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Gene Higa is a destination wedding photographer based in San Francisco, but he’s got great tips for all kinds of photographers. In today’s Tip of the Week, Gene reminds photographers how important it is to meet new people and that helping others always pays off in the long run.
My name is Jeffrey Thayer and I am a photographer. I am early in my career, but I have been using the camera as a medium for expression as long as I can remember. I can’t paint or maybe I’d be a painter.
At the moment I am trying to push my career up a notch. I have great clients, from boutique designers to smaller editorial, but I want more. I want the clients with huge visions that are a challenge to create and who want to make them with me. I want clients that embody the laughter in life and fun lifestyle that I enjoy.
So how does one go from being an assist to a photog? That was the question I asked myself — and to be honest, I needed some help. I have worked with a lot of great photographers in the Los Angeles area, as well as some of the ones who came to town for shoots. I have shot pre-production stuff for one of today’s most in-demand photographers … and all of this means nothing in the end.
So I started asking these guys and gals I work with what I should do to move forward. I also started attending every possible APA event on these topics. I went to portfolio reviews and was told I seemed to have multiple personality problems. I narrowed my vision and started to do some e-mail blasts, which got a good reception, and then did a postcard.
But budgets are tight due to this awesome economic climate, and I still wasn’t getting the calls I wanted. So I hired Leslie Burns-Dell’Acqua at Burns Auto Parts, who told me I was using too much of a “shotgun” marketing technique. I was sending things to people who probably wouldn’t hire me and I probably wouldn’t want to shoot for. What I needed to be was a self-promotion sniper. So Leslie helped me fine-tune my contact list and market only to the clients who use images like mine and the companies/magazines I want. We also trimmed a couple more images out of portfolio.
Miki Johnson: How and when did you transition to commercial work after leaving your staff position?
Nader Khouri: Immediately after leaving the Contra Costa Times a year-and-a-half ago, I knew that I was going to be doing commercial work. I am shooting mostly food right now and many of my clients are branding firms and restaurants. I would love to be shooting food-related subject matter most of the time, but I am still building my business. I am also doing corporate/nonprofit work and am very thankful to some of my photographer friends in the Bay Area for giving me referrals during this transition. For me, this change isn’t happening overnight, and I don’t expect it to.
MJ: How did you present yourself to commercial clients? Were they drawn to your photojournalistic background?
NK: Most of my food clients have come from doing a lot of networking. I got to a point where I said to myself, “I’m sick of hanging around photographers.” So I got as far away from them as possible and started meeting people who I could potentially collaborate with. I had discussions with them about photography and gained their trust. My website was just a confirmation for them. I’ve gotten to the point now where I’m back in the loop of being around photographers. I became a member of APA and am using a lot of their resources. Also, I have done a ton of email marketing and I have to say, even in this day in age of Twitter, Facebook, and Adbase, seeing someone-face to-face is still number one for me.
MJ: Did you work with a consultant or rep to re-brand and find commercial clients?
NK: I studied marketing and it helped me go back and ask myself, “What am I passionate about?” and then set goals for myself. It also helped me focus on how could best serve my clients. I started hearing the word “partnership” more, and that helped me think more about how I can reach out to other professionals to meet my clients’ needs. Photojournalism and commercial work are both collaborative processes. Commercial work just has a whole host of different players. And I think that’s where photographers might end up getting discouraged.
During a transition, photographers need to take the time to understand the scope of the markets they are in and to identify growing markets. I constantly say to myself, “Even in this down economy, plenty of work is being done and plenty of money is being made.” Instead of learning video like many still photographers, I am spending my time researching my markets and making connections there. I think spending time on the content of my images is more valuable than the medium in which I shoot. If I have a client who wants motion, then I’ll hire someone to do motion. But I am still quite passionate about still images and don’t plan to change what I do anytime in the near future.
MJ: I notice that you have a strong “mission and values” section on your website. Has that helped you focus in on the kinds of jobs you want? 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.
There’s nothing more ego shattering than interviewing a photographer who is as old as my career is long and finding out that she has kicked my ass in a market place that I coveted for years. Shooting book covers for literary works is downright respectable in a bizarre, pseudo-erudite sort of way.
“Did you read Rolling’s Recalcitrant Ruminations of Ruskin?”
“Why no darling, but I did shoot the image for the cover of the hardback.”
“Oh, bravo. Glass of sherry?”
