Saturday, February 21, 2009

Tips on discovering your Self-Assignment


Brainstorm to begin the process of identifying and researching your potential self-assignment.

- Make a list of people, places, events or themes you enjoy photographing. Take a look at your shots from the past few months. Note any recurring themes or subjects.

- Don't overlook good visual possibilities around you. Think about family members or friends with interesting hobbies, skills or sports. My students have developed self-assignment from wood workers, skate boarders, music teachers, bike shops, a kite makers and even Civil War re-enactment actors. Checkout local crafts fairs, music festivals or other events on the web or the newspapers.

- Move past the fear of approaching strangers if they could make interesting subjects. I find if you have genuine curiosity about a person's passion they will be more than happy to be photographed.

- Narrow your list to two or three different self-assignments.
Develop "contact notes" That should include your subjects phone numbers, e-mails locations.

Contact your potential subjects consider the following questions:

1. What kind of access can you have? The more time you can spend with your assignment the better the images will be.

2. What are the lighting conditions? Working in good light will allow you to focus on capturing good images.

3. What are the visual possibilities? Are you planning on a simple portrait or is it possible to capture a series of photos?

These questions will help identify your best visual options.

Its always a good idea to let your subject know your building a portfolio and you’d be happy to share photos with them.

So get out there and start shooting! If you’re a professional you’ll find a rekindled passion and if you an amateur you’ll see you’re shooting skills take off.

Here’s a few more of my self-assignment examples.

I was teaching a Photo Workshop in Nashville took a few hours off to test some new light set-ups. I talked with my friend Brennin Hunt who is a Nashville songwriter and performer when I asked if I could do a few test shots he quickly told me he needed some updated promo photography for his manager. To find out more about this amazing songwriter and performer click here.

After the shoot with Brennin we went to the famous Martin’s BBQ in Nolenvilles for some tasty pork sandwiches. Once I entered this local favorite I knew I had to do a few shots.

While on an assignment in Taos New Mexico I took the day off and visited a few local galleries I found Metier Weaving in Dixon south of Taos. I asked the owner if I could capture her while she was working, she agreed, I got a nice available light portrait. Whether I’m working or not I always carry at least one camera with a single lens.

This article, graphics and photography are protected by copyright and may not be reproduced in part or as a whole in any electronic or printed medium without prior permission from the author. Text, graphics and photos by Mike McLean

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Get Creative with Self Assignments


I'm always looking for good visual opportunities whether or not I'm getting paid to shoot. Even when I'm traveling to teach a photo workshop or on a road trip with friends I carry my gear with me and its paid off! Some of my best images were not part of a paying gig. This brings me to the concepts of self-assignments. I think the best way of growing, as a photographer is to develop self-assignments. I learned the concept as a newspaper photographer. Many of the staffers I worked with would have side photo projects. This was a way for over-worked staff photographers working under quick deadlines to avoid total photo burnout. In the world of commercial photography this is called testing. The idea is to find a story, theme or an idea that you have an interest or passion about and shoot it your free time. The self-assignment is something you can have complete freedom to shoot without having to worry about speedy deadlines, photo editors cutting out your favorite images or designing strange crops. They sometimes were published but more often were not. Self-assignments are not just for professionals-they can be helpful to amateurs as well. Doing a bit of research and charting a strategy can improve your chances of getting better images.

While working with a local high school’s Photojournalism class I over heard the students talking about a player they had on the schools basketball team. When I asked for details they told me the amazing story of Dominque Dorsey, a star player who excels despite a partial limb. No one had ever thought about doing a sports portrait of him. You can read a story the Dallas Morning News did here. Of note the story didn’t include an image, I think an assignment editor missed an amazing visual opportunity.

Consider some of the advantages of self-assignments

- Expand your portfolio; I’ve used techniques and idea's I learned on self-assignments when discussing concepts with clients. I have even brought some of those self-assignment images to creative meetings. It shows in a subtle way you have a real passion for what you do.

- Gain confidence in your shooting and people skills; I’ve learned some neat tricks about lots of things while covering a self assignment; dealing with subjects, using unusual angles, lighting with an edge just to name a few. It's always better to make mistakes and learn on your own while covering a self-assignment. Best to be on your top game when someone is paying.

