Monday, December 22, 2008

Photographic Eye

I've long thought that many people put too much emphasis on the concept of a "photographic eye" or someone's inherent "gifts" with regards to the potential one has as an artist. In my experiences, hard work has always been a greater determinant of success than "raw talent," and now Malcolm Gladwell has written a book that strongly supports my views.

Outliers is a book about how extraordinarily successful people achieve their success. Gladwell's general hypothesis is that while a degree of natural talent is certainly necessary for success in any given field, once a critical ability threshold is reached external factors become crucial in determining the ultimate outcome of one's efforts. One of the most important factors he discusses is the "10,000 hour rule."

In a study at Berlin's elite Academy of Music, the faculty grouped students into three groups:
A) Potentially world-class talent
B) Merely good
C) Less talented: unlikely to have professional success

They polled these students on their practice habits, and discovered something fascinating: while the "group A" students had accelerated their practice throughout their lives, the B's and C's had not. This sounds obvious, but they could not document a single case of a student who'd achieved "group A" status with less than 10,000 hours of estimated practice time. Further, they could likewise not find a single group C student who had failed to achieve brilliance despite practicing anywhere CLOSE to 10,000 hours. There weren't any students so gifted that they didn't have to practice as hard to achieve that level of ability, and there weren't any grinders who put in the time but just didn't have what it took.

Gladwell produces a number of additional case-studies demonstrating that people such as Mozart or Bill Gates, who most would consider prodigies, only had their great successes after about 10,000 hours of practice at their craft.

The author also uses some interesting data to show that so long as a person has a "threshold IQ," he or she is just as likely to win a Nobel Prize as a super-genius. Once a person is smart enough, many other psychological and situational factors become far more crucial to that level of success.

My point is that a "photographic eye" requires only a threshold level of talent. I believe there are very few people who honestly lack any knack for taking pictures. The biggest difference is the amount of time one is willing to put in: are you willing and able to make the sacrifice of 10,000 hours in pursuit of excellence?

For what its worth, my wife estimates that I spend about 12-16 hours per day seven days every week taking photos, editing photos, planning for future shoots, or studying photography. I'm not at 10,000 hours yet, perhaps, but I'm counting down!

Not Every Bride Wears White....

Ashton's dress definitely qualifies as my most unique wedding attire so far this year....

Here are a few teasers from San Antonio this week! (yes, that's Elvis performing the ceremony)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mother of the Bride

My Richard Avedon-inspired portrait sessions have really started to spill into my wedding coverage. This is a shot that I really love, which would never have happened before I started doing that style of portrait session, where the interview process and verbal exchange is crucial to the success of the shot.

I'd reached a point where I felt comfortable that I had enough "bride getting hair done" shots, so I left my second to cover in case anything happened, and asked the mother of the bride to step outside with me for a moment. It was a nice partly-overcast day, but a bit brisk. Knowing I didn't have long, I chatted with Mom for a moment and then asked her:

"If you could have one wish for your daughter's marriage, what would it be."

She responded: "Only for her to be as happy as I've been."

This picture was taken just after her response, and just before the tears came. This image is not a "rockstar" shot with an amazing composition or elaborate lighting. This image matters to me, because I can see in this woman's eyes just how much she loves her daughter.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Art of Printmaking

I'll open this entry with one of my very favorite recent images. In this shot, the son of the groom was a little bit apprehensive about his father's marriage and how it would impact his relationship with his dad. The groom's step-father noticed the young man off to one side, and went to comfort him. Capturing moments like this is a truly humbling experience for me as a photographer, and I feel a tremendous responsibility to respect the fundamental dignity and beauty of my clients and their families as they deal with the emotions of the day, both joyous and poignant.

As a photographer who works in both the film and digital mediums, I'm perpetually fascinated in the ways that the rise of the digital camera has changed the way we make and enjoy images. Many of the changes are positive: digital cameras have democratized the art form by making it easier for more people to experience the joys of photography. Digital manipulation has offered new avenues for artistic expression, and entirely new mixed mediums have evolved.

One area that I believe has suffered, however, is an appreciation for great printmaking. Shooting photographs on film is inherently a print-based medium: even if one is only viewing contact sheets, there is a process of physical creation for almost every frame. Most people would at-least order a set of 4x6 prints from every roll they sent off to the lab. Prior to the internet, photographers were primarily judged on the quality of the prints hanging on their studio walls, or those in their portfolio books. Brilliant artists like George Tice became known specifically for their expertise in the darkroom and the amazing quality of their prints.

I haven't seen any studies, but I will guess based on my own experience that most digital photographers and/or their clients probably print only a small fraction of what they shoot. When images are printed, they are typically done from merely adequate home printers or only-slightly-better automated devices at local "labs." Further, when images are printed from digital, there is often the assumption that what looks good on one's screen will look equally good in print.

There is an art to taking a great image and turning it into an amazing print, whether its film or digital. Even if one works on a calibrated monitor, it takes a comprehensive understanding of how a printer renders information to predict the subtleties of how that information will be translated into a physical rendering of the image. Whether shooting film or digital, it often requires test-runs to completely perfect a print to its fullest interperetation of the original image. Black & white images in particular put huge demands on the printer, as the subtle and sensitive rendering of tonality can make-or-break a piece of art.

If you'd like to see for yourself, compare the majesty of a Yousuf Karsh silver gelatin print in a museum to its more mundane doppelganger in a book of Karsh's images.

I'm now offering my clients three print options. Clients can:

1. Print the image themself from the digital files

2. Order a very nice, carefully prepared print from me that will be executed on the best equipment available at a reasonable price.

3. For those clients who want a piece of fine art for their walls, I offer signature prints that I produce in conjunction with a handful of master printers around the country. Whether film or digital, no expense is spared in the production of the fullest possible interperetation of the image. These are the only prints that will bear my signature.

I'm very, very excited about these signature prints, and I welcome clients and potential clients to meet with me and examine my samples in person to witness the difference for themselves.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Leibovitz and 35MM

I've been avoiding Annie Leibovitz.

Its not like she lives in my neighborhood and I duck down an aisle when I see her at the grocery store, but I've been avoiding her all the same. She's become so dominant in the pantheon of modern photographers that liking Annie is almost akin to saying your favorite painter is Leonardo Da Vinci, or your favorite band is the Beatles: not nearly obscure enough to sound like you know what you're talking about.

While travelling in Portland over the holiday, I picked up a copy of A Photographer's Life at Powell's and delved into it. Obviously, there's a reason Ms. Leibovitz is such a dominant force in modern photography, so I won't go into a long discussion extolling her virtues. However, there are a few interesting points to make:

1. Amanda and I feel the book was poorly laid-out with regards to gutter-placement. There are a number of images in which the subject is buried in the gutter in a way that negatively impacts the enjoyment of the image. Its not enough to spoil an otherwise great book, but there are a few images that definitely could be better showcased.

2. The book is quite interesting in that is includes both her personal and assignment photography. Ms. Leibovitz mentions that her partner Susan Sontag had chided her to take more pictures outside of her professional obligations, and Amanda felt that this was solid advice to be passed along to me. I seldom shoot "just for fun" anymore, so while we were in a Camera shop I picked up a used Canon EOS 1n to be my 35mm "fun" camera. My new goal is to shoot at least a few frames every day, even if I don't get it developed immediately. 35mm is a much cheaper and more convenient way to accomplish this mission than either my 6x4.5 or 6x7 rigs.

I'll close by posting a shot I really enjoy from a recent shoot I did for AWAA: