7 Ways Experience Makes You a Better Photographer

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All images ©2014 Alex Garcia

It was déjá vu all over again, as Yogi Berra once said. I was roaming the campus of my alma mater recently, taking pictures for Northwestern University. Some 25 years ago this very year, I was doing exactly the same thing as the yearbook and newspaper photo editor. It was a trip down memory lane, and I was tickled at the opportunity, which I explored more than once.

What was instructive was just how much more productive I was this time around. As a student, I remember spending waaay too much time trying to find photographs, carrying my camera in desperate hopes of populating the yearbook with beautiful images of campus. It was crazy. The publisher once found me curled up under a table, sleeping in the office after struggling to make deadlines.

10,000 hours of photography later (at least) I was amazed how much easier it was. I was seeing moments left and right – even pictures I could have made 25 years ago but didn’t. My productivity, as measured in volume and creativity, was maybe 10 times that of my days as a student. I shake my head at the reality of the time spent away from my studies and friends.

What did I realize that my experience brought…?

• Improved cost-benefit analysis – I knew not to waste my time with pictures that wouldn’t yield the most impact. With experience, you have a sense of the best picture that can be achieved by chasing down a bunny trail, and the cost of doing so. There’s only so much quality light you have to work with, and only so much time to wait for a situation to ripen into a fruitful photograph. You know when tremendous patience is warranted, and when tremendous impatience is warranted.

• Accumulated visual memory – Partly what your cost-benefit analysis is based on is your memory of your pictures in similar situations, but also your memory of pictures taken by others. If there are some factors coming into play that you recognize as being rare and unusual, you’re quicker to jump on them to come closer to images that you have been inspired by or found before. With more visual memory, comes more visual inspiration and more excitement to share.

• Techniques – If you want to read about how to get blood from a turnip, read my post about How to Make a Boring Situation Interesting. I toggle through the various options in my mind to make the most in front of me. The more you practice them, the faster you get.

• Problem-solving – If you’re the kind of person who gives up easily, gets flustered, or has a propensity for powerlessness, I can’t imagine you’ll do well in photography. Photography is all about problem-solving, with all the technical, logistical and interpersonal barriers that throw themselves your way. Even if you text someone desperately with more experience, “HOW SHOULD I SOLVE THIS?” they won’t be able to tell you. You have to find ways to deal with issues that are consistent with your own make-up and resources, which no one can tell you how to do.

• Previsualization – Previsualization isn’t just a one-and-done thing that happens before a shoot. It also happens during your shoot, where you are spotting changing circumstances and previsualizing (with cost-analysis and accumulated memory) where the next best shot will be. Generally, the more you practice this, the better you get. Otherwise, you can end up chasing your tail, missing moments that could have happened because you weren’t prepared for them when they sailed by you.

• Mistake avoidance – When you drive down a road many times, you know where the potholes are, where the kids randomly cross the street, where the red light cameras are and where the birds love to dive-bomb cars.  It’s the same as a photographer. With painful mistakes comes mistake avoidance. You know what catastrophic issues can arise, and you prepare for them – humbled by experience. It sometimes takes the pain of a mistake you’ve outlived to avoid repeating.

• Maturity – One of the things I’ve observed is that you get better access to situations when people trust you and learn to let you do your thing. Generally, people watch you and the decisions you make, and make judgments about your ability and skills. They watch how you cope with disappointment and with exertions of power that come to your expense. It’s just the way it is. With more experience comes more maturity (well, ideally) and people respond to that. You’re worth their time and investment, and doors can open with that trust.

All this is why why many professional photographers are counseled not to charge per hour, but per a creative fee. Your efficiency and productivity can’t be measured by time. It’s measured by your creative output, which significantly increases with experience. How can you compare hourly rates among photographers of vastly different experience and talent?

All the experience that photographers gather through their work is incremental, such that you may not even realize it.

Yet it’s very real, and translates into substantial value for those who invest in it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Upcoming Talk at the Michigan Avenue Apple Store

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I’m delighted to say that APA Chicago has asked me to speak as part of their regular photographer talks at the Apple Store. I’ll be talking about visual storytelling, both in an editorial and a commercial context, and what that means for photographers looking to connect with their audiences. I’ll be there for two hours on Monday, Oct. 20th from 7-9pm. For more details, please go to the APA Chicago website. Please mark it on your calendars!

