Category Shop Talk

Images Matter, Now More than Ever

 

image library
The visuals that represent your brand can easily communicate your values, your assets, and what you offer. In the case of a community health clinic, it’s quality, human-centered healthcare where patients (no matter their age) feel empowered.

 

Building an image library is a top priority for any brand that wants to tell their story effectively and connect with their target audience.

You likely already know that quality, relevant, custom images are no longer a ‘nice to have’. Your content—specifically, your visual content—is your advertising.

In short: Your visuals are your brand.

The gatekeepers are gone and you—the independent businessperson, the marketing professional—are in charge of your own media channels.

Remember Spider-Man: With great power comes great responsibility.

All of the digital tools, many free or nearly so, are at your fingertips. Are you purposefully telling the story of your brand: what you do, why you do it, what sets you apart?  Or are you hoping that your haphazard efforts will cause others to automatically ‘get’ you?

If you’re using someone else’s images, words or campaigns, then you’re not telling your own unique story. You’re in the best position to do so.

Cutting through the Noise
People react and connect with authenticity. A stock image isn’t likely to make anyone sit up and take notice, but a real moment, whether shot on an iPhone or a Hasselblad that costs more than your car.

What you Need When you Need it
Content marketing is built on consistently delivering targeted content that is on-brand and on-message. Having an image library means you’ve always got good content that can work for your purposes. Without one, your marketing is going to be less consistent, less frequent and less impactful.

image library
A custom stock image, taken with your people and at your place of business, is specific to your brand.

Gives Structure and Meaning
Having a plan for your visuals and keeping your brand story in mind automatically provides a structure and gives purpose to your photo shoots. Instead of floundering you’ll be producing relevant content that’s meaningful to your brand and useful for the forseeable future.

What are your Seasons?
Every business has seasons. Periods of high or low volume. Cycles of growth and cycles of maintenance. Holidays. When are your seasons? When do you tend to get new clients, and why? When do you tend to be focused on new initiatives and what external events can you build content to match?

image library
Having a plan that extends for months or a year is helpful when targeting activities and processes to photograph before you miss them. Harvest only comes once a year.

Evergreen Content
A good image library has a mix of content which may include video as well as still images. Some is very specific for a campaign, a product, a season, or a person or team. Other images are more ‘evergreen’, meaning they can be used any time of year or perhaps for years to come. They are classic and timeless. Chief among these are……

….Details
Get lots of details. These are the visual metaphors that may punctuate a blog post or marketing piece in a more powerful way than can otherwise be done. These give a sense of your point but allow the audience to fill in the blanks. They aren’t specific to a person, a time, or a location and designers (web and print) love them because of their versatility and timelessness.
image library

Imperfect Shots and Unscripted Moments
I’m not suggesting that the only way you can build an image library is by hiring a professional photographer (like me or my ilk) or spending all of your time producing elaborate photo shoots. A carefully-managed, well thought-out campaign will include professionally-produced content where appropriate and will have a place for less-scripted, less technically perfect images taken by you, your staff, others in your organization, clients, or the public. Depending on your brand, this may be necessary. There should be a place for both.

Less is More
I love crafted, long-form films and videos. The reality is, even if Martin Scorcese produced your video, if it’s longer than three minutes I’d have a hard time watching it. One minute would be better. In fact, video snippets are sometimes the best of all. These short blurbs may get more engagement than longer ones and can be easily done, leading to more consistent content over time. So do video…but keep it super short, as in this behind-the-scenes clip that shows one of the hazards in making custom wooden baseball bats:

 

Behind the Scenes
Show us visuals that takes us places we wouldn’t normally go.  Show us the secret sauce that makes it all work in your organization:  the team members, the interactions, the tools, the back warehouse.  Show us how the sausage is made, showing the care and the humanity that go into a great product or service.

image library
Another image from a custom baseball bat maker’s shop, where custom wooden ‘blanks’ line the walls, with hand-written notes on each one. This kind of detail tells a lot about the quality and care that goes into each finished product.

