Are there seven habits of successful photographers?

Rocky Mountain National Park

It was simply the rage back in the early 1990’s, reading Dr. Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Successful People or attending one of his lectures or being a part of one of the many workshops being offered.  The emphasis at that time on win-win-win at any cost, of unlimited ambition, of personal growth at hyperspeed – these were all wearing a lot of people out and they were looking for a way to discover and achieve their personal goals in a manner that didn’t result in short-term burn out.  Dr. Covey promoted some basic principles that would help people put their lives into personal perspective and control their destiny.  Mostly common sense, as even he indicated, but very useful in pushing away the public buzz and guiding you to make decisions that were helpful in the long-term.

These habits can be very effective for photographers, especially as the current time is abuzz with rapidly changing technology, push-the-limits-at-any-cost practitioners, media barrages all around and the ease for just about anyone to enter the craft.  With all respect to Dr. Covey, here are my thoughts on how to apply his habits.

Be Proactive:   Great images rarely show up in your windshield while driving down the road, or wander in front of your camera while strolling down the sidewalk, or come up and nibble on your leg while you are looking elsewhere.  You have to go find them, seek them out, hunt for the story and elements necessary to tell it effectively.  Many people pick up their camera only for “special” events or once in a great while, and then wonder why they don’t have many outstanding images.  You have to go to the image, not the other way around.  Which brings me to the next habit….

Begin with the End in Mind:  Ansel Adams called it pre-visualization, others say compose before putting the camera to your face.  My thinking here begins even before leaving the house.  What image to you want to make today?  What story do you want to tell?  What personal project are you aching to complete?  Get the answers to those questions clear in your mind first, in as much detail possible, and the rest will be just managing technology.

Put First Things First:  Dr. Covey talks a lot about Importance and Urgency, and points out that most people focus on the latter at the expense of the former.  Yet the former is where our passion lies.  Doing the important things first is a matter of planning and prioritizing, of recognizing the value of your time to make your images, of getting to the scene you want to compose and working it until you get the image expected.  Great images are rarely made by photographers rushing around and pointing cameras at subjects and then moving on.  If your craft is important then make sure you act that way.

Think Win-Win:  Most photographers are making images to share – to share the moment, share the subject, share the emotion.  Sharing can mean literally giving away images, selling images to others, licensing image use so a wide audience can appreciate it.  Paradoxically, most photographers I know are somewhat introverted, yet are most pleased when their work interacts with the largest crowd.  Images reflecting your passion will show that, and having shown that, result in value to everyone involved.

Seek first to Understand, then to be Understood:  This is a powerful concept, especially in the modern world of media that seems to exist solely to allow people to vent their frustrations at a high decibel level.  Have you ever looked at a photograph and thought, “wow, they really captured the essence”?  Photographers who take the time to understand why they are making a specific photograph will create images that are easy to understand by others.  It may be a loving gesture, or light that portrays a subject as everyone knows them, or a composition that broadens the viewer’s perspective on a subject.  Rarely do the good ones happen by accident – the photographer set out to include the viewer in the process.

Synergize:   The term as commonly used simply means “together we can do things impossible to us individually.”  Photographers are usually individualistic – it’s very hard for a group to look through a viewfinder.  We should connect with other artists, photographers or not, and see the world in an expanded way.  And then work to combine different visions to create a new perspective.

Sharpen the Saw:  One aspect of photography I appreciate is you can practice the craft with tools that are 100 years old or 1 month old, delivering wonderful images with either.  Great photographs don’t come from expensive, cutting-edge, just-released equipment – they are made by craftsmen who know how to get the most from their tools.  Continual learning, continual practice, continual stretching of abilities; these are the rasps we use to keep sharp whether we are re-creating scenes on wet-plate emulsions or high-speed, low-light digital.

Which of course takes us back to #1 – learn new skills and make time to apply them.

Imagery is a wonderful gift of technology, giving us snippets of time preserved for sharing, remembering, contemplating.  Photographers craft those snippets to maximize the value being preserved.  Great photographers push themselves to get every last bit of meaning into their images, since that moment will be gone by the next, never to return again.

New images added to website

3-image panoramic, ISO100, 1/60 sec., f/11

Well, I learned to never let updating get so far behind.  Selecting the right images, processing them for uploading and then editing the detailed information about them on the site took much longer than I expected.  From now on I’m going to do this in little bits more often.

But it was way overdue effort and now there are probably three times more images, ideally giving viewers a better idea of the type of work I can do.

Check it out and let me know what you think:  www.melmannphoto.com

Adjusting your image

The instructor on a webinar I recently attended was advising photographers how to  manage their website these days.  Whereas just a few years ago it was fine to consider a website as an alternative portfolio, with just a few of your very best images displayed on a white background, today social media and networking has viewers expecting to see more, and more, and even more.  And something different every time they come back.  Sort of blog as portfolio.

