15 Years Of Retouching and My “Over Retouching” Story
When I started photography 15 years ago, what attracted me to it at first was the post-processing process. I remember seeing some super strong HDR photos that I was in complete admiration of, hoping that one day I would be able to pull that off.
So I started photography using Photomatix and doing lots of HDR. I felt like a kid that was given a toy. And like any kid, I played with the latest toys until I got bored with it
I loved doing this kind of photography. But there was just one thing that bothered me. The first reaction I was always got was, “Did you use Photoshop?” All because I used a post processing software. It sort of meant to me that I was not any more a legit photographer, but more like a graphic designer.
At first this did not bother me. But after years and years of getting this reaction, I started getting a little tired of it.
In 2010 I went to Photoshop World for the first time in Las Vegas and discovered the work of Peter Lik. I was absolutely in admiration of his photography and the size of the gallery in the Mandalay Bay Hotel. I did some research on him and discovered that he had several galleries on his own. Since then, I visited the one in Soho New York and Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles (which is now closed). I spent hour observing the reactions of the public in the gallery.
What surprised me the most is that the public usually reacted with, “Wow! What a beautiful beach, what a great city,” etc… there was no mention of Photoshop.
It was clear to me that there was some serious post processing done on his photos. But it was good processing. Processing that made the photos very dramatic but with a natural flair.
I then realized that there were several issues in my photos.
It started back in college when I was taking drafting and civil engineering classes in hopes of transferring to an architecture program somewhere. That’s not where I discovered I was horrible at math, but that’s where it really started to annoy me. So, I jumped to graphic design, where I excelled. The rest is history, well, not exactly.
While a creative director for a couple of ad agencies and companies over the years, I still loved buildings. It wasn’t until I got deeper into photography that I realized I could merge my love for buildings and my love for photography. So, I did.
I started small by going around photographing buildings to put together some sort of a portfolio. That allowed me to show an acquaintance, who was the new business coordinator for an architectural firm, some of the images I was taking. She hired me for one job, then two. Then she left for another firm. See where I’m going here?
Now I had two clients, then three. But my biggest break came when I did something out of the norm. This was the turning point for my career.
Pause for a moment, and try this thought experiment. Imagine your perfect vacation. It could be anywhere in the world, doing anything you choose, for one week. There is a catch, however. You will not be allowed to take any photographs or make any entries in a journal during your vacation, and at the end you will be given a potion that will erase all memories of the wonderful experiences you enjoyed. How much would you pay for such a vacation, in comparison to what you would pay for a vacation you could remember?
If you are like me, my wife, and our two adult daughters, nothing. To us, and to most people, the most wonderful experiences have little or no value if we cannot remember them. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman points out in his excellent book Thinking: Fast and Slow that we seem to have two selves, an experiencing self and a remembering self, whose needs and wants are not always congruent. As Kahneman puts it, “The experiencing self is the one that answers the question: ‘Does it hurt now?’ The remembering self is the one that answers the question: ‘How was it, on the whole?’ Memories are all we get to keep from our experience of living, and the only perspective that we can adopt as we think about our lives is therefore that of the remembering self.” He goes on to say, “The experiencing self does not have a voice. The remembering self is sometimes wrong, but it is the one that keeps score and governs what we learn from living, and it is the one that makes decisions. What we learn from the past is to maximize the qualities of our future memories, not necessarily of our future experience. This is the tyranny of the remembering self.”
Our remembering self tends to value an episode not by the duration of pleasurable and painful periods, but by the peak intensity of the good or bad feeling and by the feeling we experience at the end of the episode. Kahneman calls this “duration neglect” and the “peak-end rule.” We remember the peak moments of a vacation and its ending rather than an average of all the moments. Our average experience, even on a vacation we remember as great, may in fact be rather boring.
Does this help explain the almost universal fascination with photography? Kahneman writes, “The frenetic picture-taking of many tourists suggests that storing memories is often an important goal, which shapes both the plans for the vacation and the experience of it. The photographer does not view the scene as a moment to be savored but as a future memory to be designed. Pictures may be useful to the remembering self—though we rarely look at them for very long, or as often as we expected, or even at all—but picture taking is not necessarily the best way for the tourist’s experiencing self to enjoy a view.”
