Friday, September 13, 2013

The Model, the Kids, the Leaf and his Hog.

I had been looking forward to this shoot for many reasons, but it seemed fate was trying to keep us apart.

Due to various acts of nature and, you know, life in general, it was challenging getting us all in the same place on the same day. That's what happens when you're as busy and sought-after as this family.

But on Labour Day, right after the Snowbirds closed the CNE curtain for another year, Lilette, Scott, and their kids had just enough time to allow us some shots down by the lake.

Lilette is a vibrant presence in our neighbourhood: a real estate maven with plenty of experience as an actress and model. (Hello, someone who understands makeup!) Her son attends my son's dojo, and Scott McKay is... well, Scott McKay.

If you don't happen to know his name, read this and see why Scott keeps his phone handy at all times.

I knew things were going somewhere fun when Scott rode up on his 2000 Harley Davidson Fat Boy. It looked even more amazing than I had hoped. Scott is a low-key guy, who doesn't call attention to himself—I practically had to beg them to bring his Leafs jersey along for the shoot!

Mine would be mounted over the front door with chaser-lights around it.

(Normally, I don't allow logos on my shoots. I made an exception.)
"Nice bike," I said. 
"Thanks. I bought it from Cujo," Scott said.
"You know Cujo?" he asked.
"I'm, uh... familiar with his work." 

Like I said, low-key.

The weather held out, we all had a good time, and those kids were more patient than I would have been after two hours of "Look over here, guys!" 


Guys, thanks for a great day!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Clowning around with Kylah and Sean

Wakka Wakka!
When you and your family put your heads together, you can get some serious value from a portrait shoot. Enter Kylah & Sean, their three awesome kids, two costumes, and a boatload of Muppets for good measure.

So... you would figure that after two hours of playing and patient posing, the kids would be about ready to start chucking rocks at the photographer and looking for the car.


What Clodagh and James had in mind was changing into their favourite outfits and putting themselves into character. Memo to parents: do more of this!
(James marches to his own drummer.)

(Pretty sure the Disney police are after me.)

Add an incredibly sweet baby, and you have the whole enchilada. (Can't wait to see Abbey's outfit when she's ready to perform with her siblings!)

Guys... thanks for an incredibly fun day, and a great show, too!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

What kind of microphone does Bruce Springsteen use?

Jim Dyson/Getty Images
... because, man, that is one good microphone. 

Most photographers like to talk about gear; at least with other photographers. I expect this is true for woodworkers, bikers, chefs, drummers...

But I bet it isn't true about singers.

I love talking about gear. Just writing about "talking about gear" gets me a little jazzed, to be honest. But that doesn't mean it isn't dumb. What it usually translates to is, "my gear is holding me back."

If you take two otherwise reserved photographers, and plunk them in a bar, by the time the first beer is drunk, they've either:
  1. Bragged about the next SLR body they're going to buy.
  2. Dissed a brand they both hate (and have never used). Olympus is a safe bet.
  3. Talked about their "need" to upgrade to medium format—or at least switch back to film.
(Read Hammerforum for a note-perfect take on gear-snobbery, btw.)

When you are stricken with Gear Acquisition Syndrome, it's difficult to step back and hear how stupid you sound. When I get a GAS-attack, it usually strikes when I am between gigs (i.e., when can least afford new gear). It's probably not a coincidence, since obviously something is preventing me from getting work.

So why are some professions immune to this? I'm pretty sure Bruce Springsteen doesn't blog about his favourite microphones, and nobody cares which brand of typewriter helps Dan Brown produce all his best-sellers (which nobody ever reads).

Wiser men have pointed out that a camera is just a tool. It's designed to get that which is in your head into someone else's. If what was in your head sucked, no tool will improve it—even an expensive, 25th anniversary, limited-run tool with walnut grips.

Hugh Macleod

A tool is an extension of your hand—but sometimes it's a crutch. It's your best friend... until it lets you down. Then it's a motherhumpinsonofabitch; in danger of being replaced with the latest amazing gadget on the market—which also costs less than your old tool and is eight times better.

Some cinematic parallels:

In Star Wars, a lightsaber was just a weapon—an "elegant" weapon, as Obi Wan pointed out—but without something called The Force, it was just a fancy device for making Tauntaun sleeping bags.

Give my son a Canon Rebel, and you're not going to get anything pretty. Give it to Annie Leibovitz, and she'll probably give you a Vanity Fair cover.
(John Belushi hated this Leibovitz concept. I do, too.)
And yet... sometimes the perfect tool is worth the cost. 

Remember the first scene of the The Blues Brothers? Elwood patiently explains to Jake that he had to trade the fabled Bluesmobile "for a microphone". Although initially enraged, Jake eventually makes peace with this. As an artist, he could clearly dig a scenario where a musician—under duress—would trade a Cadillac for a microphone. My kingdom for a horse, and all that.

