Saturday, January 31, 2009

Photographing Silver Objects

The Hard Way!

These two photographs were taken yesterday, at Glin Castle Hotel, in County Limerick, Ireland. It is the ancestral home of Desmond Fitzgerald, the present Knight of Glin and I went there at his request to photograph some valuable silver objects bearing the family crest - and other important engravings, that he wanted to portray in a new book.

Photographing silver is one of the most difficult subjects a photographer can attempt - and a successful result often depends on having been able to control and adjust the conditions for the photography. This usually means taking the shots in a controlled environment - a studio - where the reflections and shadows can be eliminated and manipulated. If the objects are quite small - the problems can be more easily managed, and often, building a "light tent" is the best open for small silver or glass items. I didn't have that option, as I was photographing on location - due to the value of the peices - and I also had very limited time, as they had to go back to the bank that morning.

I started shooting at 8am, and had to be finished by 10.30am. I was also photographing in the main entrance hall of the Castle - that was my choice, as I wanted to set up against a window that let in very soft early morning light. I then erected a white projector screen opposite the window, and rolled out a length of black velvet cloth across the table, and attached it (by "blue tac") to a wall. I shot with available light and very long exposures (up to 10 seconds) at very small apertures (around f20 most of the time).

The large silver platter gave most problems, as it is about 2 feet in diameter and acted like a large mirror, that reflected everything above it, including the brown beams of the ceiling in the room. To counter that, I took it into the hotel kitchens, that have a white ceiling, and asked members of the staff to hold the background cloth up for me.

I did a lot of post production too, mainly in Adobe Lightroom. In the two shots above, I used the brush tool, to selectively brighten the engraving in the basket, and to add "clarity" to the engraving on the platter - which enhanced the detail. I also selectively reduced some of the colour in the shots, if they were reflected in the images. For example, in one shot, the red lines on my camera strap were showing in the object, so I just reduced the red colour channel to zero and it vanished! It was easier that cloning it out in Photoshop.

An interesting exercise, and one that made me realise that even when the most difficult photographic subject raises its head - there are ways around it, even in the most unsuitable conditions. With a bit of thought!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Teaching Photography Classes at Home

A Kitchen Sink Drama (Not)

I have been teaching adults for a very long time (always with my "other" (psychology-related) hat on. I have even managed university teaching departments, but, up until very recently, I had never taught photography. Nor have I been published on the subject outside this Blog - even though, to coin a phrase, "I could have written a bloomin' book on it". Actually, where I'm from, that phrase tends to mean "he never stops telling us how much he THINKS he knows!"

It occurred to me at the end of last year, that there is a good potential market for teaching photography; not only to beginners and enthusiastic hobbyists, but also as way to retrain and "upskill" people who may become unemployed, in order that they might seek new employment as a photographer or (more likely) set themselves up in a self-employed capacity (and certainly the Irish government - and many others are keen to encourage people down that particular avenue at the moment.

I can teach; I know my subject - and lo and behold, I found, buried in my hard drive, the outline of a photography training programme I wrote 4 years ago, when another organisation asked me to present a proposal for a course they were considering running (but later changed their focus - pun intended). BUT, I didn't have the premises in which to run the course - nor did I have the funds available to rent a facility. So, I did nothing. Until, a friend mentioned that I had a very large kitchen and access to extensive grounds - including a private wood and river - that were ideal locations for outdoor photography.

Why didn't I start a course in my kitchen?
I could keep the numbers small (maximum 5 people) and use that as an advertising feature - small group sizes: increased personal attention. So, I did. I got the relevant insurance cover sorted out and then advertised the kitchen course in my local paper and on my website. I have now had 2 successful courses - evaluation feedback is extremely positive - plus I started another one last night (5 people); one this afternoon (lunchtimes - ideal for mothers who need to be home by 3pm to pick up the kids from school) and I have another evening class starting on Thursday.

These are all beginner's courses and there is a good deal of interest, with people phoning to book in advance classes starting next month. I've now also been to meet with the manager of a local government training organisation, and I've had phone discussions with academic accrediting bodies, to see how viable is my idea for an upskilling - and much longer - Photography For Business training course. The feedback is very encouraging. And now, as is often the way - I have an opportunity to rent a larger premises very close to home that I could convert into a training school and photography studio. Watch this space!

