Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Guest Blogger: Photographer Kelly Gorham

Today I am extremely pleased to introduce Kelly Gorham as my guest blogger. Kelly has been a big influence as I've grown as a photographer. He has helped with advice, ideas, and encouragement. As an intern for Kelly at Montana State University, I observed and experienced lighting people in various situations "on the fly". In other words, I observed Kelly in vastly different situations and he always came up with a quick, effective, and beautiful lighting solutions. This helped to give me confidence when I was on my own assignments. The one thing I carry with me on every assignment is something I learned from Kelly - "Treat every photo assignment, no matter how small, as if it's the most important." Please enjoy Kelly's post today as he talks about something he learned about his own work and his encouragement to fight through the laziness. Be sure to take him up on his challenge at the end.
Zoom With Your Feet 
by Kelly Gorham
…my metaphor for photography and life
 When I was six-years-old, in the 1970’s, and got my first camera it used film and flash cubes and had a fixed focal-length lens. You may remember a flash cube only had four shots in it. After I threw many tantrums when I’d run out of film or flashes, my mother lectured me and instructed me to make each photo count instead of photographing everything as I did.
This trend continued through my life of photography as I used a view camera with prime lenses in college and a Pentax K1000 with one lens during my first two summers interning with a daily newspaper. It really forced me to think about my photos and zoom with my feet.  During these years I managed some pretty creative compositions and explored my subjects more thoroughly since I had to move my body to get different perspectives.
This all fell apart when I upgraded camera systems and got my Nikon N90s with 28-70mm f2.8 and 70-200mm f2.8 lenses. I was working for a daily paper in Nevada and found myself working much more quickly. This was in part due to my heavy assignment load but also because the zoom lenses made me lazy. For years I would get to a scene, have a look around, and then pick a couple good angle and fire away with the motor drive cranking like a lawnmower. There I was, just standing and zooming. Oh, maybe I’d take time to switch between the two lenses but the interaction I had experienced with my subjects from an early age was gone. I used the technology like a crutch and it made me lazy and as a result the photos suffered.
Fast forward twelve years and I’d been shooting digital for about ten of those. Yup, you guessed it, even lazier. With digital I could see every photo as I captured it. We call this chipping in the industry. It’s almost like a funny photo ballet. You really see it at sporting events with a row of photographers bobbing their heads in unison from the action to their LCD screens. So now, I’m still standing and zooming but have even less concerns because I can see instantly if I’m getting the shot. The challenge is gone. Even if it’s a poor photo I’d be in Photoshop trying to salvage it. Of course, photographers are famous for saying, “I never Photoshop, I’m true to the subject,” but let’s admit it, we’ve all gone through that phase of trying to squeeze every bit of information out of every pixel. Is the photo too dark? Fix it in post. You didn’t get close enough? No problem, crop it in post. Too lazy to wait for good light? No problem, shoot a bunch of bracketed photos and merge them in HDR (high dynamic range) software.
In 2008 just as my laziness-induced obsession with HDR imaging and zoom lenses was reaching critical mass, my 28-70 broke. Oh crap. It was a morning before I had several news assignments. The 70-200 would be too long for all these assignments. I grabbed the only other lens that was with me at the time, my trusty $89 Nikkor 50mm f1.8 that I had previously only used when shooting food and products and went off to the assignments.
Suddenly photography was tough again. I was crouching, squatting, laying on my belly and on my back. I stood on chairs and tables. Wow, I was moving again. This lens didn’t allow me to be lazy. I was thinking about my subject and interacting with it. I didn’t even chip. I just shot the photos and hoped for the best, just like the days of slide film. When I got back to the computer I downloaded the photos into Adobe Lightroom and was amazed at the quality. It was like the 23-year-old version of me walked into the room. The photos were interesting, well composed and perfectly exposed. I didn’t change a thing in the computer. I simply exported the images and sent them off to the editors. I was a photographer again.
Soon after, I went to Berlin to shoot a project about relics of the Cold War. I carried a 20mm and a 50mm. The project was the highlight of my career and has exhibited around the U.S. and in Germany.  Now in 2011 I carry a 28mm and an 85mm throughout the day. I shoot sports with a prime 300mm f2.8 and use a 1.4x teleconverter when I need the extra oomph. I still have a 70-200 and use it when needed but I travel light and think about my shots. Instead of researching cameras with bells and whistles and massive zoom lenses, I find myself dreaming about compact mirrorless cameras with prime lenses and very few controls. I treat every photo as though it’s the most important image I’ve ever captured. 
Here’s a challenge for you. Take one camera with one prime lens and go for a stroll. No filters, no gadgets. Just go and explore your subjects and force yourself to break from the restraints of technology. Enjoy life for what it is and make the most of it.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Getting to Know You

As I've read about best practices for running a blog over the past year, one thing I consistently come across is to know your audience and to always offer content that is of interest to them. I tend to mix the content of this photography blog between my current projects, things I find inspiring, guest posts from people I'd like to introduce you to, and how-to type posts with ideas or suggestions. 

