Child Portraiture #3: Get down on the knees

If you’re having any knee problems, now would be a great time to visit the nearest IKEA and buy a stool or a low chair. Because you are going to spend quite some time with your camera from a height of approximately 1 meter.

In most cases you want the camera to be at the same level as, or just a little above, the eyes of the child – and any other subject with eyes for that matter. In addition to making the expression more natural, it’s also more relaxing for the smaller child, if that stranger of a photographer is not staring down from high above through a huge lens. Get down on your knees or a stool to fit the level of the child. But don’t go down too much. If you make a person look down, the face is “squeezed” together creating double chins and smaller eyes. You really don’t want that – because your clients don’t want that.

It could be tempting just to place the child on a chair high enough to fit YOUR eye level. It would not just be making smaller children uncomfortable and less focused, but you would also miss out on every opportunity to catch that natural candid moment when a child moves around on the floor.

Some people tend to close their eyes a little when smiling. When this is the case, you should make them look up a little. Go higher, but not so much that it’s obvious that the photo is taken from above. When people look up the visible part of their eyes gets bigger, even when they are smiling. And as mentioned earlier, the eyes are of great importance to the portrait, so you want as much of the eyes as you can get.

Child Portraiture #2: Focus on the eyes

This advice ought to be basic knowledge for the professional, but every day I notice portraits – professional portraits – that are out of focus. When you look at a portrait, the first thing you notice is the eyes. If the eyes are out of focus, the entire photo looks out of focus. And it’s really not that difficult to do right.

First of all you need to use spot focusing in your camera, so you have complete control of the focus. With focus on the eye I don’t mean something close to the eye. It’s not the eyelashes, not the nose nor the cheeks that should be in focus. You need to focus spot on in the center of the eye. You also have to be sure that you have enough light for the focus system to work correctly. If the child doesn’t look straight at you with both eyes in the same distance from the camera, you generally need to focus on the closest eye. Exceptions are for instance when the closest eye is not the most lit one.

I have to admit – even being a stubborn old man – that modern mirrorless cameras with face detection does a pretty decent job at eye focusing. But mirrorless cameras are rarely used for professional portrait photography. That spot is still taken by the classic DSLR.

When making portraits you often use a very narrow depth of field and long focal lengths. Personally I often use 200mm at f/2.8 which only gives me a couple of millimeters of focus margin. Thus you require to be very precise in your focusing. Especially if you move your camera to change the composition after your focusing. Check the results on the camera to make sure that your focus is right. You can’t fix an out of focus eye in your postprocessing and it will ruin the photo completely.

Long focal lengths, narrow depth of field and the need for accurate eye focus don’t play well with children that can’t sit still. You have two options:

  1. Simply don’t. Move closer at a smaller focal length and use a narrower aperture like f/8.0. This will give you a lot more focus margin but requires more distance to the background.
  2. Keep the trigger down. Hope for the best.

Crisp and clear eyes are my primary concern when I make portraits. If the details in the eyes don’t make me loose my breath I will usually discard the photo. Of course – there are always exceptions, and you can of course use out of focus portraits for creating certain kinds of moods and expressions. And it can certainly sometimes be more important to catch the right moment than just the right focus. But as a rule of thumb this is the most important part of the portrait.

Practice, practice, practice 🙂

Sharing photos with Zenfolio

Even though being a software developer and having a company that started out with making content management software many years ago, I stopped trying to do everything by myself. I don’t want to think about how much time I’ve wasted on trying to make THE ONE piece of software that could handle all the tasks, that I need carried out.

Developing and maintaining all sorts of different web solutions, making them look good, not just once but whenever the trends are changing, keeping them compatible with different browsers and usable on different platforms, making integrations with payment systems and other third party providers, and looking out for new technologies and ideas to use, is a huge job. Not to speak of maintaining the servers and all the necessary software to make it all come alive. And then you still have to create the most important part: The content.

In more recent years I’ve accepted that a lot of companies are doing a much better job in their key areas, than I would ever be able to. That’s why I today use a multitude of service providers like Linode, Google Apps, Photodeck, PhotoShelter and Zenfolio – each one to cover different needs.

Zenfolio

The one I will be talking about in this article is Zenfolio.

I was looking for a way to share my private photos with friends and family without having to do much work manually. The solution should also fit the way I usually work with my private photos, which is, that I don’t always process them right away, but whenever I get the time. Whenever they were done, it should be easy to update the share. So it should integrate well with Lightroom without any intermediate manual steps that would require me to remember all sorts of things.