His recommendation was to post lots of pictures, group them in a logical fashion, and let viewers look through them at their own pace.  Even post images you don’t expect to sell – use them to show what your style is or what your technique is capable of for existing and potential clients to learn more about your work.  He said web users expect that now, and will rapidly dismiss anyone not playing by these new rules.

So, I’ve spent the past week putting new images on my website.  Well, actually I spent one day uploading them and the other six getting them ready.  Sure it’s easy just to dump some images on my site but as a professional it’s my responsibility to make sure they are the right size for framing/matting if someone wants to purchase them.  And that the cropping is for maximum effect for the subject.  And that pricing reflects my expected value for each.  All these things that go beyond what I see on other social media sites designed simply for sharing snapshots.

Initially I felt this blog was a good place to achieve the goal of showing a variety of images and styles along with some background information about my technique or story about the image.  Not that I’m planning to stop this blog now.  It continues to be a place where I can tell more about images, or my photography, or my growing expectations for my photography, or provide links to interesting people and their work.  But I have decided to take this instructor’s advice and use my website as more than a gallery wall where a few images hang around waiting for viewers.  I hope it will become a more active forum where viewers learn what I’m seeing.

What this change represents is another of those “intentions” I’m learning to expect in photography.  Now I have to be intentionally mindful of images that will merit being added to the website and take the time to prepare and upload them.  I will also have to intentionally consider images on the site that may have outlived their shelf-life.  Already I’m looking at a few, knowing what I now know and have learned, that I wouldn’t have put up in the first place!

But my opinion is simply one.  Of true importance to me is feedback by viewers, opinions to help me learn how I’m doing and whether this change of approach is meaningful, useful, and pleasing to anyone who ventures through my website.  So, in the next day or so after I’ve got the new images up and running, take a look.  Let me know what you think.  And hold me to the modern ethic of keeping the site fresh.  With the pressure to display new material more frequently I expect my photography will have to improve!

I’ll continue putting words and images out here and always appreciate your comments.  My plan is for both sites to be interesting enough to bring you back.

Trails

Prairie Trails

We are surrounded by textures – the structure, feel and appearance of what’s in the world around us.  Our binocular vision enables us to see the world in three dimensions but it’s the texture of the objects in the world that really make what we see interesting.  We’ve developed expectations about objects around us to a great extent because of the textures we observe – what will be soft, what will be prickly, what will be smooth – and move through our world being attracted to, and deterred from, the many elements we encounter primarily based on our observation of them.

Interestingly, although texture is an integral characteristic of an object, texture alone doesn’t seem to define how we’ll observe an object.  The ability to perceive the texture appears to be intimately linked to the direction and type of light used to illuminate an object.  Thus, light and shadow can enhance or de-emphasize an object’s texture and thus our desire to interact with it.

Ever notice how people seem to have textures as well?  We’ve even adapted our “texture” vocabulary to describe people we come in contact with, creating a verbal shorthand to communicate vast amounts of personality information in a short burst.

“He’s slick.”
“She’s prickly.”
“They’re really abrasive.”
“He has a veneer of sophistication.”
“She’s so polished.”

Each of these phrases probably created in your mind an opinion about the subject, even though there is no other information available.  And just as light and shadow can vary the texture of an object being photographed, more information or closer contact with the subject of such shorthand usually modifies our opinion, either strengthening it (and confirming the connection of the texture term with the personality trait) or diminishing it.

Business and social relations in the beginning are fraught with the dangers of using such shorthand indiscriminately.  How many opportunities have you followed successfully but later looked back on and thought “Good thing I didn’t follow my first impression or what I heard about that or I would have never gone down that path.”?

How we use light and shadow is critical to the story we tell in our photographs, from creepy to joyful.  How we seek information or contact to confirm or deny our use of similar terms to shorthand people we meet is critical to how we move through the world and grow.  With one side of our brain it’s important to recognize this shorthand is useful to sort through opportunities; with the other side it’s equally important to adjust our ‘light and shadow’ to reach the final result we seek.

San Diego Tall Ships

Always in a hurry.  Or does it seem that summer heat makes it feel like everyone is scurrying around at a faster pace?  Cars on the road, people on the sidewalk, waiters, cashiers – you can almost feel everyone tapping their foot in that “get on with it” rhythm of impatience.  What’s the rush?

Have our lives become so intertwined with commercial materialism that we have to run faster just to keep up?  Or to attempt to escape the barrage of sales messages thrust at us on a continuous basis?  Where did the quiet time between TV shows go?  Or the dead air on the radio as songs changed?  Now messages intrude on other messages, trying to crowd out the prior in favor of the latest.  Ever watched an old movie and wondered how they got away with all those long minutes of slow conversation or simply thinking about something?  Those scenes of inactivity essential to the story then but seem so quaint now against the backdrop of our incessant and frenetic special effects.