Enjoying Redmoon and the Fire Festival

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(All images ©Alex Garcia and protected by the Incredible Hulk)

 

For me, the Redmoon Theater is like hot sauce. Everday life is better with it. I’ve always felt that way, even before being asked to be part of their official photo team this year. Their what’s-going-to-happen-next creativity and in-every-neighborhood orientation gives such flavor to the civic life of Chicago.  My designated spot was the lower Michigan Avenue bridge, shooting eastward down Chicago River towards the lake. There was such a build-up to the houses being consumed by fire that I could understand that many people were disappointed by the lack of a cathartic burn. At a live event, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s unpredictable. It keeps you on your seat, better than live television. Yet to me, the ultimate joy of such an event is just being among other Chicagoans from all over the city, feeling connected across divisions that keep people apart.  It’s why my favorite part of the show, a part that many missed because they left too soon, was seeing faces of Chicagoans floating down the river. All of the faces were of people who had surmounted obstacles in their lives, and all were connected to an event that aimed to celebrate a city that has and will overcome obstacles as well.

 

We’re All Media Companies Now

If you’re paying attention to the industry, you’ll notice something very interesting. Media companies are behaving a lot like photographers.

They’re expanding beyond their core business to leverage existing talents and skill-sets.

They’re giving workshops, entering the event industry and selling ebooks. They’re soliciting marketing clients with their finessed communication abilities.

They’re slashing overhead, aligning with existing video companies or expanding their own video production abilities.

They’re outsourcing production (in photographers’ cases, post-production) to other businesses in order to focus on their core business.

They’re aligning with competitors to reduce expenses of printing newspapers, in the same way that photojournalists are collectivizing to share overhead expenses.

What next, weddings?

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Buy This E-book So It’ll Get…Published?

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I’m including sample spreads from my 140 page e-book “Depth of Field:  Tips on Photojournalism and Creativity.” The e-book gathers together some of my favorite pictures and “Tuesday Tips” posts, edited and in some cases re-written for those looking for photography advice and a little inspiration.

If you buy this e-book, I’d be immensely grateful. Not because I would make any money from the sale, because I wouldn’t. All the content belongs to the Chicago Tribune in a trade-off that involved little things called salary and healthcare. It’s not about the money.

What you would be doing is ensuring it’s production as a hard copy book next year. From what I’ve been told, sales of e-book determines whether or not the e-book becomes a hard copy.

So yes, it’s technically been published. But not in print, the traditional way.

After four years of writing and blogging at the Chicago Tribune under the title of Assignment Chicago, a hard copy book would be an ideal way to codify a lot of time, sweat and hard work. After all that, wouldn’t you want to touch, carry and ultimately share a book in person?

With its publication as a hard copy on the line, you’d think I’d be promoting this e-book for the past two months like a desperate Kickstarter.

Well, there was this issue…. to my horror, somehow, a rough copy of the book was published on Amazon. So I was happily telling people all about the e-book, not knowing that it had a lot of errors, from pixelated and repeated images, to problems with formatting and editing. No one ever told me how these errors got in there. If you bought a copy during that period, I hope you saw my posts about returning it for an updated copy.

Then, the fixed format size of the ebook frustrated some phone and small tablet users. Then it completely crashed the Ebook member center at the Tribune. There was a plague, then locusts…

All is clear now.

Basically,  the Tribune had never published an e-book before with so many high-res images. It was the first graphic-heavy e-book they have published. So being first meant serving as a warning to others!

After the accumulated hundreds of hours of writing, editing, re-writing, updating, designing, picture editing, toning and re-editing, to this outcome, I went into a funk of frustration about the rollout. Then I left my job.

(Note: this is not how you sell an e-book.)

So I’m OK now, but I have a request…

If you ever gained from my tips columns over the years, or if you know anyone who could, would you buy this ebook at the Chicago Tribune, Agate Publishing, or Amazon?   If you’re a digital subscriber to the Chicago Tribune, you get it free. But it’s only $4.99.

It would mean a lot. Thank you for your support. I never thought when I first started writing Tuesday Tips at Assignment Chicago that it would become a weekly column that would get published in the Sunday paper and last four years.

It was an organic experience that became something meaningful for me and many others. I’ve been really touched, and to be honest humbly surprised, at how well received the blog was to students, other professionals, and the public.

Perhaps this book will be one of several more to come.

But, you know, I wouldn’t want to jinx it…

 

 

Dear Troll…

Dear Troll,

Yes, yes, you. No, I know. You don’t think you’re a troll. Trolls are other people.