I know that I could use services like Flickr, Picasa and others, that also integrate well with Lightroom. But they all suffer from having a terrible and clumsy front interface with all sorts of distracting buttons, exif-data, comments etc that can’t all be deactivated by default. I was looking for a service where I could get a completely clean, but nice looking, interface, that would work well in both browsers and on small devices. I would also like the organization to be close to how I organize my photos in Lightroom: In folders named with the date and event and sorted likewise.

It would also be cool if there was an easy way to limit access to certain galleries, so I could share most photos with everyone and some photos only with those that knew a common passphrase. An unlimited amount of storage included would also be great, but not the most important thing in the world.

At Zenfolio I found all that. A possibility to pick a theme and modify it slightly that would leave only the essential functionality: browsing through galleries, browsing thumbnails and browsing large photos. No more, no less.

In the administration it’s easy to reorder all the galleries into different parent folders. Giving different people access to different parents is an easy way to differentiate access without the hazzles of maintaining user records and access control.  And access restrictions aren’t just increasing downwards. I can have the most restricted access at the top-level and open up for access to certain parent folders within every level. So I can make a top level that only I can see, a level for family members, a level for my scouts to see photos from scout events and so on. A grouping that doesn’t make sense to me inside Lightroom, but is great to be able to do on Zenfolio. Moving folders around to different parent folders doesn’t break the integration with Lightroom, since this is done with unique ID’s that you can’t change (and don’t see).

Below is a screenshot from the administration interface.

2014-12-29 22_58_02-Zenfolio _ Privat – Google Chrome

Like you probably know it from Google Drive and Picasa, you can also share folders/galleries with certain people by just sending them a link. I use this too from Zenfolio to make manual deliveries to clients and publishers, where I again like the clean, simple and intuitive setup of the front end. I use a premium account at Zenfolio without their branding using a subdomain of my own, so noone even knows it’s not hosted on my own servers. But that’s a side note.

Integration with Lightroom

So, how about the integration part?

There’s this great guy, Jeffrey Friedl, that has made all sorts of plugins for Lightroom, including a Zenfolio publishing plugin. You can find it here.

It’s really easy to install in Lightroom’s plugin manager, which will give you a new publishing service in your publish panel in Lightroom.

In the publishing service setup (Edit settings…) you can connect with your Zenfolio account and configure how you would like the transfers to be done. I have chosen to transfer full resolution files. It’s slower of course, but then I don’t have to do anything whenever friends and family would like to get the files to do some prints. They can just download them from the browsing interface, because I allowed them to do so in the Zenfolio folder setup. You can also define which metadata to transfer and what changes in Lightroom that will trigger the plugin to update files already uploaded to Zenfolio, and many other things.

One of the most important parts though is, that you can define where this publishing service should place your folders on Zenfolio, and how to name them. It’s a little tricky here because the naming template of the publish service is defined in the export setup, found behind Lighroom’s Export-button. But once you know where to find it, it’s easy. You can setup the automatic naming of created subfolders just the way you want. There’s an easy-to-understand guide to all the available placeholders for information that can be used to form the names. I use the simple form – name them just as I do in Lightroom with {FolderName} placed in the designated folder of my Zenfolio account (in the screenshot below called Billeder>Privat).

You can also define things like the initial access to the created folders.

2014-12-29 23_37_01-Lightroom

Triggering the transfer

That’s the setup, but how about picking items and triggering the transfer?

Well, that’s the cool thing with a publishing plugin like this – it’s also based on Lightroom’s collections – or Smart Collections. So you can either add photos to the Zenfolio publish service collection, or you can define it as a Smart collection triggered by whatever metadata you would like to use. I chose to use the Pick flag that I never used for anything before.

Whenever I flag a photo as picked, it’s automatically added to the Smart collection associated with the Zenfolio publishing plugin, because I configured it this way in the Smart Collection setup.

2014-12-29 23_49_33-LightroomWhenever I like, like when I’ve added new family events and have picked them for publishing, I just go to the publishing panel. There I will get an overview of the new photos to publish and photos that are flagged as changed since they were transfered to Zenfolio. Just hit the Publish button, and the transfer will start in the background.

Photos are made available immediately at Zenfolio to whoever has sufficient access.

2014-12-29 23_58_47-Lightroom

No freebies here

I’m sorry to say that neither Zenfolio nor the plugin is free. Zenfolio starts around 60 USD per year (30 USD with limited storage). I use the premium account priced at 140 USD per year. I consider that a very fair pricing for an ad-free product that works very, very well. If you like, you can use the referral link below and save some money for both of us.

