this?
Today archive hosting companies typically provide storage space, online galleries, search and client features, a user-friendly back-end management system, FTP, downloading, and hundreds of other functions that are incredibly useful if properly understood. All of this is usually bundled into a package that might cost roughly USD 50 per month. For a photographer like me, who is constantly moving, I find the service indispensable.
Today the main player in this game seems to be Photoshelter. After transferring my archive to their servers a year ago, I can say with some level of confidence that they provide a superior service, strong customer support, and a huge variety of functions (without trying to do too much, the most important thing in my opinion).
So how exactly do I manage my own archive? When I complete shoots for newspapers, magazines, and corporate clients, I upload the images to my archive, so that I can FTP the images to clients, share the work with friends and family using public light-boxes, display work to potential new clients, and allow regular clients to search for stock images to license. That might sound like a lot of work — and it is. But make no mistake, this hard work pays dividends.
I particularly find the online archive a useful tool when working on longer-term stories or projects, because as work is completed it can be uploaded and shared for client or peer review. For example I recently photographed the construction of one of Shanghai’s tallest buildings. The building owners wanted to see a monthly edit from my shoots, a progress report, as we went. During the more than two years the project lasted, I was able to bring them up to speed with new imagery, as well as service the download needs of their staff in Shanghai and Japan. My archive created a seamless delivery system — no more burning disks, no more Fedex. The online, hosted, and managed archive is here to stay.
A close friend of mine challenged my position on archive hosting by insisting that my agency should take care of all that “back-end” work for me. A lovely idea, but full-service agencies are pretty much a thing of the past. (In my experience anyway; if I’m missing some full-service agencies still out there, please let me know.) The new trend seems to be the fully functioning, independent photographer who manages his or her own pictures.
Although my photographic work is represented by Corbis, they are far from a full-service agency. They don’t have an assignment division and rely on photographers to upload on their own. They don’t scan film, they don’t do captioning and key-wording, and they edit as they see fit. This is all actually a good thing, because it allows them to focus on the most important part of the process, selling my images.
Of course, that means a lot of the work agencies used to do is now the photographer’s responsibility. While that may be a negative for some, it’s a positive for me, because I get to control the quality, layout, and organization of my own work, and then share it anyway I like. It allows me to have a closer relationship with my editors and — for a young photographer like me who sometimes feels overwhelmed with a rapidly changing industry — this offers a very rare sense of control. Plus I can link to my archive just about everywhere, post public light-boxes online using social media, and fully integrate my Photoshelter archive with my liveBooks website, in the hope that editors and image buyers can find what they are looking for with ease.
On a final note, in my particular situation, having an archive based in the U.S. is a crucial part of my business plan. Because I live behind The Great Fire Wall of China, FTP-ing work out of the country is a nightmare, so it’s best that I only have to do it once. Once I upload to my archive, it’s an easy click of the button to share work with multiple clients. Plus I never have to worry about missing a deadline because it takes 14 minutes to upload one image to a server outside of China!
MIKI JOHNSON: What initially drew you both to Cuba? It has been photographed so much already…did you try to approach it in a new way that you hadn’t seen before?
ALEX WEBB: Like many projects, this one began somewhat serendipitously. We certainly did not plan it. I first went in to Cuba 1993 for Life magazine, and Rebecca traveled there around the same time separately. We were both intrigued by the island, but somehow didn’t manage to return until 2000, when we visited together to teach a workshop.
Returning to the country inspired both of us, and we embarked on two separate projects: my exploration of the streets of Cuba and Rebecca’s discovery of unique and sometimes mysterious collections of animals there –– from tiny zoos and pigeon societies to hand-painted natural history displays and quirky personal menageries. It was only eight years later, in 2008, that we hit upon the notion of putting our two very distinct bodies of work together to create a multi-layered portrait of Cuba.
MJ: How many trips to Cuba did you take while making photos for this book, and what places and parts of the culture were you specifically trying to capture?
AW: We made 11 trips to Cuba. Besides our first trips that we took separately, we made six trips together from 2000 to 2005 and then four long trips in 2007 and 2008, when I was fortunate enough to have a Guggenheim Fellowship to continue photographing the island. I initially called my project Esperando because in Spanish the term means both “waiting” and “hoping,” a title that starts to get at my impression of the streets of Cuba.
