What Not to Light

If you want to make something more interesting, it's important to know what not to light. I know that a great photographer said something like that, but I cannot remember who that was or what his or her exact words were. It's a phrase that I think about constantly though. One of my new favorite shadow creator combinations is a beauty dish with a grid. Soft, fairly large, but most of all, very constrained. I would say it is easily disciplined.

Here are a couple of my favorites from a shoot that my friend and client Ed and I did earlier this week. Ed is a retired accounting professor and an up-and-coming actor and singer. We created hundreds of actor headshots, but once those were in the can, we worked on some additional dramatic, less traditional shots.

Professional Portraits vs. Happy Accidents - We're Making Photographs, not Taking Them

There's a term that applies to a certain type of photograph that you may be familiar with. The term is "happy accident". It's generally a pretty loaded term. It can be an insult directed at a photographer who may have created an image that is good, or even great, but the person wielding the phrase feels that the good image is an exception rather than the rule, based on that person's perception of the artist's work. It can also be used by a photographer to describe his or her own photograph, implying, not so subtly, that the image in question was acquired by luck, clean living, or some other reason not directly related to skill or artistry.

Hobbyists tend to thrive on happy accidents. I don't mean this as a criticism! If photography is something that you love, just for the fun and satisfaction that it brings, there is nothing at all to be ashamed of! For professional photographers, happy accidents are things that you will certainly take if they make themselves available, but cannot be relied upon to pay the rent. Its a little like winning the lottery; I'll take it, but lottery winning is not a livelihood.

As a professional portrait photographer, your goal is to 'create a photograph'. I really prefer that phrase to 'taking a photograph'. The difference is one of mindset. Am I showing up, putting up some lights so that the subject won't be in the dark and then snapping away, hoping for some kind of intervention? Not a chance! You need to walk into the studio or onto a location with a frame of mind totally focused on making a great photograph. You are creating a work of art, no matter how mundane or commercial the assignment might be. The location is sized up. A series of shot options is internalized, discussed with assistants and possibly the subject, any lighting that is necessary is set up, furniture is almost always moved(*). Then, photographs are made.

There are so many things to take in and consider when you are about to create photographs at a professional commercial level: how subjects or models will be portrayed, composition, lighting, style, props, distractions, etc.. You can't just walk in and start shooting, hoping for some happy accidents. You need a concept, and an ability to execute it. Once things are starting to fire on all cylinders in a given context, the shooting can commence in earnest. I make a lot of shots when I am creating portraits. But the activity is directed and intentional. Often, when discussing an upcoming shoot, the subject may ask, "how long will it take, a few minutes?". It's important to explain to the subject that this takes preparation, must look great, both for the client and the subject, and while accidents happen, both happy and otherwise, we are making photographs. Really good photographs. Which is my job.

One of These Things is Not Like The Other...

One of These Things is Not Like The of these things is not the same (Apologies to Sesame Street!)  This bit was always a favorite at my house when my son was little. But I was thinking this morning about photography (there's a shock), and how applicable this verse is. When we get started creating photographs the normal path to learning the art is to focus on technique and to imitate and emulate the masters. When I was a teenager my parents bought that great Time-Life book series on photography for me. I remember waiting anxiously for each edition to arrive and would get inspired by every page. The contemporary photographers at that time had a huge influence on me. My mind is still firmly rooted in the look of images created by Arnold Newman, Pete Turner, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. But there's a time when you need to be yourself. Imitation, emulation and outright copying are fine for a while, but whatever your art may be it has, at some point, to stand out from the crowd; to be unlike the others.

I read a blog recently in which the writer interviewed Set Godin about his latest book ( This quote sort of jumped up and demanded notice:

    Seth: When everyone has a camera, and everyone thinks they are a photographic artist, it’s clear that access to the device is not a scarce resource. If that’s all you’ve got, I’m not going to pay you. The art isn’t in the taking of the picture. The art is in what you do the other 21 hours in a day.

    If you don’t like that, you should become an amateur and do what you love, but don’t expect to get paid for it!

Independent portrait photographers who are consistently creating images that could be mistaken for those from a retail studio should take notice. Of course there are always clients who want a basic, "school picture day" portrait, but even there, it's really important to raise that bar. If some potential client is comparing a handful of photographers and, absent any referrals to or prior knowledge about them, they all present the same style and quality, and one is the Mall retail portrait store, then the only thing these photographers have to differentiate themselves is price and possibly location. Google the portrait store at your local Mall and you will come to a very quick conclusion as to which one wins on price. In fact, lowering your price will not even help, unless you make it $0. If this sounds familiar you are selling a commodity. Wikipedia, (which knows all :-), defines commodity as "some good for which there is demand, but which is supplied without qualitative differentiation across a market. It is fungible, i.e. the same no matter who produces it." Sound familiar?

Seth Godin goes on to say:
    Seth: Stop looking for more business! The most important thing is to reinvent what it is you sell and to overwhelm your current clients with the experience they encounter when they engage you. This is what word of mouth will come from. Not from better photos, not from a better brochure, not from a cheaper price.