Save 10% on a Zenfolio site

Jeffrey Friedl’s plugin is donationware, so you can practically pay him whatever you like. You even get free access to all upgrades, which are released quite often. But hey – be reasonable! Jeffrey is a very kind and helpful guy that has developed some awesome and very well working plugins. Pay him what he deserves! I have paid him twice and will do again, because this plugin has saved me countless hours sharing around 65,000 private photos with friends and family.

You can find the Zenfolio Plugin here.

Happy sharing!

Backup – locally and online

With photos being a quite important part of my life – both personally as a hobby and financially as a profession – loosing my photos would be a disaster. I have always been very thorough with making backups of my files, but things have changed the last couple of years, making my life a little easier.

The local backup

I really like disk-based backups, either by disk cloning or decremental backups, where I can easily verify, that everything is there. I couldn’t do that with the tape-based backups in ancient times. A $4,000 disk-recovery more than a decade ago tought me an important lesson.

All my photos are placed on external harddrives attached with USB3 to my docking station. That works very well, but the next time I upgrade my storage, I will probably switch to a high-performance NAS. It’s a little faster (I’ve measured it to 20%) and it will give me the added safety of RAID*.

For each attached harddrive I have an extra similar drive to which I make a backup once a month. I do this with the native Windows commandline tool Robocopy:

ROBOCOPY e:\ f:\ /B /PURGE /E /DCOPY:T /XJD /XD "$RECYCLE.BIN" "System Volume Information" /V

This will copy my disk E: to my backup drive F: and skip the recycle bin and volume information, that will make it choke.

It will only copy new and changed files, and remove those deleted on E, so I don’t have to wait for a complete drive copy (which would take a day and a half).

My backup drives are all stored unattached and safely somewhere in the house.

In “the old days”, which is more than a couple of years back, I made this backup once a week or so. I also had another set of backup drives that were stored at my parents’ house close by. Just in case a fire or a thief would make me loose both the working drive and the backup.

Online backup

Neither of these measures would take care of photos taken between two backups. I could loose up to a week worth of work in the most extreme. Fortunately, I never have, but I did loose a couple of days a few years back, when a hard drive crashed.

Then online backup arrived. It’s not a new invention, of course, and I have used it for other things in the past, but bandwidth limitations made it uninteresting until recently for backing up large volumes of data. Many terabytes of data doesn’t work well on 1 Mbps upstream.

I tested many vendors of online backup services, and eventually I selected CrashPlan from Code42. The pricing was good, storage unlimited and they kept file revisions, so I would be able to restore both older revisions and deleted files. Upload speed wasn’t impressive – not taking full advantage of my own bandwidth – but it was no worse than the speed at any other vendor I tested. What I liked the most, was their relatively lightweight background-service that would slowly backup all the selected drives without me even noticing it. It didn’t actually matter how long it would take when it didn’t interfere with my daily work. And as I would never trust a third party alone, I would still make the primary backup at home, so there was no rush. It took a little more than a year to make the initial backup.

A combination for me, thank you!

As mentioned, I would never trust a third party alone to be responsible for my files. If something happened to my drives, they could go into bankrupcy or get technical issues affecting my data, before I had restored everything from them. Furthermore, restoring files takes a long time – very long time. It would take both weeks and probably months to download my entire archive from CrashPlan, so I only see them as a protection against the very unlikely scenarios. I quit making the second backup for my parents’ house, as this was also for the very unlikely scenarios.

The best part is, though, that after the initial backup was made, my daily increment in data is not higher than what can be backed up in a day – roughly 20 GB. So whenever a new photo or portrait session is transferred to my computer, the backup will start immediately and will be completed the very same day. This makes me sleep a little better knowing that I will never have to call someone to tell them, that I’ve lost their photos. And it doesn’t matter that much anymore, if I forget one of the monthly backups to my local backup drives. I can still get the files from CrashPlan, if an accident occurs.

On top of this, the online backup protects me from an old nightmare: What if I accidentally delete something without realizing it, until all backups are overwritten? With the storage of file revisions and deleted files at CrashPlan, I don’t have to worry about that anymore either.

Read more about CrashPlan here: http://www.code42.com/crashplan/

* Please be aware that RAID is NOT an alternative to making backups – I’ve had this discussion many times. RAID can protect you from failing drives and limit your downtime. It can’t protect your data from fire or theft.

Reaching your goals

This time of year, in the calm and silent days between Christmas Eve and New Year, I spend some of the days evaluating the year that has gone and thinking about the goals for the year to come. Not the usual personal New Year’s resolutions like doing more exercise in the gym and completing a marathon. No, the goals for the parts of my businesses where I’m the product.