Faces, People!
People love to see other people. Show them faces. If you make a product or sell a service, show us the faces and lives of the people whose lives are improved by your brand. Show us what your brand means reflected in the faces of your fans, customers, clients, or even your team members.

image library

Keep it Real
If your job is to promote your brand or company, then you can get caught up in your product or service features. Instead, let your visuals show your people, your products, your brand, out in the real world. That’s the one the rest of us inhabit. Some brands seem to lend themselves to this sort of approach, like Nike, but even law firms, hospitals, and others can do this. They just may have to be a bit more creative and less obvious–exactly the criteria needed to create interest and connection.

Five Clicks: Tools for Keeping on Track

 

Being an independent photography professional or content creator is a great, amazing, beautiful thing.

Except when it isn’t.

When you first start as a photographer or designer, it’s like falling in love with a beautiful/handsome other person. Everything is great, and when you’re with that person, time seems to stand still.  Then you get married, and the relationship matures, and as wonderful as it is to spend time together, you also can’t help but notice that the dishes are piled up, the bills need to be paid and the in-laws are coming to visit, again.

If every day could be spent behind the lens while getting a ride with the Blue Angels or documenting a religious festival in the mountains of Catalonia, it would be like that spouse that never gets old, gets angry or challenges you in any way.  But the reality of marriage and of creative careers is that 80 percent of it is the ‘unsexy’ stuff—in the case of content creation it’s the production work, marketing and other tasks that keep the lights on—that makes the other 20 percent possible.

The problem is, it’s hard to stay focused and on track when the tasks are not so fun.  That’s why I love tools that make my job easier, are useful and help keep my animal brain on track. When my willpower or my resolve falters, I just let these pieces of software guide the way:

Activity Timer (iOS and Mac)
This is a very simple custom timer app that allows you to specify and save time blocks of custom length for various activities, and a custom “success” message. I know by experience that 90 minutes is about the longest I can focus on any given task, so most of my time sprints are anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour and a half. I have a stand-up desk and I use this tool to remind me to sit down and stand about every 20 minutes throughout my workday in front of the computer.

Trello (Web, Android, IOS, Mac, PC)
I’ve used Trello for at least 4 years. In that time, I’ve found other project management tools but the ‘kanban’ style visual drag-and-drop interface always brings me back. I use it to set up various ‘workflows’ relating to client work, my sales pipeline, and even for my editorial calendar. It’s great for collaborating between teams, too. Using this tool for my work ensures that I keep track of a lot of moving pieces in a consistent way.

Todoist (Web, Android, IOS, Mac, PC)
This is about the 1,000th ‘to do’ app I’ve tried, but at this point it’s won the award for longevity. It’s very simple to use and can interpret deadlines from text (i.e., ‘in two weeks’, or ‘next January 1’) easily. I use it all the time….and I like the way it gamifies item completion—the more you complete, the more ‘karma’ you earn and the more enlightened you become. One of these days, I’ll be a Grandmaster. But not today.

Routinist (iOS, Android soon)
I’m fascinated by the idea of creating good habits (and getting rid of negative ones) by ritualizing them into a routine that you perform daily until they become deeply ingrained. This little app helps create and define routines based on a sequence of actions and habits that, once triggered, run in sequence until they are complete. I’ve used this app to change the way I approach my morning routine.

Streak CRM (Web, IOS, Android)
This software is a CRM (which stands for “customer relationship management” tool) which is a fancy way of saying that it is used for sales, projects, leads, and anything else related to your clients.  It’s capable of far more.  I use it to do project management, sales and client pipelines in situations where most communications are email conversation-based. First I define the stages of a pipeline and also set up email templates for some of the stages. I then create a box for each new client/story/item/lead and move it through each stage of the pipeline until done. It saves me a lot of time but more importantly, Streak is a powerful way to stay consistent on predefined processes built around email. In fact, it’s designed to be used exclusively with gmail, and it operates inside your email browser.   If you’re a gmail or Google apps user, Streak is worth checking out.  It’s particularly powerful for teams, including editors, journalists and bloggers. It allows you to schedule and track emails as well.

I hope you enjoy these tools—and more importantly, find them useful for keeping your own messy business life on track. Hopefully, that unsexy stuff just got a little more sexy.

