Saturday, February 11, 2012

Dr. L U C I M A: Curing Your Photography Ailments

Pedestal. Bekka Gunther with Sam Sulam at a private fashion photography workshop.


It's about as close as I'll ever get to being an MD or having a PhD attached to my name.

After teaching another private fashion photography workshop yesterday, I realized that my private fashion photography workshops are tailored to exact specifications depending on when, where, who, what, why and how the photographer is progressing on his/her fashion photography journey.

You could almost say that I prescribe a remedy for whatever ails you as a photographer. With that metaphor in mind, let recount some photography diseases I've cured in my time...

Curing Photophobia (Fear of Light)

I've had photographers come in with little to no studio experience and together we create an agenda that familiarizes them with different modifiers, lighting patterns, setups, distances, and more. My goal is that they feel confident and comfortable walking into a studio and setting up their own lighting. So while I show them the basics, I will throughout the day put them in challenging lighting scenarios where they are forced to resolve these problems with minimal assistance. I constantly challenge their thinking, asking why they've elected specific modifiers over others or placed a light at a particular distance or chosen their camera settings for a lighting setup.

For example, I had a professional photographer that shot weekly stock for a clothing company. Her work was great but her fear of lighting limited her photography to only occur under diffuse light conditions of natural light. The other photographers in the company either knew less or didn't want to share their knowledge. Regardless, she knew that she needed to understand modifiers, grids, relative light size, distances, and power but didn't know where to begin.

During our private fashion photography workshop we must have covered 8 to 10 unique light setups. One of the benefits of my studio is that I have pretty much all the light modifiers you might want to try. From umbrellas, to soft boxes, grids, beauty dish, octabox, reflectors, parabolic light, pack light, mono blocks, halogen (even fluorescents), ring flash, reflectors, barn doors, and more. This combined with a variety of walls, faux walls, boxes, stairs, other random props, different flooring, seamless paper, and 2,100 square feet of playground, results in an endless game of "What if we tried this?" for any photographer.

One of the unique remedies I prescribed for this photographer was to look for Rembrandt, butterfly, loupe, flat and split lighting on every advertising image she looked at. This mental exercise forces the photographer to acknowledge not only the different lighting pattern but mentally reverse engineer the lighting setup at the time of capture. Over time she'll be able to reverse engineer modifiers, distances, modifier size, and understand multiple light setups all by looking at the final product.

Curing Atelophobia (Fear of Imperfection)

I've had photographers come in feeling like they're stuck in a rut. "Rut" is a non-specific term photographers like to use when describing their general displeasure with the results of their work. In other words, it's a psychological ailment and not an actual ailment. It's mostly a problem with perception. Nonetheless it's important for us to discuss the source of this rut, why, when, how it occurs, so we can prescribe a plan of attack to bring these photographers out of their ruts.

One private workshop photographer bemoaned that his images had "no life" to them. That they were stale and sterile. That there was something "missing" to his results. Through a long email discussion prior to our private fashion photography workshop, we discovered that his hectic day job and traveling schedule placed great limitations on his ability to moonlight as a photographer. As a result of his limited shooting opportunities, this photographer would plan everything out to a T. Having only a few opportunities to shoot each month, he didn't want to leave anything to chance. The pre-production planning combined with specific concepts, coordination, and scheduling of everything was so precise for each shoot, and yet so often left the photographer largely disappointed in the results.

After hearing this story and seeing the exactness of this photographer's execution, I realized that he was just like me. Namely, a control-freak. But life can't be controlled. By planning everything out to a T, he basically disinfected his entire shoot with 409. Think The Stepford Wives.
If you pose your models and try to exact a certain vision, you'll get exactly what you want. Or at least you should. But you'll never get Magic. You'll never be surprised. You'll never capture "the moment".