In my primary business, a software company, I’m merely the owner and manager – not the product itself. In that company we have – my business partner and I – several months ago decided the budgets for the next fiscal year. They are, like any other year, higher for the year to come, than for the year that has passed. That’s how we push our limits and move forward, like most other companies.

In my other businesses, where I’m closer to being the product, as the author of websites, articles, photos and other kinds of digital products, it’s no different. You need goals to push you further, but without a sales team to take care of it, you need to figure out what to do where.

Being present online, being exposed, is important to me – and to my income – as being seen is what makes my products being found and sold. Being exposed is also what gives me new contacts, involvement in new projects and events, and – in the end – more exposure.

The list of goals

First of all, I have a list of all my different websites, blogs, services and profiles. I have around 60 of those that I care about, and for each one I decide what should be my goals for the next year. The goals are of course very different as is the nature of the different online presences. For Facebook and Google+ it could be goals about how many posts I do per day or per month per profile and business page. For other services it’s the number of page impressions per month and for others, and the most important ones, the revenue they generate each month either through sales or advertising.

It’s important to figure out what’s actually a relevant measure for each of these online presences. For sites like Facebook and Google+ it would be tempting to use the number of contacts and followers as a simple goal. Despite the fact that having followers is pretty important for your posts to be read, those numbers aren’t in fact that interesting. What’s interesting is how many times you can make a contact click on one of your posts and go to the website to read more. I see the number of posts, their relevance to the audience and the resulting number of click-throughs as more important than just a high number of potentially unengaged followers.

So my goals are primarily the number of articles written, the number of photos made, the number of posts on each social media site, the number of monthly page impressions on my websites and, of course, the revenue on the sites, where I make my money.

2014 was a bad year. Even with roughly a million page impressions each month I was doing bad in every aspect of my online presence. I didn’t stick to the plan and had to use too much time on the ups and downs (mostly ups, fortunately) of my primary business.

Being realistic about your goals is important. They can be ambitious of course, and they should, but making unrealistic goals will only make you give up, when you after the first month is lacking three weeks behind your plan. It’s easy to sit here in the quiet of the holidays and imagine, that I could easily write an interesting article each day. But realistic, when we’re back at everyday work, is 3 hours of article writing possible every day? No way. Doing one per week on average per site is even pushing the limits too far. Your goals should be accompanied by an estimate of how many hours the goal will require per week or per month so you can see if that would even be possible to fit into your everyday schedule.

The plan

Goals are good, but they are worthless without a plan for how to get there. You could of course just hope to be exposed by a Youtube-celebrity, and get famous instantly. Or you could be realistic and realize, that you won’t get anywhere without doing some hard work. Looking at website and sales statistics should give you an idea of what worked well and what didn’t in the previous years, so you know both where you can do better and what you should do more of. That’s the first part.

Then make a list of improvements you could do. Not a list of ideas for posts, articles, photos etc – that’s a list you should work on every day throughout the year. No, a list of more important improvements. Should you create new sites, start a newsletter, make a new design, split things into different brands, work with a new vendor and sales channel, and who should you try to get involved with that could move you further. What ebooks should you work on, and what other products can you make with what you already have.

In my case I’ve put on some ideas for making photo sessions more efficient and what could be done to increase the number of usable photos per studio hour.

If you’re thinking about expanding your line of work into new and unknown territory that should of couse also be put on this list. Then you don’t just need to put THAT on the list, but also the requirements implied by this. Maybe that’s not limited to the year to come. Major changes could easily require more than a year. I’m planning, for instance, to extend my photographic work which will require me to find a much larger studio. That’s on my list, but not necessarily completed in 2015. Before doing so, I actually have to make sure, as thorough as can be done, that this investment, and higher monthly expenditure, will be worth it and that it can attract enough customers to pay the bills.

Finally, and for me important, you should make a list of obstacles. Not so much the obvious ones that you often can’t do much about, like that the day is too short. More the kind of small – and often mental – obstacles, that prevent you from doing what your goals require. In my case it’s often repeating tedious work, like managing photo reviews and model releases. That’s a kind of task, that I automated as much as possible some years ago, as it was draining my energy to do other things. This year I’ve put distractions on my list. Not to remind me about distractions, but to remind me that I need tools to help remind me every day of the activities, I need to take care of, to fulfill the plan and reach the goals.

I’m done with defining my goals now. Are you?

Happy New Year!

ProShow Producer 6

Unfortunately my old version 4 of Photodex ProShow Producer stopped working with one of the latest updates of Windows 8. I couldn’t get it back working, and didn’t want to waste more time, so I decided to buy the upgrade to ProShow Producer version 6. While I was at it, I bought their 2 additional transition packs and a vintage style pack.