My Five: Awesome Mobile Apps For Photographers

In ‘My Five’ I write about five tools, tips, books or other resources I’m excited about sharing.  Enjoy!

More and more these days, I run my business on the go—from my phone, specifically.

These are a few of the iOS phone apps that I use on a regular basis in my photography business:

Photo Editing

mobile apps

Snapseed by Google – Perfect for quick edits of iPhone images before posting on social media. Is quick, intuitive and does a great job. The price—free—is nice too.

 

 

 

Location Scouting

mobile appsMap a Pic – Great for establishing a digital archive of scouted locations, especially for a landscape or portrait photographer looking to have a ready catalog of possible shoot locations. It also gives ‘sun insights’ that provide precise times for dawn, golden hour, night, etc. Note: the developer’s site appears to be down, but the app in the Apple App Store has been recently updated.

 

 

mobile appsSun Seeker  – This is a very cool app that shows you the sun’s position in the sky at any location and any time of day in the future. The useful part is that you can point your phone at a scene and an overlay will appear over the live view, showing you the path the sun will take through the sky.

 

 

 

Timers, remote releases

mobile appsCam Ranger – One of my favorite tools for triggering my camera remotely, doing time exposures and multiple exposures. Using my phone, I can change my camera settings, including ISO, and trigger remotely, then view the images on my phone. It’s a great, complete, versatile triggering solution especially useful for landscape, wildlife, architecture and real estate photographers. The app is free, but the Cam Ranger device will set you back a couple hundred bucks.

 

 

General/Workflow

mobile appsToo many to list here, but I’ll mention one: Evernote Evernote is a free app with a paid subscription option. It allows me to take notes, but I use it to create lighting recipes for repeat clients, to create packing lists for shoots, for keeping track of projects, contacts, write blog posts and to compile information I’m researching. This app is probably my most indispensable daily-use app.

 

 

You’ve probably got some go-to apps as well for your creative or photography work.  What are your favorites?

 

Check out my work at my Fitzgerald Photo website or on Inspire Maine.

Light modifiers: why shape does (and doesn’t) matter

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What’s better:   a light modifier with a square shape, or one with a circular shape?

This question is one I’ve thought about a lot.  I’m guessing most other photographers have, too .   If you’ve shopped for light modifiers you’ve encountered a bazillion light mods that fall predominantly into just two types:  round or square-isn.  Round modifiers would include things like  umbrellas, octaboxes and beauty dishes.  Square or rectangular-shaped modifiers are things like softboxes, reflectors, scrims and light panels.

Photo gear and marketing hype go hand in hand.   But for me there are just a couple of factors that determine which shape of modifier I’ll choose for a shoot.   Number one is the effect of the catchlight in my subject’s eyes.  I prefer a round catchlight—maybe just a subconscious preference for a light source shaped like the sun.   If I were simulating an open doorway or the light from a window, a softbox would be my choice instead.

There are a bunch of other, secondary considerations when choosing a modifier that are partly determined by the shape of the modifier but also by the material and construction of the modifier itself.   For example, I determine the quality of light I want: directional and harsh, with very well-defined areas of light and shadow; or soft, diffuse, enveloping.   To get the effect I want, I’m less worried about the shape of the modifier than by the size of the light modifier relative to the subject (the larger, the softer and more diffuse) and the construction of the modifier (a grid will focus the light, or a modifier with multiple layers of diffusion material will soften it).  For me, the shape only becomes a factor when I want to control the light precisly and thus I might use a square softbox rather than an octabox because I want the light to have a more defined fall-off or edge.

You can find descriptions of the effects of different light modifiers, but one of my favorite write-ups is this one by light guru Paul C. Buff.

Who needs a light meter?

Hand_Meter_Fitzgerald

 

Back in the film days, a light meter was the most ubiquitous piece of equipment found in the bag of any respectable photographer.  For years I carried a Gossen Luna Star Pro, which measured ambient and strobe light as well.   It served me faithfully until finally, a duct-tape-covered horror with parts hastily soldered back together, it gave up the ghost.

I never replaced it.