But as a good friend once told a psychopath he met, “You know, I’ve never met a psychopath who realized that they’re a psychopath.”

Same as trolls. Well, actually, that’s not true. I have a cousin who trolls. He goes online onto sensitive stories and says outrageous things just to stir things up. Then he sits back, watches and laughs. And laughs. He plays the troll.

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Optimism and Innovation in Professional Photography

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The power of story – it’s everywhere you look.

 

I’m optimistic about the future of professional photography. Call me a fool. In fact, I’ve been called an idiot for leaving my staff job at the Tribune. “How could you leave a staff gig like that?” and “Don’t you know how hard it is to make a living as a photographer?”

 

The irony is, as soon as I left, the first people to congratulate me were freelance photographers in Chicago who startled me with words like, “You’re going to love it!” and “It’ll be hard at first, but you’ll find your niche.”

 

But that’s not why I’m optimistic. Everyone has individual reasons to back-up their opinions and I’d be foolish to bank my family on someone else’s opinion. I’m no Pollyanna. I also certainly wouldn’t leave without clients lined up.

 

What makes me optimistic is how our current society consumes visuals.

 

In a word, it’s constant. We’re inundated with images. We take billions every year. Estimates are close to a trillion images in 2014.

 

What does this mean? It means disruption to the old way of doing business. Slowly receding are the days where a company is going to invest a ton of money for one or two images from a big shoot. I’m grateful for those I’ve had and believe me, I hope they’ll be around for awhile.

 

From a return on investment perspective, however, I know some companies are questioning it. If you’re the owner that just spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, typically through an agency, your shoot will yield images that are going to be seen for a short while and then go…poof.

 

That image is going to be overrun by Instagram feeds, tweets, blogs and the capricious feeds of social media. Websites and micro sites run by companies also increasingly need fresh imagery.

 

As they say in the news business, what have you done for me lately?

 

Not all companies are large enough to afford those shoots anyway. As many companies and organizations are finding, having your own publishing platform can be a blessing and a curse. They can create their own content to have authority and loyalty in their space, but it comes at a price. They now have to “feed the beast”, that monster of appetite for visual content that lives at news organizations, where publishing never ceases. And the images have to be high-quality, not the stock type used to illustrate everything from vacations to Viagra.

 

If companies or organizations don’t update their visuals on a frequent basis, then their page, feed or stream looks vacant, lifeless and ultimately disengaging. There is nothing more sad (or alarming) than a website that hasn’t changed its visuals in a long while. It’s brand erosion.

 

It’s no wonder that there is a movement towards small production houses to create visuals that can quickly and more effectively churn out images for clients that are demanding more images and video for less.

 

Yes, the rates that photographers used to charge are getting squeezed because of it. But what you lose on the value of each shoot, you can make up with a longer-lasting and trustworthy client relationship.

 

Isn’t that a trade-off that photographers have historically made?

 

You can see the problem that companies and organizations face. They need more visuals, but they can’t afford the prices (or at least the limited return on the investment) to feed all their platforms and projects. So consequently they’ll pursue other methods for getting images on the cheap. They’ll promise free exposure, sponsor a rights-grabbing contest, crowdsource images or even steal them outright. Then they get busted and shamed by all the content creators on social media. It’s ugly. Again, brand erosion.

 

But what if photographers took the initiative and said “look, your name and brand is hurting and your visual content strategy is hurting. For XXX (or XXX,XXX) amount every six months or year, I can provide you with a regular stream of visuals that will keep your company not only front-of-mind with your customers, but will provide professionally-produced, high-quality, emotionally-engaging, inspiring visuals that will translate to more sales or donors to your business. I can even bring you a level of consultancy and brainstorming to the process, based on my experience, that will raise the level of your visual sophistication and move the dollar sign.”

 

Some photographers, you know the “fools”, are doing just that. They’re starting companies, changing their pricing strategies and making their pitches.

 

As an editorial photographer who has told real stories for a living, I’m even more excited because storytelling as a form of persuasion is a dominant paradigm in our culture, from testimonials to video docs. Reality, truth and authenticity matter to consumers but done in a way that emotionally engages an audience. As a photojournalist, it was all about finding the heart of a story, working effectively, and being creative to make the scene better than what was expected back in the office.

 

Where there is disruption, there is also innovation, problem-solving and opportunity.

 

All good reasons to be optimistic.