Last week, fStoppers.com published an article by a very talented Canadian shooter named Ryan Cooper. The article was titled “Why being pickier will make you a better photographer.”
The article reminded me of a presentation that I’ve been doing variations of for almost ten years. It’s titled The Art of Seeing: Success in Photography is in the Details. I have done this talk for camera clubs and photography organizations and I’ve taught a credited college course on the topic (those kids are almost done with their therapy by now).
It’s a talk that delves into some of the science behind creativity and all the reasons we take bad photos – like the beginner mistake of photographing someone with a flag pole growing out of their head. There is actually a scientific reason why we do that, and why we don’t notice the flag pole. It’s called inattentional blindness. You can Google it.
And now you should all feel a little better about all the times you made that mistake. It’s not because you suck at photography – it’s because you are human.
So what does the science of why we take bad photographs have to do with details? EVERYTHING!! The solution to overcoming our human shortcomings as photographers is paying close attention to the details. And believe me – that is MUCH easier said than done.
I see too many new and young photographers -and heck even a lot of old photographers- just wade in a sea of mediocrity and frustration because their photography isn’t improving or because they can’t shoot as good as some guy on YouTube. So what do they do? Some become bitter and sour on the art of photography hence: SOURtographers. Others spend thousands of dollars in pursuit of that new piece of gear that will make them a star. They are the GEARtographers. Yet others, they struggle with anxiety and fear of failure and in the quest to avoid failure, they become the TECHtographers.
As Ryan pointed out in his article, the great shooters are never complacent. They don’t accept “good enough” as an acceptable metric of their work. Being picky is what drives them and elevates their work. What are they picky about? The best of the best are picky about everything, but all the greats share a common thread – they are picky about the details.
What details? ALL the details.
Understand that being picky – or paying attention to the details – is both a skill and a mindset. Paying attention to details is not easy for everyone. Some people have to work much harder at it than others. It’s kind of like those annoying people who can find Waldo in 10 seconds and then everyone else is ready to pull their hair out after staring at the picture for ten minutes.
Much like everything else in photography – and life for that matter – if you are not willing to put in the hard work and develop these skills, it’s just not gonna happen then.
The Importance of Prepwork
So for me… attention to detail begins with realizing that since I am human and struggle with the details because of things like Intentional Blindness and Change Blindness and a whole host of other cognitive psychology facts…. I need to prep… that’s only four letters but it covers a really wide territory.
Prep starts with knowing your gear. When you get in your car to drive somewhere – you don’t think about “How do I drive the car?” Heck, if you pick up a screwdriver you rarely think beyond righty tighty- lefty loosey. Yet, so many photographers don’t know their gear without thinking about it and continually find themselves in a position during a shoot, trying to figure out why something is happening with their camera.
Now I know you have heard me talk about knowing your gear before – but what does it have to do with details? If you are fumbling with your gear during a shoot- you are not able to pay attention to the details. Google Mindfulness.
Picking a Subject
I’ll come back to prep again in a few minutes – but let’s address one thing that Ryan listed and that is to be picky about your subject. In Ryan’s article, he takes a very politically correct approach to this subject but you know me. Let me just say that the way it works is crap in, crap out. If you think your model is beautiful, understand that part of your perception is based upon your experience with that person. If you want your work to be the best, you select subjects based on the science and human perception of beauty. Believe me, in the advertising world, they pay great attention to how humans perceive beauty. That information holds heavy influence over the selection of models for advertising. As Ryan points out, this applies to pretty much every genre of photography. A great photographer can indeed make any situation interesting, but they will make it spectacular if they are aiming their camera at a spectacular subject. So they are picky about where they aim their camera.
Working with a model
Models are people too. And without the model or subject – you have no photo. So understand that this business of photographing people is a relationship game. If you don’t care about other people and you don’t play well with others, you will have a hard time with this. Photographers who do not interact and show interest in their subjects as people have a hard time creating images with relaxed and happy subjects.
Building a team
In addition to being picky about what or who they shoot, great photographers – especially in the people photography space – need to surround themselves with a great team- Hair and makeup people and assistants if needed. That requires building relationships with people who you can trust and who share your creative vision. Understand that these helpers have a dramatic impact on the final look and feel of your work and as a result they have a serious impact on your style and the consistency of your style. As Ryan points out, clients want a predictable outcome. They want to see a style and consistency in your work that tells them what they can expect for their money.
I routinely hear photographers discussing shortcomings in their photographs by blaming the subject or the makeup artist. The subject brought the wrong clothes or the makeup artist did a bad job. STOP doing that. Nobody made you press the shutter. Once you take the photo, you lose the right to blame someone or something else for your shortcomings – especially if you were dumb enough to show off the photo.