I can’t remember the last time I’ve used (or really needed to use) a light meter.   Plenty of professionals use them still—in particular in situations where proper exposure is critical, such as studio and product shoots.   There are times when having one would make my life easier, perhaps…..But I’ll admit it: I don’t use hand-held light meters.  The closest I get is using the built-in meter in my DSLR camera.   It serves me well as a starting point when measuring light in reflected light situations.

The built-in meter of a DSLR camera does the best job when the subject is uniformly lit and comprised of tones with a medium reflective value.   But let’s be honest—how often is that the case?   More likely, you’re photographing someone in a dark coat in the snow, or someone in a white T-shirt with dark woods or a shadowy doorway behind them.  These are situations that will seriously fool with your built-in sensor and give incorrect exposure readings.

That’s why so many photographers use a gray card to determine exposure.    A gray card is nothing more than a piece of fabric or cardboard that has a gray surface on one side and usually a white surface on the other.   The gray side reflects 18% of the light that hits it.   Your camera’s meter is calibrated to view a gray card as a neutral (middle) tone, halfway been white and black.   Thus if you take a meter reading while pointing your camera at a gray card, you’ll get a reading that you can then apply to your real subject under the same lighting conditions.     Next time you’re shooting a person standing in the middle of a snowy field, whip out your gray card, point your lens at the card (filling the frame with the card) and take a reading.   Then manually set your camera to match those same settings, recompose your shot with your actual subject, and fire away.  You may not get a perfect exposure, but you’ll be close in most situations.

What do you do if you don’t have a gray card, or if you’re in the middle of a location where it’s difficult to use one?   Easy.   That’s when I use my tried-and-true photojournalist trick:   I stick out my hand, palm upturned and fingers together, and use that as my gray card.   The skin on your hand isn’t gray, but it will provide a reading close to the proper exposure.   I’ve found that opening up my exposure by a half or full stop produces great results.

Showcase: Portland Pirates Ad Campaign

A few months ago I had the fun duty of shooting a series of images for an ad campaign for the Portland Pirates hockey club.  The campaign, “A Pirate’s Life for Me”, features former Pirates players and current junior Pirates in split-view, in street clothes and in their hockey gear, game faces on.   I worked with the crew at Pulp & Wire to create the images, which I photographed in my downtown Portland photo studio.   I love how completely the demeanor and look of each player changed so dramatically once the pads and helmets went on.  I asked Pirates CEO and former player Brad Church, bottom, to show his game face during the session and he clearly had no problems doing that.  I’m just glad I wasn’t a player on the opposing team.

 

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Introducing: The Main(e) Light Workshop

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I’m proud to announce the dates for my first-ever Main(e) Light Workshops .    This workshop series is focused on an area that many photographers struggle with:  using electronic flash on location.  It’s my attempt to cut through the hype around specific gear and to teach the skills that photographers can put to immediate use when creating portfolio work or meeting a deadline for a paying client.   It’s practical, it’s hands-on and it’s set up to allow (encourage) tangential topics—how best to approach assignments for clients, how to organize and optimize your workflow, etc.— as they come up in relation to the work.  But let’s not kid ourselves: the work is first and foremost.

 

The first workshop, Speedlight Bootcamp, is built around the off-camera flashes that today can cost as much as a decent studio head.   The second is on location (in a very cool Maine setting) and combines a variety of studio and off-camera flashes with ambient (mostly sun) light to create spectacular effects.   For that one, we’ll roll with the weather and take a studied, and at times seat-of-the-pants approach to lighting to produce amazing images.

 

The Main(e) Light Workshop has been in the works for a year or more.  In a way,  I’ve been preparing for it my whole career.  I learned from a great many others in my field when I started out in journalism.  From Tim Rogers to Paul O’Neill to Brad Armstrong (to many others), I’ve learned about being patient, how to really connect with people and how to read light.  This workshop is my chance to help others succeed and grow in much the same way.   I’ve taught other seminars over the years, but never an intensive set of workshops quite like the Main(e) Light Workshop.  My plan is for each photographer to leave with the tools they need to create interesting portraits with the gear they can afford.   It may take years to master electronic light, but this workshop will give anyone a big boost in the right direction.