Kahneman’s insight also helps explain why landscape photographers who wish to evoke emotion in their viewers must work so hard to capture extraordinary and often fleeting moments. Capturing what tourists actually see during their vacation is useless, since that is not what tourists remember. Few tourists witness sunrise at a backcountry lake several miles from the trailhead. At best, they glimpse some colorful clouds from their hotel window. But it is the photograph of sunrise at the backcountry lake that will trigger pleasurable memories of their vacation, not the photo taken at 12 noon, when most tourists actually arrive at their destination. It is as if the colorful clouds glimpsed from their hotel at dawn become merged in their memory with the beautiful lake they saw in noon light.
I have often noted that the act of photographing a beautiful sunrise dulls my appreciation of the moment while I am experiencing it because I am so focused on the technical and aesthetic challenge of making a compelling image—yet the photographs I make strongly enhance my ability to remember and enjoy the experience later. I almost enjoy the shoot more after it’s over, as I view my photographs, than I enjoyed it at the time.
Is this a bad trade-off? Is Kahneman correct when he writes, “Odd as it may seem, I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me”? If so, then photography, with its ability to capture a moment and hold it still forever, can indeed enrich our lives. But I still have a disturbing feeling that spending one’s life doing nothing but accumulating memories, to be enjoyed in a future that may never come, leaves out something important. We are often advised by pop psychologists to “live in the moment,” as if that was somehow the secret of happiness. Perhaps someday I will become so fluent with the language of light and composition that the act of photographing will feel effortless, like a Zen archer drawing and releasing his bow, totally at one with his target. Until then, I will continue to struggle with the uneasy choice between experiencing a moment and creating a photographic memory of it.
A while ago, some friends were visiting from America and wanted to meet for dinner. Since it was their first-time visiting Japan, they wanted to try some of my favorite Japanese foods and have an authentic experience. I’m from New York but I’ve lived in Japan for the last four years and have fallen in love with the culture, lifestyle and yes, the food.
For dinner, I took my friends to a non-touristy spot with amazing selections of Japanese food but when it came time to place our orders, my friends asked for something that was not on the menu, chicken teriyaki. I’ve witnessed situations like this time after time and when it comes to decisions (or discussions) outside our comfort zone very often we stick with what we know.
It’s hard to try eating something you’re not accustomed to and it’s hard to discuss or understand being treated differently based on the color of one’s skin if you have not experienced it first-hand. Racism is not a comfortable topic to discuss because it hits at our core and makes us look deep inside ourselves. For some it can be a complex issue and easier to simply ignore. This behavior is something (Samuelson & Zeckhauser, 1988) attributes to the status quo bias.
Last week, I published my weekly photography podcast which has focused on the art of photography for the past 163 episodes. However, with the current state of the world, I could not make the 164th episode of the Master Your Lens podcast about photography, it had to address a bigger world issue.
COVID-19 vs Protesting
When I was seven years old, my family moved from Brooklyn, New York to Columbia, South Carolina where, for the first time, I experienced racism firsthand. That was fifty years ago and still, today, the issue of racism plagues America. Even as the world fights a global pandemic that has brought much of the world to a stand-still, many would rather risk catching COVID-19 in order to protest against an older virus that seems to have no cure.
In the 1960’s, the declaration of the day was I AM A MAN. Photographs of protesters during that time period show predominately African Americans marching for equality. In contrast, today people of all backgrounds march together, united in protest to open dialog that brings about action to end racism.
So how do we turn things around and begin having meaningful conversations about racism that lead to lasting solutions? When it comes to things we don’t understand, it’s comfortable to stay with what we know but we only grow when step outside of our comfort zone. I believe change first begins with empathetic listening and taking to heart the lesson of the golden rule.
A funny thing happened on the way to publishing my book…
A pandemic. It sure has changed things for everybody. Everywhere in the world. No exceptions. And in business, most of us have made big adjustments to deal with new restrictions and regulations.
I don’t have a crystal ball so I had no idea that this was coming, but a book I already wrote and had in the publishing pipeline, launched mid April, in the middle of stay-at-home orders. So while just about everybody, in practically every industry, was thrown into video meetings, my book Great On Camera came out.
