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Darius Himes is a founding member of Radius Books, where he is an acquiring editor; prior to that he was the founding editor of photo-eye Booklist. In 2008, he was named by PDN as one of fifteen of the most influential people in photo book publishing. This year he is the lead judge of the Photography.Book.Now International Juried Competition. With the deadline approaching — July 16, 2009 — we thought we’d pick Darius’ brain about the contest, self-publishing, and what makes a photo book successful.

Baghdad Suite by Andrew Phelps. ©Andrew Phelps

Miki Johnson: Why is this such an exciting time for photo books?

Darius Himes: Books are amazing vehicles that have been with humans for millennia and have a fascinating history as objects of beauty, as well as conveyors of ideas. Books are also physical objects with a rich history of scripts, fonts, inks, papers, bindings and photographic reproduction techniques. For centuries, however, these skills and literacy itself was held by “the few.” Only in the last century have we seen a marked increase in the amount of printed material available. And when it comes to photography books, the print-on-demand phenomenon has truly transformed the landscape. Literally anyone has the capacity and the access to publish a book of images.

MJ: Now that anyone can make a book, it seems even more important for a photographer to establish their goals for a book before they begin assembling it.

DH: Setting out with a clear purpose is crucial to any endeavor. Photographers are creating books for a wide range of uses, from leave-behind portfolio pieces intended solely to garner assignments, all the way to conceiving and creating mass market books on any number of subjects.

MJ: Is this why the Photography.Book.Now contest has three separate categories?

DH: Yes. The three categories of this years’ contest are designed to let photographers approach the idea of a “photography book” from three different angles. The fine-art category is extremely broad and the most subjective. Photographers and photo-based artists can do whatever they want to produce their book. Often, these books are made by practicing artists and have little regard for communicating a specific narrative to a large audience.

Editorial photography, the second category, is a different animal. But let me state something at the outset: I’m not interested in, or trying to stoke the debate about, what constitutes “art” photography. Anything done well is done artfully. If it serves the goals that one sets out with, then “art” has been employed. I don’t want anyone to think that any of the three categories don’t somehow employ art or doesn’t constitute artfully done work.

Bamboo Fences by Osamu Suzuki. ©Osamu Suzuki, courtesy Princeton Architectural Press

Editorial and commercial photographers often serve patrons other than themselves; this the a big distinction. So, an editorial photographer assigned to cover a story may find themselves with a much larger body of work than will ever get published in a magazine. Likewise, a commercial shooter might have photographic skills that can be translated into a “commercial” book project; publishers also conceive of book projects in-house and then commission commercial photographers for the book.

Perhaps some concrete examples would help. This new book from Princeton Architectural PressBamboo Fences, by Isao Yoshikawa and Osamu Suzuki — is a great example of a commercial book project. It’s about a very specific subject — bamboo fence building in Japan — and the photographs by Suzuki perfectly illustrate the work. It’s primarily a photobook, but is supplemented by the text. Here’s another example: Bird, by Andrew Zuckerman. It has a specific subject matter artfully photographed by a commercial photographer. The publisher, Chronicle Books, probably hopes the audience for this book — and by that I mean ultimate sales for the book — will be upwards of 50,000+.

Two examples of books that have a broad “trade” appeal, but which are not “commercial” books like the ones above, are Jonah Frank’s Right, Portraits from the Evangelical Ivy League (Chronicle Books), and Articles of Faith by Dave Jordano (Center for American Places). In my mind, both of these books probably stemmed from assignments that blossomed into the book-length projects we see in the stores. Both have more of a storytelling quality to them than either Bamboo Fences or Bird. In that sense,  they come out of a “documentary” tradition, but are presented in an appealing way to as broad an audience as possible.

MJ: What uses does a self-published book lend itself to? Do photographers use them to collect images that didn’t warrant prints? Or as an alternative for a portfolio? Or a leave-behind? Or a family gift?