Multitasking rules our lives now as electronic noise comes at us from all the tools that were supposed to free us from our labors, to improve the quality of our lives with relevant connections but now only serve as pipelines into our souls for other people’s pitch on reality.  In retaliation sales demands are screamed at us to buy more tools so we can control the tools we have, make them bend content to our wills and clarify our lives.

Direction – that’s clarity.  Deciding on a course and applying our efforts to follow it, even when the straightest path zigzags through possible headings.  Not being seduced by the latest fad, the newest gadget, the shiniest bauble or loudest toy, but holding steady to our determined destination.

Might be a personal goal, a selected lifestyle, a strongly held belief or moral stance.  Its value is that it comes from within, not impressed from without.  All that noise around us needs to be identified for the noise it is, and those tools available to us chosen for their effectivity in teasing out the relevant information from the cacophony.  Information that aids us in identifying our direction, measuring our progress against the chosen heading.

Kirk Tuck, a photographer I follow, has words of wisdom about art in a world of technology, and how some people chase the latter in the name of the former.  Art is rarely created in a hurry, nor enjoyed in a rush.  Art is contemplative – probably one of the key facets that separate art from…well, things that aren’t art.  In the world we’re creating of accelerated hyper-awareness how will we recognize art as it passes by in the data stream?

People matter

Read an online course yesterday about lighting models outdoors.  It’s a series offered by a lighting company to show how their products fit different needs.  I learned a little more about lighting but also picked up on an idea about subjects.

The photographer clearly stated he was tapping into his friends for this short lesson.  The “model” was a 2nd grade teacher friend of his and the “assistant” was a buddy also interested in photography.  The went to a park and played around with some scenes, using different lighting tools to develop the lesson.  I thought it was cool the informal approach to the project.  Professionals who photograph people for a living talk a lot about the production aspects of their commercial shoots.  To a beginner it all sounds pretty daunting, lining up models, permits, assistants, equipment, wardrobe, makeup, etc. – how can any novice know what they need to know!?!

Yet here’s this guy making a short instructional blog, getting a couple of friends to step in and have fun in the afternoon.  How easy is that?  And what a great learning opportunity, where you can experiment with different approaches, see the result and correct or make adjustments.  Of course this wasn’t a commercial shoot (the blog is free to anyone who goes to the site) so the pressures of meeting a budget or even a deadline were significantly less, but it still was a project with a definite outcome.

I realize adding people to photography increases the interest in the images.  Our brains are wired to lock onto faces or human forms in an image so our eyes go there first.  Putting people in a scene also gives perspective, a point of reference.  Why else do all those Grand Canyon photos have people standing on the rim?

So, I need to round up some friends for a short workshop on people-in-landscapes, and probably work on my exterior lighting skills as well.  Until then, I’ll have to turn to more convenient subjects….

Becoming known

Right now I’m working on query letters to a few magazine photo editors to see how I can get my work in front of them for consideration to use in a story they are working on or an assignment to shoot for a future piece.  Like any new venture I expect this will take some time to get connected with the right people, provide them the information in the format desired, and build a relationship to fine-tune expectations on both sides.  Part of my business plan is revenue from commercial and editorial projects, which this will be a first step toward generating.  In addition, though, creating work associated with a specific project enables me to leverage prior skills in research, planning and management that I don’t want to lose or get rusty.

Another benefit, though, is the opportunity to get to know a new group of people who are also passionate about images and how to use them effectively.  In my short experience meeting people associated with photography I’ve been pleased to find the crowd generally open, friendly, willing to teach, and overall encouraging to new photographers.  The groups I’ve been around feel like a bunch of entrepreneurs focused on the success of their idea, and realizing that a network is more powerful than the single individual.

One aspect of photography is the first creator of unique imagery is met with ooh’s and aah’s whereas the first person to duplicate that uniqueness is met with blank stares and some distain.  It’s not so much we are constantly looking for new and novel as much as we each want to put our own spin on it, show our own unique vision of the world around us in a way that becomes recognizable.  And it’s just boring to duplicate what someone else has already put out there.

Not that learning new techniques from experts isn’t helpful.  Great movements in the arts always advance as a result of students adapting and modifying some core technique of a single person, but always with their own additional touch.  I’m reading Ansel Adams’ books on film photography and learning new things from each.  Not that I plan on getting that involved in film photography; rather, to think through the visualization process as he has and learn how to adapt that effort to my own compositions and development process digitally.

One photographer I’m getting to know is always trying new things with his compositions and processing.  Darrell Gulin just seems to love playing with imagery:  creating it, manipulating it, redesigning it.  His attitude comes across as one of “have fun with it” while satisfying your child-like creativity, and then find clients who share that with you through your work.  Hearing Darrell talk about his composing process, his props, his post-processing – the fun just comes right through.  If you ever get an opportunity to attend a workshop with him or hear him speak I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.