I tried to get into that publishing circle for years. To say that they didn’t give two shits about me is, to be honest, crediting myself with one shit too many. Which brings me to my guest, photographer Claire Rosen. She was recently contacted by the boutique global publishing firm Random House to shoot the cover (left) of Sarah Addison Allen’s book The Girl who Chased the Moon.
The folks at Random House were intrigued by Miss Rosen’s distinct style of photography when they came across it at one of her gallery openings. The assignment (I’m not joking): Read the book and pitch some ideas of how the cover should be shot. The folks at Random House chose one of the ideas and Claire was, (I promise, I’m not joking), free to go shoot it and send in the results.
That kind of paid creative freedom with a high-profile client is practically nonexistent in contemporary society. Not only do you get paid to do your creative thing, you can window shop at a Barnes and Noble on a date and feign surprise when you see your book cover. If I want to accidentally-on-purpose show off my book cover I have to start a fire in the café of the book store, convince my date that it’s safest in the photography section and then use my book to fan away the smoke. “You okay? Hey look at that!”
Gigs like Miss Rosen’s can become a wonderful source of work. In just a week since receiving her first assignment, she has landed another book cover. If you’re interested in doing this type of work, you need to keep one thing in mind: The people at publishing houses who are green-lighting covers aren’t looking for photographers. They are looking for covers.
I reached out to a senior art director at Little, Brown Books to find out what he’s looking for from photographers. He suggests going to the bookstore to find covers, illustrated or photographic, that are similar to your narrative style. Check the imprint names on the books’ spines and contact those publishers to get the name of their art director.
The best way to reach out art directors is by mailing a hard-copy promo with an example of your work. Email promos have become the bane of art directors, my contact said. The barrage of email promos from listing services has resulted in a backlash, and they are routinely deleted out of hand.
One phrase that stood out in my interview with the Little, Brown art director was “cover appropriate.” Take the time to do your research. If your work doesn’t look like any cover you’ve seen, then don’t send it to the publishers.
With all that in mind, take a day and hang out at the bookstore — you could find a whole new direction for your photography business. Just please pretend not to notice if you see a guy in the café torching a pile of coffee beans.
As a photo editor for a weekly women’s lifestyle magazine, I frequently had to find the same kind of image over and over again. One of the common ones was what we termed “woman on scale.” There is a weight-loss story in just about every issue of every women’s lifestyle magazine on the stands, so the need for this particular image (and ones like it), is almost endless.
Unfortunately, there never seems to be enough in the various stock coffers to keep up with demand. Especially considering that magazines will avoid using the same image twice or using the same image as another lifestyle magazine. For photographers this means — even though it’s counterintuitive — you should be shooting more of what you see the most of.
As a photo editor, I would have loved to see more variety of these recurring images (like “woman on scale”). Photographers should first look through multiple issues of the magazines they expect will buy their images and notice which images are repeated. That will give you a few kinds of photos to focus on. Then get to know the editorial styles of each magazine and create different versions of those photos to cater to each style. Some magazines will want a very young woman, some a woman who looks more like a mother. Conservative magazines will want her legs and arms to be covered; others might want her to have the latest, tightest workout clothes.
Photographers often offer several images of the same model in the same clothes, changing only her the tilt of her head or the position of her hands. If you were an editor, would you use two of these as if they were “different” photos? Didn’t think so. If you are using the same model, change her clothes between photos, especially the color palette. Change her hairstyle, make-up, and expressions. Make her look like a different woman. Change the background and include a white background. Most importantly, shoot the same image with different models, especially ones from different ethnic backgrounds (although two from of the same ethnicity is still better than one). Think of it almost mathematically. Try to come up with as many permutations as possible for the same image.
If you’re working in the women’s lifestyle genre, there are several other pictures that you’ll notice recur frequently: woman at a computer, woman performing various kitchen duties, woman in the car, woman with money, woman shopping. Remember, in addition to shooting each scenario in different locations, also shoot them on a white background to make a clean background for text. When possible, consider not only the content of the photograph but also the way the graphic designer may need to work around it when laying out a page. If you can do that, and keep supplying the images that editors have to keep going back to look for, you’ll quickly move to the top of their go-to list.
There is something very validating about seeing your name in the gutter of a magazine, or, even better, in the “about the cover” blurb. Kind of like a great one night stand: You feel confident as hell the next day and you get great bragging rights for as long as the magazine is on the news stand.
Lately my throne reading has included the Magazine Death Pool blog (you may recognize their logo at left), which I peruse with the fascination of a rubber necker passing a freeway accident. Part of me is sad so many periodicals are ascending to printing-press heaven. If I hadn’t landed the occasional regional magazine cover when I was a rookie, I would have had to look for a real job a long time ago.