I am not sure that I agree with him concerning "better photos", both because I think that is ultimately where you differentiate yourself, but also because I feel he is contradicting his earlier statement. But if he means better photos, technically, I would agree, at least to a degree. In some future blog I will go on a rant about photo gear and its relationship to great photos (or lack of a relationship...), but I would interpret "better photos" to mean all aspects of your portfolio, including your vision, body of work, consistency and style, and in that case I feel that it matters a lot. But bringing that experience with which you will overwhelm a client, along with your vision and uniqueness is really what will make potential clients want to hire you. If you are the same as everyone else, nothing will do that; not even price.

Plan, plan and plan some more

The great Boston photographer, Louis Fabian Bachrach Jr., known as Fabian Bachrach, passed away last week at the age of 92. (

He came from a family of photographers, most of whom worked and still work in the family business. His grandfather, who started the studio, photographed Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg!

According to the NY Times article, when John F. Kennedy was a US senator, he sat for a portrait with Bachrach. The results were what Bachrach considered unusable, which, in the words of his son, "ate on my father for months and months and months". Any commercial photographer can relate, although most not at the same level as that of photographing a US senator. But when Kennedy became president, Bachrach convinced his office to let Kennedy sit for another portrait. This time, Bachrach was kept waiting for 8 hours only to be told that the session had been cancelled. Pleading to be allowed to go ahead with the session, he was given 10 minutes, "from start to finish", as the Times article says. This 10 minute session resulted in the president's official portrait, which is arguably the most well known portrait of Kennedy. See the NY Times article and the gallery of Bachrach's work to see the photo.

There are so many lessons here, for people photographers especially. When you screw up, the first thing is to admit it to yourself and to your client, and then to get over it. Easier said than done. But you can! I have a quote from Joe McNally on my wall. You can find it in his blog post, (, look for the paragraphs that begin with "I’ve shot a lot more bad pictures than I’ll ever shoot good ones". That I read his quote periodically is closely related to one of my blogs from last week in which I talked about being the photographer you want to become. Even that phrase is a quote from another great photographer, Craig Tanner. But when you doubt yourself, step aside! Try to step away from your own person and ego for a minute and ask, what would <a photographer that I admire> do in this situation? Obviously, that person could be anyone that you admire, not necessarily another photographer.

Another lesson that I took away from the Bachrach anecdote was how necessary it is to plan. Plan, plan and plan some more. Try to envision what the situation will be like, how you will feel and how you will act and react. You need to be reacting to the environment and to the things that could not have been anticipated. You should already have thought about all of the things that you knew about beforehand. Clients don't want to wait for you to have a happy accident. The art, creativity and imagination that you bring to a commercial job begins where your technical knowledge and experience leaves off.


Self-assigned photo shoots are really a necessity. Shooting for yourself keeps things interesting and on your own trajectory. When the paid jobs are not where you want to be or where you want to go, it's doubly rewarding. Sometimes, for one reason or another, those shots may not be ones that you can use or ones that fit precisely into your portfolio, and your portfolio needs to represent exactly the kind of work that you want to attract. This latter point took a long time to sink in for me, but it is one of the most important things that a commercial photographer needs to learn. We all want to show work that we are proud of and that shows the world we are versatile and capable. But you need to ask yourself if any given shot in your portfolio is the kind of work that you want to continue to do, and further, if it is consistent with a focused message. Who are your ideal clients? What do they look for? Show them what they are looking for! Chances are, if they are looking for that specific thing, they probably don't want someone who does that thing along with all sorts of other, unrelated kinds of work. I'm sure this is not news.

For photographers, as well as many other disciplines, self-assigned work is really magic. It's an avenue that is freeing, useful and necessary. If you're building a new portfolio, especially one that is heading in a new direction, or if you are unhappy with the alignment of the work you are shooting for pay with your goals, self-assigned work is the answer. It's freeing because the what, when, where, who and how are all up to you. It's your chance to create a world from play-doh, to appropriate a phrase that someone used last week who I unfortunately cannot recall.

But here's where it gets tricky, for me at least; that clean slate. Which way should I go? And when I choose, who will give me permission? There's that word: permission. I used to be a professional musician, and there was always an undercurrent of guilt when I was practicing or working on something that wasn't income-generating. That's a pretty debilitating way to be if you are an artist. I'm not sure what made me like that, but as a musician I was always wary of the people who I would encounter who had “real jobs”. Well, I am older now, and my coping mechanism has grown from the unwavering support of my wife and the fact that I have seen the other side, and I know now that I have it so much better. Now I can give myself permission to work on something that has no practical value at this moment and is not generating income. I can do that because I know that what I am working on is part of what I want to do to be where I want to be, so that I can be sought out by clients, to do that thing.

The essential factor in giving yourself permission to do self-assignments is structure. Where do you want to go? My friend, photographer's consultant Selina Maitreya, talks consistently about “vision”. Without that, where are you going? I am reading David duChemin's new book and he has almost the  identical message. In order to get where you want to be, you need to figure out where that is. Once you have done so, make it happen. And if you don't have enough work that leads you in that direction, create it. I find it very useful to get myself into a situation in which I must create such work. For me, it has been taking the form of art shows. I create the kind of work that I want because no one is really dictating content, and it gives structure and permission to do so. But whatever form the structure takes, make sure that it leaves you free to create the work that you want to keep creating.