Monday, June 25, 2012

A Chico Photographer on Photo Groups

 Oh, photographer's groups. . . and why I'm pretty reluctant to be a part of one. So, the first time I joined up was in Bellingham WA, about a thousand miles from where I am now in Chico, California. I don't speak of this much but photographers, as a group, have a rather high percentage of assholes. I'm not sure why this is. Male photographers in particular: they certainly aren't all assholes, but seems like a lot of them are, compared to the general populace. So the first photographers group I joined had a couple of "pro" photographers and a couple of hobbyists and one guy who used to be a pro commercial photographer but he had quit. At first I liked all these guys well enough, but pretty soon I got tired of the guy who was sort of randomly hostile for no particular reason. He founded the group and slowly he managed to drive everyone out of it. I couldn't for the life of me figure out why he started the group to begin with. His buddy seemed nice enough, but shortly I got a little tired of his holier-than-thou attitude, not just about photography but about pretty much everything. He's one of these guys who says "Anything I can do to help, just ask me, anytime." And then you do ask him something, some simple question, once, and you're ostracized forever. For the record I'm not one of those guys who says "anything, anytime" because I really, really would not mean it. I'm also one of those guys who usually gives detailed answers to anybody who asks me for a little help, I just don't promise that, because some time or other I won't mean it. Same guy lent me his book about his trip to India looking for his guru wherein he pretty much proceeded to play the right fool. Only he'd written the book in this pompous, elevated style and he hand bound the book and signed it and then proceeded to freak out like I wasn't going to return it to him. Of course I returned it. After a while i realized that the hostile guy was always saying the thing that the holy guy wanted to say but was too holy to do so. Yuch. There were two or three other guys in the group including me and we never managed to get anybody new to show up more than once ( surprise! ) and after a while the whole thing fell apart.

Fast forward and I inadvertently got added to a Chico Area Photographer's group through the magic of Facebook. It's OK probably, for a lot of folks-- there are some 70+ members whom I don't know whatsoever. But only two or three people are ever posting anything. Yes, I could post, sure I could. One of the latest postings was some guy ranting and raving about how much other photographers should share everything they know, and bring him along personally on photo shoots as an assistant so that he can "watch and learn" and how despicable it was that these other photographers weren't doing that. Um, yeah. Well, last time I checked there was a huge amount of teaching material available for free on the internet. Then there are these things called "books" and a whole huge population of people called "teachers" who quite frequently disseminate information, often at places called "schools". As often happens on Facebook, people went "Here here! Yes you are so right, why, every other photographer is personally responsible to educate you!" and nobody suggested to Mr Ranty Pants that he might actually be responsible for his own education. I don't know. In my case my dad taught me a hell of a lot, but later on the things I didn't pick up, or things I forgot, or things I never truly understood in the first place I looked up and studied and memorized. Failing that, a lot of things have been learned through experience, trial and error, or some combination of applying book knowledge to the ever changing conditions of real life. While I am sure that there's a place for peer based learning, and I have for sure published teaching pieces about photography ( and I might do it again ) I never signed up to teach everyone in my path about photography. A big part of this has to do with the fact that a lot of people who think they want to learn photography, don't. If I do sign up to teach, I'm going to expect to be paid. This brings me to my next point about photo groups.

Unless a photo group has a really clearly stated mission, it's likely to end up populated with a hodge- podge of people with a lot of different ideas, goals, and expectations. It can get messy. In this case we've got photographers: some are pro and some are amateur, and that's a big enough rift right there. There are also models, MUA's and I don't know what else. What I see right now are a couple of strong personalities ( one in particular ) milking the rest of the group for free labor on her own photo shoots. I just received a personal complaint that she doesn't treat people very well--- but here's another thing, if your group lacks a mission statement it might also lack any kind of codes of acceptable behavior. Under those conditions, sometimes, you get a wolf, or possibly two, but really one is enough, whose mission becomes eating all the sheep as rapidly as they can consume them. Contrary to how it may seem, I'm not real big on structure or discipline. I'm also not real big on groups unless they have, or can develop at least, a reason to exist. Mostly my experience with groups is that they accomplish what an individual can accomplish with an efficiency which is inversely proportional to the number of members of the group. Back to my earlier point though: one of the bigger problems with photo groups is that pros and amateurs have distinctly different interests. The primary imbalance is that pros expect to be paid, and when they are shooting quite often they're being paid to shoot, and to edit, and indirectly to do outreach and marketing. If they aren't busy, then they aren't doing terribly well as pros. You might have trouble putting together an all pro group in a given area because too many are in direct competition with each other. If there's an all pro group there will be an agenda, or agendas amongst it's membership. An all amateur group might work better, but you run the strong risk of the blind leading the blind, of bad info being spread from member to member--- whatever, I mean if it's all about point and shoots and potlucks then it's all hunky dory. I've just never been interested in that. In an all pro group I myself am concerned about the agenda's. In the particular group I'm in, about 90% of the membership don't appear to be participating at all, less than ten percent are posting anything and one aggressive "pro" is just using the membership to exploit free labor from naive amateurs ( gobbling up the sheep ).

Come to think of it that potluck group sounds pretty good. If we can all agree to leave the cameras at home that could work out just great. We all arrive hungry and carrying food, we all leave full and happy, and in between we all had a great time.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A photographer in Chico; product photography, or photography as product.