As I watch the weekly demise of many small and large publications on the Magazine Death Pool, I wonder about the next generation of shooters. Will they be shit out of luck? Will they even have the opportunity to get underpaid to shoot magazine assignments in return for promotional and bragging rights? There is still hope.
As blog content continues to improve, some blogs are being thought of as replacements for expiring print publications. Most of the images those blogs run are either micro stock images purchased for a buck or an image legally lifted under the fair-use provision of the copyright law. These should be the images of enterprising photographers looking to get some notoriety. I know that you won’t get paid enough to buy a single pinto bean for your next burrito, but avoiding blog publications ain’t doin’ nothing for nobody.
But before you take my advice and go bounding, portfolio in hand, into the living rooms of the bigger blog publications, I’d like to make a salient point. There is a distinct difference between needing to get exposure and already having exposure, like my favorite editorial shooter Brian Smith.
Mr. Smith has earned a phenomenal reputation along with a Pulitzer Prize. He is trusted with heavyweight assignments and heavyweight celebrities because he has proven on several thousand occasions that he can deliver what editors need. The strength of his work and his name gives him a lot of syndication opportunities. He’s definitely not a candidate for throwing his work at the blogging community until they start offering real money. That is an appropriate option for photographers who are looking to build a name like Brian Smith, though, preferably using different letters.
There is nothing more important in the photography world than exposure of your name. It used to be that you would go to a library, research all the periodicals, large and small, and make a list of the magazines that would be a good fit with the style of your work. The small publications were particularly attractive because they were approachable and offered a better-than-average chance of publishing your photos. Granted it was for the price of a single frosty beverage, but fame is fame.
The blogs of today are no different — except for one thing. Young photographers are not yet approaching the high-profile blogs offering images for attribution. Why not be one of the first? Search around the web for blogs that have large readerships. Services like Alexa can help you determine how popular a blog is. Then drop them an email with a link to your site. Tell them where you live and what you’d be willing to do to get your photography with a link attribution on their site (please wipe that smirk off your face). The bonus could be free access to events, a corporate shooting gig, who knows. Nothing ventured… The goal of this is to get your name out of the coffee shop and into the real world.
At some point you’ll have to draw a line in the sand and determine when the freebies stop. A couple of factors to keep in mind when determining the location of that line: Has any connection in the last nine months been a result of your efforts? Has anyone commented that they saw your work on any of the blogs? Is the time you’re putting into creating images for a blog starting to cost you more than its worth?
These questions are no different than the ones you would ask yourself if you were doing the same for a magazine. Magazines just seem more legitimate because they’re paper and stuff. But in the contemporary grand scheme o’ things, and given the rate magazines are disappearing, the gap between online publication and printed ones is diminishing rapidly. Get your name out there. Then please let me know your experiences by leaving a comment here or contacting me through my web site at Lou Lesko Dot Com.
MJ: You mentioned that you found yourself making the same “Martin Sundberg” images with the video camera that you would have with a still camera. What do those look like and how do you recognize them as your signature look?
MS: This first foray into video felt like a seamless transition from shooting photography, and a lot of that can be attributed to the Canon 5D Mark II. It was amazing to use the tools I’ve always used, in terms of the feel and function of a still camera, and do this entirely different thing with it. For me, this really facilitated a consistency in my vision. In my still photography, I try to use the elements of the moment, exploiting light and weather whenever possible, to add to the photograph. I also am often trying to capture motion and distill that feeling into a photograph.
When it came time to post some teaser videos on my blog, I went to pull some frame grabs to situate next to the videos, and that was when I realized I had shot the video footage in the same way. This is an intriguing revelation, and I’m excited by the idea of moving between the two mediums for a client, creating both stills and video for a campaign. This also reminded me that the creative process is really a series of choices. Planning sometimes precedes these choices, but very often it’s a matter of simply reacting to what’s in front of the camera at that moment.
I now understand photography and video as having a more synergistic relationship. When I bring elements together that I’m passionate about — light, water, inspiring people, and evocative environments — I tend to act in a way that defines and supports the style that I’ve developed through many, many experiences with the camera at my eye. Being facile with both mediums is just another way to keep exercising, challenging, and honing the process of seeing and creating images.
MJ: What did you learn from this shoot and what advice would you give to photographers going out on their first video shoot?