DH: All of the things you mention, I’ve seen. I’ve also seen photographers use the self-publishing, print-on-demand technology to create “limited run” books. Photographer Andrew Phelps took a small body of work called Baghdad Suite and issued a self-published, print-on-demand book of only 100 copies, which sold out rather quickly. It’s a great idea to use this technology to disseminate a body of work that is either small, in terms of number of images, or limited, in terms of it’s appeal or audience.

Right by Jona Frank. ©Jona Frank, courtesy Chronicle Books.

MJ: In your eyes, what makes a photo book great?

DH: From John Gossage, as quoted in The Photobook: A History, Volume 1 (Phaidon, 2004): “Firstly, it should contain great work. Secondly, it should make that work function as a concise world within the book itself. Thirdly, it should have a design that complements what is being dealt with. And finally, it should deal with content that sustains an ongoing interest.”

When you’re making a book for a broader audience, think like a publisher. Visit publisher websites, read the catalog copy, and craft your book the way they craft their books. Every publisher approaches things differently. If you consistently like books from one publisher, really study how they put together a book. A book from Princeton Architectural Press is quite different from a book by Radius Books. In other words, learn from those already in the field.

Often photographers, naturally so, get wrapped up in the individual images and either lose sight of the overall picture and purpose of the book, or they simply never arrive at an overall picture, and the book lacks focus.

And don’t forget that a book is not just a bunch of CMYK printed images sandwiched between two boards. Text and titles, fonts and captions, of course editing and sequencing, as well as how the image sits on the page-spread and what it is placed next to — all of these little elements can make or break a book.

MJ: Do you have an example of a self-published book that has been very successful?

DH: The most famous example is Alec Soth. In 2003, Alec came to Review Santa Fe, an annual portfolio review event, looking for exposure and a publisher for a body of work titled Sleeping by the Mississippi. What we all know is that, after the exposure he received there — he won the Santa Fe Prize that year — his small print-on-demand book made it into the hands of Steidl, where it has now entered it’s third printing. Alec received huge recognition for his work in the intervening years and is now part of the prestigious Magnum agency. Martin Parr and Gerry Badger included Alec’s handmade book in Volume 2 of their seminal survey of photography books, The Photobook: A History (Phaidon).

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: What is your favorite photo book and why?

Food and advertising photographer Michael Lamotte created his own postproduction studio, GreenBox, a year and a half ago. Here he outlines the pros and cons of different postproduction strategies, including starting your own postproduction studio. Don’t miss his last post explaining how he built GreenBox and distinguished it from other studios.
© GreenBox Imaging

A composite image taken by Michael, with postproduction by GreenBox. The main images in the composite are below. © Michael Lamotte

The way it used to be for commercial photographers was, once we shot the film, it was given to the agency and we never saw it again. It was very rare that you were involved at all in any of the postproduction. Which was fine sometimes, but sometimes the end result was different than the original intent. Now, because of the advances in technology, there has a niche has developed between photography and pre-press.

Instead of pre-press doing all the postproduction, today the photographer does postproduction on their own, or they hand it off to someone like GreenBox to do the work before it’s passed on to pre-press. One-way to look at it is: The budget is out there for retouching on every job, regardless of who does it. There’s nothing that doesn’t get touched by Photoshop these days. The question is, who is going to get paid to do that postproduction work?

If photographers want to do their own retouching, it’s a good skill to develop and I think it’s good to retain control up to the very last minute. But that only works if you’ve got the time and the deadline fits your schedule. When you get really busy, you end up thinking to yourself, “I’ve already shot this and sold it to the client; I want to do the retouching, but I don’t have the time to because I’ve got another shoot the next day.” And inevitably everyone wants everything delivered immediately, so you get to a point where you realize there is only so much you can handle. I’ve also heard stories about agencies getting burned by photographers who want to do their own retouching but are not really technically skilled with Photoshop and pre-press requirements. They deliver the file and then the agency has to source it out for someone else to fix.