I wrote about ProShow Producer a couple of years back, and my opinion hasn’t changed. For those of us that want a lot more than what can be done in Movie Maker, and don’t want to use the rest of our life learning how to use Adobe Premiere, ProShow Producer is an excellent choice. Really, really easy to use and yet most things can be customized and adjusted just the way you want it to be, if you’re not satisfied with the result that you can get from the creation wizard.

Tons of slide styles and transitions organized into themes (also very simple and elegent themes) and the ability to combine them into your own themes if you want. And if you can’t get enough you can buy even more of both or create your own. It handles both photos and videos, has all necessary tools for video editing, can do all sorts of captions and animated titles, and works smoothly in editing mode, so you can actually see a full size preview of what you’re doing right away. And – just as important – you can render it to many different video formats, either ready for different devices or web services, or as high quality files suitable for additional processing elsewhere.

Over the years I’ve been using ProShow Producer for both presentations at my customer conferences, for small commercials and for private projects like videos from scout camps, small movies and of course photo slideshows for my own pleasure.

Let me say it right away: All professional slideshow tools can be abused. Using the full spectrum of transitions is a common mistake that easily ruins any presentation. Personally I really hate any kind of geometrical transitions (you know, spinning cubes, rolling images etc). When I usually use ProShow Producer I only use discrete transitions like disolve and dip to black, and almost no slide styles at all – only full size photos and videos with a gentle zooming and panning. But I have to admit that their 2 transition packs contain some really amazing transitions, and combined with their vintage style pack, I think it actually does a pretty neat job.

I’ve been wanting to make a slideshow with photos of my son for a long time, so this time I thought: Bring it on! Give me the whole package – well, at least a decent selection from the vintage style pack and the 2 additional transition packs. So I picked 197 photos of my son (most of them unedited snapshots from over the years) and 4 small movie clips, picked 2 sound tracks to go along, and let the creation wizard do it’s job. It takes only a few minutes for it to finish. I only added the 2 credit title slides at the end and removed the sound from the 4 movie clips. I even let a couple of minor flaws go unfixed, so you can see, what the program can do right out of the box. A few photos got either a little blown out in the highlights or too grey by their built-in photo filters, but I’ve seen worse than that elsewhere. It would only have taken a few minutes to fix the minor flaws I found. Here’s the result, so you can judge for yourself.

 

High-key photography

I have promised several times (not least to myself) that I would get better at describing the different techniques and systems in the studio. Frankly, I’m not very good at that, and I mostly end up blogging about the commercial and philosophic aspects of photography. Probably partly due to the fact that I have never been the type to run around with a light meter and ruler, but depend mostly on feel and a good eye. However, perhaps it’s not a bad idea to occasionally brush up on theory, and just check the eye calibration. So let’s start out gently with one of the – in my opinion – very basic principles, namely the creation of high-key photos, which forms the basis of many of my black and white portraits.

The picture below shows the layout of the area in my studio where I take high-key photos. To the right of the subject is the main light (this is called key light) – a softbox about 45 degrees to the right and also angled vertically about 45 degrees. In the background I use a whitewall. It’s basically a softbox in giant format, which is internally lit by two studio flashes – one on each side. This creates the totally white, burnt-out light. The whitewall could easily be replaced by a plain white background which is directly lit up by a flash from the front. The advantage of the whitewall is that the light is spread much wider inwardly, and it is therefore much easier to get an even burnout over a larger area. A background illuminated from the front can be quite difficult to manage.

_MG_4901

That’s not really all. To avoid ugly shadows on the subject on the opposite side of the key light, we also have to control “the broad light” – the room light. In my case, this comes from a large umbrella softbox placed at the opposite end of the room. In the picture below, taken from the subject’s viewpoint, you see the umbrella soft box at the far end.

_MG_4903

The secret of successful high-key photos is the weighting between the 3 light sources. In the beginning I learnt that there should be 2 stops’ difference between the key light and the burned out light, and the equivalent of 2 stops between the key light and the room lighting. This means that if the key light is set at f8, then the illuminated background should give a light equal to f16 and the room light the equivalent of f4 – all of them measured at the point of the subject. For the highlight background, however, I believe that this is on the high side – I usually have highlight background set to about 1 ½ stops higher than the key light, ie.in the vicinity of f12 tof14 when the photo is taken at f8.

If the highlight background is too strong, then detail at the edge of the subject is burnt out. For portraits, this means particularly that the details of the hair are “drowned” in the strong light, whereby the subject will seem “clipped out”. Similarly, the ears have a tendency to become transparent. Especially with light-haired people one must be very careful with the strength of the highlight background, since light hair can be even more likely to disappear in the light. And you can’t correct this afterwards!