Great photographers pay attention to details and don’t shoot things that don’t look good – they fix the problem before they press the shutter. In those situations where they fall short of their goals, they don’t show the photo to the world and they definitely do not place blame on someone else.
As Ryan points out, we live in a social media era where you are rewarded for more volume – but nowhere is it written that that is a rule. You have routinely heard me explain that you can look like a rockstar with 5 photos or a hack with 10. Keep your portfolio small, and don’t think that showing every photo you take will make you look good. Heck, even showing one photo from every shoot that you do is going to lower the perceived quality of your work. You want to WOW people.
For me, the key to making sure that a model or makeup artist doesn’t bring my shoot down is my prep. I plan in advance for every little detail – everything that I want to go right and for everything that might go wrong. I plan for the best and anticipate the worst. Yes, this takes time and effort and it definitely is not as much fun as shooting, but all of the effort and detail that goes into planning – and I am talking OCD level planning – it insures that I walk onto a set with my model and I have created a perfect storm. I have everything just the way I want it or like it and now I can turn my attention, that mindfulness part, to my subject – and that is exactly where it belongs while I am shooting.
My prep begins when I schedule my shoot. After a model agrees to a shoot date – the first question I ask if it is a female model – is that an ok time of the month for you to be shooting – because I want you to feel your best. You may think that is an awkward conversation to have with a girl who is young enough to be my daughter – not really. It is an honest concern and I am routinely thanked for thinking about it because they will routinely overlook it. I cover everything from clothing selection and to how to iron and hang it before coming to the studio. Heck, I even remind my models to get a good night’s sleep before the shoot and make it clear I won’t photograph them if they walk into my studio tired from a night of partying. I remind them about breakfast, tell them what to wear to the shoot. If I am shooting body wear or nudes, I don’t want my model wearing underwear with elastic, otherwise I will be retouching a lot of lines afterwards.
I always have my lighting planned for my first two or three shots of the day. This way, I am able to ease into the shoot and really focus on my subject and my interaction while shooting. If I am experimenting with something new, I will test it out a day or so in advance so that I have more confidence going in and so that I am not fumbling my way through it while I have a subject in front of my camera.
While I am actually shooting is where mindfulness becomes the biggest challenge. That’s because when I have the camera in my hand and a subject in front of me, I have to multi-task. I have to keep my subject engaged, I have to pay attention to camera settings, lighting, and the details that are in front of my camera. Is the hair in place? Is the clothing wrinkled? Is a collar folded up? Is the bikini or bra strap twisted? How about the body language – does it look awkward? This can sometimes feel overwhelming. This is why I am OCD about my prep. The more of these potential issues that I can solve BEFORE I shoot, the less I have to deal with WHEN I shoot.
Reviewing and building your visual database
Throughout my career I have made it a point to go back and review past shoots with an eye towards what I can do better. How can I improve it? There is always room for improvement. Remember: never accept “good enough”.
Now you may be wondering how going back through your work helps improve your ability to see details. In my opinion, it is the key to learning and improving your ability to see details. Remember that mindfulness part? We are so used to multitasking – some people even brag about their ability to do so – but the fact is, humans do not multi-task well – period. So in real time when you are planning a shoot or actually doing a shoot, you work very hard to see those details. And the way you really build your ability to overcome those human deficiencies like intentional blindness and change blindness is to build your visual database.
A photographer’s visual database is his or her collection of photography experience. It’s that thing that makes experience more valuable than knowledge. As a teenager I photographed the egg and I figured out that if I put my light source too close to my subject I got harsh shadows – even with a large modifier. I figured this out long before I knew what the inverse square law was.
Your visual database is built with practice and it’s built with experimentation, but it is wired together and made searchable by taking the time to review your work. Not 30 seconds after you shoot. But days, weeks or better yet months or years after you shoot. Reviewing your work when there is no pressure – no distractions – when you are focused on one thing allows the details of what went into your shots and what the outcome was to become clearer. This is how you teach yourself to see the details and more importantly to see them in real time and to see them consistently.
I struggled with twisted bikini straps much longer than I should have. It might have had something to do with the sexy girl in the bikini… but I can’t blame it on her. I started to make it a self-imposed rule that if I made that mistake, I would take the time to fix it in photoshop. Do that a few times and you will never miss a twisted strap again.
Okay, hopefully you can understand the importance of details. The need to pay attention and to develop your skills – not just with your camera or lighting but with your ability to be picky. If I may quote Ryan Cooper: “accept nothing but the best that you can possibly create, for it is in that space where truly magical work is created” And to quote myself… put in the hard work and don’t be afraid to suck!
I hope you found this information useful. Now go pick up that camera and shoot something! Because – “Your BEST shot is your NEXT shot!” — Joe Edelman