Another option would be for the photographer to hire a freelancer, so the files can be worked on the next day while the photographer is shooting another job. That’s a possibility too. But again, then you’re relying on the availability of the freelancer. Typically if you find someone who understands what you want and how you like it, then you’re much more dependent on that person. If you call them up and say, “I need you to do this tomorrow,” and they’re booked for the next three days, then you might have to go to someone else whom you’ve never worked with before.

The third option is to have someone on staff full-time to do retouching, but then you have to be shooting enough to support that. Having someone in-house to do retouching is a great option for a photographer because the Photoshop work is a good second revenue stream, if you can find additional clients who only want retouching services.

The ebbs and flows for a postproduction studio run along the same lines as those for a photography studio. But when you’re a photographer specializing in a certain area, that’s the only source of income coming in, as opposed to this model with GreenBox, where we could be drawing from several sources. So even now when a lot of people are really slow, there’s always somebody working — and they need retouching services. That way you can becomes less dependent on just one circle of income.

If you’re going to start your own postproduction studio, it’s good to have a focus, an area that you specialize in, just as you should as a photographer. I’ve always felt that, if I were a client and I looked at someone’s portfolio and they had some fashion, they had some still life, they had some landscape, even if they’re all good, I really don’t have a clear picture of what they love, where their passion lies. But then I might interview someone else and they only have food — well it becomes obvious that person really likes doing food photography. And if I needed food photography done, I think I’d want to go to that person instead of someone who says, well, yeah, I do food photography too. And that directly translates to what we do at GreenBox Imaging.

No matter how photographers do it, I think it’s important that they always include retouching as a separate line item — I cannot stress this enough. Because no matter what you do with digital files, it takes time to process them and prepare them to be handed over to the client. Even simple processing, renaming, and organizing your images without any retouching can take some time. The big danger is if photographers include processing and retouching in their photography fee, clients start to think, why should I pay extra for it, it’s included. Just like anything else in business, it’s always a good idea to have it called out as separate charge, even if you’re doing it yourself.

Pricing for retouching can be all over the place, but it generally runs from $150 to $300 an hour from a postproduction house. In my experience, that is what agencies and design firms typically budget for retouching and postproduction services as part of a project. We try to look at it on a per-project basis and quote it that way, but in general if you go somewhere with your files, that’s the range that’s out there.

The client explains what they want and you try to estimate how many hours it will take as closely as possible. Sometimes that’s very difficult to do; you never know what’s going to happen down the line during the postproduction process. Maybe the designer goes through the image and gets it the way they want it and only then it gets passed on to the client. The client may say, “That looks great,” or they may have a bunch of changes, and those are the things that are unpredictable. All you can do is estimate as close as possible; then when we get to that point where we start running out of time, we notify the client and say, we have this much time left. The request you just sent is going to push us over, or it’s within the budget but anything after that we’ll need more hours added on. That’s all you can do, to keep the client informed of where they are money-wise and time-wise, and in the long run it only makes you more respectable as a postproduction studio.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: How are you handling retouching and postproduction? Do you find that it’s a helpful second revenue stream or just a burden on your time?

Food and advertising photographer Michael Lamotte created his own postproduction studio, GreenBox, a year and a half ago. He explains here how he decided it was time to build a completely separate business out of his studio’s retouching services. Of course, not everyone is ready to open their own postproduction studio, so in his next post he outlines how photographers can decide what level of postproduction is right for them. Don’t miss his past posts about working with stylists, agents, and high-end advertising clients.
The separate images GreenBox Studio composited to create the seemless image below.

Six separate images that GreenBox Studio composited to create the seemless image below. ©Michael Lamotte

We converted to digital capture in 1999, and were curious about color reproduction, image quality, and what we could do with retouching and compositing. Compositing seemed like a powerful tool to create new images from existing ones — about anything you could imagine, you could produce. I got really involved with Photoshop at the very beginning so that I could begin compositing new images. I was lucky enough to be invited to the first Photoshop Invitational sponsored by Adobe introducing Photoshop 1.0 in 1990. This was when I really realized the huge potential Photoshop had as a creative tool, and I knew that in the long term mastering this tool would be important for the success of my studio. Using Photoshop, as well as attending the conference got me more interested in color and color reproduction, and that’s when I really got involved with color management.