REBECCA NORRIS WEBB: I originally called my project Three Rooms after the following quote by a Habanero whom I met, a gentle and soft-spoken man who raises cockatiels, love birds, and parakeets: “I have three rooms in my house –– two are for my birds, and one is for my wife and me.”
For the past decade, I’ve been exploring the complicated relationship between people and the natural world. In the 25 cities I visited for my first book The Glass Between Us, I never witnessed anything quite like what I’ve seen on “the violet isle,” a little known nickname for Cuba inspired by the rich color of its soil. Nearly 700 miles across, Cuba is easily the largest island in the Caribbean and has its own endemic species, including the world’s smallest bat and the world’s smallest bird. Alex and I traveled nearly the entire length of the island in pursuit of our separate obsessions.
MJ: Why did it appeal to you to combine your two bodies of work into one book about Cuba? How are the images grouped in the book? More »
I recently had an exhibition of my work from Chinese Turkistan, or Xinjiang, China, in Toronto, Canada. It was my first solo exhibition, but similar shows will happen in Europe and China next year. Putting on a gallery show can be a very trying experience for any photographer, emerging or established. But as I learned, the rewards outweigh all the hard work that goes into it.
In the early days of my time in China, I realized that I had a strong connection to the province of Xinjiang, the mainly Muslim region in northwest China. The Chinese portion of the Silk Road, once known as Chinese Turkistan, is changing before our eyes. Ancient mud brick homes and labyrinth-like towns are being torn down in the name of “progress.” I had traveled in the region often and felt an immediate passion to tell the stories of its people, but I didn’t actually make images there until some years later, in 2005, when I visited the region on assignment.
I’d made the images for myself, but wanted to share them with the world. I like to contact the galleries I’m familiar with by email and set up face-to-face meetings to show prints. Some galleries are very open minded and want to meet emerging photographers. Most galleries don’t even reply. It’s a competitive, in some cases cut-throat, industry — and the economic crisis has made it that much more difficult to get started. More »
I talked with everyone I knew and then went and talked to everyone I didn’t know. I found out what each person’s greatest need was and tried to find a way to fill that need. I made it a point to go everywhere with advertising and marketing material. I worked with some great photographers here in Arizona who gave me a chance to cut my teeth while I built a portfolio. I also built my own flash website. I don’t recommend this unless you have a lot of time on your hands. I also put together a print portfolio and started to shop it around to as many people in my community as I could get an appointment with.
I instantly jumped on getting my website together and I happened to use liveBooks. I also started a blog. This allows me to routinely update a photo area with what I am immediately doing at the moment. I joined several associations and jumped into the business end of photography concerning branding, copyright law, marketing, etc. I also started networking and using the various social media sites to get the word out, build new relationships, and keep the ones I always had. More »
John Kaplan, who wrote Photo Portfolio Success and has had impressive success with his own portfolio over the years, is here to answer your questions. Leave a question in the comments section, along with your website if you have one, and he’ll respond asap, also in the comments, so others can benefit from the good advice.
John Kaplan is one of America’s most accomplished narrative photographers, having been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography, POY National Newspaper Photographer of the Year, the Overseas Press Club Award, two Robert F. Kennedy Awards, and the Nikon Documentary Sabbatical Grant. He is also the author of Photo Portfolio Success, which helps photographers edit to their strengths and prepare stunning portfolios that eliminate doubt in the minds of editors, buyers and contest judges.
A full professor at the University of Florida and a Fulbright Scholar, John teaches throughout the world and has twice been named a juror for the Pulitzer Prizes. His work has appeared in LIFE, The New York Times, American Photo and numerous book annuals.
John’s work is exhibited at museums and galleries worldwide including solo exhibitions in the United States, Peru, Bolivia and Korea as well as shows in the United Kingdom, France, Japan, Korea, Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. His project on survivors of torture in West Africa was awarded the Overseas Press Club Award for Feature Photography and the Harry Chapin Media Award; the United Nations used the work to help facilitate contact with the victims.
Presently, John is directing and producing his first feature length film, the autobiographical Not As I Pictured: A Pulitzer Prize-winning Photographer’s Journey Through Lymphoma.
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I have so many clients who have found themselves in this position — who were in another industry and realized they were not living their dream. The safety net of the bi-monthly paycheck is gone and now you must create your own identity. Luckily you won’t have to start from scratch.