Another problem with strong backlight is spilt light around your subject – i.e. when the backlight increases the lighting around the sides of the subject, such as the cheeks, in a portrait. This can be avoided by placing black shields on each side of the person, which can further help to highlight the subject against the bright background.  I will illustrate the effects of this in a future article.

Finally, let me conclude by showing the resultant picture from the above set-up:

_MG_4908

and the subsequent conversion to black and white:

_MG_4908 copy

Junk shops

One of the strongest influences which led to my venturing into the stock photo business was once when I could not source some pictures for a series of brochures and websites a few years ago. In particular, when preparing a community project, I discovered that there were themes and issues for which I just could not find the appropriate images. In the process of finding and choosing images, it also became clear to me that many traditional all-round photo agencies were horrendous junk shops. Images churned out by thousands of photographers with different models of completely different origins, cameras, locations, different light settings, finishing and more. All of which, if just blindly put together, ultimately spoil the overall impression and produce a finished product that shrieks out to anyone who has the slightest sense of atmosphere. I could not stand this.

Once the files of traditional photo agencies pass the 10 million images mark, they become guilty of focusing primarily on quantity and random selection from far too many photographers with different styles. With the current consolidation among the big photo agencies and price pressure on the photographers, I believe that niche photo agencies, such as my own, will experience a renaissance. Some customers prefer more focussed bureaus with styles that appeal to them, so it is important to consider what added value you can offer. This is where the compatibility of the pictures is without doubt a major factor for many customers.

One of the reasons why a guy like Yuri Arcurs (internationally known Danish manufacturer of great stock photos) has gained so much popularity is no doubt that his images, apart from being of very high photographic and technical quality, are also very compatible. He uses a harmonious group of models, and his images can be classified into a handful of styles, which makes it very easy to find pictures that match each other perfectly for a brochure, website or similar. Similarly, I have used a relatively small number of harmonious models, but a slightly greater spread of styles. Going through my sales files, I can identify 8 styles which cover more than 90% of the images. There will always be some exceptions, and so there should be in the interests of development and experimentation. Today I use about 5 different styles. The very concept of what constitutes a style is pretty diffuse, but for me it is a combination of the technique itself, including, particularly, the use of light, and finishing.

When you have photographed for many years, and your archive of images for sale is similarly produced over a long period and can be counted in thousands, it’s not unusual that there are images from the early years, which need to be sorted out. Photos from the days when technology and skills may not have been the best or which simply are too banal and not material you would want to be associated with. This is an on-going process for me. Rather show a reduced number of high quality images, than produce a greater volume where some are of questionable quality.

It was during one of these clean-up sessions that I began to look at my archive with the same eyes as when I started using photo agencies. And what a shambles! Themed galleries with a wonderful mix containing all different styles from high-key studio shots to everyday pictures in natural-looking light mixed with concept art and montages. Horrible!

Immediately that same evening I started a new project where the entire archive was equipped with style identification, making it possible to define searches by individual styles. This project is almost finished, and I really look forward to seeing the final result.

Another project is also progressing steadily. It involves updating titles, descriptions and keywords for all the images. It is the alpha and omega, for a picture archive such as mine that people can find an image, and in this process keywords and descriptive text are crucial. Previously they were only assigned by me and rather vaguely, since it is a pretty time consuming process if it is done properly. Some months ago I decided that this would end – getting irritated by this nagging task – and I engaged a few Indian firms for the job to supplement my own work. I chose two different vendors, plus myself to provide keywords and descriptions for different parts of the photo archive. This gives a greater spread of concepts, synonyms and closely related words, so I reached a bigger market of potential buyers. We are about halfway through, and around October I expect the entire archive to be updated. The results are already evident, though. In recent months I have had a monthly growth of 75% in the number of users of my image archive. Naturally I am now considering whether certain parts of the descriptions and keywords should be translated into other languages to improve hit-rates in eg Spanish speaking countries. More about this in a future posting.

Inspiration and brainstorming

If I were to summarise the questions I get asked about my photography, “Where do you get your ideas from?” would probably be top of the list. It’s also the most difficult one to answer. The easiest explanation would probably be to describe the way I work to achieve inspiration and sustain the resultant ideas.

I don’t have any illusions about ideas being the result of divine inspiration, or that they represent a carefully thought out plan. Quite the opposite. Everything I create is fragmented. Some of the fragments are thought through and coherent – many others are not.