I try to keep my reader in mind as I write, but I thought this would be a good time to conduct a short survey in order to offer better and more interesting content. So, dear reader, why do you read this blog (even if it was only one time) and what content are you most interested in reading? With your help, I can offer things that are beneficial and worthwhile to you.

I know there may be people who stop by and read an occasional post but never comment. So, if you have ever read any of my posts, I'd love for you to leave a comment below:

What do YOU want to read about and what would you like to see from this blog? 
Which posts have you enjoyed the most?

Thanks for your help! I sincerely appreciate your comments and your time, and thanks for reading!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Capturing Natural & Complimentary Portraits

One of my recent freelance jobs was to photograph Montana State University faculty who received a promotion and/or tenure this year and who didn't already have a portrait on file with the university. Of the 34 or so who received this honor, 21 did not already have a portrait. Even though the portraits were mostly head shots, each new environment was a challenge. I really loved meeting each person and the varied environments in which I met them. Upon arrival, I needed to quickly assess the location and lighting and how to make the most pleasing portrait within a fairly limited time frame. One of the main challenges was to help the person get comfortable and relaxed with me in a short amount of time. Capturing a casual, relaxed, and real smile was key. Making this happen, however, depends on several variables.

Here are a few tips on how I work with people to try and help them relax in front of a camera:

1. If the person seems busy and stressed, I do my best to assure them I will not take much of their time and I express my sincere thanks for meeting me in the midst of their busy schedule.
2. As I'm setting up and assessing the location, I also engage them in small talk about their work or hobbies (if something in their office suggests a pastime). I try to find and express a common connection. This can be anything from places I've traveled, things I've studied, or hobbies I enjoy.
3. It can be difficult to be funny on the spot with someone I just met, but I try to be as light-hearted without sacrificing professionalism. What I say or how I do this just depends on each person and how they are responding to me. 
4. If I give a compliment, I make sure it's 100% sincere. I never say "Oh, I love that shirt you're wearing!" or "I love that painting behind you!" if I don't mean it.

With this project, I would sometimes ask them to give me that big promotion smile...or that "I'm finished with that grueling tenure process" smile. That would often illicit a genuine smile, although sometimes brief if I had to move my camera too much to put it in front of my face. In other words, I had to be READY for it. That smile can quickly melt when they remember I'm photographing them. :)

Here are a few of my favorites I picked for different reasons:

©2011, Leslie McDaniel
©2011, Leslie McDaniel
©2011, Leslie McDaniel
©2011, Leslie McDaniel
For this portrait series, I used a variety of lighting set ups including window light with a reflector and a flash head on a light stand with a "shoot-through" umbrella.

When photographing people, it's very important to determine the best pose, angle, and lighting that is most complimentary to the subject. In a previous post, I gave some tips on posing for portraits. The importance of using these things to the advantage of the person being photographed can be illustrated by the following example. Look at these two portraits of the person in the first portrait above. The following portraits were made back to back. However, slight changes that occurred to the angle of her body, lighting, and her hair in the moments between the two images resulted in photographs that almost looks like two different people:

11:20:40 AM
11:21:08 AM

As you can see, I chose the first photograph of her at the top of this post over either of these because I felt her smile, pose, and the lighting in that one was the most natural and complimentary.

What process do you go through to make the most complimentary portrait of a person?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Rethinking Landscapes

I recently wrote a post about using landscape photography as an opportunity to slow down. I sort of lamented about my inability to make interesting landscape photographs. I'm also generally not drawn to the landscape photography of others.

On a recent trip to nearby Yellowstone National Park, I decided to take my medium format camera to attempt landscapes in squares. I'm not sure why I haven't tried this before. Even though I completed an entire non-portrait project entitled I Heart America with a medium format camera about a year ago, I've never considered capturing landscapes in squares. I think I've found a way to give landscape photography a try. 

Here are a couple images from the Mammoth area of the park:

The funny thing is that I'm still more interested in landscape photographs that have people in them, such as the first one. After this little experiment, I'm thinking about starting a project with the medium format of the tourists I encounter in the park. This would allow me to work with both people and landscapes with a non-traditional landscape format.

What do you think of these images?