My kitchen set up is above: A screen, an LCD project, a laptop, handout packs, registration form, chairs and cups for tea and coffee (just out of shot). Everything but the kitchen sink. But, actually, that's there too!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Promotion - Make the Most of Your Photography

The Successful Photograph that Wasn't - Yet

This photograph was taken in 2007, as a publicity shot for a local theatre group. They were performing a play called "The Women", set in 1940's America. The shot was taken in the women's toilet of a Limerick restaurant, and I won the award of "brass neck of the week", for standing in there with them and not flinching as customer after customer frowned at my presence (I did leave the room several times, too, for decency's sake).

I didn't receive any other awards for the shot - and I didn't even get paid for it, as the theatre group didn't have a budget for the photography. I got model releases for the actors and a property release for the location - which allows me to try and sell the image through my agent. I saw that as more important than the €50 or so I might have been paid, had I pushed the fee issue.

There are several versions of the shot - it was taken in colour, and I have produced Sepia (like this one) and "aged photo" versions, as well as the original. It always receives a huge amount of interest whenever it is seen - either on my studio walls, or via my website or on the two occasions that it has been exhibited.

But, it has never sold, or won a prize or had any other success connected with it. And that niggles me, because I really think it "has something".

I suppose that every photographer in the world thinks that their favourite shots "have something" - and there is not necessarily anything special about my shot because I think that way about it. But, it got me wondering if I should just leave it there? Perhaps it is a shot worth "promoting", and maybe the fact that it hasn't reached a wider audience, or made any money is because I'm not doing anything about it.

It's like I'm expecting people to magically "find it", just because I think it is worth seeing. There must be hundreds of thousands of images out there that are worth seeing - but probably only a fraction of those really do get noticed, or have good things happen to them.

Promotion is the key. I should simply tell more people about it, email to editors that might use such an image, put it on my calling cards (most of mine are 8x6, so they'll be seen OK); enter it into competitions; make it bigger and more prominent on my website and post it to my bl...oh yeah, I just did that!

But what I really should not do is expect it to be seen without taking any action. And that applies to you, too. Get your good stuff out there - and make the most of it.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Successful Photography in a Recession

If at first you don't succeed - Diversify!

Things are difficult. Times are tough. Work is hard to come by. Good people are falling by the wayside. Clich├ęs are easy to write - but we don't have to accept them as the truth.

So, rhetoric aside, what do you do if you're a professional photographer who is finding it hard to make a living with the work that you have always done?

Very recently, I have heard myself saying - in response to questions about my work - "No, I don't do weddings" and, "yes, I'm an editorial photographer, that's all do" and "studio pack shots are interesting, but it's not really my sort of photography" and plenty more reactionary statements of that sort.

When I was teaching myself photography (I started about 30 years ago and I have no intention of jumping off that particular learning-curve anytime soon) I came across the concept of the "niche photographer". The specialist photographer who only worked in a very tiny corner of the market honing their skills on very specific subjects. Maritime photography; Sports photography; Portrait photography; Music photography and Medical photography are all examples of genres of the profession that I never fully embraced - to the exclusion of all others, although I have "touched on" one or two of them.

What I have done, though, is become very clear about what sort of photography I don't do. A few months ago, I was sent an email from a woman who had visited my website - and who wanted to ask if I would photograph her wedding. I didn't see myself as a "wedding" photographer, so I did the old trick of pricing myself out of the market. I said I would be interested in photographing her wedding but at a fee that was well above what she might expect to pay. Guess what? I never heard from her again. And whose loss was that, I ask myself?

When money is tight and work is hard to find, it pays to be as flexible as possible about the work we can do - even though it might not be the work we would want to do. So, I've been thinking (again) about what sort of photographer I am - and also where else my skills may lie.

The photograph, above, was taken at the graduation ceremony of a group of adult learners - and I was there in my capacity as a lecturer, and not a photographer (no, that's not me with the disposable camera). There was a time when I would put myself in a neat "box", and limit my potential. Even though I was an experienced photographer at the time that photograph was taken, I didn't work as a photographer - because I was a teacher. More recently, when I have been a photographer, I didn't teach. One thing or the other - but not both at the same time. Now, it's time to think outside the box and consider everything that I do well, and the possibility of combining them, where appropriate. So, I'm now teaching photography well, it makes sense!

