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Saturday, September 08, 2012

Success as a Photographer - How?

When the client demands an image and it presents a myriad of problems, can you still create it?
This cover of Australian Traveller required sunshine on a rainy Melbourne day.
The client doesn't care how you get it...just get it.
The client wants a sunrise, but there isn't one. The photographer
needs to impress. Can he create a sunrise when there isn't one?
I would imagine that the world holds 7 billion creative souls - or thereabouts. In saying this, I mean that all of us are creative in one way or another. It is designed in us. Its part of being human. We each express that creativity in different ways. Music, architecture, the visual arts, sculpture - and the many other means of personal expression that we are given in this life. Some are creative in a variety of ways, able to express our inner person through separate and distinct forms of art. Me? Well, I chose to channel my creative expression through the medium of photography. While I have devoted my creative time to that form of expression to enhance its success as a career, I have also spent much time expressing myself musically, although with much less success in terms of its creative outcome and none whatsoever as a career. This was my choice, and the time I am given in this life to be creative has been spent in photography. It had to be the case, as it became the form of employment that would feed my family.

We are all creative, but to succeed in creation we need to understand the science of each type of art. Musicians study the differences in sound between types of materials used for their instruments, the combinations of them, the size and build of their instruments. They study the mathematics of music and the relationships between keys and chords, melodies and harmonies. Sculptors study the grain and colour of wood and stone and the instruments they use to carve their imaginings into them. The list goes on. But this academic study of their art enables each of them to create in art form what ebbs and flows within them as a desire of expression.

In the many years I have spent teaching photography, I have often said that photography is about 5% creativity and 95% problem solving. The creativity flows naturally and uniquely within each of us. But the ability to make an image happen is only borne in the ability to see what is needed in terms of tools and techniques and the employment of them in the creative process.

While on a recent shoot for Stile220, a boutique fashion outlet in Melbourne's upmarket district of South Yarra, problem solving was 100% of the shoot, as the almost 'conveyor belt' nature of the photography required little, if any, creativity. We needed to shoot as many clothes on a mannequin as we could in the time my client's budget could afford. (Yes, building a website and adding hundreds of images to it can be a costly thing and photography is up there in the costs.) The shoot required that we set up a portable studio in the back of the shop itself and shoot clothing against a pure white backdrop. The last thing that either Tash or myself wanted to do was shoot first and fix later. It had to be as right as it could be in the camera. This also meant that we could confidently reveal to the customer the professionalism he expected to see on the backs of our cameras. There is little use in telling a customer "Look, it doesn't look so good here, but imagine it when I have fixed it!" 

A quick capture of the setup as taken with the iPhone,
and before the flashheads were elevated.
Any photographer knows that producing a pure white background in camera is not easy, and getting that established on the first night of the shoot required some real problem solving skills, considering that we were working in a very confined space. We tried two softboxes, evenly spaced across the narrow white backdrop, and it was relatively successful but inverse square laws  made the clothing very bright on the edge and a little muddy in the middle. So I thought to remove the softboxes altogether and simply bounce the light off the white ceiling. Now, the light was too bright on the top of the mannequins and too dark in the middle and closer towards the floor. So my wife came up with the 'reflector protector' idea. Essentially, we attached a large Lastolite reflector on top of two light stands and placed the flash heads higher than them so that the reflector would not actually catch any direct flash. There was about a 40cm gap between the white roll backdrop and the reflector. So, when the flash fired, the light hit the ceiling, came through the gap and bounced around merrily within the area of the white paper floor and the white reflector ceiling above the mannequin. The backdrop? A perfect, even white from top to bottom.

Voila! That done, the rest of the shoot was 'f11 and be there'.

The resulting evenness of the lighting, and about ten seconds of Lighroom
On the second night of the shoot,we simply set up the same system and shot away, taking dozens of images for our clients - each one consistently illuminated with an even white backdrop from top to bottom. The 'blinkies' on the back of the camera made sure of this. The items of clothing had texture and colour and even the white shirts stood out against the white backdrop - something which many photographers struggle to achieve in camera. 

Yes, successful photography is found in your ability to solve problems, not create pretty pictures in your head and then hope they turn out. If you are a photographer and you are reading this, ask yourself  "How much about my craft do I study academically? Do I devote time to understanding the process as much as I do in getting inspiration? If I was asked to do this shoot in this time frame under these conditions, could I have done so in camera?" Do I dream of creating images I am constantly unable to create? 

These are important questions to consider as I am always going to believe that successful photography is 5% creativity and 95% problem solving. The creative part will get your images churning in your heart and in your mind. But the skills to create them are often purely academic.

Its the coldest wedding day ever.....Can you solve the problems?

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The Life, Times and Images of photographer, Shelton Muller

Images on this blog are copyright Shelton Muller