- Flex your creative muscles; with no clients looking over your shoulder and wondering, "I'm paying for this? Or ugh, does this guy know what he's doing. You'll be able to expand your creativity. The more you use your creative eye the easier it will be to access while someone is paying your rate.

- Get a leg up on concept development and assignment planning; an important aspect of being a successful photographer that's never really talked about, (I'll post more on this in future post). Many people have a misconception that a photographer just shows up and start shooting. Most every project I shoot requires a great deal of work before I even pick-up a camera. Contacting the subjects, scouting the locations, working with reporters/clients and doing basic research are just part of the pre shoot work needed to yield the best possible images. The more you understand the work required prior to shooting the more your clients will value you as a photographer.

- Get some paying assignments; As an example, I was teaching a photo workshop in a small downtown area. I asked the students to develop and shoot a photo story along Main Street. The class assignment's goal was to help the students focus with limited time in capturing images, much like a working photojournalist. As I walked up and down Main Street helping with questions I noticed one shop had been overlooked by the student shooters. I decide to shoot a few portraits of the shop owner, only took a few minutes. I gave her my card within a few days I got a call from the owner saying her shop had been featured in a national magazine and the editors wanted to buy my images for publication. Point is you never know where paid projects will come from. I've picked up many paying projects while shooting self-assignments.

Johnny Bryant in her famous cookie shop.

Click here for tips on Developing your Self-Assignment

This article, graphics and photography are protected by copyright and may not be reproduced in part or as a whole in any electronic or printed medium without prior permission from the author. Text, graphics and photos by Mike McLean

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Finding a visual story

Today I completed a project for a new corporate client. The project started off as simple posed images of some of the key leadership people both in a group and singles shots, the client preferred a boardroom…boring as all get out. I do accept project like this from time to time, if my book is open as a freelancer its hard to turn down work. Typically a project like this is about a day or day and half worth of shooting. The client wanted images that could be used on the company website, for a wall display as well as short slide show they planned to show in the lobby to potential customers who were waiting.

I requested a pre-shoot concept meeting, which is very important when working with a new client (more on that in future post). During the meeting with the marketing directors I proposed shooting images that told the visual story of the people behind the services that were provided to customers, not just photographing the big cheeses in a boardroom. We talked about shooting the leadership team in more casual approachable way. Because of my background in photojournalism I'm always looking for ways of telling stories and this concept seemed like a no brainer for me. I often find when working with new clients it up to me to educate them with how I work best and my shooting style. I always find a way/angle to use my skills that can best serve those who are paying my rate. The marketing dept agreed to the shift in concept, less formal images and more of a documentary style. This expanded my role from one day of photography to four days. The client saw real value in the concepts and like me left the meeting excited about the photography we were planning.

Because we had a fast approaching deadline that meant getting started right away and moving very quickly. This is the type of photography I'm accustom to. I call " hit and run photography" you show up unannounced spend a few moments getting the basis jest of what the subject does and began shooting. In some cases shooting in natural light in other situations using only small flashes. In an ideal world I would have spent more time getting to know my subjects and working with the light more. A basic rule is the more time you spend with a subject or on a story the better the images will be. This situation was not ideal. Being a photographer means thinking on your feet. This is a large company with over 3000 employees with many different departments. It's not at all possible to photograph every one and all departments. I spent most of my shooting days shooting very general shots of each the predetermined departments and capturing what is called environmental portraits. In this situation that means basically showing up and shooting the employees right where they are, no quick trips to "check make up", no "let me put this on" no hair adjustments just simple and quick images.

Now that the project has been delivered, the client is very happy with the results and has even mentioned how important the pre-shoot meeting was for them. She said it helped her understand the importance of a clear direction for any project. I always find those clear honest meeting can be the difference between a successful shoot and a shoot where the photos just get the job done. I'm happy because I was able to get a few really nice images for myself but most of all I've been asked to take part in other projects. The client said, "We were going to use just copy and an file photos for that series of ad's but, I think new photo's would be better". Now, they’re thinking more like me!

So the basic lesions here:

1. Always, always find the time to meet with the client before the shooting. Often the client will not see a need for this but its makes the direction of the project clear and ultimately shows the client you care.