MS: When the project concluded and we all went back to our respective parts of the country, I realized how much I love the still image. I continue to be excited about the outcome of this project, but I was honestly shocked to discover that I didn’t have a body of still images after all of that effort. Of course, I knew I logically hadn’t been making still pictures, but I did feel a pang of regret for not having a second body of still work. No prints, no stock, no licensing usage for my clients.
A week after the shoot, I was fielding calls from magazines specifically interested in the triathlete project and I have almost nothing to offer them. Typically, after a personal shoot like this, I would be able to field those requests. With that in mind, I’ll definitely try and schedule a couple of days for still photography on my next personal video assignment. And in the meantime, I’ll begin exploring the portals that exist for distributing video pieces in similar ways.
I would advise anyone moving into video to assemble a good team. For me, I like to have the flexibility to be quick and nimble with my team, so for this type of project, I’d make sure to include an assistant, a stylist, a sound person, an editor, and the models. That would be a bare-bones assembly. You don’t need an army, just a few enthusiastic and interested people. I love the collaborative process because when you get a few good people together, each with his or her own expertise, it can be like igniting a haystack of ideas.
Miki Johnson: What was your idea for this shoot and what did you want to achieve creatively?
Martin Sundberg: This was a personal shoot that I put together to begin cultivating my video skills. The idea of the shoot was to explore some of the new technologies and tools that are being presented to photographers, such as the video capabilities now being packaged into our still cameras. Video is a hot topic among photographers these days, and it seems that individuals on all fronts are testing the waters, exploring what this physical merging of media means for the creative process as well as the business. Having never shot much video, I was really interested to see how my mind, one that has been conditioned to create still images, might instinctually apply that vision to motion.
I chose the triathlete as a subject for this project primarily because my style of shooting is very active, which lends itself well to shooting active people. The triathlon also required that I shoot footage in three outdoor locations, which I could weave into one continuous standalone piece that would be about a sense of place as much as an activity or person. From the beginning, I conceived of this project as a collaboration between the athletes, Matt and Chris Lieto, their coach, Matt Dixon of Purplepatch Fitness, and Derek Weiss of Piton Productions.
We set out to tell the story of what it feels like to participate in the three activities — swimming, biking and running — at such an elite level. To make pictures like this, I often find that it’s absolutely necessary to get physically into the shoot yourself; otherwise, it’s too easy to capture what it feels like to be a spectator. We shot from strategic angles and a mixture of vantage points, including from the air and the water. We were constantly on the move, trying to keep up with Matt and Chris. And let me tell you, that wasn’t easy. But all of these efforts are felt, if not directly seen, in the footage, which was our goal.
MJ: How did you plan for this video shoot? How was it different from planning a still photo shoot?
MS: Planning for this shoot was very similar to producing a photo shoot. One aspect that is different is the fact that video is experienced on a continuum, thereby forcing you plan for how the subject enters and exits the frame, what will come before and after that scene, and how the transition between scenes will occur. It’s no longer one moment but a series of moments within each frame, and ultimately, within the entire piece. And not only does the entire piece have a beginning and an end, but each scene also has its own beginning and end. Everything needs to be considered on this larger continuum.
With video, it’s also necessary to plan for sound. For this project, we chose to utilize a soundtrack, which allowed us to really focus on the visual aspect of video while shooting. Otherwise, I scouted locations, coordinated with the models, discussed shots and scenes, researched access issues — basically the same planning as a still shoot.
We shot over the course of four days and took advantage of the visually powerful locations available right here in the Bay Area. The biggest differences between video and still photography is evident in the post-production work. With video, more time is spent sequencing shots; whether it’s a narrative piece or not, you’re still communicating something to an audience and the right sequencing will determine whether that ‘something’ is clearly delivered. In addition, you’re simultaneously working with the many other variables that harmonize to complete a video piece, like transitions, sound, intro and closing.
Video always reminds me of the tremendous team effort that goes into producing a finished piece. With stills, I have a very refined workflow and can navigate my editing tools, like Lightroom and Photoshop, with ease. For this project, however, I culled footage and selected the clips that worked well individually and that told the story, but my editor Derek took over from there. I knew what I wanted to see, and he edited the many variables together to communicate the story we intended to tell. I have a huge respect for this part of the process.
Editing is absolutely vital to any final product. With most of my still photography work, I’m looking for one iconic image, which doesn’t necessarily rely on what comes before or after it. With video, sequencing is everything. Again, this is a notable departure from the process of editing still images. Unless I’m working on a portfolio, an essay, or a particular series of images, sequencing doesn’t figure into my still photography edits.