(I'm guessing the Caddy was a sweeter ride than that battered cop-car, but the '74 Monaco clearly possessed magic, as you remember. The ersatz Bluesmobile was the equivalent of a battered Nikon F1. Not as pretty as a Hasselblad, but more dependable in the shit.)

AP—Huynh Thanh My
So, blahblahblah... where does that leave us gear-pigs? SLRs truly are everywhere now. I see them at school recitals, T-ball games, weddings that I shoot. Clients regularly tell me about their new Nikon D9000 with the f/nothing lens.

Newspapers... big newspapers, are trading in their photojournalists for iPhones. Weddings are being shot on Instagram and Blurbed that night. Sounds pretty grim, if you truly believe it's affecting your bottom line as a pro. It probably isn't, though.

Three schools of thought... four, if you decide to quit.
  1. Make better photos with what you have.
  2. Evolve technically.
  3. Evolve socially. 
  4. (Get out of the pool.)

1. Make better photos with what you have.
If you have a Monaco, you don't need a Cadillac. Some of the best photographers in the world shoot with ten-year-old SLRs and zoom lenses, yet they're magically combing rich clients out of their hair all the time. Don't make excuses, make art.

2. Evolve technically.
To call gear a slippery slope is an insult to Wild Water Kingdom. Still, some people just can't stand still; their need to evaluate new gear competes fiercely with their need to shoot what they've already mastered. Consider Zack Arias, who upped his game to medium format; in no small part, he says, to stand out from the ever-mooing SLR herd.

Mr. Arias also shoots a lot of mirrorless Fuji these days; not only to shun the herd, but also because he feels that solid, unobtrusive cameras like the X100s have a tangible soul that is non-existent in dSLRs. I kinda thought he was full of it, until I picked one up. Damn his eyes.

(David Hobby also swears by his Fujis, and in contrast to "standing out in the crowd", has taken to uglifying his gear, so that he can fade into the woodwork.)

3. Evolve socially.
Say what you want about AMWACs*, but they have actually changed the industry for the better. Passionate amateurs with actual charisma are taking "good enough" pictures all the way to the bank. The reason for this is embarrassingly obvious: clients would rather deal with a good photographer who has personality, than a great photographer who couldn't charm his way out of a wet softbox.

*Another Mom With A Camera

Consider a different musical parallel. You need to hire a musician for a small party. The choice is: a technically perfect, yet nebbish, guitarist who can nail every note of a Steve Vai album... or an amiable bro who can play a dozen Eagles and Steve Miller songs at a campfire. I know who I'd hire.

Bottom line: many photographers would best serve their business by joining Toastmasters rather than NAPP.

One reason I, and many others, loved Peter Hurley's best-selling DVD, The Art Behind the Headshot, was because he pulled back the curtain on a very rare topic in photography: How to actually talk to a client.

You're allowed to do that? Genius!
Bet he can play Hotel California, too.

And that, somehow, brings me to stand-up comedy, an art that relies solely on the gift of gab.

[Full disclosure: before my daughter came along, I performed stand-up comedy as a kind of "paid hobby". She was my excuse for leaving, but suffice it to say, there's a reason I now have lots of time for my kids on Friday and Saturday nights. It's a really hard thing to be good at.]

Stand-up sounds easy. It looks easy. It should be easy. It's a technology-proof job that is utterly democratic: you get on stage, you talk, you leave the stage. People laugh. Or they don't. No matter who you are, you use whatever talents you are given, but the audience is your only client; and their decision is final.

Why is it so hard? Because, if anyone can do it—think about photography here—that means lots of people will do it... and 99% will fail. Thank God.
Jerry describes how he writes jokes here... AND what gear he uses!

Jerry Seinfeld describes stand-up as a "pirate" job. You want to be a comedian, go get on stage. Congratulations. You're a comedian. Want to be a photographer? Go over to Henry's and drop six-hundred bucks on the counter. Bam. You're a photographer.

And, by the way... you suck. And will continue to suck for a long time until... you don't suck. As much. You'll get better, and guess what? Sometimes you'll suck all over again, maybe even worse than the first time!

And here's the best part... you can blame the client, or you can blame yourself, but what you cannot blame is "the gear". No one has ever said, "Oh, if I had Chris Rock's microphone, I could knock my material out of the park," or, "if I had that stool Louis CK uses on stage, people would finally get me." Nope.

And if you mentally made a "stool" joke just now, you're probably a CK fan.

Anyway, this rumination has arrived at what I hope was the original point:

What kind of microphone does Bruce Springsteen use?

