Wednesday, February 12, 2014

13 Things I Learned from 2013

2013 is long and gone and I can't help but look back at 2013 and be extremely thankful for what I have been able to accomplish, for all the things I've learned and the relationships I've developed through the love of photography.  I wouldn't go as far as to call myself a professional, since I don't derive more than 50% of my income from gigs and I am an accountant by trade, but I would definitely call myself a self-taught advanced amateur.  The beauty of being a self-taught photographer, in this day in age where information is abundant and free,  is that it's FREE.  Everyone has an opinion on what is the "best" camera, the "must-have" lighting equipment, the "ideal" shooting technique and so-forth.  However, the problem with free information, is that it's free.  Anyone with enough charisma and on-camera charm can convince you that you need the latest and greatest lightsphere or that you need to have a full-frame camera to take good pictures.  As I impart the 13 lessons I have learned from 2013, please keep in mind this could be utterly and completely useless to you.  However, I've made enough mistakes and had too many "a-ha" moments that I felt inclined to share with you all hoping that it could somehow help. 

1. Always have enough business cards in your wallet or gear bag.  Not too long ago, I was hired to do a beauty pageant.  I was expected to take photographs of the contestants and take candid shots of the guests.  It was a 12 hour event and I had several opportunities to get to know everyone and I happily did.  Many wanted to know where they could see my work or know how to contact me for quotes.  Well, I regrettably forgot to restock my bag with business cards and only had 4 of them to pass out to the several hundred guests I interacted with. Talk about missed opportunities and lack of professionalism (too harsh?).  

2. Have a checklist.  Whenever I go on road trips or travel, I always create a checklist of things to bring.  Toiletries, socks, change of clothes, UNDERWEAR (never want to leave home without enough underwear).  Nothing feels worse than going to an assignment missing a key piece of your equipment.  I recall going to an event bringing only one set of batteries for my flash.  Thankfully it lasted the whole event, but the fear of it not working during critical moments is awful.  Part of my workflow includes a planning phase with my clients regarding their expectations.  From this meeting, I get a better idea what I need to bring for a particular shoot.  For example, I had a couple that wanted their photos taken under the Santa Monica Pier.  I knew that the lighting conditions would not be ideal, so bringing my flash with radio transmitter/receiver for off camera lighting was a necessity.  The night before, I gather all I need and physically check off my list.  I never pack the day of the event, as I hate the feeling of being in scramble mode, plus I like going to an event feeling cool, calm and composed.   
   
Without the flash, I would have had a very dark image. 
 
3. Give the clients shots they didn't know they want.  I have to give Heather all the credit for this saying.  My friends asked me to shoot their wedding, something I thought and said I would never do, and agreed to doing it because they wanted something simple.  Just a "couple" snaps in the court house and a handful outdoors with the family.  I agreed to shoot their wedding, not because it was simple but because I adore them to pieces.  Heather constantly reminded me I was charged with shooting the most important day of their lives and that I should go beyond what they want.  I had every intention of doing so, but she really hammered the idea home.  In fact, she took my camera from me while I was fixing the groom's tie and captured what was a very special moment between me and a good friend.  

A beautiful Albanian tradition - She was glad this was taken
4. Paid jobs are great and they allow you to purchase the newest shiniest gear, but they are not always the most fulfilling from a creative standpoint.  I had so much fun shooting the following Crossfit Christmas photo because it incorporated so many things I love with the people I care for.  I didn't feel pressure to get a certain look because they weren't paying me =).  I was able to dictate the session and try out different lighting techniques and poses.  At the end of the day, the "client" was extremely happy with the unexpected look and my photographic juices were recharged.  



5. Use whatever you have at home to practice and try out new things.  Whether it's a new lens or a new modifier for your flash, I tend to test it out my new gear on things or people (Heather) that are readily available to me. I tend to use Megaman as my test subject because it has features similar to a human face but just at smaller scale.  Light will wrap around his face in the same manner it would with a human model, except Megaman won't complain about being hungry or being irritated by the flash =).      

I never get tired of shooting Megaman
6. PRINT.  Print your work.  Just do it.  The feel of the image changes for reasons I cannot put into words and makes your work really pop.  Although prints on photo paper are great, I highly recommend canvas prints.  

Hand delivered a canvas print to a good friend - this phone shot does not do the print justice
7. Shoot what you love and don't be afraid to share it.  This has been a very sensitive subject for me, as I tend to get rather self-conscious as a photographer, especially when sharing my work on Facebook.  For those who are new to the blog, I am a huge fan of the Mad T Party band.  I enjoy photographing the shows, but have not made some of my shots public out of fear of typecasting myself as a concert photographer, being labeled a one-trick pony or thinking it's not "good enough" compared to the many talented photographers at Disneyland.  As unusual as this sounds, I have met and befriended several photographers who feel this way.  As I continue to struggle with this, I have promised myself going forward into 2014 to drop these insecurities and just share photographs that I think meet my standards.  Photographs are meant to be shared and not kept on your hard drive.  