So what can you do that you might not want to do? What can you do that you might introduce into your working life that might enhance what you do already? Give it some thought.

Oh; today I got an email from a woman who had visited my website. She complimented me on my work and asked if I would be interested in photographing her wedding. I replied, saying:

I don’t photograph weddings as a general rule, and certainly haven’t undertaken them on a regular basis for many years. But, I do make exceptions, and I would be interested in discussing your requirements with you.

A step outside the box, is it not?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Freelance Photography Frustrations

When Professional Photography is a Pain in the Aperture

The last few days were not the most progressive ones I’ve ever had, as a freelance photographer.

First of all, one of the additional jobs that came out of me offering free photography to a Limerick hotel, was postponed – as the manager is cutting back on “discretionary spending”, at the moment, due to the economic downturn. It was the sort of job that seemed like a good idea, but not essential work, so I’m still hopeful that “discretionary spending” does not include the photography of 10 rooms that were to be my reward for the free work. I’ll just have to wait and see, I suppose.

Secondly, I got an email telling me that my contact at a major UK publishing house – for whom I have been working on a travel book since July 2008 – had changed yet again. This is the fourth time that I’ve been given a new liaison person, and this time I got two at once – one for my writing work and one for my photography. It is confusing enough to be told “Stephen I’m leaving tomorrow, from now on please contact Jane Smith about your work” every couple of months, but this is more frustrating than ever as I am just about to finalize my submissions – and send in my invoices! It would be good to have someone who knew about my work and where I was up to with it, at this juncture.

Thirdly, during one of my small-group photography courses, this week, I praised a student for a really excellent photograph of a food hamper – that she had taken as a publicity shot for the supermarket that her family own. It was sharp, well-lit, had good colour saturation and perfectly composed. A fellow student (a German woman) promptly announced: “Oh, I think she is a better photographer than you are Stephen. You should find another job!”

Fourthly; I spent hours finding, editing and preparing images for entry into the World Press Photo Contest. I then spent some more hours filling in the application form, and waited 2 days for my approval and password to enter the competition. I then spent half a day (Saturday, my day off) uploading 10 images to the competition website – the upload link crashed at least 6 times! Only to be told, by the extremely intelligent automated system that my photographs were not taken in 2008, and so were not eligible for entry. Actually, that was a first for me – those pictures were taken in 2009. I’ve been too late for deadlines before – but never too early!

Hopefully the planets are aligned and moving forward this week!

Now, where did I hide that book about Positive Thinking?

Friday, January 9, 2009

Industrial Photography - Waterford Crystal

The Road to Success is Crystal Clear

Last Sunday I made arrangements, by email, to visit the world-famous Waterford Crystal factory, to photograph the various production processes involved in manufacturing one of the country's most iconic products. Waterford Crystal began production in Ireland in 1783 and its visitors centre is one of the most popular attractions in the country, with around over 300 000 visitors every year.

On Monday I heard, on the radio, that the company had become yet another casualty of the economic downturn and called in the Official Receiver. At that point, I decided that my request to photograph the factory was the least of their concerns and considered cancelling my visit. But, then I decided that, as a photographer, 1) I had a duty (and possibly my one and only chance) to record the work of the company, and 2) I had a commission deadline to meet. So, I made a phone call to the Visitor' Centre manager, Mr Louis Flynn, and confirmed my visit.

One of the perks of my photographic life is that I meet so many generous, helpful and interesting people. Louis Flynn is no exception. Although the stress and strain of the bad news was apparent, he went out of his way to accommodate me, once I arrived at the factory, yesterday. I was offered coffee and cake - and then taken on a personal tour of the factory by Louis himself and given unfettered access to photograph every aspect of the manufacturing process.

The Waterford Crystal factory is a photographer's dream - there is so much to photograph, and it really tested my skills, as I had to work very fast. The real eye-opener, though was the attitude of the workers I met. Everyone of them had exactly the same open, friendly and accommodating attitude as Louis - and despite the possibility of impending closure, there was a good deal of friendly banter and everyone was smiling. Louis told me that working there was like being part of a large family. Although he had worked there most of his life, he was a "first generation" employee (no other members of his family had worked there before him). That was not the case with many of the other crafts people employed at the Crystal factory, who could cite two, three or more generations of family members who had honed their craft - whether it be glass blowing, cutting, engraving or mold making - before them. That, Louis told me, made for a very special atmosphere. And, I was quite sincere when I replied that I could genuinely feel it.