Visit the websites of photographers you admire and see how they are presenting themselves. Now look at your images. Are there special topics you gravitate toward or are often assigned to? And how do your images convey information? What about them got people to read the stories next to them?
Become an astute observer of the images around you, too. Make mental notes of magazine ads, billboards, store signs, direct mail, even family portraits done for friends. A photographer was paid to make all of these — notice how they did it and decide if the photographer could be you next time.
Maybe most importantly, ask yourself what you really love about this business. Do you want to continue shooting what you have been, or is now the time to re-invent yourself and shoot what you love, not your former employer? You don’t have to build a brand on the photographer you are — this is your chance to build the brand of the photographer you want to be.
First decide which markets to pursue and which images to present. Rather than showing work you think people want to see, I think you should show the images you love to shoot, since those are likely to be your best work. Then, once the image selection is clear, consider presentation. For instance, if I were to put your website alongside your business card, your postcard, your e-promo, and your print book — would I know that they all belong to the same photographer? More »
Most photographers know that properly captioning and keywording their photographs is crucial if it’s going to show up in an image search, either on a stock site, on their own site, or, increasingly, on a Google Image search. What may come as a surprise is just how detailed those descriptors need to be — down to the color of the model’s shirt.
For example: Smiling brown-haired Caucasian woman drinking coffee, sitting at the kitchen table. Now go even deeper for the keywords. The woman is smiling, so be sure to include “happy” as a keyword. What does the kitchen look like? Is it modern? Traditional? What is she wearing? If she is wearing a turtleneck, include that since it suggests a specific season. In fact, include the season. All of these details could be important to the person looking for the photo.
Another concept to consider when keywording is atmosphere and mood. A lot of photo editors are looking for an image to illustrate a specific concept. In addition to describing the scene, imagine what ideas your photograph could be used to convey.
For example, if you have a close-up of a pair of dice, think about what that could represent — Las Vegas, Atlantic City, luck, risk, chance, chances, (include singular and plural; photo editors have different searching “styles”). Or a road sign, those can also be used to illustrate other concepts such as “choice,” “fork in the road,” “decision.” All of these should be included in the keywords.
To help with this more conceptual keywording, look at magazines and see how images are used to illustrate different stories and concepts. Begin thinking like a photo editor, not only when shooting, but also when captioning and keywording.
One thing you can do to help those photo editors looking for your images is to spell things correctly. There have been times when I purposely misspelled something in a search in order to find what I was looking for (after spending hours trying different keywords). Double, triple, even quadruple check your keywords and captions, then have someone else “copy edit” them. You never know what errors a fresh pair of eyes may find — and who might find your images because of your diligence.
As we look around the photojournalism world today, it’s hard not to worry about one trend in particular: Newspapers, magazines, and wire services have been cutting pages, budgets, and staff positions, for years — and they’re not coming back. With fewer staff jobs to go around, more photographers than ever are deciding to work for themselves. Being the innovators that photographers are, they’re exploring new markets, new mediums, and new skill sets, especially those needed to run a business.
Some former staff photojournalists saw the writing on the wall long ago and now run their own thriving businesses. Many more have made strides in the last year or two, but still have a few questions — or they’re planning to make a move soon and have lots of questions.
Next week, August 10-14, RESOLVE will run five days of posts designed to answer these questions. Of course, no one person has the answer to all questions, especially the big ones about where the industry is going and how photography will continue to be profitable. But every photographer and editor and rep out there has the answer to one or two questions. That’s why we’ve asked as many as possible to share their experiences.
We’ve talked to dozens of former staff photographers working in a range of markets and will share their insights with you in daily posts next week. Each day we’ll also explore and explain an alternative market for photojournalists, including commercial assignments, wedding photojournalism, fine-art, and working with NGOs.
On top of that, an “expert of the day” will be available to answer questions in real-time as you ask them. They’re here to help, but we also need people will come together and help each other. We’ve heard about so much of this going on offline, we know you’ll have a lot to share here online as well.
If you are now or have ever been a staff photographer, please check in next week and join the discussion: ask a question, offer advice, and make some new contacts. If you’d like to contribute your thoughts about transitioning from a staff position, please email us this week: resolve [at] livebooks [dot] com. We’d love to hear from you and share your story (and website) with the community!