Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Anatomy of a Working Shoot

Back in my earlier, more naive days of practicing photography, somewhere along the line I'd gotten it into my head that I had the stuff to do working shoots, photographing weddings and events and whatnot. This back when all I really had a grasp on was an innate sense of aesthetic appeal and amateur (at best) knowledge of the mechanics of photography from a more technical standpoint. These days I parade the equivalent around as "faux-tographers", even though they are little more than mirror images of a state of progress I myself stumbled through foolishly (about the only way one can stumble through such a phase, really).

For the better part of 2 years I booked occasional weekend wedding shoots. The images I took weren't necessarily bad, but definitely indicative that I only had a shallow understanding of what and how to photograph a busy event. My tools at the time were none too helpful either; a Nikon E8700 (Coolpix superzoom), a wide and telephoto adapter lens for aforementioned camera, a fully manual off-brand Quantaray flash and lens hood to allow for filters. I'm rather convinced the only thing that set my images apart from anything that could've been captured with any old point and shoot was in the editing I'd put the images through once back home. Again, the results weren't terrible, nothing like the standard extreme white vignetting and flat black and white or selective color images that float around these days from "faux-tographers", but certainly not material from a competent and established artist and businessman.

After a few gigs, my taste for paid, working photography declined sharply. Photography was still about discovery to me at the time, not about homogenization and putting out a consistent product. Granted, although we never stop learning, the collection of knowledge of new techniques and which practices worked and (arguably more importantly) which didn't was too much at the forefront of my growth experience in the trade and working assignments rarely allow the latitude of quality consistency to allow for experimentation of growth in one's imaging style.

Fast forward 3 years.

Earlier this year I was already 100% gun-ho about starting my own business and once again stepping into the realm of working photography. Granted, that motivational drive suffered one hell of a setback with events that precipitated exactly 1 day before their full crystallization (in the form of a signed studio lease), but after months and months of time wasted dwelling on events long past and goals delayed due to events out of my control, I'm once again at that point from 6 months ago, ready to leap into my art form as a business venture. I've been posturing it quite nicely already, what with low key marketing and mostly web-based awareness campaigns designed to emphasize my own eye for things more than a product or service (just yet, anyway). After a few years shooting strictly for myself, my portfolio is horribly dry of material from working photography sessions, so I knew I would need the help of local, likely known clientele, friends or family or co-workers, to construct a portfolio of images exemplary of what I could consistently produce on contract assignments. And sure enough, my first customer contracted me last week for a shoot this past Sunday, a family oriented (but mostly daughter oriented) photoshoot. Once again, I had to get my business face on and work my professionalism into a less dusty state. Luckily, the clients being known friends and co-workers, this first shoot out of "retirement" was much more comfortable and casual than even past shoots ever were. Still, it was good to get my toes in that sand again.

Being good buddies already, we met up at a mutually agreed upon location such that I could drop off my car and hitch a ride to the location of the photoshoot. The client's in-laws happened to have a little horse ranch and small collection of their own equine pets, and the subject of this shoot was very generally kept at arranged family and (mostly) candid daughter photos while she rode horseback on her very own pony, Beauty. We'd been humoring this shoot for some time, but I was reticent to take up the job until my Olympus 45mm f/1.8 came in. As clean as the images are from the Panasonic 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6, and as fast as Olympus' own kit 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 is in the 25-35mm range comparatively, nothing would quite stand up to the kind of crisp and creamy subject isolation I knew would be possible with that 90mm f/1.8 equivalence of Oly's 45mm. Eager as we both were to enter into this shoot, I knew it would be worth waiting. And my oh my are we both glad we waited for the "pro tools" to come in.

Once we'd arrived at the ranch, I introduced myself to the in-laws who would inevitably be part of the shoot, firm handshakes and all. The in-laws themselves being strangers, I took the professional route and declined the beer I was offered. Most importantly, I introduced myself to the dogs adamantly slobbering for my attention (everyone knows if the dogs love you then you must be an okay guy). Without much ado, my client got her daughter dressed up in her most cow girlish outfit (sans hat, unfortunately, although that isn't to say we didn't try) and got right into shooting.

Prior to the full preparation of the star of the show, I stepped outside to tune my camera to the light available. Daylight savings time had kicked in the night before and my judgement of sunset's arrival was unfortunately quite off. Light was very quickly waning behind the cover of trees, and my shooting was mostly decided by the location it best gleamed through the interrupting branches. It all worked out in the end, though, with enough light to allow for reasonable shutter speeds but the proper lack of it to permit the delicious bokeh of f/1.8. We tried to get some moving shots, but sadly the light wasn't bright enough to permit anything but still capture. Still, the images came out gorgeous, the lens rendering important subject features with the crisp look expected, and Olympus' e-portrait algorithm providing an even better base image from which to tack on my considerably subtle layers of edits. It was a fantastic shoot, and the client was/is more than satisfied.

After the shoot was the part of a photographic effort I'd usually skipped in my younger years, but certainly proved pleasant and an appropriate closure to the evening. After a good hour, maybe hour and a half of shooting, we all retired to the Quarterfield Grill and sat down to have ourselves an absolutely delicious dinner. Granted, I already had a previously strong relationship with my client this time around, but assuming we'd known nothing about each other, we engaged in avid conversation that constructed the basis of what I'd understand to be good rapport. She liked the shots even before I'd gone at them in post, and with an already good impression made the experience leaped from professional encounter to casual chit-chat. Once home, I immediately set forth to touch up a few choice images and put together a DVD consisting of the original images, 4x6 crops and 8x10 crops, the sizes most commonly printed and certainly more than necessary given how simple printing is these days. Before handing off the disc the following workday, I'd already uploaded the choice edits to Flickr to share (after previously attaining permission to upload the images, of course). The client was only more eager to get her hands on the final disc.

Compared to my experiences years ago shooting images within the working frame and mindset... the experience has been night and day. The weddings and events I photographer between 2006-2008 felt like work, with minimal enjoyment involved and the lack of creative experimentation permitted at the time feeling like a clamp on my muse. Granted, being that this recent session was with a friend and co-worker the experience is ultimately bound to be more positive by default, but the experience of shooting felt very different nonetheless. I didn't feel the strict set of rules bearing down on me this time around because I already knew what was going to work and I already knew what I wanted the images to look like. On top of that, there was no doubt in my mind that the images I was shooting for would be liked by the client because I already had a portfolio to share of similar images and the client already liked them. Unlike 2006-2008, I have a style now, a trademark method and vision that is desired and deliberately sought after (so much so that the client was willing to wait 2 months for a lens acquisition). The working experience of photography is now less a stumble through swampy waters of unease and MUCH more a determined, marathon jogger's pace of following a defined route from checkpoint to checkpoint. I am not guessing at my performance and behavior anymore. I know what I am doing.

Time to find the next gig to book!