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My stock photo production can be split into two categories. One category covers relatively banal everyday images which represent life as it happens – in the kitchen, at school, in a room, in the woods or in a playground. The second consists of conceptual images which illustrate more abstract topics and themes – madness, abuse, death, illiteracy, hydrophobia, growing up, the feeling of exclusion. Both are fun to produce, but my passion is definitely the latter. Both categories have large chunks of images that are related. In the first category it is quite obvious which. In the second it could be considered somewhat more subjective, and this is undoubtedly the result of the way in which I work.

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When I set off on a photoshoot, there’s always a series of images that have been planned. Some very meticulously, right down to the minutest detail, such as what colour shirt to use, the hairstyles, the angle of the light, which flower and/or lamp to have in the background. Others are planned in outline only, where intuition during shooting must decide the rest. Although I always try to set aside some of the photo session for improvisation. At least one hour out of four is usually set aside. And when I look back at the hundreds of model hours I have used, I must admit that a large number of my personal favourites, and some of the bestsellers, are the ones that were created when things weren’t planned. I have pictures that cost the equivalent of 10 seconds of a model’s salary, just because I suddenly had an idea. I also have pictures that have cost a fortune to create but which are not particularly good. There is absolutely no direct relationship between cost and result.

But where do these ideas come from?

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I naturally look at pictures. Every day. Hundreds of pictures from magazines, books and various photo communities like 1x, Flickr and Tumblr, and of course I often browse through the various stock photo archives in search of good ideas. Not to plagiarise – which is actually almost impossible when you’re talking about people. A new face or expression always gives a different twist to the picture, making it unique. Often it can merely be the fragment of an image that provides a good idea – the atmosphere, a certain light, something in the background, make-up or an interesting chair. The same is true with movies. I am pretty sure that many photographers will agree that they watch movies from a different angle. Again, you consider the use of light and shadows to create atmosphere – the dim light of a single lamppost, light and shadows in a railway tunnel, water running down a face, the effect of blurred focus and many other visual effects.

Important sources of inspiration. And at all times, one of my most important tools is always to hand: My notepad.

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As soon as I get an idea, I write it down. No matter how abbreviated it may be. It needs to get out of your head and onto paper, so that the effort to remember it doesn’t block access to the brain for the next idea or modification of the one you have just had. And as soon as the next one comes – down on paper. And then you start the brainstorming. Don’t sort or argue for or against your ideas at this stage. Write them down – you can always sort them later and the process itself will provide the basis for even more ideas and refinement for those you’ve already had.

I always have a notepad in my inside pocket or my briefcase. And I always have a notepad beside my bed, in case I forget some of the ideas that come before falling asleep, or just when I wake up – or simply so that they don’t keep me awake. Not only photo ideas that end up on the pad – there are also notes about my programmes, articles and websites. It’s not important. They are all parts of the same scattered train of thought 🙂

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Particularly when I am doing concept work I consciously brainstorm with myself. It could be a subject such as hydrophobia for example. I deliberately seat myself in front of the computer – often using Excel – and write down everything that comes to mind about the subject. All aspects which come to mind, such as lifebelts, bubbles, waves washing in, a hand on a pane of glass, revival, fishing and diving bell. Not in any order.  After this, I can continue working with these elements and slowly ideas begin to crystallise as to what pictures would best illustrate the topic.

I really enjoy setting myself some goals – define some projects that need to be covered to a particular extent. Preferably projects which are very precise and difficult to illustrate. One of my current projects is to illustrate the 25 most common mental ailments, behavioural disorders and phobias with 20 photos each. This gives me the opportunity to brainstorm about psychoses, ADHD and hydrophobia, as mentioned above, and some fun challenges that I find interesting and inspiring to grapple with. Like for a long, long time.

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Sometimes I turn the brainstorming around. This can be very conducive to the generation of ideas. I pluck some completely random item from the wardrobe and begin to consider what images could be produced with it and what those images could illustrate. I am a notorious collector. My props room and basement are filled to bursting. Obviously many of the props were originally acquired for a specific purpose and are waiting for me to find the next one. But there is also a lot of paraphernalia that was accumulated without any particular reason other than that I found them amusing and interesting, or perhaps had a vague idea of what they could be used for. It could be stuff from flea markets or supermarket bargain boxes, or bits I have left over from a raffle or some old junk I found in a second-hand shop, which I also regularly visit for the same reason. They have everything from antique books, old telephones, candleholders, toys and teddy bears to small arms and knight’s armour, skulls, rubber toys, tools, decorations, huge, rustic chests, dumbbells and worn-out skateboards. To fish an old picture frame or a little coloured bouncy ball from the wardrobe, and then consider how it can be used to produce images provides a lot of ideas which are then noted in the notepad.