Because we were early adopters of digital photography, it made sense for our studio to do simple digital retouching too. It also seemed like the perfect time to offer retouching to our clients, which we started in 2000. At first we had a person working full-time in the studio who focused only on Photoshop retouching. We would shoot one day and she would work on the files the next. Then, about a year and a half ago, we decided to split off a separate business, GreenBox Imaging, Inc. We found a building directly in back of our photo studio, moved everything over there, and made it into a separate corporation that is totally independent of Michael Lamotte Studios.

When we were considering whether GreenBox would make enough to justify being a separate company, we already knew it would since we were already doing it in-house profitably. One of the reasons we decided to split GreenBox off was because it was making enough money to support itself and make a profit. With some projects, the postproduction ends up costing more than the photography. Not because you did a bad job with the photographs, just because everyone is always trying to find a new way to see things; everybody is always pushing the envelope and using retouching as a solution. It’s also a great tool to help photographer solve problems like scale amd lighting that come up on set.

With some projects, the postproduction costs more than the photography.

Up until now GreenBox Imaging hasn’t taken on many projects besides my own images because we wanted to get all the kinks out before we offered our services to others. That’s what we’re in the process of doing now. I hired another person, Ian Stone, who is doing the marketing and sales for GreenBox Imaging. We also have Colin Birdseye, our Photoshop artist, John William Lund, our color expert, and Gail, my wife, who is the CFO. Then we hire freelance Photoshop artists as we need them so we can be flexible; when it gets busy we just bring on more staff. We take pride in our staff and our ability to quickly adapt and serve our clients within their specified time constraints.

Our general workflow works like this: GreenBox gets instructions of what a client wants us to do. Colin may talk to the client first and see if he has any suggestions to improve the image. Then we do those corrections and we send them a JPG or proof and say, “This is the image with the corrections we discussed, and this is how it looks at this point.” That may be final or we may do additional corrections, based on what happens during that conversation with the client.

© Michael Lamotte

©Michael Lamotte

If we create a custom color profile of the prepress house’s proofing device, we can then predict their results, essentially emulating their printer so both outputs will match. The client then makes final comments from our proof, and once everyone approves  it and signs off, we send the prepress house our custom CMYK file and our proof. Using our custom CMYK file, their first output on their proofing device should look pretty close to our proof, which everyone already approved. That’s a better scenario than sending an RGB file to prepress, then they have to separate it, turn it into CMYK, and try to make their output look like our approved output. That’s not the most efficient way to work; it’s just going to cost the client more money in the long run and take more time.

It’s a little difficult sometimes because technology has faded the lines between photographer, retouching, post production, and prepress; its sort of unclear where everybody’s responsibility stops. For me, the more control the photographer has over the image, the better. This way someone can’t take your image and change your original vision. Maybe you have a warm look to your image and you like that look, then a prepress retoucher decides, we should neutralize, the color is off. These are all reasons it pays to build an ongoing relationship with your retoucher, the prepress people, as well as your client. Once all of the components are in sync, it’s much easier to produce reliable, consistent, beautiful work and in a very cost-effective way. It also helps streamline the workflow to get the highest possible quality in the most efficient manner — something that GreenBox is always doing.

The more control the photographer has over the image, the better.

A big reason for a photographer or agency to work with a studio like GreenBox is that it’s a resource  that’s always there, always consistent, always available and most importantly doing the highest quality work. You’re building a relationship where you know what your client likes and needs. And for smaller photo studios, it allows them to offer to their clients additional capabilities. They can shoot it, retouch it, and deliver CMYK files with approved reference prints — everything — with GreenBox’s help. So it can give a smaller photo studio the ability to look bigger, without putting up the money and staff to have that capability on their own.