2. Listen to what the clients needs are. Ask questions that will help you understand more about the role your images will play and solve potential problems while covering the project.

3. Find a way for your shooting style to work for your client’s specific needs.

4. Be flexible when it comes to working with new clients. I was able to move a few booked projects to other days to accommodate a fast deadline.

5. Above all I care about the work I produce. Sometimes that means letting go of some of your own more creative idea's and shooting something that will better serve the clients needs.

Here's one of the images I shot while working with a new client. This is an environmental services employee changing the pressure of a cooling tower. I arrived to find him working on the towers in the background. I quickly set-up a small flash with a remote trigger. As I waited for him to move to the tower near camera angle, I had set up a single flash, I shot a few test images for proper exposure. Once he arrived I got maybe 10-12 quick frames before he moved on.

Working quick means no time to set-up light stands and lights. If I'm not working with an assistant I'll use tables, book cases, door frames or anything I can find to position a flash on. For this shot, I used part of the cooling tower to set a single flash on.

This article, graphics and photography are protected by copyright and may not be reproduced in part or as a whole in any electronic or printed medium without prior permission from the author. Text, graphics and photos by Mike McLean

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Where to buy photo equipment?

I wanted to talk a bit to those getting started in photography about buying gear. I always recommend buying a basic digital camera with manual options. It’s a good idea to avoid the fancy cameras with over the top functions that will rarely if ever get used. If you’re new to photography the best way to learn is on a basic camera shooting in manual. If you read my blog you’ve no doubt heard that a few times.

You do have a few options to consider before you buy. First, buying new or used. Buying used equipment can help keep your budget in check and build your system faster. I have found some pretty amazing deals on used equipment. Of course you must evaluate the equipment carefully as used gear has an implied “as is” meaning once you hand over the money it its yours. New equipment is the safest way to go by a long shot. If you’re on a budget this means it could take time to get your system in place.

Consider the below before you buy your photo gear

1. Known retailers: Local shops are a good choice as they stand behind you’re purchases. If your buying gear online using a known retailer, a company that has a track record is always a good bet.

2. Online auctions: I’ve known many who have brought gear on eBay and only a few who have been unhappy with little recourse. It can be a risky proposition buying equipment online. If you’re set at buying on eBay follow the common rules, checking sellers feedback, looking into the return policy of the seller asking specific questions about the condition etc.

3. Craig’s list maybe a better option because you can meet the seller at a local coffee shop for example to check out the gear before you buy it. Again, be sure to take a good look at the gear you’ll be buying. Test lenses, cameras and other equipment, I had a student even meet a seller with his laptop and tested the camera by taking general exposures and downloading the card to his laptop just to make sure the camera was working properly.

4. Still another place for deals on used gear, I’d suggest checking out the other local options such as camera stores for consigned equipment. I teach photo workshop all over the country when I stop in to the local camera stores I go right to the used gear area, often in the back of the store. It’s a good place to find gently used gear where a hobbyist with a big wallet and an eye for the latest and great equipment will trade up for the newest models.

5. Camera Shows/Swap meets: In larger towns like the one I live in you can find camera shows or photography swap meets listed in the newspaper or online. I make these shows at least once a year and pick-up all kinds of odds an ends from light stands, extra flashes to a out of print photography books. Most of the dealers there are at every show, it seems the more I get to know them the better the prices I get. At these types of shows everything is negotiable, on the last day of the show the prices are almost always better! In some cases the more you buy the better the price.

6. Pawn Shops: One of my photo assistant’s makes a habit of stopping into these shops and its shocked me at some of the things he has found. I remember him showing me a case that included an underwater film camera with two lights plus the case, he paid 250.00 clearly the dealer was not aware of what he had. My assistant is a diver and uses the gear twice a year for his trips, takes the film to a local lab and has digital scans made.

Photo swap meets can be a great place to add to your photography system. Often these events are organized by local photography clubs and can be a great place to pick up low cost gear. You’ll find all kinds of things you never knew you needed. I buy everything from light stands, extra gear bags to tripods. I even picked up a really cool mini spy camera. To find out more about the DFW camera show click here.

This article, graphics and photography are protected by copyright and may not be reproduced in part or as a whole in any electronic or printed medium without prior permission from the author. Text, graphics and photos by Mike McLean