So please check out the lineup.  Tell me what you think, ask me questions.  And if you sign up, welcome.  It’s going to be a great ride.

 

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Make them love you. Hint: it’s in the details.

 

Storytellilng detail images from an assignment about a local water district.
Storytelling detail images from an assignment about a local water district.

 

No photographer is an island. We own our creativity but everything else—our technology, our access, our assignments—are enabled by others.  Even our creativity is enhanced by our collaboration with the art producers, editors and designers with whom we work most closely.  These are the folks that take the work we create and publish it, display it, print it and turn it into amazing displays, stories and campaigns.

Without them, we’re just shooting cool photos and sharing them on Facebook.

I try to approach each assignment as if I were back at the newspaper. Even if the assignment was to make a single simple portrait, I went into each job thinking about what else I might photograph. Back then, I challenged myself to come back with a three-picture package that told the story and might give the page designers more options. I always looked for storytelling details to include, too.  That approach gave the designers the ability to use images as teasers on the front page, for example. Sometimes designers used none of it.  Months down the road, looking for a timeless detail image to illustrate a different story, they’d see my image and  find it a perfect fit. This storytelling approach challenged me creatively, led to better visual play and better designer/editor kharma that I’m hoping will benefit me in my next life. It’s something I still do today, reflexively.

The editorial assignment photographer needs to always look for telling details. Sometimes these visual metaphors are more compelling, more storytelling than the ‘main’ image itself. In commercial photography, these types of details are just as important. In an era when companies have greater ability to publish content on their sites, there’s an even greater need for storytelling details that can be used as evergreen content, on company blogs and in ad campaigns.

Details also come in handy for designers who need a key visual element, or require ‘filler’ content, etc. These details solve a lot of visual problems. Having a photographer who actively looks for them is a big win because it gives the designer options.

The thinking photographer who goes the extra mile for their editor or designer will be the go-to photographer for those people. Realize that the assignment isn’t just about the image being requested, just as your job is not solely about you.

 

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Friday Clicks: My favorite (light) modifiers

A brief disclaimer here:  light modifiers are about personal preference and taste and vary wildly from photographer to photographer.  Natch.  There are stylistic and situational reasons why a person would choose a circular-shaped modifier (like an octabox or a beauty dish) over a square-shaped light one (like a softbox).   What it boils down to is this: The size of your light modifier relative to your subject is the biggest determiner of the quality of your light (soft, harsh, dramatic, etc).  It has less to do with things like the reflective material used, shape or the brand name (or lack of one) that graces the modifier’s exterior.

With that caveat, here are five of the most oft-used light modifiers in my arsenal.  I shoot with speedlights and studio monolights–sometimes together–so these modifiers are a bit varied as a result.

1-Photek Softlighter II.  If it were socially acceptable and/or legal, I’d marry this lovely piece of gear.  As it is, it goes everywhere with me.  It produces glowing, wrap-around light, produces great catchlights and then folds down basically into an umbrella.  It’s inexpensive but looks the same as an octabox many times its cost.   I keep several on hand because they tend to be fragile.

2–Gary Fong Lightsphere.  This $10 peice of plastic has been kicking around in my bag forever and is much abused.  They get a bad rap from some photographers who think they’re cheesy, and candidly I never really liked walking around with this huge white thing sticking to my flash.  But I love it as an even light spreader when using speedlights to light up a room or doorway in the background, or even as a very close-in direct light mod for a portrait in, say, a sunset situation.  If you gaffer tape the outside, it can turn into a pretty effective snoot, especially if you put a grid over the front of it.

3–Honl Kit.   This kit is really a bunch of little pieces of gear I throw into a bag.  It includes a bunch of the velcro speed straps, a filter correction kit (which I use all. the. time.), a couple of grids, gobos and snoot.   This is perfect when doing portrait work and I put it into play when shooting interior spaces as well.