The latest news is that an American group is in the process of agreeing a deal to buy the company. I hope it succeeds - and I have a feeling that it will. There is a good vibe in that place - and, as mentioned in my last post - sometimes that is all it needs to turn a disaster into a success.

I took over 300 images - two of which can be seen here, and there are more on my main website Adare Images in the "commercial" section of the gallery. I'll talk more, on Monday, about the techniques involved in industrial photography.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Secret to Successful Photography

A friend, who visited over the holiday period, left me a book to read. It’s called “Excuse Me, Your Life is Waiting” by Lynn Grabhorn. It has 308 pages of densely-typed text, but really only one thing to say: “Feel good about yourself and you will get good things in return”.

Her basic premise is based on “The Law of Attraction” – a theory (if we can use a scientific epithet) that is as simple as it is profound – “like attracts like: feel like a winner to become a winner”. This theory was given a wider audience than even Ms Grabhorn acquired, although she got there first, through the multi-million selling book and DVD “The Secret”. In chapter 2, of her book, Lynn Grabhorn writes:

“You can take every book ever written on the subject of feelings and emotions, every class every taught on the dark Freudian mysteries of the mind, every counselling group that has ever attempted to get us in touch with that obscure inner child, and anyone else trying to show us how to emancipate those frightening things we call feelings, and boil all the fancy techniques down to one simple remedy for creating an abundant and fulfilling life: Learn to identify a good feeling from a bad feeling. That’s it. Learn to do that and you’ve got the course made. You can create anything your heart desires."

Now, this is something of a personal challenge for me. Not least, because in that one paragraph Ms Grabhorn attacks and all-but destroys the cornerstone of what was my life’s work (or at least 25 years of it). Not only did I study and practice Freudian analytic psychotherapy, but I taught the subject at universities for many years, and I have facilitated untold numbers of counselling groups and helped to train hundreds of people to become counsellors and psychotherapists. So how do I feel about her supposition that the secret to a happy life is simply to know when you’re giving off a bad “vibe” and to give off a good one instead?

But anyway, Let’s talk about photography. No, that’s not as much of a cop-out as it might seem. Because, for me, a big question these days is: How do I know when I have taken a great photograph?

Sadly, Lynn Grabhorn died not long after her best-selling book on the Law of Attraction was published, so I can’t ask her that question. But, the truth is that I discovered the answer to my question some time ago – and long before I had heard about “The Secret” or the “Law of Attraction”.

The answer is: A good photograph is one that makes me feel good when I look at it. Sometimes, it makes me feel good at the moment I am taking it, too.

I often talk about “not getting into my stride” when I’m on a photo shoot, for perhaps the first 20, 50 or even 100 shots – and then, suddenly, something “clicks” (pun intended). Things start to feel right. In Lynn Grabhorn’s language: I start to vibrate at a higher frequency. I feel good and excited about my work - it feels thrilling!

In the case of the image above, I felt good at the split-second that the model bent toward her foot and I pressed the shutter (after I had said “there’s something on your foot Jane” – there wasn’t) and I feel good every time I see it. I have sold that photo twice, via exhibitions – and over the holidays, I got an email from a potential buyer, who said: “This is the most beautiful photograph I have ever seen in my life...I would love to purchase a copy of this photograph to place it in my general counsel (lawyer) office in Kansas.”

So far, the image hasn't done as well as I might have liked. But I do have high hopes for that photograph; I expect that it will do well, eventually. I don’t know how, or when. I just have a good feeling about it – and maybe that good feeling will encourage me to do things that will introduce it to a wider audience - including posting it here - and maybe, just maybe good things will come of it - and to it.

And that, really, is the Secret. Have a good feeling about your work. Believe in it. Believe in yourself. And perhaps you will make it come good. But if you don't feel good about yourself and your work, you'll do nothing at all - and then nothing will definitely happen!

A Happy (and Attractive) New Year to you.