I knew this because I was once exactly the same way. Wanting to "maximize my ROI" for each shoot. Using perfectionist ideals and a "will to control" to execute a photoshoot. Forgetting that this is art and not a financial projection built in Microsoft Excel. I understood the pressures of obtaining specific results driven by high-expectations.

But that's not how this photography thing works. And it's certainly not how you create life. Making that mental breakthrough is half the battle. So I assisted him in that self-revelation.

Once we agreed that the sheer pressure of high-ROI-expectations were crushing the life out of his shoots, I prescribed a series of ingredients for our fashion photography workshop that I was sure would result in life and Magic. Before our shoot we assembled a few lighting setups that were simple and yet dynamic enough to keep up with an active model. And without a concept, makeup OR wardrobe, we selected one of the most spontaneous models I knew that could create Magic all by herself. Combined with a retooled perspective of capturing the beauty of the human element and raw emotion, this photographer realized all the things he had been missing in his exactitude. Because there he was with no concept, no makeup artist, no wardrobe stylist, and just creating epic images over and over again.

That was a good day.

Curing Myopia (Near-Sightedness)

Maybe myopia isn't the right disease to describe photographers that just don't have the experience or the foresight to see where their own photographic journey might lead. That's where my personal journey comes into play. With where I am now and where I've been, I can lend a lot of insight to navigating the obstacles ahead.

Because I have a lot of photography students that are amazing photographers with lots of talent, aptitude to learn, ability to take direction and all they're missing are the practical experiences of putting together the nuts and bolts of a photography business and/or photography brand. I have high hopes for these photographers, many of whom are young adults that have a great future. All they need is a little focus and the right roadmap for getting to the right junctures in their careers.

I recently taught a private fashion photography workshop for a young photography student enrolled at the film school of a well-known university. Yet this particular photographer was putting more of his free time into still photography than into his major of choice (cinematography). And while some educators might force him to choose one over the other, I believe at the ripe old age of 20, you should have the flexibility to say "I don't know, can I try both?" Because by forcing him to choose this early in the game, he might preclude many opportunities that might lead him down a different path; one that might be more beneficial to his growth and future career.

Without precluding any future change of hearts we devised a short-term strategy based upon his current love of photography. Although he was getting great results from shooting his friends (men and women), he really wanted to focus on the fashion aspect of capturing female models. So the first task was to help him get better fashion models. I recommended that he retool his photography website to reflect only the genre of the images that he wanted to shoot going forward (women's fashion). We then created a gameplan for building a pipeline of models that he'd have at his disposal for his shoots 2-3x a week. This included creating more exposure for himself on social networking sites such as Facebook and ModelMayhem. Lastly I broke down the process of climbing the ladder of the modeling agencies to attain better models and more paid work.

In the shooting portion of our workshop I brought in a model that had enough clout of her own to put him immediately on the fashion "map". Combined with the captures using different modifiers and backgrounds, this photographer left the workshop with an arsenal of new images for this website and ability to market himself successfully to attract better fashion models. My prediction is that combined with his inherent talent and easygoing nature, he'll go far and he'll go fast.

Now of course I'm not really a doctor. The irony is that as I type this, I am currently sick and need to fill my antibiotics prescription. But I feel like my work as a private fashion photography workshop educator puts me in a position of consultation not unlike medical professionals or even my previous work as a software consultant. I put a lot of time and effort into diagnosing every fashion photographer because every situation is unique. Because even if the ailment itself is the same, the final result in different photographers will be different. On the other hand, sometimes the ailments are different but for different photographers the prescriptions might be exactly the same. Choosing the right tool for the job has always been one of the most important abilities that I cultivated in myself over the years. That helps me assess photographer challenges with accuracy so I can provide the right solution to getting them to their next big hurdle.

And of course, I still teach the fashion photography group workshops with set topics such as Working with Modeling Agencies or B&W Fashion Photography. But I find more and more of my private fashion photography workshop students need a blend of different antidotes.

If you have any questions regarding a workshop please see my FAQ and/or visit the fashion photography workshop Education page!

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