On top of that, I decided to do some tips and tricks videos so people could quickly learn some best practices for Zoom and Skype meetings. I posted those on Facebook and YouTube (with a little book promo at the end of course). Well, USA Today saw it and ran a feature story on me. That publicity got me even more publicity from radio and TV stations and the Washington Post.
Since this is Scott’s blog, and since most of his followers are photographers, I pulled some things together just for still shooters. And since video is exponentially more important today than ever before! Here are 7 important things you need to know.
Thing 1. You can/should easily master being GREAT on Skype and Zoom:
If nothing else, you need to realize that looking good, sounding good, and communicating well on live video meetings with clients and prospects is the 2020 version of professional business attire. Look better, more confident, and sound good, and you’ll get more clients and keep more customers. This isn’t a photographer thing. It’s an every business thing. And most people still look really bad on video meetings.
Thing 2. If you do headshots, locked-down video should be on your list:
As a photographer, you already have better gear than most people, and practically every recent DLSR and mirrorless camera can capture great looking video. I’m not going to push you toward indy filmmaking. But if headshots are any part of your business, you should learn how to capture video headshots so you can help your business clients.
Thing 3. You’re enough of an expert that you can help friends and clients be better on their own Zoom calls:
A lot of people could use your help to get them looking and sounding better on their business videos. You understand lighting. You understand camera position. You understand composition. You understand exposure. By just looking at the tips in the video about being better on Zoom meetings (linked above) I also did a quick tips video about webcam exposure and photographers will ‘get it’ right away.
Sure, most people have terrible, fully automatic webcams so you won’t be changing lenses or adjusting settings to get a better exposed image on camera. But by looking at someone’s environment, you can help them position their camera properly. Add lights in the right place. Help them simplify complicated backgrounds. Tell them that, just because they have a picturesque back yard and they’d love to have that as their video background, a camera pointed out to the back yard will make you look like a silhouette unless there’s a BUNCH of studio lighting on your face. Help them get a shirt that doesn’t make the overall image too dark or too bright and throw off the exposure for the face.
Thing 4. Simple commercial videos are easy for photographers:
Beyond video meetings between co-workers, small businesses will need to communicate with their customers and target market using videos. Now more than ever! This means they’ll be looking for pro video help. Consider adding simple video production to your mix. Even if you don’t want to edit, you can capture the video and turn it over to an editor.
Thing 5. Learn a little audio and you’re good to go:
When it comes to video, the only thing that’s really new to photographers is audio. An inexpensive wired lapel mic or a $200 wireless mic will capture great spoken audio. But just start with a 20’ wired mic and you’ll be going in the right direction.
Thing 6. Start by being on camera yourself, to create an ad and to get on-camera experience:
Photographers know that the lock-down slowed down business and with a little extra time on your hands, now’s the perfect time to create your own commercial. Jump on camera and record yourself talking about your business. You can spend 2 or 3 minutes talking to the camera and that will get you experience being on camera, so you can help your clients. Plus, it will get you a commercial for your own work.
Thing 7. Cut away from the talking head with stills or other footage that shows what’s being narrated:
And don’t worry that you need to be on camera, talking to the camera lens the whole time. You don’t. Just set up a simple scene, maybe in your studio, where you can talk to the camera and as soon as you start talking about your work and the kinds of shoots you do, keep the audio discussion going but cut away from the visual of you in the studio, and show image after image of your work. Think of it as a narrated video portfolio.
Bonus Thing. A (free) video critique:
Since you follow Scott, you know all about ‘Blind Critiques’ on The Grid. I love that stuff! Similarly I do paid video critiques where clients send me videos they’ve done and ask for advice on how to improve what they’re doing. Well, if you’ve read this far, and you have a video you’ve created, or you’re about to do a quick promo video, I’ll do a critique for free. Just go to my website (GreatOnCamera.com) and use the contact form and let me know you have a video and you read about my free offer here. I’ll tell you how to upload it to me and we’ll work out the other little details.