This would be an example of product photography. I shot this here in Chico, but I've been shooting bottles of Mama Love perfume in Santa Cruz, Arizona, and probably anywhere else we've found ourselves. I think I discovered my liking for product photography about seven years ago. It's simple and clean and generally doesn't take long. It's quiet and kind of meditative. I rarely think to advertise myself as a product photographer because perhaps, it's too easy. I mean, maybe it's a little harder than it looks. And if you want to finesse it somewhat it can get a lot harder, but maybe when you like it as much as I do it just doesn't feel like work. And yet, you still have to be a competent photographer at least to pull it off at all and it is a sub-specialty genre wherein some photographers shoot nothing but product shots and make a whole living at it.

 I've seen a lot of other photographers in and around Chico but not anyone so far specializing in product photography but that does not mean they aren't here. So. . .  I was pretty surprised to see another photographer based in Ashland, Oregon advertising right next to me. He's been doing exactly the same routine for months now. I have pretty good website tracking, so I know that this guy first looks at my ad ( which usually says something like "portraiture" or "The Art of the Portrait" ) then he goes to my website and looks around a little, and then he posts his ad right above mine: "Product Photography." If you visit his website he claims to shoot anything and everything, not just product shots. I don't see how being a couple hundred miles away is any advantage for him. Is the economy really that bad? I don't think so. If anything, it seems to be looking up. There's little manufacturing in Chico, but maybe things are worse in Ashland? Hope not. I like Ashland a lot and seriously considered moving there. Maybe I should advertise up there. It would be like a cultural exchange. What the hell, maybe a merchant will invite me up for the weekend, I'll bring some big pieces of white paper and my strobes and I'm in there. It's way cooler up there and we've been hitting triple digits. Of course, there might already be photographers up in Ashland, even specialist product photographers, they might live there and wish to make a living where they live.

 I think everybody looks around to see what other people are doing in their field but this one is a bit off. I expect to see the other locals advertising around, and no doubt we all look at each others ads. My issues with some of those ads are usually one of two: charging so little for the service that it makes no sense and undercuts/sabotages the whole industry of pro photography, or, charging too much and having no idea how to execute your craft. In other words, some local photographers are so bad they don't even know just how bad they are, and yet they expect get paid for it. I'm a little embarrassed for the latter, but really the former is a bigger problem: once one schmo charges less than the gas money associated with a photo shoot, another ( desperate ) schmo might try to compete with that. Worse yet, a potential client looking around to get an idea what it costs for a pro photo shoot, including editing, goes "Oh hey, ten bucks!"  Ten bucks? I don't think so. Better to say you're an amateur or a student and you just want to get some experience--- charge them for gas money, a nominal fee for prints or a CD and that's all well and good but please, leave out the "I'm a professional" part. Any professional has some overhead, some skill, some education and experience, and hopefully some self-respect. Unless. . .

The whole industry is going down the tubes? This has been speculated on and written about elsewhere to be sure. By the way, my "ten bucks" "pro" is not a facetious example. This is a guy who claimed a week ago to be into photography "just for the art of it" and he got quite insulting about the motives of other photographers, including, specifically, me. Nice. Can't imagine what he'll do next. he's a loose cannon, or should I say "a loose Canon"?

Honestly, there is no substitute for a skilled, educated and experienced photographer. And while it's not about the equipment, the equipment is getting cheaper and more affordable year after year. This means that more and more people are buying it. This is digital, so there's no outlay for film once the camera, flash memory, computer and software have been purchased, and let's face it, most people who'd buy a digital camera already own a computer and can pick up some basic editing software cheap or free. It's then quite possible to use a pro or semi-pro camera as a point and shoot. I know a "pro photographer" who did this. I'll call her "Jane".

Jane bought an entry level DSLR and immediately hung out a shingle as a pro. She had pretty close to zero experience, training, skill, or even talent. She got a website and greatly exaggerated her background with some cleverly worded copy. She also proceeded to undercut local photographers on price to a stunning degree, deliberately insulting her competition in print for charging too much. Over the years she'd raise her prices gradually until they matched the very price she'd insulted others for--- even though to my perception her skills didn't really improve. On her shoots she'd set the camera on full auto and snap away. Wedding shoots, I kid you not. The funny thing is, she got away with it, for years. Her "secret" I guess, was a lot of post processing. Namely, pushing brightness and saturation to an almost unbelievable degree. Only now is she considering scaling back the operation away from weddings and more towards family/child portraits. She was purportedly working 60 hour work weeks post-processing, and only making about 15 grand a year: making her hourly wage sub-minimum wage. I don't know all the reasons behind it, but the main one I heard was that post-processing the thousands of images associated with a full wedding shoot was pretty much killing her in time consumption. I half expect to see her quit altogether. From time to time I saw her touting the difference between a pro photographer and an amateur as the ability to push a couple of sliders in software, long after all the photos have been shot. Therefore, to my knowledge, she never let a client see an unprocessed image. How could she? Her unprocessed product was of poor quality. The whole arc of her career was indicative of an unregulated industry spiraling out of control. And I say "was" because I fully expect her to quit, having learned little or nothing, driven other, better photographers out of business by low-balling and finally throwing in the towel when her own, sorry but I have to say it, stupidity, drives her out of business.

Now, she's not actually the worst photographer that I know, but the very best photographers I know have spent years of sweat, study and experience learning to put the best image in camera as they possibly can. They do use post processing, but post is the icing, not the cake. And, there's been a long standing saying in several technical industries that I've been involved in: "Crap in, crap out." If that's not obvious enough, it has to do with quality control from start to finish. That's one part of this particular industry which may be in some degree of peril, and it bothers me. I may write more about this later, but I think anyone can see that for one thing, a flood of poorly skilled practitioners representing themselves as professionals competing with each other ( and with "real" professionals too ) partly by low-balling the price structure can bring down the whole profession.