No point being shy - Mad T Party Band
8. Don't be afraid to copy work.  I've attempted to recreate creative shots I've seen around the internet on several occasions, not out of malice; rather, I wanted to learn the technique to achieve that particular style.  I always go out of my way to give credit where credit is due.  I feel that only when I have mastered other peoples techniques can I really apply the the principles I've learned into my personal style.   I try to learn all the classic rules so I can break them later on.
I saw this particular shot in a Disney blog and had every intention of copying it
9. Learn to shoot manually.  When I bought the Panasonic GF-1 from my brother back in 2011, the first 2 lenses he gave me were the Panny 20mm f1.7 and the all manual OM Olympus 50mm f1.4 lens. It was my first and absolutely favorite manual focus lens that gave me a greater understanding of what it means to shoot at different apertures and how it affects light gathering and depth of field.  I became obsessed with understanding how every aspect of the exposure triangle worked.  It wasn't until I started photographing crossfit athletes did I truly understand how important it is to adjust each component separately.    Some of the things I commonly see when beginners shoot in Auto is that the camera sets the incorrect ISO for a particular situation, say a sunny, midday outdoor shoot. I've seen EXIF files with ISO 1000/1600, when the shot could have been taken at ISO 100/200.  There's no reason to rob your images of their quality, when the aperture could be opened wider or shutter lengthened to gather more light.  I've relied on manual on more occasions than I've expected and it really paid off in the end. Think of manual mode as a friend.  The more time spent together, the greater the bond and an even better understanding of what makes it snap =).   

An impromptu shot taken before the big game.  Shot manually, only exposing for the background
10. Never go to an event or gig with untested gear.  I must admit, I was blind to all the other cameras I've seen after the GF-1. I really didn't care to upgrade my rig because I was extremely happy with the photos I was able to make.  The 50mm prime fit the bill for my medium-telephoto needs and the 20mm was wide enough to be a great all-around lens.  It wasn't until I saw the Olympus OMD E-M5 did I suffer from the worst case of GAS (gear acquisition syndrome).  I just needed...err WANTED to have that camera.  It came out around the same time as Comic Con and I wanted to have it for the week.  I ordered the camera and paid a hefty premium to get it over-nighted to my place just in time for the con.  I "broke-in" the camera at San Diego Comic Con and attempted to learn all of its features, missing some key shots along the way.  I distinctly remember excitedly taking a photo of nerd celebritiy, Kevin Pereira, anticipating a legendary photo only to realize it was back focused when I got home to review my work.  From that point on, I promised myself I would never go to a shoot or an event with untested gear. 

The happiest place on earth, San Diego Comic Con
11. Volunteer and assist other photographers.  I know what you are thinking, another tip that doesn't make me money.  My approach to photography is akin to that of a master and apprentice. I've always looked up to friends who've truly mastered the art of light and composition.  In a way, their dedication to the craft attracts me and I know that surrounding myself with people like that will only make me a better photographer.  As elementary as it may sound, pro photographer, Joe Gunawan taught me the basics of light stands, c-stands, differences between light modifiers and the importance of having gaffers tape.  I hear Trey Ratcliff is putting this idea into practice with the Arcanum.  You can bet I'm going to sign myself up for that.     

12. Pay it forward.  I wouldn't be where I am today if it weren't for the handful of people who took the time to teach me the basics of photography.  My brother is and will forever will be the biggest influence in my life.  He not only helped me realize the beauty of photography, he also helped me experience the wonderful glory of capturing that perfect shot.  Although I can't claim to have done the same for someone else, I've happily helped others get to know their camera and get out of Auto.  The biggest lesson I've learned from my brother is just be kind to your fellow photographer because it's the good and right thing to do.  


My brother

13. If you ever find a good photo assistant.  Drop whatever you're doing and Marry Her. That's what I plan on doing, February of 2015. 
She said yes =)
I had a lot of reservation writing this particular blog post because I didn't want to come off preachy.  In fact, I think this blog post was more for me, as my way to reflect on the wonderful year that has come and gone.  These 13 lessons aren't scripture, rather things I have learned along the way of honing my skills.  This is possibly one of the most long winded posts I have ever written and I thank you for taking time out of your life to read my ramblings.  Now go out there and take some photos.

So say we all,
Dino