4--22″ beauty dish.  I love the light produced by beauty dishes and I have both a silver one (for outside daylight shots) and a white one (this one, by FTX lighting tools) for indoors.   The light is very directional with very even illumination, is extremely stable on breezy days outdoors and is tough.  If you put it in close, you get amazing softness with a little drama.  Move it out and you’ve got dramatic tasty light. .

5–Lastolite Triflector MKII reflector.  This is really a set of three reflectors in one, each with white and silver (or gold) sides.  They are triangular in shape and are great when you need to get a wrap-around reflection for a portrait.   With a stand they can be mounted anywhere and can produce reflections from multiple angles at once.   It’s kind of like having a tiny little photo assistant with you wherever you go whose only job is to hold reflectors and make your subjects look good.   I use this tool on too many assignments to count.

 

5 keys to success for photographers (Hint: it’s not about gear)

When I was first transitioning from newspaper photographer to commercial photographer, I had a huge ‘Ah-hah!’ moment. I was speaking to Jimmy Smith, a family friend and commercial photographer with 30 years under his belt.  Jimmy told me, flat-out: “You wanna know why only something like four percent of photographers make it in this business? If what we did was about photography, that number would be higher.”

Profound words that I’ve never forgotten. This, coming from a talented photographer who is truly an artist, and who works with global corporate and publishing brands.

Jimmy was speaking to the intangible, unsexy parts of the photography business (or any business). Behind the scenes of any successful venture, you’ll find the folks practicing certain habits and principles which have nothing to do with the widgets they sell or the service they actually provide.

As a former photo editor and a photographer who makes his living making images, I’m approached by students and others aspiring to make a living with their passion. As an outsider it’s easy to see whether they are heading towards success or retreating from it. In my opinion, it all boils down to good habits in a few areas (this ain’t rocket science). Successful photographers:

Show Up — I’m amazed at how often people don’t show up—for mixers, workshops, for meetings and other opportunities available to them.  When they do show up, they aren’t prepared to put their best foot forward. I’ve gotten a lot of work because I simply was the guy who showed up, was present and presentable.

Follow Up — When anyone contacts me for a internship, a job, or feedback, I do what I can to help. I may have to put them off for a short while until I can give my full attention. I’ll put the ball in their court by asking them to email or call me in a week, or to send their thoughts about what they really want, etc. Simple stuff. I do this because time is limited, and also partly to test how committed they really are. Less than 20 percent actually follow back up with me. My current full-time assistant, Charlie Widdis, certainly wasn’t the only USM student I’ve offered to help. But he is the only one who responded, made an appointment, and then followed up later. That led to me hiring him as an assistant and eventually my full-time employee.

Follow Through — When I was coming up, I’d show my work to trusted photographers and if they gave me direct and pointed advice, you’d better believe I made appropriate changes. More recently, I worked with business coach Mandy Schumaker. She helped me work through a plan to make my business stronger. I wasn’t always prepared to do what she suggested at the time, but I noted everything and in the year or so since I’ve ticked off many of the items we agreed on. This speaks to the ability to follow through—on a project, on a difficult assignment or on a relationship that needs to be cultivated (they all do).

Show Gratitude — This is a big one. I’m everything in this career because of those who have gone before me or who have lent a helping hand when I most needed it. Brad Armstrong taught me how to do location lighting. Paul O’Neil taught me to be a better assignment photographer. Rick Wiley taught me to be a better photo editor. I’m grateful to them for the photographer I have become. I’m also thankful to the many people who agree to participate in project work that I do when they don’t have to. I’m grateful to my amazing, awesome clients who trust me and continue to do so. In fact, I should be thanking people more than I do. When I receive thank-yous—whether email or hand-written note—it feels great.

Know it’s Not About Them — We all struggle with this one. The work of photographers is personal, creative and requires a point of view. But if all you know is photography, you’re in a pretty small place. It’s lonely being a photo monk sacrificing all to the photo gods. When you’re talking to clients or others, quit talking about yourself, your gear and your job. Listen. Ask about them. It’s. Not. About. You.

I have to work at each of these areas just like everyone does. What’s clear to me is that when I follow my own advice, I do well. When I don’t, well…I don’t. As Mandy likes to say, “How you do anything is how you do everything.”

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