It's a Shure 520DX. 
And if you don't sing with one, you will never make it to the big time.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

10 Commandments of a Portrait Session

  1. Because I am a jealous Photographer, please do not show me your way better dSLR.
  2. Thou shalt have no other Photographers before me (i.e. put down your phone, Aunt Mabel.)
  3. Honour thou the Portrait Day and keep it sacred... or at least give me a heads-up on a convenient time for a re-shoot.
  4. Thou shalt not make any graven images of my photos (without asking me first).
  5. Thou shalt please, pretty-please, tag me when posting thy photos on Facebook.
  6. Thou shalt wear no logos before me, nor shalt thou wear Crocs.
  7. Children: honour thy father and thy mother, for the meter is running and I charge by the hour.
  8. Thou shalt never make a "heart symbol" with thy fingers, for that is an abomination.
  9. Thou art encouraged to tell me when thou needest a minute of rest. Then, too, shall I rest.
  10. Because thou art already perfect before me, I shall honour thy beauty. (That being said, I can work wonders on baggy eyes.)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

What treasures will you leave behind?

I'm going to make an assumption. I'm going to assume you weren't lucky enough to inherit any of the following perfect things:

The Hultafors axe that your great-grandfather used to split pine, to heat his home.

The Mont Blanc pen your grandmother used to write letters to her brother, who was in the war.

The used MGB your father briefly owned in 1965.

What would these things be worth to you today?

True, these things actually have objective—not just sentimentalvalue. In good condition, they would fetch a pretty price. They are beautiful, timeless, perfectly-designed products—treasures that can't help but appreciate when maintained. (Note: some people buy quality deliberately, some people luck into it. Same result.)

Now consider these subjectively valuable objects:
  • The lace dress your mother was married in. 
  • Your Dad's first watch—the Timex he got for his 8th birthday. 
  • The Corningware mixing bowls your grandmother used for her baking every Sunday.
How much would these be worth to you? They certainly wouldn't fetch much on eBay, but I'm guessing you'd fight your sister for them.

One last thought:
Fifty years from now, what value will your grandchildren put on a perfect, drop-dead gorgeous portrait of your family, circa 2012?

And that hard-drive in your basement? You know, the one with 10,000 mediocre snapshots on it...

Think they'll fight over that?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Somebody get that wall a print.

Let's be honest. Nobody wants to spend money on a family shoot. Nobody. I totally get that. I just checked, and I don't have $250 falling out of my pocket, either.

Anyone can shoot a pretty good Instagram in the back yard—this afternoon—and have 25 likes on Facebook by tomorrow. Everyone will see it. Sixteen people will "Like" it. And you will own it forever (or Facebook will, but that's another topic.)

So why should you—why should anyone—hire a photographer?

Investment and scarcity. Confession: I always always always cringe when photographers refer to a photo shoot as an "investment"—it's a hoity-toity way of prepping you to spend a ton of money, IMO. Then again, if something you buy gets more and more valuable to you... year after year... hmmmm.

What about scarcity? Well, if you have 100,000 somethings; any one of those somethings is worthless. But, if you have something unique, it's priceless.

A well-shot and well-printed photo of your family is both unique and priceless.

We have all snapped thousands and thousands of "ehhh" family shots. And what do we do? We bury them on a hard-drive, figuring that some day we will sit down for five or six hours, mine the archives for non-existent nuggets, and blow everyone away with some forgotten gem that has been safely curated all these years. "Good thing we saved them all!" Except for one thing...

Most of those photos suck. Yes, mine, too. 

I will wager a steak dinner at The Keg that I have at least twenty times as many bad shots in my computer as you do. Like everyone, I take family snaps because "we were there", or "it was a special event", or "the camera happened to be in my hand". The hit-miss ratio is worse than bad, it's astronomical.

So what's the alternative? Easy:
  1. You scout out a pro—someone whose work you absolutely love.
  2. Spend one day of your hard-earned salary on a professional, two-hour shoot.
  3. Spend one day of your husband's hard-earned salary on a couple of big, fat prints.
  4. Put some damn art on the wall.
Not fridge magnets, not 4x6s, and not coffee mugs...


I'm talking about a big, high-quality print that you will stare at and smile at... every. single. time. you walk in the room.

The kind of stuff that will make other people feel like the worst parents in the world.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Mark and Candice

Mark and Candice are a really fun couple... and with a little one on the way! 

Toronto's east end boardwalk was a natural location for them, so off to the beach we went. Glad we were shooting at 9AM, because...

... extreme weather has apparently become my thing.

A couple of weeks after just missing a Burlington monsoon, it turns out we were going to be shooting outside during a record-breaking day. I mean, it is summer, after all... but wow.
(medium-rare on the street)
Thank you, shady tree.
Nothing like hanging out at the beach on a hot day, with absolutely no prospect of swimming.
After hiding shooting in the shade for an hour, we took a brief foray onto the rocks for as long as Candice's black dress would allow her, then ducked for cover. (Truth be told, I chickened out first.)

Bonus mini-shoot! I loved this wall Mark and Candice picked as an alternate location. Hey, the camera's loaded... we're all here...

As Joe McNally says, "do your reshoot now". Words to live by.

 Thanks for a great day, guys!