We’re trying to create more of a boutique studio at GreenBox. We want to be a place that is more personal, not a huge place with a night shift where you’re not sure who’s working on your images and you’re getting inconsistent results from project to project. We want to keep our service focused and personal and really work with clients to get the best results possible. When you send something to a big place, they’re only going to do what you tell them to do. With GreenBox you’ll actually talk to the Photoshop artist, and if he or she has any ideas for ways to further improve your image, they will at least discuss that with the photographer or client. The other thing that sets GreenBox apart is our ability to help you develop a color-managed workflow that will deliver accurate results and save both you and your client time and money.

In his last post, Michael Lamotte, a top food photographer based in San Francisco, described the step-by-step process of a complicated packaging photo shoot. Here he explains the importance of finding a food stylist you click with, and how to find out if you do. Don’t miss his next post on agents: deciding if you need one and finding the right one if you do.
©Michael Lamotte

©Michael Lamotte

Having a food and prop stylist you work well with is extremely important. Usually when we’re interviewing a new stylist, they bring their portfolio in and we talk: What did you do on this? Oh, that looks good, what was your technique? Where did you get that item? Did you do the props? Sometimes food stylists do propping as well. Sometimes prop stylist do some easy food styling. Generally the way we operate with a new stylist is to suggest doing a portfolio shot together and see how we work together. That way we each get a portfolio  piece. And then you have a better understanding of how they work and how well you work together and whether you communicate effectively. It’s like a test run.

A "perfect scoop" complete with fluffy "skirt." ©Michael Lamotte

A "perfect scoop" complete with "fluffy skirt." ©Michael Lamotte

We have a full studio and kitchen with a stove, oven, and refrigerators. We also have space for three freezers for the ice cream because we do a lot of ice cream. The ice cream is another whole specialty. There are food stylists who specialize in ice cream. It’s difficult and hard work because you have to scoop and shape all day. First the stylist takes a one-gallon or five-gallon tub and cuts it down the middle with a large cheese knife. Before they scoop, they can see where the variegates or fudge swirls are to see where the good spots are. Then they drag their scoop through that area to create a ball. But it’s a process of doing that over and over again until they get a good scoop. A stylist might get five balls that look good, but throw away 20.

One of our freezers is a dipping cabinet like the type one sees in an ice cream store. After scooping a ball with enough distribution and good texture, a “fluffy skirt” is built around it to make it appear freshly scooped. The client on set has approved both the ball and the skirt, which has been set on a piece of marble or in a bowl. The scoop returns to the dipping cabinet for a bit before it is brought on set and quickly photographed. The image is examined to determine if any modifications need to be made such as adding another chocolate chip or another swirl. There are some modifications that can be made on set while others can be accomplished through retouching.

©Michael Lamotte

The finished product. ©Michael Lamotte

We sometimes allow the ice cream to melt just a little bit to get the shot the client approves. During post production, melt drops are sometimes cloned on to the ice cream scoop in a place where it might look good that the ice cream is a little melty. That gives us more control over the look we’re trying to achieve. I always strive to give the most accurate and truthful representation of the product. Then, with the ice cream, we print out that version and give it to the art director or client to mark up: move that chip, lighten that area, add additional chips. Then we take the marked up sheet to GreenBox Imaging, the retouching part of our company. The image and comments shift back and forth between the design firm and GreenBox’s retoucher. When the retoucher feels the image is exactly how the design firm wants it, the retouched image is presented to the client for feedback. The fact that we were involved in the decisions from the beginning gives us an advantage in delivering exactly what the client wants.

The other key team members of my team are my studio manager, prop stylist, and photo and food stylist assistants. The studio manager is the backbone of the studio. He is responsible for booking, coordinating, organizing, receiving, shipping, processing, printing, documenting, trouble-shooting and client hosting —  just to name a few of his responsibilities. I think it becomes apparent just how important your team is on complicated projects like this.


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