Of course there are a few strings attached. The video needs to be 3 minutes or less. It needs to be a business or promotional video with a spokesperson on camera (hopefully you). And I’m limiting this offer to the first 20 readers or until July 15, 2020.
Whatever you do for a living, and even if you don’t want to add video to your portfolio, I hope this helps you with meetings and your own on-camera presentations so you can be Great On Camera!
The Story of Working with Square (and how luck can play into landing your dream job)
Like all the best and very worst stories, this story begins with Twitter.
I opened my phone one morning to see that a few friends had tagged me in a long Twitter thread asking for photographer recommendations across the country by one of the creatives running socials at Square, the San Francisco-based tech company who manufacture and process credit cards though the little white credit card readers and iPad stands you see everywhere.
Given that this was such a broad ask and the list of photographers was so long already, I didn’t think much of it – I tweeted my website back, sent a thank you to my friends, and promptly forgot all about it. About a month later, I saw I had a direct message from the official Square Instagram account, asking if I was interested in taking on a project with them and if I could hop on a call in the next few days. Hello and yes!
Fast forward a few weeks, and I learned that Square had been creating a series highlighting small businesses across the country and partnering with local photographers in honor of commemorative months. I was so impressed by their dedication to storytelling for both small business and minority communities and I was instantly on board.
My dream work is when photography is combined with social issues and radical movements that I deeply care about, and that is truly what brings so much meaning and substance for me behind the camera. Our project was going to be profiling a woman owned small business to highlight Women’s History Month for March 2020, and it was so fun when Laura Lemon of Lemon Laine in East Nashville was chosen. See the full set here!
Something that isn’t talked about much in creative circles is how random it can be to land a job like this. Sometimes (honestly, often) it really comes down to luck in our industry – like being in the right place at the right time, knowing the right person, or having a friend of yours grab drinks with someone who works at x company, and they just so happen to mention that they have a new campaign where they want to hire a new photographer (enter you). Or the right designer seeing your name tagged somewhere in a shoot you did three years ago and never thought it’d see the light of day, but then you get an email about a new project with their studio because they liked the feel of the images. Or your name gets thrown out in a giant Twitter thread and somehow it sticks.
I always feel both a little bummed and relieved when people talk about luck influencing creative opportunities – it can be a partial breath of fresh air to feel like getting these big jobs is little out of my control, but also it can be incredibly frustrating to feel like all of your hard work alone isn’t getting you as far as you want it to. However, I’ve learned that there’s so much we can do to make sure both you and your work are ready for when those opportunities drop into your lap.
Three quick bullet points of advice —
Keep showing up. As frustrating as it is that luck is a player in this game, you can make yourself as ready as possible when the right people find you. Trust that the work is good in the meantime! And continue to make it better – keep pushing, keep learning, keep developing your skill set in the meantime. And, make sure your online presence and website is ready for those people to find you — if your dream client were to land on your website today, would they see the kind of work they need in order to reach out to you? Keep going.
Be a good hang. I stole this from my husband who always says this about the music industry, but you and your personality are just as (if not more sometimes) important as your work when a creative team is considering hiring you. Remember, if you get hired, you’re probably going to be hanging with these people on a set for hours at a time. Make sure they’re excited to be around you as a person as well as excited about your work.
Invest in the people around you for the sake of the relationship. Are there photographers in your community that you’ve been following online for years but have never met? Reach out and connect beyond socials! Same goes for creative directors, photo producers, art buyers and more. Start with a simple email, and then see if they’re available to meet in person so you can hear more about what they do and how they do it. Not only will this absolutely lead to some great connections and maybe even a few stepping stones, but more than any of that, relationships are a meaningful life value that goes way beyond photography.
If something like this can happen to me, it can definitely happen to you. Over the last few years, I’ve found a lot of freedom in letting go of control (did I ever have it?) of trying to force my dream jobs to manifest. Instead I’m choosing to trust that if I keep showing up to the work wholeheartedly and investing into relationships in my community, these jobs will continue to show up too.
And sometimes it pays to have friends that are on Twitter more than you.
Nicola is a commercial and editorial photographer based in Nashville, TN. You can see more of her work at NicolaHarger.com and can keep up with her on Instagram and Twitter.