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Exactly the same applies to locations. I make a number of agreements for different locations for shooting, whether it be a totally unique room, a totally gloomy basement, a long naked corridor or an ultra-modern school. Again, it is inspiring to sit yourself down and brainstorm about what can be expressed with the available locale. Later this summer, for example, I will be shooting in a local supermarket, and I have obviously been doing the same exercise. Here, the setting will be used to illustrate things as diverse as shoplifting and robbery, binge shopping and little Louise, who has lost her mom and dad in the supermarket.

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Last but not least, I should also mention the old chestnuts – the topics and situations that we can continue to cover over and again and each time get something new out of them. Here it is especially fun to work with people, and perhaps particularly children. You give different people the same props or ask them to pull a particular face. This produces widely different results which can all be useful in different ways. I have a number of pictures of practical situations with banal everyday events, produced with different variations, made with different models and which undoubtedly will often be repeated.

In the same way, there are situations and materials that, just by virtue of their unpredictable nature, are an eternal source of innovation. Bubbles are a prime example. You cannot control bubbles, and whether you make pictures with them in the studio or outside, you get so many variances of reflections, sizes, wind and sunshine, that you inevitably get very different pictures that can be used to tell many different histories. Combined with different lenses, light sources and environment, the variations from just this little prop are almost infinite.

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Water is one of my favourite mediums – I find it totally fascinating. Water runs down a face, a back or a foot, drops hanging from a nose or eyelashes, or beads of water on the skin. Fully lit or in subdued lighting inside the studio or outside in nature. Water splashing in a puddle or dark water, or in a lake which conceals the mystery. Water from a hose, a shower, a bucket or simply water from above in great cascades or a light drizzle. And water sprayed out of a mouth, a water gun or the splash on impact in the pool. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of water and I am always inspired to create new images with water just by looking at some of my past work.

And then it’s out with the notepad again 🙂

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Manic-depressive photographers

The life of a photographer is an aimless wandering along a path consisting of equal parts of enthusiasm and despair. One moment excitement about the ridge that provides a perfect panoramic image. The next a desperate sorting of 100 confusing images resembling crap (not to put too fine a point on it). Hours editing the picture that you are convinced will be photo of the year and times where you feel like setting fire to the camera or stick your head in the oven when you’ve seen some pictures made by an obscure Russian peasant who makes yours look like schoolboy snapshots. Days when you are high reading letters from unknown fans on the other side of the planet, and days where you stare up at the ceiling wondering just exactly what the hell you actually do. Times when you shake your head over images from “photographers” who obviously lack any self-criticism or technical aptitude, but perhaps own a good camera. Other times when you flip through your own portfolio and wonder whether you are crazy about it or that you actually don’t have anything to contribute other than bad taste and colour blindness. And there are times when you wonder whether your time and money would have been better spent on a vegetable garden or Icelandic banks.

Thankfully the phase passes. Every time. But only till next time.

Over the years I have discovered that I am not the only one with these concerns, thank goodness. Mike Johnston puts it very succinctly:

“To be honest, must of my pictures suck. The saving grace of that admission is that most of your pictures suck, too. How could I possibly know such a thing? Because most of everybody’s pictures suck, that’s how. I’ve seen Cartier-Bresson’s contact sheets, and most of his pictures sucked. ”

If this is creeping insanity, then at least we’re not alone 😉

But what is this phenomenon? In my opinion it is two things: Gratification and exploration. Gratification to gaze over the style, whatever it is, that has kept you busy recently. And constant exploration to uncover the gut feeling which a photographer and a beholder experience when they see something that is just amazing – and which yet has to be achieved. When this is finally achieved, the gratification from this style already begins to happen again, and you can revert back to your exploration. And this includes the equipment’s technical specifications, recording method, finishing, design, faces and stories. That’s why we are constantly searching for even better equipment, the perfect face, looking for the narrative that can justify the images to ourselves. Hauling hardware up and down stairs, and constantly crawling around in mud and knee-high grass to find EXACTLY the right angle that is the answer to our prayers. To pinpoint that special technique that will forever give the adrenalin kick we are constantly searching for. But every time the pleasure is all too brief, and we have to hump on until we experience it once again. And this is precisely what I have discovered – that it is quite simply a necessary evil. If you are not exposed to this alternating enthusiasm and frustration, then you have simply stalled or are unable to assess your own work with a certain amount of self-criticism. If you think you will find the perfect image among your 100 perfect shots then you have not understood anything. Because in essence, that is what it’s all about: 20% equipment and creative capabilities and 80% self-criticism, so that you can find one fairly good image among 100 misses, and then just get back on the horse and try one more time !

Ah well – I’m off to burn my camera!